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Sacred Architecture of the Hindu Temple

Depending on the style of architecture followed, Hindu temples are classified as belonging to the North Indian or Nagara Style, the South Indian or Dravidian Style and the Deccanni or Vesara style.

A key feature of all these temples is the garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) the inner chamber where the ideol is placed. This forms the nucleus of the temple, dark and secluded, where people could pray in private. Above the garbhagriha the shikhara (or vimana) tapers upwards. Temples also generally have a pradakshina or prakara that is a passageway to go around the garbhagriha (circumambulation). The mandapa an open assembly hall supported by pillars is another essential part of Hindu temples. The mandapa was connected to the garbhagriha by the antarala (passage). An ardha mandapa or porch frequently preceded the mandapa.

The Temples of North India

In the Nagara Style Temples the garbhagriha is always square. The shikhara has a crowning element, namely the amalaka which is a huge stone ribbed disc. Above the amalaka is a smaller dome the kalasa or the water jug. These together with curving lines of the shikhara are the main characteristics of the Nagara style of architecture. By the 10th and 11th centuries AD this style of architecture had become well established with the finest examples in Orissa Central India Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Most of the best preserved Nagara temples are in Orissa. Of the Numerous temples that were built here from the 7th to the 13th centuries AD many are to be found in and around the temple city of Bhubaneshwar. These include the Lingaraj Temple (AD 1000) the Rajarani Temple and the Mukteshwara Temple. The Sun Temple at Konark (AD 1238-1264) is a perfectly proportioned temple covered with intricately carved figures. It resembles a chariot with eight giant wheels and four prancing horses appearing to pull it. The Jagannath Temple at Puri was built around the 12th century AD.

The Temples of Central India

The Central Indian Temples have some difference from the Nagara temples. The main characteristic here is the double amalaka, one large and another small placed one over another. The kalasha (pot) is placed above the smaller amalaka. The best known examples of this style of architecture are the temples of Khajuraho. Khajuraho was the capital of the Chandelas of Bundelkhand who ruled from the middle of the 10th to the 12th centuries AD. They were great temple builders. Of the many they built around 25 temples still survive. Of these the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple is the largest. It has a main shikhara of about 30 m with a cluster of smaller shikharas surrounding it.

The Temples of the Deccan

The Rashtrakutas and the Hoysalas had their own unique styles of temple building. The rock out architecture of the Rashtrakutas is best illustrated by the Kailashnath Temple at Ellora which was sculpted our of a single rock like the Rathas at Mamallapuram.

With the Hoysalas a marked change in style came. Temple were made hexagonal in shape (like a lotus) and profusely carved the best example of which is the Dvarasamudra Temple at Halebid.

South Indian Temples

The Temples of South India follow the Dravidian style of architecture. One of the characteristic features of this style is the vimana, which is a high pyramidal tower with several storeys of diminishing size built over the garbagriha. It stands on a square base. South Indian temples also have gateways or gopurams topped by the Kalasha. There are usually two or four entrances to the temple one at each cardinal direction. Some of the gupurams are tall and elaborately sculpted. They show figures of gods surrounded by scenes from mythology. The Tamil Kings were great builders especially the Pallavas and the Cholas.

The Pallavas brought in a new style of temple architecture, rock cut architecture and monoliths (sculpted from a single stone) e.g. the rathas they have built at Mamallapuram.

The Cholas built several hundreds of temples and stambhas (pillars) to commemorate their victories in battle. Settled political conditions, vast resources and a great interest in art resulted in the creation of two magnificent temples: The Brhadisvara Temple at Tanjavur built by Rajaraja Chola (11th century AD) and the temple at Gangaikondacholapuram built by his sons Rajendra Chola. The Brihadeshwara temple has the tallest known vimana (66m). The Inner walls of the temple are covered with frescoes fine sculptures and inscriptions that provide historians with valuable information.

The rulers of the Vijayanagara Kingdom (middle 14th century AD) built Lavishly in their capital Hampi. Richly carved pillars and tall gopurams are a hallmark of their temples. The Vitthala Temple (AD 1513) is one of the most important temples at Vijayanagara.


Q1. What are the 4 main elements of the Hindu temple?


The temple architecture has evolved over the ages and the style changes along with the changing dynasties and regions. While the architecture of Hindu temples varies from region to region, the major elements of a temple remain constant:


Garbhagriha or the sanctum where the main idol of the deity is housed, pradakshina patha (circumambulation passage), antarala (antechamber next to sanctum)


Mandapa (gathering hall) or the portico which leads to the garbhagriha, where the worshipers assemble


Shikhara or Vimana: They are mountain like the spire of a free-standing temple above the sanctum


Kalasha: Vahan which is the mount or vehicle of the main deity of the temple

Q2. What should not be done in a temple?

Avoid touching shrines or statues. A temple houses hundreds of statues-one should not touch any one of them; this is an inappropriate and disrespectful act. In the Hindu faith, only priests are permitted to touch the statues.


·        Must keep a respectful distance.


·        Greet the gods by making an offering.


·        Must remove footwear. The entrance of any temple in India is picket-fenced by shoe racks.


·        Put the camera away. Avoid photography, if not permitted.


·        Avoid all types of leather wearing.


·        Must maintain Cleanliness and godliness.


·        Do not smoke or consume any intoxicants including tobacco.


·        Avoid eating non-vegetarian food.


·        Avoid speaking loudly or fighting/quarrel.

Q3. What are the key features of a Hindu temple?


A Hindu temple represents much more. It is a manifestation of the entire cosmos that represents: the earthly world (Prithvi), the heavenly world (akasa), the astral world (svarga), and the world below (patala). Therefore, we find beautiful intricate carvings and paintings on the walls depicting not only major deities but also semi-divine deities, mythological creatures, flora, fauna, and aquatic life.


Essential features of Hindu architecture are precise and harmonious geometry when viewed from all four sides and above, the square form and grid ground plans, soaring towers, and elaborate decorative sculpture which includes gods, worshippers, erotic scenes, animals, and floral and geometric patterns.