The history of the growth of Hindu temples is indeed very vibrant—the roots are found somewhere in the Stone Age. In the Megalithic period, people buried their dead by constructing monuments of stone over them and worshipping the departed. The transition from worshipping ancestral spirits to revering a personal God was marked by the creation of icons of deities with specific attributes. The terra cotta seals found in the ancient Sindhu-Saraswati civilization give evidence of this trait. There is mention of copper and bronze work in the Rig Veda, and the discovery of the bronze figures and carvings of goddesses in the same period, with tremendous sophistication and artistry, would become the precursor of many presentations of excellent pieces of sculptures in Hindu temples.
In the Vedic period, worship was conducted in open air. A platform was raised, a holy fire lighted, and the priest performed the chanting and oblations. These rituals of worship were called agni havan, where the devotees offered sacrifices of different materials into the sacred fire, with one or more priests conducting the ceremonies.107 It was in the period of great emperor Ashoka (270–232 BCE), that the earliest Indian architecture could be traced. Some of the earliest Buddhist stupas (a pillared mound-like structure) of this ancient period are still visible. The Sanchi Stupa (shrine) built in 3rd century BCE to early 1st century CE, is perhaps the earliest architectural structure in India. The dome shaped structure of the Buddhist Stupa has its origin inspired from the primitive, stone-covered earthern burial mounds. Buddhist started the cremation method of disposing the dead after the cremation of Buddha, and later his relics were preserved inside the dome-shaped stupa in the same pattern as the dead bodies were buried under the stone-covered earthern mounds.
NOTE: This chapter is adapted from Kolapen Mahalingum. Hindu Temples in North America. Winter Park, Fla.: Titan Graphics andPublications, 2002.