Temple Types (Styles) of India

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TEMPLE TYPES (STYLES) OF INDIA The forms of the Hindu temple are based on a rich blending of imageries, including most significantly those drawn from the ritual requirements of Vedic sacrifice and the hierarchical arrangements and towered forms of the royal palace. The geographic spread of the styles through which this imagery is expressed roughly parallels that of India's numerous languages, in a wide range of local vernaculars that fit generally into northern, Nāgara, and southern, Dravida, regional traditions. Their chronological development is framed by the regnal eras of the dynastic powers governing their patronage.

Though we may consider any Indian shrine for icon worship a Hindu temple, the elite, refined (samskrita) temples constructed in brick and stone, or excavated from the living rock of a promontory, have received the most prestigious patronage over the centuries and—because they have survived—the greatest recognition by modern cultural historians. The vast majority of these devasthāna or prāsāda (places or palaces of the gods) are Brahmanical, but Jains, Buddhists, and other sects have had closely comparable temples constructed or excavated by the same communities of artisans and more or less according to the same quasi-textual principles. Their remains in the ancient period extend beyond the borders of modern India to the historical limits of Indic culture, reaching as far north and west as Afghanistan, as far east as Bangladesh, south to the island of Sri Lanka.

The oldest evidence of these temples can be traced to the emergence of monumental arts in stone of the Maurya period of the third century b.c. The rock-cut Lomas Rishi and Sudhama excavations of the Barabar Hills in Bihar preserve in their outlines the essential form that has lasted to this day, of inner and outer chambers, constructed on carefully proportioned, symmetrical, geometric layouts, oriented to the celestial axes, and crowned with domed or vaulted ceilings. The Barabar Hills excavations were created for the Ajivika sect. Among the earliest representations we have of a Brahmanical temple is the stone relief depiction of the domed Sudhammā Deva Sabhā (the Holy Assembly Hall of the Gods) enshrining the Buddha's turban as an object of veneration, attached to the multistoried Vijayanta Pasāde (Victorious Palace) of Indra, on a railing pillar from the Buddhist stupa at Bharhut, from about 100 b.c. It shows a design quite similar to the Barabar Hills pair, of a rectilinear hall connecting to a domed chamber. As the palace of a Brahmanical deity enshrining an object of worship, it is quite literally a Hindu temple. Both designs represent wood-framed structures, carefully articulated to display refined carpentry and joinery, as contrasted with the less refined wattle and daub constructions represented for common, vernacular dwellings in early Buddhist reliefs.

The oldest texts referring to the construction of Hindu temples, such as the sixth-century a.d. Brihat Saṃhitā, and the later Vāstu Shāstras, like the Mayamata, explain the devotional temple for the worship of Purāṇic deities as the equivalent of a Vedic sacrifice, both in the process by which the metaphysical (sūkshma) significance is implanted in its physical (sthūla) structure and in the benefits its construction achieves for its yajamana (sacrificer) patron. Prior to the construction of the temple, the metaphysical design was inscribed upon the chosen site as a vāstu mandala (sacred grid) with its various pada (squares) assigned to different deities. The main deity occupies the central squares of the grid, with subordinate deities occupying the separate pada, cells of the inner and outer surrounding bands of the grid. These geometric forms are not a ground plan for the temple, but a conceptual model for the parivārālaya-prākr̄a, the concentric cloisters of chambers surrounding the deva (king or deity), which is the ideal form of both the royal palace and the refined Hindu temple.

Unlike the architectural systems of Europe or East Asia, where structures are conceptualized as being assembled from bays, measuring the space from one support column to the next, Hindu temples are conceived as assemblages of compartments. Even more distinctively, the Brahmanical temple is conceived as a transcendental entity. Once consecrated, it is as much the body of the gods it enshrines as the sanctum icons that represent them in figurative and symbolic form. As the worshipers pass through the temple's halls on their way to the witness the deity in its sanctum, they pass within the cloister of compartments inhabited by the main god's surrounding divinities.

