The Rise of the Temple

Indian Mythology 20 Comments

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.

  • “Unlike a church or mosque, where the faithful gather to pray to a formless divine….” ??

    Church and formless? Dont churches have the image of Jesus or Mother Mary??

    • Devdutt

      You are assuming Catholic churches….there are a vast number of non-Catholic churches in the world without any image.

      • Thats definitely a news to me. Sorry for the comment and thanks for the knowledge

      • SA

        Isn’t it human nature to give some form to that which is formless. The formlessness of God is an abstract idea that is very difficult for the layman to comprehend. Just as it is very difficult to visualise four or more dimensions(n-dimensions).
        It is our nature to personify the shapeless form of the Almighty.
        For example, let us consider the Sikhs. Sikhism is a relatively new religion only about 500 years old. Its founder, Nanak tried to preach the principle of the formlessness of the true God. However, today the Guru Granth Sahib is treated venerably, just like a deity in a temple.
        The Protestants believe that the King James Bible has been divinely inspired.
        The Catholics beleive in the infallibility of their Church and in the sanctity of the altar and holy water.
        In Holy Communion, Christians eat consecrated bread and drink wine or unfermented grape juicewhich are personifications of the flesh and blood of Christ respectively.
        The Muslims believe that Koran is infallible, unchangeable and contains all the truths of the past, present and the future as it contains the word of God. (And Arabic is His language.) How many know the Muhammad PBUH changed the Koran four times in his lifetime citing that the previous version was the word of Shaitan (the Devil) and not of Allah (God).

        • Respected SA Ji,

          I fully agree with you regarding the human weakness to give some shape to God, giving excuses of not able to concentrate on a God who is invisible, even though all religions say ultimately that God is one and formless. In Koran God says that after the death of every prophet, people used to idolize the prophet himself and worship him. Man in his own imagination conceived God in his own shape, which is called Anthropomorphism.

          However, I beg to differ with you on your last point, where you said that Prophet himself has changed the Koran 4 times. I have never either heard or read any such thing anywhere. We, in Islam, believe that Koran is the word of God, revealed to Prophet Mohammad, through Arch Angel Gabriel over a span of the last 23 years of his life. As and when the revelation of a verse or a few verses, or a chapter used to come, Prophet used to get it written down through those, who were meant for this purpose. The revelation used to come along with the number of the verse and that of the chapter. During the time of Prophet himself many of his companions had got the whole Koran by heart. It is a fact that all the verses and chapters were not available in one place. In the period of Caliph Usman, all these things were collected, compiled, got authenticated by those who used to write down the revelations in Prophet’s time and released as a single book.

          Muslims also believe that the Torah and the Bible are also the words of God revealed to the respective Prophets through the same Arch angel Gabriel. But these books are not preserved in the same form as they were at the time revelation, and that’s why there are many versions of these Holy Books with different denominations.

          But regarding Koran, God has informed in Koran, that he has taken upon himself the responsibility of preserving this Book till the Doomsday. Rightly so, today, it is the same Koran available with any denomination of Muslims in any part of the world, not a verse or word of difference. There are no different versions of the Koran.

          All books were revealed to the prophets in the native languages of the said prophets, but they were messages for the whole of humanity. Similarly the Koran was revealed in Arabic, but it is a message for the whole of mankind.

          Lastly, Prophet Mohammed was an illiterate person. But Koran is in the grandest of eloquence. The days of prophet were literature-wise highly evolved days. If one poet used to hand over one couplet to another poet, he would, in no time, point out a minimum of 8 mistakes in it. In such a literally evolved society, Koran gave an open challenge to the whole Arab world to produce one chapter, or even one verse matching with grandeur of Koran. But nobody could dare accept the challenge, or could produce one chapter comparable to the Koran. Hence, we Muslims believe that it is the word of the Almighty, but not a concoction of the Prophet, and is a message for the whole of humanity, not just Muslims.

  • Thanks for the the much needed education. :-)

    I knew that temples are recent inventions and are more social than religious. But many it helps your perspective to know ‘where are you coming from’.

  • uppili chakrapany

    Temples should be logically as old as the common worship system. Coming to the southern temples and landscape with which I am familiar, you may find it strange that the castles of Kings who ruled may not be found while very big temple complexes built by them are in use even today. Perhaps the biggest structure in any town was the House of God (temple) and the Kings lived alongside the public. The temples were much wealthier and self-sustaining!

  • vajra

    I think it will be a mistake to think IVC did not have temples or places of religious worship. Many fire altars of vedic dimensions has been excavated by Prof. B.B. Lal from IVC sites. It is also a mistake to think vedic aryans are not IVC residents. This notion has been perpetrated by politically motivated historians of the JNU school.

