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Philosophy And Culture Behind Hindu Temple Architecture In India


         According to Frank Lloyd Wright, a famous American Architect “Architecture is that great living creative spirit which from generation to generation, from age to age, proceeds, persists, creates, according to the nature of man, and his circumstances as they change. That is really architecture.”

The word ‘temple’ is derived from the Latin word templum means a sacred precinct. According to the definition, temple is a structure reserved for religious or spiritual activities, such as prayer and sacrifice, or analogous rites. Traditionally, the temple is a sacred structure and also an indicative of abode of God. As we all know, temples are not only a place of worship but they also play an important and dominant role in the cultural, social and economic life of the people. Of all the constructional activities of the early India, temple building was the foremost. The money, the energy, the skill, the education and the art of land were exhibited in this singular religious activity[1]. Temple is not only an abode of God, it is a symbolic representation of the various social and cultural activities. Here, not only the religious, but also the political, social and cultural aspects of history are preserved in stones. When we have a glimpse of ancient settlement we find that there was hardly any settlement without a temple. When new settlements were established, the architects invariably made provision for a temple by leaving proper site for it[2].

The dominant note in Indian culture has always been religion and the characteristic expression of religion has been worship in temples. And temple culture has been a major dimension of Indian culture[3]. Generally temples are public institutions and they involve social organization. They are built by collective effort and sustained by collective interest. Their size, complexity and opulence are related to the effort and economy of the supporting community. There are temples which are large and magnificent, aesthetically conceived and elegantly executed, filled with ornamental carvings, sculptured panels and decorative motifs on walls and pillars, and which are also richly endowed and elaborately administered[4] .

In all the ancient literature ‘temple’ is referred to as ‘Devalaya’, ‘Devayatan’, ‘Devakula’, ‘Devagiriha’ etc. which indicate that the ancient temple was ‘house of the God’ The earliest temples in India are assigned to the second and first centuries B.C. The Brahmi inscriptions of the second century BCE found at Besnagar which commemorates the erection of a religious column in honour of the ‘Vasudeva’ by the Heliodorus. An inscription found at Ghosundi, recording the construction of a stone-enclosure for the worship of ‘Sankarshana’ and ‘Vasudeva’ by a chieftain named Gajayana, is ascribed to the first century BCE.  Kautilya’s Arthasastra (3,8) prescribes the building of temples on the divisions of the vastu, not only for the site divinities (Vastu-Devata) but also for deities like Aparajita, Jayanta, Siva and Vaisravana. Kharavela is recorded to have repaired temples of different sects, for the ramparts and towers had been flown away by wind. Gatha – Saptasati of Hala (1,64) mentions the existence of temples in the second century. The Bilsad inscription mentions a temple to Skanda–Mahasena. On the basis of above evidences, we can easily conclude that temples were existed before six century BCE in India.

The earliest group of Gupta temples dating from fifth century CE were of a single celled sanctum with a portico-‘Mandapa’, resting on four pillar e.g. Temple No.17, Sanchi, Tigwa (Distt. Jabalpur, M.P.) and Eran (Distt. Sagar, M.P.)  The earliest structural temple that has survived is the one at Bhitargaon (Distt. Kanpur, U.P.), a remarkable brick structure, deeds of Vishnu and Durga[5]. Assigned to the fifth century, it is credited to the Gupta dynasty. Another temple ascribed to the same period and same dynasty is Dasavatara temple at Deogarh. Afterward, in the period of Chalukya, Pallava, Rastrakuta, Chola, Pratihar and Parmar etc., temples were constructed huge, lofty and magnificent.

The Philosophy of Temple Construction

Temples are built to establish the contact between man and God. The rituals and ceremonies performed in the temples have primarily influenced the forms of temple architecture. The identification of divinity with the fabric of the temple and the reflection of the form of the Universe with that of the form of the temple is of supreme importance. Hence, importance is given right from the selection of the site of the temple, to formation of the ground plan and also to its vertical elevation. The symbolic representation of the cosmic ideas is formalized by creation of sacred mathematical treaties, with precise measurement systems. The plans of the temples are based on sacred geometric diagrams (Mandala) – symbolized as a miniscule image of the universe with its coordinated organized structure (as in Vaastu Purusha Mandala).

