Know All About Hindu Temples

Hindu Temple Gopuram

by Jayaram V

To reject the necessity of temples is to reject the necessity of God. Mahatma Gandhi.

The gods always play where groves are nearby, rivers, mountains and springs, in towns with pleasure gardens. Brihat Samhita, 55.8.

The rich will make temples for Shiva. What shall a poor man like me do? My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a dome of gold. Basavanna

A Hindu temple is popularly known as mandiram, devaalayam or devastanam, meaning the shrine, abode or place of God. For the people on earth the Hindu temple serves as a sacred place (devasthanam) or a place of pilgrimage (thirthasthalam) and heaven on earth. Functionally it brings gods and humans together and gives them an opportunity to help each other. Humans make offerings to gods and nourish them with food and devotional offerings of prayers, songs, etc., while the gods reciprocate by protecting them from diseases, misfortunes and calamities, removing their difficulties, cleansing their sins or helping them achieve the four aims of human life namely dharma, artha, kama and moksha.

Vedic people did not build temples, nor did they worship images of gods in their abodes. They performed sacrifices and nourished gods through sacrificial ceremonies, during which they might have used images to perform symbolic sacrifices. Although they did not practice idol worship or build temples, elements of Vedism as well Tantrism can be found in the structure and configuration of present day Hindu temples. The practice must have emerged later as more people from outside the Vedic fold began practicing it and incorporated their own beliefs and practices into it.

Each traditional Hindu temple is essentially a universe in itself. It is a miniature replica of God’s creation, which reflects its diversity, divinity and complexity, reminding us of the presence of God upon earth and our duties towards him and his Dharma. The theoretical aspects of the Hindu temple are according to the knowledge contained in the Vedas, the Tantras and other Shastras, while the design, geometric and architectural aspects are drawn from ancient building manuals (Vastu Shastras) and treatises on traditional sculpting (Shilpa Shastras).

The layout, themes, basic arrangement of its parts, placement of the deities, ornamentation, and ancillary structures follow centuries’ old practices, beliefs and values of Hinduism. In the past, and even now, Hindu temples offer an opportunity to the patrons to engage in charity and philanthropy, while they help devotees engage their minds in divine contemplation and religious worship. Overtime, Hindu temples also incorporated many foreign motifs from Greek, Islamic and European cultures. It is known how many active Hindu temples exist in the world. It must be in millions.

In the past Hindu temples were found mainly in the Indian subcontinent and in a few other countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia were Hinduism thrived. Presently, Hindu temples are found all over the world, especially in countries where sizeable Hindu population exist such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Fiji, Mauritius, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean, Suriname, South Africa, Europe, Australia and North America. The world’s oldest and largest temple is the Angkor vat in Cambodia, while the largest, most recent temple is said to be the Swami Narayan (BAPS) temple at Robbinsville, New Jersey, the United States.

The meaning and significance a Hindu Temple

A Hindu temple is sacred field (kshetra) in which God is established, just as he is established in the field of Nature. It is a miniature universe, the playground of God’s leela where devotees have an opportunity to envision him, interact with him and serve him with love and devotion. It is a field of human creation in the creation of God, which reflects the essential beliefs, values, way of life and ideals of Hindu Dharma both in its form and function. Symbolically it represents alike the cosmos and the human body, as described in the following verse

Sikharam sheershamithyaahuh garbhageham galam tathaa. Mantamapam kukshirithyahuh praakaaram jaanujanghayoh. Gopuram paadamithyaahuh dhvajo jeevassamuchyathe.

It is said that the Sikhara is the deity’s head, the sanctum is his neck, the mantapa is the stomach, the prakara constitutes his legs, the gopuram represents his feet, and the dhwaja the seat of his prana.

The temple building represents the body of the deity or the materiality or Nature (Prakriti), while the deity in the sanctum of the temple represents its soul or the Supreme Self. The other deities, associate divinities, emanations and manifestations represent the pantheon. The tall gopurams which rise from the ground up represent the aspiring nature of human devotion and the connecting link between the earth and the heaven and between humans and gods. The gateway through which you enter is the gateway to heaven. Since thousands of devotees congregate at the temples and unite their minds in the contemplation of God, the temples are also vast energy centers. By contemplating upon deities, we also create their replicas in our subtle words and given them a life of their own.

In the basic layout of a temple one can see the basic design of God’s creation and the planes of existence. For example, in classical Hindu temples which are found in different parts of India, one can see four distinct zones or sphere extending from the center. The outermost layer is the zone of demonic influence (paisachika pada), where the impurities of the mortal world exist and people spend their lives in the pursuit of selfish desires, performing selfish actions and rarely remembering God.

The next layer is called the zone of humans (manushya pada) where devotees are drawn to the thoughts of God and circumambulate temple with their minds fixed in him. The third zone is the zone of gods (deva pada) where the influence of the deity is felt much stronger. Here, the devotees enter the deity’s inner circle and see the splendor of his creation in the images, carvings and paintings which adorn the walls and pillars of the temple. The fourth zone is the zone of Brahma (Brahma pada), which constitute the sanctum sanctorum and where the deity resides with his consort and his entourage. A part of the Brahma pada, above or behind the deity is usually kept empty without any decorations or ornamentation to signify the unmanifested Brahman, who is without qualifies, name and form.

