Architecture of Hindu Temples

Although there are numerous regional variants of the architecture of the Hindu temple, they can basically be classifed under the Nagara or the north indian and the Dravida or the south indian styles. We will briefly examine aspects of these styles (as explained in ancient texts like the Mayamata, Tantrasamuchchaya and Suprabhedagama) and their commonalities.

Nagara Style

Nagara Style Temple Arcihtecture

Nagara Style Temple Arcihtecture

The Nagara style is characterized by a beehive shaped tower (called a shikhara) made up of layer upon layer of architectural elements such as kapotas and gavaksas, all topped by a large round cushion-like element called an amalaka. The plan is based on a square but the walls are sometimes so broken up that the tower often gives the impression of being circular. The central shaft could be surrounded by smaller secondary shafts called the Urushringas, creating a spectacular visual effect resembling a fountain.

Dravida Style

Dravidian Style of Architecture

Dravidian Style of Architecture

 The Dravida Style is characterized by a pyramid shaped tower consisting of progressively smaller storeys of small pavilions, a narrow throat and a dome on the top called the Sikharam or the Vimanam. The repeated storeys give a horizontal visual thrust to this style.

Vesara Style

Vesara Style of Architecture

Vesara Style of Architecture

 This is the name given to an architectural style that evolved in Karnataka during the medieval centuries and combined both the Nagara and the Dravida styles. This style reduces the height of the individual tiers without reducing their number resulting in a reduction in the height of the temple towers. The semi-circular structures of the Buddhist Chaityas are also incorporated in some of the temples of this style. The temples of Halebid, Belur, Somnathapura and Pattadakal are some of the examples of this style.

Commonalities

Hindu philosophical and metaphysical concepts dominate the architecture of the temple whatever it’s style. The basic layout of a temple can be visualized as a Mandala, a miniature representation of the cosmos. The Mandala is a mystical Hindu symbol represented by a square enclosing a circle.

The square denotes not just the four directions but also a perfection of form and symmetry making it de rigueur for temple architecture. The Mandala is subdivided into a grid of smaller squares; 64 and 81 are the most commonly used. Each square is invested metaphysically with a resident deity. Each component of the temple is then sited on a particular square. A Mandala that forms the basis for a temple’s layout is termed a Vasthupurusha Mandala.

A temple usually consists of the following parts: the Garbhagraha (or the Sanctum Sanctorum) containing the diety, the Vimana/Shikhara, the tower rising over the Sanctum, the Mandapa in front of the Sanctum, the Prakaras around the Sanctum and the Gopura, the gateway(s) to the temple.

The layout of a temple can also be analogous to the human body. The vimana is the head, the Sanctum is the neck, the front mandapa is the stomach, the prakara walls are the legs, the gopura is the feet and the Lord in the Sanctum is the Soul or the Jiva of the body.

Foreign Architectural Styles

Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia

Prambanan Temple, Java

Prambanan Temple, Java

The famous Angkor Wat of Cambodia, the largest Hindu temple in the world, is a combination of Dravida and Khmer styles of architecture while the massive Prambanan temple complex of Java, Indonesia follows the Mandala precepts of Vasthu Sastra while it’s soaring spires are reminiscent of the Nagara Shikharas.

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Ancient Hindu Temples

Some of the earliest Hindu religious structures have not survived the ravages of time and man. But as temples began to be constructed of more durable materials like brick and stone, their longevity increased and we are now not only able to understand how our ancestors worshipped their gods but are also able to view their skill in shaping these religious structures.

Ancient Hindu Temples

We will examine a few notable ancient Hindu temples/structures existing to this day:

The Great Bath, Mohenjodaro

The Great Bath, Mohenjodaro

The Great Bath, Mohenjodaro*

A public water tank of the Indus Valley Civilization, the Great Bath is postulated to be part of a religious structure, presumably Hindu. Although there is no concrete evidence for any of these suppositions, it is probable that the Great Bath could be a precursor to temple tanks where devotees ritually purify themselves before they enter the sanctified premises.

Mahabalipuram Temple

Mahabalipuram Temple

Mahabalipuram*

Built by the Pallava rulers between the 7th and 9th centuries CE, the rock cut, monolithic and structural temples of Mamallapuram (modern Mahabalipuram), the port city of the Pallavas, including the famous Shore Temple made of dressed stone, form one of the earliest known existing Hindu religious structures in India.

Ellora Caves

Ellora Caves

Ellora Caves*

Carved out of the mountain face, the Ellora “cave” complex actually consist of both temples and monasteries belonging to Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths (with some of the Hindu “caves” being the earliest) constructed between the 6th and the 9th centuries CE by the Kalachuri, Chalukya and Rashtrakuta dynasties.

Kanchipuram

Ekambareswarar Temple

Ekambareswarar Temple

Kamakshi Amman Temple

Kamakshi Amman Temple

Kanchipuram, the former capital of the Pallavas, the “City of Thousand Temples” houses numerous ancient Hindu temples that make it an important pilgrimage point for both Shaivites and Vaishnavaites, the two major Hindu denominations today. The Varadharaja Perumal, the Ekambareswarar and the Kamakshi Amman Temples here are more than a millenium old. 

Brihadeeswara Temple*

Brihadeeswara Temple

Brihadeeswara Temple

Built a thousand years ago, the Brihadeeswara Temple at Tanjavur, built by the Emperor Raja Raja Chola was historic in many respects. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this temple was the first temple in India built entirely of granite, one of the hardest stones in the world, in quantities sufficient to fill the Great Pyramid of Giza. Large enough to hold 10 Taj Mahals, the Brihadeeswara Temple was 10 times taller than any other building in India at that time and it’s capstone consists of two granite stones of 40 tons each, raised 216 feet in the air. A religious and engineering marvel.

Indian temples and Hindu Motifs are not confined to the geographical boundaries of India alone; regular trade and political interaction led to the spreading of indian influence  across the sub continent. Angkor Wat* is probaly the worlds most famous Hindu edifice and the largest religious structure of its kind. The temple is a classic case of Indian Hindu sensibility being combined with local regional aesthetics– Khmer temple architecture with Dravidian temple style. The temple’s dedication to Vishu can be made out in the temple’s departure from the conventional orientation; it faces west while all others conventionally face east.

* UNESCO World Heritage sites.