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How Old Is The Hindu Temple

India has the largest number of monuments in the world. Even after large-scale destruction of its temples during the Islamic invasions of India, still thousands upon thousands of the Hindu temples survive. Though most are in ruins, they give an idea about the Hindu architecture and sculpture.

After at least six centuries of Islamic destruction and two centuries of British neglect, it is only in the 21st century that the Hindu temple is getting its due fame in the age of social media. An army of self-funded amateurish photographers and heritage tourists have begun to embark on temple trails across India and publish the stunning pictures of the jaw-dropping temple architecture and gradually the world is waking up to the wonder that is the Hindu temple.

In the wake of this newly aroused interest about the Hindu temple, a question which is often raised about it is: how old is the Hindu temple? There are several answers to it, considering the kind of evidence one is taking into account. It is imperative to go into them one by one.

Architectural Evidence

As the Hindu temple is a piece of architecture above all, it is natural to consider the architectural evidence before others. So what does the archaeology tell us about the age of the Hindu temple?

Any temple, chaitya-griha or shrine has two forms. One is rock-cut, which is hewn out of a single rock; and the other form is structural, which is made out of various constituent parts and modules. It is considered that structural temple is harder to build and its know-how came later than the rock-cut architecture.

The oldest Hindu cave temples are to be found at Udaygiri, Vidisha district in Madhya Pradesh.[1] It is a complex of around 20 cave with many sanctuaries and wall panels in high and low relief, the most famous being the Bhu Varaha panel. The caves date from around 4th century CE and were excavated during the reign of the Gupta Empire, under the emperors Chandragupta II (375-415) and Kumaragupta I (415-55). Stella Kramrisch also attests to the early antiquity of these Hindu cave temples:

“The Hindus too carved and hollowed the living rock into cave temples though with some reticence, the earliest cave sanctuary, in Udayagiri in Central India dates from about 400 A.D. only.” [2]

The oldest extant structural Hindu temples with a shikhara date from around the Gupta Age, 5th century CE. The brick temple at Bhitargaon, Kanpur district, Uttar Pradesh, is dated to be from 4th to 5th century CE by J P H Vogel and Percy Brown. J C Harle adds that its date cannot be any later than 435 CE. [3]

Another Gupta temple with a shikhara, is the Dashavatar Temple, in Deogarh, Lalitpur district, Uttar Pradesh. It is also of the same age as the Bhitargaon temple and dates back to 5th century, though some scholars claim that it is slightly later than the Bhitargaon temple. [4]

Other Gupta temples without a shikhara (flat-roofed) of the same or earlier age are found at many places in the state of Madhya Pradesh at Tigawa, Nachana, Bhumara, Eran etc. The Kankali Devi temple at Tigawa [5] is dated to the Gupta Age of late 4th or early 5th century CE. [6] Nachana has a 5th century Gupta Age Parvati temple with flat-roof, on a raised adhishthana (platform). [7] The temple is west-facing and some scholars surmise that there could have been a shikhara earlier, which is now destroyed.

The giant Varaha statue is all that is left of the ancient temple at Eran in Madhya Pradesh. An inscription on the neck of the Varaha in Brahmi script dates it to 5th century CE. [8] The inscription suggests that there was a complete temple around the Varaha statue once. Bhumara also has a fifth century ruined temple which has an Ek-Mukha Linga. The temple dates back to the late fifth century, constructed during the Gupta Age. [9] Ruins of another 4th century Gupta temple, made of bricks are to be found at Pawaya, Madhya Pradesh.

Most of these Gupta temples are found in the state of Madhya Pradesh, in its remotest of corners and smallest of villages. Only two great temples of the Gupta Age are found in Uttar Pradesh. The one at Deogarh is only nominally in Uttar Pradesh, as it is at the banks of the Betwa river, in the Lalitpur district. Just across the river, it is Madhya Pradesh. As Lalitpur is also culturally a part of Bundelkhand and Madhya Pradesh, the Deogarh temple, though lies geographically inside the political boundaries of Uttar Pradesh, is a part of the Madhya Pradesh architectural heritage for all practical purposes.

Uttar Pradesh is the heart of Hindu culture and civilization. This is where great cities like Ayodhya, Kashi, Prayag and Mathura are situated. This is where the greatest gods of Hinduism, Rama and Krishna were born. This is where the Ganga and the Yamuna flow. This is where some of the most powerful Hindu empires ruled. But the repeated Islamic invasions obliterated all vestiges of Hindu culture and civilization here.

If there are so many Gupta temples still extant in Madhya Pradesh, then in all probability, the Gupta emperors built many great temples in Uttar Pradesh as well, which no longer survive. This means that there could have been temples dating to an earlier period, but which were destroyed during the Islamic invasions.