One can also see the reflection of the material world in the construction of a standard Hindu temple. The outer walls of the temples and the gateway towers contain numerous images and statues, representing the diversity, color and noise of the external world. However, as one progresses from the temple gates into the inner sanctum one can see increasing evidence of austerity, simplicity and tranquility as the walls and pillars begin to appear with less ornamentation, imagery and decoration. In the sanctum, they completely disappear, allowing the devotees to worship the deity with total concentration. The same is true with our lives. We experience restlessness when we engage our minds with the diversity of the external world, but when we withdraw into the deepest core of consciousness we experience peace.

A standard Hindu temple is built on a large square, which is divisible into a grid of 64 or 81 mathematically measured squares. The number is usually constant, while in rare cases the shape may change from square to a circle, rectangle or triangle. Devotees pass through the four zones, witnessing the towers, wall reliefs, carvings, paintings pillars and sculpture of the temple and its architecture as they go by, before they enter the sanctum sanctorum to offer their prayers and respects to the chief deity.

The four zones represent the four worlds namely the underworld, the earth, the mid-region and the heaven of gods while the empty space in the sanctum represents the highest abode of Brahman (Parandhama). In the microcosm, they represent the impure world, the physical body, the mind, intelligence and the invisible, divine Self. The also represent the four manifestations of Brahman namely the Viraj (the projected, material world), Hiranyagarbha (the Cosmic Soul), Isvara (the Manifested Brahman) and the Unmanifested (Nirguna) Brahman. Although outwardly they may appear to be different, they are but projections of the God and permeated by God. Thus, each temple denotes the unity as well as the diversity of God’s creation.

Hindu temples are primarily places of worship. The deities in the temples are usually worshipped daily, except in rare cases where due to lack of patronage or adequate finances worship may be restricted to a few days in a week or month. In large temples, the chief deity and associate deities are worshipped and made ritual offerings from morning until the midnight, giving them rest for a few hours, during the day and night when the sanctum remains closed. The day is divided into different periods, and in each period the deity is accorded royal treatment and given utmost attention and devotion.

For all practical purposes, the temple serves as the living abode of God, where he is treated like a king and given all the privileges that are due to a king. In the morning, he is woken up with music and prayers, given a bath, decorated and served with food. During the whole day, as the devotees keep visiting, the priests perform various rituals on behalf of the devotees and keep the deity in a pleasant mood. The devotional activities continue until late into the might. On festival days and auspicious occasions, he is worshipped with different rituals and offerings and occasionally taken out in processions.

The temple is a concrete representation of the highest values and beliefs of Hinduism and the Hindu Way of Life as found in the ancient scriptures. It exemplifies how life revolves around God, with God as its source, center and circumference, and reminds us of his constant presence amidst us and the need to worship him and declare our faith to him. It is made of the same elements and tattvas, with which God creates all the worlds and beings, and where all the five senses find an opportunity to interact with the manifestations of God and facilitate the purification of the mind and body. Just as the worlds of God, you can see in it a fine amalgamation of the material and spiritual aspects of our existence. The ambiance of the temple helps the devotees find a temporary distraction from the mundane aspects of their lives and reflect upon their relationship with God and practice Dharma.

Hindu temples also provide people with opportunities to transcend their selfishness and participate in social and philanthropic activities, religious congregations, festivities, music and dance programs, and spiritual debates and discussions. Going to the temple in itself may become a ritual and require prior preparation, especially if it is located in a faraway place and involves a long journey. In popular temples, which are visited by thousands of devotees every day, people wait for hours in long queues before they have an opportunity to see the deity. During that time, most of them engage their mind in the contemplation of God, with eager and expectant minds to see him in full splendor.

Of late, many Hindu temples are becoming increasingly commercial, which is an unfortunate development since it creates a wedge between gods and humans and prevent the less-privileged sections of society from making frequent visits to such temples. It may also erode their faith as they may see the rich receiving special favors and privileged treatment. It is also true that Hindu temples thrive because of the vast amounts of charitable money they receive from the rich and their loyal patronage.

Rules for temple building

To maintain their sanctity and purity Hindu temples are built strictly according to the scriptural injunctions and rules as laid down in the traditional Hindu building manuals and religious texts. The idols are installed in them by qualified priests strictly according to the rules and procedures as prescribed by the tradition to ensure their purity, potency, perfection and divinity. The rules for temple building are found in the ancient building manuals (vastu shastras), while the rules for sculpting the idols are found in the sculpting and image making manuals (shilpa shastras). Some of them are at least 2000 years old or more. The rules and practices for the construction of the temples and carving the images may vary from region to region, according to local history, traditions, customs and the type of the temple. However, the principles governing their sanctity and purity or their beauty and symmetry are mostly derived from the same textual sources and hence, uniform.

