The Evolution of Hindu Temples

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.

The Gandhara School of Art, in existence from 50 BCE through CE 500 and extending from the northern state of Punjab to bordering Afghanistan, became famous for Mahayana Buddhism. A new school of sculpture, markedly showing the combined influence of Persian, Greek, Roman, Saka, and Kushan regions, also defined this period. The energetic and vigorous nature of Indian culture became more noticeable. The rich carvings of the Buddha idols of this time became famous all over the world. The Mathura School of Art, which contributed heavily in the creation of most refined Buddhist figures (and later, seductive feminine idols), also became established around this time.

The cave temples, with their unique styles (created between the second century BCE and the CE second century) became highlights of Buddhist-Hindu architecture of this era.108 The Gupta era (320–600) is considered the zenith of Indian culture. Many temples of Shiva, Vishnu, Krishna, the sun god, and Durga, with beautiful sculptured idols, evolved in this period. Starting from the sixth century, the southern Hindu architecture flourished under the patronage of Chalukyas, Pallavas, Gangas, Cholas, Hoysalas, Pandyas, and the rulers of the Vijaynagara Empire.109 Away from the repeated invasions of the Muslim rulers, the Hindu temples flourished unhindered in the South, due in part to the large patronage of the Hindu kings, who built new cities around the grand temples, which then became appropriately popular as the temple cities. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Chandella rulers of the Madhya Pradesh in central India built the most notable temples of Khajurao, which today attract tourists from all parts of the globe. These temples are decorated with elaborate sculptures.

The passion for building temples has only intensified in the modern era. Not only in India but also in almost all countries where a substantial number of Hindus live, some of the most beautiful worship centers have been built to serve their spiritual and cultural needs. Jain temple art is unrivalled; Jains built beautiful marble temples in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh. The major Sikh shrines, or Gurudwaras, were built toward the end of eighteenth century, when Sikh rulers came to the power.

The conical dome, called shikhara, characterizes the Northern Indian temples, whereas the decorated gate tower, the gopuram, distinguishes the Southern temples.

Hindu temples are often built on hilltops to mark the place of God, high up toward heaven. A devotee may reach the place after a long and steep walk, suggestive of the effort for the purpose. When the temples are built on the plains, the height of the shikhara or the gopuram compensates for the hilly situation. The dome or steeple inner chamber is where one or more images (murtis) of the deities are installed. In Shiva temples, dome-shaped stone or marble (Shiva lingam) is invariably erected at the entrance of the inner chamber, the garbha-griha, where the deities are placed. In some of the Vishnu temples, a similar stone image, shaligrama, is installed.

For Hindus, the temple is pivotal to all spiritual and religious activity. It is often constructed with great care and planned in accordance with the codes mentioned in the Shilpa Shastra, the ancient Hindu book of architecture. The Agamas contain several references for temple construction. Even the site of the temple is chosen carefully, which must be auspicious, or shubha.

The whole process is started with worship rituals in which the artisan, or shilpi, offers prayers and undergoes a process of purification before embarking on this sacred task. Vedic rites are performed to install the idols (vigrahas or murtis) in the temple. During these rites, the deities are given a ceremonial bath (abhisheka). After the murtis are made, they are installed with a touching ceremony of Nyasa. Finally, by elaborate mantra recitations, the breath of life, or prana, is infused in the deity.110Grand inaugural ceremony is often called the Kumbhabhisheka, when the water for bathing the murtis is collected in a special receptacle, drawn from a holy river or other pious source.

In many Hindu temples, the idols of the nine planets (nav grah) are also installed: Surya (Sun), Chandra (Moon), Sevvai (Mars), Bhutan (Mercury), Viyalan (Jupiter), Sukran (Venus), Sani (Saturn), Rahu, and Kethu.

There has been undue harsh criticism of idol worship in Hindu theology. Ancient Hindu sages propounded both the God without form, Nirguna, and the God with form, Saguna. The Saguna concept became more easily acceptable for the vast majority of people. Saguna became the tangible manifestation of the Divine.

For a Hindu, a temple is not just a worship place; it is a shrine infused with holy vibrations. A devotee goes there, in faith, to meet the Divine, and he prays for both material and spiritual benefits. The Hindu temple, or mandir, as it is known in the vernacular, is a place where one realizes the inner dimension of one’s mind (Ma =mind; andir = inner). For Hindus, visiting the places of pilgrimage is considered very auspicious. A Hindu never outgrows the temple service; whatever may be his spiritual advancement. As long as he lives, he must visit and pray in the temple. For Hindus, visit to temples and holy places (Tirath Yatra) is one of the five essential spiritual practices (panch yajna). Along with reading the Holy Scriptures (Swadhya), uttering God’s name (Japa), worship (Puja) and rituals (Charya), visit to the temple (Tirath Yatra) is considered as a necessary spiritual practice (Sadhana).


Hindu temples occupy a place of great privilege in the Hindu society. Through the ages, they have grown from simple mounds in the prehistoric proto-Hindu period to the most magnificent and grand structures. In the Vedic period, open air platforms were used to conduct “Agni Havan”-the Fire Puja. This most ancient worship ceremony still remains active in the Hindu society, and is performed regularly on many important occasions, sometimes in a very elaborate manner with a number of priests participating together in a spectacular atmosphere. Vedic hymns are chanted in haunting original tunes even today. With the growing number of elegant sophisticated temples, this ancient simple ceremony is occasionally performed in a stylish, tasteful way, erecting temporary decorative pillars around the “fire”, and placing ornamental “kumbhpots in vertical columns. This has become the pattern in Hindu culture; the old are not totally discarded, but they are subtly modified.

From the early prehistoric period, different art forms, especially sculptures carved out of stone became an important part of the Hindu Temple. With the transition of diet from the consumption of meat to vegetarian food, tools earlier used for hunting were suitably modified to become useful for cutting stones and sculpting.

The Hindu Temple soon became a major patron for different forms of art through the centuries. The Gandhara School of Art, The Mathura School of Art, and other art forms involving the combined influence of Persian, Greek, Roman, Saka, and Kushan regions etc. contributed in the earlier period. Toward the beginning of the Common Era, Cave Temple art grew both in Hindu and Buddhist temples. The Gupta era (320–600) is considered the zenith of Indian culture, erecting temples for different Hindu and Buddhist gods; a generous plural attitude under which the art flourished freely. During the same period, away from the harsh onslaught of the Muslim rulers, many Southern state rulers like the Chalukyas, Pallavas, Gangas, Cholas, Hoysalas, Pandyas, and the Vijaynagara Empire etc. patronized the Hindu temples of Dravidian art forms, creating a wave of temple cities.

In the tenth and eleventh centuries, yet another form of temple sculpture grew; erotic figures decorated the outer walls of the temples in Khajurao and later in Konark Sun Temple etc. Although these sensual images drew huge crowds, and still continue to attract visitors from all over the world, they are probably considered by the Hindu society as inappropriate to be placed within temple premises. As such, such images have no longer been seen in temples that have been constructed more recently.
































NOTE: This chapter is adapted from Kolapen Mahalingum. Hindu Temples in North America. Winter Park, Fla.: Titan Graphics andPublications, 2002.