Hindu Temple Architecture-III

Site selection and Analysis-part I

This is the third part of the series but the first part of the articles titled “Site selection”. Fellow medhavis can be forewarned that this topic may be posted in three or more parts.

Please find the previous articles at the links below.



To summarise from the last part, the process of design is as follows.

The design brief from the client leads to a detailed set  of design requirements.

Sometimes it may be a well worked out set of requirements, at times it may just an öne liner”.[ “Swanky restaurant aka the one in such and such place”]

The brief includes tangibles [Clinic cum residence for a Doctor/ a 1000 seater auditorium or a stadium that can seat a 100, 000 spectators , to name a few.] as well as the intangibles [ iconic structure for the city/ a design that reflects local culture/ a futuristic design that celebrates technical advancement, for example].

{xtypo_quote_right}It is the pipe dream of every architect that some day he/she would be shown , say for example, a whole scenic village and hear the client say ” [Wo]Man, all this area is yours! Choose the site that you think best suits the project!”{/xtypo_quote_right}

Where does the site come in here?

The answer is , right at the beginning of the design stage.

In modern architectural practice, a set of brief/detailed requirements along with a site drawing is handed over to the architects.

It is the pipe dream of every architect that some day he/she would be shown , say for example, a whole scenic village and hear the client say ” [Wo]Man, all this area is yours! Choose the site that you think best suits the project!”

The following figure shows the ideal scenario [ What we’d like] and the everyday scenario[ What we get to do] in terms of design process.

                                  LIT. SURVEY   +   CASE STUDY

        SITE SELECTION     ←    

                   ↓                                   ↓


                    PRE DESIGN ANALYIS → CONCEPT

The above scenario shows the phase I of Design process-Or the scenario we would like to have.

But, what happens is this.


         LIT. SURVEY   +   CASE STUDY      +    SITE ANALYSIS
                        DATA     COLLECTION

                  PRE DESIGN ANALYSIS →  CONCEPT

Here, as we can see , the site analysis is independent of the literature survey or case studies.It is something which is handed over to the architects along with the design brief.
The ideal scenario happens in rare cases and I read about one such situation where the world famous Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa selected a site to develop a star hotel project.

When an ecologically sensitive architect gets to make such decisions the world around him benefits immensely.

His compatriot, an engineer has paid a tribute to him in a  presentation and had talked about the sacred four [ We have the sky included, that makes it five]-The Earth, The water, the land and the air around all of us.

[We as a society,seem to have come a full circle.!]

As far as younger, less experienced architects are concerned , they , in the virtual puja room that is in their heads may have the pictures of architects from all over the world.

There may be Indians, Egyptians, Sri Lankans , Europeans or Americans, but as senior , more evolved members of the tribe, they command a respect that transcends borders.

But the bottom line is this-only in rare scenarios today , architects  or clients/people aho commission projects  get to actually select the sites for their projects.

Normally a site would already be available to the clients and they may decide that it would be a good site for such and such activity.This decision may be based on the master plan and  business considerations.Say, something like “There is no mall here in this neighborhood ,there is a need for one, so this one should click.”
The designer would simply have to sculpt the design based on the constraints of that site.

In rare cases , developers /clients /commissioners of the project may see a site and decide that it may be suitable for  ,say, a resort and decide to purchase it and develop it accordingly.

They may have a clear idea of what they want and it is easy to see that their’s  is a business decision. If it clicks, we have a successful resort that makes end users happy and the owners happier as they would be richer and more successful because of thedecision they made regarding the selection of that  site and the subsequent development of the site.{xtypo_quote_left}Like any other business, there is no 100 % altruism involved here ,but there may be some visionary ideas that would make people happy over a limited period of time.{/xtypo_quote_left}

Like any other business, there is no 100 % altruism involved here ,but there may be some visionary ideas that would make people happy over a limited period of time.

So we may have a pleasant resort that “recharges” the guests after their stay.

There is bound to be some amount of work related satisfaction on the part of all those who were involved in the project in whatever small way that may be.

That comes from a love for what one does. 

Once the site is selected ,  a site analysis has to be done which is part of  the pre -design analysis .It involves the study of  all the aspects of a  site that can be studied.

The aspects/criteria for site analysis can be broadly classified as on site and off site features.

