Published in First City, June 2010
Most Indians find it hard to believe that the building of temples is a rather recent phenomenon in India. Of course, in Indian terms ‘recent’ means we have been building temples for the past 1500 years, considering our religious history is, by the most conservative estimates, 4000 years old.
The Indus Valley civilization, that thrived around 3000 BC, built brilliant roads and drainage systems, but in all probability did not bother with any temples. The cities can be best described as industrial sweatshops, where everything was about well laid bricks, organization, standardization and planning, and very little was about art and spirituality, at least when compared with other civilizations that existed at the same time, especially Egypt and Mesopotamia. Academicians have found many seals that suggest spiritual and mystical thinking, but these are almost exceptions rather than a rule. Yes, there are fire altars and phallic stones and womb-like artifacts, and swastika marks, but this is clearly a culture where civic organization mattered more than sacred structure.
In the Vedic period, that thrived around 1500 BC, the cornerstone ritual practice was the yagna. This involved creating an altar using bricks, lighting a fire within it, chanting hymns and pouring offerings into the fire. The ritual did not demand a permanent structure. It was a ritual that allowed mobility; suggesting that the Aryans were indeed a nomadic people. Of course, whether they spread from India to the West or the came from the West, and whether the migration was peaceful or violent, an invasion or an immigration, remains a subject of academic debate with political undertones. What is clearly known from the Vedic chants is that the Aryans did not need temples to anchor their spirituality.
So wherefrom came the idea of the temple into India? One school of thought says that temples have always existed in India but they became grand structures much later. The early temples were simply rocks and caves such as the shrine of Vaishnav devi in Jammu, or lakes, or fords of rivers or confluences of rivers, or water falls. People worshipped Yakshas, or forest spirits who lived in these caves or trees or lakes. The Yaksha was offered food and clothing and incense and lamps. People who built these shrines, were probably settled communities of farmers, and not nomadic herdsmen. As the herdsmen mingled with settled communities, temples gradually gained more importance.
Another school believes that the nomadic Vedic Aryans did have mobile temples. These temples were mounted on carts, and these traveled with the cattle herders wherever they went, which is why, centuries later, when grand temples of stone were built they were still referred to as rathas or chariots, and which is why, wheels are a key motif on the temple walls and why the ‘chariot-ride’ is a key ritual in temples.
The temples are also called Vimanas or airplanes, leading to speculations in certain sections that the Vedic gods were actually aliens who traveled in flying saucers and that temples are actually images of flying saucers carved in stone, marking places where the Vimanas once landed.
What is known is that in Vedic times, things tended to be organic. Which means, like the wedding pandals of today, things came together during festivals and ceremonies and were rapidly dismantled, a practice seen during festivals of Durga and Ganesha even today. One has temporary shrines built using bamboo and grass and images made of clay. After the ritual, the images are thrown into water bodies and the precinct set aflame so that there is no trace either of the temple or the deity in it. The idea of permanent structures came much later into Hinduism, probably under Greek influence.
Before the Greeks came, India had gone through a major intellectual shift. Buddhism and other monastic orders rejected the ritualism of Vedic Aryans. This happened in 500 BC. Greater value was given to individual contemplation, meditation and discipline. Buddhism also played a key role in nudging India towards idol worship. When the Buddha died and his body was cremated, his relics, such as his tooth and hair, was taken by his followers. Rather than immersing these in rivers, as was standard practice, this was buried under a mound. Atop the mound, umbrellas were hoisted. These became the stupas and became objects of veneration. People walked around them in reverence, starting the practice we now known as ‘pradakshina’ or circumambulation of the deity. Gradually, the organic stupa was replaced by a stone structure, with more elaborate decorations on and around it. All this happened probably under Greek influence. Thus in Sanchi we see an ornamental stupa with a fence and gateway around it, with images of various mythical creatures. In time, the stupa had the image of the Buddha on it, an image that was first sculpted at least 500 years after the Buddha, under Greek influence. Gradually, a chaitya was built around the stupa. This enclosure can be called the proto-temple.
Greeks came to India following Alexander in 326 BC. They carried with them ideas from Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia where there were vast temples and pyramids and colleges made of stone and brick. The earliest stone images of India clearly show Greek influence. They introduced the idea of free standing pillars or obelisks, known as the dhvaja-stambha or flag pole, even today a key element of temple architectur. They introduced the idea of curtain, even now called ‘Yavanika’, meaning of Greek origin. Curtains are used in temples to cover the deity during rituals and as backdrops known as Pichhvai in the Havelis of Srinathji in Rajasthan and Gujarat.
The earliest temples were carved inside caves. One of the largest Hindu cave temples is on Elephanta islands off Mumbai. Were these places of worship, one is not sure. The stone images are copies of wooden structures indicating that early temples built using wood before the clay temples. Temples made of wood are still found in parts of Nepal and Kerala and Himachal Pradesh. But these eventually gave rise to free-standing temples made of stone, like the Kailasa temple in Ellora and the Pancha-Rathas in Mamallapuram, near Chennai.
Temple building using stone became an art between the 6th and 16th century across India. Two changes are particularly noticed. One in the architecture itself and the other in the images. The architecture moves from a crude shrine to a cosmic map or mandala. The image is housed in a womb-house or garbha-griha topped with a shikhara or a pyramidal roof, before which is the jagamohana or the gathering hall of devotees. Unlike a church or mosque, where the faithful gather to pray to a formless divine, the temple becomes the residence of a deity where people come to pay respects as one visits a court to pay respects to a king.
The images over time stopped being realistic or decorative; they acquire symbolic meaning and they start become ethereal in nature, almost bursting with life and breath, looking serene as they embellish corridors and walls and pillars. This sense of life emerging from within the rock is the hallmark of images found in Khajuraho, Konark, Chidambaram and Madurai. Modern replicas fail to capture this almost lifelike essence.
In the south, to protect the temple from the attacks, walls are built around the shrine. These walls have gateways and gatehouses or gopurams that become works of arts by themselves. Within the walls are subsidiary shrines creating the temple complex. And like ancient Buddhist monastries or viharas that surrounded chaityas, Brahmin homes enclose temple complexes, giving rise to temple towns like Srirangam and Tiruvanantapuram that we still see today.