In Hinduism, the attainment of spiritual perfection is through progression of various stages of consciousness[6]. Thus, the temple is a place of transit, a ford or passage (Tirtha). The symbolism of passage through the doorways is represented by the idea of changeover from temporal to the perpetual. The sacred deities are placed in a small sanctuary within the temple known as Garbhagriha. The interior spaces of the temples are arranged to promote the movement of the devotee from outside through a series of enclosures which becomes increasingly sacred and dark as the enclosure is approached[7]. At a general level, the nomenclatures of the spaces, as one pass from outside to inside of the temple, designates the various functions that are supposed to be performed in those spaces. For example, as one enters from outside, the first space is the Bhoga Mandir, which generally means the ‘offering space’, where the offerings, particularly, the food offerings are made to the deity. Then one comes to the Nat Mandir, which is the ‘dancing hall’, used for performance of dancing and singing to the God. Dancing, in Hindu philosophy, is a “protype of cosmic dance…(that) brings into play every portion of the body in movement which symbolizes precise spiritual state… (emulating) the return to the Sole Being from whom all things emanate and to whom all things return to the ceaseless ebb and flow of the life force”[8] .

Temple Culture in Ancient India

‘The temple was not merely a place of worship; it filled a large place in the cultural and economic life of the people. Its construction and maintenance offered employment to number of architects and craftsmen who vied with one another in bold planning and skilful execution. The making of icons in stone and metal gave scope to the talents of the best sculptors of the country. The daily routine, especially of the larger temples gave constant employment to number of priests, choristers, musicians, dancing girls, florists, cooks and many other classes of servants. The periodical festivals were occasions marked by fairs, contests of learning, wrestling matches and every other form of popular entertainment. Schools and hospitals were often located in the temple precincts and it also served often as the town-hall, where people assembled to consider local affairs or to hear the exposition of the sacred literature. The large endowments in land and cash bestowed on each temple are successive generations of pious donors tended to make it at once a generous landlord and a banker, whose aid was always available to those that needed it. The practice of decorating images particularly those used during processions with numerous jewels set with precious stones encouraged the jeweler’s art to a considerable extent. And it is no exaggeration to say that the temple gathered around itself all that was best in the arts of civilized existence and regularized them with the humaneness born of the spirit of Dharma. As an agency of social well –being, the medieval temple has few parallels[9].”

As a cultural centre, the temple witnessed the evolution of different schools of art, architecture, sculpture, painting, music and dance in different parts of the country, which brought out a variety of systems in plastic and performing arts, although all of them stemmed from the same spiritual stock. Cultural activities ranging from music and Bhajans to theatre and dramas have taken place in the temple precincts. The temple had also provided inspiration to a number of poets, composers and artists who have richly contributed to the Bhakti literature, music and dance. The ‘Ranga-Sala’ in the central part of the mandapa, as its name would imply, has provided venue of dancing[10].

The temple established as a significant centre of religious and cultural activities. Religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion. In order to express itself religion has to make use of cultural forms and every religious act is formed by the particular culture of a country[11]. In this way, the temple, as a religious centre, represents the culture of the particular region.

The temple was originated and developed as a religious centre. It continued to be the main centre of public worship among the Hindus. All sections of society visits and offers their prayers and worship to the deities ritually. The construction of a temple and a tank was considered as an act of religious merit[12]. Naturally worship in temples was elaborate and ostentatious. It was roughly of two kinds namely ‘Anga-Bhoga’ and ‘Ranga-bhoga’ where Anga-Bhoga was probably related to daily routine of worship of main deity and Ranga-bhoga was probably worship associated with other functions. Various kinds of endowments were received by temple for the worship, Anga-bhoga and Ranga-bhoga of the deities[13].

Temple was well-known for philanthropy. They maintained Dharmasalas for deeding the pilgrims and others[14]. The flower gardens were endowed in Venulavada Agrahara with religious devotion for the offerings and worship of the God Arikesvaradeva and for the Achari who worshiped that God[15].

The ‘Rang–Mandapa’ was another significant limb of temple complex where ‘Ranga-Bhoga’ is to be conducted. It was customary in the village or town to celebrate religio-social functions like marriage in the premises of the temple. The temple would in this event not only make available to the parties a hall (Mandapa) or courtyard but also other services necessary for the solemnization of the marriage, at minimal expense. This was indeed a great help for the poor folk[16].

