Hindu Temple Traditions—Building, Consecrating and Worshiping
(COMPILATION FOR A DISCOURSE BY N. R. SRINIVASAN, NASHVILLE, TN, USA, MAY 2017)
All over India gigantic Hindu Temples were built between 300 and 1200 CE which became famous pilgrim centers attracting huge crowds such as Varanasi on the Ganges in the North, Madurai in the South, Badrinath on the Himalayan Mountains and Tirupathi on Seven Hills in the South. In Hindu Temples people worship their chosen deities with great devotion and pay respect to many other enshrined deities and even saints who have been deified. The priests conduct the holy rituals on behalf of the devotees but do not stand between the devotees and Gods. Temples are central to the social and economic life of the community. Large temples also serve as centers of education and training in music and dance. Over the centuries, many temples acquired agricultural land and great wealth as you have recently heard about Ananatasayana Temple of Tiruvanathapuram and as you see in Vekateswara Temple of Tirupati that helps the local economy, educational institutions, charitable institutions, hospitals and religious monasteries or Maths. During festivals, thousands of people go on pilgrimage to these famous temples and/or also visit local temples. This flow of visitors helps the local economy, temple maintenance, promote and spread cultural practices and Religious beliefs. Hindu Cultural societies overseas have imported these traditions and built Temples wherever they are settled unifying Hindu emigrants from different countries and spreading the message of Sanatana Dharma or Universal Eternal Tradition. They help the local Hindu Missionaries to propagate their mission by way of lectures and Yoga demonstrations; they also assist Hindu merchants to promote the sale of their clothing, jewelry, religious books and worship aids in make-shift shops during festivals that attract maximum crowds. “Hindu Temple is a comprehensive expose’ on the evolution of simple and sacred place of worship to a monument, which over a period has become the pivot of Hindu religiosity, culture and aesthetic significance; the superordinate ideological focus of society and polity” says Champaka Lakshmi in her book on The Hindu Temple.
The orthodox Hindu Temples are symbolically designed. Its very construction indicates the path of Self-realization. Hindu Temple symbolizes live human body which consists of gross, subtle and casual bodies and the inner Self which is called Aatman, representative of Universal Brahman, the Supreme Principle or Consciousness. Hindu temples are built and consecrated as per Silpa Sastra and Aagama Sastra, well developed architectural science and ritualistic codes of practices. It has a tower rising directly over the sanctum called Vimaana, a four sided diminishing square area. The apex of the Vimaana is a Kalasa or a copper pot. Around the sanctum is a narrow path for circumambulation called Pradakshina-patha. There is a rectangular porch called, Mukhya Mantapa where devotees offer their prayers and observe rituals performed by the priests. At the outer edge is a large hall, known as Mahaa Mantapa, for larger gatherings. The four walls around the temple cover the pillared halls as well as smaller shrines housing other deities. Gopuram or the gate-way tower leads magnificence to the temple structure. As one enters the temple, a seat for giving offerings to the deities called Balipeetha is seen. A flag-post called Dwajasthambha is located between Balipeetha and sanctum rising to great heights. The innermost chamber of a temple, where idol is consecrated is called Garbhagriha. It is the location for Supreme Spirit symbolized in the form of deity which is an important part of Hindu temple. It is the communication between mortals and the Supreme. No one enters this place other than the priest. He too enters the place after seeking the permission of the Lord by prayers and gestures.
The vision of temple in India or overseas evokes among Hindus feelings of reverence and spirituality as it symbolizes an abode of God and place of worship. It also serves as a unifying force for all Hindus drawn from different traditions of India providing a common forum for its cultural activities overseas. As a center of worship, the temple is mainly a product and instrument of the Puranic tradition. Hindu temple is conceived of as a cosmos in miniature, a replica of the cosmos, which brings alive the cosmic man Purusha, Saguna Brahman. Its sanctity and unwavering reverence accorded to it, undisturbed by the influencing culture of the country of adoption in overseas temples, is manifested in the elaborate rituals performed within its precincts by devotees, and the festivals celebrated by them.
