Temple Architecture

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Temples act as an anchor in our society bringing together communities for dharma and to connect them to higher principles in life by engaging in deva puja, daana and service such as annadaana, vidyadaana, aarogyadaana, inculcating dharmic values and celebrating the timeless connection with the divine. They have been instrumental in keeping alive the Bharatiya parampara and are a focal point of Indian social and cultural activity. The magnificence of temples speak of the grandeur of Indian kingdoms and their cosmological design has been a subject of long scholarly study.

This series of articles explores the world of temples and the science behind their construction.

Devalaya means ‘abode of the deva’. The Devalaya is the home of the deity in a manner as our body is home to the atman. The devalaya or the temple is the body of the deity and hence the deity himself and all life and activities are centred around Him. This may seem counter intuitive to what may be seen in the modern context where a temple is created and then the deity placed inside.

Our shastras use multiple names to refer to a temple. For example, the common name Mandir means a place where you feel happy or where the ‘mana’ or mind rejoices. Prasadam refers to the seating place of the divine. Vimana comes from the root ma means to measure referring to the temple as a manifest form of the formless Purusha.

Temples are energy powerhouses and each temple is associated with particular forms of energy. A particular temple could have energy associated with any of the seven chakras or the pancha mahabhutas, the components which also govern the human system. For example, the Pancha Bhoota Sthalam are 5 temples dedicated to Lord Shiva manifested as pancha mahabhutas (pruthvi in Kanchipuram, apa in Jambukeshwara Temple in Thiruvanaikaval, Agni in Thiruvannamalai, Vayu in Kalahasti and Akasha in Nataraja Chidambaram temple). Once can experience the predominance of that element in oneself in these temples.

It is said that every temple is constructed for a larger cause and that no temple exists which does not have a story behind its origin. The stories reflect deep scientific truths in a manner that can be understood, felt and shared by common men. Temples have come up at teerthas where our rishis have done immense tapasya or where bhaktas have invoked their ishta.

In the Indian Sciences, the equivalent of architecture is Vastu Shastra. ‘Vastu’ comes from the root ‘vas’ in Samskrita meaning to dwell and Shastra means science. So Vastu Shastra is literally the science of dwelling. Vastu Shastra states that the whole universe is the dwelling place of Ishvara who has manifested himself in different forms in different rhythms. The principles that govern the geometry of the cosmos also govern the structure and form of the microcosm or individual beings. Thus every temple, every construction is a universe by itself in synergy with the outer universe. Vastu Shastra as a science originates from Brahma ji himself who taught it to his four manas putras – Vishwakarma, Mayasura, Tvashta and Manu. Vishwakarma became the architect of the devas while Mayasura, the architect of the asuras. Numerous rishis have written treatises on Vastu Shastra and methods of constructing temples including Maharishi Narada, Atri, Garga, Vasistha, though not all are available today. In the Hayasirsa Pancaratra, Lord Visnu himself instructs on how to construct an abode for himself. Agni Purana, Matsya Purana and Brahmanda Purana also enumerate rules for building devalaya and constructing murtis.

Our temples are a marvel of proportionate geometry and fractals. All elements of the temple are designed in a rhythmic proportion with each other, including the foundation, pillars and the size of the murti. The Agama shastras give detailed rules and guidelines on construction and dosha nivarana which we will be exploring in subsequent articles.

Our puranas and shastras have classified temples based on the proportionate measurements and shape. Acharya Varahamira in his Brhat Samhita enumerates 20 kinds of prasadas. For instance, Meru, Mandara and Kailasa are in the shape of mountains and are among the largest temples. Samudga is round and Padma is in the shape of a lotus. Garuda is in the shape of eagle, Hamsa in the shape of swan and Ghata as a pot. In the Agnipurana, there are 45 kinds of temples classified as square, rectangular, elliptical, circular or octagonal.

The popular classification of temples into Nagara and Dravida tradition has been relatively new (mentioned in Raja Bhog’s Samranganasutradhara in 11th Century AD). Nagara tradition belongs to North India and is said to have come from Vishwakarma. The while Dravida tradition is seen in South India and owes its origin to Mayasura.

The site for temple is carefully selected and our Shastras give beautiful description of place where the devas love to abide. The Brhat Samhita says “The Devas are ever at play in tanks made shady by the leaves of the lotus and white by the water-lilies moved to and fro by the wings of the swan; … in places where there are rivers with blossomed trees on their banks for their head ornaments, with the junction of the streams as their loins, the sandbanks as their breasts and with the counding swans as their ankle beads.” The shastras enumerate detailed parameters for selecting land, testing the soil, materials to be used, qualities of the architect, of the yajman (one who desires to build the temple) and the phala of building a temple. The rules are simple and intuitive. Here is a simple illustration. To determine directions (called diksadanam), a shanku (gnomon) is placed in the centre of a circle with radius slightly more than the length of the shanku. The points on the circle at which the shadow of the shanku falls during sunrise and sunset are joined to determine the east-west direction (a sutra – a thread is used in place of a ruler) and the perpendicular drawn to it by matsya method (the reader is invited to explore it) gives the north-south direction.

The process of building the temple is a very natural process that connects all involved intimately to the larger cosmos and to the deva. The methods employed are simple, personal and effective. The processes involved instill bhakti and shraddha in people and ensure harmony for all beings.

By Saksham Agarwal