Monthly Archives: December 2013

Hindu Temples- A Brief Study

A Hindu temple is a symbol or rather a synthesis of various symbols. It is conceived in terms of a human being and the names of the various limbs of the human body are applied in architectural texts to different parts of the temple structure. The bhakti doctrine gave impetus for the erection of temples enshrining images. Earlier these temples were built out of perishable materials. With the commencement of the Gupta rule the practice of constructing temples with stones and bricks began in north India while temple building activities in south India commenced during the rule of the Pallavas which is supposed to have begun around 4th century A.D.

Shilpa Shastras- Manual on Temple Architecture

The origin of the Indian temple architecture is attributed to a mythological person Vishwakarma. The Sutras, Puranas, Agamas contain references to temple architecture and sculpture. The Agamas and Silpa Shastras have laid down elaborate rules as to the place where temples are to be built, its layout, the kinds of images to be installed, the material with which such images are to be carved, the dimensions and proportions of various kinds of images and the various rituals to be carried daily after the consecration of the image in the temple. There are several books written exclusively on architecture of which Manasara, Mayamata, Kashyapa Shilpa and Agastya Sakaladhikara are works dedicated to dravida style of temple architecture. Works like Rupa Mandana, Prasada Mandana Vastu Shastra, Aparajita Prichchha and Samarangana Sutradhara are works dedicated to nagara style of temple architecture.

Types of Temples

In the beginning temples were carved out of boulders and also excavated in caves. Later structural temples were built. Examples of cave temples can be found in Badami in Karnataka state. Here of the four cave temples, one is dedicated to Shiva, two to Vishnu and one to a Jaina Thirthankara. These caves have three common features namely a pillared verandah, a columned hall and a small square garbhagriha cut deeply into the rock. The interior of these caves have wonderful images of Ardhanarishwara, Harihara, Mahishamardini, Narasimha, Varaha and Nataraja, to name a few.

The Pallava kings, Mahendravarman and Narasimhavarma initiated the technique of excavating stone temples out of solid rocks. The most famous of these ornate rock temples known as Rathas are located in Mahabalipuram in Tamilnadu. Another example of this type of temple is the monolithic Kailasa temple at Ellora, constructed by the Rashtrakuta king, Krishna I. This temple is hewn out of a single solid rock about 100 feet high. The main body of the temple occupies a rectangle 150×100 feet and the temple has a garbhagriha, preceded by a hall and in front of the hall is a detached Nandimantapa. The tower over the garbhagriha is 95 feet in height. The walls of the temple are carved by beautiful sculptures.

Classification of Indian temples

Silpa Shastras classify three kinds of temples based on the position of the image installed. The temple having a standing image is known as Sthanaka, having a seated image is called Asana and that having a reclining is referred as Shayana.

Temples in India are mostly dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti (Mother Goddess). The popular forms of Vishnu worshipped in temples are Varaha, Narasimha, Trivikrama, Rama, Krishna, Balaji, Padhmanabha and Ranganatha. Another popular god associated in Vaishnava temples is Hanuman.

In Indian temples Shiva is generally worshipped in the form of the phallus (Linga) fixed on a pedestal. Ganesha and Subramanya or Skanda, his two children are also important deities worshipped in Shaivite temples.

Important goddess worshipped in Shakti temples are Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Kali, Durga, Bhavani, Gauri, Annapoorna, and Chamundi.

Important parts of a Hindu Temple

Important organs of the temple are garbha-griha (sanctum) wherein the idol is enshrined; antarala, ardhamantapa or shukanasi (vestibule) which is in front of the garbhagriha and an assembly hall called mahamantapa, navaranga, sabhamantapa, etc. where the devotees stand. Inside the mahamantapa or just outside it will be placed the image of the deity’s chief vehicle, Nandi (bull) in Shiva temples and Garuda (bird) in Vishnu temples (essential in dravida temples and optional in nagara temples). Later a number of halls were added like utsava mantapa (for conducting various periodical festivals), kalyana mantapa (for conducting the ceremonial marriage festival of the god and goddess), nritya and sangeetha mantapa (where song and dance in praise of gods were rendered). After the mahamantapa there will be two raised platform one behind the other (essential in dravida temples and optional in nagara temples). In the first platform a flag-post or dhvaja stambha made of wood, stone or metal is fixed. And on the other platform called bali mantapa, bali or sacrifice offering is made. The whole place is surmounted by a high prakara wall whose gateway is surmounted by a tower called gopura, normally found in dravida style of temples.

