Category Archives: c. The Hindu Temple

The Dravidian Style of Hindu Temple

Among the massive amount of Hindu temples in India there are two main types of temple styles, a specific temple style seen in the north and one in the south. Temples in India have had a distinct difference in style since the very first temples were built in the fifth and sixth centuries CE. Geographically, the northern temples can be found from the Himalayas to the Deccan, from Gujarat to Orissa and Bengal in the east. However, the southern temples are found almost exclusively in the southern part of the subcontinent.  The main purpose of the Hindu temple was to create a link between persons and gods, and gave a site for gods to be seen by human beings; both southern and northern temples do this. However, the structural make up of these temples is what sets them apart from one another (Michell 61-86).

Southern style temples tend to be constructed with individual cells/layers that are typically identical and are stacked in a pyramid form (Trivedi 256). Northern temples, in contrast, have walls with a curved incline, unlike the pyramidal southern style temples. Additionally, southern temples rise in a much steeper fashion than north temples. Southern temples tend to have a distinctive moulded base, different from the northern style (Hardy 2009:46). Additionally, southern temples frequently have an octagonal overall shape to them, something not seen in northern temples. Also, the Dravidian style temples usually have a small top concave dome whereas the top of the northern style temple tends to be more complex and elaborate (Michell 89-93).

The start of Dravidian temples was created by the Pallavas dynasty. This dynasty ruled from about 550CE to about 890CE in the Tamil region or southern region of India. Historical remains of more than sixty Dravidian style temples can be traced back to this dynasty. Early in this rule, King Mahendra produced many rock cut temples in the south of India. Rock cut temples were found throughout the early builds of Hindu temples. Additionally at this time many depictions of Gods, semi-divine, and royal figures were seen in the architecture of the temples, which became an integral part of the Hindu temple. Towards the end of this era, temple building moved from rock cut temples to temples being their own physical structure, not relying on rock faces to build the temples. Some of the most extensive temples produced in this era were the rathas, which translates into chariots. These rathas temples are considered monolithic (carved from one rock structure), or rock-cut, and began to solidify the unique southern style. These rathas are considered the first known structures to fit the entire mold of the southern style. A well known rathas is the shore temple in Mahabalipuram, which shows key Dravidian style characteristics in steep rising superstructures and repetitions in the wall scheme, along with images of the god Visnu (Michell 131-132).

The Dravidian temple style of the Pallavas ended up bleeding into the Chalukya society due to the conflict between these two powers in the seventh and eighth centuries (Michell 136). Early Chalukya temples were mainly rock cut temples.  However, later in the Chalukya’s rule, they produced some of the oldest known stone Hindu temples.  At this time, a distinctive split in the two types of southern styles Karnatak and Tamil is seen (Tartakov 39-41). Due to this bleeding there is some overlap between the temple styles in some northern sites. One unique aspect of temples built in this era is the use of two gateways and two separate hallways in the temples. However, both the Chalukya and the Pavalla temples shared many of the same key characteristics of the southern style temples, even with their small physical differences and geographical differences (Michell 136).

After the Pallavas and Chalukyas’ eras of southern temples, the Rashtrakutas started to further develop the southern style from the eighth to tenth century. The use of rock cut temples grew in popularity again in this era, whereas the Pallavas began to step away from this type of architecture during the end of their reign. One of the most impressive temples built in this era is the Kailasa, which stands 30 meters high. This temple and others like it built in this era have the  defining southern features “of moulded base, plastered wall, overhanging eave and parapet, which when combined in diminishing superimposition, create the superstructure” (Michell 143).

During the tenth to eleventh century the Dravidian style temple shifted again under the south’s new rule.  During this time of turmoil and war in the south, the Cholas became the ruling power. However, during this time there was not a lot of architectural growth, as seen in the previous eras. Many of the new temples built in this era followed the old Pallava southern temple style, notably using the Pallava octagonal towers. However, the Cholas did have a couple of their own unique characteristics for temple buildings. These included an increase in the amount of sculpture used on the side of temples, along with “multifaceted column projecting square capitals” (Michell 145).

Throughout these different time periods of temple development, the Hindus used sacred texts as a way to orchestrate these magnificent temples. The main genre of text used to build these temples are the Vastusastras, and were thought to be composed by Brahmins over the years. In the vast Vastusasras there are some parts which refer to the northern temple style and some to the southern form. One sub text of the Vastusastras, the Samaranganasutradhara, deals with both northern and southern temples. The chapters of the text devoted to the designs of the temples are very specific, and outline a sophisticated measurement system. One specific Dravidian temple that was prescribed by this text was the Bhojpur temple, which still remains unfinished to this day. Even within the Samaranganasutradhara, there is some overlap between the two temple styles, showing the interconnection between the two styles. The uses of texts like the Samaranganasutrahara show how complex the building of these temples was and how specific these temples were actually made (Hardy 2009:41-46).

Even within the division of southern temple style there are two different types of styles. These two different sub type temples can be classified into Karnatak (Vesara) and Tamil. Tamil southern style reflects the southernmost temple designs, often referred to as the “True Dravidian” temples. The Karnatak mainly developed from the Dravidian style, but has some north style characteristics; some scholars address the Karnatak as its own hybrid temple style. The Karnatak developed in the early Chalukya dynasty; at this point the subtle differences in the two southern temple styles can be seen. Some of the major differences between the two southern sub temples are the height of the temples, differences in moulded bases, and the small amount of northern characteristics seen in the Karnatak style. Almost never are Karnatak temples above four stories, whereas Tamil style temples are known to be over four stories. Also, Tamil temples have a structurally distinctive moulded base, which is not found in Karnatak temples.  One of the northern temple elements found in the Karnatak temple style is in some cases curved northern spires were used, which were not used in Tamil temple styles. Ultimately, the north and south styles both have influence on the build of the Karnatak to varying degrees (Hardy 2001:181-191).

