The Hindu Temple




Mylapore Hindu Temple
Hindu temple in Mylapore, India.


Neasden Temple
Neasden Temple, London. Photo: Steve England.


Hindu priests
Hindu priests conducting temple rituals.

History of the Hindu Temple

Ancient Indian thought divides time into four different periods. These durations are referred to as the Krta, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali.

The first of these divisions (Krta), is also known as satya-yuga, or the Age of Truth. This was a golden age without envy, malice or deceit, characterized by righteousness. All people belonged to one caste, and there was only one god who lived amongst the humans as one of them.

In the next span (Treta-yuga), the righteousness of the previous age decreased by one fourth. The chief virtue of this age was knowledge. The presence of gods was scarce and they descended to earth only when men invoked them in rituals and sacrifices. These deities were recognizable by all.





In the third great division of time (Dvapara), righteousness existed only in half measure of that in the first division. Disease, misery and the castes came into existence in this age. The gods multiplied. Men made their own images, worshipped them, and the divinities would come down in disguised forms. But these disguised deities were recognizable only by that specific worshipper.

Kali-yuga is the present age of mankind in which we live, the first three ages having already elapsed. It is believed that this age began at midnight between February 17 and 18, 3102 B.C. Righteousness is now one-tenth of that in the first age. True worship and sacrifice are now lost. It is a time of anger, lust, passion, pride, and discord. There is an excessive preoccupation with things material and sexual.

Temples appeared on the horizon only in the Kali-yuga. During this existing last phase, temples (as public shrines), began to be built and icons installed. But the gods ceased to come down and appear in their own or disguised forms. However, their presence could be felt when the icons were properly enshrined, and the temples correctly built. In contrast to the previous periods when the gods were available to all equally, now it is only the priests, belonging to a traditional hierarchy of professional worshippers, who are the competent individuals to compel this presence.

From the contemporary point of view, temples act as safe haven where ordinary mortals like us can feel themselves free from the constant vagaries of everyday existence, and communicate personally with god. But our age is individualistic if nothing else. Each of us requires our own conception of the deity based on our individual cultural rooting. In this context it is interesting to observe that the word 'temple,' and 'contemplate' both share the same origin from the Roman word 'templum,' which means a sacred enclosure. Indeed, strictly speaking, where there is no contemplation, there is no temple. It is an irony of our age that this individualistic contemplative factor, associated with a temple, is taken to be its highest positive virtue, while according to the fact of legend it is but a limitation which arose due to our continuous spiritual impoverishment over the ages. We have lost the divine who resided amongst us (Krta Yuga), which is the same as saying that once man was divine himself.

But this is not to belittle the importance of the temple as a center for spiritual nourishment in our present context, rather an affirmation of their invaluable significance in providing succour to the modern man in an environment and manner that suits the typical requirements of the age in which we exist.

Making of the Temple

The first step towards the construction of a temple is the selection of land. Even though any land may be considered suitable provided the necessary rituals are performed for its sanctification, the ancient texts nevertheless have the following to say in this matter: "The gods always play where groves, rivers, mountains and springs are near, and in towns with pleasure gardens." Not surprisingly thus, many of India's ancient surviving temples can be seen to have been built in lush valleys or groves, where the environment is thought to be particularly suitable for building a residence for the gods.

No matter where it is situated, one essential factor for the existence of a temple is water. Water is considered a purifying element in all major traditions of the world, and if not available in reality, it must be present in at least a symbolic representation in the Hindu temple. Water, the purifying, fertilizing element being present, its current, which is the river of life, can be forded into inner realization and the pilgrim can cross over to the other shore (metaphysical).

The practical preparations for building a temple are invested with great ritual significance and magical fertility symbolism. The prospective site is first inspected for the 'type,' of the soil it contains. This includes determining its color and smell. Each of these defining characteristics is divided into four categories, which are then further associated with one of the four castes:

  • White Soil: Brahmin
  • Red Soil: Kshatriya (warrior caste)
  • Yellow Soil: Vaishya
  • Black Soil: Shudra

Similarly for the smell and taste:

  • Sweet: Brahmin
  • Sour: Kshatriya
  • Bitter: Vaishya
  • Astringent: Shudra (a reminder perhaps of the raw-deal which they have often been given in life)

The color and taste of the soil determines the "caste" of the temple, i.e., the social group to which it will be particularly favourable. Thus the patron of the temple can choose an auspicious site specifically favourable to himself and his social environment.

