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Indian Temple Architecture

In ancient India, temples played a very important role in life by acting as acting as Religious institutions, administrative and educational centres and centres for pursuing classical arts. etc. Hindu temple architecture reflects a synthesis of arts, the ideals of dharma, beliefs, values and the way of life cherished under Hinduism. The architectural principles of Hindu temples in India are described in Shilpa Shastras and Vastu Sastras. The Hindu culture has encouraged aesthetic independence to its temple builders, and its architects have sometimes exercised considerable flexibility in creative expression by adopting other perfect geometries and mathematical principles in Mandir construction to express the Hindu way of life. The temple architecture of ancient India was marked by variety and high standards of architecture and excellence in creativity. Nevertheless, the ancient Indian temples evolved with distinct architectural styles due mainly to geographical, climatic, ethnic, racial, historical and linguistic diversities.

Main Architectural features of Hindu Temples

Hindu temple architecture as the main form of Hindu architecture has many varieties of style, though the basic nature of the Hindu temple remains the same, with the essential feature an inner sanctum, the garbha griha or womb-chamber, where the primary Murti or the image of a deity is housed in a simple bare cell. Around this chamber there are often other structures and buildings, in the largest cases covering several acres. On the exterior, the garbhagriha is crowned by a tower-like shikhara, also called the vimana in the south and Meru tower in Balinese temple. The shrine building often includes an ambulatory for parikrama (circumambulation), a mandapa or congregation hall, and sometimes an antarala or antechamber and porch between garbhagriha and mandapa. There may further mandapas or other buildings, connected or detached, in large temples, together with other small temples in the compound.

Terms related to Hindu Temple Architecture:

Garbhagriha: It literally means ‘womb-house’ and is a cave like sanctum. It is the house of main deity.


Mandapa: It is the entrance to the temple. It may be a portico or colonnaded (series of columns placed at regular intervals) hall that incorporate space for a large number of worshippers.


Shikhara or Vimana: They are mountain like spire of a free standing temple. Shikhara is found in North Indian temples and Vimana is found in South Indian temples. Shikhara has a curving shape while vimana has a pyramidal like structure.


Amalaka: It is a stone disc like structure at the top of the temple and they are common in North Indian temples.

 Kalasha: It is the topmost point of the temple and commonly seen in North Indian temples.

 Antarala (vestibule): Antarala is a transition area between the Garbhagriha and the temple’s main hall


Jagati: It is a raised platform for sitting and praying and is common in North Indian temples.


Vahana: It is the mount or vehicle of the temple’s main deity along with a standard pillar or Dhvaj which is placed axially before the sanctum.

Site and Design of Hindu Temples

A Hindu temple is a symmetry-driven structure, with many variations, on a square grid of padas, depicting perfect geometric shapes such as circles and squares. The appropriate site for a Mandir, suggest ancient Sanskrit texts, is near water and gardens, where lotus and flowers bloom, where swans, ducks and other birds are heard, where animals rest without fear of injury or harm. While major Hindu Mandirs are recommended at sangams (confluence of rivers), river banks, lakes and seashore, the Brhat Samhitaand Puranas suggest temples may also be built where a natural source of water is not present. Here too, they recommend that a pond be built preferably in front or to the left of the temple with water gardens. Temples may also be built, suggests Visnudharmottara in Part III of Chapter 93, inside caves and carved stones, on hill tops affording peaceful views, mountain slopes overlooking beautiful valleys, inside forests and hermitages, next to gardens, or at the head of a town street.

The design, especially the floor plan, of the part of a Hindu temple around the sanctum or shrine follows a geometrical design called vastu-purusha-mandala. The name is a composite Sanskrit word with three of the most important components of the plan. Mandala means circle, Purusha is universal essence at the core of Hindu tradition, while Vastumeans the dwelling structure. Vastupurushamandala is a yantra. The design lays out a Hindu temple in a symmetrical, self-repeating structure derived from central beliefs, myths, cardinality and mathematical principles. The four cardinal directions help create the axis of a Hindu temple, around which is formed a perfect square in the space available. The circle of mandala circumscribes the square. The square is considered divine for its perfection and as a symbolic product of knowledge and human thought, while circle is considered earthly, human and observed in everyday life (moon, sun, horizon, water drop, rainbow). Each supports the other. The square is divided into perfect square grids. In large temples, this is often a 8×8 or 64 grid structure. In ceremonial temple superstructures, this is an 81 sub-square grid. The squares are called ‘‘padas’’ The square is symbolic and has Vedic origins from fire altar, Agni. Beneath the mandala’s central square(s) is the space for the formless shapeless all pervasive all connecting Universal Spirit, the Purusha. This space is sometimes referred to as garbha-griya (literally womb house) – a small, perfect square, windowless, enclosed space without ornamentation that represents universal essence. Above the vastu-purusha-mandala is a high superstructure called the shikhara in north India, and vimana in south India, that stretches towards the sky. Sometimes, in makeshift temples, the superstructure may be replaced with symbolic bamboo with few leaves at the top. The vertical dimension’s cupola or dome is designed as a pyramid, conical or other mountain-like shape, once again using principle of concentric circles and squares Predominant number of Hindu temples exhibit the perfect square grid principle. However, there are some exceptions. For example, the Teli ka Mandir in Gwalior, built in the 8th century CE is not a square but is a rectangle consisting of stacked squares.

