Architecture: The Development of Hindu Temples in Purpose and Design

Through the years, we have seen the development of cultures and eras. Each has a distinct and unique practice. They represent the ideology, development, art, and architecture of that era or culture. Hindu temples have been in the world for centuries. They are the epitome of knowledge, art, architecture, and architecture. Additionally, they represent the advancement of building science. They have evolved through the centuries. Across those centuries, they have branched across the world. Their devotees have the chance to continue their search for spiritual enlightenment. Their structure and design have always been unique.

Early Hindu Temples

A complete temple carved out of the mountain that is centries old.
image source: theculturetrip.com

Between 1500 – 500 BCE was the Vedic Period. This was the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age of Indian history. In contrast to Hinduism today, idol worship did not exist until after 500 BCE.

The first structure began between the 4th and 5th centuries. First, as cave temples, rock is cut out and the temple is within the side of the mountain. These are often located in remote areas or surrounded by mountainous terrain.

The development of temples continued. Eventually, the structures were clay with thatched roofs of straw leaves. These were the first free-standing temples with features such as towers and projecting statues.

Wood and terracotta were used soon after clay. Gradually, architects moved on to brick and stone, particularly sandstone, granite, schist, and marble.

Building a Hindu temple was an act of devotion. The rewarding result was great religious merit. The necessary steps to build the shrines within the temples were done as religious rights. Kings and wealthy men were eager to sponsor the construction.

The development in temple architecture occurred between the 6th and 16th centuries. This development records the rise and fall, alongside the fate, of various dynasties that reigned in India during that period. The fate of those dynasties majorly contributed to and influenced the building of temples.

Pictured above is the Kailasa temple, a temple carved out of the mountain. The detail and interior are breath-taking. There are many speculations as to how it came to be. In fact, some suggest the temple construction started at the top. In detail, the very top of the temple was first carved from the mountain before the bottom. Speculations still arise as to how this magnificent architectural masterpiece came to be.

Stories behind Hindu temples are ongoing.

The Purpose and the Design

A colourful and detailed image of a Hindu Temple, showing its vibrancy
Image source: hanumanjikamiyala.com

Purpose

Hindu temples serve as a sacred place or a place of pilgrimage. They are heaven on Earth. Their purpose is to house a sacred symbol of a particular god or goddess. They provide a space for worshippers to leave offerings and perform rituals.

A Hindu temple incorporates elements of the Hindu cosmos. It presents the good, the evil, and the human. Alongside the cosmos are the elements of the Hindu sense of cyclic time and the essence of life.

Devotees can revitalize their spiritual energy. They can obtain the vision of the god. A temple brings gods and humans together, giving them the opportunity to help one another. As objects of worship, they preserve the image of the chosen deity.

Design

The Talamana or Indian Iconometry. This is a science of temple proportions that derives from the ancient Indian scriptures, the Vastu Shastra. 

The Vastu Shastra contains information about design, layout, measurements, group preparation, geometry, and space arrangements. The procedural rules and directions for the design and layout for building the temple are provided. From each part of the temple to the ancillary structures, they follow the centuries-old practices, beliefs, and values of Hinduism.

Location and Energy

A beautiful and calm image of a temple that is sitting close to the lake, surrounded by nature, hills, and a small waterfall.
image source: Wikipedia

According to Sanskrit texts, there is an appropriate site for temple construction. In other words, where flowers bloom (particularly the lotus flower), birds are heard, animals rest without fear of injury or harm. It suggests that places such as this are where the gods play.

Hindu temples contain pure vibrations of magnetic and electric fields of positive energy. The ideal location for the construction of a temple is one with high magnetic and electric waves, and where such waves are available abundantly.

The search for the ideal location is equally as important as the construction itself.

The larger temples are built in visually attractive places. For example, a riverbank, on top of hills, or on the seashore. There is usually a large variety of nature. Smaller temples differ. Also known as open-air shrines, they are built anywhere. This could be by the roadside or under the trees.

Energy

Within the temple, the Earth’s magnetic waves are at their most extreme point where the idol is placed. If placed correctly, the Hindu temple’s construction begins.

The space is designed for spontaneous movement of the mind and for meditation to happen effortlessly.

Temples were once built in such a way that the floor at the centre of the temple was to be a good conductor of positive vibrations. Entering barefoot would allow the positive energy to pass through your feet to the body.

Every aspect of the process is consciously done for this experience to happen.

Elements of Hindu Temples

A diagram depicting the main elements of the Hindu temple, therefore showing different parts of a basic parts of a temple.
image source: kamat.com

While their purpose is the same, temples across the North, South, East, and West of India have different architecture. Each design makes them unique from one another.

The basic features of all Hindu temples are the Garbhagriha, Mandapa, Shikhar, and the Vahana. 

The main compound of the temple is the Vimana, comprised of the Shikhara and Garbhagriha.

The Elements

Shikhara is the spire or the tower, similarly shaped to a pyramid and tapered. It represents the mythological mountain peak, Meru, in the Garhwal Himalayas. The legend says it is the house of Lord Brahma, the Creator of the universe and of all beings.

Garbhagriha is the womb chamber, the innermost chamber of the temple where the deity resides.

Pradakshina Patha is the passageway where devotees perform the act of moving clockwise around the idol.

The Mandapa is the pillared hall of Garbhagriha. Devotees use it as an assembly point for chanting. In the earlier temple structures, it was an isolated and separate structure.

Antarala is the immediate chamber that joins the main sanctuary and the pillared hall of the temple, the Garbhagriha and the Mandapa. 

Ardhamandapa is the front porch in the main entrance of the temple that leads to the main temple.

Gopurams are the monumental and ornate entrances to the temple premises.

