Hindu Temple Architecture-II

Hindu Temple Architecture-II

Prelude at this link https://medhajournal.com/content/view/468/76/

Part I I
In this part, we will briefly discuss about the pre- design analysis that forms the basis of any design before going on to discuss why early temples might have been built.

This would help us understand the thought process that might have gone behind the design of Hindu temples and the Design goals that might have shaped them.


A cursory glance at any rule/standards book on buildings can show us buildings are classified based on the activities /functions that they are meant for.

Activities/function that it is meant for ,makes a building what it is.

Broadly speaking, the various building types are classified as residential, commercial, industrial , and buildings meant for entertainment and so on to name a few.

At the college level, when a design project is introduced to students ,students of design are expected to do an activity analysis based on the data they collect from literature survey and case studies of similar projects.The literature survey is the first step where data is collected from Books , journals and standards books . It gives some preliminary understanding of the project.

Then, with that understanding, case studies are done . "Form follows function" is a design dictum popularised by Louis Sulllivan, one of the modern guru's of architecture. It is also the first dictum taught to first year students in the "Theory of Architecture" class. This is another core subject that is taught in the formative years. What is learnt in a theory class in the morning is meant to be followed up in the design classes held in the afternoon.

Right from the lowly tea cup, to the largest edifice man has made, the form of the designed object has to follow its intended function. Only then it can be a successful design that works and fulfills its commitment. So the activity or function of the building has to be clearly understood by the designer before he/she embarks on his design.

In the real time world, this would be done after discussions with clients and the analysis of data on the particular project. The activity analysis is done keeping in mind the users and how they would need to experience the space. A user analysis and a time- activity analysis is done to complete the picture.

In short , the activity analysis, user analysis and time activity analysis can be put this way too.

  • What is the function/use/ of the space that needs to be designed?
  • Who uses the space? How many of them? What gender?
  • What age group? What are their beliefs ?
  • What culture group they fall under?
  • What is the time of the day they use that space ? For how long? What is the peak hour for that use.

An area analysis is done to find out the amount of area that is required for each activity and what sort of space it should be, what kind of furniture is needed, what sort of lighting/ventilation would be needed and so on . It's a study of not just the physical area but also of the quality of the space-i.e the psychological factors.

This includes, [in case of modern buildings] the building services needed [eg, airconditioning , plumbing etc]. Then the student/professional sets design goals and draws up a list of aims and objectives before the "doodling to design "stage. This could be something like ,"Design a restaurant interior that has a modern, clean look for a food court area in a swanky new mall." If it is an office space, a study of the "corporate philosophy "is done to get a better understanding of the design project.

Experienced architects too in some cases would need to do case studies prior to design. They would visit one or more buildings that are similar to the project they have to design. They would do so, armed with literature survey knowledge. They would do a space analysis [ the tangibles or the physical survey] activity analysis , user analysis and also discretely observe behavioral patterns of the users [intangibles, psychological aspects]. There are several books that deal with the intangible issues in design.

The psychological aspects of design, for example, the part played by certain colors and forms on people, is a widely accepted theory. Intangible isues arent new to modern architectural theory. This point can be kept in mind as we continue our journey .

Thus the design process is as follows .

Data collection [ literature survey+case studies] -analysis —–synthesis—–evalation.—Site analysis—framing of design goals—-concept design—schematic sketches—-construction drawings—-execution—-any building from a bus shelter to a monument that inspires generations].

{xtypo_quote_left}Architectural design is a process that involves all of the brain, and not just one part of it. In my humble opinion the process starts with the analysis part and taken to a mundane level or a sublime level with the creative, feeling part of the brain.{/xtypo_quote_left}

Pre Design stage:
Data collection —- Analysis [ Case study +site analysis] —— Evaluation —-Conclusions

Design Stage:
Framing of design goals— Concept development — Schematic sketches —- Final drawings

Howard Roark of Fountainhead fame is not shown doing any of these but a lot of analytical thinking has to be done before and also while the designer works on the design.

