Appreciating Indian Temple Architecture - An Indian viewpoint

  • This paper aims to establish an “Indian” view point to appreciate the temples with our own method of understanding the Temple architecture.



Indian temple is considered to be a pinnacle of Indian architecture, which is identified as a soul of Indian culture worldwide. Historically, the temples had a cultural & social significance. The social fabric was closely knit wherein temples were integral part of the religious and educational system. Amongst all other architectural pieces of heritage of India like Forts, Palaces, gardens, tombs etc. temples are one of the oldest form of architectural manifestation of Indian culture, which is directly associated with the philosophy of Indian Culture.


The temples like Brihadishwara in Tanjore, Lingaraja temple in Bhubaneshwar, Temples at Vrindawan, Vishvanath temple at Kas̅hi, Dwaraka and group of temples at Khajuraho are associated with the lives of people. Though from the point of view of the common people these are of utmost religious importance irrespective of the structure itself. It is evident that there was a reason beyond the specific form and structural manifestation of these temples. The structure of temple; though varied from region to region e.g. Nagara, Dravida, Vesara etc, had their roots in the various Shastra and Sciences ; on the basis of which the rituals of the gods were performed (Nagaswamy, R. 2010) and hence based on this overall architectural form was derived.


From 6th to 16th AD, it was also demonstrated in the other countries dominated by the Indian Culture like Cambodia (Cambuja), Thailand (Shyam), Laos (Lav Desh), Bali and others parts of South East Asia.


Kailasa Mandir, Ellora. Pic by Author.

Brihadishwara Temple, Tanjore. Pic by Author.

Lingaraja Temple, Bhubaneshwar. Pic by Author. 

Meenakshi Temple, Madurai. Courtesy


The temple construction was comprising the philosophy stated in earlier Purans, various Granthas and gradually developed for its spatial arrangement, structural forms and decorations. The sthapatis were trained to interrelate the Shastras with Prayoga.


Over a period of time, the link of the knowledge base with its practical implementation is lost. Today, the Indian arts are studied in isolation with various perceptive the focus being on chronologies, styles etc. The major reason for this is that the literature available is written and published by western authors during British rule. Even today, basic understanding of the temples is perceived with a western perspective.


For the holistic study of the temples, it is important to study them with the base of our own traditional knowledge system & understand the metaphysical aspect of it which goes beyond the guidelines established by the western authors.


This paper aims to establish an “Indian” view point to appreciate the temples with our own method of understanding the Temple architecture . It is an attempt to establish a need to study Indian Temple Architecture with the ‘Indigenous’ methodology.


Overview of Philosophy of Temples


The philosophy of Indian art forms goes back to the Vedic period where all the principles were established through the Shashtra & Puranas.


Temples were perceived as a visual representation of the cosmic power on earth. The God who inhibits this abode is said to be seated with his consort on the summit of the metaphysical mountain, surrounded by a circle of peaks in which the divine power descends in diminishing potency as it comes down gradually and takes his abode at the peak of the circle, appropriate to his direction and also relative importance in the hierarchy. This enables the devotee to see the image of his devotion within his immediate reach. This metaphysical mountain is called the great Me̅ru - Mahameru, which forms the basic concept of the Shiva temples. The perfect example of this is Brihadiswara temple, Tanjore.


The Hindu philosophy revolves around the three important gods Brahma (The creator), Vishnu (The Savior) and Shiva (The destroyer). The Vishnu and Shiva, being the savior and destroyer of the universe, have varied forms. To understand the role of each of these it is important to understand the basic cosmological principles. ( Khot U, Chakradeo U, 2015 )

In Brahmanical cosmology,  Our universe is transformed into four distinct and successive time periods i.e. Yugas, repeated over and over again, in a sequence of Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali. Of these four cycles the Kali Yuga, our own time period, is the worst of all. During which the human life span is shortest and wars and famine are common, morality and ethics are all but lost. Till ill-fates time cycle lasts for 432,000years and according to the legend began a few thousand years ago, after the end of Mahabharata War. (Mannikka, E. 2000)


Celestial Years

Terrestrial Years













Time does not stop here and the cycle continues till the final and total dissolution.