We take delight in seeing fine things, in tasting delicious food, in smelling fragrant substances, and in hearing sweet music. When we enjoy these pleasures, we must think of God from whom they came, whose aspects the divinities are presiding over the elements that determine the sense organs and their respective sensations. It is our duty to gratefully offer to that God these several things that contribute to our sense pleasures and receive them back from Him as His gift to us, as His Prasaada (blessed things). Such offering to God is what constitutes worship or Pooja. But it may be that everyone does not have the facility to do such Poojaa (worship) at home. Therefore, it has been ordained that in every village, a common Poojaa of such kind should be conducted on behalf of the entire village community. The temple bell announces such an occasion. A specific set of people are charged with the duty to perform this Poojaa governed by rules of discipline regulating it which are known as the rituals of worship. The people of the village go to the temple to be present when these offerings are made and to remind themselves that the good things in life which they enjoy are God’s gifts and utter forth their gratitude to Him in prayer, Bhajan and songs. In modern life this has also extended to town life. In a room or building where frivolous conversation of mere rush of ordinary life prevails, it is far harder to concentrate the thought than in a place where religious thought is being carried out year after year. There the mind becomes calm and tranquil and that which would have demanded serious effort in the first set of places, is done without effort in the second place like temple.
We have to worship God to get His grace. The Aagama saastras tell us how this could be done. The sun’s rays contain a lot of heat energy. If we keep a piece of cloth in the sun it does not catch fire. But if we place a lens and focus the sun’s rays on the piece of cloth, after some time we find that the cloth catches fire. Similarly, electrical energy is everywhere; but in order to bring it to our daily use, we need to have generators to channeling it and build transmission systems to distribute it at places where we need it. In the same way, in order to get the grace of omnipresent Lord, we need to build temples where we can focus the power of the Lord in a consecrated idol for our benefit in an easy way.
Generally a rectangular site is chosen for a temple to be located on the outskirts of the city. After testing and leveling of the site, the plan is prepared by drawing the Vaastupurusha Mandala. This refers to visualizing the site in a square and dividing it into sixty- four or eighty one parts. Each part is then identified with various deities representing the different functioning aspects of creation. Based on this Vaastupurusha Mandala, the locations of the different components of the temple are determined. A rough sketch of the Vaastupurusha shows the location of the sanctum in the heart region presided over by Brahma along with the temple layout showing some of its main components.
Before beginning the temple construction, the site is purified with a ritual called Bhu-suddhi, sanctifying the earth. A fire ritual, Vaastu Pooja, is done to please the deities of the Vaastupurusha mandala and to obtain their permission to use the site for temple building. Then, another rite known as Garbhanyaasa or Garbhaadaana is performed. In this ritual, a copper pot filled with precious stones, herbs, metals and soils from holy places is lowered into a hole dug at the center of the Mandala, presided over Brahma. It is at this point that the deity will be installed later. The hole is then covered with Aadhaara-sila, a stone slab. The inner sanctum, Garbha Griha, which houses the idol, is the most important part of the temple. Over the centuries the architectural details of the sanctum have been strictly adhered to as per the Vaastu texts, while the sculptural embellishments of the rest of the temple complex kept changing with the changing society.
The Vaastu texts prescribe that the sanctum must be constructed before the other parts of the temple are built. The tower that rises directly above the sanctum is known as ‘Sikhara’ or ‘Vimaana’. The height of the Vimaana is always proportionate to the height of the sanctum. The vimaana has generally four sides and rises in tiers of diminishing square area. Six and eight-sided vimaanas are also seen in some temples. At the apex of Vimaana is a Kalasa, a copper pot. Around the sanctum is a narrow path for circumambulation known as ‘Pradakshinapatha’. The rectangular porch in front of the sanctum is known as ‘Mukha mandapam’. The devotees offer their prayers here and observe the rituals performed by the priests in the inner sanctum. On the outer edge of this hall is another large hall known as ‘Mahaa mandapam’ that accommodates larger gatherings. The four walls around the temple, sometimes sculpted, are called ‘Praakaara’, enclosure. The praakaaras cover the pillared halls as well as smaller shrines housing the other deities.
An important component leading magnificence to the temple structure is the ‘Gopuram’, the gateway tower. This is an exquisitely carved gigantic structure, sometimes reaching a height of more than two hundred feet. As one enters the temple through the tower, a ‘Balipeetha’, a seat for giving offerings to the deities is seen. Another important element is the ‘Dwajasthambha’ flag-post, located between the Bali-peetha and sanctum, rising to fifty to eighty feet in height. Its direction indicates the position of the altar. Just as on religious festivals, a flag hoisted at the temples signifies a resolve taken by the community for collective worship during that period, the flag-post signifies the ‘sankalpa sakti’, power of resolve, of the community.