Another way is to classify the criteria would be to separate the  tangible and the intangible issues.

Under tangible issues, on site features would include the location of the site in the neighbourhood, it orientation, configuration, dimensions and all these details can be obtained from the site drawing [ from the planning department] a client hands over to the architect.

Site measurements are first taken by a quantity surveyor /architect and the North point is ascertained with the help of a simple magnetic compass .

The compass may be left on a level surface away from any electrical disturbances as well as our own selves just to get an accurate reading.

But the architect would visit the site once or several times to get a ” feel” of the site and some books even talk about ” meditating” on the site to ” understand” it fully.

[ More proof that we are coming a full circle!]

The architect then analyses the site issues he sees/feels/hears/touches/tastes .

Yes, it is also possible to actually taste the  soil to ascertain the soil type as part of the soil analysis. Though I have been too much of a city slicker to have ever done that, I have watched a senior Engineer do that and respect him for that act.

It is a sensory experience.

Issues like the location of the site, access roads, services/amenities in terms of water supply and power and drainage, existing vegetation, soil type, local climate-micro and macro, site slopes and drainage, site contours, presence of water bodies in the site if any, water table come under physical on site characteristics.

On site Psychological factors may include the ” feel”, the view from the site and the view towards the site [ walk towards / drive towards the site several times , photograph the site from different access points and mentally mark vantage points].

Off site features may include, site surrounds [ what is around the site, what sort of land use [ activity] is found around the site, what style of buildings exist around that site, what sort of site shading, noise, view they may cause, etc.

Apart from this, a set of climate data has to be obtained from the met department .

The site has to be visualised as best as it is possible to do this on a round -the- year basis.

What will it look like when it rains?

What sort of view can be obtained from the hills that form the backdrop when the  weather clears?

So ” meditating ” becomes a necessity rather than a gimmick here.

” Visualise! For God’s sake!”  We were told when we were in college and after soon after graduation, repeated the line to the ones we taught.

Here is where, in my humble opinion, the Bawas, Doshis, Bakers of this world differ from the  ordinary tribesmen and women of this field..

It is easy to see that it involves the activity of the creative side right at the beginning.

It is also clear that the design that was made for say, XYZ plot in  12 th street will not ” fit” 100 %  in a plot right next to it.

But in practice a lot of funny things happen and after they have painstakingly drawn up a set of drawings ,sometimes architects are told that the clients have decided on a new site and ” Cut that one and paste it here! ”

This is one of those,” Can’ t laugh, cant cry ” moments. So , designs are drawn up again with or without modifications and all the “”visualising” feeling” and ” getting in to the skin of ” is transferred to another setting somehow.

Many of these designs are for buildings that have  a specific function that can be understood easily from a modern stand point and both the clients/commissioning authorities and the architects involved aren’t 100 percent altruistic in their  motives.

A site drawing is done based on the drawing from the authorities and on an accurate survey and measurement done  previously.

The facts collected are marked drawn over the site graphically . There may be several overlays in more complex sites, say, one for climatic data/ existing vegetation or site contours.

They all may  be looked at,studied , examined and broad conclusions may be drawn based on the design program [ set of requirements ]

This may be like , locate the sit- out facing the lake, locate quieter areas away from the noisier zones identified in the site analysis, locate windows in a space that may be used at a certain time so  that it can capture the breeze  and so on.

Site selection of temples


Now, let us analyse why ancient temples were located where they are located ,

Was  the  Commissioning of these temple complexes done by Kings whenever they felt they had to build a place of worship to spread a religious concept or were they trying to show off their power?

Were the Kings who built them some kind of megalomaniacs?

Or, were they building enthusiasts alone who were looking for some  expressions to their satisfy creativity?

Were the architects or the sthpathis ,  shown a location and asked to build a  grand   temple dedicated to a particular aspect of a deity because the King felt one more temple was needed?

Just how many consultants could have been involved in the whole process?

This Link where an article discusses the building of a contemporary temple, can give an idea .
 Palani Hills, TN

If we take the examples of famous temples in TN, we find that any literature survey starts from the little books printed by the respective Devastanams called Sthala Puranas.They are classified under Upa Puranas and frequently refer to any one of the 18 Maha Puranas.