4 Yuga cycle = 1 Mahayuga (4,320,000 years)

14 Mahayugas + 15 Kŕta Yugas (Between each Mahayuga and at the end) = 1 Kalpa

720 Kalpas (360 days and 360 Nights for Brahma) = 1 year of Brahma

100 years for Brahma = Dissolution of universe at all levels

Brahma merges again with the sleeping Vishnu.


The manifestation of this philosophy of Ka̅l can be seen in the Vishnu temples , the perfect e.g. of which is Angkor Wat temple, Cambodia.


Diagram of 4 Yuga Cycle on western axis. (Credit: Mannikka, Eleanor. Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship)

Angkor Wat Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Credit: Author)


As stated by Ra̅machandra Kaulaca̅ra̅, an 11th century Orissan Architect “ He, the creator (Viśhvakarma), lays out the plan of the universe according to measure and number. He is the prototype and the model of the temple builder, who also units in his single person, the architect, the priest, and the sculptor. This small universe (the temple) has to be situated with respect to the vaster universe, of which it forms a part. It has to fall into line with the position of the earth in relation to the course of sun and also the movements of the planets.” ( Kula̅ca̅ra, 1966)


The philosophy of the temple can be drawn from the Purana, which help in comprehending the Form (the ru̅pa) and the formless (the aru̅pa). The movement is from ru̅pa to the beyond. As per the traditional sciences, there is an interrelationship of Shastra and Prayoga i.e. the oriental literature and the practical application. To facilitate the later, there were efforts to document the principles in various forms.


Sutradharmandan has written various Grantha on the Shilpashatra. Prasadamanadan is the book which gives an overview of the construction of temples. (Nagar Style). Vastumandana, Vastushastra and Vastusaar are the books which give the construction of buildings. Devata Murti Prakaranam and Roopmandan are the books based on Sculptures in temples. Aparajitapruchha gives the Comparative methods of Principles and practice of the science of Vastu. Aayatatva gives the calculations of Aay (earning), Vyaya (spendings), Nakshatra (Planets), Tara (Stars), for the building construction.


It is believed that during the period of Sutradarmanadan, the information on the Shilpashastra was scattered and not documented properly, also this was the time when the Indian traditional construction was on decline mode, so Sutradharmanadan has compiled all the shastras and revived the documents and hence the construction activity.


Western outlook for the temples


During the British era, there was literature published to evaluate the architecture of these temples. Due to lack of indigenous knowledge of Indian traditional sciences, these temples were interpreted in a very superficial manner restricting the explanations only to the structures without any in-depth understanding of the Philosophy of the construction of the temples. This method is still being adopted by majority of the scholars to understand the temple architecture.

Another major setback was lack of information about the Indian History before the written documents were maintained. James Fergusson in his book History of Indian and eastern Architecture, published in 1910, states –


The greatest difficulty that exist, in exciting an interest in Indian Antiquities arises from the fact that India has no history properly so called, before, the Muhammadan invasion in the 13th Century. The sequence of events, wars can be taken from Puranas, which is still not a historical document. Buddhist literature, gives account of the historical events, and these can be taken as a historical account.   


He further states that ‘ The south Indians had no aspirations, they had no history to which they could look back with pride, and their religion was an impure and degrading fetishism.  It is impossible that anything very grand or imposing should come out of such a state of things[i] .” (Fergusson, 1910)


He believed that – “ The Dravidian temples are a fortuitous aggregation of the parts, arranged without plan, as accident dictated at the time of their erection, and without plans, no adequate idea could be conveyed to those who have not seen them”.


The whole exercise of constructing temples was merely put up as a meaning less work done to exhibit flashiness as there was no other way to spend the money of the kings collected by the revenues out of farming. With this bias and limited understanding of the religion, it is evident the description of the temples would be restricted to only the physical form.


Here, it is important to give the credit of documentation of the structures to James Fergusson , who travelled extensively and documented them, sketched these. This is an important document for reference, the only point of deviation is the way the structures are observed.


This book by James Fergusson was a reference by succeeding historians for many years to come. The authors like Percy Brown in his book Indian Architecture (Buddhist & Hindu) do not deviate from the method of describing these temples but mentions the “spiritual” aspect of the Indian temples. He states that -


The fundamental purpose of the building art was, to represent in concrete form the prevailing religious consciousness of the people. It is Mind materialized in terms of Rock, Brick or Stone”.