After these preliminary investigations, the selected ground needs to be tilled and levelled:

Tilling : When the ground is tilled and ploughed, the past ceases to count; new life is entrusted to the soil and another cycle of production begins, an assurance that the rhythm of nature has not been interfered with. Before laying of the actual foundation, the Earth Goddess herself is impregnated in a symbolic process known as ankura-arpana, ankura meaning seed and arpana signifying offering. In this process, a seed is planted at the selected site on an auspicious day and its germination is observed after a few days. If the growth is satisfactory, the land is deemed suitable for the temple. The germination of the seed is a metaphor for the fulfilment of the inherent potentialities which lie hidden in Mother Earth, and which by extension are now transferred to the sacred structure destined to come over it.

Levelling : It is extremely important that the ground from which the temple is to rise is regarded as being throughout an equal intellectual plane, which is the significance behind the levelling of the land. It is also an indication that order has been established in a wild, unruly, and errant world.

Now that the earth has been ploughed, tilled and levelled, it is ready for the drawing of the vastu-purusha mandala, the metaphysical plan of the temple.




The Metaphysical Architecture of the Temple

The Sure Way to NirvanaThe basic plan of a Hindu temple is an expression of sacred geometry where the temple is visualized as a grand mandala. By sacred geometry we mean a science which has as its purpose the accurate laying out of the temple ground plan in relation to the cardinal directions and the heavens. Characteristically, a mandala is a sacred shape consisting of the intersection of a circle and a square.

The square shape is symbolic of earth, signifying the four directions which bind and define it. Indeed, in Hindu thought whatever concerns terrestrial life is governed by the number four (four castes; the four Vedas etc.). Similarly, the circle is logically the perfect metaphor for heaven since it is a perfect shape, without beginning or end, signifying timelessness and eternity, a characteristically divine attribute. Thus a mandala (and by extension the temple) is the meeting ground of heaven and earth.

These considerations make the actual preparation of the site and laying of the foundation doubly important. Understandably, the whole process is heavily immersed in rituals right from the selection of the site to the actual beginning of construction. Indeed, it continues to be a custom in India that whenever a building is sought to be constructed, the area on which it first comes up is ceremonially propitiated. The idea being that the extent of the earth necessary for such construction must be reclaimed from the gods and goblins that own and inhabit that area. This ritual is known as the 'pacification of the site.' There is an interesting legend behind it:

Vastu PurushaOnce when Shiva was engaged in a fierce battle with the demon Andhaka, a drop of sweat fell from Shiva's forehead to the ground, accompanied by a loud thunder. This drop transformed into a ravenously hungry monster, who attempted to destroy the three worlds. The gods and divine spirits, however, rushed at once on to him and held him down. When the demon fell on the ground face downwards, the deities lodged themselves on to the different parts of his body and pressed him down. It is because of this reason that the recumbent individual came to be known as 'Vastu,' which means the lodgement of the gods. He is pictured as lying down inside the mandala with his arms and legs so folded as to cover the whole area, and his head pushed into the north-eastern corner of the square. As many as forty-five gods are lodged on his body directly on the limbs and joints.

This vastu-purusha is the spirit in mother-earth which needs to be pacified and is regarded as a demon whose permission is necessary before any construction can come up on the site. At the same time, care is taken to propitiate the deities that hold him down, for it is important that he should not get up. To facilitate the task of the temple-architect, the vastu-mandala is divided into square grids with the lodging of the respective deities clearly marked. It also has represented on it the thirty-two nakshatras, the constellations that the moon passes through on its monthly course. In an ideal temple, these deities should be situated exactly as delineated in the mandala.

Sanctum of a Hindu Temple
Sanctum of a Hindu temple.

In the central grid of the vastu-mandala sits Brahma, the archetypal creator, endowed with four faces looking simultaneously in all directions. He is thus conceived as the ever-present superintending genius of the site. At this exact central point is established the most important structure of the sacred complex, where the patron deity of the temple is installed. Paradoxically this area is the most unadorned and least decorated part of the temple, almost as if it is created in an inverse proportion to its spiritual importance. Referred to as the sanctum sanctorum, it is the most auspicious region in the whole complex. It has no pillars, windows or ventilators. In addition to a metaphysical aspect, this shutting off of air and light has a practical side to it too. It was meant to preserve the icon, which, in olden days, was often made of wood. Also, besides preventing the ill effects of weathering, the dark interior adds to the mystery of the divine presence.

Throughout all subsequent developments in temple architecture, however spectacular and grandiose, this main shrine room remains the small, dark cave that it has been from the beginning. Indeed it has been postulated (both by archaeology and legend), that the temple developed from the cave-shrine of the extremely remote past. This is another instance in Hinduism where the primitive and the modern, along with all the developments in-between, can be seen to co-exist remarkably and peacefully.