Hindu temples are also off different types, according to their size, purpose, function, importance and the deities for whom they are built. Some are simple and small shrines while some are large and palatial, which occupy a large area, with complex architecture, sprawling courtyards and tall towers that rise hundreds of feet into the sky. Many ancient Hindu temples, as can be seen at Hampi, formed part of the town planning where they were located. They were designed and built in such a way to ensure that that they would constantly remind people of the need to worship God and follow the Dharma. The temples also vary according to their purpose. Some are generic temples, where a number of deities are housed and worshipped. However, many are specific to particular deities or sects such as Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Surya, Devi and their associate gods. Although outwardly all are Hindu temples, they have to be built according to the norms and practices that are specific to each deity or the sect.

The area on which the temple has to be built is called a Mandala, or a divine zone which is usually a square but rarely a triangle or a circle. Since it represents the Cosmic Being (Purusha) himself, it is also known as Vastupurusha-mandala. The square symbolically represents the earth itself with its four directions, and the idea of using a square in the construction of temples and building in Hindu tradition was probably derived from the Vedic practice of building square shaped fire altars, especially the square shaped ahvaniya fire altar which was used to perform domestic sacrifices. According to Stella Kramrisch and Raymond Burnier, "The temple building is the substantial, and the 'plan' (mandala) is the ritual, diagrammatic form of the Purusa. Purusha himself has no substance. He gives it his impress. The substance is of wood, brick or stone in the temple."

As stated before, the Mandala is further divided into 64 or 81 small squares, each meant for a specific deity in the pantheon. The central (Brahma) square, which is usually larger than the rest, is meant for the chief deity. The location of each deity in the mandala and his proximity to the central square depend upon his affinity with the chief deity and status in the pantheon. While the Mandala may not always be a perfect square, the smaller units in it are always square shaped, with their number fixed. By arranging them in different permutations and combinations, builders create a variety of complex structures.

The land for the construction of the temple has to be carefully selected after a series of tests. The Shastras stipulate that it should be a firm land (drdha), free from impurities, bones, skeletons, waste, ghosts, spirits, harmful animals, etc., accessible to humans, fit for cultivation, located at an auspicious place near groves, mountains and water bodies such as springs, lakes, ponds or rivers, where lotus flowers boom and birds, swans, ducks, and the like are found. Ocean fronts, the confluence of rivers, river banks, caves, hill tops, and islands are also considered ideal. However, temples may also be built even if there is no natural source of water. One may build a water tank or pond near the temple and make provision for the supply of water. It is preferable if the place is associated with the deity, a saint, rishi, or a sacred event from the Puranas or legends.

Once the land is chosen and the patrons pledge the money and resources, the person who has been entrusted with the responsibility of supervising the construction proceeds with the task of hiring architects, builders, workers, guards and sculptors. The architect engaged for the purpose must be an adept. He should have thorough knowledge of the science of temple architecture, with great character and integrity, and well-versed in all the shastras including the knowledge of Sanskrit grammar and metrical forms (chandas), mathematics, astronomy and vastu, besides a thorough knowledge of Vedic and Agamic rituals.

According to Samarangana Sutradhara, an ancient building manual, a king should put to death an architect (sthapathi) who begins the work of temple building without the proper knowledge, just as he should punish the one who ruins the kingdom by his foolish actions. The architect should possess not only proper knowledge of the traditional science (vastushastra) but readiness and judgment to put it to right practice. Thus, the Sthapathi was not just an architect, but an “architect priest,” who supervised the work of three other classes of craftsmen namely the Sutragrahin (surveyor), Taksaka (sculptor) and Vardhakin (mason).

On the date fixed by the priests, the architects and the priests ceremonially draw a mandala on the land chosen for the purpose, dividing it into 64 or 81 symmetrical squares, which is meant to represent the cosmic being (vastupurusha). Then, they designate the location of each of the deities in the square. After the mandala is drawn on the bare soil, the priest performs the seed germination (ankurarpaha) ritual to ensure that the land which has been selected for the construction of the temple is not barren. During the ritual, they put different types of seeds such as rice, beans, pulses, sesame, mustard, etc., in 16 copper vessels for germination and offer the germinated seedlings to the god Soma, propitiating him with prayers. Then a ritual altar is built on the land to perform the fire sacrifice (agnicayana), after which the land is plowed and a crop is sown as part of the rite of auspicious germination (managalankura). The purpose of these rituals is to ensure that like the seeds, the idea of construction the temple, which is in the seed from in the minds of the patrons may also germinate and take shape. During this period, rituals are also performed to clear the land of any spirits that may be inhabiting it.

The construction of the temple begins with the laying of the square shaped foundation stone (silanyasa) in the northwest corner of the construction area. During the initial phase of construction, builders complete the foundation and base of the temple, leaving the central (Brahma) square half empty. In that, on an auspicious day the priests lay a square stone as the base (adharashila). On that they ritually place three tortoises and three lotus flowers, each made of stone, silver and gold respectively and cover them with soil. Then, they cover the square with another stone called the stone of Brahma (brahmasila).