They are available as little copies near the temple premises of any popular temple in TN.They are yet to be collected , compiled and published as a comprehensive  source

These books may refer a particular section of one or more  Puranas and say that “This incident is mentioned in this Purana”.

This kind of cross referencing ,in my opinion should be seriously studied  by those who can and we would be richer by more information.

There are temples whose origins are connected to some event mentioned in the Ithihasas and when more case studies are done we find that there is temple in say Andhra which is connected to a certain incident in the Ramayana and another near Rameswaram that is connected to another incident in the same epic and both can be verified using cross referencing.

Many temples , like the Shakthi Peeta sites that are found all over India are united by a common “storyline”.

Naina Devi temple

Referring the books is just one way of understanding why a temple may have been built where it is but it still doesn’t answer all the questions.
Did people go around the place after reading ancient texts that is and decide that that  is where they would  build  temples?

There seems to be more than one issue involved here and some of them are not even remotely familiar to modern practitioners of design.

We have to do some literature survey and also some case studies, veering from book study to case study  or  vice versa quite  frequently.

 A case to case study would also be a more accurate way of describing the study that needs to be done.

This would have to dealt with in two or three parts and the first part is presented here.

Ancient wisdom states that a temple site is known for its Moorthy [ The concrete form of the God ideal]  [ temples where  Jyotir Lingas or  Salagramas are worshipped.Eg. Badrinath, ] Sthalam, [ The energy of the site, I say “energy” here as it seems energy lines play an important part in the siting of Hindu temples] [ Sites associated with an ancient event  / sites that are known as Mukthi sthalas/ Shakthi peeta sites/any site that is important by itself] Eg. Kashi, Rameswaram,  Dwarka, Sabari Hills, Tirupati/Madurai]

Theertham [ The water body associated with that temple, be it a river, lake, a small water body called “tank”, or the Sea.Eg. Pushkar, Sangam sites, [Prayag, Iyyaryu in TN], the  theerthas in Rameswaram.

Or all the above mentioned  three aspects in the case of major “power” centers.

Main sources of literature studies

The two major epics /Ithi hAsAs and the 18 puranas tell us of many events and we can see some cross references too which in my opinion can be taken as further proof about that particular event.

It doesn’t matter here whether we consider them as just fictional narratives by fertile minded author[s] or real events.

When we read what are called Sthala Puranas we can see more cross referencing [which can also be dismissed by people as hijacked ideas meant to promote a temple complex.]

Major Sites that are associated with the worship of the Goddess are 51 in number and they are called Shakthi peetas and  a single “story line” supports all of them.

Parvathi in her previous incarnation as Sati, does   Atmahuthi or the surrender of that body-[not to be confused with modern ideas on giving up one’s life] .

Her beloved Shiva comes to know of this and as he dances with her still body on his head he  shakes up the entire universe with his fury, Vishnu, in an effort to control the situation, uses his Chakra weapon  and the body  is split in to 51 parts that fell in 51 different parts of the then whole India.

Thus we have a Naina Devi temple in Nainital, Uttaranchal  where the eyes fell as per the Purana and a Kamakshi temple , Kanchipuram where the navel part fell, to name a few.

Shiva sites in India

In India there are three major categories of pilgrimage temples dedicated to Shiva:

 The Jyotir Lingams;

 The Svayambhu Lingams, [ Sri Mullaivananathar temple Tanjore dist. TN. Marundeeswarar temple, Chennai TN just to name a few.]

and the Bhuta Lingams.

Located in five south Indian temples, the Pancha Bhuta Lingams are said to be places where Shiva manifested himself as the natural elements.

The temples and their respective elements are Chidambaram: ether, Sri Kalahasti: wind, Tiruvanaikka/Jambunath: water, Kanchipuram: earth, and Tiruvanamalai: fire. Chidambaram is also associated with the heart, Tiruvanaikka with the stomach, and Tiruvanamalai with the chest.

I have visited four of these five temples , the only one I haven’t visited is the Thiruvanaikaval temple.

The image shows the linga at Chidambaram [ ether] TN.

The temples on the banks of the Kaveri
The second one in the line of later Chola dynasty Aditya Karikala [ as the Chola Kings are said have been descended from Ravi Kulam/Soorya Vamshis] built 108 Shiva temples from the origin of Kaveri till the place where she joins the Sea.

