As Mankind began to fear and respect the forces of
nature, he started worshipping them. Man personified these forces
and so the concept of 'God' took form in his mind. The gods
in their human forms came to be housed as idols in structures called
It was in these very temples that Man made his
devotion evident to the gods, perhaps more so to redeem himself of
his mortal sins and save his kin from unperceived
calamities. Thanks to this, temples
came to be regarded as the earthly abode of the gods.
Temples in India have a few thousand years of
history behind them. With time their architecture has evolved, and
with every passing age they underwent gradual changes in their
structure and form. They differed in size, style and construction
material, depending upon their geographical location and the
In the early part of the Vedic era there is no
clear mention of temples. All worship and rituals were carried out
before the holy fire, called the 'yagna'.
However, in the later period of the Vedas, along
with the ceremonial fire, idol worship also began to be practised.
These idols were housed in very elementary dwellings. (The very
first temples may have been simple earth mounds, later substituted
by brickwork with grass roofs.) With time, the inhabitants of the
subcontinent learned the use of different tools and the science
behind the art of constructing temples started to become more and
Towards the later stages of the Iron Age,
people learned to chisel out temples directly inside the
mountains and these took the form of cave temples. Later on, technology
and science brought more sophistication and temples were made using
more detailed designs (and based upon certain empirical formulae).
Temples in the Indian subcontinent were traditionally Hindu, Jain or
Buddhist (in the medieval or post-medieval periods there were additions by religions such
as Sikhism (notably at the Golden Temple at Amritsar),
Zoroastrianism (the Sun Temples), and so on.
Hindu temple classification
The classification of Hindu temples takes place mainly
on the basis of the shape of their shikhara (superstructure) and
their ground plan. The basic classification is as follows; Nagara,
Dravida, and Vesara, and these types are all shown
 It is still unclear whether the Nagara style was developed
exclusively in northern India and the Dravida in
southern India. The Nagara style can also be seen in the south,
such as at Pattadakal in Karnataka, and the Dravida style can be
seen as far north as Madhya Pradesh, suggesting some intermixing.
Hindu temple features
Shikhara/vimana is the superstructure above the
sanctum. In Dravida architecture it can be ek tala, dwi tala,
(one tier, two tier, three tier).
Kalasa/stupi is the pointed finial at the pinnacle of the
superstructure. It is believed that it acts as an antenna communicating
between the mortal and the spiritual worlds.
Amalasaraka is a grooved capstone base for the finial resting on the
griva (neck) of the shikhara.
Sringa are the spires. They are further classified as the
/ ghumat (main spire, sometimes bulbous in shape) and the urahsringa
or secondary spires around the main spire.
Kapotas are the cornices, a part of the
Further features are shown below:
The Sabhamandpa generally has a carved floral ceiling supported by
carved pillars, pilasters, intricately sculpted with displays of
idols, carvings (of Deva/gods, Devi/goddeses, Sapta/Ashta matrikas
(the main gods in the feminine form of mother goddesses)
Surasundaris-Apasaras/celestial dancers, Gandharva-Yaksha/demi gods,
etc), motifs (floral, and more), etc.
This is the place where the devotee remains seated in a meditative
pose, experiencing the tranquillity and oneness with god (after
offering his obeisance in the sanctum). The sabhamandap is also used
to hold meetings, for cultural events for example.
The pillars in the sabhamandapa are also layered.
They are either square-faced or of the bell type. The central portion of
the pillars, the malasthana, has carved images of deities,
or animals, or dancers on the keertimukh, to name but a few
Ardha mandapa is the portico after the sabhamandapa and holds the
entrance to the temple.
Mandovara/ Jangha / Pada are the walls of the temple joining the
entablature with the socle and the plinth. The inner and the outer
wall have devkoshta or aedicules/niched windows in which idols of
deities are placed.
Vedibandha is the socle that holds the temple walls. Its base is
called the Adisthana. The vedibandha is often divided into layers such
as Gajpatt / Gajathara (a panel with elephant carvings),
Narathara (a panel with human carvings), or others.
Pitha / Adisthana is a plinth that forms the foundation base for
the temple structure. Generally it is composed of layers with
different figurines of celestial dancers, elephants, and so on, carved on
each layer. It forms the lower part of the socle.
Pradakshinapatha is the circumambulatory pathway around the gabhara,
which is part of a Hindu ritual in which the devotee, both before and
after praying at the sanctum, goes around it with folded hands,
praying to the gods from all directions.
More features are shown below:
Pillars in a temple
Some peculiar temple styles in India
Of the first of these, the Chalukyan style, their rock-cut cave temples and exquisite
sculptures at Badami are as much a spectacular delight as their
intricately carved temples at Aihole and Pattadakal. These styles
later influenced the temple forms of the Vijayanagara kings, the
Hoysalas, the Kadambas, and others.