Classification of Indian temple Styles

Indian temple architecture have been categorized into three main styles; namely Nagara, Dravida and Vesara. (The nagara style further divides itself into five major groups, located variously in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Upper India, Central India and Odisha).

Features of Nagara or Northern Style of temple architecture

  • Temples belonging to the nagara style of architecture were constructed in the region between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas.
  • These temples have sanctum which are square in plan.
  • The sanctum (garbha-griha) is roofed by a tall curvilinear tower (sikhara), gradually inclining inwards and capped by an amalaka (a sphere shaped slab with ribs round the edge). This is crowned by a finial called kalasha. The shikaras have three, five or seven vertical projections and embellished with miniature chaitya window motifs (a projected horse shoe archway which is familiar to those found above the entrance of a chaitya.) and niches and in the corners of the shikara and small amalakas, to demarcate the division of the tower into compressed storeys.
  • The outer walls of the sanctum have vertical projections called rathas. In the beginning there were three such projections on each side of the wall, (left, right and back) and these temples were known as triratha temples. In course of time the number of projections was increased to five (pancharatha), seven (saptharatha) and even nine (navaratha).
  • In front of the garbhagriha there is a pavilion called sabhamandapa over which there is a pyramid like roof with horizontal tiers.
  • Normally nagara style of temples has a closed passage for circumambulation around the garbhagriha, the plan being known as sandhara.
  • Another feature found in nagara style of architecture is the projection in the shikara over the roof of the antarala or ardhamantapa called as shukanasa or mahanisika.
  • The Kandariya Mahadeva temple at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh and the Lingaraja temple at Bhubaneshwar in Odisha are good examples of temples constructed in nagara style.

Features of Dravida or Southern Style of temple architecture

  • Temples belonging to the dravida style of architecture were constructed in the region between the river Krishna and Kanyakumari.
  • These temples have sanctum which are rectangular in plan
  • The tower over the sanctum is called Vimana, which is of two types, kuta vimana and shala vimana. In kuta vimana the tower consists of storeys (talas) with diminishing width as it moves up and is crowned with a square, circular, hexagonal or octagonal structure with a single finial called stupi. Each storey contains a hara or string comprising a decorative kuta (a miniature square, circular or octagonal shrine with domical roof and a single finial), shala (a miniature shrine with a barrel-vault roof and a series of stupis on its ridge) and pinjara (a miniature apsidal shrine).
  • In shala vimana the storeys are of the same pattern as in kuta vimana except for the crowning part which is a wagon-top, vault like or inverted boat like structure with rows of stupis on top along the ridge.
  • Normally dravida style of temples the passage for circumambulation around the garbhagriha is open, the plan being known as nirandhara.
  • Another important feature of dravida temples are the construction of towers over the entrance gateway called Gopura. The gateway is of granite or hard stone but the superstructure, gopura is of brick, wood and stucco. The gopura has successive tiers where life-size brick and stucco figures of men and gods are placed. Atop the gopura there is a shalashikara resembling an inverted boat like structure.
  • In dravida temples we normally find a pushkarini (temple tank) which is absent or optional in north Indian temples.
  • The Brihadisvara temples at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram in Tamilnadu are good examples of temples built in dravida style.

 Features of Vesara or Karnataka Style of temple architecture

The vesara style of temple architecture emerged under the rule of Badami Chalukyas and reached its zenith during the time of the Hoysalas. The vesara type of temples can be seen around the region between the Vindhyas and the River Krishna, but mainly in the present state of Karnataka. Though this style is an amalgamation of the nagara and dravida style, it has its own unique features like-