The forms of the Vedic altars, ritual mandalas, cosmic mountains, and gods' chariots are all models for the stone temple, but it is the imagery of the royal palace that dominates the temple's visible forms and ritual operation. The temple is the god's palace, constructed as a handsome, domed and turreted mansion of inner and outer quarters, where the deity is represented in human (as well as symbolic) form, surrounded by its court of subordinate beings and served by its human priests and worshipers. Though they are mural structures of brick or stone masonry, these celestial mansions are articulated to represent the wood frame construction, with plaster walls and thatched roofs, of contemporaneous palaces. The hierarchy of the central deity surrounded by ranges of demigods and lesser beings, protected by walls excluding those of the lowest castes, proclaims the social hierarchy of the varṇa system.

The simplest temples are (usually though not necessarily) square sanctums (garbha griha) covered by vaulted towers, oriented toward one of the cardinal directions. Normally the sanctum is preceded by a porch or a hall where worshipers can go to approach the god, and the temple sanctum carries a tower representing multiple stories, to signify the enclosing rings of encircling deities, the parivāra-devatā, of the god's retinue, described in the Shāstras.

Textual references to these temples go back to Pānini, in the fourth century b.c. The earliest structural temple remains are archaeological fragments, and inscriptions on structures that have long since disintegrated. The earliest preserved of these sites, like Nagari and Nagarjunakonda, show elongated halls on rectilinear and apsidal plans, located within walled compounds more or less in the forms seen more fully in the interiors of the Buddhist caitya griha at the contemporaneous rock-hewn sites of Bhaja, Nasik, and Ajanta.

Historic Remains

The most striking element of temple form, from the earliest examples to the present, have been the towers—called vimāna in the south, shikhara in the north—that reach over their sanctums, indicating the location of the deity, and symbolically depicting the deity as surrounded by its numerous subordinate deities. The ornate forms of these towers are the most prominent displays of their distinctive styles.

The Shilpa Shāstra texts divide the myriad temple types into Nāgara (northern), Dravida (southern), and Vesera (mixed), according to the shapes of their towers. The full scope of these traditions extends beyond the tower forms to their entire structural and ornamental vocabularies, including pillar, doorway, wall niche, architrave, and molding orders. The great majority of fine stone temples can be classed into local varieties of northern or southern regional traditions, or a combination of the two.

The locations of the Nāgara and Dravida traditions coincide roughly with the regions associated with Indo-European and Dravidian language use, upon which much Indic culture is organized, expressing a conscious alignment with that pattern. The Dravida traditions, with their additive combination of fully formed miniature kūta (sanctum depictions) are in accord with the agglutinative nature of Dravidian languages, much as the highly elided, nonagglutinative form of the Nāgara traditions suit Indo-European languages. Geographically the Nāgara style extends farther south than the concentration of Indo-European language use, beyond the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers, which are more or less the northern limit of the Dravida style. Many sorts of Vesera (mixed) style temples can be found in the upper Krishna and Tungabhadra basins, where the two macroregions overlap.

The earliest surviving Brahmanical temple remains, such as the brick temple at Bhitargaon and the rock-cut shrines of Udayagiri Vidisa, come from the fifth century a.d. and display the gradual emergence of the two style traditions. By the sixth century, temples in a number of places show them in their distinctive forms.

The Dravida Style

The mid-sixth century a.d. South Temple of the Rāvaṇa Phadi complex at Aihole offers us what is likely the simplest and possibly the earliest surviving example of the Dravida style. It is a cubical sanctum, raised on a molded basement, crowned by a four-sided cupola, and preceded by a porch. It is a simple ekatala vimāna (single-story sanctum). The Dravida style is characterized by the crowning of every significant element with a domed superstructure, if not such a square vault then a round, apsidal, eight-sided, or oblong (barrel) vault.

