Category Archives: d. Some Noteworthy Temples

The Konarak Sun Temple


Konarak Sun Temple


The Konarak Sun Temple is located in Konarak in the state of Orissa and is dedicated to the sun god Surya. It is considered one of the

Black Pagoda or Sun Temple at Konark (Ruins of the great chariot temple to Surya at Konark, also known as the Black Pagoda in Odisha, India)
Black Pagoda or Sun Temple at Konark (Ruins of the great chariot temple to Surya at Konark, also known as the Black Pagoda in Odisha, India)

great temples of India and was constructed by Raja Narasimha of the Ganga Dynasty in the mid thirteenth century C.E. (Misro 56-57). Although over time it has decayed, the Indian government has worked to restore it as it is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is now popularly considered one of the seven wonders of India.

Located in the relatively small town of Konarak, the Konarak Sun Temple lies on the coast bordering the Bay of Bengal in the Indian state of Orissa. The region today is quite arid and sparsely populated; questions remain as to why a great temple was built (Sanjaya 45). The historic reasons for its location are not well known; however, it is near the ocean and used to be quite close to the now dry holy river Chandrabhagam. This area was historically quite populated, with many towns and trade centres along the river and coast. Some historians believe that if this was not so, the great temple could not have been built. Furthermore when the temple was constructed it was within the territory of the Ganga Dynasty, which was an area that contained many Sun Temples. The temples position at Konarak may have been deemed a secure location as the Dynasty’s western border was under constant threat of Muslim invasion; at the time of construction Konarak was in a relatively safe area. It was also customary for Ganga rulers to place temples far away from their capitals. This is because the temples may have promoted ceremonies that were uncommon among the general populace, such as tantricism. The practice of tantracism was popular among the sun cult who were very influential in the Sun Temples construction (Misro 59-61).

Dedicated to the sun god Surya, the temple is meant to represent the horses and the colossal chariot which belong to the sun god. Many aspects of the temple are meant to display various measures of time such as months, days and praharas (the eight time periods of a day). The main complex contains the twenty four great wheels of the chariot which are meant to signify either the twenty four hours of the day or the twenty four fortnights in a year. Each of the wheels is 2.971m in diameter and each contains eight spokes which represent the eight praharas in a day. At both the sides of the main gate there is a team of seven horses pulling the chariot. According to some traditions these horses represent the seven days of the week. Other sources state that the horses represent the seven colours of a sun ray and that sun rays must pass through seven layers (represents by the horses) before it can reach the earth (Misro 62). There are also three standing images of Surya which depict the rising, mid day and setting sun (Misro 57). The temple grounds contain many more buildings such as an audience, dancing and dining hall. Almost every inch of the temple is covered in intricate carvings of deities, mythology and even depictions of courtly life. The temple is also known for containing erotic sculptures and images throughout, which may be likened to the Sun Cults involvement in its construction (Misro 62-63).

Built in the thirteenth century C.E., under the rule of Narasimha Deval, the Konarak Sun Temple is now believed to not only have religious significance but military significance as well. Under Narasimha’s rule several Muslim attempts at invading Orissa were defeated and Narasimha eventually went on to launch a successful offensive against Tughan Khan. After this string of victories the prestige and power of Orissa increased significantly and a campaign was underwent to create the greatest temple in India and a memorial. This is reflected in the temples construction as numerous war scenes are depicted, which is unusual for Indian temples. Tradition says that the temples construction took twelve years and 1200 laborers working day and night (Misro 58-59). The temple was built almost entirely out of dark stone (chlorite, laterite and khondalite) with little iron, lime plaster or cement. This was due to the fact that stone is seen as everlasting and deteriorates very slowly and the architect’s intention was to create an everlasting temple (Misro 62).

Unfortunately, the temple was not to remain in good condition forever; in 1565 Muslim armies raided Orissa and attempted to raze the temple. They were not successful but the temple was damaged and looted and Orissa was in a state of ruin. The Copper finial was removed as well as parts of some of the walls leaving the temple structurally unstable and vulnerable to collapse. A couple centuries of neglect left the temple to further degrade with weathering and vegetation taking a further toll on the structure. The local populace even took stones to build other less significant temples as is seen in the case of the Jagganath Temple at Puri. It still contains a pillar which is believed to be from the Konarak Sun Temple. However restoration began in 1901 with many buried parts of the temple being excavated. Decayed parts of the temple were then rebuilt including the natmandir (the main hall) (Sanjaya 47-49).

The Konarak Sun Temple today is a large tourist attraction and considered by critics to be one of the finest specimens of Indian architecture to date. It is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.






Misro, R.C. (2001) Construction of the Sun Temple at Konark: An Historic Perspective. Bangalore: Quarterly Journal of the Mythic Society.

Sanjaya, Sanjaya (1976) Sun Temple at Konarak. Madras: Indian Review.

Related Topics




The Ganga Dynasty




Tughan Khan

Jagganatha Temple

Sun Cult

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Article written by: Chris Banmann (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Kalighat Temple and Kali

Kalighat and Its Goddess Kali

The Kalighat Temple is a shrine to honour the Goddess Kali. Kali throughout her history has always been linked to death and destruction. Her appearance alone represents mayhem. Her hair is dishevelled, she has four arms, she is dark and blood is often depicted being smeared on her lips. In her hands she holds a cleaver and a severed head, and with her other two hands she signals peace (Kinsley 77-78). Almost all stories about Kali speak exclusively of her killing someone if not many people. Kali is said to have a tendency to become blood thirsty and even lose control. Kali represents many ideas but over them all she is considered to portray the concept of pain and sorrow, always showing that nothing can escape death but that death, to those who have released themselves from “reality”, is not the end. (Kinsley 142-145).

Kali is associated with the god Siva. Conflict between Kali and Siva is a recurrent theme in many Kali related myths. Both are said to haunt the wilderness, causing destruction or trouble in different ways. Kali in some myths is sent to slay great warriors on the battlefield. This is claimed to protect the world and others from destruction, but at times it seems like Kali is the one who is the destroyer. In one myth, the Vamana-purana, her name is interchanged with Parvati’s [Siva’s wife]. Parvati however does not like having Siva comparing her to Kali, due to her dark complexion, and rids herself of any dark attributes (Kinsley 101-108). In other stories Kali is tied to Siva not so much directly but through Parvati herself. In the Siva-Purana, it is said that all goddesses come from one goddess, Uma-Sati-Parvati. This goddess again is also claimed as Siva’s wife. Kali does not get mentioned in the same manner but later on in a retelling of a story, she is said to come from Siva’s hair (Kinsley 104).

An infamous depiction has Kali dancing on top of Siva who is laying on the ground. The story behind this is while Kali was on the battlefield she becomes so overwhelmed with killing and tasting blood she breaks into a dance that shakes the earth. Siva upon seeing this, lays down at her feet and when she notices him there she then ceases her war dance (Kinsley 108). This is the most popular story regarding Kali’s dominance and blood-thirsty tendencies. With Kali always being portrayed as being disruptive it shows that she is one that goes against stability and what others percieve as order. Kali gets sent to battle warriors and demons but often is shown at the end representing that which she is trying to destroy. When associated with Siva, Kali is the opposite of his other spouse Parvati. Parvati is shown to calm Siva, balancing with his tendencies of destruction. Kali however seems to always bring out Siva’s antisocial and destructive side. To further counter-act each other, Parvati is the one who calms Siva. However it is Siva who is said to try to tame Kali. The disruptive nature of Kali, when being compared with other goddesses, embodies an idea of the anger and intensity that is brought out when forced on the battelfield or to war (Kinsley 80).

Being associated with such violence and often frowned upon behaviour, she thrusts upon an individual the darker aspects of society that many try to ignore or not think about. The Hindu culture was that of people looking for freeing themselves of false reality and obtaining one pure mind. Having such vile aspects of society brought out to the fore front, Kali allows one to see the many faces dharma can take. This brings to life the idea that some call her the Mother Goddess. She is portrayed as a Mother Goddess because she is claimed to bring her devotees a broad world-view (Kinsley 84). Some follow strict dharmic ways and to those and view Kali as too harsh. To others she is viewed as a revealer of the world in its true self, its violent reality. From either position Kali represents that harshness which so many try to avoid. To all, Kali is the part of life that is the hardest to face, that which is inevitable. Kali represents the world as it really is and not just the positive that people have a tendency to focus on. Followers of Kali view her as a way to see the full world and use it to further step away from all illusions (Kinsley 136-137).