  • The plan of the temple is circular which later evolved into star-shaped.
  • Temples were built over a raised platform, the surface of which is richly embellished.
  • The outer walls of the temples are spaced out by means of pilasters.
  • The tower (shikara) of the vesara style developed in various stages. During the early stage the vesara shikara was a blending of nagara and dravida elements and consisted of a dravida shikara with a shukanasi or the projection in front of the shikara over the antarala. Over a period of time we find the vesara tower displaying a variety of motifs and yaksha figures in its various tiers with a sculpture relating to the deity found in the sanctum being installed in the shukanasi. In the third stage, the vesara tower is found engraved with decorative motifs one above the other to give it a curvilinear tower like look with a low umbrella shaped finial at the apex.
  • Another important feature of the vesara structure is the introduction of a parapet wall of haras along the edge of the mukhamantapa and mahamandapa roof.
  • From base to the top, vesara type of temples are richly carved with sculptures and friezes. Inside the temples also the door frames, pillars and ceiling are luxuriantly ornamented.
  • The Mahadeva temple at Itagi and the Keshava temple at Somanathapura in Karnataka are good examples of temples built in vesara style.

Hindu Temples- A Centre for Socio-Economic and Cultural Activities

In India, temples were not merely places of worship, but also a centre for economic, social and cultural activities. Its construction used to provide employment to scores of people of various caste and creeds. First of all stone cutters used to cut blocks of raw granite from hills which was transported to the place where a temple was supposed to be raised. Then artisans used to chisel the stone and convert it into pillars, columns and idols. The building of the temple also required the assistance of masons and labourers. Once the temple was complete the idol was consecrated by Brahmin priests with full paraphernalia and attended by people of the place. People used to donate agricultural lands to the temple for its maintenance and the temple authorities used to raise crops with the help of farmers. The money which flowed to the temple in the form of donations and offering was used by the temple management to provide loans for farmers in need. The temple used to feed the devotees and hence was a large consumer of rice, pulses, ghee, jaggery, etc. The premises around the temple were used by people to sell wares like pots, edibles, flowers, incense sticks, coconuts, handicrafts and other items. All these activities provided livelihood to a large number of people. Temples had halls where artists like singers and dancers used to perform and entertain the audience. Religious discourses were organized at the temple premises and it used to provide moral lessons to the people and guide them in their daily lives. Temples also acted as mediators in local disputes and served as centers of education. During special fairs and ceremonies people of different caste had their role to play. For instance members belonging to barber community had the privilege to play the auspicious music in front of the deity; folk artists used this occasion to display their art. Thus the various activities of the temple brought about social solidarity and cohesion among different sections of the populations. In total, a large section of the population including farmers, priests, cooks, menial workers, artists, teachers, etc. were benefited by the temple.

Impact of Iconoclasm

With the advent of Islam into India, temple building activities in north India received a setback. The Delhi Sultans and their provincial governors followed the policy of demolishing temples and destroying images. Mahmud of Ghazni was deeply struck by the magnificence and beauty of the architecture of the Hindu temples at Mathura and described it in glowing terms in his letters to his amirs; but this did not diminish his iconoclastic zeal to destroy temples and images. At Somnath he broke the idol of the Somnath temple into four pieces and sent one of the pieces to be placed in front of the great mosque of Ghazni to be trodden under foot by the Muslims entering the mosque for prayers. The second piece was put in front of the gate of the Sultan’s royal palace to be walked upon and the rest of the pieces were sent to Mecca and Medina. Hasan Nizami, a Muslim historian writes that in all the cities and places the Muslims conquered, hardly an idol temple or religious sanctuary of the Hindus was left unmolested and not converted into Muslim institutions.

Sita Ram Goel in his work- Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them, The Islamic Evidence remarks that starting with Al-Biladhuri who wrote in Arabic in the 2nd half of the 9th century and coming down to Syed Mahamud Ul Hasan who wrote in English in the fourth decade of 20th century, we have cited from 80 histories spanning a period of more than 1200 years. These citations mentions 61 kings, 63 military commanders and 14 Sufis who destroyed Hindu temples in 154 localities, big and small spread from Khurasan in the west to Tripura in the east and from Transoxiana in the north to Tamilnadu in the south over a period of 1100 years. In most cases the destruction of temples were followed by erection of mosques, madrasas and khanqahs on the temple sites and frequently with temple materials. Hence eminent scholar Will Durant writes that we can never know from looking at India today, what grandeur and beauty she once possessed and we shall never be able to do justice to Indian art, for ignorance and fanaticism have destroyed its greatest achievement and have ruined the rest.