Hindu Temple Architecture-I

Hindu Temple Architecture-I

 This is  a prelude to a series of articles on the evolution of Hindu temple architecture, from not just my background as an architect, but also from my other background, as that of a person raised on the strong foundations of Indic culture. 

Many thanks to Riverine and the other Medha friends whose article and discussions on Hinduism motivated me to write this first part . It had been lying dormant in my mind for far too long.

Prelude

This part is partly a personal journey. I feel this would help the reader in understanding some un-refuted theories of academia and what knowledge we should sometimes superimpose on those theories as individuals who are part of a rich culture.

Enormous amounts of work has gone in to documenting Hindu temple Architecture in the last 100 years or so and I would like to thank all those dedicated men and women (many were people origin from outside India). If not for them, we, as an occupied nation might not have realized what treasures we had inherited.

However I feel, even though I am less experienced compared to the stalwarts, it is about time we started looking at our treasures through our eyes, rather than look at them through an entirely new pair of eyes! Many of the ideas I would be discussing here in this series would raise peer eyebrows. But I feel, I can look at many issues that have bothered me since my student days without losing my objectivity.

In this part , I am briefly discussing elements of ancient Egyptian Architecture , not because I think Hindu temple architecture derived from that style, but because I am struck by some similarities between the two building types. To say , "This derived from that" one needs to know both "this" and "that" thoroughly. But unfortunately, historians traditionally have made statements that were simply accepted even if one felt it as a mild thorn in the flesh.

Part I

The first temple I visited was a medium sized “Amman" [Devi] temple in South Tamil Nadu. It happened to be near the place where my mother was staying at that time. It was a temple dedicated to Devi, with no separate shrine for Lord Shiva, one of the many you find in Tamil Nadu.

At the time of my visit, according to my late mother, I didn’t show much interest in the planning aspects, or the intricately carved pillars or for that matter anything around me. I slept blissfully and didn’t even wake up when the temple bells rang out loudly. I was exactly forty five days old, the mandatory age at that part of the world, for any human baby of the female kind to be eligible for a temple entry.

{xtypo_quote_right}In this part , I am briefly discussing elements of ancient Egyptian Architecture , not because I think Hindu temple architecture derived from that style, all the more, because I am struck by some similarities between the two building types. To say , "This derived from that" one needs to know both "this" and "that" thoroughly. But unfortunately, historians traditionally have made statements that were simply accepted even if one felt it as a mild thorn in the flesh.{/xtypo_quote_right}
At this point in a lighter note, I wish to remind my Medhavi friends that, when I become famous and write my autobiography, I would say, I was actually admiring the planning, the magic of lighting that gets gradually dim as one gets closer to the sanctum sanctorum, the carved pillars and the mystery that is associated with ancient temples, however, I just didn’t know how to articulate it clearly because of my tender age at that time.

From then on, as any average Hindu growing up in Tamil Nadu would have done, I might have visited many other temples in Tamil Nadu, dozens of them perhaps! In Tamil Nadu, you have temples that can help you get a job, win a court case, unite you back with warring relatives, save you from certain death, take care of you through surgery …you name it , we have it, the specialized temples!

Above is the picture for indicative purposes only. Courtesy http://www.tamilnation.org

I would discuss what I know about the yantras that are said to be under some sanctum sanctorums and related issues in another part. I was more awake during these trips to the many temples. I was fed to my gills equally by a Bhakthi – filled mother and a knowledge- filled father. I now realise how lucky I have been, not everyone gets two differing views on these issues. This is where Lord Ram appeared before sage so and so. Look at that stucco figurine on the gopuram –can you tell me what style this could be classified under? Look at that smile on her face! She may carry weapons in her arms, but , don’t hide behind my pallu, she is mother! Can you see the detail the sculptor of this Chola bronze had gone in to? You can make out the nails in his fingers! Do you know, there lived once a shilpi by name… , Agastya munivar came here and he made this theertham, [and not “believed to have made this theertham”.]

{sidebar id=22}As we visited different temples, little books that were called Sthala Puranas were collected .They talked about what that particular site or temple was called in the Thretha yuga or in the Dwapara yuga.
Time, it seemed was always talked about in a grand scale, and in terms of yuga and not in terms of century and it did not seem strange! Temples in Tamil Nadu are also places [ compared to the temples from other states], retained their original form and purpose, and which were almost untouched by violent armies. I hadn’t known this at that time and always wondered why the temples I had seen in Tamil Nadu were so mysterious , dark and ancient, while the ones I saw in the North weren’t. Almost seventeen years later, in Architecture school, I was introduced to the great buildings of the world in the first year of the course. The subject was called “History of Architecture” and the first thing we discussed was Egyptian architecture, as the buildings we find there are the earliest of all preserved buildings.
{xtypo_quote_left}At this point in a lighter note, I wish to remind my Medhavi friends that, when I become famous and write my autobiography, I would say, I was actually admiring the planning, the magic of lighting that gets gradually dim as one gets closer to the sanctum sanctorum, the carved pillars and the mystery that is associated with ancient temples, however, I just didn’t know how to articulate it clearly because of my tender age at that time.{/xtypo_quote_left}
Reading about the style, I was struck by the similarities between the temples that people had built almost 5 millennia ago, and the temples I had been to right from childhood. The thick book called the History of World Architecture by Sir Banister Fletcher is almost a standard book, that I now realize, after talking to colleagues from all over the world.

