Skip to main content

Temple: Hindu Temples


"The Indian temple, an exuberant growth of seemingly haphazard and numberless forms," wrote Stella Kramrisch in 1922, "never loses control over its extravagant wealth. Their organic structure is neither derived from any example seen in nature, nor does it merely do justice to aesthetic consideration, but it visualizes the cosmic force which creates innumerable forms, and these are one whole, and without the least of them the universal harmony would lack completeness" ("The Expressiveness of Indian Art," Journal of the Department of Letters, University of Calcutta, 9, 1923, p. 67). This intuitive understanding of the temple's structure and significance has been fleshed out and confirmed by Kramrisch and others in the years since those words were penned.

Axis, Altar, and Enclosure

Hindu temples are built to shelter images that focus worship; they also shelter the worshiper and provide space for a controlled ritual. Between the fifth and the fifteenth century ce, Hindu worshipers constructed stone temples throughout India, but sacred enclosures of another sort had been built centuries before. Tree shrines and similar structures that enclose an object for worship (tree, snake, liga, pillar, standing yaka, all marked by a vertical axis) within a square railing, or later within more complicated hypaethral structures, have been illustrated in narrative relief-sculptures from the first few centuries bce and ce. Whatever the variations, these structures mark a nodal point of manifestation, as does Viu in reliefs from the fifth century ce that show him lying on the cosmic ocean, with a lotus that springs from his navel supporting Brahmā, who proceeds to generate the universe.

In creation myths and in the imagery of the lotus, as in the structure of Mauryan monolithic pillars (from the third century bce), the cosmic axis separates heaven from the waters. Creation flows from this nodal point toward the cardinal directions, producing a universe that is square, marked by the railing-enclosure of these early shrines, by the harmikā (upper platform) of the Buddhist stupa, and by the edges of the brick altar used for sacrifice. The Āpastamba Śulbasūtra, a text probably of the fourth century bce, comments that "though all the earth is vedi [altar], yet selecting a particular part of it and measuring it they should perform the yajña ['sacrifice'] there" (6.2.4). The identity of the altar and the entirety of creation is thus established quite early, and this configuration of vertical axis, square altar, and enclosure persists in Indian architecture to demonstrate the participation of each monument in the cosmogonic process.

Diagram of Construction

The Vāstupurua Maalathe square diagram on which the altar, temples, houses, palaces, and cities are foundedalso outlines creation (see figure 1). The myth of the vāstupurua portrays the first sacrifice, in which a demon is flayed and his skin held down by divinities who ring the diagram (padadevatā s; lit., "feet deities"). In the center is the "place for brahman "the formless, ultimate, "supreme reality." The use of this diagram for the construction of houses and the laying out of cities on a grid of eighty-one squares (nine by nine) is recorded in a chapter on architecture in Varāhamihira's sixth-century ce text, the Bhat Sahitā; the use of a grid of sixty-four squares (eight by eight) as a special case for the construction of temples (figure 1) is recorded in a separate chapter.

Cave, Mountain, and Shelter

By the early centuries ce the use of anthropomorphic images to focus worship had moved from "substratum" cults into mainstream Hinduism and into Buddhism. Early Hindu images often represented cosmic parturitionthe coming into present existence of a divine reality that otherwise remains without formas well as "meditational constructs," to use T. S. Maxwell's phrase. The representation of the Buddha became permissible with the emergence of two new conceptions: the Buddha in cosmic form, replacing or supplementing the stupa as focus for meditation, and the boddhisattva s, figures who mediate between the aspirant and the ultimate reality of nonexistence. Behind anthropomorphic imagery in India, however, is always an ultimate reality without form.