Once the majestic temple is built, the Lord is installed in the sanctum on an auspicious day with an elaborate ritual known as ‘Praana pratishta’ and ‘Kumbhabhishekam’. These ceremonies signify the consummation of the temple building endeavor and people congregate in large numbers to witness this sacred event.
A temple is looked upon as the abode of the Lord. The method of temple worship, while more elaborate, is essentially similar to the pooja done at home. There are certain religious texts called aagamas, which are the authority with regard to the different aspects of temple worship. There are three main aagamas connected with the worship to Siva, Vishnu and Sakti. They describe in elaborate detail the selection of the site of the temple, temple construction, making of idols, installation of the deity and the consecration of the idols. They also describe the methods of worship, prayers and mantras associated with the temple worship and the monthly and yearly celebrations for a given temple.
Temple architecture is based on symbolism. The structure as a whole represents the entire creation viewed as the whole form of Lord. The Lord enshrined in the sanctum is the intelligent cause of creation. The various structural components of the temple symbolize various limbs of the Lord as the material cause of the creation.
Vaastu Saastra such as Silparatnam and Aparajit priccha present the entire temple as the physical body of the deity for whom the temple is built. Vaastu texts visualize the sanctum as the head of the Lord; the tower above the sanctum as the braid of His hair; the Mandapams, the pavilions as His hands; and the gateway tower as his feet. Agnipuraana, however, identifies the inner sanctum alone with the body of the Lord. Another beautiful imagery given by the tradition suggests that the temple be looked upon as one’s own physical body and the Lord in the inner sanctum as one’s Self. A prayer verse describes the imagery as follows: “Deho devaalayah prokto jeevo devassanaatanah”, the human body is said to be the temple and the individual Self, the eternal Lord.
Thus, the human body is viewed as temple, housing the Lord within. The temple structure and mode of worship also symbolize the discovery of the truth in a person’s journey through life. The entrance tower with innumerable sculptures of deities, kings, celestial beings, dancers and animals represent this manifold Universe. Slopping into the temple through the entrance signifies one’s readiness for the journey having already gone through the experience of the world. After entering the first gate one comes to Balipeetha, an altar where offerings are made to the deities. Here the devotee prostrates, signifying surrender to the Lord. The temple structure and mode of worship symbolize the discovery of truth in a person’s journey through life.
As one proceeds further into the temple it becomes progressively darker. Approaching the sanctum, one finds an idol made of black stone in darkness in South Indian Temples. An oil lamp barely reveals the outline of form of Lord with his glittering ornaments. The darkness symbolizes one’s ignorance about the Lord. The shining ornaments representing the glories of the manifest world reveal His presence. To have a Darsan, a complete and clear vision of the Lord, one requires more light. When the priest burns a lump of camphor at the time of the Aarati one sees the Lord clearly in the new light. What was vague impression of the Lord is now a compelling vision. Similarly in life, the seeker comes to discover the truth when the Guru unfolds the words of the scriptures and reveals the truth. The light of knowledge, like the light of camphor, removes the ignorance completely and all that remains is the vision, free from any sense of limitation. Looking upon temple as microcosm of creation, the ancient architects, craftsmen and masons depicted the deities and every aspect of divine and human existence in the temple precincts. The ancient temples of India, like its scriptures, are cornerstones of the rich Vedic heritage. The Vedic culture has been nurtured in these temples for thousands of years. Temples were looked upon as centers for all religious and cultural activities.
