History Files

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 175

Target: 400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.



Modern India

An Introduction to Temple Architecture in India

by Abhijit Rajadhyaksha, 30 July 2011

Ambarnath Shiva Temple

As mankind began to fear and respect the forces of nature, it also started worshipping them. Man personified these forces so that the concept of 'god' took form in people's minds. The gods in their human forms came to be housed as idols in structures called temples.

It was in these very temples that people made their devotion evident to the gods, perhaps more so to redeem themselves of their mortal sins and save their relatives 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 have undergone gradual changes in their structure and form. They differ in size, style, and construction material, depending upon their geographical location and the resources which were available when they were built.

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 subcontinent's inhabitants learned the use of different tools and the science behind the art of constructing temples started to become more and more complex.

Towards the later stages of the Iron Age, people learned to chisel out temples directly from the insides of 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 on 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 below:

[1] 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

Temple construction

Shikhara/vimana is the superstructure above the sanctum. In Dravida architecture it can be ek tala, dwi tala, or tri tala (one tier, two tier, or three tier).

Kalasa/stupi is the pointed finial at the pinnacle of the superstructure. It is believed to act as an antenna which communicates between the mortal and 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 mulasringa / 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 entablature (prastara / varandika).

Further features are shown below:

The sabhamandpa generally has a carved floral ceiling which is supported by carved pillars, and pilasters, and is 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 in which 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 examples.

Ardha mandapa is the portico after the sabhamandapa and contains the entrance to the temple.

Mandovara / Jangha / Pada are the walls of the temple which join the entablature to the socle and plinth. The inner and the outer walls have devkoshta or aedicules/niched windows in which idols of deities are placed.

Vedibandha is the socle which 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), Narpatt / Narathara (a panel with human carvings), or others.

Pitha / Adisthana is a plinth which 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:


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 stepped plans.

Some Chalukyan temples are today UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Maharashtra temples range right from the internationally renowned rock cut Ajanta-Ellora caves to Buddhist cave temples such as those in Bhaja, Bedse, Karla at Lonavala, and the Pandavleni cave temples at Nasik, the Aurangabad caves, Junnar caves, and the Elephanta caves (a UNESCO site). They also include traditional temple forms of the 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 Peshwas.

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, during the first millennium BC. The Ajanta Caves (another UNESCO world heritage site) are one such example. They also display several carvings, and wall and ceiling paintings which depict the life of Lord Buddha, his incarnations, and stories which are 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 in a star-shaped plan, and it remains amazingly well preserved.

In the thirteenth century, Hemadripant, a minister in the court of the Seuna Yadava kings, patronised a unique style of temple creation, carving them out of black stone (without the use of mortar, using the male/female interlocking method used by Neolithic henge builders in Western Europe).

Since then it has become a misnomer of sorts to categorise all temples which have been built 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 which are constructed in brick and lime (something which was influenced by Persian architecture).

A Devali-style shikhara at Nagara with descriptions of the individual components which go into its make-up

The temples are surrounded by tall walls (constructed in an arcade-like structure) with a nagarkhana in which nagaadaas (large drums) are sounded to attract devotees. Examples include Theur Temple, Kasba Peth Temple, and Omkareshwar Temple.

The peshwas and their aides also built temples in the Sekhari style, such as Bhimashankar Temple near Pune (off the Nasik road).

Features of a Buddhist temple

The early Buddhist temple were constructed on mountains and were carved out in the form of caves. Their distinctive features included the following:

Chaityagriha - the main prayer hall in which the central stupa is sited. The stupa generally has an apse-like background.

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 which 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 which serve as beds.

Water reservoirs - large pits which are located outside the viharas in which drinking water is stored.

Buddhist temples have frescoes, carvings, sculptures, and murals 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 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.


Main Sources

Kramrisch, Stella & Burnier, Raymond - Hindu Temple (Motilal Banarasidas Publishers)

Hardy, Adam - Indian Temple Architecture (Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts)



Text copyright © Abhijit Rajadhyaksha. An original feature for the History Files.