Early shelters for anthropomorphic images were of several types: apsidal brick structures resembling the caitya-gha s of the Buddhists, elliptical structures perhaps suggesting the "cosmic egg," open altars and hypaethral structures (both extending earlier aniconic formulas), small stone chatrī s (umbrellas or pavilions), cave shrines, and eventually temples with towers. Rock-cut shrines of the early fifth century ce (particularly those at Udayagiri, near Vidiśa, in central India), present two imperative metaphors for the temple: the sanctum as womb (garbha) in which the seed of divinity can be made manifest, and the temple as mountain. As the cave opens up the earth, so the sanctum opens up the temple.

If existing cave shrines emphasize the cave metaphor, an inscription dated 423/4 ce from Gagadhāra in western India already compares a temple there to "the lofty peak (śikhara) of the mountain Kailāśa," and the so-called Pārvatī Temple at Nachna of about 465 ce ornamentally rusticates its exterior walls to suggest Kailāśa's piled rocks and animal-filled grottoes. The metaphors of cave and mountain for sanctum and temple are explicit in inscriptions and texts, but it is the concept of divinity made manifest and the practice of devotional worship (bhakti) that make the temple possible. The cosmic mountain and its womb/cave ultimately shelter a tender divinity, in the form of an image, and must open out to include and give shelter to the worshiper, who approaches the central point of cosmic manifestation along a longitudinal axis.

Iconicity of Architectural Form

In North India, the fifth century ce saw experimentation in the means by which architecture could supply shelter to images. Small cave shelters were excavated (Udayagiri), cavelike cells were constructed (Sāñcī), structures with towers were built in impermanent materials (Gagadhāra), and stone "mountains" were built (as at Nachna) with cavelike sanctums. Some temples began to show multiple and variant images of the central divinity on the walls (Mahia), and others became complexes by adding subsidiary shrines to shelter other deities (Bhumara, Deogarh). Such a proliferation of images can be seen as a product of the Hindu conception of cosmic parturition: if divine reality is formless, through the process of creation it takes an infinity of forms in this (created) world; though the

individual may choose one divinity as "trunk" for worship, others take up appropriate positions as "branches."

Only in the sixth century did such experiments lead to a North Indian temple form that was complete in its symbolism and architectural definition. On plan, the North Indian temple grows from the Vāstupurua Maala (see figure 1): its corners are those of the square vedi ; its walls are half the width of the sanctum in thickness (as prescribed in the Bhat Sahitā ); at its center is the brahmasthāna. The outer walls begin to acquire projecting planes that measure the dimensions of the interior sanctum and the "place for brahman." The central projections on the wall now and then show closed doorways but most often frame secondary images (parśvadevatā s) that extend and differentiate the form of the divinity within. In elevation, these planes continue up through the superstructure as bands that curve in to meet a square slab at the top of the temple, from which a circular necking projects. The necking supports a large, circular, ribbed stone (āmalaka) that takes the form of an āmala fruit and normally is crowned by a stone waterpot (kalaśa) from which leaves sometimes sprout.

The imagery (and its iconicity) is explicit. Just as the block of the temple's walls projects planes outward in order to display the images that make its sacred content manifest, so too the temple "grows" in altitude, marking the process of cosmic parturition by its form. The womb of the temple, its sanctum (garbhagha), provides the dimension for an uttaravedi ("upper altar") that terminates the tower (some seventh-century shrines show this altar as a shallow, pillared platform at the top of the curvilinear superstructure). Extending the dimensions of the brahmasthāna, the necking above this vedi takes the form of the emerging "world pillar" (axis mundi), which passes symbolically through the sanctum with the body of the temple as its sheath.

As North Indian architecture evolves between the sixth and the thirteenth centuries, the plan of the temple shows more and more offsets, the walls gain more images, and the central tower of the temple becomes clustered by other, miniature towers, increasingly giving the effect of a mountain peak through specifically architectural means. If this variety of constructional forms, buttresses, and images "body" forth reality in the manifest world, the ribbed āmala stone at the top of the temple, much like the staff that sprouts in Tannhäuser, presents the ripening seed's potentiality for fruition. Both the pot with germinating seeds that is buried under the foundation and the vase finial placed on top of the temple as an act of final consecration ritually help to perpetuate cycles of cosmic growth and fruition.