Architectural design is a process that involves all of the brain, and not just one part of it. In my humble opinion the process starts with the analysis part and taken to a mundane level or a sublime level with the creative, feeling part of the brain. This, I think would help us in looking at an existing building , in this case, a Hindu temple , analyse it from the user , activity points of view and try to understand the goals of the building.

Now that we have the dry part of this article behind us, We ‘d walk in to a small sized "specially designed" Hindu temple that is in use and try to analyse that from what activity it would have been meant for. A walk in to a complex temple can be done after focusing on the small, less complex temples first.

Let's say we are outsiders [not in a physical sense] who have never encountered this building type before. Let's also assume we don't care much for Hermeneutics and we don't put our feet in other people's shoes often.

{xtypo_quote_right}Howard Roark of "Fountainhead" fame is not shown doing any of these but a lot of analytical thinking too has to be done before and also while the designer works on the design.{/xtypo_quote_right}

We have done some literature survey but the rule books are in a language we don't understand. We have got the information from people who know that language and we have spent a considerable amount of time reading and understanding the theory.

We see an entrance way now and it is well defined. "Walk in!" It implores.

    The free standing pillar on the left is the Dwajastambha or the flag mast.

Picture courtesy www.kaumaram.com

We walk in to a courtyard that is open and look up. There is a free standing pillar that is called dwajastambha.
[This link gives some information that might interest fellow Medhavis-I am glad to read about what I was told from an Indological point of view]

And a figurine of an animal in line with this pillar [ there are exceptions ],a lion in this case. The lion is quietly sitting on his haunches and seems to be waiting for orders from someone inside the built part of the building. We walk in through a low height doorway and our eyes take a few moments to adjust to the dim lighting. There is some light that is coming from somewhere -we don't look up to find clere storey windows on the roof as our eyes are automatically drawn to another narrow doorway, that frames an idol.

For the time being let's use that term idol.

 From freewebs.com-Image of Kamakshi, Kanchi.

We see a stone idol of human dimensions in the center of the small space that is visible through the low height narrow doorway. A female representation of a human form. Human? She has four arms. Later, we'll discuss more about the weapons she carries and the smile that offsets the effect.

The idol is clothed, and wears some ornaments. May be someone's idea of playing with super sized toys.
The light from the lamp flickers but burns on. As the hanging lamp moves to and fro , the lIght and shade patterns on the dark granite surface of the idol changes. Fear grips the mind for a minute .But the mesmerized mind refuses to allow the legs to move. A priest walks, in chants some prayers and holds a lamp close to the face of the idol. She, it seems more like a "she" and less like an "it "or an idol and she seems to be smiling.


The picture of Kalikambal ,moolavar [ main deity at the sanctum sanctorum] here was done by artist Shilpi.Courtesy -internet. The logical mind says that could be the effect of the light and shade magic , something that was purposely designed by the ancients. The idol seems to be sitting on a low platform of stone and one can dimly make that out despite the flowing ornate sari the idol is clothed in. There is another small mound like stone [?] that is placed in front of the idol. "The Ardh Meru" the priest says and extends the favors of light and the flower offerings to the mound that is covered with a cloth. The whole experience is mystery, magic and intrigue- filled. One that we have never encountered anywhere.

We can also conclude that this was done purposely by wily designers. It may be that they were trying to instill fear and awe in the minds of visitors . They seem to have succeeded in that effort. They also have tried to involve as many sense organs as possible in this experience.

The sight-dim lighting that dramatizes the arati [ the waving of the lamp], the sounds -the drone of the chanting, the touch-the dank , cool feel of the stone beneath the feet, the sense of smell-the dingy, oily smell mixed with that of the fresh flowers. We walk out, slightly dazed by this experience and wonder why so much fuss is made over the worship of an idol.

But now we feel, we have understood why temples are the way they are. We feel we know the activities that go on in the sanctum sanctorm .