  • a very common human phenomenon is to give more value to the container than the content. Values and ideas of Vedic philosophy or Buddhist or Jain philosophy were encapsulated in stories in symbols and rituals in order to pass them on to more people and to ensure that the ideas transcend generations. But as all your articles suggest that the symbols/stories gained greater significance than the meaning itself. Coz understanding meaning requires contemplation and intellect and most important willingness. And most humans i belive are unwilling and lethargic. IN due course even stories were forgotten and only the actors were known. those actors are what we today know as GODS. Be it a RAm or a Durga or a Adinath etc.Any thing which does not have a purpose or explainable meaning would end up with insecurity and fear. And so the preachers (so called) or People in power had to use magnanimity and entertainment value to woo the commoners and keep the significance of actors alive. This insecurity, the need to give a container to a container, gave rise to TEMPLES. Parallel organised religion was thriving and they became a power centre along with kings n princes.

    Even today every temple/stupa of every sect has a tight calender of events (mahotsavs) all through the year.
    In recent times with the rise of capitalism and colonialism, masses became aspirational. with it the rise of modern poverty. This economics led to further demand of low cost entertainment and time killers. Temples are the best suppliers of both. Added advantage of earning punya. An indulgence that would never be looked down upon socially.
    But somewhere the structures build out of insecurity are today visited out of insecurity and fear.

    Thus the temples.

    • Narayan

      Awesome take on the same issue. Devdutt had already elucidated very nicely the genesis and progress of temple building but you have supplied an entirely another perspective.
      Great thinking. Logical. Debatable but certainly original.
      Loved both pieces.

      • thanks for your comment narayan.

        as a post script i would add : the religions with formless temples/shrines i.e mosques or churches, the need for an ACTOR is still present. And so if you see around these are the religions where the available form is the Priest..the maulanas n the likes…..and hence in these religions he priests/maulanas have taken the place of GODS. their word be final, which is not the case in other religions.

        for entrepreneurs like us, we can employ this fact that people at the end of the day look up to ACTORS and put their belief in them.

  • But what about 12 Swyambhu Lingam temples. According to scriptures, some Shiva temple are very old. According to the myths, these Lingams emerged from the earth and most of them are near rivers with no signs of any cave near them. Kindly inform.

    Raj Arora

    • Devdutt

      The deities are old, not the temples

      • Sarthak Phatak

        I do agree with you….
        If we observe these temples carefully, we can identify easily that these temples had been reconstrcuted and restructured time to time. combination of different architecture styles of different period can also be identified with may be acute observation.

        Dieties were present. But temples were built definitely in later period.

  • aarthi raghavan

    but in many stories like ramayan & mahabharat i’ve heard of people going to temple(like sita going to the temple before the swayamvara,rukmini going to the temple before eloping with krishna,ram’s temple which originally had sri raganathar).didn’t these storied happen even before buddhism & other religions came?

    • SA

      What you have read is how the translator has interpreted the Sankskrit phrase in the original text. Places of worship have always existed. However to make the translation more contemporary, the translator has probably used modern analogues for the benefit of the common man.

  • Arun

    When observing temples in the south, only a very small portion seems to be spiritual. There seems to be a larger social aspect in the temple. Most of the temples were defensive structures against war & nature.

    Temples were the tallest structure and had the kalasa functioning as lightning arrester, temples were built mostly on higher ground then the surrounding villages enabling housing the surrounding community in case of floods. Temples had their own individual water system and community kitchen that could serve during longer period of seige. Bigger the temples, bigger & higher Walls

    Religious shade seems to be relatively new trend

  • Sneha Deka

    also i read somewhere that temple building and idol worship received maximum impetus during the Gupta period and much of the Hinduism as we know today developed then

    very informative piece sir :)

  • Nanda Kishore N

    There’s a whole chapter about the construction of “VIMAAN” in Vedas. We’ve never bothered to open those things and study, but just a few years back, Chinese sent a set of sanscrit texts to some University in Punjab to get them translated saying that they’re interested to know more about the science behind ‘VIMAAN’ to use in Aeronautics. “VIMAAN” is necessarily the structure above the temples. It’s said that it used to have wings and it could fly. Temples aren’t new.

  • Nanda Kishore N

    According to the recent discovery of US scientists Lord Krishna was born around 3125 BC. He lived for around 125 years. A few decades after his niryana Emperor #Parikshit S/o #Abhimanyu passed away. His son Emperor #Janamejaya is said to have renovated the Kodanda-Rama-Swamy temple in Tirupati. That dates a little less than 5000 years. So, whatever you are writing is factually WRONG.
    After Lord Krishna’s Niryana when Lord Vishnu came down to earth as Lord Venkateshwara, during his initial decades when he moved around in human form, he’s said to have build Surya Deva’s temple in Tiruchanoor. Temples aren’t new, it’s only possible that the old ones had to be renovated over centuries. Just Mohenjodaro is NOT a proof that Temples weren’t there anywhere in India in earlier centuries.