A glance toward the contemporaneous rock-cut shrine beside the South Temple shows a facade representing a pair of comparable domed pavilions flanking its entrance. As with other rock-cut temples of South Asia, the promontory into which the temple is excavated expresses its tower. A difference between the Nidhi (wealth deity) shrines, represented in relief on the cave facade, and the freestanding South Temple is the presence of a dormer window, gavāksha, in the center of these domes.

The addition and multiplication of such architectural details as this gavāksha dormer is one of the key means of developing temple design from the earliest period to this one. The other is the more subtle contouring, proportion, and ornamentation of these forms. The two-story Banantigudi, at nearby Mahakuta, adds a gavāksha to the dome and raises it over a pilaster-articulated second story. The subsequent Chalukya Dravida temple on the north fort at Badami raises this simple four-sided dome to a third story, articulates its supporting stories as a hāra (cloister) of kūta (cells), and sets the entire multistoried tower within a hall articulated to represent a parivārālayaprākāra ring of miniature chambers set in a connecting gallery. By the early eighth century, Dravida temples, like the Malegitti at Badami and the Kailasanatha at Kanchipuram, display eight-sided domes, buttressed by miniature kūta and raised over multiple parivārālaya stories and surrounding halls.

In the Kailasanatha we can see this essential Dravida prototype articulated spatially in a towered sanctum buttressed by surrounding chambers, set within a courtyard ringed by a free-standing parivārālaya-prākāra (courtyard wall of subdeity sanctums). The Virupaksha and Mallikarjuna temples at Pattadakal both display parivārālaya-prākāra. This is not because, as was once believed, they were copied from the Kailasanatha, but because this multiplication and elaboration of vaulted pavilions in concentric hierarchies is the essential pattern of the Dravida temple, recognizable in the decorative imagery of its towers, wall entablatures, and door and window pediments.

As the northern and southern style regions coincide roughly with the linguistic-cultural macroregions, the individual Dravida traditions in stone were developed within the vernacular-linguistic regions represented roughly by the modern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. Within each region they have been most effectively distinguished by the dynasties that have patronized their creation. The imperial Chalukya developed the earliest Dravida tradition of the Kannada-speaking Deccan, and the imperial Pallava the earliest of the Tamil coastal plain. The subsequent traditions in the Tamil region, associated with the patronage of the earlier and later Chola dynasties (ninth to thirteenth centuries), carry on directly from the Pallava in relatively similar forms, enriching some decorative and structural elements and adding others. In the Chola's royal Brihadesvara temple at Tanjavur, the Dravida temple vimāna reaches its greatest height, at 216 feet (66 m), and begins to display the multiplication of concentric prākāra enclosures and barrel-vaulted gōpura (gateways) that become characteristic of larger second-millennium complexes.

We can see an example of this later, developed Dravida temple complex in the multiple sanctums, halls, and enclosing courtyards, of the Bhaktavatsaleshvara at Tirukkalukkundram. The Bhaktavatsaleshvara, which includes structures from as early as the ninth century at its core, reached its present size in the seventeenth century. Though early temple texts require the tower of the main deity to be the tallest structure at a site, it is interesting to note that with the multiplication of concentric temple walls and gateways, we find gōpura towers increasing in height as one moves away from the main temple, in a reversal of previously established hierarchy.

With the Vijayanagara dynasties from the fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries, the Tamil regional formula of vast walled compounds was spread to the Deccan, and there is a multiplication of broad, open, multipillared pavilions with elaborate figurative piers. The Kannada Dravida traditions of the Chalukya of Kalyani in the eleventh and twelfth centuries are mostly, though not always, characterized by increasingly profuse decorative detail, and a multiplication of sanctums off a common hall. From the twelfth century on, decorative kūta of a distinctively Nāgara type are incorporated in these designs. Thus an essentially Dravida tradition becomes subtly Vesera.

