Special Content

Issue no 45, 5 - 11 February 2022

Temple Architecture In India

Most of the art and architectural remains that survive from ancient and medieval India are religious in nature. Today when we say 'temple' in English we generally mean a devalaya, devkula, mandir, kovil, deol, devasthanam or prasada depending on which part of India we are in. A Hindu temple reflects a synthesis of arts, the ideals of dharma, beliefs, values, and the way of life cherished under Hinduism.

The architectural evolution of the Indian temples took place within the rigid frameworks derived entirely from religious thoughtfulness. The underlying principle in a Hindu temple is built around the belief that all things are one, everything is connected. Therefore the architect was bound to keep to the ancient primary dimensions and strict configurations, which remained unaltered over the period of time.

Basic Form of the Hindu Temple

The basic form of the Hindu temple comprises the following: (i) sanctum (garbhagriha, literally 'womb-house'), which was a small cubicle with a single entrance and grew into a larger chamber in time. The garbhagriha is made to house the main icon which is itself the focus of much ritual attention; (ii) the entrance to the temple which may be a portico or collonaded hall that incorporates space for a large number of worshippers and is known as a mandapa; (iii) freestanding temples tend to have a mountain-like spire, which can take the shape of a curving shikhara in North India and a pyramidal tower, called a vimana, in South India; (iv) the vahan, i.e., the mount or vehicle of the temple's main deity along with a standard pillar or dhvaj is placed axially before the sanctum.

 As temples grew more complex, more surfaces were created for sculpture through additive geometry, i.e., by adding more and more rhythmically projecting, symmetrical walls and niches, without breaking away from the fundamental plan of the shrine.

Two broad orders of temples in the country are known-Nagara in the north and Dravida in the south. Another style, the Vesara style of temples, are a selective amalgamation of the Nagara and Dravida orders.

Every region and period has its own distinct style of images with its regional variations in iconography. The temple is covered with elaborate sculptures and ornaments that form a fundamental part of its conception. The placement of an image in a temple is carefully planned. Various forms or aspects of the main divinity are to be found on the outer walls of the sanctum. Subsidiary shrines around the main temple are dedicated to the family or incarnations of the main deity. Finally, various elements of ornamentation are used in distinct ways and places in a temple.

 Nagara or North Indian Temple Style

The style of temple architecture that became popular in northern India is known as nagara. In North India, it is common for an entire temple to be built on a stone platform with steps leading up to it. Further, unlike in South India, it does not usually have elaborate boundary walls or gateways. While the earliest temples had just one tower or shikhara, later temples had several. The garbhagriha is always located directly under the tallest tower.

A major type of architectural form in the nagara order is the phamsana. Phamsana roofs do not curve inward, instead, they slope upwards on a straight incline. Another type of the nagara building is the valabhi type-rectangular buildings with a roof that rises into a vaulted chamber. The edge of this vaulted chamber is rounded, like the bamboo or wooden wagons that would have been drawn by bullocks in ancient times. They are usually called 'wagonvaulted buildings'.

Central India

The temples found in Central India are usually made of sandstone. Some of the oldest surviving structural temples from the Gupta Period are in Madhya Pradesh. These are relatively modest-looking shrines, each having four pillars that support a small mandapa which looks like a simple square porch-like extension before an equally small room that serves as the garbhagriha. The temples of the late Gupta Period are built in the panchayatana style of architecture where the main shrine is built on a rectangular plinth with four smaller subsidiary shrines at the four corners (making it a total number of five shrines, hence the name, panchayatana).

Contrary to these, the temples of Khajuraho made by the Chandela Kings in the tenth century, have a distinct shape and style. For instance, the Lakshmana temple of Khajuraho has four smaller temples in the corners and all the towers or shikharas rise upward in a curved pyramidal fashion, ending in a horizontal fluted disc called an amalak topped with a kalash or vase. The temple also has projecting balconies and verandahs, thus very different from the temples of the late Gupta period.

West India

The stone used to build the temples in the region ranges in colour and type. While sandstone is the most common, a grey to black basalt can be seen in some of the tenth to twelfth century temple sculptures. The most exuberant and famed is the soft white marble which is also seen in some of the tenth to twelfth century Jain temples in Mount Abu and the fifteenth-century temple at Ranakpur.

The Sun temple at Modhera dates back to early eleventh century. The distinct feature of this temple is the massive rectangular stepped tank, called the suryakund, in front of it. This hundred-square-metre rectangular pond is perhaps the grandest temple tank in India. A hundred and eight miniature shrines are carved in between the steps inside the tank.

 East India

Eastern Indian temples include those found in the North East, West Bengal and Odisha. Terracotta was the main medium of construction, and also for moulding plaques that depicted Buddhist and Hindu deities in Bengal until the seventh century.

An old sixth-century sculpted door frame from DaParvatia near Tezpur and another few stray sculptures from Rangagora Tea Estate in Assam bear witness to the import of the Gupta idiom in that region. By the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, a distinct regional style developed in Assam. The style that came with the migration of the Tais from Upper Burma mixed with the dominant Pala style of Bengal and led to the creation of what was later known as the Ahom style in and around Guwahati. Kamakhya temple, a Shakti Peeth, is dedicated to Goddess Kamakhya and was built in the seventeenth century.

The style of the sculptures during the period between the ninth and eleventh centuries in Bengal (including Bangladesh) and Bihar is known as the Pala style, named after the ruling dynasty at the time, while the style of those of the mideleventh to mid-thirteenth centuries is named after the Sena kings. While the Palas are celebrated as patrons of many Buddhist monastic sites, the temples from that region are known to express the local Vanga style. Most prominent of these was the shape of the curving or sloping side of the bamboo roof of a Bengali hut. This feature was eventually even adopted in Mughal buildings, and is known across North India as the Bangla roof. In the Mughal period and later, scores of terracotta brick temples were built across Bengal. These had elements of local building techniques combined with older forms reminiscent of the Pala period and with the forms of Islamic architecture.

