You Are At: AllSands Home > History > Places > Indian temple architecture
Humans have been worshipping in sacred places for perhaps as many as 40,000 years, and we have been constructing such places for the last two to three thousand. In India, Hindu temple construction evolved from a relatively simple Buddhist system of architecture to one of the grandest building programs of all history. The Indians went from small mounds in the earth to enormous towers carved from sheer rock. Their intricate work and grandiose sense of scale combined to form a place where religious worship goes beyond the mechanical, to a world of sanctity and spiritual 'one-ness.' Indian architecture varies significantly only in its distinction between the Northern (Nagara) and the Southern (Dravida) styles. While we shall be examining Hindu temples, it is important to note that there is little or no appreciable difference between Hindu and Jain temples. Nor is there any marked division between the primary divisions of Hinduism: both Sivaite and Visnuvite temples carry the same basic form. Though they had a common ancestor in Buddhist architecture, Nagara and Dravida architecture diverged over time to form distinct, separate complexes. The differences between them symbolize both geographical and religious differences.

Although we separate the two into seemingly equal geographical segments (north and south), we should keep in mind that the Nagara temple style actually dominated approximately two-thirds of India, leaving only the very bottom of the sub-continent to the Dravida style. Moreover, there is no cut and dry line of division for them. Dravida temples may be found as far north as Ellora, while Nagara temples can be found as far
south as Dharwar.

The Buddhists (fifth century CE onwards) were the first Indians to develop a system of religious architecture. They based their architecture upon the traditional Indian burial mound, the stupa. Prior to widescale cremation, Indians followed the common human pattern of burial; they buried their dead and then erected a small mound over the spot. Buddhists began to use the stupa as a place to worship the Buddha and other great sages. Legend has it that King Asoka (third century CE), upon his conversion to Buddhism, erected 84,000 stupas in India and abroad, each with a relic of the Buddha contained inside. By this time, stupas had evolved from a small mound to a large mound with a circumambulatory path built in to their superstructure (fig. I,II). Pilgrims and worshippers use this path to walk around (circumambulate) the mound. This became a mainstay of Indian religious devotion.

Because the path was open to the sky, Buddhists decided to build indoor places for worship. Devotees were not happy about walking the circumambulatory path in the rain. So, the Chaitya Hall was developed. Chaitya Halls are covered, rectangular buildings with a semi-circular wall behind a mini-stupa (fig. III). The building was usually erected on a high plinth nearby the actual stupa, and had a vaulted ceiling. Both of these characteristics became crucial to later Hindu architecture.

Buddhism's final contribution to Indian architecture was the vihara, or residence hall. The vihara was composed of small, square cells built to surround a square or rectangular open-air court. Most prominently in the south, similar courts were developed within the Hindu temple complex and the layout of the vihara was used by the earliest of temple architects.

These early Hindu temples were called rathas (fig IV). The term ratha signifies both a form of temple and a wooden chariot. The word originally referred to a chariot and seems to have been adopted by temple priests to convey a meaning of transportation. Wheels were carved into the bases of many temples to preserve this use even after the ratha style lost pre-eminence. As rathas, temples took devotees to a new realm, one of religious unification. The ratha form of temple was built primarily in Southern India during the sixth century, CE. Later Dravida architects stylized their gopura (large temple gateways) after the oblong shape of the rathas.

Contemporary to the ratha temples, were the Dravida monoliths. First built in the middle of the sixth century, these were the first free-standing 'temples' of the Tamil region. At their largest, the monoliths reach heights of about fifteen feet, and were carved from a single rock. They have a pyramid like shape with a dome at the top. This shape mimics the stupa, and also had a significant impact upon the building of later temple towers. The monoliths contain a central shrine and a circumambulatory hallway. Even in this early form of temple architecture, we can see the characteristics borrowed from Buddhism, which later become the mainstays of Hindu temples.

Before we distinguish the growing disparity between Nagara and Dravida temple architecture, it will be useful to point out their similarities. The basic design of the Hindu temple remains constant throughout India (fig V, XIII). The building of the temple always
began with a sanctifying ceremony. A hole was dug into the ground at the spot where the god would later rest, and several holy gifts would be buried therein-this process is called garba-dhana, 'impregnating the womb.' On top of that, the basic sanctuary, the vimana, is built. The vimana contains the garba-grhm (womb-house), which is the holiest part of the temple. It is within the garba-grhm that the god is placed, and around it where devotees circumambulate and gather to offer gifts and praise. Hindu laity are not allowed within this holy room, but must peer into its dim, column choked interior in hopes of obtaining a glimpse of the statue within.

Above the vimana is a tower, the sikhara. sikharas became gradually taller, eventually reaching heights of 150-200 feet at the peak of their surmounting domes. The sikhara is not a cylinder or rectangular prism, but rather diminishes in height as it ascends to the skies (fig. VI). The way in which it diminishes helps to differentiate Dravida and Nagara temples. We can easily see a direct connection between the sikhara and the earlier Dravida monoliths.

