Styles and Origins of Hindu Temple Architecture in India

Fousiya Zaker F

India, a country so rich in culture and tradition, is home to around 2 million temples spread across its 28 states. The history of temples in India is heavily influenced by religion and they are deeply embedded in the cultural heritage of India. The art, architecture and legends behind these magnificent structures are unparalleled.

One of the oldest functioning temples in the country, the Mundeshwari Devi Temple located in the Kaimur district in the state of Bihar, dates back to 3-4 B.C. The studies on the complex and intricate designs and sculptures of these houses of worship are never-ending. Though for this blog’s sake, we will go through the very basics of their architectural styles and elements.

Styles of Hindu Temple Architecture

The Nagara Style

The Nagara style of temple architecture is most prominent in the structures of North India. Some of the oldest structures belonging to this style are from the period of the Gupta Empire. The entire temple stands on a single square platform and contains steps leading to it. Graduated projections are found on each face. The structure roughly takes the shape of a beehive and is marked by its numerous layers and towers. Temples of this architectural style usually do not have elaborate boundary walls or gateways. They contain one or more Shikharas or towers of varying heights. The Garbhagriha or womb chamber is located directly beneath the tallest Shikhara.

The Konark Sun Temple in Odisha is an example of Nagara style architecture.

Konark Sun Temple © Photo by Venkat Rajalbandi on Unsplash

The Dravidian Style

The majority of temples in South India are of the Dravidian architecture style. The Dravidian style of temple architecture of South India was established by the Pallavas who ruled in the south. These temples are enclosed by a compound wall. They contain single or multiple Gopuras or gatehouses. There is also a temple reservoir within the compounds. The Garbhagriha is usually located in the smallest and oldest tower. Meenakshi Temple of Madurai is an example of Dravidian architecture. Other examples include the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tiruchirappalli which has 7 concentric compound walls.

Meenakshi Temple © Photo by Melissa Kumaresan on Unsplash

The Vesara Style

The Vesara style of architecture is a hybrid of the Nagara style and the Dravidian style – that is, a mix of South Indian and North Indian temple architecture. It usually contains a Dravidian floor plan and Nagara elevation. The roots of the Vesara style originate from the Chalukya rulers of Badami from 500-757 B.C. This style of architecture flourished in the Deccan regions of India.

The structures emphasize their Vimanas and Mandapas. A unique feature is their open ambulatory passageway. They are also found to have unraised platforms and intricately carved pillars, ceilings and doorways.Sri Virupaksha Temple in Hampi and Kailasanath Temple at Ellora Caves are examples of the Vesara style of architecture.The structures emphasize on their Vimanas and Mandapas. A unique feature is their open ambulatory passageway. They are also found to have unraised platforms and intricately carved pillars, ceilings and doorways.

Sri Virupaksha Temple in Hampi and Kailasanath Temple at Ellora Caves are examples of Vesara style of architecture.

Virupaksha Temple © Photo by Sandip Kalal on Unsplash

Elements of Hindu Temple Architecture

Although there are numerous styles of Indian Temple architecture, the basic structural elements of the buildings are mostly the same

  1. Plinth: The Pitha is the plinth or platform of the temple.
  2. Towers: The towers or spires of a temple, also called the Shikharas represent the highest mountain peak or “Meru”. In South India, they are called Vimana. 
  3. Ornate Monumental Tower: The ornate monumental tower, called Gopuramis found at the entrance of a temple. They function as gateways through the compound walls.
  4. Womb Chamber: This chamber is where the idol of the deity worshipped in a temple is placed and is called the Garbhagriha.
  5. Atrium: The intermediate hall between the Garbhagriha and mandapa is called the Antarala.
  6. Circular Path: Pradakshina Patha or the circular path is for the clockwise circumambulation of sacred entities. It is a corridor around the exteriors of the Garbhagriha.
  7. Pillared Hall: The Mandapa, a pillared hall in front of the Garbhagriha is for the devotees to pray, meditate or watch the rituals performed in the temple. The Ardhamandapa is the main entrance that leads to the Mandapa.
  8. Hall of Dance: The ritualistic dances in a temple are done in the hall of dance, called Natamandira.

Vaastu Shastra in Hindu Temple Architecture

Temples are a source of peace and harmony. It is a place where one seeks union with the Supreme Being. For the positive energy and environment within a temple, Vaastu Shastra must be followed. A general set of Vaastu Shastra rules are followed for all temples. A few of them are as follows:

  • The plot on which a temple stands should be regular in shape, either square or rectangle. 
  • The entrance to a temple must be in the East direction. Southern entrances must be avoided. 
  • Windows are also placed on the Eastern side only. 
  • Underground water storage must be located in the North-East direction and overhead tanks in the South-West.
  • Kitchen temples should be in the South-East corner.
  • Charity/donation boxes must be kept in the East or North direction.

The central importance of temples in the lives of common India and its people is immense. The architectural evolution of Indian temples has a history of over 2000 years, and they still remain the face of Indian culture to this day.

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