Hindu Temple Architecture
Temples are an important part of Indian heritage. Many of the ancient temples are architectural marvels. Temple architecture in India can be broadly classified into three types –
- Nagara or Northern
- Dravida or Southern
- Vesara or Central
Key Elements of a Hindu Temple
How to identify a Nagara temple
- It is built on a single stone platform with steps leading up to it. Unlike Dravida temples, it has no gateways or elaborate boundary walls.
- The Garbha Griha where the deity is placed is located directly under the tallest Shikhara
- The Shikhara is beehive like or curvilinear in shape.
- The layout is a square with a number of graduated projections in the middle of each side giving a cruciform shape with a number of re-entrant angles on each side. E.g., Kandariya Mahadeva temple.
Some Famous Nagara Temples
Kandariya Mahadeva, Madhya Pradesh
Modhera Sun Temple, Gujarat
Konark Sun Temple, Orissa
Ram Temple (under construction), Uttar Pradesh
Hindu Temple and the Human Body
A host of ancient Hindu texts provide guidelines on all aspects of temple art and architecture, as well as rituals, procedures and management of temples.
Shilpa Shastras are manuals for sculpture and Hindu iconography, prescribing among other things, the proportions of a sculptured figure, composition, principles, meaning, as well as rules of architecture for Hindu temples.
Vastu Shastra are Hindu texts that describe principles of design, layout, measurements, ground preparation, space arrangement, and spatial geometry. The designs aim to integrate architecture with nature, the relative functions of various parts of the structure, and ancient beliefs utilizing geometric patterns (yantra), symmetry, and directional alignments.
Brihat-Samhita by Varahamihira is the widely cited ancient Sanskrit manual from 6th century describing the design and construction of Nagara style of Hindu temples.
Mayamata and Manasara share a common understanding of the architectural plan and design of the southern (Dravida) style. Mayamata has a practical outlook while the Manasara details the theory of the science.
Agama Shastra is a manual for worship, temple building and rituals. It plays a very important role in consecration and construction of holy places; most Hindu places of worship follow the tenets of the Agama Shastra.
The Role of Temples Over the Ages
There was a time when temples were the very breath of this land. They were the nuclei of spiritual, social, economic, artistic and intellectual functions. Temples were places for Tirtha (pilgrimage), purification of the mind, dissemination of knowledge, performing arts, rituals and rites, and even centres for panchayat activity.
Marvels of Architecture
In keeping with their important role, temples were stunning in grandeur and scope. The architecture reflected a synthesis of sacred geometry, arts and the ideals of Dharma. It celebrated the Hindu pantheon and every aspect of life, including Kama. The architectural science included topics such as site selection, soil testing techniques, directional orientation, measures and proportion, astrology as well as ceremonies associated with temples. The Sanskrit manuscripts detailing this still survive in texts such as Vastu Shastra, Shilpa Shastra, Brihat Samhita and architectural portions of the Puranas and the Agamas. However, despite the guidelines offered by these texts, aesthetic independence was encouraged and architects sometimes exercised considerable flexibility in creative expression.
Challenge Faced by the Temple System
So, what explains the shrinking role of temples today? Clearly, it is the breakdown of the temple system. Temples were once built by monarchs and rich traders, and then handed over to dedicated pujaris to manage. Unfortunately, with the repeated destruction of temples in Islamic conquests and their subsequent takeover by the British, followed by the Indian states, temples never had enough independent time to fully recover. The result was that the system that once nurtured temples in time was severely impaired.
A New Dawn
The good news is that despite centuries of destruction there still exist over two million temples in India today. Moreover, with the spread of the Indian diaspora Hindu temples are now found all over the world. Recent events are also heartening for temple lovers. The restoration and creation of the corridor of Kashi Vishwanath Dhaam in Varanasi and the ongoing construction of the Bhavya Ram Mandir in Ayodhya are reasons to feel optimistic about the future of temples in India.