  • Decorate , bathe, feed and clothe the idol.
  • Watch the above mentioned activities [ the ante chamber where the regular visitor/ worshipper stands]
  • Ritual Going around of the sanctum sanctorum and performing other ritualistic activities like prostration before the pillar we encountered after entry .

Seems simple. Form follows function.

But some questions remain. What was that mound meant for? The lion at the entrance to the ante chamber was probably symbolic. "He is her vehicle ", we are told. All consultants have not been consulted.* At this link, there is an article that gives an idea about how many consultants may be involved in the construction of a new temple.http://newstodaynet.com/col.php?section=20&catid=33&id=9113

Many questions remain in the mind but conclusions are drawn anyway.

I would list the questions as soon as we make another trip around the same temple, this time as [not necessarily a Hindu ] a person who is more discerning, observant, sensitive, questioning and open minded.

And also a practicer of the concept "hermeneutics".

We learn that the presiding Goddess in the temple we plan to visit is a gynaecology specialist. She is heavily recommended for women who suffer from some ailment and also for those women who are unable to conceive. But dismissing her as fertility goddess might close off many circuits in the head. We want to check if this temple is different from other temples where the Goddess is worshipped either along with the male aspect of the divine or as separately.




Please find more information on the Kalikambal shrine in a temple in Chennai , TN at these links.

Dr David Frawley [Pandit Vamadeva Shastry] states "No two temples are alike". It is true.While they all follow the same design principles, they differ in details. Some of the Yantras are visible like the Ardh Meru we see at the feet of the idol here and some others in other temples are said to be under the Sanctum sanctorum.

The design of the vimana or the pyramidical tower above the sanctum sanctorum is said to be closely tied to this "circuit"and the "Samprokshana" [the consecration] done every 12 years is said to recharge the system. The editor of the Tamil weekly Kumudam Jodidam Shri A M Rajagopalan states every ancient temple in TN , is equipped with specially designed "equipments" or yantras.

He says so based on the studies he has made of the literary evidences which cannot be dismissed away. If one wishes to refute that , one will have to extensively study the literature, after mastering the language in which they are written and do a case study of spaces that can be studied to find the truth.

Temples elsewhere have undergone many changes and hence we are taking the temples in Tamil Nadu for case study. [Temples in Kerala haven't undergone many changes either but the author is more familiar with the temples in TN .]

We walk in and the first thing that strikes us is the Dwajastambha. Why is it there? What is its purpose? Is it a lightning arrestor? What sort of foundations lay under the stambha? What are the materials used? Why?

The image is that of the main deity , VadivudaiAmman at Chennai, TN. Also by artist Shilpi.

Is everything just symbolic or actually meant to perform a specific function? We don't know at this point, but some literature we had studied and some experts we had talked to say there are specially designed yantras under the stambha.

This can't be proved at the moment, hence we will leave it at that for now. We notice the axial symmetry here-the dwajastambha, the vehicle , the small mound before that vehicle the entrance to the ardh mandap and the narrow doorway to the main shrine that houses the idol.

We notice a new born being laid before the stambha for a minute, probably by a grand mother and watched on by a lady who must be regaining her strength after child birth. People prostrate just before that Stambha and we also notice a board that points to the North to help the prostrating people. People are not supposed to prostrate towards the South unless they are perfrming ancestral worship.

We walk in to the Ardh Mandap and observe the behavioural patterns of the assembled there. We have to take a closer look at the idol as it is the focus of the whole planning. Even it were a sculpture sitting in a corner it would have to be studied. But this is the focus of the whole design and the heart of the complex. The idol is made of granite and is a stylistic rather than realistic representation. The eyes are long and they almost touch the ears. The nose is very sharp and the lips are curved in to a smile.

Ornaments and flowers decorate the idol. The hands, two pairs of them are covered with silver, probably to make them visible to the viewer. A chant is done and we are able to undertand to a certain extent thanks to the homework we did.

