Asian Music and Dance

Indian Temple – Abode of the Gods and Centres for the Community

Pulse launches a major new series on understanding and appreciating the temple: its form, structure, symbolism and the socio-economic and political forces that shaped temple-building. 

The author Doria Tichit is an Art historian specialising in the art and architecture of South Asia. She holds a Masters and an Mphil degree from Paris-Sorbonne University, and a Phd from Cardiff University. Her research thesis explored the Udayeshvara Temple (dedicated to Shiva), Udayapur, Madhya Pradesh, from a historical, architectural and iconographic perspective.

Temples are central to Hindu worship: as the focus of spiritual life and centres of artistic production they have dominated the landscape of India for centuries and continue to be erected today. Worship through images became the established form of religion during the fourth to sixth centuries. The growing importance of a devotional focus on the cult image led to monumental temple architecture and temples were consecrated to the deities Shiva, Vishnu, the great Goddess and to a lesser extent to Surya. The temple is the deity’s temporary abode on earth and therefore its form is modelled on the concept of the heavenly-cosmic mountain. In the innermost and darkest space of the temple – usually a square chamber, known as garbhagriha (womb chamber) – is enshrined the image or symbol of the deity to whom the temple is dedicated. The deity only temporarily resides within the cult object, which has been ceremonially consecrated, once he/she has been honoured by the priest through the enactment of a series of ritual acts (puja). The devotee enters the temple for the sight of the cult object, one of the fundamental principles of Hindu worship being darshana, the act of seeing deity and being seen by them. 

“The temple is the deity’s temporary abode on earth…”

With the development of such structures, visual and performing arts blossomed. Temples were social and educational centres, settings for the teaching of sacred texts, the singing of hymns, and music and dance performances. The erection of temples, their maintenance and the performance of rituals were financed by royal patrons and individuals notably in the form of property revenues, grants of land and villages. Endowments were seen as meritorious acts that benefited the donors as well as the whole community served by the temple. As wealthy institutions, temples played a key role in the development of the state and society. 

“…the temples…provided a canvas for the blossoming of a rich iconographic and narrative tradition.”

Medieval Indian temple architecture developed from an earlier tradition of timber construction, as revealed in the relief carvings of early Buddhist stone structures dating from the second century BC and third century AD, depicting both secular and religious buildings as seen on the gateways of Stupa 1 at Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh, first century BC – first century AD). The earliest surviving Hindu architectural complexes, however, date from the period of Gupta rule, from the fourth century AD to the sixth century AD. Both rock-cut architecture and free-standing stone or brick temples developed and provided a canvas for the blossoming of a rich iconographic and narrative tradition. Among these free-standing ancient temples are the impressive brick temple at Bhitargaon (Uttar Pradesh, late fifth c.) and the Dashavatara temple at Deogarh (Uttar Pradesh, sixth c..). In contrast to early Buddhist caves, Hindu caves were endowed with colossal sculptural panels such as those seen at Udayagiri (Madhya Pradesh, fifth c.), Elephanta (Maharashtra, sixth c.) and Badami (Karnataka, sixth c). The illustrations of myths made the cosmogony and the facets of the divine visible. Geometry, architecture, cosmic symbolism and sculpture come together to create a place dedicated to meeting the divine. By the sixth century, two traditions emerged: Nagara architecture in North India and Dravida architecture in South India. From the eighth to the thirteenth century, temple-building activity was intense. By the tenth century, the emergence of new powers on the political stage created a climate of emulation. Kings were inclined to formulate donations to gods to ensure their supremacy over their rivals and in the eleventh century a number of gigantic architectural complexes were built, such as the Brihadishvara at Tanjavur (Tamil Nadu), the Lingaraja at Bhubaneshwar (Orissa) and the Shiva temple at Bhojpur (Madhya Pradesh). The tenth to thirteenth centuries were, indeed, a period characterised by a cultural effervescence, a proliferating typology of temple forms and a growing awareness of the different regional traditions.

“The illustrations of myths made the cosmogony and the facets of the divine visible.”

Indian temple architecture is conceived in terms of aedicules: miniature reproductions of buildings are combined and embedded in each other to form a full-scale building. In this way, temples are a collection of architectural components brought together and interconnected. Once pointed out, this idea becomes evident and in front of one’s eyes appears a world composed of a myriad of others; a temple made of a multitude of smaller temples. Adam Hardy has recently proposed a refinement of our understanding of the multi-aedicular character of Indian temple architecture, inviting us to appreciate the aedicules in their entirety and to understand the arrangement of these three-dimensional components as the result of a dynamic process observable both in the development of temple forms through time and in the expression of movement in a single work. In the mid-twentieth century, scholars had been attentive to the illusionist means used to illustrate the manifestation of the divine and to breathe life into a static creation. They pointed out that concepts of movement and temporality are keys to understanding Indian art. For Paul Mus, Indian art is a scenic art and the spectator’s active participation is required. Forms are juxtaposed to give the spectator the impression of an unwinding in time and the resulting composite creation is a catalogue of successive impressions. These happen within the spectator, as the object itself does not physically move. For Stella Kramrisch, the temple is a ‘monument of manifestation’. Divine manifestation finds its illustration through the architectural forms. The temple is in a process of revelation, and a reconstitution of the stages it is going through has to be undertaken by the spectator. Investigating the means through which the unfolding process operates, Adam Hardy has identified five major ways for arranging the architectural forms; five movement-events that can occur in one building.

These are:

  • Projection: from an architectural component, another is projected. The new element is partially embedded, captured as emerging from the matrix. Such a movement-event can be repeated several times, either on one or different levels.
  • Splitting: an architectural component splits into two but its original design is still recognisable. 
  • Bursting boundaries: an architectural component liberates itself from a frame imposed by another component by overlapping it.
  • Progressive multiplication: the architectural components proliferate through repetition. They are arranged in sequence of rows of increasing numbers of units. 
  • Expanding repetition: the architectural components are repeated but do not multiply; instead they increase in size. 

“ ….miniature reproductions of buildings are combined and embedded in each other.”

Understanding the aedicular character of Indian architecture and the principles of composition is fundamental to the appreciation of temple architecture and its evolution. Indeed, Indian architectural traditions are not static but are perpetually in renewal: shrine types, once developed, become components in other types, and new forms are created through their combinations.


Hardy, Adam, The Temple Architecture of India (London, Wiley, 2007)
Kramrisch, Stella, The Hindu Temple (Calcutta, Calcutta University Press, 1946)
Mus, Paul, ‘Un cinéma solide. L’intégration du temps dans l’art de l’Inde et dans l’art contemporain: Pourquoi?’, Arts Asiatiques 10 (1964), pp.21–34.



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