The southern temples are extraordinary architectural feats, but they were built to serve as the spiritual link between the gods and humans. Inside the Hindu temples people had the ability to draw closer to the gods through the use of rituals and ceremonies. Religious symbols are found throughout the Hindu temples architecture, which reinforce the spiritual link. Many ideas from the epics and the Puranas, along with symbolically representing the religion’s ultimate goal of moksa, are seen in the temples. Additionally the Hindu temple was seen as the house of the gods where one would have the ability to see the gods, through rituals and being pure. Specifically, temples were dedicated to certain gods and goddesses and each temple had a womb chamber which was a small shrine to honor the specific god the temple was devoted to (Michell 61-62).

The temple is the site of many religious rituals, where the movement of devotees and priests in the temple is of the utmost importance.  Rituals practiced in temples can be placed into two distinct groups: Pujas, which are daily rituals and urvalams which are festivals practiced at different times of the year (Treada 120). Certain parts of the temples are seen as the specific sites where deities can be met. An example of structural meaning is the doors of the temple that signify the movement from the temporal to the spiritual. Another example of the symbolic structural meaning in the temples is the womb of the temple, which was the place where energy radiates from. The womb of the temple is such a sacred place that only priests are able to enter, even when devotees are bringing sacrifices to the room, they are not allowed in (Michell 66).

The soaring gopuram (gateway) and bathing tank, which is characteristic of Dravida temples (Cidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India)
The soaring gopuram (gateway) and bathing tank, which is characteristic of Dravida temples (Cidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India)

Temples are seen as cultural centres. At these temples people experienced music and dance throughout their history. The daily rituals and yearly festivals which took place in temples often had music as a key component.  Music and dance varied based on the geographical regions, even among yearly practiced festivals. Even sculptors in temples often depicted music and dance. The Periya Melam was in charge of music in the temples and performed the music in rituals. The job of musician was passed down through hereditary lines. These musicians often lived within walking distance of the temples and performed almost every day.  However, music in temples today seems to be disappearing, something lamented upon by many (Treada 128-139).

Another interesting element of the Hindu religion seen in their temples is they believe the gods are attracted to mountains and caves. For this reason a lot of temples were built on the side of mountains, or using caves, as seen in the early southern Pallava’s temple design and other eras. The temples that were not built on rock faces were made to reflect the visual nature of mountains because of the believed attraction of the gods to caves and mountains. Both the curved temple towers of the northern temple style and the pyramid style of the south style are different attempts to create a mountain like structure, ultimately trying to end at the same goal (Michell 69).

Besides the cave like temple designs, Hindu temples also were designed in regard to the cosmic man (Michell 72). The cosmic man is developed in a square form which helps to also symbolically design the temple, with the creator god being represented at the centre of the temple and the edges of the square being dedicated to guardian gods and goddesses. The notion of a temple being designed with the cosmos in mind can be traced back to in text writing as far back as 3000 years, and in actual temple building to more than 1000 years ago. Throughout the Vastusastras the temple designs keep the square in mind, as it symbolically represents the manifestation of the world (Trivedi 245-258). This cosmic man is mainly based on deities but also is designed in part with astrology in mind (Michell 72).

These amazing architectural feats and spiritual houses are seen throughout India and the eventual British rule created legislation to preserve them. Under the colonial rule of the British the Hindu temples became protected under the Ancient monuments act of 1904. Prior to the act British rule controlled around 150 temples in India, however after the act they controlled over 700 Hindu temples. Under this act, the British government greatly limited the use of the temples for Hindus and created problems between the practicing Hindus and the ruling power. The British viewed temples as antique but to orthodox Hindus the temples are still to this day very much a part of their religion. Some accounts of British rule have them taking down parts of temples and moving the inside contents of the temples to artificial buildings for the Hindus to practice rituals in. British rule, did however, rebuild and restore damaged temples during the Act (Sutton 135-137).

Today Dravidian temples (along with Northern Temples) are still used for religious festivals and also act as tourist destinations. Some of the biggest southern temples seen in India today are: the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Thillai Nataraja Temple, Golden Temple of Sripuram, to name a few. Also, in the now culturally diverse world, the spread of religion in general is a more common thing. As a result, many Hindu temples are being built around the world outside of India, some of which have Dravidian characteristics (King 151).


References And Further Recommended Readings

Baumann, Martin “Hindu temples.” Internationales Asien Forum, Vol. 6, No. 3/4: p.231.

Hardy, Adam (2009) “Dravida Temples in the Samaranganasutradhara.” South Asian Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1: p.41-62.

Hardy, Adam (2001) “Tradition and Transformation: Continuity and Ingenuity in the Temples of Karnatak.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 60, No. 2: p.180-199.

Michell, George (1977) The Hindu temple: an introduction to its meaning and forms. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers.

King, Anna (2007) “Diaspora of the Gods: Modern Hindu Temples in an Urban Middle-class World Waghorne, Joanne Punzo” Material religion, Vol. 3, No. 1: p.150-152.

Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple II. Delhi, India: Shri Jainendra Press.

Sutton, Deborah (2013) “Devotion, Antiquity, and Colonial Custody of the Hindu Temple in British Indian.” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1: p.135-166.

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

Treada, Yoshitaka (2008) “Temple Music Traditions in Hindu South India: Periya Melam and Its Performance Practice” Asian Music, Vol. 39, No. 2: p. 108-151.

Trivedi, Kirti (1989) “Hindu temples: models of a fractal universe.” The Visual Computer, Vol. 5, No. 4: p.243-258.