During the same period, the historian E. B. Havell, in his book- The History of Aryan Rule in India, from earliest times to the death of Akbar, believed that


It is important to show as accurately as possible the relationship between different schools of religious thoughts and their influence upon political ideas, for there can be no true history of India which separates politics from Religion. He put forward the aspect of psychological standpoint upon which the Aryan political system was based which influence the architectural activity in the region.


All the above authors, apart from being ignorant about the meaning behind the temple, observed only the structural elements like columns, roofs/ Shikharas, podiums (pitha) and gauge the temples on the standards of Greek & Roman styles.


The important aspect is that western scholars do not consider the oriental literature as an authentic source of information and written documents are in scarcity due to various invasions in the last two thousand. So the available resources which they authenticate; are limited.


Comparison of Western outlook vs Indian view point

Example: Bruhadeshwara temple, Tanjavur:

Temple constructed by Rajaraja Chola-I in AD 1010, who was guided by his guru – I̅śa̅na Si̅va Pan̩d̩ita, and it was executed by architect Rajaraja-perum-taccan. (Nagaswamy, 2010)


Plan of Brihadishwara Temple. Ref Tranjavur Brhadisvara, an Architectural Study by Pierre Pichard. 


Section of Brihadishwara Temple. Ref Tranjavur Brhadisvara, an Architectural Study by Pierre Pichard. 


James Fergusson : describes the temple as an exception to the rule that the larger Dravidian Temples are arranged as accident dictated.  The Shikhara mentioned as Pagoda is commenced on a well-defined and stately plan. He goes on explaining the temple on the basis on plan which shows that the compound has two courts, one a square originally devoted to the minor shrines and residences. The proportions of the temple, as he claims are extremely well, the distance between the gateway and the temple being broken by the shrine of the Bull Nandi which is sufficiently important for the purpose, but not so much as to interfere with the effect of the Great Vimana.


The great temple is dedicated to the worship of Siva, as Brihadiswara, in the form of an enormous Linga, and everything in the inner courtyard belongs to the Śaiva Cult.


He looked at the sub-shrines ‘ as a piece of decorative architecture’. The pillars are alternatively square and octagon, with the shafts attached on the two side faces and the whole very richly ornamented.


Percy Brown : in his book Indian Architecture – Buddhist and Hindu, categorizes this temple as a Dravidian Style temple under Cholas.


His point of reference to explain the temples built during Chola reign is Cathedrals. While talking about the Shikhara of Brihadishwara temple, which is 190 ft high, he states that – As a measure of its size the Vimana is equal in height to the central tower of Worcester Cathedral, but the temple as a whole is only one thirds the area of this Gothic example.


Moving forward, he explains the “Axiallity” of the temple complex. The sculptures and motifs on the Shikhara are mentioned as the decorations and “architectural manipulations ”.  The façade of the temple consists of an assembly of admirable artistic elements, but not in every instance architecturally adequate.


He even analyses the architectural texture, and aesthetical quality of the temple based on the horizontal lines maintained in the Shikhara and culminated with the rounded cupola at the summit. The shape of the Vimana is compared to the Pyramids and he mentions that it is for the convenience which conveys the impression of solid strength.    


From above two examples, it is evident, the temple is described with a focus on the plan form, elevational treatment and the decorative elements.

Brihadishwara Temple. Pic by Author. 

Indian View point


From the study done by R. Nagaswamy published in the book - Br̩hadi̅śvara Temple- Form and Meaning , the temple is a visual representation of cosmic power on earth. The Metaphysical mountain is called the great Me̅ru- Maha̅me̅ru, which forms the basic concept of the Brihadisvara temple of Tanjavur. All the literature mentioned in ancient Indian literature about Meru and its encircling peaks are incorporated in the physical temple by Rajaraja, the builder, in this temple which he called as Daks̩in̩a Me̅ru – Southern Meru. He consecrated two important metal images in this temple - “Maha̅me̅ru Vit̩ankar” and “Daks̩in̩a Me̅ru Vit̩ankar” as if emphasizing the concept.