In the Telugu-speaking regions of the Deccan are found styles quite comparable to, but distinct from, those in the Kannada regions. The earliest surviving structural temples there were created under an eastern branch of the Chalukya, carrying a similarly simple, early Dravida style into the ninth and tenth centuries with a growing profusion of ornamentation. The Kalyani Chalukya tradition of Karnataka crossed into Andhra with the spread of that dynasty's power. The progressively enriched and elaborated Deccan Dravida temples of the Telugu Choda, Kakatiya, and Reddi, from the eleventh through the mid-fourteenth centuries, are marked by increasingly elaborate architectural articulation and the development of finely stylized, large-scale figurative imagery.

The most striking variations within the Dravida tradition are found in the styles of the western coastal plain of Kerala and Karnataka, where expansive wood frame roofs crown the designs and wood details take over important elements of the internal decoration as well. That these are essentially Dravida style designs can be seen from the domed pavilions depicted in its stone niche pediments and entablatures, though the dramatic visual impact of its wooden roofs leave much of these walls in shadow, obscuring this element at first glance. The temples of coastal Karnataka combine the wooden superstructures and ornamentation of the southwest coast with Deccan Dravida stone articulation.

While the conservative Dravida traditions of Tamil Nadu have been maintained within a relatively narrow range up to the modern period, changing in proportion, elaboration, and ornamentation but relatively little in their basic forms, the styles of the west coast and the Deccan have continued to create a wide range of local variation.

The Nāgara Style

The Nāgara style articulates the same underlying symbolic forms seen in Dravida temples, in an alternative stylistic tradition. Its distinctive curvilinear latina tower presents a more vertical and compactly unified representation of these forms than the layered, horizontal, and segmental display of the Dravida style. It is not as obvious at first glance that the rings of miniature chambers set in concentric hierarchies, raised one story above the other, are depicted on the Nāgara tower, as they are relatively obscured by the abbreviations and fusions of its decorative vocabulary and their subordination to the curvilinear outline and vertical ribs. Where Dravida forms are composed of separate kūta chambers lined up in distinct rows, the latina shikhara represents its collection of miniature chambers more subtly, through contractions and combinations, subordinated to the commanding unity of its parabolic silhouette.

The famous Kumrahar plaque of the second century, apparently depicting an early incarnation of the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gayā, reveals that this variation existed from an early period. It represents a shikhara temple, with four stories rising over its sanctum, the miniature chambers of the upper levels represented not by fully articulated kūta but by the abbreviation of gavāksha dormers.

At Mahakuta, where eighth-century Nāgara and Dravida temples stand side by side, we can see a clear example of the latina tower on the Sangamesvara temple. The wall of the Sangamesvara has a raised central image niche at its center, and subordinated udgama (interconnected gavāksha) pediments on either side, representing smaller, flanking chambers. The Nāgara tower above continues this imagery with a raised central rib crowning the central niche, flanked by corner ribs over the subordinate bays. Within its curvilinear outline, the Nāgara tower blends its horizontal layers and vertical ribs into a complex unity, capped by the cogged wheel of the crowning āmalaka, which is the Nāgara's equivalent of the domical cupola of the Dravida style. (Both traditions add a kalasha, a ritual water vessel, above the crown, to signify the temple's ritual consecration.) A continuous udgama network blends the central rib into a single unit. The corner ribs, however, are divided into Nāgara kūta formed out of two udgama layers capped by a corner āmalaka. Thus, like the Dravida's vimāna tower, the Nāgara's shikhara tower represents a palatial, skyscraper crown for the sanctum, composed of story upon story of cloistered chambers.

If we shift our gaze from the Deccan-Nāgara to the Kalinga-Nāgara of Mukhalingam, in coastal Andhra, we can see the parivārālaya-prākāra represented on the mandapa of the ninth-century Madhukesvara. The Madhukesvara's hall has enlarged replicas of its curvilinear tower at its four corners, linked by a row of miniature towers in reliefs, representing a cloister of Nāgara cells. Comparable parivārālaya of cells are represented on most Nāgara sanctums and halls, though this may be obscured by the richness of the ornamentation, depicting the abbreviations and elaborations of the underlying forms.