One of the ways of worshiping God is to consider our body as the Temple of God, and whatever we do as the act of worshipping God. In a prayer addressed to Lord Siva, Sri Sankara bids us to think as follows in relation to Siva: “My inner Aatman is Thou alone. My buddhi is Thy consort. My praanas are Thy companions. My body is Thy temple. The way in which I enjoy things of the senses is Thy worship. My sleep is samaadhic contemplation to Thee; my wanderings are the circumambulation of Thee; all that I talk is praise of Thee; Whatever I do is worship of Thee”
Paying obeisance to Five Elements as Vyahrtis of Brahman
If you closely observe orthodox devotees visiting temple they take care to pay respect to Pancha bhootas or five elements of nature in their act of worship. These five elements are often referred to as Vyaahritis or embodiment of Brahman and so they are meditated upon as Brahman alone. Linga is worshiped as five elements in five famous temples in South India. Orthodox Vaishanvites prostate before the flag-post with their eight body parts touching the soil and with folded hands called Sashtaanaga Namaskaaram. Then they touch the mother earth and place the little dust on their head. This is in veneration of Mother Earth (Prithvee), one of the elements. As the devotee watches the Lord he receives the Aarati with respect and touches his eyes. This is second obeisance to the element Fire (Agni) which he receives into his eyes. Then when the holy water is offered by the priest he first sprinkles a bit on his head; the next three little servings are consumed. This is his third obeisance to the element of water (Aapah). Then he circumambulates himself three times with folded hands. This is for paying obeisance to the Self within (Aaatma Pradkshina). No prostration is done body touching the floor near the sanctum which is divine charged atmosphere to avoid pointing his feet towards some of the deities installed during Vaastu pooja. He then leaves the premises and takes a bigger circumambulation with folded palms (Namaskara Posture). He then feels the air (Vaayu) around, and in that posture pays obeisance to the fourth element Air. He then sits at the Northern end gazing at the cupola of the temple tower rising to great heights. Here he pays his obeisance to the last element space (Aakaasa). He then leaves the temple premises chanting Om Namoh Naaraayana! This is his final obeisance to the Supreme Principle irrespective of whatever deity he might have worshiped. Thus his focus is on Brahman and the five great elements in all his worship.
Let me recall here how a Hindu starts his morning getting up from bed. There are scientific reasons behind touching the earth and touching the head. We have learnt in physics that by friction between two things sometimes static electricity is generated. Spending few hours on bed, by rolling there on, static electricity is created. This energy is unnecessary for us and is to be released. In orthodox Hindu custom one touches the ground by right hand and then touches his head after praying to Bhudevi (Mother Earth) as if paying obeisance to her.
We have to touch the earth with our hand while paying our obeisance. While touching with our extended hands, the electric force gets into earth flowing from the lower part of our body to the upper part. This will tighten the vertical magnetic field and automatically start the smooth functioning of the magnetic field which runs from head to foot when we stand erect. Thus with both the magnetic fields running smoothly, we can spend the entire day energetically.
“The Hindu Temple is a constellation of symbolism. It is an image that at once relevant to human aspirations and persistent in human thought and actions. The texts of Indian architecture which provides us with also details of measurement and parts of the temples, and prescribe the rites of installation and rituals of worship also indicates the real value of a shrine.
Agnirdevoe dwijaateenaam muneenaam hridi daivatam |
Prathima svalpabuddheenaam sarvatrae viditaatmanaam ||
The ritualists have their God in the fire (Agni); but the wise folk find him in their own heart. It is the dull-witted one that seeks God in the icon. Those who have higher understanding see God in everything” writes Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao in his book of Indian Temple Traditions.
(Suitably adapted from the speeches of Jagadguru Sankaracharya of Kamakoti Peetham, abridged and edited for a discourse to the Vedanta Class at Sri Ganesha Temple, Nashville, by N.R. Srinivasan)
Why We Visit Temples?
Our parents have taught us why we should go to temples instead of worshipping at home: Temple high towers teach us to aim high in life. Our kings thought about huge temples, planned them and built them. Temples teach us to think big and achieve it following their footsteps. Temples teach us good things can never be destroyed. Temples have withstood vagaries of time standing tall in spite of thousands of foreign invasions. Temples teach us community spirit-think together, work together and execute together. Temples keep us fit mentally and physically also. Temples are huge. When we walk through the corridor and circum-ambulate we exercise a lot. The festivals in temples lift our spirit. Temples are power houses. They charge our battery because great saints like Adi Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vallabha, Chaitanya, Azhvars, Nayanmars, Nivrutti, Jnanadev, Sopana, Muktabhai, Eknath, Namdev, Tukaram, Ramdas, Tamil Siddhars and hundred thousand more saints have stored their energy in the temples for generations to come. Adi Shankara has installed Jan Akarshan (attracting people) and Dhan Akarshan (attracting money) Chakras in Varanasi and Tirupati. Temple visits help us to focus attention and to develop concentration power.