The temple continued to be an educational centre. ‘The recitation of the Puranas which spread Hindu doctrine and culture among both literates and illiterates continued to be a special feature of temple activities. Adult education was provided throughout the country by endowments in temples for the recitation and exposition of the epics and Puranas[17]. The singing of devotional hymns in temples by choirs regularly maintained for that purposed and the training of young men for the same purpose in schools generally attached to mathas is another side of education that deserves notice[18]. Many of the temples were well-known centre of learning, some of them universities (Maha-ghatika-sthana), imparting education in the traditional lore[19].

The Matha, which conducted to temples, were also a centre of learning where pupils were taught the arts and sciences. Gifts of land and money were made to them frequently for the purpose of imparting education[20]. Monasteries in fact played an important role in the promotion of education. The Saiva Mathas attached to the temple were also educational institutions. They maintained teachers who taught Vedas, Sastras, Agamas, Puranas, Kavyas and the various arts[21].  The institutions mainly concerned with the development of education in ancient and medieval period besides the Hindu temples are the Ghatika, Matha, Agrahara, Guhai, Salai and Buddhist and Jaina monasteries[22]. While the temple was a symbolic expression of the religious feelings of the people, the educational institutions mentioned above stood for the propagation of the religious ideals and philosophy[23]. The temple played a prominent role in the promotion of educational activities. There were more higher educational centers attached to temple in medieval India than there are in modern India[24].

Music and dance were also encouraged by temples specially. It was a common venue, where musicians, actors, dancers, jesters, humorists, speakers, entertainers, gestures, debaters, orators, pipers and drummers were exhibited properly. ‘Musical recitals and presentation of dance-items were included in the daily and occasional worship ritual, after the main sequence was completed. On occasions of festival, these become more important than ever, and attracted large crowds to the temple[25]. While the ‘Devadasi’ system and the institution of professional dancers and musicians in the service of the temple were not universal or wide spread, it was customary to hire them occasionally, however, the temple had on its pay-roll-pipers and drummers as their services were required in several sequences even of daily worship[26].

Music in the temple was of two types, vocal and instrumental. Vocal music was provided by both male[27] and female[28] singers and reciters appointed it the temple service. The instrumental music was provided by different kinds of instrumentalists serving in the temple. They included lute player[29], flute players[30], tabor beaters[31], gong beaters[32], hand bell ringers[33], conch-blower[34], horn-blowers[35], drummers[36], etc. There are many epigraphical records which show to grants for the theatrical entertainment of the Gods[37].

The temples and the deities were the source of spiritual and devotional inspiration for the poets, scholars and writers to produce the works of high standard in Sanskrit and other languages which helped to strengthen the religious, moral, spiritual and ethical valued among the monarchs and the masses[38].

In medieval India, temple developed as a museum. The huge and lofty temple had various types of sculptures and icons in stone and metal which gave scope to the talents of the best sculptures. Another, temple was consisted as a town-hall where people assembled to consider local affairs or to hear the exposition of sacred literature. It is also meeting places for students and others. The kings and royals were also used to meet the citizens in temple complexes.

The temple organized festivals occasionally where all section of society was involved. The rich and the poor alike had the benefit of these entertainments. During the festivities, pilgrims were given free food and lodging in the rest houses attached to the temples[39]. During the annual Rath- festival of a temple, which continues for more than nine days, the whole village or town assumes a festive aspect. It is usual for vendors from neighboring areas to gather here and ply their trades. It is an occasion for brisk business, for there will be a large concourse of people drawn from different places, known as ‘yatra’ (pilgrimage), this is a social and economic arrangement for trade and commerce, centering round a temple, and is a source of revenue for the temple as well as the local administration[40].

There are two aspects of a temple- religious and administration. The temple, as a religious institution, is the place where worship is conducted for the benefit and well-being of the entire community. Another is the aspect of administration of temple that required huge income to play its all pervasive role in the society. Generally, temples were richly endowed by royal patrons, wealthy devotees and others such as village grants, land grants, various dues and taxes, money grants, and miscellaneous grants including with the grants of animals, oil mills and others. The king and others used to make grants to a temple on the day of his coronation[41], at the time of leading an expedition[42], on the occasion of victory in a battle[43], on the birth of a son for the prosperity of his son[44] at the request of others[45], at the time of setting up of divinities after founding Agraharas or Brahmadeyas[46], at the time of visiting the temples for obtaining all manners of prosperity[47].and at the time of performing the puja[48] etc.