Nāgara temple designers employed an impressive creativity in devising the bewildering variety of rich decorative schemes to express the uniqueness of each subregional style and each individual temple. The visual emphasis of the tenth-century Lakshmaṇa temple at Khajuraho, in central India, stresses its horizontal layers of molded basements, and walls with figures stacked one over the other, before taking off vertically in its rippling towers. Here too every element is organized into a distinguishable sequence of linked cells, each crowned with an appropriate tower of its own.

The Lakshmaṇa temple shows an evolutionary variation of the Nāgara's curvilinear tower, where the latina core is buttressed by urahshringa (half-tower) forms on each side, and smaller quarter and three-quarter shikhara representations below. Each of these abbreviated towers represents the chamber of an attendant deity. But, in the nonagglutinative northern fashion, the individual cells are integrated into the compound whole through the abbreviations and elisions of modules ambiguously alluded to, rather than literally enunciated.

Preceding the Lakshmaṇa's compound tower, we can see lower, pyramidal roofs, covering its hall and two porches. These layered roofs complement the dramatic verticality of sanctum towers while distinguishing the spaces they cover as less exhalted. There are smaller, sub-ordinate temples standing at the corners of the Lakshmaṇa's subbasement, forming a conventional five-altar (pañcāyatana) worship complex.

As North India was divided among a larger number of local dynasties, spread over a wider geographic expanse than in the South, a greater number and variety of local styles were developed. The most widely spread variation of the curvilinear tower is found in the rudimentary-seeming phāmsanā latina, seen on the Madukesvara, where the horizontal tiers, visible beneath the udgama networks of the usual latina, are represented without ornamentation, within the characteristic curvilinear silhouette and crowned by āmalaka. We can see one of these towers on the temple beside the Sangamesvara at Mahakuta in the Deccan. Others are found from Gujarat to the Himachal foothills and to coastal Andhra. The Nāgara also makes occasional use of the barrel-vaulted form (called valabhi in the North), as seen in the eighth-century Teli-ka-mandir at Gwalior or the Vaital Deul at Bhuvaneswar. Unlike the usual square sanctum, the oblong sanctum is associated with particular deities, the Seven Mothers (Sapta Matrika), or the reclining Anantasayana Vishnu, or the similarly lateral Trivikrama Vishnu.

The later Jain temples of western India represent a variation in which the cloister of exterior chambers is fully developed into discrete sanctums, as can be seen in the fifteenth-century temple of Adinatha at Ranakpur. The Yogini temple layout presents a variant in which the cloister of goddess cells surrounds a Bhairava temple or altar open to the sky, and so usually without a central tower at all. The Buddhist vihara layout presents a variant in which the cloister of cells, inhabited by monks, stood alone, without a central structure. In the Mahayana phase, central cells of the cloister were enlarged to situate images of the Buddha.

Regional variations of the Nāgara grew progressively distinct over time, even appropriating a few West Asian decorative elements during the course of the second millennium. The incorporation of domes in Western India, as seen on the entrance pavilions at Ranakpur, provide an example of this appropriation.

The Vesera Style

There are a good number of temples that fit the textual reference to Vesera, or mixed traditions, in the region where the northern and southern traditions over-lap, between the upper Krishna and Tungabhadra basins, and as far south as the Kaveri in Karnataka. Early Chalukya temples, from the seventh century on, incorporate distinctive elements from the Nāgara tradition into structures that are essentially Dravida, such as the Nāgara tower on the otherwise Dravida-style Durgā temple at Aihole. More rarely, Dravida elements appear on Nāgara structures, as in the wall entablatures of the Papanatha temple at Pattadakal.

Beginning with Kalyani Chalukya of the later eleventh century, there are temples that go beyond mixing, to blend elements of the two traditions together. The Hoysala, Kesava temple at Somnathpur is the most wellknown example of this blending. Its crowning cupola is carved into so many wedge-shaped facets that it approaches the form of the āmalaka; its towers are difficult to classify into one style or the other; its niche pediments and miniature decorative elements mix northern-looking elements with southern-looking ones.

