Friday, February 18, 2011

A Brief History of Hindu Temples

A Brief History of Hindu Temples

How and when the first temple took its birth is anybody’s guess. Temples do not seem to have existed during the Vedic age. The practice of preparing images of the deities mentioned in the Vedic mantras might have come into vogue by the end of the Vedic period. The view that the yagasala of the Vedic period gradually got metamorphosed into temples by the epic period owing to the influence of the cults of devotion is widely accepted.

The earliest temples were built with perishable materials like timber and clay. Cave-temples, temples carved out of the stone or built with bricks came later. Heavy stone structures with ornate architecture and sculpture belong to a still later period.

Considering the vast size of this country, is is remarkable that the building of temple has progressed more or less on a set pattern. This is because there is a basic philosophy behind the temple, its meaning and significance, which will be explained later.

In spite of the basic pattern being the same, varieties did appear, gradually leading to the evolution of different styles in temple architecture. Broadly speaking, these can be bifurcated into the northern and the southern styles. The northern style, technically called nagara, is distinguished by the curvilinear towers. The southern style, known as the dravida, has its towers in the form of truncated pyramids. A third style, vesara by name, is sometimes added, which combines in itself both these styles.

Vesara types

The earliest temples in north and central India which have withstood the vagaries of time belong to the Gupta period, 320-650 A. D. Mention may be meda of the temples at Sanchi, Tigawa (near Jabbalpur in Madhya Pradesh), Bhumara (in Madhya Pradesh), Nachna (Rajasthan) and Deogarh (near Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh).
Among the earliest surviving temples in South India are found in Tamil Nadu and northern Karnataka. The cradle of Dravidan school of architecture was the Tamil country which evolved from the earliest Buddhist shrines which were both rock-cut and structural. The later rock-cut temples which belong roughly to the period 500-800 A.D. were mostly Brahmanical or Jain, patronised by three great ruling dynasties of the south, namely the Pallavas of Kanchi in the east, the Calukyas of Badami in the 8th century A.D, the Rastrakutas of Malkhed came to power and they made great contributions to the development of south Indian temple architecture. The Kailasanatha temple at Ellora belongs to this period.

In the west (northern Karnataka) the Aihole and Pattadakal group of temples (5th to 7th centuries) show early attempts to evolve an acceptable regional style based on tradition. Among the better known early structural temples at Aihole are the Huchimalligudi and Durga temples as also the Ladkhan temple, all assigned to the period 450-650 A.D. Equally important are the temples of Kasinatha, Papanatha, Sangamesvara, Virupaksa and others in Pattadakal near Aihole as also the Svargabrahma temple at Alampur (Andhra Pradesh). It is in some of these temples, built by the later Calukyas, that we come across the vesara style, a combination of the northern and the southern modes.

There are many ancient texts laying down the formal architectural styles prevalent in the various regions so that the comprehensive text called the Vastu Sastra has its sources in the Sutras, Puranas and Agamas besides Tantric literature and the Brhat Samhita. But all of them are agreed that basically styles can be divided into nagara, dravida and vesara. They employ respectively the square, octagon and the apse or circle in their plan. In its later evolution when the vesara style adopted the square for the sanctum. The circular or stellar plan was retained for the vimana. These three styles do not pertain strictly to three different regions but as indicating only the temple groups. The vesara, for instance, which came to pravail mostly in western Deccan and south Karnataka was a derivation from the apsidal chapels of the early Buddhist period which the Brahmanical faith adopted and vastly improved. In its origin, the vesara is as much north Indian as it is west Deccanese. 

Similarly among the 6th – 7th century shrines of Aihole and Pattadakal we find evidance of nagara style in the prasadas or vimanas. The dravida or Tamilian style cecame very popular throughout south India only from the Vijayanagar times onward. While the prasada or vimana of the nagara style rises vertically from its base in a curvilinear form, that of the dravida rises like a stepped pyramid, tier upon tier. The northern style came to prevail in Rajasthan Upper India, Orissa, the Vindhyan uplands and Gujarat.

During the next thousand years (from600 to 1600 A.D.) there was a phenomenal growth in temple architecture both in quantity and quality. The first in the series of southern or dravidian architecture was initiated by the Pallavas (600-900A.D.) The rock-cut temples at Mahabalipuram (of the ‘ratha’ type) and the structural temples like the shore temple at Mahabalipuram and the Kailasanatha and Vaikuntha Perumal temples in Kancheepuram (700-800 A.D.) are the best representatives of the Pallava style. The Pallavas laid the foundations of the dravidian school which blossomed to its full extent during the Colas, the Pandyas, the Vijayanagar kings and the Nayaks. The temples, now built of stone, became bigger, more complex and ornate with sculptures. Dravidian architecture reached its glory during the Cola period (900-1200 A.D.) by becoming more imposing in size and endowed with happy proportions. Among the most beautiful of the Cola temples is the Brhadisvara temple at Tanjore with its 66 metre high vimana, the tallest of its kind. The later Pandyans who succeeded the Colas improved on the Colas by introducing elaborate ornamentation and big sculptural images, many-pillared halls, new annexes to the shrine and towers (gopurams) on the gateways. The mighty temple complexes of Madurai and Srirangam in Tamil Nadu set a pattern for the Vijayanagar builders (1350-1565 A.D.) who followed the dravidian tradition. The Pampapati and Vitthala temples in Hampi are standing examples of this period. The Nayaks of Madurai who succeeded the Vijayanagar kings (1600-1750 A.D.) made the dravidian temple complex even more elaborate by making the gopurams very tall and ornate and adding pillared corridors within the temple long compound.

Contemporaneous with the Colas (1100-1300A.D.), the Hoysalas who ruled the Kannada country improved on the Calukyan style by building extremely ornate temples in many parts of Karnataka noted for the sculptures in the walls, depressed ceilings, lathe-turned pillars and fully sculptured vimanas. Among the most famous of these temples are the ones at Belur, Halebid and Somanathapura in south Karnataka, which are classified under the vesara style.

In the north, the chief developments in Hindu temple architecture took place in Orissa (750-1250 A.D.) and Central India (950-1050 A.D.) as also Rajasthan (10th and 11th Century A.D.) and Gujarat (11th-13th Century A.D.). The temples of Lingaraja (Bhubaneshwar), Jagannatha (Puri) and Surya (Konarak) represent the Orissan style. The temple at Khajuraho built by the Chandellas, the Surya temple at Modhera (Gujarat0 and other temple at Mt. Abu built by the Solankis have their own distinct features in Central indian architecture. Bengal with its temples built in bricks and terracotta tiles and Kerala with its temples having peculiar roof structure suited to the heavy rainfall of the region, developed their own localised special styles.
Mention may also be made here of the various Hindu temples outside India, especially in the South East Asian countries. The earliest of such Hindu temples are found in Java; for instance, the Siva temples at Dieng and (idong Songo built by the kings of Sailendra dynasty (8th-9th century A.D.). The group of temples of Lara Jonggrang at Pranbanan (9th or 10th century A.D.), is a magnificent example of Hindu temple architecture. Other temples worth mentioning are: the temple complex at Panataran (java) built by the kings of Majapahit dynasty (14th century A.D.), the rock-cut temple facades at Tampaksiring of Bali (11th century A.D.), the 'mother' temple at Besakh of Bali (14th century A.D.), the Chen La temples at Sambor Prei Kuk in Cambodia (7th-8th century A.D.)., the temple of Banteay Srei at Angkor (10th century A.D.) and the celebrated Angkor vat complex (12th century A.D.) built by Surya varman II.


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