Pitha are the plinths, heaving supporting bases, of the main temple.

Toranas are the gateways. Typically, there are two pillars that carry two or three beams that extend beyond the pillars, covered in beautiful sculpture.

The Amalaka is a fluted disc-like stone at the highest point of the Shikhara.

Kalasha is the top point of the temple, above the Amalaka.

Jagati is the platform where people sit to pray.

Vahana is the mount or vehicle of the deity. Its purpose is amplifying the power of the god or goddess.

Hindu Temples of Northern India

A Hindu temple of northern India seen in a clear blue background among nature.
image source: intenseindiatours.com

The temple style used is called ‘Nagara‘, built on a stone platform with the steps leading to it. In contrast to many temples, they do not have elaborate walls or gateways.

The earlier temples were built with one Shikhara. In our current days, we can see that the temples have several.

The Garbhagriha is located directly under the tallest Shikhara. There are many sub-divisions, depending on the shape of the tower:

First, for a simple Shikhara, there is a latina or the Rekha-Prasada type. This a square at the base with walls that curve or slope inward to a point, decorated with arches an Amalaka.

Second, the Phamsana. This architectural form is broader and shorter than latinas. The roofs are slabs of stacked stone that rise to a single point over the centre of the structure.

Finally, the third main sub-type is the valabhi. These are rectangular buildings with a roof that rises into a vaulted chamber.

Famous temples from the north are Baijnath Temple, Churdar Temple, Akshardham Temple, Vaishno Devi Temple, and Golden Temple.

Hindu Temples of Western India

A Hindu temple from Western India is seen, completed made through stone carvings, with two people seen walking around the ancient home of prayer.
image source: indiamike.com

The temples in western India are large in number.

The structures are made of stone. The design varies based on different colours and the types of stone used. Frequently used were grey and black basalt between the 10th and 12th century. Moreover, the most exuberant and famed stone was soft white marble, used between the 10th and 12th century and 15th century.

In addition to the shrines, massive rectangular water tanks were in the temple for ritual cleansing.

Famous temples in the west are Aundha Nagnath Temple, Bohra Ganesh Temple, Chintaman Ganesh Temple, Dashabhuja Temple, and Ekvira Air Temple.

Hindu Temples of Eastern India

A Hindu temple from Eastern India, showing the delicate work of terracota from the architects.
image source: indiatemplesinfo.com

The majority of eastern India temples are in the North-East of India, Bengal, and Odisha.

Originally used as the main medium was terracotta. Until the 7th century, there were moulding plaques depicting Buddhist and Hindu deities in Bengal.

In the 12th to 14th centuries, a distinct regional style was developed in Assam, in north-eastern India: Ahom’ style or Nilachal architecture. Temples have a bulbous polygonal dome that was placed over the Garbhagriha.

Famous temples in the east are Lingaraj Temple, Konark Sun Temple, Jagannath Temple, Parashurameshvara Temple, and Brahmesware Temple.

Hindu Temples of Southern India

A Hindu temple in Southern India, showing the age and ornate work through the centuries
image source: tourmyindia.com

The style for southern Indian temples is ‘Dravida‘.

The temples are within a compound wall. Above the walls are regular entablatures (mouldings and bands that lie horizontally above columns) with scripture written on them.

Typically, a gate (Gopuram) is located behind the wall. In the end, this gate was built to be more massive and more ornate than the temple.

The main temple tower is the Vimana.

It is common to find a large water reservoir enclosed within the complex. Subsidiary shrines are either located within the main temple tower or as separate small shrines behind the main temple.

Famous temples in the south are Brihadeeswara Temple, Arulmigu Ramanthaswamy Temple, Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple, Sree Padmanasbhaswamy Temple, and Guruvayur Temple.

Vesara Style of Temple Architecture

A Vesara type of Hindu Style made of stone, with the backdown of a clear blue sky and surrounded by greenary.
image source: arungovil.in

The Vesara style is a combination of ‘Nagara’ (northern) and ‘Dravidian’ (southern) style of architecture and original in its characteristics.

The main features of this style of architecture are the Shikhara and the Mandapa. The Shikhara is ‘Nagara’ style and the Mandapa is ‘Dravidian’ style, joined by the Antarala. The pillars, door frames, and ceilings are intricately carved.

Contrary to most temples, these temples do not have passageways used to walk around an idol.

Examples of ‘Vesara’ style temples are Dodda Bassapa Temple, Ladkhan Temple, and Temples are the Chalukyan Capital Badami.

Conclusion

An image of temple carved into the mountain, surrounded by tourists and devotees who admire it's detailed beauty.
image source: indiagk.net

Throughout the years, we have heard “out with the old and in with the new”. As expected, more and more people head towards the ‘new’. When the world evolves, our needs evolve.

Nevertheless, across the world, there are people who want to preserve the old. This is not so that it can stay a historical relic. On the contrary, this is for the newer and older generation. The older generation want the young to remember the history behind the architecture. They may follow the teachings or they may not. The goal is the preservation of knowledge.

For instance, in 2019, the Pakistan government reclaimed and restored 400 Hindu temples for the Hindu citizens of Pakistan.

Nevertheless, throughout centuries, Hindu temples have been preserved in their entirety. We are able to how the science of building evolved, and the inspiration it provided. Even if you are not a devotee, you can appreciate the detail and the culture in those temples. There is an appreciation for the intricate detail, the architects, and the builders. It brings an understanding of culture.

There is a story behind every piece of history, just as there is a story behind Hindu architecture.

I end this with a quote:

“I call architecture frozen music.”

Johann Wolfgang Von Goeth, quoted in Peter Eckermann’s ‘Conversations with Goeth’.

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