India is full of temples, mostly Hindu temples (places of worship of other religions in India are usually not known as temples).
Most Hindus believe in many deities, and they prefer to worship deities represented by a physical form – mostly idols. These deities need a place to reside; the temple is a deity’s residence in a public place. Since there is a demand from devotees, temples of all sizes and shapes have been erected virtually everywhere. The modern-day temples often represents convenience, encroachment and/or assertion of religious identity as much as the residing deity – but that is not the subject of discussion here. So, let us move to ancient temples.
When we talk of ancient, we refer to temples older than a thousand years or so. Some of them are so extraordinary that such questions are often asked in awe:
- There appears something binding the ancient Hindu temples in their architecture, as all such north Indian and south Indian temples seem to follow a pattern. Was there some school that taught architecture and sculpture of an advanced level to the temple builders?
- Indian society has been adopting knowledge from distant places, but there does not seem perceptible foreign influence on ancient Hindu temples, why?
- How could they make so huge temples with no modern technology, and with rather primitive tools?
- How have the temples – some with massive stones on top of their spires – remained firm over such a long time, even survived earthquakes?
- Was there some divine or extra-terrestrial intervention in the construction of big temples? Do some objects sculptured on them denote things out of this world?
How temples took birth as a religious institution
In the Vedic era and for centuries after that, temples were perhaps not very common. This notion gets strength from the fact that there are hardly any archaeological finds of temples from those times, and that the common practice was to make offerings to natural forces (gods of fire, air, rain, sun, etc) and in open spaces, so there was no need for a closed temple with an idol.
The vedi (pedestal for performing yajna), some scholars feel, is the precursor of the formal temple. Early places of worship, whether to be called temples or not, were on a raised platform and often did not have a roof. They could have a railing, a gate (torana), or an overarching umbrella (chhatra).
Temple as an institution of worship seems to have originated once deities started to be represented in the form of idols – perhaps during the age of Puranas. They needed to be housed in a sacred place (so, the temple was a devalaya/ devasthan or the abode of god) and to be worshipped in a respectful manner, which became ritualized over time. Existence of temples in the age of Puranas is corroborated by their mention in many scriptures.
Temples of the Puranic age consisted of a single square room or a small set of rooms, with little ornamentation. These housed one or more deities popular in that area, one among them presiding over the pantheon. Important temples also had patronage of rich and powerful people and organizations.
There are some indications that during post-Vedic period, wood, terracotta and mud were used for making temples, and such temples did not last long. Even temples made of stone were liable to wear and tear due to time and weather, and when discarded due to migration or a deity falling out of favour. A few such temples survive even now, though much dilapidated.
The golden period of Hindu temple building in India
Archaeological and other evidences suggest that temple as an established form of architecture started around the 4th century in the northern parts of India and a few centuries later in the south. The science and art of temple making flourished and evolved for about eight centuries. The incessant foreign invasions, followed by state-mediated destructions, stopped this trend – starting 11th century in the north and a few centuries later in the south.
It was during the Gupta period, followed by other patron dynasties (e.g. Chalukya, Kalinga, Chandela, Solanki) that temples flourished in north India. In the south, Chalukya, Pallava, Pandya, Chola, Hoysala, Rashtrakuta and other dynasties patronised temple building in a big way. Deccan (Karnataka and nearby regions) became the meeting ground for the northern and southern styles of temple building. Aihole village in Karnataka represents a laboratory in which different temple styles seem to have been experimented with.
Under the patronage of rulers, temples became more and more sophisticated in design, and started getting ornamented with sculpture. As vastu-shastra or the science and art of building houses evolved, temples started becoming more stylish and majestic.
Some of the prominent temples built during this period, which survive till today, include Kailasa temple at Ellora in Maharashtra; Ranganathaswamy temple at Tiruchirapalli, Brihadesvara temple at Thanjavur and shore temples at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu; temples at Pattadakal and Aihole in Karnataka; Jagannath Temple at Puri, Lingaraja temple at Bhubaneswar and Konark temple in Odisha; and Teli ka Mandir at Gwalior and temples at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh.