The Chalukyan dynasty rose again in the
eleventh century in northern Karnataka and southern Maharashtra and
replicated the excellent artwork of their predecessors in places
such as Dharwad, Gadag, Haveri, Dambal, Itagi, Lakkundi, and Kolhapur. Their
distinguishable characteristics were primarily their stellate and
Some Chalukyan temples are today UNESCO World
Maharashtra temples range right from the internationally renowned rock cut Ajanta-Ellora caves to Buddhist
cave temples such as the ones in Bhaja, Bedse, Karla at Lonavala, and the
Pandavleni cave temples at Nasik, Aurangabad caves, Junnar caves,
and the Elephanta caves (a UNESCO site). They also include traditional temple forms at Chalukyan Mahalaxmi
Temple at Kolhapur, the Nasik-Sinnar temples, Amruteshwar-Ratangad Temple,
and Ambarnath-Kalyan Temple to name just a few.
Many dynasties contributed to these temples, from the
Satavahanas (who created the Junnar caves), the Vakatakas (responsible
for the Ajanta caves), the Kalachuris (the Elephanta caves), the Rashtrakutas (the Kailasnatha-Ellora
caves), the Chalukyas (Mahalaxmi-Ambabai Temple), the Silharas (Ambarnath
Temple), the Yadavas (Gondeshwar Temple), to the Marathas and the
One of the early traditional forms of temple architecture
was the Bhumija style. One of its earliest examples is Ambarnath Temple at
Kalyan near Mumbai, built by the Shilhara king, Mamuni. The sculpture
work on this temple is truly amazing.
Maharashtra contains the greatest number of Buddhist cave temples,
which have been
chiselled out of the mountains. They date back to the Iron Age, in
the time before Christ. The Ajanta Caves (another UNESCO world
heritage site) are one such example. They also
display several carvings, and wall and ceiling paintings depicting the
life of Lord Buddha, his incarnations and stories related to his
life and teachings.
The Bhumija style was one of the earliest
traditional temple styles to be developed in Maharashtra. It was
characterised by a central latina tapering from all sides, with
minor spires decorating the central spire. The eleventh century
Ambarnath Temple near Kalyan (constructed by the Shilharas) is one
of the early examples of the Bhumija temple style. It is carved out of
black stone with a star-shaped plan and remains amazingly well
In the thirteenth century, Hemadripant, a minister in the
court of the Seuna Yadava kings, patronised a unique style of temple
them out of black stone (without the use of mortar, using the
male/female interlocking method used by Neolithic henge builders in
A statue of Shiva at the Elephanta Caves on Gharapuri Island near Mumbai
Since then it has become a misnomer
of sorts to categorise all temples made in black stone as Hemadpanti
temples. Gondeshwar Temple at Sinnar (built in the Panchayatan style
with five temples dedicated to five deities in a single compound),
Amruteshwar Temple near Ratangad, Lonar Temple, and many others are
all fine examples
of the Hemadpanti style.
The peshwas (prime ministers to the Maratha kings)
also contributed to temple making with their unique style in and
around Pune in Maharashtra in their tenure between the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries.
Their temples are conspicuous by their wooden
sabhamandaps with cypress shaped columns, stone fountains and the Indo-Saracenic
Devali style shikharas made in brickwork and lime (influenced by Persian
A Devali-style shikhara at Nagara
An example of the Bhumija style temple
The temples are surrounded by tall walls
(constructed in an arcade-like structure) with a nagarkhana where
nagaadaas (large drums) are sounded to attract devotees.
Examples include Theur Temple, Kasba Peth Temple, Omkareshwar Temple.
The peshwas and their aides also built temples in
the Sekhari style, such as Bhimashankar Temple near Pune (off Nasik
Features of a Buddhist temple
The early Buddhist temple were constructed on
mountains and carved out in the form of caves. Their distinctive features
Chaityagriha - the main prayer hall in which the
central stupa is sited. The stupa generally has an apse-like
Stupa - the central stupa in the chaityagriha is a
semi-hemispherical stone/mud mound which acts as the main shrine.
There are also minor stupas that are used to store the relics
of departed monks.
Harmika - resembling a small platform atop the stupa
onto which umbrellas or
crowns are affixed.
Vihara - the Spartan resting rooms for monks.
They generally have stone shelves and plinths that serve as beds.
Water reservoirs - large pits located outside the viharas in
store drinking water.
Buddhist temples have frescoes, carvings, sculptures,
depicting the life of the Buddha and his incarnations, the
Bodhisatvas. Buddhist temples also have their own iconography which
is quite distinct from their Hindu counterparts.
Buddhist temples flourished in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar,
and elsewhere due
to the patronage of the erstwhile royal dynasties such as the
Satavahanas, Vakatakas and the Mauryas.
Temples in India are not just places of worship but
are also a testimony
to the grandeur of the kings who patronised them and a showcase for the deft skill
of their artisans.
A description of the elements making up a stupa
Kramrisch, Stella & Burnier, Raymond - Hindu
Temple (Motilal Banarasidas Publishers)
Hardy, Adam - Indian Temple Architecture (Indira Gandhi
National Centre for Arts)