Harding, E. U. (1998). Kali: the black goddess of Dakshineswar. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Puiblishers.

Kinsley, D. R. (1996). Kali, Blood and Death Out of Place. In J. S. Hawley, & D. M. Wulff, Devi, Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, D. R. (1975). The Sword And The Flute. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

McDermott, R. F., & Kipal, J. J. (2005). Encountering Kali: in the margins, at the center, in the West. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.


Article written by: Phil Austin who is solely responsible for its content.

The Brhadisvara Temple

The Brhadisvara Temple was built, in its entirety, during the reign of King Rajaraja (985 – 1014 CE) of the Cola Dynasty. At the onset of his political reign, the Cola kingdom was constricted to the Tamil country. Rajaraja implemented a rigorous twenty year military campaign which resulted in putting most of Southern India and some of North India under the rule of the Cola monarchy (Vasudevan 16).

The Brhadisvara Temple is considered a royal temple. A royal temple differs from a bhakti temple (or a non-royal temple) in that a royal temple is built by a monarch to their chosen gods and “were grand in design and execution,” while a bhakti temple usually originates as a small shrine built from brick (Vasudevan 152).

In 1003 CE, his nineteenth year of reign and near the end of his military campaign, Rajaraja commenced the construction on a grand temple located in the town of Thanjavur (in southern India). Upon completion, the temple was the most “massive temple in India” (Davis 4). It is said that King Rajaraja’s greatest achievement was this monumental temple, which he named Rajarajesvaram –known today as the Brhadisvara Temple or sometimes just referred to as the Big or Great Temple (Vasudevan 43).

Building a temple was a highly visible political act as well as a devotional one. It was said that “only the king of kings could be considered qualified to construct a preeminent temple” (Davis 6). One of several purposes for the construction of the temple is that it was a highly visible proclamation of Rajaraja’s political achievement.

Another, and more devotionally directed, purpose was to provide a home for a divinity that Rajaraja believed was the unsurpassed ruler of the cosmos. This temple was constructed in order to allow god to receive homage and offerings of devotion presented by kings, the kings’ family and the kingdom. Only a supreme god could be worth such great devotion. Rajaraja built the most magnificent temple to Siva, which was believed to elevate Siva to the position of Supreme Diety. As Siva usually resides upon Mount Kailasa, or Northern World-Mountain, Rajaraja believed that by building this imperial temple he was giving Siva a home in the south, equal to his northern abode (Davis 6).

However, the main purpose that the temple was devoted to Siva was that the Colas believed in Bhakti Saivism. During the Colas’ rule many shrines were built or remodelled to unmistakably show their devotion to Siva. “Through the adoption and patronage of the cult of linga, the Colas universalized a new aspect into the worship of Siva” (Vasudevan 101).

The temple was erected with two sets of outer walls – the most outer wall serving a defensive purpose. The Big Temple is the first temple in southern India that was built with any defensive apparatus (Vasudevan 44). The temple is made mostly of granite – a stone which was not indigenous to Thanjavur – had to be obtained from outside the kingdom making acquiring the building materials a difficult task. The temple sits on the side of a river that was specifically re-routed as to allow a moat to form around the temple. The temple tower is composed of 16 stories and stands an unprecedented 63 meters high and is was claimed to be among the tallest in the world (Vasudevan 153). The tower is topped off with a single spherical block of granite, which is known in Southern India as a vimana (Vasudevan 44). Pillars, piers, and pilasters are placed all around the sikhara. Inside, entire wall spaces and ceilings were covered in exquisite paintings. Unfortunately, most of the original artwork has been obstructed since the time of original conception.

The primary icon in the temple is the gigantic Siva-linga, said to be the “the largest such linga in existence” (Davis 5). The Siva-linga is the principal icon because in its highest form Siva is said to inhabit it. The linga is the geographical centre of the shrine and is considered to be the generative source of the entire temple complex (Davis 7). By installing the massive linga in the royal temple, Rajaraja wanted to identify the linga with himself. The considerably large “linga, enshrined in the most majestic temple, built by the mightiest emperor of the south, bore a direct comparison to the glory and might of the Cola monarch” (Vasudevan 159).When Rajaraja’s subjects bowed to the linga in the temple they were indirectly showing their commitment and obedience to Rajaraja. By implementing the indirect action of showing dual allegiance and submission to Siva and Rajaraja, he was able to use the spiritual aspect of the royal temple to unite Cola control over his large empire.

To serve Siva and the other gods of the temple, Rajaraja and his royal entourage made extensive donations. Among Rajaraja’s personal donations were: gold artefacts, silver objects, Myriad jewels, and land. Dancers were also supplied from other temples throughout the empire to entertain Siva.

Even in a time where Hindu kings were trying to surpass each other in the lavishness and size of their temples (between 700 and 1200 CE), no temple comes close to the Brhadisvara Temple’s opulence (Vasudevan 44). Vasudevan states that, “compared to [the Brhasdisvara], other temples were like little churches before a cathedral” (43).

Rajaraja’s son and successor, Rajendra I (reined in 1012-1044 originally with his father) extended the Cola Empire when he took power. He instigated a successful military mission that reached the Ganges. Rajendra I built a new capital city, Gangaikondacolapuram (“the city of the Cola king who took the Ganges”), and, replicating his father, he created another imperial scale Siva temple with a linga that is the largest monolithic linga in the Tamil country (Davis 6) (Vasudevan 46,106).

The Great Temple was not solely used for the purpose of worship and devotion. Personal and communal activities, the performing arts and the literary arts all took place there. The temple also functioned as an employer, a landlord, and a money lender. By these acts the Brhadisvara Temple turned into a major economic institution for Southern India.

Another difference between royal and non-royal temples is the way the administration staff was appointed/ hired. The administrative staff of the royal temple of Tanjavur worked within well-defined powers and responsibilities and were appointed directly by the government from anywhere in their territory. However, in bhakti temples the administrative workers were vested with local bodies. There were more than 800 personnel on the pay-roll of the temple (Vasudevan 93). Rajaraja was able to incorporate everything and everyone into the temple. He made the temple the centre of his empire. He brought in people from every corner of his kingdom. An example of this is that Rajaraja did not bring in resources that were close to the capital. He had material brought in from remote areas of his empire with the underlying idea that this would bring the kingdom closer together. By bringing in resources from all over the kingdom, and not just from the capital, allows different parts of his empire to come into closer interaction with each other.

A large portion of the Temple’s administrative work was done to administer grants and monitor services within the temple (Vasudevan 155). Since the administration employees were chosen by the government it was easy to obtain support of other government agencies, therefore allowing the administration of grants to occur flawlessly.

The Brhadisvara Temple had a large amount of wealth attached to it. No other temple had property, gold, and cash as much as a royal temple did. This is because King Rajaraja lavishly applied his wealth to the temple. Rajaraja used the Temple to unite the existing territories under Cola rule to the acquired territories. He combined his power by granting villages from these newly acquired regions as devadanas (gifts to the gods) to the temple. Religion had a powerful appeal to the people and Rajaraja translated this appeal into an organization that influenced and controlled various regions (Vasudevan 157). Rajaraja wanted to link every part of his realm to his temple. He made the royal temple a great organization that was worthy to be associated with his subjects. It is because of the temple’s ‘worthiness’ that his temple is a symbol of his grand empire (Vasudevan 158).


Davis, Richard H. (1991) Worshipping Siva in Medieval India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Vasudevan, Geeta (2003) The Royal Temple of Rajaraja: an Instrument of Imperial Cola Power. Delhi: Shakti Malik.

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Article written by: Kimberly Oliverio (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.


The four aspects of Vijayanagara that this paper will discuss are: its geographic context, its historical significance, its religious history, and its archaeological history. The city of Vijayanagara, more commonly known as Hampi, was the capital city of the Vijayanagara kingdom. It became the capital because it was built in a strategic area and it was powerful because of its positioning (Verghese 2004:421). It was constructed on a rocky area that opened up into wide valleys that further opened into fertile flat lands (see Verghese 2000:8-9). There is evidence that rulers were concerned with agriculture, and improving it. The available fertile lands of the region suggest why agriculture would have been such an important part of the ruler’s concerns (Sinopoli and Morrison 92). Another major physical feature was the Tungabhadra River because it provided water for the people and for agriculture. The placement of the city near the waterway and the fertile land allowed it to grow into an important and powerful.