Related Topics For Further Investigation



Tamil Nadu









Sri Raganasthaswamy Temple

Thillai Nataraja Temple

Golden Temple of Sripuram

Ancient monuments act of 1904

Cosmic Man

King Mahendra

Bhojpur temple

womb chamber



Noteworthy Websites Related to Topic


Article written by: Josh Toth (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Vastu Tradition in Hinduism

The vastu tradition is said to be the ancient science of designing and constructing buildings and houses with a corresponding plot of land. The root word vas in vastu means to dwell, live, stay, and reside (Gautum 17) (Kramrisch 82). The vastu-shastra is the manual used for the architecture on how sacred or domestic building must be constructed. The vastu-purusa-mandala is a metaphorical expression of the plan of the Universe and depicts the link between people, buildings and nature it is used to position a building on potential plots of land (Patra 2006:215-216). This mandala is so universal that it can be applied to an altar, a temple, a house, and a city.  Hindu temples are meant to bring humans and gods together.

The vastu shastra is found originating in the Vedas the most ancient of sacred Indian text, tracing back to at least 3,000 B.C.E., if not earlier. The knowledge of constructing and designing a building is found specifically in the Sthapatya Veda, which is a sub heading in the Artharva Veda which is the fourth Veda. Principles of vastu-shastra can be found in several other ancient texts such as Kasyapa Silpa Sastra, Brhat Samhita, Visvakarma Vastu Sastra, Samarangana Sutradhara, Visnu Dharmodhare, Purana Manjari, Mayamata, Aparajitaprccha, Silparatna Vastu Vidya (Patra 2006:215). Hindu literature also cites that the knowledge of sacred architectural construction of buildings was present in the oral traditions since before the Vedic Period. According to Indian experts the vastu is possibly the oldest sacred architectural construction in the world up to date (Osborn 85-86). The oldest master known for vastu is Maya Danava, acknowledged as the founder of this ancient sacred Indian architectural tradition (Osborn 87). It is said that “man can improve his conditions by properly designing and understanding the location, direction, and disposition of a building that have a direct bearing on a human being” (Patra 2014:44). Based on the experience of several generations it has proved that the building and arrangement of villages and capitals in ancient India gave health and peacefulness. The principles regarding the construction of buildings that are in the vastu-shastra are used to please the vastu-purusa; they are explained by the mandala vastu-purusa-shastra. 

There are five basic principles of the sacred science of sacred architecture, the first of which is the doctrine of orientation (diknirnaya), which related to the cardinal directions: north, east, south, west. Second is site planning which uses the vastu-purusa-mandala and is the examination of the soil through categories such as taste, color, etc. Third is the proportionate measurement of the building (mana, hastalakshana), which is divided into six sections: measurement of height, breadth, width or circumference, measurement along plumb lines, thickness, and measurement of inter-space. Fourth there are the six canons of Vedic architecture (ayadi, sadvarga), base (aadhistaana), column (paada or stambha), entablature (prastaara), ear or wings (karna), roof (shikara) and dome (stupi). Fifth is the aesthetics of the building (patakadi, sadschandas) which deals with the nature of beauty such as principles of texture, color, flow, the interaction of sunlight and shadows, these are some principles of aesthetics (Patra 2014:44). The most important requirement in the manual is that the site of a new building must be placed where the gods are at play (King 69). If the temple is unable to be built by a tirtha (a sacred ford or a crossing place that must be by sacred water) then another suitable site should be found. This can be a riverbank, a river junction, a lake, or a seashore. It can even be mountains, hilltops, or forests/gardens. It can also be placed in populated areas like towns, villages, and cities (King 69 and Osborn 87). Water was said to be a fundamental part of the gods’ play, therefore a sacred temple must be near water but if no water was present then man-made a water source. Directions also hold a particular significance (north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, and northwest) they help to clarify the principles of the vastu-shastra.

Once the land has been chosen with appropriate knowledge the ground is then prepared properly using the geometrical design known as vastu-purusa-mandala. Then before the mandala is placed a Priest must perform a number of mantras a sacred utterance that urges all living creatures in the plot to leave so that the new land for the building will not kill any living things (King 69). The soil in the desired area of land must undergo some tests to show whether it is suitable or not. One test that occurs is a pit is dug in the ground and then is filled with water, and the soils strength is then judged by how much water is remaining when the next day arrives. Of course with this in mind before these tests can be done the soil must be examined in the following categories: smell, taste (whether it is sweet, pungent, bitter, astringent), color (white for brahmanas, red for kshatriyas, yellow for vaisyas, black for sudras, the color of the soil and the caste correspond with each other), sound, shape or consistency. After all that is done and if the soil is suitable, then the fertility of the soil must also be tested by plowing the ground and planting seed and recording the growth at 3, 5, and 7 nights. Then according to the success of growth, it is decided whether the soil is fertile and helps decide if this is a good place to build using the mandala (Kramrisch 13-14).

It does not matter whether the building is going to be a house, office, or a school the knowledge from the vastu-shastra must be taken into consideration in order for the execution to be successful. The walls that strengthen the temple are known as prakaras and they may vary in size and number in regards to the size of the temple. When building larger temples like the one in Srirangam they are occasionally surrounded by seven concrete walls that represent the seven layers of matter: earth, water, fire, air, either, mind, and intelligence.