Palace, Hut, and Fortress

The temple thus combines physically the pillar that marks the axis of cosmic parturition, the altar of sacrifice taking the shape of the created universe, and the need for shelter of the tender divinity and the human worshiper; it unites the cosmic mountain and potent cave. South Indian temples, built in stone from the seventh century ce, give emphasis to the temple's role as shelter for anthropomorphic divinities by retaining throughout their evolution a terraced, palatial form crowned by a domed śikhara that has the shape of the ascetic's hut. As early as the Ājīvika caves in the Barabār Hills of Bihar, dating from the third century bce, the hut of the living ascetic had been an architectural form appropriate for presenting the concept of sacred potentiality.

The temple is called prāsāda ("palace") in North India, and the architectural veneer of its superstructure, in both north and south, allude to forms of palace architecture. In the north, these have been completely subordinated to the temple's vertical ascent, becoming body for the altar that still presents itself at the top of the temple, open to the sky. In the south, deities sheltered within the temple's compact, palace-like structure increasingly took on the accoutrements of a secular ruler, through ritual and the cycle of festivals. While divinity in the form of images (mūrti s) could take on qualities of royalty, and kings did validate their role by patronage of temples, the king was considered a reflection of divine order principally through the quality of his actions and the nature of his responsibilities, not by divine right.

If the temple is palace for divinity, it also is fortress, protecting the world from disorder and chaos. Corners are "attended with evils" according to the Bhat Sahitā (53.84), and "the householder, if he is anxious to be happy, should carefully preserve Brahman, who is stationed in the center of the dwelling, from injury" (53.66). In the puranic leg-end of Śiva conquering the three worlds, he frees three "cities" of demons, making them his devotees and transforming the cities into his temples. In fact, images of Guardians of the Quarters (dikpāla s) are placed on the corners of temples from about the seventh century, and a number of geometric experiments with plans based on the rotation of squares seem to play on the fort as a form for temple architecture.

Large temples in South India often enclose the sanctum in a series of ambulatory paths and walls that simulate rings of fortification around a walled city, and in fact use the eighty-one-square maala appropriate for the city, with a single square at the center surrounded by concentric rings of squares, to define the temple's plan. If practice in South India increasingly emphasized the royal personality of the divinity and his relation to his subjects and kingdom by use of great festival processions, it also began to surround temples and contiguous sections of the city with walls pierced by gateways (gopura s) that became the focus of patronage themselves.

Access and Aspirant

The Hindu temple must also act as access and approach for aspirants and worshipers. This role changes the temple from a centralized, bilaterally symmetrical structure (reflecting the nature of the cosmogonic process) to one with a defined longitudinal axis. On that axis the worshipers approach their personal divinity within the sanctum; but also on that axis the aspirants increasingly can place themselves, in halls built for that purpose, as if under the umbrella of the sacrificer, positioning themselves for ascent. "The whole intention of the Vedic tradition and of the sacrifice is to define the Way (mārga) by which the aspirant can ascend [the three] worlds," wrote Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. "Earth, Air, and Sky compose the vertical Axis of the Universe. [These are] the Way by which the Devas first strode up and down these worlds and the Way for the Sacrificer now to do likewise" ("Svayamātā : Janua Coeli," in Coomaraswamy, vol. 1, Selected Papers: Traditional Art and Symbolism, ed. Roger Lipsey, Princeton, 1977, pp. 465467, 470). The temple is as much a monument to the procession of time as it is a static model of the cosmos or a marker of its origin. Padadevatā s ringing the vāstumaala (grid) are identified with the asterisms (nakatra s) of the lunar calendar, and the temple both helps generate and acts as a focus for the ritual time of the festival calendar. Personal ritual within the temple involves both approach and circumambulation, and movement by the aspirant through time toward release had to be a recognized part of the architect's program for the temple.

