Asian Music and Dance

Indian Temple – Architecture

In the second of our series on Indian temple architecture, Doria Tichit looks in more detail at the different traditions that grew and flourished in northern and southern India.

Indian temple architecture reveals great variety and inventiveness. Two architectural traditions were formed during the sixth and seventh centuries: the northern Nagara and southern Dravida. Coming out of a common architectural stratum, they proposed different interpretations in the selection and combination of architectural components. Within these two broad categories, idioms blossomed and awareness of the different regional trends developed, testifying to the vitality of Indian architecture.

“… within the two broad categories of the northern Nagara and and southern Dravida … idioms blossomed … testifying to the vitality of Indian architecture” 

In North India, by the seventh century, the three general types of monumental shrines were the Valabhi, the Phamsana and the Latina. 

Valabhi shrines are crowned by a barrel roof and dominated by horseshoe-arch motifs. One of the most impressive is the Teli-ka Mandir at Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh, eighth c.), reaching almost 30 metres (fig.1). Full-scale Valabhi shrines fell out of favour by the ninth century in western and central India. Valabhi components were, however, integrated into other types of temples; for example, wall niches and cardinal projections. 

Phamsana shrines have a pyramidal superstructure composed of horizontal slabs piled atop each other. By the ninth century Phamsana structures were used mainly for halls and porches. In western India they evolved into the Samvarana type, the roof of which is made of bands of bell-topped pavilions like the hall of the Mahanaleshvara temple, Menal (Rajasthan, late eleventh c.) (fig.2).

From the seventh to the tenth centuries, Latina temples dominated the landscape of North India and were also adopted in the Deccan. These are characterised by a curved spire, the cardinal spines of which are made of intricate horseshoe-arch motifs, and which is topped by a ribbed cushion. By the ninth century, wall projections often resembled thick pilasters, as seen at the Ghateshvara temple at Baroli (Rajasthan, tenth c.) (fig.3). The components became increasingly compressed over time, as in the 21-storey Vamana temple at Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh, eleventh c.). By the tenth century, full-scale Latina temples were less in favour except in Orissa, where a regional version of Latina temples blossomed as demonstrated by the impressive eleventh-century Lingaraja and thirteenth-century Ananta Vasudeva temple at Bhubaneshwar.

“The tenth century is a period marked by a profound architectural renewal. From the Latina sprang two composite types: the Sekhari and Bhumija”

The tenth century is a period marked by a profound architectural renewal. From the Latina sprang two composite types: the Sekhari and Bhumija. 

A Sekhari shrine is characterised by multiple Latina spires embedded in each other along the cardinal axes. Between these cardinal projections emerging from one another, components resembling pillars crowned by miniature towers proliferate. This burgeoning process generates dynamic compositions and favours experimentation. Multi-spired temples appeared in central and western India almost at the same time and later in Orissa and in Karnataka. The site of Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh, where numerous Sekhari temples were erected by the Chandellas during the tenth and twelfth centuries such as the Lakshmana and the Vishvanatha, offers an insight into the possible permutations of the type. Complexity of design increases progressively: the adoption of a stepped-diamond plan, the addition of re-entrant projections and quarter spires led to dense compositions such as the Kandariya Mahadeva (eleventh c.) (fig.4). 

Bhumija shrines are characterised by vertical chains of identical expanding pillar-like components cascading downwards between cardinal spines resembling those of a Latina temple. Bhumija temples were erected on a vast territory from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, but particularly in western Madhya Pradesh then under the control of the Paramaras. The Udayeshvara at Udayapur (Madhya Pradesh, eleventh c.) (fig.5), one of their greatest achievements, while a predominantly Nagara structure, is composed of elements deriving from the Dravida tradition. Bhumija temples were also built in Maharashtra, where the Gondeshvara, Sinnar (twelfth c.) is the finest example, in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. 

“In South India two main traditions emerged in the seventh century, centred in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu”

In South India, a basic shrine is a one-tiered structure supporting either a domed or barrel-roofed pavilion. Complex temples are formed by the integration of one structure with another, typically one becoming the superstructure of the other as clearly illustrated by the Upper Shivalaya at Badami (Karnataka, seventh c.). Lower tiers are commonly composed of square domed aedicules at the corners and rectangular barrel-roofed aedicules in the centre. From this principle, two main traditions emerged in the seventh century, centred in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. 

“In the Tamil tradition…the number of projections increases downwards from storey to storey according to the principle of progressive multiplication”

In the Tamil tradition the architectural components are embedded in the structure but clearly distinct. As typical of early temples, at the Dharmaraja Ratha, Mahabalipuram (seventh c.) (fig.6) the number of projections increases downwards from storey to storey according to the principle of progressive multiplication. With the rise of the Chola dynasty in the ninth century, the pace of construction increased and temples were endowed with a greater number of storeys and projections. The Brihadeshvara at Tanjavur (early eleventh c.) (fig.7), with its fourteen storeys, reaches 66 metres in a vast enclosure, entered via the first monumental axial barrel-roofed gateway (gopura), a feature typical of the later southern temple complexes. The shrine’s composition is complex due to the fluctuating number and types of aedicules comprising the tiers. Symmetry and clarity governed later designs, such as those of the Brihadeshvara at Gangaikondacholapuram (mid-eleventh c.) and the Airavateshvara temple at Darasuram (mid-twelfth c.). 

“In Karnataka, the architectural tradition is characterised by experimentation”

In Karnataka, the architectural tradition is characterised by experimentation. From the tenth century the variety of aedicules increases through the combination of existing types and the use of both Nagara and Dravida designs. For instance, the Dravida structure of the Kashivishveshvara at Lakkundi (late eleventh c.) is adorned with Sekhari and Bhumija forms. Moreover, the components became increasingly interpenetrating and the aedicules staggered, bringing incredible rhythm to the surface. In the eleventh century, stellate plans became popular, the epitome being the uniform stellate Doddabasappa temple, Dambal (eleventh c.). During the twelfth and fourteenth centuries under the Hoysala dynasty, stellate temples were erected on high platforms and endowed with extremely rich sculptural programmes, like the Hoysaleshvara at Halebid (twelfth c.) and the Keshava temple at Somanathapur (thirteenth c.) (fig.8).

“…the creation of temple cities such as the Minaksi-Sundareshvara complex at Madurai (seventeenth c.) … offer a vibrant vision of the Hindu pantheon”

With the establishment of the Sultanates of Delhi in the thirteenth century and the Mughal Empire in the sixteenth century, Hindu architectural traditions were disrupted in North India. In South India, during the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries under the Vijayanagara Empire, vast urban and religious centres developed. In the monumental Vitthala complex at Hampi (Karnataka, sixteenth c.), the temple stands surrounded by several open halls with colossal composite piers, a formula that would become popular (fig.9). Earlier sanctuaries were also enlarged by adding concentric enclosure walls and gopuras increasing in size centrifugally. Such designs would culminate in Tamil Nadu with the creation of temple cities such as the Minaksi-Sundareshvara complex at Madurai (seventeenth c.), whose soaring gopuras adorned with colourful stucco sculptures offer a vibrant vision of the Hindu pantheon. 

Further reading

Hardy, Adam, The Temple Architecture of India (London, Wiley, 2007)

Michell, George, The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1988)

Tichit, Doria, ‘Indian Temple – Abode of the Gods and Centres for Community’, Pulse 125 (Summer 2014), pp.18–20.



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