Finally, all Indian temple complexes include a mandapa, or pillared hall. This is a place for visitors to congregate when they visit the temple. Though it was originally distinct from the vimana, by the ninth century it became attached by an antalara (vestibule). All Hindu temple exteriors are profusely covered by intricate sculpture. This ranges from religious themes to fantastic monsters to human eroticism, but is always complex, and tends to simulate sculpture-in-the-round by carving figures almost entirely out of the rock (fig. VII). As one enters the temple structure itself, however, one is confronted by stark walls and darkened corridors. Sculpting within the buildings, and especially in the garba-grhm itself, seems to have been discouraged; only the ceilings were consistently carved, and these would not have been visible by the meager light available at their creation. Windows are generally cut so as to limit the amount of sunlight which enters the sanctum.

The first full-scale Hindu temples were cut from a single rock, or hill. These temples were limited in size only by how large of a cliff could be found for the construction. In its later stages, this resulted in temples larger than the Greek Parthenon. Rock-hewn temples reached their peak under the reign of Krsna I (757-83) of the Rastrakuta dynasty in the Western Deccan plain.

It is now possible to discuss the major architectural differences between the two styles of Indian architecture. There are three defining characteristics to Dravida architecture: recessed sculpture, tiered sikharas, and gopura. Dravida sculpture was recessed into the walls and off-set by pilasters. Each segment of sculpture is self-contained in that it does not rely upon outside sculpture to clarify its scene or image. This is not to say that a sequence of recesses might not tell a story, but that each recess will picture a different image of that story. Like all Indian temple sculpture, the figures are highly intricate and were obviously painstakingly carved. There are images of gods, magical creatures, animals, heroes, symbols (such as the sun), and ordinary humans.

The sikhara of a Dravida temple is a tower which ascends in ever-shrinking tiers (fig. V). The base of these sikharas can be rectangular, hexagonal, or octagonal. The tiered structure creates a strong presence of horizontal lines which is absent on the vimana and mandapa. At the top of the sikhara is a circular or oblong dome. The height of sikharas varied, but by the peak of the Dravida style (during the Chola dynasty, 10th to 13th CE), they reached almost 200 feet above the ground. The temple at Tanjore, built by the Chola king, Rajaraja I is 190 feet tall, 180 feet long, and the square base of its vimana was 82 feet per side. The top level of the tower (just below the cupola) is one-third the width of its first tier. The combination of horizontal tiers, vertical columns, and rounded cupolas forms an interesting architectural image which is absent in Nagara temples.

Although Dravida architects built enormous sikharas, these were physically over-shadowed by their gopuras (fig. VIII). As temple building progressed, architects felt the need to add one or more prakaras (enclosing walls). Although one was felt to be sufficient for many temples, sometimes as many as seven were built into one temple complex. Past each prakara is another series of buildings (shrines, pillared halls, etc.). In order to progress deeper into the complex, one must pass through the gopuras built into the center of the East walls. On an architectural and visual level, the gopura were very frequently far more important than the temples themselves. They tower to heights of 200 feet, and are generally larger than the temple's sikhara. In complexes of multiple prakaras, the size of the gopura diminishes as one progresses. The gopura structure is a tiered, shrinking tower from an oblong base taken directly from the early ratha temples. Rather than the small dome, or cupola surmounting a sikhara, the gopura have a vaulted roof reminiscent of the Buddhist Chaitya Halls (fig. IX). There seems to be a clear connection between the two, as they are the only examples of this barrel-vaulting style. In spite of the enormity of the gopura, the sanctity of the sikhara remains undiminished: devotees continue to bow to the vimana as an extension of the god below. Like the rest of the temple complex, the walls of the gopura were covered with fantastic sculpture, limited only by the mind of its creator. In their enormity, the Dravida temples were designed "for monumental effect" rather than utility but they nevertheless were amazing works of art.

The beauty and power of the Dravida temples cannot be denied, but it does not surpass the form which came to dominate the Indian sub-continent. Nagara architecture is characterized by an emphasis upon verticality, the use of curved lines, and a pyramidal or round sikhara. In Nagara temples, the pilasters of Dravida temple walls have been removed, leaving the sculptures to blend in amongst one another. However, one frequently finds vertically oriented walls. A 'column' which does not have recessed sculptures is often found which ascends the wall to continue up the sikhara (fig. X). This forms a significant vertical alignment for the temple.

The vertical lines of the temple walls are complimented by the curved ascent of the sikhara itself. A graceful curve replaces the tiered ascent of Dravida sikharas (fig. XI, XII). The removal of the horizontal emphasis created by the tiered tower creates a feeling
of harmony in the temple's construction. Nagara sikharas tend to be somewhat smaller than those of the south; evidently the emphasis shifted to majestic power to one of graceful peace. The sikhara bases are characterized by a movement away from complex polygons. Instead, they are either four-sided or circular. The curved sikhara could have evolved from a number of possible sources. It could be reflective of the Himalayas, where the gods are said to reside or possibly it hearkens back to the primitive megaliths or shape of the wooden rathas.