In south India too many temples have claims of antiquity going back to 4th or 5th century BCE. The famous Madhukeshwara temple at Banavasi, Karnataka has the present architecture dating from 9th century CE, but S. K. Ramachandra Rao claims that the original temple core dates back to a much earlier period, to the time of the Kadambas of Banavasi (4th century CE) and maybe even to an era before them, around 2nd century CE.

The almost ruined Pranavesvara temple at Talagunda in Karnataka dates to 450 CE. The Bhuvaraha Laxmi Narasimha temple at Halasi, Karnataka dates back to 5th century CE. The Kapotisvara temple, Chezerla, Andhra Pradesh has an even older claim to 4th century CE. [10] Its apsidal plan is also of interest, later to be copied by the Pallava kings in Mahabalipuram. [11]

The still extant Gupta temples discussed above prove that the Hindu temple is at least 1600 – 1700 years old, extant from somewhere around 4th century CE.

Evidence from Sculpture

Though architecture is important in India, when a sacred structure like the Hindu temple is concerned, it is the icon of the deity which is of primary importance. It is architecture which followed sculpture in the chronological evolution of the Hindu temple, not vice-versa. The icon came first, and then the structure to accommodate the icon evolved in various shapes and structures. As K. S. Ramachandra Rao stresses:

“The basic truth about the temple is the image that people have, and this centres round the icon. The icon is the source of the image; and the image may reach far out.” [12]

After the Vedic age, when the first images of deities were carved they did not need the temple. Then, as in many cases now, an icon beneath a banyan tree, or an icon on a platform alone would constitute a temple. The icon is much older than the structure that houses it, as Ramachandra Rao says:

“Early shrines were probably confined to the icons. The custom of building the temple confined to the icons. The custom of building the temple first and then preparing an icon to be installed in it is a later one. According to strict canonical considerations, a temple must be built for the icon, not an icon got ready for the temple, for a temple is really only an outgrowth of the icon, an image of the icon.” [13]

And when the first structures were built to house the icons, they were probably built of perishable materials like wood, thatch or mud. The structure of many early Hindu temples points to their wood and thatch origins. The roof of the Draupadi Ratha at Mahabalipuram shows clear resemblance to a thatch roof. Similarly, many ancient and medieval temples in Karnataka and other states have ceilings which look like crossed wooden beams, bearing signs to their wooden origins.

Temples made of these perishable materials were not meant to survive for a long time. As the Hindu temple evolved from the Vedic fire altar, it also resembled it in durability. The Vedic fire altar was created when the occasion demanded and dismantled once the Yajna was done. Similarly, the early temples were created with perishable materials and dismantled once the purpose was done. This tradition can still be seen in many festivals across India where Ganesha and Durga idols are made of mud, worshipped with gusto for a few days and then are immersed in water.

This tradition has a parallel in Indian theatre. The Natyashastra bears testimony to temporary stage. Unlike, Greece where permanent theatres were a norm, India worked with temporary theatres, created them in massive proportions when the occasion demanded and dismantled once the play was over. Unlike the Hindu temple, the Indian theatre never took permanent form and is still performed on temporary stages.

Like Vedic fire altar, and ancient Indian theatre, the early Hindu temple, housing the icon was a temporary building, not meant to last for centuries. S. K. Ramachandra Rao bears testimony to this:

“There is evidence to suppose that the early shrines were temporary structures, erected when the occasion of community-worship demanded, and were pulled down later. The canonical concept of pavilion (mandapa) supports this supposition.” [14]

Sometimes the icon was free standing. It commanded as much respect as a majestically built temple did. And for all practical purposes, it was a temple. There are many examples to such free standing icons, which function for all practical purposes as great temples. T. A. Gopinatha Rao asserts that the image worship or icon worship in India is much older than the Christian era, and even the Buddha.

“There are indications of the prevalence of image worship among the Hindus long before the time of Gautama Buddha. The employment of an external object to concentrate the mind upon in the act of meditation in carrying on the practice of Yoga is in India quite as old as Yoga itself.” [15]

The Hindu temple, as claimed by some scholars, is not a break from the Vedic tradition. Apart from the Vedic Yajnas and rituals that are carried on in the temple, even the very act of worship in the temple is not alien to the Vedic tradition. In the Vedic times, the priests performing the Yajna used to chant mantras, invoking a deity and then imagined that deity in anthropomorphic form. The deity was imagined in this personified form till the Yajna lasted. This is also attested by many scholars, as Gopinatha Rao stresses:

“Dr. Bollenson finds in the hymns (the Vedas) clear references to images of the gods, (Journ. Of the Germ. Orient. Soc. Xxii, 587, ff). “From the common appellation of the gods as divo naras, ‘men of the sky’, or simply naras ‘men’ and from the epithet nripesas, ‘having the form of men’, R. V. iii, 4,5 we may conclude that the Indians did not merely in imagination assign human forms to their gods, but also represented them in a sensible manner.” [16]

Image worship had become common by the time of Yaska, (6th century BCE) who compiled Nirukta and Nighantu.