"Aneka Koti Bhahmanda Janani!" [Mother of many million universes!]
"Sarvantharyamini !"[ she who is within all beings!]
"Kaivalya padha dayini!"[ She who grants unconditioned liberation]

An arati is shown to the idol and the fervent cries of the worshippers are heard. The play of light and shadow on the black granite surface is mesmerizing.

"Amma!"Thaye! Bhagavathi! They call out in many ways. The assembled can be classified as one set of users here,[the other set being the priests and those who maintain the temple.] The worshippers seem to be in a sort of religious ecstasy.

There are some who don't say anything but stand quietly with tears rolling down their eyes. To them, it is not an idol but one of the crystalised forms of the one and only divine. Mental conditioning , indoctrination , or is it a connection facilitated with something we cannot yet define?

The priest is dressed in a traditional way, and he honors the mysterious looking mound at the feet of the idol. What could that be? He comes out and distributes kumkum/vermilion, flowers and turmeric powder and it is accepted with reverence. People then go around the space housing the idol in a clockwise fashion. It is done thrice or just once and we know from our data collection that it has to be an odd number of pradakshinas [circumambulation].

A niggling doubt remains about what sort of foundation exists underneath the sacred space. Again, the literature survey and expert opinion says there may be yantras installed in the foundation/sb structure. Since it is a building whose spaces are not entirely accessible to all, we have no way of physically proving this issue. We conclude that it is not a place for idol worship, but a place for the worship of the ideal or the God concept of a group of people , through a specially designed idol.

To summarise this part,the design goal behind the Hindu temple seems to be –

To create a space to house a symbol/personification of the un defined and to facilitate a connection between the worshipper and the worshipped [not an idol but the ideal expressed through the idol] through built environment.

The Special Temples.

Specific goals include addressing the various problems faced by any average person living in any era and helping him/her find a solution to solve that problem. Hence many ancient temples seem to be "special" temples meant to address a specific problem/ aspect of life. Lets look at some temples which seem to have a very specific, clear design purpose. To cite a few examples among many.

  • Vaideeswaran shrine, Vaidesswaran koil, TN-Deals with specifically with diseases/ ailments which are related to blood / surgery This can be pointed out by a good astrologer after studying the sixth house in natal charts.
  • Sri Vanjiyam, Tanjore Dist, TN– To reunite people with their separated spouses.
  • Runa vimochana Easwarar shrine, Thiruvarur, TN-To help pay off long standing loans.
  • Marundeewarar temple, Chennai TN-To Cure diseases of the non surgical kind. Specialises in skin ailments
  • Kalikambal temple , Chennai, TN.

To address Gynaecological problems .

  • Garbharakshambika shrine, Thirukarukavoor,TN To Protect the unborn and also offer hope to the parent hopefuls.
  • Thiruvidanthai, Nitya Kalyana Swamy shrine, Chennai,
  • Thirumanancheri, TN and many other temples in TN. where an aspect of Siva/ Vishnu is worshipped as a Kalyana [married, auspicious] forms

To remove some Graha doshas [planetary aaflictions at the time of birth] in one's natal chart, specifically the seventh place or the kalasthra sthan and to help people get married. I think, how exactly this specific goal is achieved through the built environment, equipments and "building services ",cannot be proved by science right now and is beyond the scope of this series.

But a cursory look at just a few temples tell us their design goals were vastly different from that of the Buddhist viharas.

There are ample evidences in ancient literature about many Hindu holy sites /temples and they predate the Viharas. The goals haven't changed over the millenia as the central philosophy of the religion which is a way of life [to use an oft repeated line] hasn't changed. Now that the design goals are fairly clear, we should analyse what part site selection played in the design of the Hindu temples. Why some Hindu temples might have been built where some of them exist now will be discussed in the next part under the section "site analysis".


Note: Pictures courtesy -internet.

Pictures used for illustrative purposes only and may not be of specific examples cited here.

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