During the later part of this period, Hindu temples were also built in places outside the Indian subcontinent, mostly towards the east. Hindu kings in the South East Asia erected some magnificent temples, including Prambanan in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Urban centres were usually chosen for temples because these started becoming centres of socialization, social work and economic activity. However, temples were also built on hill-tops, and along rivers and shores. While most temples were masonry structures, in some pockets temples were carved out of massive rocks.
Big temples served many purposes beyond worship. They had places for sacrifice and yajna, community kitchens, schools and hostels, libraries, and halls for dance performances and religious discourse. They engaged in social and cultural activities, health services, calamity relief, and charity. Some of them became rich with rights granted by the state and with donations from devotees, and part of their wealth was used for social purposes. The treasures of some southern temples are legendary. For their multifarious activities, some temples had to employ hundreds of workers. It is recorded that at one time, Brihadesvara temple at Thanjavur employed 600 people excluding priests.
One important factor that helped the growth of temples during this period was a sense of tolerance towards different streams of faith. It is believed that competing religions (Hinduism with its competing sects (mainly Vaishnava and Shaiva), Buddhism, Jainism) did not harm one another’s temples, and succeeding rulers of a different faith erected their own set of temples without demolishing the existing ones.
Architecture of Hindu temples: from simple to highly sophisticated
The initial temples seem to be square, single-room structures, sometimes with an anteroom for worshippers where they could prepare themselves, wait for their turn or congregate.
The square remained the basic unit of Hindu temples even in the most sophisticated designs. In later layouts (mandalas), the grid was usually composed of 64 or 81 main squares and a number of smaller squares were arranged in perfect symmetry and according to the principles of vastu shastra.
In the north, the walls of the temple shrine rose straight to a height before curving inwards. At the top of the spire, called shikhara, a base stone joined the converging walls. On this were placed a thin neck-stone and a big, round kalasha and the finial. In the middle of the temple floor lay the most sacred place, the sanctum or garbha-griha. There would be a mandapa before the main temple (which initially was a small room but became a congregation hall or a set of mandapas in big temples). A pathway was made outside the walls of the temple or around the garbha-griha for pradakshina (circumambulation). This was known as Nagara style of temples.
In the south, a slightly different style, called Dravida style, took shape. The basic concepts such as square, symmetry, tall spire, garbha-griha and mandapa were as in the Nagara style, but the main structure, called vimana, rose like a pyramid – tapering to the top without curvature. The slope was stepped, and full of repeating sculptures. A very prominent feature adopted by later-era southern temples was the enormous gate, called gopuram, which rose even higher than the temple spire. In larger temples, there were more than one gopurams. [Tall gopurams continued to be built by later kings, and many southern temples have gopurams of heights over 60 metre.]
A vesara, or hybrid, style of temples arose by adopting elements of both the styles. Local styles also emerged in the eastern region and the Himalayan hills, necessitated mostly by the geography, climate, local expertise and non-availability of standard construction material. Within the main styles, sub-styles also emerged over time.
In big temples, there could be many spires and mandapas, making the entire structure complex and imposing. Where the space between walls had to be increased, as in the case of mandapas and halls, supporting columns and beams were introduced to hold the roof.
As discussed in the lower section, architectural principles were codified in detail: this gave uniformity to the style of temple construction. This codification also ensured that architects and artisans did not ignore the core principles. Thus, though the largest Hindu temple complex, Angkor Wat, is situated thousands of miles away from India, and the local factors were much different from those in the Indian mainland, at basic levels they retain the Indian temple’s architecture as well as ethos.
This codification, and insistence of priests on following the scriptures, might be one reason why other influences such as use of arch were not adopted in the construction of temples till a very late stage.