There are thousands of temples all over India in different size, shape and locations but not all of them are considered to be built the Vedic way. Generally, a temple should be located at a place where earth's magnetic wave path passes through densely. It can be in the outskirts of a town or village or city, or in middle of the dwelling place, or on a hill top.
Benefits of Temple Visit
Hindu Temples are located strategically at a place where the positive energy is abundantly available from the magnetic and electric wave distributions of north/south pole thrust. The main idol is placed in the core center of the temple, known as "Garbhagriha" or Moolasthanam.
In fact, the temple structure is built after the idol has been placed. This Moolasthanam is where earth’s magnetic waves are found to be maximum. We know that there are some copper plates, inscribed with Vedic scripts, buried beneath the Main Idol. What are they really? No, they are not God’s / priests’ flash cards when they forget the shlokas.
The copper plate absorbs earth’s magnetic waves and radiates it to the surroundings. Thus a person regularly visiting a temple and walking clockwise around the Main Idol receives the beamed magnetic waves and his body absorbs. This is a very slow process and a regular visit will let him absorb more of this positive energy. Scientifically, it is the positive energy that we all require to have a healthy life.
Further, the Sanctum is closed on three sides. This increases the effect of all energies. The lamp that is lit radiates heat energy and also provides light inside the sanctum to the priests performing the worship. The ringing of the bells and the chanting of prayers takes a worshipper into trance, thus not letting his mind waver. When done in groups, this helps people forget personal problems for a while and relieve their stress. The fragrance from the flower and the burning of camphor give out the chemical energy further aiding in a different good aura. The effect of all these energies is supplemented by the positive energy from the idol, the copper plates and utensils in the Moolasthanam /Garbagraham.
Theertham, the “holy” water used during the pooja to wash the idol is not plain water cleaning the dust off an idol. It is a concoction of Cardamom, Karpura (Benzoin), saffron, Tulsi (Holy Basil), Clove etc . . . Washing the idol is to charge the water with the magnetic radiations thus increasing its medicinal values. Three spoons of this holy water is distributed to devotees.
Again, this water is mainly a source of magneto-therapy. Besides, the clove essence protects one from tooth decay, the saffron & Tulsi leafs protects one from common cold and cough, cardamom and Pachha Karpuram (benzoin), act as mouth fresheners. It is proved that Theertham is a very good blood purifier, as it is highly energized. Hence it is given as prasaadam (blessed food) to the devotees.
This way, one can claim to remain healthy by regularly visiting the Temple. This is why our elders used to suggest us to offer prayers at the temple so that you will be cured of many ailments. They were not always superstitious. Yes, in a few cases they did go overboard when due to ignorance they hoped many serious diseases could be cured at temples by deities. When people go to a temple for the Deepaaraadhana (final waving of lamps), when the doors open up, the positive energy gushes out onto the persons who are there. The water that is sprinkled onto the assemblages passes on the energy to all. This also explains why men are not allowed to wear shirts at a few temples and women are requested to wear more ornaments during temple visits. It is through these jewels (metal) that positive energy is absorbed by the women. Also, it is a practice to leave newly purchased jewels at an idol’s feet and then wear them with the idol’s blessings. This act is now justified after reading this article. This act of “seeking divine blessings” before using any new article, like books or pens or automobiles may have stemmed from this, through mere observation.
Energy lost in a day’s work is regained through a temple visit and one is refreshed slightly. The positive energy that is spread out in the entire temple and especially around where the main idol is placed, are simply absorbed by one's body and mind.
Our practices are not some hard and fast rules framed by any one man and his followers or God’s words in somebody’s dreams. All the rituals and all the practices can be well researched, studied and scientifically backed to pave the way to lead a good healthy life natural way.
The scientific and research part of the practices are well camouflaged as “elder’s instructions” or “granny’s teaching’s” which should be obeyed as a mark of respect for individual’s gain and to avoid stress to the mediocre brain. (Contribution from a participant by E-mail)
In conclusion I would like to draw your kind attention to a series of discourse given in the past on Temple Traditions. These can be found on the Blog Hindu Reflections<nrsrini.blogspot.com> against the month and year of their postings. These are:
1) Divine Character of Hindu Temples in Concept and Design (February 2012)
2) One Hindu Temple for Many Traditions Overseas (June 2013)
3) Hindu Traditional Practices for Worship (February 2012)
4) Hindu Mass Worship in Temples and the Need for Spiritual Focus (January 2012)
5) Multi-traditional Hindu Temples in USA Need to Focus on Spirituality and Deities to suit All (July 2015)
6) Upaasana, Moorti Worship or Image Worship (March 2013)
7) Shoedsaha Upachaara Pooja—Sixteen-steps Worship (August 2013)
1) Ramachandra Rao, S.K., Indian Temple Traditions, Kalpataru Research Academy, Sharada Peetham, Bengaluru, India.