The main architectural features of Odisha temples are classified in three orders, i.e., rekhapida, pidhadeul and khakra. In general, here the shikhara, called deul in Odisha, is vertical almost until the top when it suddenly curves sharply inwards. Deuls are preceded, as usual, by mandapas called jagamohana in Odisha. The ground plan of the main temple is almost always square, which, in the upper reaches of its superstructure becomes circular in the crowning mastaka. This makes the spire nearly cylindrical in appearance in its length. Compartments and niches are generally square, the exterior of the temples are lavishly carved, their interiors generally quite bare.

The Hills

The temples in the hills of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir have unique architecture. Kashmir's temples have a strong Gandhara influence which later mixed with the Gupta and post-Gupta traditions. The Pandrethan temple, built during the eighth and ninth centuries, has a wooden structure with its roof peaked and slants slowly outward due to the propensity of snowfall in the region. The temple is moderately ornamented, moving away from the post-Gupta aesthetics of heavy carving. The hills also had their own tradition of wooden buildings with pitched roofs. The temple at times takes on a pagoda shape. The Karkota period of Kashmir is the most significant in terms of architecture.

Dravida or South Indian Temple Style

Unlike the nagara temple, the dravida temple is enclosed within a compound wall. The front wall has an entrance gateway in its centre, which is known as a gopuram. The shape of the main temple tower, known as vimana in Tamil Nadu, is like a stepped pyramid that rises up geometrically rather than the curving shikhara of North India. In the South Indian temple, the word 'shikhara' is used only for the crowning element at the top of the temple which is usually shaped like a small stupika or an octagonal cupola-this is equivalent to the amlak and kalasha of North Indian temples. In some of the most sacred temples in South India, the main temple in which the garbhagriha is situated has, in fact, one of the smallest towers. This is because it is usually the oldest part of the temple.

The Shore temple at Mahabalipuram houses three shrines, two to Shiva, one facing east and the other west, and a middle one to Vishnu who is shown as Anantashayana. This is unusual, because temples generally have a single main shrine and not three areas of worship. This shows that it was probably not originally conceived like this and different shrines may have been added at different times, modified perhaps with the change of patrons. In the compound there is evidence of a water tank, an early example of a gopuram, and several other images. Sculptures of the bull, Nandi, Shiva's mount, line the temple walls.

The magnificent Shiva temple of Thanjavur, called the Rajarajeswara or Brahadeeshwarar temple, was completed around 1009 by Rajaraja Chola, and is the largest and tallest of all Indian temples. Bigger in scale than anything built by their predecessors (the Pallavas, the Chalukyas, or the Pandyas), this Chola temple's pyramidal multistoreyed vimana rises a massive, 70 metre structure, topped by a monolithic shikhara which is an octagonal dome shaped stupika. It is in this temple that one notices for the first time two large gopuras (gateway towers) with an elaborate sculptural programme which was conceived along with the temple.

The Deccan

Many different styles of temple architecture, influenced by both North and South Indian temples, are found in regions like Karnataka. This hybridised style, that seems to have become popular after the mid-seventh century, is known in some ancient texts as vesara. The hybridisation and incorporation of several styles was the hallmark of Chalukyan buildings. The most elaborate of all Chalukyan temples at Pattadakal made in the reign of Vikramaditya II is Virupaksha temple. At the same time, the Durga temple at Aihole is unique having an even earlier style of an apsidal shrine which is reminiscent of Buddhist chaitya halls and is surrounded by a veranda of a later kind, with a shikhara that is stylistically like a nagara one.

By about 750 CE, the early western Chalukya control of the Deccan was taken by the Rashtrakutas. Their greatest achievement in architecture is the Kailashnath temple at Ellora, a culmination of at least a millennium-long tradition in rockcut architecture in India. It is a complete dravida building, with a gopuram-like gateway, surrounding cloisters, subsidiary shrines, staircases and an imposing tower or vimana rising to thirty metres. And all of this is carved out of living rock.

Also found in Karnataka are the temples built by the Hoysalas. The most characteristic feature of these Hoysalas' temples is that they have several projecting angles emerging from the previously straightforward square temple, such that the plan of these temples starts looking like a star (also known as a stellate-plan). These temples were made out of soapstone.

Buddhist and Jain Architectural Developments

The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya (Bihar) is an important reminder of the brickwork of that time. The design of the temple is unusual-neither dravida or nagara. It is narrow like a nagara temple, but it rises without curving, like a dravida one.

The sculptural art of Nalanda, in stucco, stone and bronze, developed out of a heavy dependence on the Buddhist Gupta art of Sarnath. The Nalanda sculptures initially depict Buddhist deities of the Mahayana pantheon, such as standing Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Jains were prolific temple builders like the Hindus, and their sacred shrines and pilgrimage spots are to be found across the length and breadth of India except in the hills. The oldest Jain pilgrimage sites are to be found in Bihar. The Jain temples at Mount Abu were constructed by Vimal Shah. Notable for a simplistic exterior in contrast with the exuberant marble interiors, their rich sculptural decoration with deep undercutting creates a lace-like appearance. The temples are famous for their unique patterns on every ceiling, and the graceful bracket figures along the domed ceilings.

Compiled by: Annesha Banerjee and Anuja Bhardwajan

Source: NCERT