A Close Look at Hindu Temples – Part 6

Come, Let’s Go Inside the Temple

Dr Uma Shankari*

How does the temple look from outside?

The temple is essentially a square room with a pyramid standing on the roof of the room.

This essential structure may be elaborated into a grand structure, with sculptures of gods, ornamental designs, pavilions, towers, courtyards.

Kali temple, Dakshineswar, Kolkata. wikipedia.

Ranganathaswamy temple, Srirangam,Tamilnadu. .

How does the temple look from inside?

A typical plan of the temple is as follows: 

The temple has a garbhagriha in the centre: a completely enclosed dark space, it can be a square or semi – circle, “a womb room”, lit only with an oil lamp- what is known as “nandhaavilakku” – a lamp which is never put out It signifies the formless God.

(Top left: Garbhagriha with lingam inside and Nandi outside; top right: Garbhagriha with Vishnu asleep on a Snake bed, with Brahma emerging from his navel. The metal images of Vishnu with Bhudevi and Sridevi are also shown in the picture.)

Inside it is placed the Lingam-yoni or the idol of Vishnu in darkness. Only the priest can enter this room. The movement of the devotee from brightly lit outside towards the dark garbhagriha signifies going inward to find God within oneself. It is interesting that after all the grandeur of the temple outside, the deity is placed in utter darkness. The belief is that ultimately God lies inside us, in our own hidden soul, as much as in the outside. 

It is slightly different in North Indian temples where the garbhagriha is just a small enclosure separating the idol and the devotees, not necessarily a dark room, into which the priest as well as the devotees can enter and go around the idols, place flowers and other offerings. In these temples the concept of a womb room with a formless deity has been replaced by deities with forms who stand or sit, with smiling benevolent faces and forms.

What follows is a description largely applying to temples in South India.

In the South Indian temples, the deities with forms are placed outside the garbhagriha, often in the circumambulatory route, but the garbhagriha itself is a dark room, symbolizing the primordial formless God as the Supreme Energy. In front of the garbhagriha is the ‘antarala’ – a middle space, a passage, between the deity and the devotees, followed by mandapas or pavilions, small and big from where the devotees can see the idol in the garbhagriha. The images of subsidiary deities are placed in the circumambulatory courtyard. In the bigger temples, there are several court yards, as in the Gangaikonda Cholapuram temple (see the floor plan of the temple below).

Sarangapani temple tower, Kumbakonam.

Every temple has a substantial tower-gate which welcomes the devotees into the temple. Some of these towers are indeed very tall, sculptured with many forms of deities and mythological stories. These temple towers mark the temples from houses nearby with its unique structure and form. Houses are not supposed to be taller than the temple towers, in deference to the gods inside.

Each deity is placed in a specific direction- corner:  in the Siva temples, the main deity is in the centre often facing east; Ganesha at the entrance or in the south west, facing east; Kaartikeya or Murugan at the entrance or in the north west; the shrine for the mother goddess is often outside the garbhagriha in the north side. Images of other forms of the main deity, including the metal images of the main deity which are taken out during the festivals are placed in separate shrines in the courtyard. Other subsidiary deities as well as the saints and devotees, including the kings and benefactors of the temple, are placed in platforms and niches in the circumambulatory courtyard or on the outer walls of the garbhagriha.  An image of Nandi or the bull, the vehicle of Siva, is placed at the middle of the entrance of the temple/shrine at a slight distance, facing west, looking towards the garbhagriha, as a faithful devoted animal. A tall flag staff also stands outside, at the entrance of the main pavilion.

Temples dedicated to Vishnu and his forms follow a similar pattern, with Vaishnavaite deities, such as Rama, Krishna, Hanuman, Alwar saints, etc.

Temples often have several mandapams or pavilions which were constructed by kings and other devotees in the course of its history, for the benefit of visitors to the temples during festivals. Throughout the year the bigger temples hold festivals for one or the other deity, during which the metal images of the deities are taken out in processions in the streets around the temples.