In the second year, students are introduced to Indian Architecture, with books by Percy Brown. They just spend one semester studying both Buddhist and Hindu Architecture, which means an average student who grows up in India, are being exposed to this particular building type, gets to learn about the same in less than three months time! He or she need not know standard books called the Agama Shastra that forms the basis of Hindu Temple Architecture, and they might simply say that this shastra never existed before the Buddhists built their viharas! Never mind even if the rich literary evidences that points to the contrary in the commonly quoted epics.* But the verses that talk about a religious site are the lines that are never quoted. **

During the first design class, yours truly doodled traditional motifs as if they were part of the sub-conscious mind, thanks to the parents, but looked around the class and quickly changed designs to “modern, clean, straightforward" lines. After all, who wants to “be stuck in some bygone era?", definitely not a seventeen year old!

We were also introduced to the the buildings of  ancient cultures, and why and how they were built ,through the influences that shaped them. The influences included geographical, religious, historical, social, political and also the availability of materials and building techniques. In a way, a study of ” Why they built what they built". We think only of pyramids when we hear about Egyptian Architecture but the ancients who lived there had built massive, ceremonial temples as well, where deities , not just one, but many were enshrined in one temple complex, just as I had seen in Tamil Nadu.
This link that gives comprehensive information that makes an easy read.
http://www.ancient-egypt-online.com/ancient-egypt-temples.html

Here are the plans of the temple were taken from this link.
http://www.charlesmiller.co.uk/fla/images/templans/karnak.jpg

The space looks like a “jungle of columns” as the ancients needed to erect heavy vertical supports to hold the roof up. Much later, in parts of Europe, more techniques evolved where lighter materials and different techniques were used to make lighter structures that supported wider spans. Please note the temple of Amon at Karnak appears to have been built by different dynasties at different time periods.

Please take some time to go through this link that opens a British Museum’s official site and take the trip down the Egyptian temple at Luxor. http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/temples/home.html
The planning aspects seemed very similar but in the Hindu temple there are circumambulation paths or praharas or the symbolic “sheaths “, around the focal point that is the sanctum sanctorum .

This is from the link; http://ssubbanna.sulekha.com/mstore/ssubbanna/albums/default/Srirangam-8.jpg

Temple layout plan, Srirangam, also built and added to over many years by different kings. The concept remains the same but when circumambulation path or prahara gets added, it is ensured that there are odd numbers in total. But ancient Egyptian temples don’t seem to have clearly demarcated symbolic “sheaths “ around the focus but have the same concept of the focal point that is emphasized with the help of planning symmetry. A user is lead to that focus by the cleverly designed circulation path. http://ssubbanna.sulekha.com/blog/post/2008/03/temple-architecture-devalaya-vastu-part-four-4.htm
The article at this link is one part of a series of well researched articles by Shri Rao at Sulekha.com.The articles give valuable information on Hindu temple architecture.

The Egyptian temples are building types that evolved over hundreds of years and in the case of the temple of Amon , an evolution can be traced over a period of a thousand years! We also need to know more a not what sort of “rule books” or shastras governed the planning principles as symbolism seems to play a major part in their culture; not hard for similar cultures to understand.

There were two kinds of temples in ancient Egypt. The mortuary type of temples were dedicated to departed kings and queens and another type called the cult; [note the use of the word “cult” ]was dedicated to their deities. Early Egyptian religion is described as a polytheistic, ritualistic, "controlled by a hierarchial priest hood”, may be too simple a way to describe their religion. In India, mortuary temples are not common building types but the so called “folk” temples built in honor of dead warriors or deified women are all too common in India. Please also note the fact that the ancient Egyptians regarded the temples as the abodes of God. This is how Hindus regard the temples at the temporal level, but those of us who go beyond the mundane know there is more symbolism attached to the temple structure. The grand entrance gates of the Egyptian temple complexes or the “way to define an entry in to a monumental building” in the parlance are called pylons and I cannot help, but see similarities between the South Indian temple tower and this one.