In a manner that parallels the spread of northern, Indo-European, elements into the essentially Dravidian languages of Kannada, Telugu, and Tamil, this is essentially a Dravida architectural tradition, incorporating Nāgara elements. The same combination is visible in the Deccan style of capping straight-sided phāmsanā towers with domical cupolas at Papanasi and Vijayanagar.

Temple Complexes

From their earliest remains, Hindu temples are found in hierarchical complexes, both as planned ensembles and as irregular assemblages, with smaller and peripheral, subordinated structures, surrounding primary shrines. From the earliest remains onward, we have evidence of enclosing prākāra walls and gateways. Nearly all temples of any size include a hall for worshipers attached to the sanctum. Many Shaiva temples in the South and some in the North include a Nandi mandapa, for the god's alter-ego, the bull Nandi, who is located facing the sanctum on the longitudinal axis to the east. As time went on, the number of such halls increased. Dancing or offering pavilions are regularly located along the axis leading to the main sanctum in Orissa.

A number of temples were planned in pairs and in ritual or symbolic combinations. Major South Indian temples of the second millennium regularly have amman (goddess) shrines beside those of the god. Shiva shrines have separate temples for Chandesa, who is the custodian of Shiva's temple. Pañcāyatana arrangements of four sub-ordinate sanctums surrounding a central sanctum are a conventional worship set. Tanks for ritual bathing are a common part of temple complexes. Halls without sanctums normally have flat or relatively lower pyramidal roofs, distinguishing them from the towering vimāna or shikhara over the deities.

Wherever there are temples of any importance, sub-ordinate temples are likely to be added subsequently, by those wishing to share in the prestige of the original builder or in devotion to the god to whom the temple is dedicated. In many cases these appear to be the temples built by the courtiers or descendants of those who built the primary temples. At prosperous sites, such structures may be added at any time and often in the most irregular of manners, revealing the power of the later patrons rather than any original plan.

The Modern Period

With the Arab, Turkish, and Iranian invasions of the later twelfth century, the patronage of masonry temples declined precipitously in most of northern India. The more cosmopolitan traditions that continued exhibit the impact of new sources and the diminution of earlier continuities. An example of this can be seen in the seventeenth-to nineteenth-century brick temples of Bengal in eastern India, which preserve distinct references to the curvilinear forms of the Nāgara, while evolving a distinctly original new local style. The seventeenth-century temples at Brindaban display a style that blends traditional central Indian Nāgara forms with Mughal and west Indian architectural elements.

Nineteenth-and twentieth-century India saw three notable developments in Hindu temple style. The first was a response to the gradual emergence of a subcontinentally expansive Indian state and enhanced communications, which have resulted in the regional styles of one locale appearing in distant sites through the movement of patrons and artisans. Thus Gujarati temple designs have appeared in Varanasi, Pune, and Chennai, and Dravida style gōpura have arisen in New Delhi and Brindaban. The second has been a conscious historicism, based on traditionalist, and in some cases nationalist, political goals. Large temples in this mode have been patronized by the Birla industrial families in important North Indian cities, like the Lakshminarayana temple in New Delhi and the Sri Venkatesvara temple in Hyderabad. There have also been contrasting modernist structures attempting to transcend previous traditions, in structures like the Anandamayi Ma temple at Varanasi.

Gary Michael Tartakov

See alsoAjanta ; Hinduism (Dharma)


Bhat, M. Ramakrishna, trans. Brhatsamhitā: Varāmahira's Brihat Samhitā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982.

Dagens, Bruno, ed. and trans. Mayamata. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994.

Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple. 1946. Reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976.

Michell, George. The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Tartakov, Gary Michael. "The Beginning of Dravidian Temple Architecture in Stone." Artibus Asiae 42, no. 4 (1980): 33–99.

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