Temple Courtyard with Hanuman relief, Vijayanagar

Historically the kingdom of Vijayanagara along with the capital city had been greatly influential. In 1328 CE South India was controlled by one common force but eventually independent states started to appear as a result of the successful revolts that were taking place (Verghese 2000:1). These independent states included the Vijayanagara kingdom and the Bahmani Sultanate (Verghese 2000:1). With the Vijayanagara kingdom emerging as a powerful kingdom the dominant and strategically placed city Vijayanagara, was named as the capital. Three dynasties ruled the Vijayanagara kingdom. They were the Sangama, Saluva, and Tuluva dynasties (Verghese 2000:1). The Sangama dynasty expanded the kingdom southward through a number of conquests and it was the first king, Harihara I, who built and expanded the kingdom from coast to coast (Verghese 2000:1). At the same time the Bahmani kingdom was emerging on the other side of the Krishna River. The emergence of this kingdom created an epoch of constant warfare between the two (Verghese 2000:1). When Harihara II took the throne he continued with the success of Harihara I and expanded the Vijayanagara kingdom over all of Southern India (Verghese2000:1-2). Throughout the kingdom’s existence it was ruled by many different kings, but of them all Krsnadevaraya was the greatest. He was a very good monarch and his armies were successful in every feat they took on (Verghese 2000:2). He and his brother Achuytadeveraya expanded and strengthened the kingdom (Sinopoli and Morrison 85). The great kings that headed the Vijayanagara kingdom were the reason the kingdom was so successful. One of the last kings to rule, King Ramaraya made alliances with the Deccan Sultanate which allowed the kingdom to expand even further. The kingdom’s increasing power made the Deccan Sultanate uneasy and a battle soon broke out (Verghese 2000:3). The Vijayanagara army was defeated in January 1565 at the battle of Talikota, which resulted in the sacking of the capital city (Verghese 2004:417). This defeat led to the desertion of Vijayanagara along with the loss of the northern territories eventually causing the collapse of the kingdom because it was not able to recover (Verghese 2000:3).

The capital city was established in the fourteenth century and was similar to the kingdom because it became a very large and wealthy city relatively quickly. It is known as the “city of victory” which was named after the fabulous city that was built by Bukkha I (Sharma 1255 and Verghese 2000:42). The city eventually reached an area of three hundred and fifty square kilometers, which included everything from city houses to farm land. The city served as a major population center, a marketplace, a sacred place, and a military center (Sinopoli and Morrison 92). There were many temples found within the city; in fact most monuments were religious, civil, or military. There was also evidence of some Islamic influences found on these buildings and monuments (see Sharma 1255). The temples, upper class houses, and fortifications were subsidized by the king or other upper class individuals (Sinopoli and Morrison 86). After the defeat at Talikota, Vijayanagara was looted and occupied by the enemies. The city was then sifted through by vandals and finally natural forces took over, leaving the city in a state of ruin, as it is today (Sharma 1255).

Temple Ruins at Vijayanagar

Religiously the city has numerous connections. The city contains numerous Hindu temples but also contains three Jaina temples (Sharma 1255). The most important Hindu temples are the Vaishnava Ramachandra and the Shaiva Virupkaksha (Sharma 1255). The towers, pavilions, and stables contain the evidence of Islamic influence. Evidence also shows that for over one thousand years there was a lot of religious activity (Verghese 2004:416). [For more on religion within the kingdom see Verghese (2000)]. It is evident that public rituals were practiced in the city because processional routes and platforms were found (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). Concerning the history of the city, local beliefs tend to deviate from scholars’ beliefs. This is seen in the belief that Vijayanagara is Kishkindha, kingdom of the monkey kings, from the great Hindu epic the Ramayana (see Verghese 2004:421).Locals believe this story and although there is a strong tie to Rama within the city there is no actual evidence that proves Vijayanagara is tied to the epic in any way.Along with a strong tie to Rama, Vijayanagara also has closely related sacred ties to Siva (Sinopoli and Morrison 85).There are a great number of opinions on the religious aspect of Vijayanagara but not all of them are proven.

Archaeologically the site is magnificent because it is rare for archaeologists to be able to study an entire city; usually they only get to study bits and pieces. The earliest archaeological documentation is from 1800 and by the 1970s there were some systematic research and documentation projects initiated (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). It was not until the 1980s that major excavations started to occur. These excavations included surface mapping and documentation by the Karnataka Directorate of Archaeology and Museums and the Archaeology Survey of India (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). Archaeologists used two techniques: excavation and surface archaeology (Sharma 1255). In 1987 the Vijayanagara Metropolitan Survey studied unrecorded items and tried to look at the broader environment by looking at roads, irrigation networks, shrines, and temples (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). They provided a wealth of new information that could not be found in texts. Archaeological evidence proves that the city dates back to Neolithic times, based on the neoliths and handmade pottery found (Verghese 2000:9). Archaeologists also found that a number of the remains were burnt or heat cracked proving that the city or at least parts of it were burnt (Verghese 2004:417). Processional paths along with platforms were also discovered proving that there were ritual procedures occurring within Vijayanagara (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). Although the site was not really excavated until around 1975, it is fairly well preserved. The good preservation is a result of the capital’s abandonment because there were no people left to change, modify or destroy buildings. Therefore, it is mostly natural forces that have affected the site. The city was robbed of all its treasures but the buildings are still in good shape and an archaeologist can find a lot of information from the remaining structures, soil, and debris. The city was important in antiquity and that importance carried on to the present as it is currently seen as a World Heritage Site.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Anila, Verghese. (2000) Archaeology, art, and religion : new perspectives on Vijayanagara. New Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press.

Anila, Verghese. (2004) Deities, Cults and Kings at Vijayanagara. Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis, Ltd.

Michell, George. (2008) Vijayanagara: splendor in ruins. New Delhi: Alkazi Collection of Photography.

Morrison, Kathleen D. (1995) Fields of victory: Vijayanagara and the course of intensification. University of California, Berkley. Archaeological Research Facility.

Sharma, Jagdish P. (1986) Where Kings and Gods Meet : The Royal Centre at Vijayanagara, India. Tucson: University of Arizona Pr.

Sinopoli, C. M., and K. D. Morrison. (1995) Dimensions of Imperial Control the Vijayanagara Capital. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Stein, Burton. (1989) Vijayanagara. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Venkata, Ramanayya N. (1990) Vijayanagara: origin of the city and the empire. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

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Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Lindy Holthe (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Ellora Caves

The historically and archaeologically significant Ellora Caves are located near the city of Aurangabad, in the Maharashtra state. The Ellora Caves site is comprised of thirty-four temples and monasteries cut directly from the vast cliffs that surround the caves. The site exemplifies the Dravidian tradition of rock-cut architecture and art. The Ellora Caves were given UNESCO World Heritage site accreditation in 1983 (UNESCO). There is also evidence that the various caves have been used throughout history for Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu worship (Heston 219). The site culminates at the centre, where the vast Kailasanatha Temple sits in the middle of the courtyard area. Although the other thirty three caves are similarly intricate and interesting, the most is known about the Kailasanatha, or Kailasa Temple.

The caves are an excellent example of the Dravidian architectural tradition. The gopura, or gateway, at the Kailasa Temple [as well as at several of the other caves] is monumental to the study of Hindu religious architecture (Heston 219). In particular, the Kailasa gopura features numerous figural images that are extremely important to the Hindu tradition. The gopura is often seen as an indication to the worshipper as to what kinds of themes they may wish to consider upon entering the temple. Gopura sculptures typically depict guardian gods and goddesses, whereas depictions of other more important deities are reserved for the inside of the temple (Heston 220). This is an example a hierarchy within the Hindu tradition, where images such as one of a river guardian may be present at the gopura, but important imagery such as the linga, representing Siva, are present inside the temple. At Ellora, several lingas adorn the inner niches of the Kailasa Temple, along with other depictions of Siva, Visnu, and Brahma.

The use of several Hindu [as well as Buddhist and Jain] deities throughout Ellora, and particularly Kailasa, represents a certain unity present in many elements within the Hindu tradition. For example, one image in the niches of Kailasa depicts Harihara, a composite of Siva and Visnu together (Heston 223). Another example is a male and female fusion of Siva and his divine consort. This image is called the Ardhanarisvara, and represents the union of powers, or sakti, and could be based on the purusa-prakrti doctrine (Heston 225).