In addition to these basic differences in the architectural styles, some further minor changes occur. These alterations usually consist of different buildings or icons. For example, late Dravida temples of the Vijayanagara kingdom (mid 14th to mid 15th CE) include an Atman shrine, for the consort of the chief deity to the northwest of the main building, and a Kalyan mandapa, a more ornate pillared hall for use in ceremonies and parades. Nagara temples generally have two buildings not to be found in the south-the Nat Mandir (dancing hall) and the Bhog Mandir (hall of offerings). Such differences are often the result of a change in dynasty or a geographical boundary, but they do not constitute the primary trends in Indian temple building.

Indian temple architecture evolved for three major reasons: technological advancements, dynastic greatness, and religious development. The first is by far the simplest to grasp: as more advanced techniques for the cutting and transporting of rocks emerged, it became possible to build temples larger, more ornately, and more often. Dynastic rulers felt the need to demonstrate their own greatness by overshadowing the temples of the past. Whether it was by adding to what was already built, or starting anew, the more wealth a dynast had for his building projects, the more powerful he appeared (and was). While on successful military campaigns, a ruler would have personal valorizations inscribed upon the temples of his opponent, or he would despoil the temple outright (though this was much more rare). So, temple building was in a constant dynamic which led to more and greater temples over the course of centuries. On occasion, a ruler even gave money to the temples of his opponent to prove how great he was. Such behavior was particularly prevalent among the broadminded rulers of the Gujurat kingdom (mid 10th to early 14th CE), whose primarily Jain ruling class financed temple building among all faiths and in surrounding regions. Temple building developed substantially through secular means, but religious fervor was also an enormous contributor to its growing status.

Hindu temples are built to achieve a purpose: to bring the devotee into the world of the God. On its very most basic symbolic level, the temple is the vastu-mandala. A mandala is approximately a 'power-aura.' Vastu is a building. So, a vastu-mandala, is a building with an energy field, a power; this idea holds much in common with the Japanese notion of places with kami. It is said that there was once a great battle between Visnu and a demon. In that battle, a drop of Visnu's sweat touched the ground and became another demon; several gods leaped upon the demon and held it to the ground. The temple mandala symbolizes the position of the gods in their struggle. While there are multiple possible ways to localize the various gods, Brahma is always at the center of the mandala. In the temple layout, the garba-grhm is placed in Brahma's location. Because the temple is laid out as a mandala, a devotee who enters the temple is actually entering into, and participating in the power field created therein. The proper design of the Mandala is laid out in Hindu architecture texts such as the Mayatam. The Mayatam contains explicit directions regarding the construction and placement of buildings in the mandala to achieve a maximum affect of unity. It, as well as similar silpas (texts regarding the proper way to do things), further specifies how every building and structure within the temple complex should fit certain rations in their dimensions. For example, successive gopura must be constructed to the proper relative heights in order to allow for the mandala to be fully active. It is very important, perhaps supremely important to the Indian architect that every last detail fit perfectly with each other. As a vehicle for transportation to the divine, the temple must be able to fulfill its role perfectly: that is accomplished through properly establishing the power-field.

Hindu temples are more than places for people to gather for market activities or secular celebration, though they were occasionally used for such purposes. They are places for devotees to leave the mundane realm of Earth and enter the world of the divine. As Professor Brown so eloquently describes it: the underlying concept was primarily not architectural, but spiritual, they were planned with the object of engendering religious emotion in the mind of the devotee. He was first confronted by the majestic entrance towers which filled him with awe, and then led on by a process of progressive abasement from on hall to another, each smaller and dimmer than the last, until, he finds himself reduced to infinitesimal nothingness as in a dream before the mystery of the darkened shrine, into the holy of holies and in the presence of god himself.

As such, they are shaped to create the proper atmosphere for the 'moment of unity.' It is not without reason that the temples are crowned with enormous towers. As one gazes up the spire of the sikhara, it appears to go up forever, up to the abode of the gods themselves. Passing through a series of gateways symbolizes the journey into the unknown-the path to the gods is marked by obstructions, but they can be traversed. With each gate, the visitor crosses a boundary between himself and the divine. Finally, the devotee reaches the pillared hall, the mandapa, and passes into the recesses of the temple proper. It is dark. Little light shines through to this place of seriousness, of utmost religious austerity. The believer may well feel himself in the presence of God as he progresses further into the increasingly dark, increasingly sparse temple. The walls narrow, visibility diminishes, but he continues. Finally, facing the garba-grhm, the object of his quest, he can experience the divine first-hand. God is mere feet away; perhaps it is the beginning of day, when He is washed by the faithful priests before being offered gifts of food by the hopeful laity. A thin ray of light streams in through the approaching passageway to shine upon His face. The visitors walk in a counter-clockwise circle around Him three times. Searching for a glimpse of Him in the dim light and through the maze of columns, each holds a different prayer in his heart. If they are sufficiently faithful, perhaps God will honor their requests.