Worship, as mentioned earlier, follows a hierarchical pattern, with more elaborate offerings to the main deity and graded offerings to others. In Siva temples the hierarchy is as follows: The main deity, followed by the goddess, the sons- Ganesha and Kartikeya, followed by other forms- Durga, Dakshinamurthy, Kala Bhairava, nine planets, saints like the Naayanmaars, and so on. On special occasions, devotees may offer special worship to the appropriate deity. For example, during Navaratri, the image of goddess may be offered the full range of offerings. In the bigger temples, the hierarchy of graded offerings are strictly followed: which deity is to be offered worship at which service, what offerings are to be made – how much/many edible items like appams, dosais, varieties of cooked rice (- whether curd rice or tamarind rice –) are all codified and followed strictly so that there is no scope for mistake or corruption.

Purity has also to be strictly maintained and pollution avoided. Temple is a space of permanent sacredness; this is reflected in the fact that invocation into the idols is dispensed with in daily worship. Excretions of all bodily fluids are considered polluting and are to be strictly avoided. One cannot spit, urinate or shit inside the temple. People are not allowed to sleep inside the temple to avoid accidental pollution. Temples are locked for the night. Nor can anyone indulge in sex inside the temple. If there is death in the vicinity of the temple, the temple remains closed till the dead body is taken out for cremation and the house purified. To remedy accidental pollution which may have occurred, temples and idols are to be put through a thorough re-purification ceremony once in a few years. The priests and other functionaries should bathe and maintain the rules of purity strictly while they remain in the temple.

Deities must be offered food at least once a day in a temple. The deity is a living being in the temple and cannot be left hungry. In the bigger well-endowed temples daily worship is conducted six times (called ‘seva’- services) a day- three before noon, and three in the evening. Specific deities receive special worship on certain special days; for example, a few decades ago someone started the worship of Goddess Durga at Raahukaalam on Fridays to avoid the ill effects of the planet Raahu, and it became very popular.

Temples conduct at least one annual festival for the presiding deity, but the bigger temples have several festivals through the year. Everything depends on how well endowed the temple is- the number of idols, the number of services, the number of festivals. During the festivals the decorated metal idols are taken in procession on the streets surrounding the temple. The idea is that if the devotee cannot come to the temple for whatever reason, the deity will go to him, so that he may have the ‘darsan’ of God. One of the festivals involves taking the decorated deity in a float in the pond/tank attached to the temple during the summer season, so that the deity may enjoy a cool breeze.

The food offerings are distributed among the functionaries of the temple, also in a graded manner. Food was the most important form of payment and it was paid both in cooked food form and in grain and other food articles- like paddy, rice, coconuts, fruits, etc. The grades were a form of endorsement of the importance and status of the functionary in the temple system. For instance, the priest was obviously the most important in relation to the man who brings water for bathing the deity or the gardener who takes care of the temple garden. They received food items according to their importance in the worship system. All these posts were often hereditary in the past and follow the caste professions; they thus became a way of affirming their caste position in the caste system. 

Women in menstrual periods are not allowed in any temple, be it a temple for householder god or a celibate god, as menstrual blood is considered highly polluting.  Even in the Kamakhya temple in Assam which celebrates the goddess in menstruation does not allow menstruating women in the temple.  The temple of Aiyappa is an extreme example of this rule where women from the age of 10 to 50 are not allowed. Priests in almost all temples are males. Women were rarely priests in temples. This is because they may menstruate any time and pollute the temple. Socially their place is home and their role is the propagation of the species. Women monks and monasteries do exist, but they are rare. However, widows are required to lead a celibate life, so paradoxically, one comes across de facto women sanyasis more frequently, in every home, than male sanyasis. No doubt there are different rules and double standards for men and women in our society.

