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Explore Temples, Shrines And Spiritual Places Across India

The beauty of Indian architecture and the benevolence of the spirit of the temples stand as a landmark for the country. Known for their great historical significance and piousness, these temples are a depiction of the excellency of architectural techniques and cultural values. Hinduism, perhaps the oldest practiced religion of the world, laid the foundation of temples around 2000 years back. The significance of the Hindu temple origins distinguishes it from the existing definition of Vedic institution that believed in the worship of the natural forces under the open sky. With the necessity of community worship, temples were set up with views of sacred meetings and religious discussion.

The earliest relics of the Hindu temple structure seems to have been found in Surkh Kotal(present-day Afghanistan). But historical scholars suggest that during 121-151 AD, the temple was dedicated to king Kanishka. Inspired by the Hindu temple plans are the origins of Derasar or Jain temples. Thousands of years back, the architectural glamour was kept minimalistic, yet inculcating Jain values and teachings. The earliest Jain monuments could be traced from the Udaygiri and Khandagiri caves of the Orissa region. Scholars suggest that these caves were exclusively carved out for the Jain monks during the reign of King Kharavela of Kalinga.

The Indian Buddhist monasteries seem to seek their influence of worship as a representation of the Universe. The earliest relics suggest that the construction was of circular origin, with architectural resemblance from the Hindu temples. In the 3rd century BCE, under the patronage of the great monarch, Ashoka, Buddhist monasteries and teachings attained their peak.

Sikhs find solace and spirituality in the four walls of the Gurudwaras. In 1521, under the guidance of Guru Nanak Dev, the first Sikh Gurudwara came into existence at Kharatpur, in the Narowal district of West Punjab(present-day Pakistan). The construction seemed minimalistic with bits of relics surviving today.


Architecture of Hindu Temples

The earliest known records of the Hindu temple architecture have perhaps not survived till date, owing to the use of frail and perishable construction materials like clay, wood, straw, or leaves. However, with the use of more indestructible materials like bricks and cement, the oldest forms of temples have survived. Under the patronage of several ruling dynasties, the construction of the Hindu temples attained its peak between the 6th-16th centuries. Different regions of India developed their own distinct architectural features, owing to climate, culture, linguistics racial, and historical diversities. Every Hindu temple is comprised of few basic architectural definitions.

The feature without which a temple can hardly be called so is the Garbhagriha or Sanctum Sanctorum. It is regarded as the inner womb of the temple, where the icons are housed and which is responsible for all ritualistic practices. To guide the steps towards the temple, the Mandapa prevails, which is also known as the entrance to the temple. Quite often, the Mandapa is a portico or colonnaded hall, hosting the prayer ground of worshippers. Antarala, also known as the vestibule is often suggested as the area between the Garbhagriha and the Mandapa. The main deity or icon is placed at a raised mount, known as Vahana along with a standard pillar. The topmost spire of the temple is known as the Sikhara or Vimana. Shikhara is mostly of curved geometry while Vimana looks mostly pyramidal. Kalasha is the ornamental pot-like decor at the topmost position of the Sikhara. Amlaka is the disc-like structure that is used for crowning the Sikhara. Jagati is known as the raised platform that is generally used for sitting and praying by the devotees.

Temples are broadly classified into three different types, based on the architectural distinctions.

◙ Nagara or the Northern style- The Nagara style had an influence on many architectural buildings and palaces in Northern India. The entire temple is constructed over a large stone base with well-paved stairs leading inside. Elaborate or showy gateways tend not to prevail. The unique Shikhara or Curvilinear tower makes the Nagara style unique, the decor of the Garbhagriha or Sanctum Sanctorum is also quite eye-catchy. The Garbhagriha would always be located in the tallest tower in Nagaras. The presence of Jagati is mandatory. Basing on the type of Sikhara, Nagara temples are subdivided into Latinatype, with square Sikhara at the base and curved walls emerging towards the top, the Phamsana style, which is generally of shorter type but is distinguished with a roof having several slabs, and the Valabhi style, with rectangular buildings with a roof that rises into a vaulted chamber. Some of the most widely known Nagara temples are the Jagannath Temple at Puri, The Dasavatara Temple at Deogarh, the Viswanatha Temple at Khajuraho, etc.

◙ The Dravida or Southern style – The Dravida style is widely renowned because of its elaborate gateway, also known as the gopuram. The main temple tower, Vimana adopted the stepped pyramidal geometry. Gigantic sculptures of dvarapalas or doorkeepers, guarding the gate is quite common and impressive. Basing on the shapes, the Dravida temples are of five different categories- Kuta or Caturasra, square in shape; Ayatasra, rectangular in shape; Vrittayata or Gajaprishta, elliptical in shape; Vritta, circular in shape and Astatasra, octagonal in shape. Some of the most widely known Dravida temples are the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai, Brihadesvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Shore temple of Mahabalipuram etc.