2) Shiva Bajpai, The History of India, Himalayan Academy, Hawaii, USA.
3) Champakalakshmi, The Hindu Temple, Roli Books, New Delhi, India
4) Robert Arnett, India Unveiled, Atman Press, USA.
5) Swami Bhaskarananda. The essentials of Hinduism, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India
6) Jagadguru Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, Aspects of our Religion, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India.
SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS ON HINDU TEMPLE
(a) Hindu temples have been under unprecedented attack for a thousand years. They suffered desecration, destruction, confiscation of their property and iniquitous taxation under the Muslim rulers. Under the British, the more physical methods ceased but fiscal methods were adopted for undermining "heathenism". A large part of the land and properties of the temples were taken away under all kinds of pretexts.
(b) After independence, the temples have fared no better. Their properties have not been restored to them and they continue to exist in deepening poverty. In the South where there are still many noble structures left, the temples are under the control of a Government which takes pride in being "secular", and whose secularity is thoroughly anti-Hindu in orientation.
(c) Hindus should study the problem of the temples in all its ramifications. They should run their religious institutions themselves. They should build temples once destroyed, and build new temples where they are needed. They should rejuvenate the temple life and they should take all measures to put the temple institution on a sound financial footing.
(d) Temples should become more active in the teaching of the culture which upholds them. They should become more than mere places of formal worship. They should become centers for promoting Hindu dharma.
(e) Wherever possible, the temples should have more open space, more halls for such religious activities as kîrtanas and kathâs and religious discourses. Such activities make a religion more living.
(f) With these activities is connected the institution of wandering monks bards and Bhajan Mandalis. Once this was a very living institution but like other religious institutions of the Hindus also declining now. Let us do our best to revive it too.
Inevitably the priests too have suffered along with the temples. They have become indigent and illiterate. Thanks to their indigence and illiteracy, they have suffered in prestige too. It is a great national loss. Effort should be made to rehabilitate them and raise them educationally and financially.
3. Other Functionaries: Hindu Samskaras
What is happening to priests in the temples is happening all along the line to all the priestly functionaries connected with such events as birth, wedding, death, Srâddha, etc. Illiteracy and poverty have overtaken them. Many times these functionaries are not available at all. They are dying out fast as a class. Hindu leaders must give their attention to this problem too.
Hindu Samskaras are profound and deeply significant. They teach one to see the infinite and the eternal in the finite and the perishable. They widen the vision and they are deeply integrative. Their profound significance should be explained and every effort should be made to make the Hindus familiar with them, reflect on them and perform them.
The performance of Hindu Samskaras need not be costly at all for they can be performed "internally" as well. But their outer performance is also important, particularly of re-educative and social purpose. Therefore, means should be found whereby not even the poorest have to go without having to perform them for lack of even small funds.
(E-mail received from a participant)
Temple Cities of South India
By Ashish Nangia | Jun 20, 2010 | IndiaDivine.Org
The Gopuram (literally Cow-Gate), was erected primarily to emphasize the importance of the temple within the city precincts without in any way altering the form of the temple itself. The formal aspects of the Gopuram were evolved slowly over time. It had to be towering, massive and impressive. But it was not felt necessary to repeat verbatim the square-based form of the temple Vimana. This could be due to the fact that the square was essentially a static form, signifying calm and rest, while the entrance gateway needed to have some dynamism. Elongating the square and converting into a rectangle with an open entrance in the middle solved this problem. Above this base could be raised tier upon tier of a pyramidal structure comprised of brick and plaster with the topmost tier also a rectangle, albeit much smaller.
This rectangular top was crowned by a barrel-vaulted shape of Buddhist origin, crowned with a row of finials. As time went by, cities all over South India could be discerned from afar by the distinctive shape of their Gopurams dominating the skyline. The temple-city had evolved from a place of pilgrimage to the hub of political, cultural, social and secular activity of the region.