Why those particular locations and not others?

Why 108?

There is a symbolism involved here and surely site selection must have been done not on  a random basis but with a  sound logic behind it.

When we start sincerely asking questions many things may become clear. the important thing is to ask and seek.

Painting and Shiva Lingam -Tanjore temple, TN.



Image from the  link above. 

What the Sthala Puranas say

Some accounts Stahla Puranas talk about could be:

So and so worshipped here!

A divine wedding took place here!

Divinity in this aspect showed herself/himself to this devotee here!

These are just some of the reasons why site selection may have been done.

Stumbled upon sites

We read in other Sthala puranas about temples that were discovered /stumbled upon by shepherds , cows or just about any ordinary being who wasn’t looking for divinity there at that time.

This is a commonly repeated thread in many Sthala puranas and they talk about Shiv Lingas that lie buried in a specific place which were discovered by people who inadvertently caused some injury to the Linga causing blood to seep out and therefore they discover the holy relic.Some of these  Lingas are said to be Swayambu , meaning on its own and not made by human hands.

The cow reference in the Sthala Puranas is even more interesting with the cows simply draining their milk over a specific spot which leads the shepherds to discover the Linga and the subsequent building of a temple there at that spot by the King.

It is quite possible that a number of Shiv lingas , at different points in time ,were made or used as a marker [ Linga also means a mark] in some specially designated places that were identified as places possessing immense power that could be tapped by generations of  people.

If I am not wrong, they are the ones that may have been  discovered at later times and temples in all probabilities were subsequently built around them to enhance the site potential .

Rather than “Think of building a temple-choose site-hand over project to consultant -implement project”- cycle we see in modern practice, this is an identification of a special site and building of a structure that would enhance and help spread that power over the surrounds.

Dream sites

There are also cases where the Purana says temples were built in sites based on the dreams when devotees/Kings had of a Murthy lying buried in a  specified place.

This again falls in the same category as the stumbled upon sites, only the persons involved probably were more “awake” when they were asleep and could be contacted only through their dreams!

Ancient Tamil sangam literature talks about five land forms and the five athi devatas of these land forms.

The article at this link says talks about the five land forms mentioned in ancient Tamil literature. They are Kurinchi [ Hills and surrounding areas], Mullai [ Forests and surrounding areas] Marutham [ Farm land and surrounding areas], Neidhal [ The Sea and surrounding areas] and Palai [ Dry land/desert and surrounding areas].


Each land forms stands for a particular poetic tradition and is ruled by an Athi Devata.


The article here says Vishnu [ Mal] is the Athi Devata of Mullai rather than Neidhal as it is generally accepted.Instead, KaDalon [ Varuna by another name] is mentioned as the deity of Neidhal landform.


Whichever way,this can bust the politically correct myth that Vishnu is an Aryan import from the North and therefore not a ” local”, There are also references to Vedic Gods here that one may note here.

But for our context ,it clearly says what aspect of divinity is to be worshipped  in a particular land form.

We see that except for one [ Thiruchendur, ] all the aru padai veedu [ The six abodes ]shrines of Subrahmanya are located either on a hill [ Palani, Thirutani , palamudhircholai]or nearby .[ Thiruparankundram] while Swamimalai has a “malai”[ Hill in Tamil] only in name. 

 Palani Hills, TN.

There are several other sites that are located on a hillock /hill and there are also several hilly areas that don’t have a Subramanya temple on them.

We look at several other scenic hill stations in TN and wonder why they don’t have a temple as it seems to be the case elsewhere and we have to conclude that some sites appear to have been given the go by site selectors .

Not all hill tops are marked but only a select few have been and just to make matters seem strange some plains have been marked with a shrine to this God of hills.

The Lord of the hills in the coastal plains-Thiruchendur , TN.

So , we will have to conclude that the land forms or any other aspect wasn’t the only one aspect that was taken in to consideration during site selection and it might have been a broad guideline.

It wasn’t just a tome of guidelines , and wasn’t merely incidents mentioned in ancient literature that may have formed the basis for site selection, but there may have been other reasons that haven’t been /cannot be understood from a modern perspective.

We would look at those other issues in the next part.


Pictures courtesy-internet

Site selection and analysis:To be continued in the next few parts.

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