The Ever Evolving Shape of Hindu Temple Architecture

Being one of the surviving ancient religions in modern time, everything related with Hinduism has had to evolve over the last two thousand-plus years. People have adopted the Hindu religion for a long time from different social and intellectual ideas. Along with Hinduism, the Hindu temple architecture evolved for several thousand years.

Karnataka Hoysaleshwara temple at belur
Karnataka Hoysaleshwara temple at belur

One of the freedoms of Hinduism is that a temple is not a necessary part of proper worship. So, when people build, design or renovate a temple, it is out of their love and passion rather than pure religious obligation. So, Hindu temple architecture will usually reflect that person’s beliefs and their love of their faith. And they are attended by people on special occasions for celebrations. Hindu temples therefore usually are purely upbeat and positive in their design and construction. They are more expressions of love and devotion than anything else.

In fact, the original Hindus of record worshiped fire, air, and earth. It is that minimalist, portable and transformative notion that has helped to give the faith its longevity. Once it was necessary to bring the gatherings inside, people sought out the most beautiful locales in the land to construct their shared shelter. The original Hindu temples were simple buildings found on hilltops, beaches and oases. They were found near the only trees or shade in the desert and at points out of reach of the sea but still close enough to enjoy its cooling properties.  They were practically temporary or transitional, made out of necessity with clay or scavenged timber. Bricks and formal, permanent buildings came many years later.

It was mainly among the common artisan caste, or Vishwakarma(Hindu Architect), developed the first Hindu temple architecture. There were several shapes but most had about 6 common aspects. The garbha graha (literally “womb-chamber”) is the main section for any idols and the inner sanctum of the temple. The temple hall is most prevalent in larger temples, for a congregation. This is also a place for ritual dance and is painted with the most locally prominent gods and goddesses. When possible there was also a reservoir made or dug on the premises and a walkway around the grounds that devotees would walk as a sign of respect to the deities.

The entry porch would be equipped with a bell to signify visitors and a semi-formal entry chamber which surrounded the garbha graha, which was then topped by a tower called a shikara. Two styles of shikara dominated the early Hindu temple architecture. There was the Nagara style in northern India, distinguished by its curved, hive shape. And then the southern Indian craftsman created a collection of towers more angular, like pyramids, atop the garbha graha called the Dravida. These were the norm at the turn of the first century.

In the century that followed, many towns combined the two original types of Hindu temple architecture into a style known as the Vesara that was most popular in the middle and Northern territories. Vesara temples can still be seen in Southeast Asia and the oldest temples in India. These three styles became doctrine and appear in texts dating back to the 400-600 A.D.

Over time, the styles took on a flavor of their own, reflecting the different climates that Hinduism spread to and the local artisans gave their own take on the two original styles and molded them with the region’s most favored gods and goddesses. The Pallava style developed next, influenced by the Mediterranean. The temples were carved out of stone and became more ornate with the stone and more permanent structure allowing for more idols and statues to be included in the inner areas of the temples. The Colas (1200-1300 A.D.) followed and made the statues and idols even more elaborate, adding more chambers as special worship rooms for different gods.

Billeshwara temple from The period of kalyani chaukyas
Billeshwara temple from The period of kalyani chaukyas

From there, Hinduism spread to Southeast Asia and covered thousands of tribes, people and languages among many countries with governments of different tolerance levels. The regions began to really make their Hindu temple architecture their own. It reflected the beliefs and values of the locality and the elaborate nature depended on what the government allowed. What remained cohesive were the basic rooms and shapes. To this day, Hindu temple architecture will always have the six main items and a regional personality all its own that still remains true to the original fire worshiping beliefs and tenants of the Vedic age and the formation of the faith.

Author: Devika Sethi


  1. The thing that really baffles me is that they had to “built” these temples from top to bottom (by carving) and not the other way around.

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