The only exception to this rule which I have heard is the Melmaruvathur Om Sakthi temple dedicated to the Goddess Adi Parasakthi near Chennai which does not mind women entering the temple during their menstrual periods. It was built by Bangaru Adigalaar in 1977, in whom the Goddess is believed to descended and he acts Her medium. This temple does not follow any traditional scriptural rules; Bangaru Adigalaar lays the rules for the temple. It has attained a great popularity in the recent decades and has grown to be temple city by itself.

Who are the functionaries?

The priest is the most important functionary in the temple. The priests in the Aagama based temples belong to a particular sub-caste of Brahmins. While the post of priest was the minimal requirement in any temple, the number and kind of functionaries depended on how well the temple was endowed in terms of material resources – land, livestock, cash and gold. The Thiruvarur Tyagarajaswamy temple for instance had 27 functionaries for the conduct of rituals and 12 for the administration around 1977. They included priests, assistants to priests, reciters of Tamil hymns, reciters of Vedic hymns, water carriers, cooks, musicians, drummers, lamp lighters, garland makers, astrologers, etc. Together they were responsible for the correct way of worship in the temple.

These functionaries were overseen by a person or a group of people who are in current parlance called dharmakartha or ‘trustees’; they represented the administrative function, a proxy for the state power. The state control was never distant from the temples, and it was represented by local power groups. Many temples had large permanent endowments called Kattalais, which were mandated to supply a specific amount of grains and other supplies for the year. The trustees or the ‘dharmakarthas’ saw to the efficient and ethical administration of these endowments. The Thiruvarur temple is supposed to have owned 1000 ‘veli’, i.e. 6600 acres of land. It was held in different endowments called Kattalai and each of them was mandated to supply certain specific needs of the temple. These endowments were managed by specific groups of trustees or dharmakarthas, some of whom were religious mutts, others a group of priests, and yet others respected families from the dominant castes, and so on.

Apart from such permanent endowments, single services may be sponsored by individual donors, called ‘ubayam’. For instance, a donor may sponsor a day’s expenses during the festival.  Then there are the hundis, collection boxes in which devotees drop cash, silver or gold. The wealthy donors, needless to say, receive greater respect than the poorer devotees and wield power in the temple administration.  But this is unofficial; any devotee is as good as any other and the temple is not supposed to deny reception or respectful treatment to any devotee. The Bhakta or any devotee who came to the temple with devotion was paramount in the temple system.

Thus, three systems or axis operate inside the temple – the caste system based on notions of purity/pollution at birth, power systems based on wealth and power, and the devotional system of devotion and surrender to a chosen deity (and following a specific sampradaya or sect to which the temple belongs -Saivite, Vaishnavite, Sakta, etc.). The Bhakta is a transcendental category, (s)he subsumes the castes, the king and the renunciant and upholds the spirituality of every (wo)man. In other words, the brahmin, the king and the bhakta intersect and define the universe of the temple. Together they account for the uniqueness of the institution of the temple in the history of Hinduism.


The previous five parts of the article can be seen on the given links –

Part 1 – Who are Hindus

Part 2 – History and Myths in Hinduism

Part 3 – Hinduism : Is it Sanathan?

Part 4 – Vedas to Puranas; Yajna to Puja

Part 5 – Is it Mandatory for a Hindu to Visit temples?

(All pictures used in this article have been provided by the author)

*Dr Uma Shankari who has a doctorate in Sociology from the University of Delhi, has been associated with various social movements since early eighties. She has published a book in Tamil which is about the relation between temples and the Hindu religion and society.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com, which does not assume any responsibility for the same.


  1. I found the observation interesting: “one comes across de facto women sanyasis more frequently, in every home, than male sanyasis”
    In the concluding paragraph, you have mentioned three axes that worked in the institution of temples in ancient India. Don’t you consider the hierarchy and power system among the priests in larger temples as a very important axis? IMHO, the devotional system of devotion and surrender to a chosen deity does not subsume this system.
    Good article, overall.

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