Another important ceremony which is performed during this phase is called garbhanyasa or impregnation ceremony, in which on the night of the chosen day priests place copper plates and a number of auspicious articles in the ground, at designated places, as an offering to the mother earth and duly worship her, seeking her protection, support and blessings since it is the earth who has to carry the burden of the temple and protect it from harm and destruction. Although temple construction is similar to the construction of secular structures such as a house or a palace, one has to follow strict guidelines in selecting the materials for the construction to maintain its sanctity and purity. Hindu scriptures declare that temple building is one of the most beneficent acts and a great karma, which cleanses past sins and ensures liberation.

Installation of the temple deities

As the construction of the temple building nears the end, preparations begin for the installation of the idols (Pratistapanotsavam). Idols are usually procured from qualified sculptors, since they have to be carved according to exact specifications and body ratios and satisfy the norms as prescribed in the sculpting manuals. In addition to the main idols, the temple authorities have to hire sculptors to carve the pillars, the walls and the temple towers with a number of images.

A temple may require several idols for worship, and each of them may have to be made of different materials such as copper, gold, silver, alloys, stone and wood which means the temple patron or the head priest who has been entrusted with the duty, has to hire craftsmen who specialize in each category. In the past, the sculptors used to do the carving on the temple site or where the ideal stones for sculpting were available, but nowadays it is not usually the case. The sculptors may live in a different state and the temple may be built in another.

The installation of the main deities as well as the ancillary deities has to be done ceremonially performing a number of rituals by qualified priests. The ceremony itself may last for days, depending upon the number of idols involved and the size of the temple. They also have to follow rules regarding where  different associate deities in the temple complex have to be installed in relation to the chief deity and at what distance. The installation ceremonies can be broadly classified into two, those associated with the physical installation of the images (murthistapana) and those with the spiritual installation by pouring life into them (pranapratishta).

It Is not necessary that both the ceremonies should be simultaneously performed. Usually, the physical installation is done first. The pranapratishta is done days, weeks or months later, after all the aspects of the temple construction are done and the time is ripe for opening the temple for the daily service. Of the two, the latter has a greater significance because the idol is not fit for worship until the pranapratishta is performed and life is poured into it. By that, the image becomes a living incarnation of the deity(arca) which from then on has to be treated with utmost attention, respect and devotion like a living entity.

In domestic worship (puja) we temporarily pour life into the deity for a short time and withdraw it at the end, but in the temple deities it has to be permanently done to maintain their potency and offer them uninterrupted services. Indeed, as the time goes, the idols gain more power and vitality due to the devotion and offerings they receive from the devotees. During the ceremony, it is customary for the priests to open ceremonially the eyes of the idol so that he (or she) becomes a living incarnation (arca), who can see, hear and respond to the prayers and supplications of devotees. As stated before, the deities in the temples are not mere images or idols. They are living incarnations who deserve to be treated as such with utmost respect and devotion.

Steps in the construction of a temple.

The following is a brief summary of the various steps involved in the construction of the temple 1.

  1. Bhu Pariksha: Testing the soil to choose the right location for the temple or the township. The land should be fertile and the soil suitable.
  2. Karshana: Cultivating the land with a crop of corn or some other grain. Corn or some other crop is grown in the place first and is fed to cows. Then the location is fit for town/temple construction.
  3. Nirmana: Then foundation is laid and the land is purified by sprinkling water. A pit is dug, water mixed with navaratnas, navadhanyas, navakhanijas is then put in and pit is filled. Then the temple is constructed.
  4. Murdhestaka Sthapana: Placing the top stone over the prakara, gopura etc. This again involves creating cavities filled with gems minerals seeds etc. and then the pinnacles are placed.
  5. Garbhanyasa: A pot made of five metals (pancaloha kalasa sthapana) is installed at the place of main deity.
  6. Murthi Sthapana: Then the main deity is installed.
  7. Prana Pratistha: The main deity is then charged with life breath or godliness..

The opening of the temple requires a series of purification rituals, which must precede the first worship day. Those steps are:

  1. Anujna: The priest takes permission from devotees and lord Ganesha to begin rituals
  2. Mrit Samgrahana: Collecting mud
  3. Ankurarpana: Sowing seeds in pots of mud collected and waiting till they germinate
  4. Rakshabandhana: The priest binds a holy thread on his hand to take up the assignment.
  5. Punyahavacana: Purifying ritual for the place and invoking good omens
  6. Grama Shanti: Worship for the good of village and to remove subtle undesired elements
  7. Pravesa Bali: The propitiation of various gods at different places in the temple, rakshoghna puja (to destroy demonic elements) and of specific gods like Kshetra palaka (the presiding deity of the town or the place)
  8. Vastu Shanti: Pacifying puja for vastu (this happens twice and this is the second time)
  9. Yajnasala: Building the stage for homas, along with vedika.
  10. Kalasa Sthapana: Installing kalasam
  11. Samskara: Purifying the yaga sala
  12. Kalasa Puja, Yagarambha: Worshipping the kalasa or the sacred pot, and propitiating the deities through fire
  13. Nayanonmeelana, Pratimadhivasa: Opening eyes of the god-image, installing it and giving it life.