All sides of the temple allow access to the divinity through imagery, but the entry that pierces and makes ritual approach possible, most frequently on the east, is given increasing importance and architectural definition as temples evolve. Halls for ritual and assembly are added along this axis and sometimes used for dance or music to entertain the divinity, but often they serve simply as shelters for approach. One common and potent configuration places the sanctum (sometimes surrounded by an enclosed ambulatory path) behind a closed hall that may also be fronted by an open hall and an entry pavilion.

In the Kaarīya Mahādeva Temple at Khajuraho (c. 10251050), for example, space for the worshiper within the closed hall takes the same dimensions as the sanctum, with parallel rings of the maala defining walls of the sanctum, the space within the hall, ambulatory walls, and the outer enclosure. Ceilings in such halls imitate the canopy over the ritual sacrificer; this intention is made architecturally clear in some cases by having a separately defined pavilion within the hall over the central platform, as at Sinnar in Maharashtra or at the great Jain temple at Ranakpur. The ritual fire can be placed in this position, and worshipers gather there as much to carry out ritual as to face the image of the deity.

The Temple in the Human Image

In such an architectural context, yogin and god are equal participants: the place of divine manifestation and the path of the aspirant have been given consubstantiality along the temple's longitudinal axis; sanctum and sacrificer's space both have become altars manifesting supreme reality in human form. In the Hindu temple, the axis of cosmic creation and the ritual path for release of the aspirant/worshiper/sacrificer (yajamāna) meet; the temple shares in the image of the "Supernal Man" (Purua). As Kramrisch has written, "Purua, which is beyond form, is the impulse towards manifestation" ("The Temple as Purua," in Studies in Indian Temple Architecture, ed. Pramod Chandra, New Delhi, 1975, p. 40). This is true whether that manifestation is of the cosmos, of divine forms, or of human potential.

See Also

Iconography, article on Hindu Iconography; Maalas, article on Hindu Maalas.


Bhattacharyya, Tarapada. The Canons of Indian Art. Calcutta, 1963. A pioneering modern work on India's architectural texts.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. "Early Indian Architecture: II, Bodhi-Gharas." Eastern Art 2 (1930): 225235. In this series Coomaraswamy establishes a basis for understanding the forms of early Indian architecture.

Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple. 2 vols. Calcutta, 1946. Kramrisch's monumental work lays out, as no other, the ritual and metaphysic of the temple and establishes a groundwork for the analysis of standing monuments.

Meister, Michael W. "Maala and Practice in Nāgara Architecture in North India." Journal of the American Oriental Society 99 (1979): 204219. An article that demonstrates through the analysis of standing monuments the practical applicability of the ritual vāstumaala.

Meister, Michael W., ed. Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture, vol. 1, pt. 1, "South India, Lower Drāviadēśa." Philadelphia, 1983. The first in a series of volumes intended to cover the full spread of India's temple architecture with technical detail.

Meister, Michael W. "Śiva's Forts in Central India." In Discourses on Śiva, edited by Michael W. Meister, pp. 119142. Philadelphia, 1984.

Meister, Michael W. "Measurement and Proportion in Hindu Temple Architecture." Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 10 (1985): 248258.

Sarkar, H. Studies in Early Buddhist Architecture of India. New Delhi, 1966. Brings to light the results of new excavation and research on early forms of Indian sacred architecture.

Stein, Burton, ed. The South Indian Temple. New Delhi, 1978. A collection of essays succinctly dealing with the South Indian temple as a sociological institution.

New Sources

Michell, George. The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms. Chicago, 1988.

Royal Patrons and Great Temple Art. Edited by Vidya Dehejia. Bombay, 1988.

Michael W. Meister (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Temple: Hindu Temples." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 15 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Temple: Hindu Temples." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (August 15, 2018).

"Temple: Hindu Temples." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved August 15, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.