The geometry and measurements of the vastu (blueprint) planned site is a very complex science. The shape must be a square that is a fundamental form of Indian architecture; its full name is vastu-purusa-mandala [the sacred diagram by which a temple is configured (Rodrigues 2006:568)] consisting of three parts vastu, purusa, and mandala. Purusa is a universal essence, a cosmic man representing pure energy, soul, and consciousness whose sacrifice by the gods was said to be the creation of all life. Purusa is the reason that buildings must be created using a mandala of him, which means a diagram relating to orientation. A mandala can also be referred to as a yantra (a cosmological diagram). The vastu-purusa-mandala adopts the shape of the land it is set on so it can fit suitably wherever it is placed. The mandala therefore accepts transformation into a triangle, hexagon, octagon, and circle if the area is consistent and it will maintain its symbolism. Even though the ideal shape is a square, its acceptance of transformation in shape shows the inherent flexibility of the vastu-purusa-mandala (Kramrisch 21 and Patra 2014:47). When configuring a temple they use this mandala of purusa to enable them to place the proper things in the proper directions and proper places (i.e. north, west, etc.) such as where the worship places or bedrooms must be and so forth. If the rooms in these buildings are appropriately placed this will keep the building healthy and keep the people in it happy (Patra 2014:47).

Another thing that the vastu-shastra states is that the layout for residences be placed based on caste; the brahmins (priestly class) are placed in the north, the kshatriyas (the warrior class) in the east, the vaishyas (the merchant class) in the south, and the sudras (the lower class) in the west.  When the land is purified and sanctified the vastu-purusa-mandala is drawn on the site with all the subdivisions helping to indicate the form of the building. The mandala is divided into 64 (8×8) squares and is meant for construction of shrines and for worship by brahmins, or 81 (9×9) squares and is meant for the construction of other buildings and for worship of kshastriyas (kings). These squares (nakshatras) are said to be the seats of 45 divinities that all surround a central open space that is ruled by Brahma (Chakrabarti 6-7 and Kramrisch 46). The square is occupied by the vastu-purusa his very shape of his body. His body with its parts, limbs, and apertures is interpreted as having the same boundaries or extent in space, time, or meaning and is therefore one with the 81 squares of the plan. The mandala is filled with magical effectiveness and meanwhile the body of man is the place of insight by the practice of the discipline of yoga (Kramrisch 49). The vastu-purusa-mandala is the vastu-purusa, his body is together with the presence and actions of the divinities located in the mandala, which is their yantra, the center is the brahmasthana and designates the center point of a building (it is a giant skylight) and its superstructure is the temple (Kramrisch 63).

The brahmasthana is the principle location in the temple because this is where the seat of the godhead will eventually be placed. A ritual is performed at this space in the vastu-purusa-mandala called garbhadhana, which invites the soul of the temple to enter the radius of the building. In this ritual a brahmin and a priest place a gold box in the earth during the ceremony of the first ground breaking. The interior of this box is an exact replica of the mandala squares and each square is filled with dirt. The priest then places the correct mantra in writing to call on the presence of the matching deity. When the base is complete the external features of the temple are brought to life through meticulously sculpted figures and paintings, these arts are generally conveyed as the forms of the divine entities (Osborn 90-91).     

It is said that the vastu-shastra is a very powerful ongoing tradition in India today and is in no threat of becoming extinct. The post secondary schools in India have classes to teach students about the variation of skills and techniques required in the science of sacred architecture. In these classes the literature is all written in Sanskrit, therefore in order for the students to learn the correct knowledge they must know how to read Sanskrit. They are taught everything required for vastu-shastra such as geometry, drafting, stone sculpture, bronze casting, woodcarving, painting, and so much more. When the students gain the correct knowledge and skills to be an architect in India they then graduate with a degree and then receive the title sthapati [(temple architect and builder) this title is named after Sri. M. Vaidyantha Sthapati a master architect, he was the designer and architect of some very popular temples and other Hindu buildings]. India has the most examples of sacred architecture that exist compared to all other countries in the world combined (Osborn 87). One of the more important requirements for vastu-shastra that is used today is the orientation of where parts of the buildings needs to be situated based on the points on the vastu-purusa-mandala. Hindu temples back in the nineteenth century were located at the heart of the city.  With that in mind today if one desires to go to a temple the most important temples are now all found in the suburbs, but they still have the same purpose, to bring human beings and gods closer together.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Boner, Alice (1966) Slipa Prakasa Medieval Orissan Sanskrit Text on Temple Architecture. Leiden: Brill Archive.

Chakrabarti, Vibhuti (2013) Indian Architectural Theory and Practice: Contemporary Uses of Vastu Vidya. New York: Routledge.

Gautum, Jagdish (2006) Latest Vastu Shastra (Some Secrets). New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

King, Anthony D. (ed.) (2003) Building and Society. New York: Routledge.

Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple, Vol 1. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Meister, Michael (1976) Mandala and Practice in Nagagra Architecture in North India.” Artibus Asiae, Vol.99, No.2: p.204-219.

Meister, Michael (1983) Geometry and Measure in Indian Temple Plans: Rectangular Temples. Artibus Asiae. Vol.44, No.4: p.266-296.

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

Osborn, David (2010) Science of the Sacred. Raleigh: Lulu Press Inc.

Patra, Reena (2006) Asian Philosophy: A Comparative Study on Vaastu Shastra and Heidegger’s Building, Dwelling and Thinking. New York: Routledge, Vol.16, No.3: p.199-218.

Patra, Reena (2014) Town Planning in Ancient India: In Moral Perspective. Chandigarh: The International Journal of Humanities and Social Studies, Vol.2,  No.6: p.44-51.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2006) Introducing Hinduism-The eBook. Pennsylvania: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, LTD.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (ed.) (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. New York: Routledge.

Trivedi, Kirti (1989) Hindu Temples: Models of a Fractal Universe. Bombay: Springer-Verlag.