Additional information on temple construction

In ancient India temple construction was regarded both as a profession and an art. Kings and patrons engaged in the task of building temples to overcome past sins, ward off evil influences or express their gratitude for the divine help they received. They engaged experienced and skillful artists, architects and sculptors to avoid the displeasure of the planets or the temple deities or to prove their devotion and commitment. Temple building required the active and collective participation of a number of people with different skills and professional excellence. It is possible that many participated in it out of devotion rather than monetary considerations.

Carving, sculpting, temple building, metallurgy, drawing and painting were popular professions in ancient India. People with exceptional talents enjoyed royal patronage and public adulation. They were not only artists of great excellence but also men of great devotion. Temple building was mainly men’s profession. However, probably women also participate in it for the background work or physical labor. There were guilds of artists and artisans, gold and silver smiths, with their own insignia, banners, seals and emblems, which had to be registered and which were managed efficiently by the elders in the profession. The guilds acted like present-day cooperatives and professional associations. They also participated in social and philanthropic activities and often donated money for religious activities and the construction of temples and religious structures. According to Romalia Thapar, apart from guilds there were workers’ bodies or cooperatives, which “generally included artisans and various crafts associated with a particular enterprise. Thus, architecture – city building or temple building – was entrusted to cooperatives which had as their members specialized workers such as architects, engineers, brick layers, and the like.”

Until recent times, sculpting, carving, masonry, jewelry and brick making were family professions. Their knowledge and skills were passed on from one generation to another by the elders in the family, while the children served as apprentices under them. They were not mere artisans, but men of honor and character, devotees of God and upholders of Dharma. Hindu manuals on sculpting and architecture emphasized the importance of proper education for the sculptors and other artisans. They were expected to be conversant with reading and writing (lekhanam), the study of forms and shapes (rupa), computing and mathematics (ganana). Besides, they were also expected to be men of faith and character and well-versed in religious and spiritual knowledge. Only then they could concentrate their minds upon the deities and carve their figures. The ancient temples of India stand testimony to their skill and excellence.

According to Silparatna, as quoted in Wikipedia, a Hindu temple project would be initiated by a patron (yajamana) under the guidance of a spiritual teacher or mentor (sthapaka). He would engage an architect (sthapathi) who would design the building with the help of a surveyor (sutragrahin) and begin the construction by hiring a number of workers, masons, painters, plasterers, overseers (vardhakins) and sculptors (takshakas). During the construction, all the work in the temple was considered a sacred work by the patrons and others who witnessed it. All the tools and implements used in the construction were also treated with respect as part of a sacrifice. Therefore, if a tree had to be cut or a rock had to be carved for the temple work, the sculptors would have to pray to the deity and seek forgiveness. The ax which was used to cut a tree would be anointed with butter so that it would not cause hurt. In many parts of India even today artisans and craftsmen celebrate the Vishwakarma puja in honor of the universal architect and pay respects to their tools and profession.

Types of temples

Hindu temples come in all sizes, shapes and forms. Earliest Hindu temples were probably built in wood. However, currently wood temples are rare. Most temples are built in stone or concrete. The Kailash temple (Eighth Century AD) at Ellora was carved out of a single stone, which is considered one of the greatest works in stone masonry and unparalleled in the history of the world. Depending upon their construction, Hindu temples can be divided into cave temples, forest temples, mountain temples, desert temples, seashore temples, stepwell temples, and so on. Depending upon the deities for which they are built, one may classify them as Shiva temples, Vishnu temples, Shakti temples, Ganesha temples, Hanuman temples and so on.

The temples also vary in size. Some are small shrines, single rooms, or house like structures and some are large, with palatial buildings and tall towers. One may also divide the Hindu temples according to the method of worship practiced in them such as agama, vaikshasan, pancharathra, tantra, etc. God has numerous names and forms. The same deity may have both pleasant and fierce forms. Hence, temples may also be divided according to the dominant emotion of the deity such as shanta (peaceful), saumya (friendly), and raudra (fierce). Comparatively, most Hindu temples house deities with pleasant or peaceful forms, since devotees prefer to worship them without the fear of incurring their wrath or displeasure. Their method of worship and nature of offerings may vary in each case, since the offerings have to match the emotion of the deity.

Generally, the temples do not impose any restrictions on the entry during normal visiting hours, but entry on certain days and at certain times may be limited to the staff or a selected few. The same deity may have different moods on different days in a week. On such occasions, priests may shield the deity from devotees by closing the sanctum and perform propitiatory rituals before allowing the public to worship him. Some temples may restrict entry to people on the basis of caste, gender, dress, religion and marital status. In the past, people of lower castes were not allowed to enter many Hindu temples or offer worship. Even now there are restriction in certain temples for women to enter and worship the deities, especially where the deities are known to be single or celibate.

