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A Historical Perspective of Indian Temples Architecture Styles and Traditions

In his book “MARK TWAIN IN INDIA,” Mark Twain said that India is the land of two million Gods.  He also said [India is] the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for all the shows of all the rest of the globe combined. And he so rightly said, one of the examples for it is Indian Temples Architecture styles and tradition that we follow on our Indian soil.

Indian civilization has been growing for more than a few thousand years, giving rise to an incredible diversity of customs, traditions, dialects, and others. In turn, this has led to a large variety of religions throughout the country.

Indian religion has a God for everything, from health to ultimate destruction. And the Indians have made it a point to incorporate that custom into their lives.

Indian temple architecture evolved from the Gupta rules (4th-6th centuries), who followed the Brahmanical religion and ideology and ruled from the present Allahabad (ancient Prayaga) confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and the lost Saraswati. 

Often characterized as the classical age in Indian art, the period witnessed two significant developments. 

Nagara Dravida Vesara

One was the maturity attained by the art of sculpture and the culmination of a sculptural tradition evolving from simple, archaic, and static relief sculpture progressively transforming itself into a three-dimensional rounded and dynamic form, instilled with an inner spirit and strength and a sensitive portrayal of human, animal and floral devices. 

This was achieved initially by a conceptually and ideologically rich Buddhist tradition in the pre-Gupta period and developed to its fullest capacity under the Brahmanical tradition in the Gupta and post-Gupta periods. 

The other was the formative phase of temple architecture. The principles and norms of erecting a temple were laid down and gradually crystallized by the 6th century into two major temple styles – The Nagara and The Dravida.

            Initially, the temple originated as a flat-roofed square structure in a cell (Shrine) with a pillared porch in front.  Variants of the flat-roofed structure persisted under the post _Gupta dynasties of north and central India. The nagara style emerged with the evolution of a sikhara or superstructure over the square shrine. 

The succeeding development of the nagara style can be traced through regional schools, of which the major ones were those of beautiful Odisha Temples (ancient Kalinga), Central India (ancient Jejakabhukti-Mahoba), Rajasthan (the home of the Rajput dynasties), and Gujarat (ancient Gurjaradesa). 

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These represent significant stylistic and aesthetic developments and variations in the vertical ascent and horizontal elaboration of the temple structure.  In Uttar Pradesh (and its hill states) Bihar, Bengal, and Himachal Pradesh, temples of the northern style were erected without architectural and stylistically significant differences.  Kashmir developed a distinct class of temples away from the main nagara style.

Architecture of a Vishnu temple Nagara style
Source : Google

The initial square and cubical form a simple square cell with a flat roof and a pillared veranda in front, as in Sanchi, Tigawa, and Eran (central India) had great potential and later evolved into a wide variety of designs in different regions of North India, and were named after the respective regions. 

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The brick and stone temple of the Gupta period shows the development of the Sikhara in the form of a straight-edged pyramid shaping into a curvilinear top surmounted by a dome called the amla sila, a ribbed/cogged stone shaped like a myrobalan.  The pyramidal tower is also marked by several tiers of architectural motifs, such as the chaitya (from the Buddhist stupa shrine) and amla, the tiers diminishing in size as the tower ascends.

Known as the Latina sikhara (single turret), this is the basic design of all the Sikhara’s, which took the form of projections and recessions, the larger ones with a vertical ascent of an impressive array of such decorations, sometimes introducing miniature Sikharas at various points and level of the tower.  The most mature of the Gupta temples is Deogarh, Uttar Pradesh, a typical Latina sikhara with other characteristic features.

            The development of The Dravida style was mainly confined to the region south of the Krishna river (south India), where the most significant progress took place from the 6th-17th centuries, in an almost unceasing architectural activity under the royal dynasties of the Pallavas and Pandyas (6th-9th centuries) and the Cholas (9th -13th centuries), followed by the Vijayanagara period (14th -17th centuries). 