In the temple, that image was given a concrete form. In the temple too, the deity is said to ‘inhabit’ the icon only when the priest invokes him or her with proper rituals. In this way, image worship was not alien to the Vedic times.

But soon, these images were given concrete external forms and were used, as Rao suggests, for concentrating the mind during meditation. Rao then proceeds to suggest that since Yoga uses an external object for fixing attention, image worship in India is at least as old as Yoga itself. The codifier of Yogic discipline in India is Patanjali. However, he was just summing up the great discipline in his Yoga Sutras, in 5th century BCE. The discipline itself is older than that. As Buddha was himself initiated into the practice of Yoga, so Yoga must predate Buddha making image worship in India older than 5th century BCE, older than the time of Buddha.

Rao then proceeds to date back image worship in India to the age of Panini, the great grammarian. Panini lived somewhere in 7th century to 6th century BCE.

“…there were images of gods and goddesses in the days of Panini, which were apparently not sold in the bazaars, but were, nevertheless, used for the purpose of making a living.” [17]

Since a temple is most importantly a sacred structure and in its most basic form is reduced to the icon of the deity, the new question which arises is: are there icons of Hindu deities which date back to a period older than 3rd century CE? The answer would be yes.

Gudimallam, Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh has a very interesting Shiva temple, the Parasurameswara Temple. Though the architecture of the temple is of a later period, of about 8th-9th century, the Shiva Linga that it houses is more ancient and unique. This is one of the very few ancient Mukha Lingams which show not just the face of Shiva, but his entire body. The Linga is very ancient, belonging to 2nd or 3rd century BCE, as T. A. Gopinatha Rao attests:

“The oldest piece of sculpture, in South India distinctly Hindu in character, is, as far it is known now, the Linga at Gudimallam. From the features of the figure of Shiva carved thereon in half relief, from the ornaments worked out on the figure, from the arrangement of the drapery, from the battle-axe upon the shoulder, and many other characteristics, it may be put down to belong to the period of Bhaurhat sculptures, that is, to the second century before Christ. This remarkable piece of sculpture is interesting in two ways; it at once assure us of the exact nature of early Linga worship and also affords us a lower limit of time in relation to the worship of Shiva in the form of a Linga. From this Linga we may safely conclude that Linga worship is at least as old as the 2nd century BC.” [18]

Considering that the icon would have been housed in some sort of structure even at the time of its installation, Gudimallam takes back the antiquity of the Hindu temple to at least 2200 years old.

Evidence from the Inscriptions

Though not many Hindu temples exist which date back earlier than 3rd or 4th century CE, there are inscriptions which testify to the existence of temple and temple worship before Christ. Gopinatha Rao while writing about a 2nd century BCE inscription found in Brahmi script, on a Garuda Stambha, in Besnagar, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, says:

“This is about the earliest known inscription mentioning Vishnu as Vasudeva; and from this we are in a position to assert that the worship of Vasudeva in temples in India cannot be later than the 2nd century BC.” [19]

An inscription at Ghosundi, Rajasthan indicates the existence of a temple of Sankarsana and Vasudeva, forms of Vishnu. It is ascribed to 1st century BCE. Another inscription of pre-Christian era, mentioning construction of a stone temple is found at Mora, Mathura. [20] It dates from 1st century BCE, and speaks of a “sailadevagr…” “a stone house of god”. Five images in stone, of the holy Pancaviras of the Vrsni clan are said to have been installed here. [21] The temple structure is no longer to be found, but the inscription confirms of its existence.

Another inscription of 1st century BCE, from Nagari, Udaypur, Rajasthan describes a temple like structure, consisting of an enclosure around an object of worship. [22] The temple no longer survives, but the outer enclosure and the platform on which the temple used to stand is still there.

Evidence from inscriptions tells us about the existence of Hindu temples, in the pre-Christian era. The inscriptions tell us that the Hindu temple is at least 2200 years old.

Evidence from the Scriptures

Hindu epics and other scriptures also mention about the temples. Both The Ramayana and The Mahabharata testify to the existence of the Hindu temple.