After India’s independence, caste discrimination has been made a legal offence, which has permanently ended discrimination against them, although such cases are often reported from remote areas. In Rajasthan and parts of central India, royal families had the tradition to build temples for their ancestors. You can still see some of those temples, although you may not find much of religious activity in them. Hindus also have the tradition of building temples to honor gurus, saints, babas, spiritual masters, yogis, plants, rivers, mountains, animals, serpents, mythical figures and so on. Occasionally you may also hear cases of temples being built to honor film stars, celebrities, and politicians, a practice which is not usually appreciated by many and strongly criticized.

Parts of a temple

Hindu temples are designed with mathematical precision. Due to local and regional influences and limitations in the availability of resources, they follow different architectural styles. For example, the temples at Khajuraho follow the Nagara architecture style, while the temple at Thanjavur was built according to the Dravidian style. The main differences between these styles are due to how the building are designed and constructed and how the temple towers (shikharas or vimanas) and ornate gateways (gopurams) are raised in different geometric patterns. The scope of this article does not permit us to discuss each of the styles in details. However, most temples have some common structures which are stated below.

1. Sanctum Sanctorum (garbhagudi): The center most square in the temple complex, where the chief deity is installed and worshipped. The sanctum also contains an antechamber which is kept empty.

2. Vestibule (antaralayam): The room adjoining the sanctum sanctorum where devotees wait while the priests perform ritual worship.

3. Passage Way (antara-mandala): Some temples contain a small passage way around the sanctum to enable the devotees circumambulate it before entering it.

4. Hall (mandapa): The large hall facing the sanctum sanctorum and the vestibule where devotees wait in a line or sit for an audience (darshanam) with the deity. In large temples, the hall may be further divided into a front porch (ardha mandapa) a front hall (mukha mandapa), a great hall (maha mandapa), marriage hall (kalyana mantapa) a decoration hall (alankara mantapa), a festival hall (utsava mantapa) and so on. There may also be an adjoin dining hall, with kitchen etc.

5. High Tower (Vimana or Shikhara): This is the tower above the sanctum sanctorum, which may have subsidiary towers, with tapering rectangular layers or concentric circles, with an ornamental rim (amalaka) supporting a pot (kalasa) or series of pot like structures on the top, which are usually made of copper, gold, silver or alloys, or stone, covered with a sheath made of them.

6. Flag post (dhwajastamba): A tall flag post in front of the temple, facing the front hall. It is an important feature of many Hindu temples, especially in the South, usually made of copper, silver or gold or alloys, with three horizontal perches or branches pointing towards the Sanctum. It signifies the majesty of God and the sanctity of the temple. Devotee pay respects to it, and on festive occasions, temple authorities may decorate it with flowers

7. The sacrificial altar (The Balipitha): It is the pedestal near the flag pole, where priests place offerings of food mixed with vermilion to the temple deity and elemental forces. In the past it may have been used to perform animal sacrifices. Presently, the offering is a symbolic gesture.

8. Lamp post (Dipastamba): It is found outside the main gate of the temple or near the flag post, with a conical, empty chamber at the top. In the past it was used to place a lamp during the nights.

9. Surrounding wall (Prakara): The whole temple complex may be surrounded by one or more walls with passageways to facilitate circumambulations.

10. Additional structures: In addition to the above, large temples may also have additional structures to house one or more temple chariots, keep the tamed temple elephant, or store the idols (utsava vigrahas) and palanquins, which are occasionally taken out in procession. In the temple complex one may also find additional temples and shrines for saints, associate gods and other divinities, a hall to perform sacrifices, underground vaults to keep valuables and sacred objects, a court yard for the devotees to sit and relax, an administrative building to manage the temple affairs, images of serpents in open for worship, a place to break coconuts and so on. Large temples usually keep additional images or idols of the deities and associate deities for various purposes. They also maintain a large inventory of ritual materials and tools to conduct the worship, serve the deity or make the offerings.

Who owns and manages the temples?

The ownership of the Hindu temples in India is partly guided by the state laws and partly by tradition and local customs. Most ancient temples, such as the ones located at Tirupathi, Madurai or Tanjavur are controlled by Government managed trusts in accordance with the state laws. Their maintenance may also be looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India, a government body, which has been entrusted with the responsibility of preserving and protecting the monuments and heritage of India. A few temples such as the ones at Hampi, Khajuraho and Pattadakal are declared UNESCO Heritage Sites.

Many states have passed the Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowment acts to govern the ownership, maintenance and finances of the temples in their states, which have been listed under the acts or which have been taken over by the government due to mismanagement and irregularities. The temples which do not fall under the preview of the act are managed by the private trusts or descendants of the royal families or the people appointed by them.