The ‘Annular’ Growth of Cities
Such an increase in importance of the city led to a natural population increase as well as demands for more resources. But growth was also constrained by the huge battlements thrown up around, punctuated by the massive Gopurams. The only viable solution was to erect yet another wall around the existing one. The new wall, too, had its own huge Gopurams. In this way the city grew much like the annular rings of a tree, with successive perimeters being added as population growth dictated. Thus, the great temple of Srirangam at Tiruchirapalli acquired several concentric rings of growth over a period of 500 years. Ultimately, the concentric city and Gopurams, which evolved out of necessity rather than conscious design, came to be accepted as the standard ‘form’ of temple construction in South India.
The Meenakshi Temple at Madurai
Thus it came to pass that the Meenakshi temple was designed as a series of concentric courtyards, or parikramas. The spaces around the shrine became hierarchical, diminishing in religious value; the further one went from the main shrine. The outermost ring had buildings of a more practical nature – accounts, dormitories, kitchens, shops selling items for rituals, maintenance areas and ‘parking’ for the increasing number of chariots.
The inner circles contained parikramas for singing and religious tales, bathing tanks and guest houses. And in the innermost courts were the pavilions for the dancing girls and the treasury – both jealously guarded by the priests! Admittance was restricted to the upper castes only. And finally, the holiest of holies, the Cella containing the idol of the deity was open only to the head pujari (head priesrt) and out of bounds for even the King of the land.
The Hall of a Thousand Pillars
With temple building losing its architectural challenge and becoming more and more a town planning exercise, the craftsman was restricted to working on pavilions, halls and Gopurams, the last of which grew ever larger and imposing. The huge hall in the Meenakshi temple needed 985 pillars to support its roof. This is the famous ‘Hall of a Thousand Pillars’. Unfortunately its size cannot compensate for its architectural mediocrity, and according to Satish Grover: “…the hall, surely one of the more arid products of Indian craftsmanship is a museum of drawings and photographs of the entire gamut of the 1200 years of temple architecture of the South.”
The Corridors of Rameswaram
Rameswaram, on a tip of land jutting out into the sea, is a maze of huge pillared verandahs. Not only is the temple surrounded by corridors, but it is also linked to the entrances by covered passages. Rameswaram thus has the distinction of possessing the longest corridors in the world.
However, in spite of their huge proportions, the Gopurams and pillared corridors were the last gasp of conceptually revolutionary Hindu architecture in the country. The invasion of Islam had already resulted in the North being a bustling hive of mosque and tomb building. The Hindu stonecutter proved to be equally adept at carving Islamic masterpieces from his sculpting of nubile forms on the surface of temples.
Sthapatya Kala: The Ancient Indian Science of Architecture
Posted by Sudheer |IndiaDivine.Org
The Science of Architecture and Civil Construction was known in Ancient India as Sthapatya-Shastra. The word Sthapatya is derived from the root word Sthapana i.e. ‘to establish’. The technique of architecture was both a science and an art, hence it is also known as Sthapatya-kala, the word Kala means an art.
From very early times the construction of temples, palaces, rest houses and other civil constructions were undertaken by professional architects known as Sthapati. Even during the Vedic times, there existed professionals who specialized in the technique of constructing chariots and other heavy instruments of war. These professionals have been referred to in the Rig Veda as Rathakara which literally means ‘chariot maker’.
The excavations of the ruins at Mohenjodaro and Harappa (today in Pakistan) proved the existence of a developed urban civilization in India. The Indus valley civilization is dated around 3000 B.C.
Thus since the last 5000 years, India has had an urban civilization. The existence of an urban civilization presumes the existence of well-developed techniques of architecture and construction.
These techniques would no doubt have had been systematically stated in record books for transmitting them to the later generations as well for being used as reference media for actual construction. Unfortunately, as far as the Indus Valley civilization goes no such records have been preserved either as rock edicts, manuscripts, etc., or in folk tales and legends.
“The Indian way of life provides the vision of the natural, real way of life. We veil ourselves with unnatural masks. On the face of India are the tender expressions which carry the mark of the Creators hand. ” – George Bernard Shaw, the Famous British Author.
But the fact that cities on the scale of Mohenjodaro had been constructed bear testimony to the existence of a systematized and highly developed technique of architecture 5000 years ago.