Vasudev, Gayatri D. (Editor) (1998) Vastu, Astrology, and Architecture: Papers Presented at the First All India Symposium on Vastu, Bangalore. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Vedic Period



Caste System





Vedic Gods (divinities)

Purusa Legend





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Brandon Simon (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Nagara Style of Hindu Temples

The origin of the Hindu temple is said to be the ancient basic circle of stones within which one cherished holy relics, human or divine. It is the Hindu temple where the contact between man and gods take place and it is also where a man progresses from the world of illusion to knowledge and truth and thus, a temple is not only a place to worship but an object to worship as well (Michell 61-62). A Hindu temple not only shows unique architecture but also symbolizes ideas characteristic in its structure, which are usually related to the common practice of people residing around it. A pilgrimage or visit to a temple is undertaken for the purpose of looking at it (darsana) (Kramrisch 8).

The evolution of Hindu temples occurred over many centuries due to differing views between the rulers of the Indian sub-continent. Emperor Asoka is credited with ordering the construction of the first significant stone structures in India around 3rd century, BCE. Religious architecture can be tracked back to the Vedic time (1500 – 700 BCE) and practices of temple worship can be traced back to texts from the Puranas and earlier (Michell 63-64). The construction of the temples however was on a small scale back then, which included materials such as timber, baked clay bricks and mud. Caves were naturally the earliest shrines on record and from the 4th to 7th century, a classical “golden period” of art and architecture emerged in India. It was this period in which temple building activities grew rapidly all over the country (Singh and Sharma 17). When kings conquered other kingdoms for the purpose of expansion, they reintegrated their thoughts into carvings of antique superstructures. Some stages of architectural patterns still survive to the present day.

A Nagara style temple would generally stand on a high platform (jagati) made of stone bricks, with several mouldings. The identification of the temple with a mountain is specific and the superstructure is known as a “mountain peak” [For more information and visuals, see Michell 69, Fig. 62]. The jagati represents the feet of a man. Over jagati, there is a smaller platform of stones (pitha). Over the pitha, there rises an even smaller platform (adhisthana), which is the base of the superstructure of the temple. The pillars and walls of the temple are raised on the adhisthana (Singh and Sharma 18).

The Nagara style is not native to the mountainous region and some believe it was introduced in the late Gupta period. The Nagara, also known as the sikhara (mountain peak) type, can be divided into three sub-groups: The first is the Phamsana Type. This is the earliest known type of sikhara. It is usually a pyramidal structure divided into seven, nine and eleven tiers. The towering sikhara is crowned by an amalaka, which is a stone disk believed to represent the deity of the temple. A kalasam, a finial from which the temple banner is hung, crowns the amalaka itself. Illustrations of the Phamsana Type can be viewed at the Siva temple at Camunda, the Nrshimha temple at Bharmaur and many others (Singh and Sharma 19). The second is the Latina Type. This type represents most of the stone temples of Nagara style in Himachal Pradesh and is believed to have emerged at the beginning of the 8th century. The Latina Type temples are curvilinear in nature, following their trademark triratha plan. “The central bands of the superstructure are tall spines of web patterns cast over receding cornices – the creepers (latas) of the Nagara temple’s Latina formula” (Meister 256). An example of this temple would be the Rudranath (Gopinath) temple in Uttrakhand. The third is the Valabhi Type. These temples have a rectangular ground plan, a doorway on one of its longer sides, and a semi-cylindrical sikhara. No Valabhi Types are found in Himachal Pradesh but there are several examples of this type across India. [See Singh and Sharma (2008) for extensive information on the Valabhi Type].

The Nagara style has 2 basic components. The first is garbhagra, a sanctum with only one entrance, in which the image of the main deity is installed (Singh and Sharma 27). “The garbhagrha consists of 4×4 = 16 squares, which is equivalent to the Brahmasthana” (Thakur 264). The second component is known as mandapa, a porch in front of the garbhagrha, typically exposed from three sides for the worshippers to assemble for worship. [Refer to Singh and Sharma (2008) for more information on this component of the Nagara style]. Various examples of diverse ideologies of different emperors regarding Nagara temple architecture will be explored in the following cases.

The northern style under the Guptas and their successors (400 CE – 600 CE) portrayed a square sanctuary that connected with a pillared porch. The roof of the sanctuary consisted of horizontal stone slabs and this part lacked a tower. A horizontal molding serves as a cornice on the plain wall surfaces. Uprights that margin the doorway are divided into vertical bands, which continue over the lintel.  The porch had columns divided into square, octagonal and sixteen-sided sections with undergrowth centers supporting brackets engraved with pairs of seated animals (Michell 94).

Rock-cut temples were common under the Early Chalukyas, Kalachuris and Rashtrakutas (500 CE – 700 CE). These cave temples contain pillared halls with small chambers cut into the posterior walls. The halls have columnar arrangements, with varieties such as fluted shafts or panels of relief carvings; cushion capitals are also employed (Michell 98, Fig. 41). Together with the doorways, these columns display clear northern stylistic characteristics. The brackets of the outer columns of these caves are fashioned to depict amorous couples beneath trees, a motif considered particularly appropriate for the entrance of a temple (Michell 99, Fig. 42). Another variation of the rock-cut temples places the sanctuary in the middle of the columnar hall instead of the posterior wall. The lack of the external access via a flight of steps, sometimes guarded by lions, is characteristic of these caves. The Elephanta cave near Mumbai resembles this type of architecture and one of the main focal points is a three-headed, major sculpture of Lord Siva, also known as the Great Lord, Mahesha (Michell 98-101). Other carved panels nearby are devoted to scenes from the mythology of Siva.