“In the Ramayana, we see mention of temples in Lanka, (Bk. VI. 39, 21), clearly evidencing the fact that there existed at least in S. India the worship of images enshrined in temples.” [23]

Stella Kramrisch asserts that both the epics mention the existence of temples. The Mahabharata uses the words Devasthana for the temple. The Ramayana uses words like Devagrha and Devayatana. [24] It is noteworthy to mention that all of these words are still in use in many parts of India, especially south India. The word, ‘Prasada’ is used in the sense of a sacred structure in ancient texts like Sankhayana Srauta Sutra and Grhya Sutras. [25]

These pieces of evidence prove that some form of temple or sacred structure housing a sacred object was a familiar thing even in the times of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, which takes the date of the Hindu temple to at least 1200 BCE or 3200 years old.

Another important point to note here is that if the age of the Hindu temple is taken back to more than three millennia, then it means, as discussed above, that it is older than the Buddha, and if the Hindu temple is older than the Buddha, then it lays to rest all arguments that the Hindu temple was just an evolution of the Buddhist temple or chaitya-griha and nothing more.

Evidence from other sources

Numismatics also bears relevant evidence about the Hindu temple. Some coins belonging to the pre-Christian era depict the likeness of the Hindu temple on them, such as those found at Mathura. [26] The Audumbura copper coins depict temples with multiple stories. [27]

Similarly in what can be called as meta-architectural evidence, some sculptures in low relief show an ancient form of temple. They are found at Barhut and Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh, [28] Bodh Gaya in Bihar [29] and Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. [30]

Evidence from numismatics and other kinds of evidence also prove that the Hindu temple was in existence in the pre-Christian era.


The evidence from architecture, sculpture, literature, numismatics and inscriptions, confirms that the Hindu temple is older than the popular academic surmise and older than its earliest extant examples. The massive destruction that happened during the Islamic invasions accounts for the loss of temples and evidence regarding it. Also, the earliest temples were built in perishable materials like wood, thatch and mud and not meant to last long. The form of the Hindu temple was also different in ancient times, but the sacred essence of the Hindu temple has continued in an unbroken continuity from the Vedic times to the present age. Ultimately, the chronology of the temple is less important than its spiritual and sacred dimension, and which could be the focus of the future scholars of the Hindu temple.


  1. Harle, J.C. Gupta Sculpture: Indian Sculpture of the Fourth to the Sixth Centuries A.D. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
  2. Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple. Vol. I. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1946. (2015 ed.). p. 113.
  3. Harle, J.C. Gupta Sculpture: Indian Sculpture of the Fourth to the Sixth Centuries A.D. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
  4. Dehejia, Vidya. Indian Art. New York: Phaidon Press Limited, 1997. p. 143
  5. Cunningham, Alexander (1879). “Report of a Tour in the Central Province in 1873-74-75-76 (Vol IX).” Archaeological Survey of India. New Delhi, p. 41.
  6. Mishra, S. N. Gupta Art and Architecture. Agam Kala Prakashan. New Delhi. 1992.
  7. Mookerji, Radhakumud. The Gupta Empire. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2007. p. 146.
  8. Dubey, Nagesh. Eran Ki Kala. Sagar. 1997. p. 11.
  9. D. Banerji. “The Temple of Siva at Bhumara.” Memoirs of the Archaeological Survey of India No 16, New Delhi. 1998.
  10. Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple. Vol. I. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1946. (2015 ed.). p. 113.
  11. Coomaraswamy, Anand Kentish. “HIIA”, Fig. 147.
  12. Ramachandra Rao, S. K. The Vastu-Silpa-Kosha: Encyclopaedia of Hindu Temple Architecture and Vastu. New Delhi: Divine Books, 2012. Vol. I. p. 48.
  13. ibid.
  14. ibid. p. 49.
  15. Gopinatha Rao, T. A. Elements of Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1997. p. 1.
  16. ibid. p. 4.
  17. ibid. p. 3.
  18. ibid. p. 6.
  19. ibid. p. 6-7.
  20. Ramachandra Rao, S. K. The Vastu-Silpa-Kosha: Encyclopaedia of Hindu Temple Architecture and Vastu. New Delhi: Divine Books, 2012. Vol. I. p. 52.
  21. Epigraphica India, XXIV; J. N. Banerjea, Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art (JISOA), Vol. X.
  22. Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple. Vol. I. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1946. (2015 ed.). p. 109.
  23. Gopinatha Rao, T. A. Elements of Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1997. p. 5.
  24. Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple. Vol. I. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1946. (2015 ed.). p. 135.
  25. ibid. p. 135.
  26. ibid. p. 140.
  27. Banerjea, J. N. The Development of Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal, 1956 (3rd rev ed.). Fig, 16. Pl. I.
  28. Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish. “HIIA”, Pl. XXX, Figs. 116, 117, 126A
  29. Banerjea, J. N. The Development of Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1956 (3rd rev ed.). Pl. I, Fig. 16.
  30. Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish. “HIIA’, Figs. 42 and 70.

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(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2017)

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