top of page

Temple Architecture

Tem­ples act as an anchor in our soci­ety bring­ing togeth­er com­mu­ni­ties for dhar­ma and to con­nect them to high­er prin­ci­ples in life by engag­ing in deva puja, daana and ser­vice such as annadaana, vidyadaana, aar­o­gyadaana, incul­cat­ing dharmic val­ues and cel­e­brat­ing the time­less con­nec­tion with the divine. They have been instru­men­tal in keep­ing alive the Bharatiya parampara and are a focal point of Indi­an social and cul­tur­al activ­i­ty. The mag­nif­i­cence of tem­ples speak of the grandeur of Indi­an king­doms and their cos­mo­log­i­cal design has been a sub­ject of long schol­ar­ly study.

This series of arti­cles explores the world of tem­ples and the sci­ence behind their con­struc­tion.

Devalaya means ‘abode of the deva’. The Devalaya is the home of the deity in a man­ner as our body is home to the atman. The devalaya or the tem­ple is the body of the deity and hence the deity him­self and all life and activ­i­ties are cen­tred around Him. This may seem counter intu­itive to what may be seen in the mod­ern con­text where a tem­ple is cre­at­ed and then the deity placed inside.

Our shas­tras use mul­ti­ple names to refer to a tem­ple. For exam­ple, the com­mon name Mandir means a place where you feel hap­py or where the ‘mana’ or mind rejoic­es. Prasadam refers to the seat­ing place of the divine. Vimana comes from the root ma means to mea­sure refer­ring to the tem­ple as a man­i­fest form of the form­less Purusha.

Tem­ples are ener­gy pow­er­hous­es and each tem­ple is asso­ci­at­ed with par­tic­u­lar forms of ener­gy. A par­tic­u­lar tem­ple could have ener­gy asso­ci­at­ed with any of the sev­en chakras or the pan­cha mahab­hutas, the com­po­nents which also gov­ern the human sys­tem. For exam­ple, the Pan­cha Bhoo­ta Sthal­am are 5 tem­ples ded­i­cat­ed to Lord Shi­va man­i­fest­ed as pan­cha mahab­hutas (pruthvi in Kanchipu­ram, apa in Jam­bukesh­wara Tem­ple in Thiru­vanaikaval, Agni in Thiru­van­na­malai, Vayu in Kala­hasti and Akasha in Natara­ja Chi­dambaram tem­ple). Once can expe­ri­ence the pre­dom­i­nance of that ele­ment in one­self in these tem­ples.

It is said that every tem­ple is con­struct­ed for a larg­er cause and that no tem­ple exists which does not have a sto­ry behind its ori­gin. The sto­ries reflect deep sci­en­tif­ic truths in a man­ner that can be under­stood, felt and shared by com­mon men. Tem­ples have come up at teerthas where our rishis have done immense tapasya or where bhak­tas have invoked their ish­ta.

In the Indi­an Sci­ences, the equiv­a­lent of archi­tec­ture is Vas­tu Shas­tra. ‘Vas­tu’ comes from the root ‘vas’ in Sam­skri­ta mean­ing to dwell and Shas­tra means sci­ence. So Vas­tu Shas­tra is lit­er­al­ly the sci­ence of dwelling. Vas­tu Shas­tra states that the whole uni­verse is the dwelling place of Ish­vara who has man­i­fest­ed him­self in dif­fer­ent forms in dif­fer­ent rhythms. The prin­ci­ples that gov­ern the geom­e­try of the cos­mos also gov­ern the struc­ture and form of the micro­cosm or indi­vid­ual beings. Thus every tem­ple, every con­struc­tion is a uni­verse by itself in syn­er­gy with the out­er uni­verse. Vas­tu Shas­tra as a sci­ence orig­i­nates from Brah­ma ji him­self who taught it to his four man­as putras – Vish­wakar­ma, Maya­sura, Tvash­ta and Manu. Vish­wakar­ma became the archi­tect of the devas while Maya­sura, the archi­tect of the asur­as. Numer­ous rishis have writ­ten trea­tis­es on Vas­tu Shas­tra and meth­ods of con­struct­ing tem­ples includ­ing Mahar­ishi Nara­da, Atri, Gar­ga, Vasistha, though not all are avail­able today. In the Hayasir­sa Pan­car­a­tra, Lord Vis­nu him­self instructs on how to con­struct an abode for him­self. Agni Purana, Mat­sya Purana and Brah­man­da Purana also enu­mer­ate rules for build­ing devalaya and con­struct­ing mur­tis.