http://www.charlesmiller.co.uk/fla/images/edfu/edf001.jpg
Image from this link, can also be checked out for many more photographs .
{xtypo_quote_right}But if we look at this issue with objectivity, we can also conclude that the similarity is just about two cultures wanting to use stone as the building material as they wanted to preserve their dedication to their God ideal for posterity.{/xtypo_quote_right}
But if we look at this issue with objectivity, we can also conclude that the similarity is just about two cultures wanting to use stone as the building material as they wanted to preserve their dedication to their God ideal for posterity. When stone or bricks or any building blocks is used for walls,the type of construction is called as masonry construction and this kind of construction may or may not have intermediate lateral strengthening of the wall section. We would see more about other techniques that were used in the construction of religious buildings in the later posts. If the stone blocks are meant to be self supporting, it is logical to work out a wider, thicker base and taper it towards the top, so you would have what is called as a batter wall. So this is where pyramids could have derived from if we extend this line of thinking.
Hierarchy of spaces
Please click this link below and visit this Egyptian temple and please read what is said about one courtyard being more sacred than the other. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/templecourtyard.htm

Does this ring a bell? Was what Egyptians followed a ritualistic religion? Were the courtyards meant for some kind of rites? Or were they meant for “religious orgies” as some people say whenever a “different" religion is encountered?

I am pasting the lines from one of the web pages I read verbatim;
You may have noticed that the ceilings are getting lower and the floor slants upwards as you move further into the temple. This is because you are getting closer to the sanctuary- the most sacred part of the temple.
Also read, as you step out of the temple, your eyes adjust to the bright sunlight. In front of you is a large pool of water. This is the sacred lake, once used in temple rituals. At this link, http://www.archiplanet.org/wiki/,you find;
Temple_of_Amon
Temple of Amon Commentary

"It is doubtful if any building yet designed has attained the dramatic power of the hypostyle hall of the Egyptian temple. Hypostyles—the Greek root means 'resting on columns'—were man-made stone forests separating the temple's open court, where festivals and ceremonies took place, from the sanctuary, to which only kings and priests were admitted. (Egyptian temples did not provide for congregational worship.) The processional path through the hypostyle was a preparatory passage from this world to the next.

"The hypostyle of the Temple of Amun, the most prodigious ever erected, was finished by Rameses II (d. 1225 B.C.) as an extension of an existing temple that had its origins a thousand years earler and had experienced additions throughout its long life. This stone bastion of 134 columns delimits one side of the temple's Great Court and measures 338 feet wide by 170 feet deep. The columns defining the processional aisle are 69 feet high, the others 42 feet, the difference in height filled by a stone grille or clerestory. The entire hypostyle was originally roofed with slabs of stone: the effect of columns vanishing into darkness must have been spellbinding. We can bow to it today. "...Architecture has rarely produced such titanic theater." — from G.E. Kidder Smith. Looking at Architecture. p14.

I haven’t seen the structure yet or experienced the effect of the interior but to a certain extent can visualize it and I bow to the masters too. To summarize, I would also like to call the spatial experience of an Egyptian temple, as I visualize it as follows;

  • Start tall with an imposing tower.
  • Take the worshiper forward in a path that is focused towards the main part of the complex, the sanctum sanctorum.
  • Make him deliberately experience diminishing levels of lighting as he goes forward, a sort of switching off of the external controls .
  • And lead him towards the innermost cave like space that has the lowest ceiling height and thereby induce tranquility.
  • A space where the worshipper could be quiet with himself.
  • It was not exactly a space meant for group worship, but one that was meant for individual worship, rather an introspective experience.

The description of the Egyptian temple experience reminded me of the temple complexes I had seen in person along with two other persons; one who went speechless at the sight of the main deity in the sanctum sanctorum with tears rolling down her cheeks, and the other, after observing the moorthy closely to say later “Did you see that the proportion looks different here than the one we had seen at…”

The conformist who listened to ancient wisdom became a conformist of another kind after joining college. This new conformist believed whatever the text books said were true and didn’t apply her mind to analyze, synthesize, compare and contrast the rich culture she had a background of with those she was studying about, just as her peers did then. She went home and told her mother that the temples were actually derived from the Buddhist Viharas of yore and the Hindus hadn’t worshipped in any built structure before roughly second century CE. Why I now think this theory should be looked at and studied closely again is also the point I want to discuss in the next paper. The wonderment that wasn’t discussed much except in limited circles is now being shared with peers here for the first time as a non academic person at present. I would follow this up with papers that explore the evolution of Hindu temples , that take in to account literary evidence as well as from my point of view as a practicing Hindu. I shall try to maintain a level of objectivity so that we all, can get at the truth, and if I seem to stray from this goal, please let me know so that I can be on track again.

Articles can also be read at these links;
http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/egypt/luxor/luxor.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Egyptian#Religious_beliefs
http://www.touregypt.net/magazine/building.htm
http://touregypt.net/featurestories/temples.htm
http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/cults.htm
http://www.archiplanet.org/wiki/Main_Page

Here is another interesting link;
http://www.vaastuinternational.com/planarch8.html

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