Three Styles of Hindu Temples

There are three main distinct styles of ancient Indian temples: the Nagara or the Northern style, the Dravida or the Southern style and the Vesara or Mixed style. Prominent Nagara style temples include the Khajuraho Group of temples, Sun temple, Konark, Sun temple at Modhera, Gujarat and Ossian temple, Gujarat while the remarkable examples of Dravidian style (south Indian style) temples include Tanjore, Madurai, Mahabalipuram, Badami, Pattadakal and Kanchipuram. The temple of Lingaraja at Bhubaneswar (11th century) built by Anantavarman Choda Ganga represents the Orissa (Nagara) style in its maturity. The Jagannatha Temple of Puri (late 12th century), the Sun-temple at Konark (built by Narasimha I, (1236-64 A.D.) are the other well-known Nagara Style temples. The earliest examples of Dravida Style temples include 7th century rock-cut shrines at Mahabalipuram and a developed structuraltemple, the Shore Temple at the same site. Finest examples are Brihadeshwara temple at Thanjavur, built about 1010 by Rajaraja 1, & temple at Gangaikondacolapuram, built about 1025 by his son Rajendra Chola. The Hoysala temples at Belur, Halebidu and Somnathpura are leading examples of the Vesara style.

These temples had different styles of architecture and construction and arrangement of different temple parts. Their decoration styles, viz sculpture and architecture as well as iconography and art and architecture such as positioning of different parts of temple, viz, surrounding of the temple and open spaces inside, temple courtyard, temple roofs, prayer halls, meeting halls and garbhagriha were different. For example, sikhara and gateways had different emphasis in Nagara and Dravida styles. In the north Indian temples, the sikhara remained the most prominent component while the gateway was generally given a lesser prominence. On the other hand in the Dravidian temples, the enclosures around the temples and the gateways or Gopurams (entrance) were given remarkable prominence. The Gopurams led the devotees into the sacred courtyard. It is not that temples architecture in North and South India were in total contrast in all respects. There were similarities as well. For instance, their ground plans, positioning of stone-carved deities on the outside walls and the interior, and the range of decorative elements had lot of similarities, despite not being a true copy of each other.

Comparison between Nagara and Dravidian style of temple architecture


  • In north Indian temples we can see images such as Mithunas (erotic) and the river goddesses, Ganga and Yamuna guarding the temple. But in the Dravida style of temple architecture, instead of these sculptures, we can see the sculptures of fierce dvarapalas or door keepers guarding the temple.
  • A large water reservoir or a temple tank enclosed in the complex is general in south Indian temples.
  • Subsidiary shrines are either incorporated within the main temple tower, or located as a distinct, separate small shrine besides the main temple.
  • The north Indian idea of multiple shikharas rising together as a cluster was not popular in dravida style.
  • At some of the most sacred temples in south India, the main temple in which the garbhagriha is situated has, in fact, one of the smallest towers.
  • Just as the nagara architecture has subdivisions, dravida temples also have subdivisions. These are basically of five different shapes:
  • Kuta or caturasra – square
  • Shala or ayatasra – rectangular
  • Gaja-prishta or vrittayata (elephant backed) –elliptic
  • Vritta – circular
  • Ashtasra – octagonal

History of Indian Temples

There are hardly any remains of Hindu temples before the Gupta dynasty in the 4th century CE; no doubt there were earlier structures in timber-based architecture. The rock-cut Udayagiri Caves are among the most important early sites. The earliest preserved Hindu temples are simple cell-like stone temples, some rock-cut and others structural, as at Sanchi. By the 6th or 7th century, these evolved into high shikhara stone superstructures. However, there is inscriptional evidence such as the ancient Gangadhara inscription from about 424 CE, states Meister, that towering temples existed before this time and these were possibly made from more perishable material. These temples have not survived. Examples of early major North Indian temples that have survived after the Udayagiri Caves in Madhya Pradesh include Deogarh, Parvati Temple, Nachna (465 CE), Lalitpur District (c. 525 CE), Lakshman Brick Temple, Sirpur (600-625 CE); Rajiv Lochan temple, Rajim (7th-century CE).

No pre-7th century CE South Indian style stone temples have survived. Examples of early major South Indian temples that have survived, some in ruins, include the diverse styles at Mahabalipuram. However, according to Meister, the Mahabalipuram temples are “monolithic models of a variety of formal structures all of which already can be said to typify a developed “Dravida” (South Indian) order”. They suggest a tradition and a knowledge base existed in South India by the time of the early Chalukya and Pallava era when these were built. Other examples are found in Aihole and Pattadakal.

By about the 7th century most main features of the Hindu temple were established along with theoretical texts on temple architecture and building methods. From between about the 7th and 13th centuries a large number of temples and their ruins have survived (though far fewer than once existed). Many regional styles developed, very often following political divisions, as large temples were typically built with royal patronage. In the north, Muslim invasions from the 11th century onwards reduced the building of temples, and saw the loss of many existing ones. The south also witnessed Hindu-Muslim conflict that affected the temples, but the region was relatively less affected than the north.In late 14th century, the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire came to power and controlled much of South India. During this period, the distinctive very tall gopuram gate house actually a late development, from the 12th century or later, typically added to older large temples.

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