Me̅ru, a mythical mountain is said to be a golden mountain. True to its nature, Rajaraja covered the superstructure with gold that made this loftiest temple at that time.


The images on the upper tiers with bows and arrows in their arms are the innumerable Rudras call Sata-Rudra, who are said to move in the upper spheres and represents the sun’s rays, a representation unique to this temple.


This temple also portrays the five forms of Pan̅ca Brahmans- Tatpurus̩a, Agho̅ra, Sadyo̅ja̅ta, Va̅made̅va ad I̅śa̅na, in individual sculptural forms.


With four sides of the sanctum provided with openings and its height exactly double its width at the base, the tower fulfills all the requirements of the Me̅ru type of Temple architecture.


Other manifestations of Siva are personified as A̅yudha-purus̩a as Dva̅rapa̅las .


This temple locates for the first time in Indian History, 108 forms of nr̩tta kara̩nas which reflects the concept of cosmic space in which Śiva’s Dance takes place.


The dance sculptures strictly follows the sequence given in Bharata’s Na̅t̩yaśa̅stra


The subsidiary shrines are later additions to the temple by subsequent kings as per the rituals and traditions followed during the era. 




As stated by Kapila Vatsyayan, in Kalatatvakosa - the Indian Arts have been largely studied in isolation, with much emphasis being given to chronologies and stylistic analysis along Western Lines.


Various historians, authors, scholars, anthropologists and other allied professional have studied the temples with their individual perspectives. But the holistic approach is still missing. The questions of meaning and the interdependence between the Arts and other disciplines have received relatively less attention. Literary and art-historical studies have rarely been combined, so as to do justice to both. Considering the complexity of the whole process of temple construction, it is significant to understand the process and the ‘meaning’ with which the temples were constructed.


It is unfortunate that there is an ignorance to understand our own traditional knowledge which created our most important temples not only in India but also in other parts of the world.


Traditionally, the knowledge from Shastra was transferred to next generations having the intellect of understanding the complexity of these principles, creating a different league of Sthapatis. This traditional knowledge system is still existing in remote villages of India, but no longer fit into today’s main stream education. The link of the philosophy of these temples and practical application is missing due to which it is difficult to appreciate the temples holistically.


There is scope to evolve a new method of accessing the temples which is independent of guidelines established by the western authors. The efforts to develop an understanding of the metaphysical aspect needs a focus.


The Indian way of appreciating the temples is to understand the Shastra and Pra̅yoga i.e. oriental literature and the Practical application. It is to organize the philosophy of temples, the art form, the iconography, the sculptures, spatial relationships, materials and even the way of manifestation with the help of existing structures and vast traditional literature.


It is to prove Sarvam̩ Sarva̅tmakam – everything is related to whole.


Authors are 1. Ar. Ujjwala Khot- Palsuley, Associate professor, M.M. College of Architecture, Pune and 2. Prof. Dr. Ujwala Chakradeo, Principal, Smt. Manoramabai Mundle College of Architecture, Nagpur.


Also read / see pictures

1 Kailasa Temple Ellora

2 Brihadesvara Temple Tanjore

3 Meenakshi Temple Madurai

4 Architecture of Shiv Mandir in Indonesia Prambanan

5 Space and Cosmology in Indian Temples – Angkor Watt


1.Nagaswamy, R. (2010). Brhadisvara Temple: Form and Meaning. Aryan Books International.

2. Khot Ujjwala & Chakradeo Dr Ujwala, (2015). Research paper- ‘Indian Architecture as an inspiration for Cambodia’, published in the conference proceedings of National Conference on Emerging Trends in Engineering, Technology & Architecture – NCETETA 2015, Vol-I, ISBN 978-81-920561-6-6.

3. Mannikka, Eleanor. (2000). Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship, University of Hawai'i Press.

4. Kula̅ca̅ra, Ra̅machandra. (1966) Śilpa Praka̅śa, trans. Alice Boner and Sadashiv Rath Sharma, London, Brill 1966.

5. Fergusson James, (1910) History of Indian and eastern Architecture, published by John Murray, Albemarle Street, W., Page no: 351.


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