But in the later ages, from about the 7th century B.C., we have both literature references as well as archaeological evidences to prove the existence of large urban civilizations in the Ganges Valley. Like in most other sciences, even remotely connected with religion, in architecture also the scientific ideas and techniques have been integrated with philosophy and theology. This was so as the majority of the large constructions were temples.
As the construction of Hindu temples rarely used mortar but used a technique where the stones could be affixed to one another with the force of gravity. The technique followed in doing this was similar to the one used in the Roman Aqueducts. The exquisite carvings were engraved after the stones had been fixed in their places. Thus the carving of figurines right up to the top of a temples roof must have been a demanding task.
Such carvings are especially seen in the Gopurams i.e. roofs over the south Indian temples and on the tall doorways to the temples. The Raj-Gopurams or main roofs of such temples rise to a height of nearly 90 to 100 ft. and are fully carved with various figurines depicting gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon.
Indian techniques of art and architecture spread both westwards and eastwards. During the reign of Ashoka; Afghanistan, Baluchistan and Seitan were parts of the Mauryan Empire. Buddhist Stupas were constructed in these Mauryan provinces. Unfortunately, very few of them have survived till today.
However the huge Bodhisattvas (statues of Buddha destroyed by Talibans) that were cut out of rock faces covering entire mountain faces and cliffs, had survived human and natural ravages. During Kushana times, Central Asia was a part of the Kushana Empire. Indian art blended with Greek and Kushana styles, and spread into central Asia.
Thus India’s cultural frontiers at one time extended up to Balkh (referred to as Vahalika in Vedic texts) on the river Oxus (Akshu) and beyond, and played an important role in shaping the art traditions which flourished between the 1st and the 8th centuries in Central Asia.
The Gandhara School of Art of Afghanistan and Central Asia was actually derived from Indian art styles. In fact even the portrait art of the Oxus region claimed by some scholars to have been an independent school is actually an extension of Indian art forms.
Besides Central Asia, the whole of Southeast Asia received most its art and architectural traditions from India. Along with Buddhism, Indian art and architecture also traveled to countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma as also to China, Korea and Japan. Sri Lanka being on our back door was heavily influenced by Indian art and architecture.
The Stupas in Sri Lanka which belong to the period between the 3rd Century B.C., to 4th century A.D., follow the Indian pattern of a hemispherical Stupa shaped like an egg and called Anda, as referred to earlier in the chapter.
The Dome of the Mosques in Islamic Architecture is derived from the Stupa
The hemispherical construction of the stupas also seems to have influenced Byzantine architecture perhaps through Pre-Islamic, Sassanian Persia. The famous Sophia mosque at Istanbul overlooking the Bosporus Straits has domes which closely resemble the Buddhist Stupa. In fact the minarets in the mosque were erected late when the Ottoman Turks captured Istanbul (then called Constantinople) from the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century.
One can imagine that without the minarets, the mosque, which was originally a Christian Cathedral must have looked very much like a Stupa. In fact this style of architecture also influenced Islamic architecture. The dome mosques in all Muslim countries perhaps have borrowed the style of having dome from the Anda of the Buddhist Stupa.
Indian influences have also felt in Europe Christian Basilicas have similarities with the Buddhist Stupas. Their mosaics seem have borrowed ideas from, the Buddhist chaityas. Indian motifs can also be traced in Gothic sculpture in the carvings in the cathedrals of Bayeux, Aachen and Trier. Though this influence has been indirect and slight, its existence cannot be denied. But the more pervading influence of Indian art and architecture through Buddhism was in countries of south-east Asia.
Indian Architectural Tradition Overseas
Bernard Groslier the author of the section on ‘Indochina’ in the ‘Art of the World Series’ has made the following observations about the influence of Indian Art.
“It was one of the most important civilizing movements of the ancient times, worthy to compare with the Hellenization of the Mediterranean world. And India can justly be proud to have spread the light of her understanding over such distant lands, which without her might have remained in darkness”. The regions to which Bernard Groslier is referring to are the countries of south-east Asia. Many architectural and art forms in these countries display a clear Indian influence.
One instance is the famous 108 meter high statue of Buddha at Dong Duong which closely resembles the Amravati sculptures. The presence of curly hair especially, indicates Indian origin in a country where people have straight hair. In the Bali islands in Indonesia many idols of Ganesha have been found. The people of Bali call themselves Hindus.