The Ellora Caves offer great insight into the development of Indian architectural traditions throughout the county, but particularly on the Indian subcontinent. There are other rock-cut cave sites that exist in India. Sites such as Elephanta and Kanheri offer additional insight into the realm of ancient architecture, but Ellora remains one of the more important sites (Chakrabati 327). Despite its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the knowledge surrounding Ellora is still somewhat patchy. It is an immense challenge to try to piece together the historical context within which the Ellora Caves were constructed. From 1830 to 1861, excavating megaliths in southern India became very popular (Chakrabati 328). Many images and relics at Ellora [and other sites] were supposedly damaged during this time due to over-enthusiastic excavation (Chakrabati 328). After 1939, Indian universities became more interested in archaeology, the preservation of historical information, as well as pre-historic research endeavours. This contributed to existing theories about the history and context of the Ellora Caves.

The Ellora Caves are renowned for their exemplary rock-cut architecture. The caves and the images within were carved directly from the rock face of the staggering cliffs that surround the site. The time it must have taken the ancient architects to design and execute such a massive feat can only be imagined, especially when the dimensions of the site are taken into consideration. The Kailasa Temple alone, stands at the centre of the Ellora site, and measures 200 feet long, and 100 feet wide and high (Goetz 85). The entire site stretches even further towards the faces of the cliffs, making the feat of creating such a masterpiece very impressive. The Kailasa Temple, although it is not technically a cave, is one of the most important examples of ancient Indian art. Also carved directly from the rock face, Kailasa is a freestanding structure that sits in the middle of the enormous court surrounded by the wall of cliffs (Goetz 89). The Kailasa has been generally accepted to date back to the middle of the eight century of the Common Era (Goetz 89). This assertion is based on inscriptions present in Kailasa that indicate the temple was erected in honour of Krishnaraja (757-772 CE) of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty (Goetz 90). The courtyard walls surrounding the Kailasa Temple are generally accepted as being carved out later. These ties to the Rashtrakuta Dynasty are what help make Kailasa so important to Indian art history.

Although Kailasa is mainly credited to the Rashtrakuta Dynasty, scholars have accepted that it would have been impossible for the entire temple to have been finished under one ruler (Goetz 92). Not only would the construction of such a marvel be extremely time-consuming, but there is also the issue of the non-uniform nature of much of the imagery throughout Ellora. Due to India’s rich history of rock-cut architecture and other art, it is also near impossible to cross-reference the Ellora Caves with other sites such as Elephanta. The fact that few monuments survive from the time of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty suggests that it was a violent period in which temples were constantly changing hands, and therefore were re-appropriated over time. [By the tenth century of the Common Era, the Ellora site seems to have been occupied by the Jains (Goetz 92)]. It is currently accepted that Kailasa could not have been completed during the reign of Krishnaraja, even though he is the ruler who is thought to have commissioned the temple, and maybe even the entire site (Goetz 92).

Another important factor in determining the historical context within which the Ellora Caves were constructed is that rock-cut structures were built backwards. Normal temple construction began with the gateway, or gopura, and progressed into the rest of the temple afterwards. Rock-cut temples began with the construction of the inner rooms and builders would have worked towards the mouth of the cave, finishing with the gopura (Goetz 94). This concept is very useful in analyzing another of the major structures at Ellora, the Dasavatara cave. This cave houses fifteen inscriptions about Dantidurga (735-757 CE), who is thought to have been the founder of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty (Goetz 97). This would mean that Krishnaraja, although he had previously been credited with Ellora, could not be the mastermind. The chronology of the Dasavatara cave, along with the inscriptions and general styles of the images contained within, may prove that Dantidurga, not Krishnaraja, was the planner behind the Ellora Caves. Despite this evidence, Krishnaraja I is still credited with completing the Kailasa Temple, although his contribution to Ellora as a whole is still somewhat questionable. There are implications that Krishnaraja killed Dantidurga’s two sons, who would have been the rightful heirs to the Rashtrakuta Dynasty, and took power by force. This may be why Dantidurga’s contribution to the Ellora Caves seems somewhat covered-up, and Krishnaraja’s contributions glorified (Goetz 99)


Chakrabati, Dilip K (1982). “The Development of Archaeology in the Indian Subcontinent”. World Archaeology. Vol. 13, No. 3 – Regional Traditions of Archeological Research II. 326-344.

Goetz, H (1952). “The Kailasa of Ellora and the Chronology of Rashtrakuta Art”. Artibus Asiae. Vol. 15, No. 1/2. 84-107

Heston, Mary Beth (1981-1982). “Iconographic Themes of the Gopura of the Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora”. Artibus Asiae. Vol. 43, No. 3. 219-235

Markel, Stephen (2000). “The ‘Ramayana’ Cycle on the Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora”. Ars Orientalis. Vol. 30, Supplement 1: Chachaji – Prof. Walter M. Spink Felicitation Volume. 59-71

UNESCO (2002). “Ellora Caves: Description”. 2 February 2009. <>

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Purusa-Prakrti Doctrine




Guardian Deities

History of Indian Philosophy

Rashtrakuta Dynasty




Dravidian Architecture

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Evelyn Hickey (April 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Jagganatha Temple

The Jagganatha Temple is a major Hindu temple and religious shrine located in Puri. Puri is a city in the eastern Indian state of Orissa on the Bay of Bengal. Puri is the modern name of this holy city, yet a large number of pilgrims call it Jagganatha Puri. Jagganatha Temple is the most famous temple in Orissa, and one of the most famous in India (Fabri 103). The word Jagganatha refers to Natha (master) of Jagat (universe). The origin of the Jagganatha cult has been traced back to time of the Veda (Pasayat 5). The city and temple is considered by Hindus to be one of the four dhams in India. The dhams are believed to be the abodes of Hindu gods, and the holiest places of pilgrimage (Patnaik 1). The building of the temple was started by the Ganga king Chodagangadeva, but scholars are not unanimous regarding the period of its construction (Satapathy 46). Although the exact date is debatable, construction began sometime in the 11th to 12th century. The temple construction was finished by Chodagangadeva’s descendant Raja Ananga Bhima Dev III (Pasayat 5).

Jagganatha Temple is a huge building that dominates the seaside town, and the tower can be seen from seven miles away (Fabri 148). The temple has a flight of stairs with 22 steps and measures 63 meters in height. The temple complex covers an area of over 400,000 square feet, and is surrounded by a high fortified wall. The outer wall is heavily decorated with carved divine figures and other floral and geometrical motifs and measures 202.7 x 196.3 meters (Patel 72). The complex contains at least 120 temples and shrines. The main temple is a curvilinear temple and on the top is the srichaka (an eight spoke wheel). The temple tower is on an 8 meter elevated platform (Patel 71). The temple has four gateways at each cardinal direction. The Singha Dwar (lion gate) is the eastern gate, the Aswa Dwar (horse gate) is the southern gate, the Vyaghra Dwar (tiger gate) is the western gate, and the Hasti Dwar (elephant gate) is the northern gate. Centuries of whitewashing the temple has obliterated almost all evidence of its antiquity and art. The whitewashing has built up a layer of surface coating estimated at over a foot in depth which hides the facade (Fabri 103). The temple is built of Khondalite stone without the use of mortar; instead iron dowels have been used to keep the stone blocks in position. There has been profuse damage done to the temple structure overtime caused by the iron dowels oxidizing, water seepage and structural pressure (Patel 72). There have been a lot of conservation efforts in the recent years to repair damages to the temple. During the process of conservation the original look of the temple was maintained, nothing new was added nor was the original look disfigured at any time.

The Jagganatha Temple in Puri, renowned for its chariot festival, known as the Ratha Yatra; Odisha, India
The Jagganatha Temple in Puri, renowned for its chariot festival, known as the Ratha Yatra; Odisha, India

The temple is revered as the home of Lord Jagganatha, the Lord of the Universe; his origin and worship is shrouded by myths, legends and traditions (Mahalik 1). Lord Jagganatha is a revered and ancient deity, who was originally worshiped by tribes (Mahalik 1). In the temple there are wooden images or statues of the worshipped deities that exhibit strong tribal influences. The deities Jagganatha and his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, are carved out of wood and are peculiarly handless. The legend goes that a carpenter Vishwakarma carved the deities out of a log. He instructed everyone not to disturb him while he was in the temple carving. Unfortunately the queen got impatient and went in the temple before Vishwakarma was finished. He was so upset that he left without finishing and that is why the statues are unfinished. The deific images are carved out of wood from the specially-grown Daru (Neem) trees every 12 to 19 years according to the lunar calendar (Patnaik 4). When the old statues of Jagganatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra are replaced with new ones the brahmapadartha (the life substance) is taken out of the old statues and is placed in the new statues (Satapathy 159). The three deities are kept in the Garbhagrha (sanctum sanctorum) of the temple unless they are taken out for a festival (Barik 19). The persons entrusted with the Sevapuja (ritual services/activities) of the deities are known as Sevakas. The tradition plays a pivotal role in the temple and the Sevapuja rites are not only numerous but also remarkably varied (Pasayat 6).