In addition to the trustees, temples also employ a variety of permanent and temporary employees, whose service terms may be regulated by state laws or according to the norms established by the temple executive bodies. The most important category of workers found in a traditional Hindu temple are one or more temple priests (archakas) whose duty is to perform daily worship at the appointed hours, cooks and kitchen workers (pachakas) who have to prepare the sacrificial food (naivedyam) for the gods and remains of the offering (prasadam) for the devotees, acharyas or scholars who have to organize discourses or teach the nuances of dharma to the devotees, and other staff (paricharikas) such as singers, musicians, carriers of water or palanquins, office administrative staff, temple guards, cleaners, sweepers and so on. Large temples may employ hundreds or thousands of employees, which makes temple administration and staff discipline a very complex process.

State interference in the ownership of Hindu temples has been a contentious issue in recent times. On the positive side, government involvement prevents the misuse of temple properties or misappropriation of revenues by private individuals, but on the negative side it gives them unlimited powers to spend the temple funds according to their agenda. One of the common complaints is that much of the revenue earned by the temples is diverted by the government for purposes other than their maintenance or welfare or the promotion of Hindu Dharma. Many Hindu temples are in dilapidated conditions and on the verge of closure. The revenue from large and wealthy temples can be used to improve their condition, which does not usually happen unless it becomes a public issue. Incidents of misuse of funds and irregularities in managing temples and trusts, favoritism in appointing priests or misuse of temple trust funds are also not uncommon.

The social functions of Hindu Temple

Hindu temples are not mere places of worship. They also serve many other functions. In the past, Hindu temples served as centers of learning, devotional practices and provided livelihood to local merchants, artisans and workers. The same is true even today, although many professions which were traditionally associated with temple activity are becoming defunct.

Hindu temples engage in many social and religious functions. They organize congregations, discourses, temple processions, dance and drama programs, chariot processions and festivities, besides engaging in charity and philanthropy. Many large temples run schools and educational institutions. They also engage in the cultivation of temple lands, daily distribution of free meals, restoration of temples, preservation of ancient manuscripts, religious works and art objects, printing and publishing religious literature, and disaster relief if there is a local calamity.

Some temples enjoy widespread patronage and earn substantial income from the devotees as fees or donations. Some have large treasures of gold and silver coins, ornaments and artifacts worth millions or even billions, which help them employ a large number of people and support various socio religious activities. Many temples are also living monuments of ancient history. They contain ancient sculpture, manuscripts and stone inscriptions, which are helpful to reconstruct the past.

Historical development of temple building

We do not have any evidence that the early Vedic people worshipped idols or had temples. They practiced rituals and sacrificial ceremonies to worship the gods. Duty (Dharma) rather than devotion and the need for protection and fulfillment of desires were their main purposes. However, from the earliest times idol worship seems to have been a common feature in ancient India among several non-Vedic traditions. The Indus people probably worshipped trees, animals, figurines and other objects and maintained large, well housed, ritual baths. With the spread of Vedic civilization into different parts of India, the practice seems to have been integrated into Vedism also. The development might have also coincided with the rise of the devotional movement (bhakti) and the growing popularity of non-Vedic sectarian movements.

Scriptural evidence points to the existence of idols, shrines and temples in ancient India. The Ashtadhyayi of Panini, a 4th Century B.C. work, has references to the idols of deities such as Indra, Agni, Soma, Mitra, Surya, Rudra, Pusan, Indrani, Varuni, Usha, Bhavani, etc. A commentary (Mahabhasya) on it by Patanjali in the 2nd Century BC describes the temples of Kubera, Rama, Kesava and ritual worship of Krishna, Vishnu and Shiva. The Arthashastra of Kautilya, probably a 3rd Century BC work, mentions temples for the worship of various deities.

These references point to the prevalence of idol worship and the existence of possible temple or shrine like structures in the Indian subcontinent. It was at least true after the passing away of the Buddha and before the invasion of Alexander. Megasthanese, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya (fourth century BC), reported instances of people carrying images of gods in the street during public processions.

The early images might have been carved in wood, because there has been a total absence of stone images of Indian origin before 250 BC. However, an image recovered from the Mathura region in Northern India suggest that at some point during the Mauryan rule stone became the preferred material for sculpting and building of temples and monuments such as the one at Saranath or the Ashoka Pillars. Ashoka built a large number of Buddhist stupas, 84,000 according to tradition. The largest among them was the Sanchi Stupa in Central India, which points to the extent of sculpting activity and skill levels of that time.

However, we have no evidence that Ashoka or his predecessors built any Hindu temples or shrines. The prevalence of Buddhist stupas and the practices of Indo-Bactrian Greeks who worshipped Hindu gods and practiced polytheism might have also contributed to the growth of Hindu temples and the idea of housing gods in them for worship. The early Hindu temples were probably modeled on a residence, stupa chaitya, vihara or a palace.

The knowledge of drawing and building sacrificial altars, tantric designs called yantras, and large brick houses, which were prevalent in India from the Indus Valley times, must have been utilized to build early Hindu temples. The methods of worship might have been derived from both Vedic and Tantric or Agamic traditions. The rise of Vaishnavism and Shaivism must have also contributed to the popularity of image worship and the practice of temple building by kings and patrons.