The northern style under the Kalingas and Eastern Gangas (700 CE – 1200 CE) can be seen in some of the Orissan temples such as the Parashurameshvara temple. “The emphasis on the horizontal courses employed in the superstructure of the sanctuary and roof of the adjoining hall is one of their main characteristics. Another key characteristic is the contrast between the vertical profile of the superstructure, curving only at the very top, and the pyramid-like arrangement of hall roof” (Michell 110). In the Vairal Deul temple in Bhubaneshwar, the sanctuary is rectangular and is positioned on a transverse axis to the adjoining hall. The walls of the sanctuary are divided into projections with carved panels, which lead into the lower parts of the superstructure (Michell 111, Fig. 51). As centuries went by, stylistic developments were occurring in the Indian sub-continent. Further stylistic advances may be detected in the Lingaraja temple in Bhubasneshwar (Michell 113, Fig. 53). “The outer walls are divided by a horizontal molding into two registers, as are the tiers of the hall roof, which is surmounted by an inverted bell-shaped fluted form” (Michell 112). This temple was enlarged by the addition of two more halls along the principal axis of the temple to create a sequence of successive interior spaces that was to be copied in later Orissan temples.

The northern style under the Pratiharas and Chandellas (700 CE – 1000 CE) erected several small temples at various sites, which resembled typical northern stylistic features such as a square sanctuary with projecting niches, carved doorways, and towers with curved profile. Distinct stylistic innovations appeared by the 9th century and one temple built with similar designs is the Telika Mandir at Gwalior (Michell 116, Fig. 57). This temple’s rectangular sanctuary raises the superstructure into a massive dome. The unique expansions on the end of the temple project complex interlocking horseshoe arched designs. These expansions spread onto the horizontal divisions of the tower serving as pediments above the doorways (Michell 116, Fig. 58). When the Chandella kingdom replaced the Pratihara rule, several new temples with unique architectural designs were built in Khajuraho, one of the kingdom’s capital cities. Their tall slender columns characterize the interiors of the Khajuraho temples. Auspicious females support the foliage design that exists on the brackets of these columns. The dome-like ceiling above the central spaces of the porches and halls provides the Khajuraho temples’ chief interest. The ceilings are usually sculptured with cusps that rise in diminishing circles to an overhanging lotus bed. The doorway to this sanctuary is characteristic of a northern manner and the images on the outer walls are floodlit by the lighting from the open balconies (Michell 122, Fig. 63).

The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho is a classic example of the Nagara temple style produced by the Chandella Dynasty (Khajuraho, India)
The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple at Khajuraho is a classic example of the Nagara temple style produced by the Chandella Dynasty (Khajuraho, India)

The northern style under the Maitrakas and Solankis (700 CE – 1200 CE) erected temples that were small buildings with diminishing stepped mouldings adorned with bold horseshoe arched ‘windows’. The Maitraka rulers built temples near Gujarat after gaining control of the region in the 7th century. Under the Solanki kings, who took over the Maitrakas, Gujarat developed prolific regional architecture style. The Surya temple at Modhera is widely known for its unique two structures and an artificial tank that resides along the east-west axis (Michell 124, Fig. 64). The hall of this temple has its long side positioned towards the principal emphasis of the temple with its plan spreading outwards in a number of different projections. The balcony slabs have panels with attendant figures carved upon and the brackets of the outer columns of the temple support an overhanging cave (Michel 125, Fig. 65). The temple itself consists of a hall and sanctuary surrounded on three sides by an ambulatory passageway.

The earliest stone Hindu temples in Kashmir and other Himalayan valleys (700 CE – modern period) can be traced back to the 8th century when Lalitaditya ruled the region. The lower valleys of the Himalayas mark the most northerly extension of Hindu architecture. The Surya temple at Martand was also erected under his patronage. A trilobe arch that frames the doorway is characteristic of the Kashmir style and is well-illustrated in the Siva temple at Pandrethan. The temple has a square sanctuary with entrances on all four sides. A Kashmir characteristic trilobe arch frames the opening. The sloping roof of this temple is divided into two tiers with horseshoe headed ‘windows’. The ceiling of the temple has lotus designs with attendant figures engraved upon (Michell 128, Fig. 67). In the nearby regions of Kulu, Kangra and Chamba, timber and brick buildings dominate the temple forms. Stone is sometimes retained for the doorways and walls of the shrines in these temples. The characteristic northern style can be found in the decoration of the doorframes in these temples.

Two of the earliest surviving brick temples in North India – the Laksmana temple at Sirpur and the Rajivalocana temple at Rajim in south Kosala – preserve superstructures suggestive as much of “Kutina” forms as of the final Latina formula of North Indian Nagara temples (Meister 277, Figs. 21-23). These structures show large single candrasala (“moon-hall”) windows progressing up the central offset of the sikhara and karna-kutas which, while pulled in to the body of the superstructure, have not been absorbed fully into the mass nor condensed beyond recognition. On both temples, these kutas are full miniature structures, presented as small-pillared pavilions with simple superstructures (Meister 288, Figs. 21, 27). In comparison to the Dravidian style, the Indo-European or Nagara style is a curvilinear, beehive shaped tower rather than a pyramid consisting of smaller storeys of smaller pavilions. The base plan itself is usually square in the northern style compared to the pyramidal vimana put on top of the garbhagrha [For information on the Dravidian style, see Michell 127-137].

In modern day India, new temples continue to be erected and older buildings refurbished. Compared to the southern temple style, northern temples are the product of a more discontinuous tradition (Michell 183-184). A temple is a place where one strives for the self-realization, where one finds their true self. It is a place where one may understand their atman/ jiva and possibly, Brahman.


Notable websites associated to the discussion:

Related areas for additional research:

















Himalayan temple architecture



Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple Vol. I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Meister, Michael W. (1988-1989) Prasada as Palace: Kuṭina Origins of the Nagara Temple. Zurich: Artibus Asiae.