When the devotee enters a temple, he is actually entering into a mandala and therefore participating in a power-field. The field enclosures and pavilions through which he must pass to reach the sanctum are symbolic. They represent the phases of progress in a man's journey towards divine beatitude. In accordance with this scheme of transition, architectural and sculptural details vary from phase to phase in the devotee's onward movement, gradually preparing him for the ultimate, awesome experience, which awaits him in the shrine.

This process mirrors the four-phased spiritual evolution envisaged in yoga, namely the waking state (jagrat); dream state (swapna); the state of deep sleep (sushupti); and finally the Highest state of awareness known in Sanskrit as turiya. This evolution takes place as follows:

On reaching the main gateway, the worshipper first bends down and touches the threshold before crossing it. This marks for him the fact that the transition from the way of the world to the way of god has been initiated. Entering the gateway, he or she is greeted by a host of secular figures on the outer walls. These secular images are the mortal, outward and diverse manifestations of the divinity enshrined inside. In this lies a partial explanation behind the often explicit erotic imagery carved on the outer walls of temples like those at Khajuraho, where the deity inside remains untouched by these sensuous occurrences. Such images awaken the devotee to his mortal state of existence (wakefulness). The process of contemplation has already begun.

As he proceeds, carvings of mythological themes, legendary subjects, mythical animals and unusual motifs abound. They are designed to take one away from the dull and commonplace reality, and uplift the worshipper to the dreamy state.

The immediate pavilion and vestibule before the icon are restrained in sculptural decorations, and the prevailing darkness of these areas are suggestive of sleep-like conditions.

Finally the shrine, devoid of any ornamentation, and with its plainly adorned entrance, leads the devotee further to the highest achievable state of consciousness, that of semi-tranquillity (turiya), where all boundaries vanish and the universe stands forth in its primordial glory. It signifies the coming to rest of all differentiated, relative existence. This utterly quiet, peaceful and blissful state is the ultimate aim of all spiritual activity. The devotee is now fully-absorbed in the beauty and serenity of the icon. He or she is now in the inner square of Brahma in the vastu- mandala, and in direct communion with the chief source of power in the temple.

The thought behind the design of a temple is a continuation of Upanishadic analogy, in which the atman (soul or the divine aspect in each of us) is likened to an embryo within a womb or to something hidden in a cave. Also says the Mundaka Upanishad: 'The atman lives where our arteries meet (in the heart), as the spokes of the wheel meet at the hub.' Hence, it is at the heart center that the main deity is enshrined. Befittingly thus, this sanctum sanctorum is technically known as the garba-griha (womb-house).

The garbhagriha is almost always surrounded by a circumambulatory path, around which the devotee walks in a clockwise direction. In Hindu and Buddhist thought, this represents an encircling of the universe itself.


No description of the Hindu temple can be complete without a mention of the tall, often pyramid-like structure shooting up the landscape and dominating the skyline.

This element of temple architecture is known as 'shikhara,' meaning peak (mountain). It marks the location of the shrine room and rises directly above it. This is an expression of the ancient ideal believing the gods to reside in the mountains. Indeed, in South India the temple spire is frequently carved with images of gods, the shikhara being conceived as mount Meru, the mythical mountain-axis of the universe, on the slopes of which the gods reside.


Temple of Mahabodhi, Bodhgaya

In North India too, it is worthwhile here to note, most goddess shrines are located on mountain tops. Since it rises just above the central shrine, the shikhara is both the physical and spiritual axis of the temple, symbolizing the upward aspiration of the devotee, a potent metaphor for his ascent to enlightenment.

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Conclusion

Man lost the divinity within himself. His intuition, which is nothing but a state of primordial alertness, continues to strive towards the archetypal perfect state where there is no distinction between man and god (or woman and goddess). The Hindu Temple sets out to resolve this deficiency in our lives by dissolving the boundaries between man and divinity. This is achieved by putting into practice the belief that the temple, the human body, and the sacred mountain and cave, represent aspects of the same divine symmetry.

Truly, the most modern man can survive only because the most ancient traditions are alive in him. The solution to man's problems is always archaic. The architecture of the Hindu temple recreates the archetypal environment of an era when there was no need for such an architecture.

References and Further Reading

Article by Nitin Kumar of Exotic India. Reprinted by permission.

  • Danielou, Alain. The Hindu Temple (Deification of Eroticism): Rochester, 2001.
  • Elgood, Heather. Hinduism and the Religious Arts: London, 1999.
  • Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple (2 Vols.): Delhi, 2002.
  • Lundquist, John M. The Temple (Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth): London, 1993.
  • Marathe, Kaumudi. Temples of India (Circles of Stone): Mumbai, 1998.
  • Maxwell, T.S. The Gods of Asia (Image, Text, and Meaning): New Delhi, 1997.
  • Rao, S.K. Ramachandra. Indian Temple Traditions: Bangalore, 1997.
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