The temple was flowed as a bank in medieval India. Temple was given twelve to fifteen per cent as usual rate of interest per annum[49]. Temple in those days, used to give loans on interest. The temple played a prominent role in mobilizing developmental funds within a region by giving loans to the village assemblies for developmental purpose. Most of the loans were given for productive activities such a cultivation, cattle-breeding and trade[50]. All this was done on religious grounds[51]. The temple indirectly helped in the promotion of trade and commerce in the village. Generally, various articles needed to pilgrims and for the worship of the deity[52].

There was numerous servants in temple complex which broadly classified into three categories such as those engaged in the purely spiritual services, those employed in the administration of temple and those appointed to render various kinds of other services. ‘Besides the regular employees, the temple also provided job opportunity to large number of people indirectly. Many persons were also hired by the temple temporarily or on part-time basis[53]. The temple was a major source of employment for the people, for instance, the Kesava temple[54].and Panchalingesvara temple[55] at Somanathapur had nearly one hundred fifty and ninety servants. The Akkesvara Temple at Sundi in Dharwad, had one thousand servants[56].

The administration was another significant aspect of temple which can be classified into two systems, public and private broadly. The village assemblies, it is interesting to note, used to manage temple affairs either through direct involvement or through a full time manager duly appointed by it[57]. In the direct involvement the village assembly would elect every year some elder persons from its own body to look after the management of charities including the temple administration[58]. If a village was a small one, the temple managements and administration were taken care of by the village headman himself[59]. The priests were also allowed to take part in the management of the temples[60]. The main duty of the temple managers were the disbursement and allotment of temple finances for various activities of the temple and supervising the activities of the temple[61].


The temple played a dominant role in the medieval Indian society; besides being a religious centre there was no one in a village or town who was not directly or indirectly involved with the temple respectively. Generally, the temple was administered by the village assembly or particular divinities. For the administration, temple required huge finance to play dominant role in society. The financial requirement was fulfilled by all sections of society through various donations. The main items of expenditure of the temple included those incurred on daily worship, offerings, celebration of various festivals, cloths, ornaments, flowers, perfumes for the deities, maintenance of Sastras where free boarding and lodging were provided to the ascetics, pilgrims, travelers and other strangers  and Mathas or Ghatika- sthanas where free lodging and boarding were provided to the students, wages and free living quarters for various categories of the temple staff, maintenance of the temple property such as cultivation of temple lands and other contingent expenses including the repairs and renovations of the temple[62]. The musicians, dance masters, dancing girls, scholars, goldsmiths, masons, gardeners, garland-makers, watchmen, door-keepers, water carriers, washer men, barbers, sweepers, pounders of rice etc. were connected with temple management as permanent or part-time employees. The deities of temple were the source of spiritual and devotional inspiration for the poets, scholars, writers and others. It was also the centers of service activities. It was provided hospitals, Mathas etc. for ascetics, priests and others. In fine, temple was a hub of the society where the religious, social, economic and cultural lives were reflected. In this way, gradually, temple culture flourished richly in India.


[1]  J. Ramanaiah, The Chalukya and Kakatiya Temples, Bharatiya Vidya Prakashan ,Delhi, 1989,p.45.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  S.K. Ramachandra Rao, Agam-Kosha, Vol. I,Kalpatharu Research Academy, 1992, p.31.

[4]  Ibid, p.32.

[5]  Ibid, p.35.

[6]  G. Michell, The Hindu temple: An Introduction to its Meaning and Forms. University of Chicago Press, 1988, p.66.

[7]  Ibid, p. 67.

[8]  J. Chevalier and A. Gheerbrant, A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Group, USA, 1996, p.273.

[9]  K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1955, pp.324-326.

[10] J. Ramanaiah, Temple of South India: A Study of Hindu Jain and Buddhist Monuments of the Deccan, Concept Publishing Company, 1989, p.221.

[11] John C.B. Webster (ed.), History and contemporary India, Oxford University Press, 1935, p.26.

[12] J. Ramanaiah, op cit, p.218.

[13] Ibid, p. 219.

[14] Telangana Sasanamulu (Telugu), Vol.I, No.21, pp.73.177.

[15] Ibid, Vol. I, No. 13, p.116.