It is said that there are twelve important yatras (festivals) celebrated at the Jagganatha temple, but there are many more observed at the temple. The temple is most famous for the Ratha Yatra. The Ratha Yatra is one of the holiest rituals in Hinduism; it is also known as the Car or Chariot Festival. It is an annual festival held in Puri at the Jagganatha temple on Asadha Sulkla Dwitiya, which is the second day of the bright fortnight of Asadha (June-July). On this day, the three deities are taken out of the temple and loaded onto very large wooden rathas (chariots). The deities are carried to their rathas in a traditional ceremonial manner called Pahandi when Lord Jagganatha and Balabhadra are swung back and forth. Tradition states that Lord Balabhadra comes out first, followed by Devi Subhadra and then Lord Jagganatha (Barik 20). Lord Jagganatha’s ratha is known as Nandighosha; it has 16 chakras (wheels) and the colors of the fabrics that cover it are red and yellow. Lord Balabhadra’s ratha is known as Taladhwaja; it has 14 chakras and the fabrics that cover it are red and green. Devi Subhadra’s ratha is known as Debadalana; it has 12 chakras and the fabrics are red and black (Barik 20). Four small brass statues of the deities Sudarsana, Madanamohana, Lord Rama and Lord Krsna are also put onto the rathas. Once all the deities are placed on their respective rathas the floor of each ratha is swept by the Gajapati Maharaja of Puri. “This signifies that even the highest sovereign power of the state is only a sevaka (servant) before the almighty” (Barik 20). The rathas are then each attached to four horses and ropes are tied and then pulled by devotees irrespective of caste, creed, sect, religion or sex (Patnaik 4). The rathas are taken to Sri Gundicha Temple, which is about three kilometers away from the Jagganatha Temple, along the Bada Danda (Grand Road). The festival ends once the deity statues have been brought back to the Jagganatha temple; the festival lasts for nine days. Another Jagganatha festival, the Chandana Yatra begins the construction of the rathas. It starts from Akshya Trutiya which is the third day of the bright fortnight of Baisakha (April-May) (Barik 18). And Niladri Mahodaya is celebrated on the eighth day of the bright fortnight of Baisakha (April-May). The festival is to celebrate the day Lord Jagganatha was first worshipped in this Kshetra (holy precinct). For this festival, an abhisek (bath) is performed and 108 pots of consecrated water are offered to the deities (Barik 19).

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Hindu Pilgrimages:



Shri Badrinathji




Shri Kedarnathji





Hindu Yatras (Festivals):

Amarnath Yatra

Chardham Yatra

Kailash Mansarovar Yatra

Vaishno Devi Yatra



Hindu Temples:

Angkor Wat


BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Toronto)

Gurmandir Temple (Toronto)

Noteworthy Websites Related to Jagganatha Temple,9171,892784-2,00.html

References and Further Recommended Reading

Barik, Sarmistha (2007) Festivals in Shri Jagannath Temple. Department of Information an Public Relations Government of Orissa.

Bhardwaj, Surinder Mohan (1968) Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India. University of California

Fabri, Charles Louis (1974) History of The Art of Orissa. London: Longman Group Ltd.

Michell, George (1977) The Hindu Temple. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside Ltd.

Patel, Dr. C.B. (2005) Shree Jagannath Temple, Puri and Its Conservation Scenario. Department of Information and Public Relations Government of Orissa.

Patnaik, Jitendra Narayan (2008) The Four Dhams. Department of Information and Public Relations Government of Orissa.

Patnaik, Lalmohan (2008) The Holy City Puri. Department of Information and Public Relations Government of Orissa.

Pattanayak, Pramod Chandra (2008) The Unique God, Lord Jagannath. Department of Information and Public Relations Government of Orrisa.

Satapathy, Niranjan (2000) Religious Life in Orissa. Calcutta: R.N. Bhatacharya Antiquarian Booksellers, Publishers & Exporters

Written by Jacinda Foulkes (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Angkor Wat

In 1861 Henri Mouhaut , a French naturalist, was trekking through the jungles of northwestern Cambodia when he stumbled upon the ruins of the ancient Khmer civilization and a great temple, Angkor Wat (Fujioka 7). Located just east of Siam Reap, Angkor Wat was one of the main temples of the Khmer empire which ruled much of what is now Cambodia and Thailand, and parts of Vietnam from the 500s C.E.. until 1431 (Srivastava 20-30, Stone 1364). Angkor Wat was built during the reign of Suryavarman II (1114-1163) and dedicated to the Hindu god Visnu (Fujioka 14). It was only after Mouhaut’s discovery that Angkor Wat was made known to the West, but he was not the first to “discover” it after its decline in 1431. In the 17th century both the Chinese and Spanish have records indicating that they had come upon this ancient kingdom (Fujioka 7). Angkor Wat is a place surrounded in mystery and magnificence not only it its aesthetics, but also in its history and religion.

The history of the Khmer people is full of myth and legend. One legend (Reed 210-212) states that Prince Cambu, who was forced out of India after a severe drought had overcome his land and people, had made his way to the mighty Mekong river. Here he met a local man who has found a grain of rice, and the Prince had a vision of how this rice will conquer the jungle, and how a new race would be “raised up for the glory and worship of the gods” (Reed 210). Prince Cambu went back with the local man to meet the ruler, The King of the Cobras, in order to set up a space in his land. Prince Cambu married the King’s daughter, the serpent princess. The princess was immortal, so when Cambu died, she married each successor in order for her to look after her children, the Khmers. The sons of Prince Cambu were called Camboga, and they ruled the land called Cambodia.

The serpent Queen in this legend, as Reed points out, plays an important role in both Hinduism and Buddhism (212). The cobra, or Sacred Naga, is featured in many of the carvings and sculptures found in the temples, especially Angkor Wat, and also in Hindu and Buddhist literature.

While the beginning of the Khmers may not be clear, it is thought that Indian culture and language, in the form of the Vedas and Sanskrit, were introduced around the 1st century C.E. (Srivastava 19). While the nobles and aristocracy embraced the new Indian beliefs, the peasants were less inclined to do so. This could be because a king would claim devotion to a particular deity, Siva, Visnu, or even the Buddha, in order to secure power by this divine ruling (Srivastava 15). The first Khmers to come from India were followers of Hinduism, and when they arrived to Cambodia they encountered other religions such as ancestor worship, totem religion, and Theravada Buddhism (Fujioka 16-17). Instead of wiping out the other religions, the Khmers incorporated aspects of the other religions into their own therefore not alienating one group because of differing religious views (Fujioka 17). One of the aspects of Hinduism which was not adapted in Cambodia was the caste system which plays a prominent role in Hinduism in India. Southeast Asian historian John F. Cady notes that this could be due to the fact that Hinduism has a complex cultural basis in India and it is very difficult to transfer as a whole, and therefore only select parts were transfered to Cambodia (Srivastava 37-38).

While the Khamer style of architecture is similar to that of India, Angkor Wat has its own unique design to it (Fujioka 25). It is considered a “precious gem of the Khmer art” and a “masterpiece of architecture” (Srivastava 55). Angkor Wat can be called “Temple of the Royal Castle,” as angkor means “town” and wat means pagoda or temple (Fujioka 22). What was first noticed of Angkor Wat was its five towers. The five towers are said to represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, the abode of Visnu, to whom the temple was dedicated (Srivastava 26, 55). The use of the five towers is not unique to Angkor Wat as many Hindu and Buddhist temples in India and other places around Asia use the same pattern (Fujioka 26-27). The layout of the Angkor Wat has many other Hindu features such as multiple corridors and terraces which are laid out in a explicit geometrical configuration, and displays its “true greatness” (Fujioka 30). Another unique feature of Angkor Wat is the direction of its orientation. All the temples around Angkor face east, but Angkor Wat faces west (Srivastava 59, Fujioka 31). Many explanations have been given for this, one being “it was situated on the east side of the road leading to Angkor Thom” (Fujioka 31), but the exact reason for this may be left with the mystery that is Ankor Wat.