The stylistic and technological progress is marked by the vertical ascent of the main shrine (vimana) from the 7th to 11th centuries. The temple precincts horizontal magnification in huge pillared halls and enclosures with towering entrance gateways called gopuras from the 12th century onwards. 

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Thus, massive temple structures and temple towns in south India emerged in places of sacred, political, and economic importance due to continuous building activity under royal patronage in temple building activity arose out of the temple’s legitimate role. Community participation resulted from the temple building. 

The temple complex’s expansion represents the gradual integration of various socio-economic, tribal-ethnic groups into temple society, making the temple the reference point for enhancing social status through rituals, economic progress, and political influence. Temple tanks, abodes of priests, wells and other dynamic buildings form part of this temple style. The famous Thanjavur temple of Tamil Nadu characterizes this style.

The geographical distribution of the two styles is thus clearly marked as north and south Indian.  However, the Deccan region of peninsular India is distinguished by an initial architectural evolution marked by features of both the styles from the 6th to 9th centuries and subsequently by what may be described as a hybrid style representing a mixture of the two, often identified as the third style of temple architecture called The Vesara.

In many ways, the Deccan (now Maharashtra and Karnataka) and the Andhra region represent an intermediate zone in architectural development leading to a highly florid architectural design in the Chalukya (north and central Karnataka), Hoysala (south Karnataka), and Kakatiya (Hyderabad, Warangal and adjacent areas) temples of the 10th to 13th centuries.

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Vesara Style temple
Source : Google

The difference between the Nagara and the Dravida styles lies in the vimana design, the base and walls of the shrine exhibiting variations in moldings, projections, and recessions with niches placed in prominent positions decorative motifs.  More significantly, the superstructure/tower is conceived of as a curvilinear roof in the Nagara temple. Simultaneously, it is a storeyed/tiered construction marked by string courses of miniature shrines in the straight-edged pyramidal Dravida style. 

Thus, North and South India’s temples were distinguished based on specific features like sikhara and gopurams.

In the north Indian temples, the sikhara remained the most prominent component, while the most prominent South Indian temples’ most notable features were enclosures around the temples and the Gopurams (massive gateways).

However, both are erected on the principle of diminishing squares, the roof being hollow inside, which is hence described as a nest (kudu) in the Dravida style.

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A Hindu temple’s layout pursues a geometrical design known as Vastu-Purusha-mandala, derived from the three vital components of the design: Vastu, meaning Vaas or a place of dwelling; Purusha, representing the Universal principle; and Mandala meaning circle. Vastupurushamandala is a mystical diagram referred to in Sanskrit as a Yantra. The symmetrical and self-repeating model of a Hindu temple demonstrated in the design is derived from the prior convictions, traditions, myths, fundamentality, and mathematical standards.  

In both types of vimana, the close parallel or comparison with the human body is brought out by the description of the base as feet (pada), the walls as the body and limbs (bhitti), the position above the walls marked by a cornice as the neck (griva) and the roof as the head (sikhara).  The symbolism is further emphasized by the whole shrine being described as the womb house (garbha griha) in which the deity is placed.

The very significance of the Hindu temple is believed to have developed from the philosophy that all things are one and all things are linked together. The four basic and important principles, which are also the objectives of human life according to Indian philosophy, are the pursuit of artha-richness and prosperity; kama-sex and pleasure; dharma-moral life and virtues; and moksha-self-knowledge and realization. Mathematically structured spaces, decorated and carved pillars, intricate works of art and Hindu temple statues illustrate and glorify such philosophies.

Hindu temples recommend the introspection, inspiration, and further purification of mind and urge the devotees to understand themselves; however, the chosen process is left to the individual devotees’ practice.

In our temple series we are going to look into unique temple architecture of each state in India , its history, and some very interesting facts that will blow your mind.



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Madhuri Rao
A passionate traveler and my mission is to give you as much knowledge and inspiration as possible to make your journey easy and trendy.

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