Hindu temples

A general understanding of some facts about Hindu temples will help you to understand the following photos and remarks. This is pretty much a resumé of the opening chapters of George Michell's book The Hindu Temple, An introduction to its meaning and forms (see bibliography).

A Hindu temple is at once a collective work of art, the temporary dwelling of a god, a symbol of the cosmos and a path leading the worshipper into contact with the god, from the temporal to the eternal.

Hindu temples were built by groups of workmen arranged into guilds, working under the direction of Brahmins (the highest Hindu caste) who ensured that the principles stated in the holy works, the Shastras and Agamas, were adhered to. Large temples were erected by means of donations from royalty or from associations, of merchants, e.g. Only in rare cases, such as at Gangaikondacholapuram, were pictorial references to the donors included.

Shiva and Rajendra
The saint Chandesa is shown
receiving a floral victory garland
from the god Shiva, accompanied
by his seated wife Parvati.
This figure may represent
Rajendra, the Chola king who
built the
Brihadeshvara Temple at
in the early seventh century.

According to Hindu mythology, the gods particularly like mountains and caves as dwelling places and Hindu temples represent both. The soaring central tower (shikara) represents the mountain where the god lives. The small, dark and mostly undecorated inner sanctum (garbhagriha) represents his cave home. Priests, of the Brahmin class, guarantee "the evocation, reception and entertainment of the god as a royal guest". (Michell) We witnessed several examples of this -- in Chidambaram, Tanjore and Madurai.

Shikhara of Tanjore Temple The  shikara of the
Brihadishwara Temple
at Tanjore
(with the moon)

To please the god, a large number of people was often required. The Brihadeshvara Temple in Tanjore has historical inscriptions along its outer walls. One gives a list of people supported by the temple  "The list includes dancing-girls, dancing masters, singers, pipers, drummers, lute-players, conch-blowers, superintendents of temple women and female musicians, accountants, sacred parasol bearers, lamp-lighters, sprinklers of water, potters, washermen, bearers, astrologers, tailors, jewel-stitchers, brazier-lighters, carpenters, and superintendents of goldsmiths, totalling more than six hundred persons." (Michell) So temples and their personnel often constituted small cities. At some sites, such as Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh), one sees sculptures of these people on the bases upon which the temples are built.

Tanjore inscriptions
Inscriptions on the exterior walls of the
Brihadishwara Temple in Tanjore
recount the history of the building
and later life of the temple

Khajuraho dancers Khajuraho musicians
Dancers and musicians on the frieze of the Lakshmana Temple
at Khajuraho (from our 2006 trip)

The temple's ground plan is based on a mandala, a "sacred geometric diagram of the essential structure of the universe." (Michell) It usually faces the east, the direction of the rising sun. The shikhara, the tower built exactly over the inner sanctum, may represent either Mount Meru, the center of the universe in some Hindu myths, or a "means of access to the higher and more sacred spheres..." (Michell) In the south of India, the shikhara is often referred to as the vimana, though this term is also used to designate the entire structure in which the main shrine is located.

Plan of Srirangam Temple in Trichy The plan of the
Srirangam Temple
in Trichy
plainly shows the concentric
courtyards symbolic
of the universal mandala

The goal of the temple is to bring about contact between man and god through the worshipper's approach towards the inner sanctum. As he moves from a world of illusion (maya) towards knowledge and truth, he is symbolically searching for moksha, release from the cycle of rebirth central to Hindu belief. The temple is viewed as a tirtha (a ford, or place of transit) from this unreal world to the real, ideal one. Doing so, the worshipper passes from the sunlit exterior, through gates guarded by sturdy dvarapolas, or door guardians (statues or reliefs). He often then passes through a mandapa, or pillared hall, and perhaps through concentric walls into the darker interior until he finally arrives at the simple garbhagriha. He makes several clockwise circumambulations (pradakshina) of the inner sanctum, which in many cases is done in the architectural ambulatory surrounding the garbhagriha, much as in European cathedrals. Reaching the next-to-last, small chamber, the worshipper passes his offering to a priest who alone is allowed into the inner sanctum. The worshipper is content with a view (darshan) of the rite and receives a mark on the forehead as sign of the worship (puja) he has accomplished, as we did at Tiruvannamalai and Chidambaram. You won't see any photos of this, though, as it is forbidden to take photographs inside the temple proper, i.e., within the inner sections.

Doors to Shiva shrine in Meenakshi Temple in Madurai
Closed doors to the Shiva shrine in
the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai
(Note the blurred
silver guardian statues)

There are significant differences between Hindu temples in the north of India and those in the south. The most visible difference is seen from the exterior -- the form of the tower. In the north, the tower is called a shikhara and has a circular cross-section and a gently curving profile. It is ornamented with horseshoe-shaped arches (gavakshas) and capped with ribbed-disk-like elements (amalakas).

Vishvanatha Temple, Khajuraho Shikhara
The Vishvanath Temple at Khajuraho
and its shikhara

In the south, the tower is called a gopuram and is rectangular in cross-section with a pyramidal profile. It is divided into stories, each of which has something resembling a roof.

The gopuram of the
Sabhanyaka Nararaja Temple
in Chidambaram

For an excellent discussion, see The Hindu Temple, by Anthony Batchelor.


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