The temple itself is made of laterite and sandstone. The foundation and internal structure is comprised of laterite, a relatively soft stone, but when exposed to sunlight becomes extremely hard (Fujioka 32-33). The laterite was then covered with sandstone which was easier to carve.

Angkor Wat is said to be the greatest Visnu temple (Fujioka 18). Visnu is the Hindu “protector” god, and is often depicted with 4 hands carrying a shell, a club, an iron band, and a lotus stem (Fujioka 17-18). Carvings of Visnu are found all over the temple walls and along the corridors, as are his many incarnations, Rama and Krsna, from the great Hindu epics the Ramanyana and Mahabharata (Fujioka 18).

One of the most detailed reports of the Khmer empire comes from a Chinese traveller, Chow Ta-guan, who visited the region in 1296 (Reed 214). He gives a detailed account of what the ancient empire was like during its most prolific period. Chow Ta-guan notes that the population of Angkor, the main city, was over one million people with many more in the surrounding cities scattered among the rice fields (Reed 214). He observes that while the houses of the people were made of wood harvested from the encircling jungle, the temples were made of stone and delicately decorated with gold and intricate carvings (Reed 214-215). The ornate designs in the stone suggest a background in woodworking, and not masonry; the use of stone in the same manner as wood suggests the same (Reed 215). Chow Ta-guan also mentions that the king had five wives: one chief wife, and four others representing the four cardinal points of a compass (Reed 216). One of the things that strikes him is the amount of times the Khmers bathed, and the frequency of illness, and particularly leprosy. Chow relates the concepts when he says, “excesses in love and abuse of baths is what bring on the illness” (Reed 216). Chow reports of many lepers among the Khmer, and that those with the disease still lived and ate amongst the others, and that the disease was not contagious because the people were habituated with it (Reed 216). The prevalence of disease may be one of the reasons for the downfall of the great empire.

One of the greatest mysteries surrounding the Khmer people and Angkor Wat is what happened to this once great empire. Many have speculated that the Khmer were overtaken by one of its tributaries from Siam after they had been weakened by disease (Reed 229-231). This would not be that far fetched as diseases such as malaria and yellow fever have crippled some of the worlds largest and most powerful empires like that of the Romans and Greeks (Reed 231). What we are left with today is a mystery hidden among the ruins of this great temple surrounded by overgrown jungle and a multitude of monkeys.


Chandler, David (2008) A History of Cambodia. Boulder: Westview Press.

Coe, Michael D. (2003) Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Fujioka, Michio (1972) Angkor Wat. Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd.

Reed, Alfred C. (1939) “The curse of Angkor.” The Scientific Monthly 48(3), 210-231.

Srivastava, K M (1987) Angkor Wat and Cultural Ties with India. New Delhi: Books & Books.

Stencel, Robert, Fred Gifford, and Eleanor Moron (1976) “Astrology and cosmology at Angkor Wat.” Science, 192, 281-287.

Stone, Richard (2006) “The end of Angkor.” Science, 311, 1364-1368.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Angkor Thom

Cambodia – History


Khmer civilization

Khmer Rouge



Henri Mouhaut


Sacred Naga



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Jeremy Koot (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Nagara and Dravida Temples

The nagara and dravida temples are mostly identified with the northern and southern temple styles respectively. The terms nagara, and dravida which are found in the Sastra texts do not function as all-embracing stylistic categories, but indicate a general impulse to classify temples according to their typological features (Michell 88). [for discussions of nagara and dravida terminology for classifying temples see Kramrisch 1991]. Discussing the role that religion plays in the day to day life of a Hindu is imperative to the history of the architectural choices. The rituals and ceremonies that lie at the very core of the religious life of Hinduism, as well as the more elusive ideas and beliefs that accompany divine personages, have fundamentally influenced the forms of temple architecture (Michell 61).

An important aspect of the design of the ground plan is that it is intended to lead from the temporal world to the eternal. A typical Hindu temple consists of the following major elements – an entrance, often with a porch, one or more attached or detached mandapas or halls; the inner sanctum called the garbhagrha, literally “womb chamber”; and the tower build directly above the garbhagrha. “The fundamental preoccupation of Hindu thought is with mans release (moksha) from an illusory world into which he is recurringly born. The architecture of the Hindu temple symbolically represents this quest by setting out to dissolve the boundaries between man and the divine” (Michell 61). [Information can be found on these symbolic ideas and beliefs are found in the Epics and the Puranas, see Michell 1977] For the upper classes this place of contact was usually the temple, in the form of either daily worship or a special occasion or celebration. “To the traditional Hindu the religious and the secular life are never truly distinguished, and the ordinary procedures of everyday life necessitate frequent contacts with the divine” (Michell 49).

There is ancient literature that describes to the reader the merit that is due to the patron of a temple- a motivator for one to build such a place: “Let him who wishes to enter the worlds that are reached by meritorious deeds of piety and charity build a temple to the gods” suggests the Brhatsamhita, while a later text Silpaprakasa –a manuscript specifically on temple buildings “ensures that the patron will always have peace, wealth, grain and sons” (Michell 60). Fame and immortality might have been a motivator to build a grand temple, Michell suggests that such an idea is mentioned in the Silpaprakasa; “everything vanishes with time, only a monument lasts forever” (Michell 60). [For more information on the Silpaprakasa and Brhatsamhita see Dowson 1982].

The distinct temple style which emerges is the nagara style, which is typically characterized by its distinctive sikhara, a superstructure or tower.

A Nagara sikhara (Meister, 1989-99)

The typical Hindu temple of northern India, the Nagara temple consists of a small square-shaped sanctuary called the garbhagrha, housing the main image, preceded by one or more adjoining pillared porches or halls, which are connected to the sanctum by an open or closed vestibule. The entrance doorway of the sanctum is usually richly decorated with figures and geometric ornamentation. Above the main sanctuary rises the superstructure (sikhara), which is usually curvilinear in outline and possessing smaller rectilinear sikharas. The whole may be raised on a terrace (jagati) with attendant shrines at the corners (Meister 1979).

A nagara temple plan(Meister, 1979).

One typical form of the North Indian style is seen in the early temples at Orissa, such as the graceful 8th-century Parasuramesvara Temple at Bhubaneswar, a city that was a great centre of temple-building activity.

South Indian temple architecture, or dravida, style—with its commanding gopuras (gateways)—can be seen in the Rajarajesvara and the Gangaikondacolapuram temples. This style is characterized by its pyramidal, or kutina-type, tower superstructure (Michell 1979­).

Dravida temple outline as well as example of its kutina-type, tower superstructure (Tartakov, 1980)

The South Indian temple consists essentially of a square-chambered sanctuary topped by a superstructure, tower, and an attached pillared porch or hall (mandapa, or mantapam), within a rectangular court. The external walls of the temple are segmented by pilasters and carry niches housing sculpture (Branfoot 2002). The superstructure above the sanctuary consists of an arrangement of gradually receding stories in a pyramidal shape. Each story is defined by a wall of miniature shrines, square at the corners and rectangular with barrel-vault roofs at the centre. The tower is topped by a dome-shaped cupola and a crowning pot and finial. The South Indian style became increasingly elaborate—the complex of temple buildings enclosed by the court became larger, and a number of successive enclosures, each with its own gateway (gopura), were added (Michell 1977). [Information on the dravida style of temples can be found in Tartakov 1977]

Repetition is inevitably one of the factors that explain the stylistic evolutions of Hindu temples. The southern temples created their wall systems by the repetition of projections that framed the recesses working its way up the wall, there were pairs of pilasters marking each change in the wall plane. The dravida style developed a complex system of breaking up the plane of the wall into little straight sections until the temple plan almost approaches a circle (Michell 1977). Fundamental characteristics of these temples is the choice of architectural forms and how many of these details continue to be used in different way other then their original purpose. For example, the northern (naraga) temples used the horseshoe shaped for arched windows, however it can be found on later temples superimposed into the mouldings or onto the superstructure decorations.

The temple as one can see plays an extremely important role in the lives of everyday Hindus. When one takes a deeper look at the various aspects of the temple; style, purpose as well


Branfoot, Crispin. ‘Expanding Form’: The Architectural Sculpture of the South Indian Temple, ca.1500-170. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 62, No. 2. (2002), pp. 189-245.

Dowson, John. (1982) A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography, History and Literature. Calcutta: Rupa & Co.