Temple planners and architects were required to have good knowledge of layout-design, which included the understanding of the mechanical stability of tall structures. They used a favourable structural plan density (the proportion of vertical structures as compared to the floor area), used counterweights to keep the structure balanced, perfectly aligned stones, and used corbelling (projecting structures beyond the straight vertical line) with high precision. Weight of segments was reduced at higher levels by making them narrower. In the case of gopurams, lighter materials were used at higher levels. These and other architectural/ engineering considerations have resulted in tall temples that have withstood numerous earthquakes.
It is indeed fascinating that many big temples have survived centuries of neglect, abuse, destruction and climatic degradation. Walls of most such temples stand without much use of mortar, not to speak of metal and concrete, and some of them bear kalashas made of stones weighing many tonnes. Besides the principles of architecture, a high level of precision and craftsmanship (error-free measurements, near-perfect stone-work, masonry with great precision) contributed to the sturdiness of temples.
Who and what guided temple construction in those times?
It is not that temples were erected at the whim of the priest, rich people or the ruler, or their structure was decided by someone posing as the all-know, though some legends speak of divine inspiration, etc that dictated a temple’s construction. In fact, in most cases, it was just the opposite: even when a temple was made on the orders of the king, every aspect of temple building was considered with a great thought and the temple was made according to the laid guidelines.
It is believed that vastu shastra (the science and art of living places) and shilpa shastra (the treatise on arts – including sculpture) that guided construction of buildings, sculpture and iconography were already evolved by the 4th century – and they kept evolving. There were a number of vastu-shastras that acted as manuals for construction of residential spaces; these included the principles of town planning, making of houses, etc, and some included guidelines for temple construction. Some manuals worth a mention are: Shatapatha Brahmana, Aitreya Brahmana, Brahma Samhita, Brihata Samhita, Mayamata and Mansara.
These manuals specified minute details starting from choosing the land to orientation of temple, size, proportions, placement of deities and so on. For example, there were specific guidelines on selection of the location, such as presence of water, cleanliness, peaceful environment, and soil properties. For layout and design, there was another set of elaborate guidelines. Guidelines were followed and available stone and other construction materials, load-bearing capacity of the rock and soil, and various geographical factors were taken into consideration before deciding upon the size and shape of the temple.
Since a deity was to be housed in the temple, it had to be the centre of flow of energies; all else was subordinate to the spiritual aspects. The presiding deity dictated the orientation of the temple, construction material, and placement of supporting deities and animal mounts. A vastu-purusha-mandala (layout of the cosmic human being) mandated the positions of different constituents within the temple structure. In this, the rectangles, coordinates and directions denoted the importance of different elements of nature and astronomical bodies, and each had a raison d’être.
Once the temple was complete, the deity was established in the garbha-griha according to prescribed rituals. Only after the ceremony, the idol (murti) was supposed to acquire cosmic energies that the worshipper could draw upon.
Over a period of time, temple building became an organised profession that employed a big number of craftsmen, designers and managers. They travelled in groups from one construction site to the other. There was a hierarchy of planners, managers and craftsmen starting with the sthapak and sthapati. They were required to be fully versed in vastu shastra and shilpa shastra. Under them, a supervisor (sutragrahin) oversaw the day-to-day work of the project. Under them, the hierarchies of stone craftsmen (takshaks), and masons and carpenters (vardhakin) worked. As these activities needed skill sets that had to be learned on the job, stone carving and masonry work became family professions. Tool-makers were also an important part of the workforce. A large complement of lay workmen and women were required to support the skilled workers, and they moved in groups. There were guidelines on selection of right people for top jobs and on the management of the workforce. Palm-leaf manuscripts relating to construction of Konark temple are available. They give minute details of the temple’s planning as well as the workforce.