[16] S.K. Ramachandra Rao, Agam-Kasa-I, p. 43.

[17] J. Ramanaiah, op cit, p.220.

[18] K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, op cit. pp. 321, 322.

[19] S.K. Ramachandra Rao, Agam-Kasa-I, p. 43.

[20] N. Venkataramanayya, Pallavulu-Chalukyalu (Telugu), pp233-234.

[21] J. Ramanaiah, op cit, p.220-221.

[22] D. Dayalan, Early Temples of Tamilnadu; Their Role in Socio-Economic Life, Harman Publishing House,New Delhi, 1992, pp.192-193.

[23] T.V. Mahalingam, Administration and Social Life under Vijayanagar, University Historical Series, No. 15. Madras, 1969, p.227.

[24] A.S. Altekar, Education in Ancient India, Nanda Kishore & Bros. ,Varanasi, 1948, p.143.

[25] S.K. Ramachandra Rao, op cit., p. 44.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Epigraphia Carnatica, IX, NI, 61 (AD 802); Annual Report of the Mysore Archaeological Department, 1937, no.27 (AD 1100); 24; Epigraphia Carnatica, VI, Chikmagalur, 137 (AD1130).

[28] South Indian Temple Inscriptions, I, no.393; Ibid, no.520; ARSIE, 1913, no.211.

[29] South Indian Inscriptions, II, no 66.

[30] Epigraphia Indica, XV, no.21 (AD 1028).

[31] Epigraphia Carnatica, X, Kolar, 106d.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] South Indian Inscriptions, no.66.

[35] Epigraphia Indica, IV, no 50.

[36] Epigraphia Carnatica, IX, NI. 61 (AD 802); Epigraphia Indica, XV,no 21; Ibid, XIII; no.14 (AD1055); Epigraphia Carnatica, XI, Dg. 20 (AD 1045); Ibid, VI, Chikmagalur, 137 (AD 1130); Ibid, Kadur, 149 (AD 1205); Ibid., X, Kolar, 106d.

[37] K. Ismail, Karnataka Temples: Their Role in Socio-Economic Life, Sundeep Prakashan, Delhi, 1984,p. 160.

[38] J. Ramanaiah, op cit. p.226.

[39] T.V. Sairam, Indian Temple-Form and Foundations,Agam Kala Prakashan, Delhi, 1982,  p.32.

[40] S.K. Ramachandra Rao, op cit. p.46.

[41] Epigraphia Carnatica, V (1976), Tn. 150 (AD. 1173); Epigraphia Carnatica, V, BI. 118 (AD 1173).

[42] Epigraphia Carnatica, V, Hassan, 162 (AD 1180).

[43] A Topographical List of the Inscriptions of the Madras Presidency, I, no.182 (AD 1071).

[44] Epigraphia Carnatica, V, B1, 124 (AD 1133).

[45] Epigraphia Carnatica, IV, Nagamangala, 85 (AD776); EC, II,Vindhyagiri, 178 (AD 1159).

[46] Annual Report of the Mysore Archaeological Department, 1937, no. 26 (AD 1133).

[47] Epigraphia Carnatica, VI, Chikmagalur, 21-22 (AD 1178).

[48] Hyderabad Archaeological Series, no. 18, (AD 1178).

[49] Ram Saran Sharma, Light on Early Indian Society and Economy, Manaktalas, Bombay,1966 P.123.

[50] South Indian Insoriptions, II; 94, 95.

[51] Ram Saran Sharma, op cit, p.120.

[52] J. Ramanaiah, op cit. p. 236.

[53] D. Dayalan, op cit. p. 163.

[54] Epigraphia Carnatica, V (1976), Tn 88 (AD 1276).

[55] Ibid. Tn 96 (AD 1276).

[56] Epigraphia Indica, XV, p. 85.

[57] K. Ismail, op cit. p. 24.

[58] South Indian Inscriptions, III, no. 6.

[59] Ibid. II. Pt. II. No. 26.

[60] Epigraphia Carnatica, V, AK. 12 (AD 1288).

[61] South Indian Inscriptions, III, no. 12; Epigraphia Carnatica, IV, Ng. 49 (AD 1270);   Epigraphia Carnatica, III, Md. 79 (AD 1275).

[62]   K. Ismail, op cit, pp.166-167.

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