◙ The Vesara or the mixed style- Under the patronage of Chalukya rulers, the Vesara temples originated in the Karnataka region, with stylistic features, culminating both Nagara and Dravida temple features. The height is the only distinguishing feature, which is shorter than both Dravida and Nagara temples. Some of the most widely known Vesara temples are the Badami Temple, Keshava Temple at Somnathpur, Durga Temple at Aihole, etc.


Architecture of Jain Temples

The Jain temple architecture is a bit difficult to elucidate in architectural temple definitions, due to its striking similarity with the Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples, during its initial days of construction. With the evolution of architectural techniques, Jains developed a unique form of temples, more correctly known as ‘temple-cities’. What appears as even more ravishing to the eyes is the use of rich materials like marble to flaunt their architectural supremacy. The ornamentation, interior carvings, and decor appear quite splendid. Most of the Jain temples or derasar are built on the top of the hillocks.

All Jain temples have three common architectural features – image chambers or garbha-griha, hall or mandapa, and porch. Halls have well-planned pillared interiors, as columnated ends are crucial to support the shrine. The pillars converge to form a well-defined square pattern. The pillars are well-sculptured and richly decorated. The formed square pattern is of great religious importance. Regarded for the metaphysical doctrines of Jainism or in simpler terms about the relativity or the belief that there is no ‘one truth’. The square patterns are further directed to create chambers or chapels that house the image-chamber. The image chamber is usually a beautifully arched temple sanctum, located at the centre of the building. It generally houses a statue or several statues of sacred figures, or images of religious elements like the eight auspicious symbols or the Tirthankara. The siddhachakra, the cosmic person, yantras, and mantras are also represented in the image-chamber. The image chambers tend to be connected to the hall or Mandapa.

Worshippers stand, gaze, or seek blessings from the icons or follow rituals, conducted within the chamber. Pointy domes are a characteristic of the chambers that are enclosed by the pillars. The regions where domes generally do not prevail create an octagonal space within. Antarala is the area that lies between the image chamber and hall. Halls exert their importance in ritualistic practices. Porches are usually small and prevail access to the mandapa or the hall. The Mandapa has sidewalls that are constructed with closed ends or have several pillars that leave the sides in an open condition.

The temples are built on a raised platform along with several pillars. Sometimes the Jain temples are surrounded by ‘free-standing high compound walls’, known as the Prakara. The most widely known medieval Jain temple architecture is that of the Dilwara temple at Mount Abu, Rajasthan. What makes this architectural marvel a pilgrimage to visit is the extensive baroque interior carvings. The temple-town of Shatrunjaya is another breath-taking pilgrimage to visit. Adinatha Temple at Ranakpur, Rajasthan is one of the finest specimens of art and piousness.


Architecture of Buddhist Temples

The 3rd BCE sought a surge to the Buddhist religious architecture, owing to the rich patronage of the monarchs and advancement of architectural techniques in comparison to the indigenous ones. Basing on the architectural differences, presumably three types of religious temples are associated with Buddhism -monasteries or Viharas, Stupas or places to venerate relics and Chaityas, also known as shrines or prayer halls, or temples in simple terms.

◙ Viharas or Monasteries – Initially, the purpose of the Viharas was to shield the monks who were traveling in the rainy season. Eventually, they began to be reused as monasteries with rising of Buddhism. A splendid fortress architecture, known as dzongs is present in the current Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas. Much like the domestic residences, the interior of the Viharas is devised with housing assembly halls, dining chambers, meditation cells, and suspended chambers hosting figures of Buddha. Nagapattinam Vihara in Tamilnadu is a well-known pilgrimage.

◙ Stupas – For safe-guarding and valuing the relics of Buddhism, the stupas were constructed. Techniques that were quite modern in approach were implied in the construction of stupas like the usage of thick solid lime layer over brick and plastering them. Stupas consist of six essential parts-Anda, the Hemispheral dome; Harmika, the topmost region of the dome; Chattra, ‘a 3-tired stone’; Vedica, that forms the wooden or stone railing enclosing the stupa; Toranas, ceremonial elaborate gateways inspired from Aryan village gates; and Medhi, paving pathways to the pedestrians. The Sanchi Stupa in Madya Pradesh is one of the oldest surviving stupas in India. Pagodas are often regarded as an evolution to the stupas.

◙ Chaityas – By the 1st century BCE, with evolving temple tradition, the stupas culminated into chaitya-grihas. Chaityas were known as the temples or solitary prayer halls where monks prayed. The interior has small rectangular or square doorways, followed by a vaulted hall along with a narrow end with two strikingly carved dividing longitudinally. The rooftop is articulated in a semi-circular geometry. Kanheri in Mumbai and Bhaja in Pune are well-known Chaityas.