Our tem­ples are a mar­vel of pro­por­tion­ate geom­e­try and frac­tals. All ele­ments of the tem­ple are designed in a rhyth­mic pro­por­tion with each oth­er, includ­ing the foun­da­tion, pil­lars and the size of the mur­ti. The Aga­ma shas­tras give detailed rules and guide­lines on con­struc­tion and dosha nivarana which we will be explor­ing in sub­se­quent arti­cles.

Our puranas and shas­tras have clas­si­fied tem­ples based on the pro­por­tion­ate mea­sure­ments and shape. Acharya Vara­hami­ra in his Brhat Samhi­ta enu­mer­ates 20 kinds of prasadas. For instance, Meru, Man­dara and Kailasa are in the shape of moun­tains and are among the largest tem­ples. Samudga is round and Pad­ma is in the shape of a lotus. Garu­da is in the shape of eagle, Ham­sa in the shape of swan and Gha­ta as a pot. In the Agnipu­rana, there are 45 kinds of tem­ples clas­si­fied as square, rec­tan­gu­lar, ellip­ti­cal, cir­cu­lar or octag­o­nal.

The pop­u­lar clas­si­fi­ca­tion of tem­ples into Nagara and Dravi­da tra­di­tion has been rel­a­tive­ly new (men­tioned in Raja Bhog’s Sam­ran­gana­su­trad­hara in 11th Cen­tu­ry AD). Nagara tra­di­tion belongs to North India and is said to have come from Vish­wakar­ma. The while Dravi­da tra­di­tion is seen in South India and owes its ori­gin to Maya­sura.

The site for tem­ple is care­ful­ly select­ed and our Shas­tras give beau­ti­ful descrip­tion of place where the devas love to abide. The Brhat Samhi­ta says “The Devas are ever at play in tanks made shady by the leaves of the lotus and white by the water-lilies moved to and fro by the wings of the swan; … in places where there are rivers with blos­somed trees on their banks for their head orna­ments, with the junc­tion of the streams as their loins, the sand­banks as their breasts and with the cound­ing swans as their ankle beads.” The shas­tras enu­mer­ate detailed para­me­ters for select­ing land, test­ing the soil, mate­ri­als to be used, qual­i­ties of the archi­tect, of the yaj­man (one who desires to build the tem­ple) and the pha­la of build­ing a tem­ple. The rules are sim­ple and intu­itive. Here is a sim­ple illus­tra­tion. To deter­mine direc­tions (called dik­sadanam), a shanku (gno­mon) is placed in the cen­tre of a cir­cle with radius slight­ly more than the length of the shanku. The points on the cir­cle at which the shad­ow of the shanku falls dur­ing sun­rise and sun­set are joined to deter­mine the east-west direc­tion (a sutra – a thread is used in place of a ruler) and the per­pen­dic­u­lar drawn to it by mat­sya method (the read­er is invit­ed to explore it) gives the north-south direc­tion.

The process of build­ing the tem­ple is a very nat­ur­al process that con­nects all involved inti­mate­ly to the larg­er cos­mos and to the deva. The meth­ods employed are sim­ple, per­son­al and effec­tive. The process­es involved instill bhak­ti and shrad­dha in peo­ple and ensure har­mo­ny for all beings.

By Sak­sham Agar­w­al

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page