Rock cut temples were precursors as well as contemporary of free-standing masonry temples. Rock cut temples required a different set of knowledge and skills, and sculpture, especially carving, was the focus. The rock wall threw challenges, but it also gave the sculptor the canvas to tell stories. As the rock-cut caves became deeper or when a temple was to be constructed top-down, architects seem to have played a significant role.
In the case of big temples, the construction took a long time, sometimes running into decades. The Kailasa temple at Ellora is supposed to have taken at least a decade, and some additions were done even later. Some temples were completed over many generations of kings. Gopurams in many temples were added centuries later.
All things considered, ancient Hindu temples were an expression of spiritual and religious thought and artistic attainment. At the practical level, they served as a religious place and also served a number of social, cultural and economic functions. If some huge temples were primarily guided by the egos of the patrons and served the purpose of the rulers, and if temples in general helped in domination of priests or brahmins over others, they served other purposes as well.
Is something superhuman associated with these Hindu temples?
The web is full of claims of supernatural objects and occurrences associated with various temples. The extra-ordinary size of some temples and their intricate carvings come handy for associating them with the supernatural.
In a series of videos on Hindu temples, which are popular on YouTube, the narrator explains the presence of big rocks, fine joints and unusual icons by associating them with aliens and a highly advanced technology. In one video, depiction of deities with animal head or torso is used for proving that surgeries of that level were being practised when the temples were built.
A post circulating widely on social media some time back claimed that major Shiva temples were situated at a certain longitude. Temples were selectively picked up to prove the hypothesis. In fact, Indian astronomy was so well-developed at that time that temples could have been built along chosen longitudes, but temple planners perhaps did not see a purpose in doing so.
I have come across a piece of research in which interesting parallels have been between values used in temple construction (e.g. number of segments, their proportions) and those used in mythology, Vedic cosmology and astronomy. At least some of such associations look frivolous.
Miracles are associated with many temples, old or new, big or small. I will not touch upon them as they are a matter of faith. I am also not here to contest if temples have spiritual, psychic/ parapsychic and other healing properties, but am only making the point that as far as the grandeur of ancient Hindu temples is concerned, that is the product of human intelligence, wisdom and endeavour.
As mentioned in earlier sections, a great deal of planning and effort went into construction of mighty structures. Elephants were used for transporting heavy material. Rocks and carved stones were rolled over logs to transport them to the temple site. Scaffolding with thick logs, and levers and ramps were used for carrying building material to higher levels. It is now known that a ramp of earth and wood was used for placing an 80-tonne granite stone on top of the 60-metre-high spire of Brihadesvara temple, on which the 25 tonne shikhara rests.
Ancient Hindu temples, so also Jain and Buddhist ones, mesmerize in many ways: the finery of stone craft, precision, stability, enormity, overall magnificence. During their prime, these served the purpose of bringing the best in humans – social, artistic, spiritual – and now they are an integral part of human heritage.
As for a supernatural hand in their construction, we can rest our appreciation of the great ancient Hindu temples on their face value. Looking for the supernatural in them rather demeans human attainments and vision. No?
- Architectural Heritage and Seismic Design With Reference to Indian Temple Architecture
- Building Science of Indian Temple Architecture
- Cultural Continuity through Analysing Architecture of Hindu Temples in India
- Hindu temple
- Listen how the wise one begins construction of a house for Viṣṇu
- Space and Cosmology in the Hindu Temple
- The temple was not a Vedic institution: Manu V. Devadevan
*Manoj Pandey is a former civil servant. He does not like to call himself a rationalist, but insists on scrutiny of apparent myths as well as what are supposed to be immutable scientific facts. He maintains a personal blog, Th_ink
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
Very interesting and well researched article. But is it correct to say that the competing religions- Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism etc. did not harm one another’s temples?
Well researched. Very Interesting to read and to know about temple architecture and it’s construction in ancient India.
On one point, I have a query and that is harmony was there between different religions, but there were occasions where disharmony occurred. In-depth studies by the researchers pointed it out. Congrats to the author for his work.