Medieval India experienced a rise in cave art or rock-cut architecture. Most of the caves are excavated from western parts of India, showing the sheer dominance of Buddhist architecture and sanctity. Most of these cave temples were temporary Viharas, only to be later reconstructed as the greatest assets to Buddhist learning. The Ajanta caves, located in Maharashtra are a fascinating group of around 30 rock-cut Buddhist temples. In the Sahyadri mountains, they are carved into the vertical side of the gorge. This mastery zeal contains quarters for sleeping, kitchens, shrines, and prayer halls. Contains decorative sculpture and richly carved columns. The tempera technique was implemented on smooth surfaces and plaster was applied to make it more ravishing. Several paintings and frescos reveal various aspects of Buddha’s life. The Barabar caves at Bihar is another breath-taking religious glamour every Buddhist pilgrim should visit. It contains two large rooms carved out of granite. The larger room was used as an assembly for the worshippers while the smaller counterpart housed relics of Buddha.


Architecture of Sikh Temples

Sikh architecture often appears as an unfinished mystery with little written documents from the indigenous construction records. Sikh Temples, known as Gurdwaras, acquire their name from the word Guru, meaning ‘The Guide’ and Dwara, meaning ‘the Gateway on Grand Entrance’. In short, the Sikh temples are made to commemorate the ten valiant, emancipated Sikh Gurus. There are hundreds of Gurdwaras in the Indian subcontinent, but most of the structures are clustered in the Punjab region of India. What makes Gurdwaras architecture even more unique is their ability to not stick to any definite architectural definitions.

The most important requirement in a Gurdwara is the establishment of the Guru Granth Sahid under a canopied seat or elevated. The Grant Shib is placed on an elevated platform, usually a bit higher than the floor in which the devotees remain seated. The architecture of recent years shows that Gurdwaras follow a blende pattern of architecture. Most Gurdwaras have raised walls, having entrances on all four sides. This distinctly indicates that they are open to one and all. It also symbolizes the fact that the Sikh belief is omnipotent. These days due to the lack of commercial construction space, many Gurdwaras fail to fulfill this requirement. For example, the Gurdwara Sis Ganj in Delhi. Basing on the hall in which the Granth Sahib or shrine prevails, Gurdwaras are of four basic types – square, rectangular, octagonal, and cruciform.

Many of the Gurdwaras have large elaborate entrances or deohi. The deohi is often termed as a glamorous gateway from which the visiter attain their very first view of the Sanctum Sanctorum or the inner main hall. The exterior imposing decor is also daunted with arched copings, kiosks, solid domelets. The main dome of the Gurudwara generally follows a large lotus pattern. The interior of the Gurdwara also contains a large communal dining hall or langar, in which meals are prepared to feed the pilgrims amply. Sikh architecture has a very fascinating facet, they imply the variation of permutation and combination for constructing the stories and the basic pattern. For example, the Darbar Sahib at Dera Baba Nanak is constructed with a primary square pattern and designates a single-story. Gurdwara Tamboo Sahib in Muktsar is built on a basic square plan with a double-storeyed building on an elevated platform.


Significance of Temples

All humans with their minds to devour the peace that nature prevails and harmony of all the senses working together. What boosts this power is a simple belief, that holds so strong that leads us to follow the path of righteousness, and the search for that belief is the emotional requirement that our heart caters to.

Life is a thorny path, mingled with happiness and sorrow and temples occur to be a point where people go to share their woes to relieve themselves of the emotional chaos inside them and slowly face the reality boldly. Owing to the serene environment prevailing, a deep concentration creeps in that calms the agitated spirit inside us and avail us to think about the good things in life and embrace the positivity. When we utter mantras and pray, there is an enormous surge of energy within us.

Devotees visit temples for meditaton, to attain pujas, and for worshipping God to incorporate the values of tolerance, virtues, simplicity, self-control, renunciation of objects of ‘sense gratification and steadiness’. Often it is believed that divine knowledge is discovered under the shelter of the omnipotent God, every time people make a visit to the temples. All aspects of everyday life-religious, cultural, educational, and social seem into transcending upon the holistic mind. Each part of the temple is of importance for healing the soul and body. For instance, the entrance to the Sanctum Sanctorum is kept low, so the surge of energy that prevailed might not escape, and the sounds of the chanting echo in the mind.

It is also suggested that temples are built in areas with a high conjecture of magnetic energy that energizes our body, possibly on hilltops, caves, or the outskirts of the city. ‘To err is human’ and striving to correct them to be an elevated human is the act prevailed by the temples.