According to the Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture 2, ancient Indian temples could be broadly classified into five basic design patterns or their variations namely temples built on a raised platform 1. With or without a symbol, 2. Under an umbrella, 3. Under a tree, 4. Enclosed within a railing or 5. Inside a pillared pavilion. Those temples were called prasada, sthana, mahasthana, devalaya, devagrha, devakula, devakulika, ayatana and harmya. The temple entrance was called dvarakosthaka, and the hall, sabha or ayabasabha. The pillars were called kumbhaka, and the raised structures or platforms in the temple, where probably people assembled for social or religious activities, vedika.

It is difficult to trace the development of Indian art or temple building from the Indus Valley period to the Mauryan period due to the absence of archeological evidence and the scant information available. India had many cultures and social groups. We do not know how they were gradually integrated into a few dominant ones and what factors and historical events influenced that process. However, according to the Advanced History of India by R.C.Majumdar et al.3, we know that in the intervening period “between the fall of the Mauryas and the rise of the Guptas several important schools of sculpture flourished in different localities at Barhut, Bodh Gaya, Mathura, Amravati and Nagarjunakonda on the banks of the River Krishna, and Gandhara in West Pakistan.

The rise of the Gupta empire (Fourth Century AD to Seventh Century AD) marks the beginning of the classical phase of Indian art, architecture and temple building. “There was no more groping in the dark and no more experiments. A thorough intelligent grasp of the true aims and essential principles of art, a highly developed aesthetic sense, and a masterly execution with steady hands produced” remarkable sculptures which “remained models of Indian art at all times to come.” They also “served as such in the Indian colonies in the Far East. The sculptures of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, Vietnam, Cambodia and even Celebes bear the indelible stamp of Gupta art.”

According to Romalia Thapar,” The free-standing temple became necessary with the growth of image worship, since the image had to be appropriately housed and a cave was not adequate for this purpose. Gradually the image came to be surrounded by a host of attendant deities and figures, ​eventually leading to the rich sculptural ornamentation associated with later styles. Manuals on the construction of stone temples were written giving minute details of construction, and these were faithfully followed.”

The Gupta kings were prolific builders and great patrons of Hinduism. They built several stone and brick temples, whose remains can still be seen at Deogarh, Bhitargaon, Nachna-ke-Talai and other places. “These temples are well designed and consist of a square chamber, a cella (shrine), and a portico or verandah as essential elements. They are decorated with fine sculptured panels, but...properly subordinated to, and is in full harmony with, the architectural plan of the buildings.” The images of Shiva, Vishnu and other Vedic gods at the Deogarh temple are “the best products of Indian art. They present a beautiful figure, full of charm and dignity, a graceful pose and a radiant spiritual expression.”

According to Joanna Williams in the Gupta Period, stone, brick and wide range of materials were used in the construction of fairly large temples. Their entrance ways, walls and pillars were finely carved, and parts of the temples were decorated with gold, silver and jewelry. The empire also witnessed the consolidation of ideas such as the sanctum (garbha griha) for the deity, the hall (mandapa) for the devotees and the artistic representation of the important motifs of Hinduism such as dharma, karma, kama, artha and moksha.

Those early ideas were further refined and improved as time went by. The post Gupta period witnessed the rise of many local architectural styles such as the Vidharbha style, the Badami Chalukya Style, the Nagara Style and so on. Many temples, which were built during this period, especially those in the North, either perished or destroyed during wars and foreign invasions. The temples that survived bear testimony to the extent of temple building by the Hindu rulers in the India subcontinent.


Historically India is considered the sacred land of the Vedas, where great souls were born who preached the wisdom of God and revealed the secrets of our existence. In that sacred land of countless rishis, saints and spiritual beings, there are many sacred places (thirthas) where you will find monumental temples, built in honor of God. They bear testimony to the purity and intensity of devotion, to which humans can ascend and display in their lives through their actions and emotions. Each Hindu temple which has been built by people in India and elsewhere is an excellent example of the love and devotion which human can show to God and their aspiration to transcend their limitations and radiate his divinity through them. The public visage of Hinduism reveals itself in its great temples which are numerous and bear testimony to its long history.

Suggestions for Further Reading



1. Aspects in Temple Construction, Hindupedia

2. Michael Meister (1988), Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture, Chapter 1, Oxford University Press, 0-691-04053-2.

3. Advanced History of India by R.C.Majumdar, H.C.Raychaudhuri, and Kallikinkar Datta, MacMillan Co., India, 1976.

4. Banerji, New Light on the Gupta Temples at Deogarh, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Vol V (1963), pp. 37-49.

5. Joanna Williams, The Art of Gupta India, Empire and Province, Princeton, 1982

6. A History of India, Volume 1, Romalia Thapar, Penguin Books 1977.

7. The Hindu Temple, Volume 1, By Stella Kramrisch, Raymond Burnier, Motilal Banarasidass, 1976.

8. Temple in Society edited by Michael V. Fox, Eisenbrauns, 1988


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