Published on 19th June, 2021, in The Times of India.
Vedic gods resided in the sky. They were unbound by geography. Temple gods are firmly bound by geography. Jagannath is firmly linked to Odisha, Tirupati to Andhra Pradesh, Nathdvara to Rajasthan. The temple as we know it today is closely linked to land given by kings to village gods via Brahmins, a practice that became widespread 1500 years ago. Through the temple, the wealth generated from farms was circulated among weavers, garland makers, dancers, and musicians, who contributed to the many rites, rituals and festivals of the temple. It created an economy.
Before entering a temple, therefore, it is important to recognise the bazaars around it, for it is that which indicates the temple is prosperous with many visiting pilgrims who buy stuff from these shops and support the local economy. The shops provide sweets and cloth and lamps that the pilgrim will offer to the deity. The shops also provide food, accommodation, and souvenirs to the travellers. It is around the temple we realise the local arts and crafts, the local cuisines.
Temples are typically built on a plinth, a height to prevent it from floods. A flight of stairs takes us up the plinth. Older temples such as the one at Khajuraho and Old Bhubaneshwar and Mamallapuram did not have walls around them. But when invasions and attacks became common, massive walls were built around temples. The enclosure includes water tanks, and orchards, that were once the original sacred spaces, before they were eclipsed by manmade structures.
In South Indian temples, there is the unique gateway known as Gopuram. It originated in the times of Vijayanagara, to proclaim the splendour of the king. Series of gateways, created by later kings, grow taller in size. They are covered with images of gods and goddesses, and remind us of the statues of Vikramaditya’s throne telling stories of heroes of yore. In earlier times, before the Gopuram, the gate was indicated by a free-standing torana, marking the entrance, that separates the world of man from the world of gods. The earliest toranas were raised in front of Buddhist stupas.
The walls around the temple are decorated with images that tell you stories of the gods and the goddesses. There is usually a circle of nymphs said to usher in prosperity. And there is a circle of ferocious beasts and monsters who offer protection. Entrances are marked by the river goddesses, Ganga and Yamuna, who make the temple a ‘sangam’ and remind us that all temples in India seek to evoke the auspiciousness linked to Prayag-kshetra, the birthplace of Vedic culture. A pair of doorkeepers, who look like fierce manifestations of the deity inside, ushers in the devotee. If it is a Shiva temple, then the pair is Vetala-Bhootnath. If it is a Vishnu temple the pair is Jay-Vijay. If it is a Shakti temple, the pair is Maya-Laya.
Once you cross the gateway, you can often find free standing pillars. There is the Dhwaja-stambha for flags. The authority and power of the temple reached as far as the flags could be seen. Atop some pillars, you find images of the Garuda praying to Vishnu, or Aruna praying to Surya. This was probably inspired by mana-stambha found in Jain temples that some contend predate Hindu temples. In Maharashtra, you find the Deepa-stambha, pillars lined by lamps that are lit during celebrations such as Mahashivratri. Temples in Rameshwaram and Madurai are famous for their corridors which are lined with pillars. They are also famous for their ceilings which are painted with vibrant colours. The main temple usually has pillared halls where devotees gather to see the deity. These are the pavilions known as Mandapas. These are not found in older temples.
In the innermost room is the deity, hidden by curtains, and visible by lamps. Atop this room is the Viman or Shikhara, a pyramidal or conical structure, that grew taller and more elaborate with improving technology and the wealth and power of kings. Around it is a path to circumambulate the deity. Access to the deity is limited. Usually, only priests are allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum, especially in Vishnu temples. The more Brahmin control, the less direct access to the deity. But the deity sometimes travels outside, for boat and chariot rides, and on palanquins. This was started for the benefit of those devotees who were not considered ‘pure’ enough to enter the sanctum sanctorum, a reminder of India’s caste system that Hinduism struggles to shake away.