Lahiri ,Nayanjot; Elisabeth A. Bacus. Exploring the Archaeology of Hinduism

World Archaeology, Vol. 36, No. 3, The Archaeology of Hinduism. (Sep., 2004), pp. 313-325.

Meister, Michael. (1988-89) Prasada as Palace: Kutina Origins of the Nagara Temple. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 49, No. 3/4. (1988 – 1989), pp. 254-280.

Meister, Michael. Matala and Practice in Nagara Architecture in North India

Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 99, No. 2. (Apr. – Jun., 1979), pp. 204-219.

Michell, George. (1977). The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sharma, Arvind. On Hindu, Hindustin, Hinduism and Hindutva Numen, Vol. 49, No. 1. (2002),pp.1-36.

Sinha ,Ajay J. Architectural Invention in Sacred Structures: The Case of Vesara Temples of Southern India. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 55, No. 4.

(Dec., 1996), pp. 382-399.

Tartakov, Gary Michael. The Beginning of Dravidian Temple Architecture in Stone. Artibus Asiae, Vol. 42, No. 1. (1980), pp. 39-99.

Related Topics







Related Websites

Written by Maddie Fache (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Elephanta Caves

Known to natives as Gharapuri, the Elephanta Cave Island is located in the Bombay harbour (on the northerly west coast of the Indian subcontinent). The island was named by the Portuguese, who, upon arrival to the island in 1534 found a large stone elephant sculpture on entry into the bay. Evidence suggests that even before the Portuguese arrival, there had been foreign visitors to the island since the 5th century (see Collins 16-17). Measuring approximately three kilometers long (Knapp 352), the island houses massive temples excavated from the island’s great rock composition. The most extraordinary (in size and seeming importance) of these caves is solely dedicated to the Hindu deity Siva. This cave houses large stone relief sculptures depicting many forms of the deity. Suggested chronological placement for the construction of the caves is sometime during the 6th CE, during the great Gupta Dynasty rule in India. The Gupta Dynasty is widely recognized for striving to unite Indian states, and encourage all cultural pursuits including Indian art (Knapp 352).

Because of Siva’s significance as one of the major Hindu deities, the great cave at Elephanta has become a large pilgrimage site for Hindus today. Known as the cosmic creator, preserver, and destroyer Siva is regarded in the Shaiva Puranas as the supreme or absolute (Shattuck 47) . Architecturally, the temple considers the cosmic associations of Siva, as the construction allows for space, light, and movement. Interestingly, the journey to the shrine is an integral part of the pilgrimage experience. Reaching the temple is a symbolic removal of self from the physical world (across water, up a mountain, then entering the cave), transcending from the human realm into the divine realm (Berkson 17).

The cave temple has three entrances, from the north, west, and east – all leading into the main interior hall. Both the east and west wing entrances have their own sculptures associated with Siva. Sixteen sculptures in total are present in and around the temple cave, nine of which are housed within main hall of the temple. Either in relief or as standalone sculptures, they are carved directly from the hill’s rock composition. Each of these nine works depicts a form of Siva or a figure associated with the deity (see Berkson 17-18). The two most significant of these sculptures are the linga sculpture contained within a chamber (completely separate from the rock walls) near the west entrance, and a massive bust sculpture of the five-headed (with only three being visible) Sadashiva (the Eternal Siva form) protruding from the southern wall in the temple. Travelling along the directional axes and through the center of the temple would lead one to encounter either the linga chamber (east to west) or the Eternal Siva bust (north to south). This suggests even more attention to the specific construction of the temple, and a possible geometric link between the two sculptures for ritual movement purposes (see Berkson 19-21).

The square chamber enclosing the linga form has an opening on each side, with each also being guarded by large dvarapalas (Berkson 20-24). The symbolic association of doorkeepers to Siva is debated in interpreting Hindu mythology, but their purpose can be generalized, as either to prevent or preserve sexual contact (see Berkson 29). The presence of doorkeepers around the housed linga serves to promote the exclusiveness to Siva and symbolically, to serve the shrine as guardians. The linga form of Siva represents the phallic nature, and exudes the energy associated with its nature of creation (Knapp 363). The energy radiated from the linga is considered, as it is allowed to travel outward through the four open doorways surrounding its enclosure and outward in all directions, auspiciously affecting any devotees in or near the temple (see Berkson 25).

The large bust sculpture depicting Sadashiva reveals three of its implied four headed figure. The implied fourth face at the back and fifth face on the top, noted as being Sadyojata (the first manifestation of Siva) and Ishana (the highest manifestation of Siva) respectively (Berkson xv). Each of the visible faces describes a part of Siva’s nature and embodies specific features to allude to those qualities. Siva’s right face portrays the masculine/destructive nature of the deity (aghora – fierce) (Berkson 13). The face is rugged and aggressive looking, and carries a moustache along with a snake being held near the face to further emphasize the phsyical, and philosophical masculine nature. The sculpture’s left face offers the duality of this and embodies a feminine (vamadeva – graceful) form of Siva (Berkson 13). The face looks tranquil and pure, with a lotus held near the face to help to convey the creator nature of the deity. The center face of Siva is an embodiment of both male and female forms (tatpurusha – transcendent) (Berkson 13). Aligned together, and transcending both forms, this face is serene and tranquil. Siva’s eyes are closed suggesting deep meditation and inward thought while still remaining ever present; allowing for the presentation of the dichotomies he represents (active yet passive, finite and infinite, energetic yet ascetic, etc.) (Knapp 363).

The remaining seven sculptures are relief panels carved into the walls surrounding the interior of the temple and embody depictions of Siva. The placement and relation between each set of relief sculptures also represents the dual natures of the deity. Below is a diagram depicting the location of each of the sculptures within the main temple, as well as accompanying descriptions derived from Berkson (18, 23-24):

North Entrance

West Wing Entrance East Wing Entrance

1. Ravana 5. Marriage 9. Linga Shrine

2. Gambling Scene 6. Andhaka 10. Eternal Siva

3. Ardhanarishvara 7. Siva Dancing

4. Ganga 8. Lord of Yogis

Located on either side of the eastern entrance to the shrine and facing each other on opposing walls:

  1. Ravana – depicting Siva and Parvati at their celestial residence on Mt. Kailasa. Siva is casually fending off Ravana as he has come to disturb them.
  2. Gambling Scene – also situated on Mt. Kailasa, Parvati and Siva are depicted as at leisure playing gambling games.

Mt. Kailasa is mythically believed to be situated precisely where the Siva cave at Elephanta is carved. Simply, the contrast between the two images here is Siva at home and at rest in the gambling scene, and on guard or defence at his home.

Located on panels on either side of the Eternal Siva Shrine, both facing north:

  1. Ardhanarishvara – shows Siva and Parvati joined in a unified form (androgyne). This androgynous fused form is beside Nandi the bull. Nandi represents fertility and the agricultural nature of Siva in animal form.
  2. Ganga – portrays Siva breaking the fall of the river Ganga’s descent to earth (here Ganga is being depicted as a goddess with three bodies).

As the Ganga is sometimes regarded as the wife to Siva, these two panels play off each other; they present the symbolisms of husband-wife and male-female, while connecting these to the Eternal Siva figure who separates the two. The rising three heads of the Eternal Siva sculpture contrasts with the falling three-bodied Ganges relief depiction and further suggests a calculated placement of the sculptures.

Located on either side of the western entrance to the shrine and facing each other on opposing walls:

  1. Marriage – depicts Siva being wed to Parvati.
  2. Andhaka – shows Siva killing the demon Andhaka by impaling him with a sword.

This dichotomy is more evident and represents two moods being experienced. Siva is angered, aggressive, and dangerous fighting Andhaka; but is calm, at peace, and joyous marrying Parvati.

Located on either side of the northern entrance, both facing the Eternal Shrine to the south:

  1. Siva Dancing – shows several forms of Siva dancing with other deities surrounding him.
  2. Lord of Yogis – presents a large image of Siva as the Lord of Yogis – Yogiashvara, meditating.

Contrasting energies between these two images are evident. Siva, while dancing, presents outflowing, active, dynamic energy; where, as the yogi the energy is inward flowing, passive, and static. Although seemingly different, it is suggested that the energies of the images are identical just executed in different manners.

As the Elephanta caves are not one of India’s major tourist destinations, the majority of visitors to the caves are Siva devotees. This heavy traffic (being upward of tens of thousands each year) requires the caves to be protected and maintained. UNESCO appoints the Indian government to maintain the cave temple at Elephanta, which was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 (see UNESCO).