Michell, George (1988) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meaning and Forms. New York: Harper & Row Publishers.

Singh, K.A., and Shuchita Sharma (eds.) (2008) Temple Architecture of the Western Himalayas – Ravi and Beas Valley. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.

Thakur, Laxman S. (1990) Application of Vastupuraṣamaṇḍala in the Indian Temple Architecture: An Analysis of the Nagara Temple Plans of Himachal Pradesh. Zurich: Artibus Asiae.

Article written by: Sidhesh Mohak (April 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.


The Hindu Temple

Design and Construction

Significant Temples

North Indian

South Indian

Cave Temples

Khmer (Cambodian Temples)

The Hindu Temple: Architecture and Construction

Temples are a central aspect of life in the Hindu community and are sacred places for worship. The Hindu temple is a revered structure where the boundaries between humans and the divine are dissolved, allowing one to release themselves from illusion, or maya, and move towards knowledge and truth (Michell 61). In order for a temple to function properly and achieve its intended symbolic representation, the architect must consider the shape and materials of the temple as well as many complex mathematical and astrological principles. The Vastu-sastras are the general manuals on Hindu architecture and they, along with many other manuals, are consulted to help properly create the sacred temple. According to Volwahsen, “each step which the architect takes is regarded from the angle of ritual purity and magic effect, only rarely from the angle of structural expediency” (173). The temple creator is responsible for properly constructing the structure so that it correctly functions as a link between a person and their God. This is important not only for an individual worshipper, but for the whole community, as “the welfare of the community and the happiness of its members depend upon the correctly proportioned temple” (Michell 73).

The Underlying Grid

All Hindu temples begin with a ground plan, a sacred geometric diagram called the mandala that is representative of the universe. The mandala is a grid, a large square that is divided into smaller squares by intersecting lines. It is considered to be “a symbolic pantheon of the gods” (Michell 71), with the smaller squares representing or housing a particular deity and the central and largest square representing Brahma. Volwahsen explains that the “important gods cover the innermost ring, and in the outer rings there follow the gods of lower rank in the celestial hierarchy” (44). The mandala may also contain the image of the cosmic man, who is arranged diagonally and “is identified with the processes of the creation of the universe and its underlying structure” (Michell 71). This arrangement is known as the vastu-purusha mandala (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Vastu-purusha mandala,

There are numerous and varying mandalas used in temples throughout the world. One that is typical in South India differs in that instead of the cosmic man, the architect draws a magic sign, and is referred to as the sthandila mandala. According to Volwahsen, this mandala “visualizes the cosmic order” (56) differently than those previously mentioned. The center is occupied by Brahma, surrounded by the world of gods, who are then encircled by human beings (the terrestrial phenomena), and finally at the bottom are the goblins and demons (Volwahsen 56).

There are specific rules regarding the laying out of the temple mandala. Michell discusses the influence of astronomy and astrology and states that they “provide the basis for determining the appropriate moments when all important activities are undertaken” (72). Observing the cosmos and the heavenly bodies influences the temple building process, determines when the temple plan is to be laid out, and through astronomical calculations, also regulates the mandala. Within texts such as the Brhatsamhita, the Sastras and the Agamas, astrological information is given in reference to temple layout and construction. The importance of astrology expressed in these texts shows “a conscious desire to identify the physical forms of the temple with the laws that govern the movements of heavenly bodies” (Michell 73).

Temple Materials

As important as the layout and grid of a Hindu temple are the materials used to build it. There are many Sastras and ancient texts on temple building such as the Mayamata, that discuss and recommend what materials should or should not be used when constructing a temple. Some of these writings suggest that “the materials of the temple are directly related to the classes of Hindu society” (Michell 78). White materials indicate the first, or Brahmin class, red represents the Kshatriya, or warrior class, yellow indicates the Vaishya, or merchant class, and finally black is said to indicate the fourth class, the Sudras (Volwahsen 173). Volwahsen states that “materials are not only co-ordinated with caste but also with sex” (174). A temple that is constructed of stone and brick signifies the male, one built out of brick and wood is deemed female, and if a temple was to be constructed of all three materials would be considered neutral (Volwahsen 174).

Much like the grid choice and layout, astrology and astronomy play a role regarding the materials and construction. For example, Volwahsen states that “the manufacture of bricks was carried out only under certain astrological conditions, which varied according to the purpose for which the bricks were to be used” (174). Rituals were also performed at many stages throughout the construction of the temple to ensure purity and sanctity. By ensuring specific actions are taken at specific auspicious times, the architect is creating a properly functioning and sacred temple.


Michell, George (1977) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meanings and Forms.

New York: Harper & Row.

Volwahsen, Andreas (1969) Living Architecture: Indian. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Astronomy & Astrology and Hindu cosmic principles





Symbolism in Hindu Architecture


Temple Site Preparation

Temple Deities

Related Readings

Kollar, L. Peter (2001) Symbolism in Hindu Architecture as Revealed in the Shri

Minakshi Sundareswar. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple, 2 vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Ramachandra Rao, S. K. (2005) The Agama Encyclopedia, Vol. 9. Delhi: Sri Satguru.

Related Websites

Article written by Laura Anstey (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Temple Site Preparations

The Preparation of the Temple Site

In both ancient and modern times the temple has been a sacred and important place of Hindu worship. It is within the holy sanctuary of the temple that communion between the realm of the worshiper and the realm of the gods occurs. Here “the gods appear to man” (Michell 61). The temple is referred to as: “a seat or platform of god, a house of god, a residence of god or a waiting or abiding place” (Michell 61-62). With the importance and significance of the temple, it is interesting to study the work and effort that goes into preparing a site for the potential shrine. There are several stipulations as to potential building sites as well as a wide range of rituals and tests that are conducted on the site to ensure that the site is suitable for the link between the gods and men.

Site Selection Based on Geographical Formations

Selection of the temple site follows strict guidelines. For example, temples are to be build near water, in forests and gardens, on mountaintops and in valleys, and especially in caves (Kramrisch 5). The Brhat Samhitā outlines:

The gods always play where lakes are, where the sun’s rays are warded off by umbrellas of lotus leaf clusters, and where clear waterpaths are made by swans whose breasts toss the white lotuses hither and thither; where swans, ducks, curleys and paddy-birds are heard and animals rest in the shade of Nicula trees on the river bank.

The gods always play where groves are near, rivers, mountains, and springs, and in towns with pleasure gardens (Kramrisch 4).

“Play” is clarified for us by stating, “Play is the modality in which the Supreme Spirit displays his presence in the world” (Kramrisch 5). By situating temples near locations and geographical landforms that are already associated with the gods, these structures become a residence for the gods.

Water is required for the temple rituals and is also seen as a symbol for cleansing, renewal and enlightenment (Michell 68). The Visnudharmattara teaches that when temples are located on islands they are considered to be auspicious because they are surrounded by water. It also suggests that temples should be built with “…a pond on the left, or in front, not otherwise” (Kramrisch 5). If a potential temple site is not located near any natural water, then a tank or cistern could be used to store the water needed for ceremonies (Michell 68).

Geographical landforms such as groves, forests, mountains and caves also have significant symbolism and importance. “…every village and town has its sacred tree or grove,” and groves have often been considered as places of meditation (Michell 68). George Michell continues by saying, “The gods of Hinduism have always been attracted to mountains and caves” (Michell 69). This idea that mountains can be holy or sacred may not be limited to Hinduism. In the Old Testament, which is believed to be true by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, God conversed with Moses on Mount Sinai, an account of which is found in Exodus 19:16-25. In addition to Moses, the prophet Isaiah said in Isaish 2:3 that “…the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains and shall be exalted above all the hills.”

Hinduism also views caves as a place of refuge and a location in which the gods may live (Michell 69). With the sanctity of these landforms, it would be most auspicious to build a temple near mountains or caves. However, the temple is also symbolic of both mountains and caves through its unique architectural structure (Michell 69). As one walks farther into a Hindu temple it is as if one is walking into a cave. At the point in which the individual is confronted with the image of the deity, the individual is also directly below the highest point or the tallest point of the temple. Thus, the temple represents both a cave and a mountain through its architecture (Michell 70).

Testing and Preparing the Site

Once a suitable geographical location is selected and the land is purchased, the site must go through a series of tests and rituals to ensure its purity. In the first test, as the Brhat-Samhita indicates, a pit is dug and the excavated soil is then returned to the pit. “In descending degree of quality, it then either exceeds the pit in quantity, is level with it or lower” (Kramrisch 14). Instead of filling the pit back up with the excavated soil, the pit could be filled with water and left overnight. The soil quality would then be judged according to how much water was remaining in the morning; “or a flame put into the pit burns, or else is extinguished….” (Kramrisch 14). If the quality of the soil is found unsuitable the land may be abandoned (Kramrisch 14). Following these tests for soil quality are procedures to test the sound, the consistency, the taste, and the colour of the soils. “The Matsyapurana prescribes stipulations regarding the colour of the soil, white earth for Brahmanas, red for Ksatriyas, yellow for Vaisyas, black for Sudras” (Kramrisch 14). The soil is also judged and ranked against the caste system based on tastes, “…sweet, pungent, bitter, and astringent,” each representing a different caste (Kramrisch 14). Once suitable ground is found, it is ploughed and seeds are planted in its furrows (Kramrisch 14). Germination tests are conducted on the seeds allowing them “3, 5 or 7 nights” to sprout (Kramrisch 14). The plot of land must also be cleared of any “extraneous” elements such as weeds (Kramrisch 14). Once the land is free of weeds, it must be ploughed repeatedly, with seeds being sown, plants growing to maturity and the grain flowering and ripening (Kramrisch 15). The ground is considered pure and clean once all these ritual tests, ploughing and planting are complete.

Even with the ground being purified, there are still a few rituals that remain before the building of the Hindu temple can even start. Kramrisch claims, “When a house is about to be built, an oblation is poured into the pit to the ‘steady one’, Vastospati” (Kramrisch 12). This is done to make the earth firm. Firm is not a reference to solid or concrete but has more of a reliable or unchanging meaning in this ritual. The earth is traditionally “the ever wandering” and this ritual, once performed, binds the earth so it can no longer wander, but must be firm (Kramrisch 12). Following the ritual the gods and spirits that may be currently abiding on the temple site are asked to vacate and are given offerings for doing so. Now the site is pure, and the divinity for whom the temple is being constructed can now take possession of the site. The last step of the site preparation is to level the ground and prepare the temple floor plan so that the “forecast of the temple will be laid out on the ground” (Kramrisch 14).


Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple. Volume 1. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass,

Michell, George (1977) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to is Meanings and Forms. New York. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

Related Readings

Gellner, David N. (2001) The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian

Themes. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kollar, L. Peter (2001) Symbolism in Hindu architecture as revealed in the Shri

Minakshi Sundareswar. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Sivaraman, Krishna, editor (1995-2003) Hindu Spirituality. Delhi: Motilal Banarsdiass


Related Topics for Further Investigation

1) Lila, or “play” of the Gods.

2) Temple Deities and their worship.

3) Sacred geometry of temple construction – mandala.

4) Symbolism in temple architecture.

Related Websites

Article written by Jordan Mulholland (March 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.