Berkson, Carmel, O’ Flaherty, W., & Michell, G. (1983) Elephanta the Cave of Shiva. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Collins, Charles D. (1988) The Iconography and Ritual of Siva at Elephanta. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Knapp, B. L. (1978) “The Dance of Siva: Malraux, Motion and Multiplicity”. Twentieth Century Literature: 24(3), 358-372.

Shattuck, C. (1999) Religions of the World: Hinduism. London, Great Britain: Routledge.

UNESCO (2002) Periodic Reporting Section ii. Retrieved Mar. 31, 2006, from


Related Topics for Further Investigation







Gupta Dynasty

Shaiva Puranas

Ajanta Caves

Ellora Caves

Pitalkhora Caves

Mt. Kailasa

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

(This link provides a 360-panorama view from inside the main hall)

Written by Brett Ferster (March 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple

The Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara temple of Madurai is one of the most beautiful examples of Hindu architecture. This temple is dedicated to the god Siva and the goddess Minaksi, and was built to honour their sacred marriage.

Madurai is a city situated on the banks of the Vaigai River in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Madurai’s skyline is principally characterized by the Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple’s four major gopurams (entry towers), since “Madurai Municipal code forbids construction of any building higher than the four temple towers” (Harman 101).

The Minaksi Temple has twelve gopurams in all, four of which are main entrance points into the temple. The four outer gopurams are placed in the cardinal directions and act as portals into the sacred building. The tower portion of a gopuram is built in pyramid like fashion that stretches nine stories high. Each tower is elaborately decorated with carved stucco images and figures of suras (deities).

At the peak of each gopuram there are four Kirttimukha figures, which are statues carved in the shape of lion-headed demons. The Kirttimukha figure acts as the temple’s spiritual guardian (Kollar 15). The relationship between the Kirttimukha and Siva, and consequently the reason for the Kirttimukha’s instalment as the temple’s guard, is revealed in the following myth as told in L. Peter Kollar’s book, Symbolism in Hindu Architecture. A great titan named Jalandhara had accumulated great power (15). He sent a messenger-demon, Rahu, to challenge Siva to give up his “shining jewel of a bride” to Jalandhara (15). Siva, in his fury, emanated an energetic burst from his spiritual eye, which instantly formed into a demon with the head of a lion (15). In terror, Rahu took refuge in Siva, who told the demon to desist (15). Since the lion-headed demon had an irrepressible hunger, Siva sentenced it to eat its own flesh (15). The demon eventually ate every part of his body except his face (15). Siva “declared [to the creature]: ‘You shall be known, henceforth as Face of Glory (Kirttimukha) and I ordain that you shall abide forever at my door. Whosoever neglects to worship you shall never win my grace’ ” (15).

Hindu temples are constructed with the intention that visitors will circle through the inside in a spiral and eventually make their way to the inner sanctum (garbha-grha). Circulating through the temple prepares one mentally and spiritually for worship (puja) in the garbha-grha. Circulating through the temple towards the garbha-grha represents a journey to the “primordial womb, [and] to the primordial substance, Prakrti” (Kollar 67).

Therefore, in the Minaksi temple, after demonstrating ones respect for the Kirttimukha, and entering from the east gopuram, one encounters the Thousand Pillar Mandapam (a pillared hallway). This hallway has 985 richly chiselled pillars that display the suras that are part of the Saivite family. Some examples of suras found in the Thousand Pillar Mandapam, and the temple’s six other mandapams, are a great statue of Ganesa and Nandi, Siva’s bull mount (vahana).

After circling the inside of the temple, and absorbing the atmosphere and the artistry of the sacred building, one is ready to enter the garbha-grha. The garbha-grha is the essence of the temple, and the abode of the god of the temple’s designation. There are two garbha-grhas in the Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple, one dedicated to Minaksi (the fish eyed goddess), and another dedicated to Siva, who is in the form of Lord Sundaresvara. Each of these sacred rooms is covered by gold roofing in pyramidal form; these golden pyramids symbolize Mount Kailasa, the mythical abode of Siva (Kramrisch 161). The interior of the garbha-grha has four plain walls; the only light that enters these chambers is through the entrance in the front wall (Kramrisch 162). The entrance to both Lord Sundaresvara and Sri Minaksi’s garbha-grhas face east, which indicates orthodoxy. Although it is usually dark, oil lamps are often used during ritual worship (puja). Inside these four plain walls stands a linga-yoni; this statue is the phallic and vulval symbol of Siva and his consort. It represents the erotic half of Siva’s bipolar character, creation, and Prakrti (the primordial substance).

The temple was constructed to honour the sacred marriage of Sri Minaksi and Lord Sundaresvara (Siva). Siva’s appearance, marriage, and exploits in Madurai are “narrated in a document entitled Tiruvilaiyatarpuranam” (The Story of The Sacred Games) (Harman 21). In his book, The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess, William Harman writes that the Tiruvilaiyatarpuranam describes that Malayadhvaja Pandya, the king of Madurai, has no sons and fathered only a daughter with three breasts (45). The distraught king receives orders from Siva to name his daughter Tatatakai, and to raise her as if she were a son (45). Siva also tells the king that when the woman meets her Lord, her third breast will disappear (45). After her coronation and the death of her father, Tatatakai rules as an unmarried queen, and attempts to conquer as much territory as possible (47). Her army is so impressive that even Indra fled at the sight of it in battle (47). Her army receives no resistance until an attempt to conquer Mount Kailasa goes awry at the appearance of Siva (47). When Tatatakai sees Siva for the first time her third breast disappears and she becomes bashful and passive (47). Her prophecy has come true, and she falls in love with the deity.

Siva orders her to return to Madurai, and await him there to be married; he arrives later with Brahma on his left side, and Visnu on his right. As Tatatakai’s father is dead, Visnu acts as the father of the bride during his absence (48). “Siva, who rules all the worlds, who is supreme among the thousands of deities, takes his place on the throne […] in the town of Madurai” (48).

The marriage changes the city, the Pandya Dynasty, Siva and Tatatakai; yet, “[h]er transformation is the most dramatic” (49). Her third breast disappears and she is deified as Minaksi, the fish eyed goddess (49). Her epithet of the fish eyed goddess is unflattering in western standards yet it is “complimentary in the Indian context: large, unblinking eyes with dark pupils are considered a mark of human beauty” (24).

On a superficial level, it appears that Siva possesses a more important role in Madurai than Minaksi, as his shrine in the Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara temple is larger than Minaksi’s and is located closer to the centre of the temple (23). However, it is important to note, “devotees concentrate their worship on the Goddess” (23). Her shrine is visited before Siva’s; “[i]n a strict sense, the Goddess is closer to the people” (23). “She represents qualities of nurturance, compassion, mercy, affection, and accessibility” (24). She is referred to as Mother, while Siva is addressed in less compassionate terms, as Lord (24). Another example of how Siva is subordinate to Minaksi in Madurai is in the designation of the festivals. There are twelve major parts of the annual Wedding Festival in the city; four of them are exclusively dedicated to Minaksi, while Siva enjoys no such exclusive honour (66).

The Citra Festival is the main annual celebration of Sundaresvara and Minaksi’s marriage. It is titled the Citra Festival because it takes place during Citra, a month which begins in mid-April and ends in mid-May in the Western calendar (64). The three main events of the festival celebrate Minaksi’s coronation, her conquest of the world, and her marriage (67). The celebration of her coronation occurs on the eighth day of the festival; on the ninth day, her conquest of the world is celebrated. The tenth day of the festival marks the commemoration of the wedding (66). This festival is not only the celebration of the sacred wedding; it “brings together deities and mortals, rural and urban, Saiva and Vaisnava in order to celebrate the goddess as royal monarch and the city as a sacred centre” (66).


On Hindu Temples:

Kramrisch, Stella (1946) The Hindu Temple. 2 vols. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Michell, George (1997) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meaning and Forms. New York: Harper & Row.

On The Sri Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple:

Harman, William P (1989) The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Kollar, Peter L (2001) Symbolism In Hindu Architecture: As Revealed in the Shri Meenakshi Sundareswar. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

On the Goddess Minaksi and Hindu Mythology:

Dowson, John (1979) A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology. London: Roultage & Kegan Paul.

Related Topics

The Goddess Minaksi Hindu Temples

Lord Sundaresvara Madurai

Mount Kailasa, the mythical home of Siva Hindu Marriages

Tiruvilaiyatarpuranam The Citra Festival

Notable Websites

Article written by Michael Stevens (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.