Temple complexes were the brain cells of ancient Indian society. Apart from being a place of worship, spaces designed for people to congregate and celebrate the arts, dance, and music of classical and folk customarily in concepts based on sacred texts integrated with the culture of that era. The architectonic of the ancient Indian-subcontinent was far advanced and developed in terms of materiality, technical detailing and extensive micro-planning of spaces to render a specific characteristic display, such as, the Garbhagriha (womb chamber) or the shrine is a dark cuboid cell in the sanctuary with a superstructure; where the Murti (deity) of the temple resides allowing deliberate by design a certain amount of interaction with light and shadow. Also, the other spaces designed on lines of the cardinal axis from the shrine intersect to form a vertical axis (world axis) connecting the point of the sanctuary to the peak of the superstructure to encompass the entire complex to connect with sacred beliefs, building principals based on Vastu-Shastra and Vastu Purusha maṇḍala on the plan. India is the land of diverse culture, ethnicity, history, and linguistic backgrounds that are celebrated by the incorporation of region-specific design in the overall aesthetic of the temple complex.
How did these temple complexes behave as an information center one might question? The answer is before an individual in that given space. The architecture demonstrates by including numerous scriptures, carving on the walls, sculptures and design elements determined by culture informs the society about diverse subjects concerning home science aligned with four fundamental and compelling direction to human life according to Hindu philosophy: Wealthy and prosperity ( Artha), Moral life and virtue ( Dharma), Sex and pleasure ( Kama), Knowledge and realization ( Moksha). In other terms, It informs one about behavioral practice in the society be it in public or private, concepts of morality, hygiene, the act of sex, stories depicting war and historical events important to the community. The very reason why people undertake “Parikrama” – moving clockwise around the shrine is not just to illustrate in reverence but to observe and learn what the built-environment is apprising to that individual.
The design of temple complexes has showcased important scientific aspects aligning with climatology, understanding, and arranging spatial needs of light and shadow, astrology, physics, and material strength that are relevant to contemporary times today. It is important to question mandatory cultural and religious practices, for behind them are significant ideas and rational reasoning that haven’t been documented and obscured by blind faith and superstitions. Yes, that might have been the only way in that era to streamline the society; introducing a sense of order and system for it to function smoothly. Let us look at some of the temple complexes and what they might predominantly have to convey by architecture.
1. Konark Sun Temple Complex, Konark, Puri, Odisha, India.
The Konark temple complex; commissioned to be built by King Narashimhadeva I of Eastern Ganga dynasty in the 13th Century CE, dedicated to the Hindu God – Surya. The entire complex including the ruins has intricate artworks and iconography of Surya God in the chariot pulled by seven horses named after meters of Sanskrit prosody and two dawn goddesses shooting arrows symbolizing a challenge to darkness. The temple also has inscriptions and themes of everyday lives of people and their culture with societal hierarchy and sculptures depicting “Mithuna” scenes ( Coital themes), some with esoteric traditions. The complex also consists of terrace spaces with sculptures of musicians and instruments to facilitate a large congregation to appreciate performances. The temple also has prominent central projections ( Raha) over side projections (Kanika-paga) to showcase an interplay of sunlight and shade to the internal space and form of the temple evoking a sense of virtual appeal.
2. Hoysaleswara Temple Complex, Halebidu, Hassan, Karnataka, India.
The Hoysaleswara temple also known as Halebidu temple commissioned by King Vishnuvardhana of the Hoysala Empire in the 12th century CE, dedicated to the Hindu God- Shiva. The complex plan consists of twin temples – Hoysaleswara and Santaleswara Shiva linga shrines which are equal in volume and size but joined by their transepts symbolic to the God’s masculine to feminine side ( Shaktism) portraying the religious belief in Shaivism ( Shiva is the supreme God). The exquisite architecture carving depicts various aspects of everyday life in the kingdom by iconography and sculptures emphasizing narrative episodes carved in detail from Hindu sacred texts of Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Bhagavan Purana in multi-layered friezes made of talc-schist, a metamorphic rock. These representations were to involve people in understanding the coded moral messages in the stories from the epics.
3. Vittala Temple Complex,Hampi, Karnataka,India
The Vittala temple complex; commissioned to build by Kind Devaraya II of the Vijayanagar dynasty in the 15th century CE, dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu. The architecture of the temple consists of granite hollow pillars delicately designed in the interiors and exteriors that create a distinct and unique tune when tapped. It celebrates the scientific advancement and craftsmanship to create these intricate details that resonate with a melody even today. The temple appears to be a monolithic structure in the form of a stone chariot but in reality, a multi-layered carved granite structure with well-tucked joinery. The temple style adds meaning to large volumes by instilling many ornamentation and patterns at the ceiling, pillars, and walls as a symbolic expression of cultural and religious dynamics of that era attributing
4. Kailasa Temple Complex, Ellora, Aurangabad, Maharashtra.
The Kailasa Temple complex is an exclusive architectural brilliance megalithic rock-cut structure carved in 8th century CE. In the large courtyard of the complex, arcades and alcoves enormous deity sculptures represent the life and incarnations of Shiva on the left side and that of Vishnu on the right side. The base of the temples consists of elaborately carved episodes from Ramayana and Mahabharata, Hindu sacred epics. A notable stand-alone statue of Ravana trying to lift Mount Kailasa with magnificently inscribed back story concluding to this artwork. Significance of certain chapters has moral value; uplifting and establishing principles for people to live a happy and content life with goals and beliefs while avoiding the seven temptations in one’s life.
2.Kailasa Temple ©en.wikipedia.org
5. The Dilwara Temple Complex, Mount abu, Sirohi,Rajasthan, India
The Dilwara temple complex is the most impressive Jain temple designed by Vastupala, Jain minister from Dhokla to this day. The construction of the entire complex with five temples took place between the 11th and 16th centuries. It showcases extensive use of marble with extravagant carving details in ceiling, columns, and walls of all five temples. The architecture and sculpture depict the life of Lord Mahavira and important Monks and deities of Jainism along with details highlighting nature by floral and bird carving designs; everyday life of the empire especially court scenes and dancing-girls. The pervasive inscriptions narrate dreams and occurrences of deities that consists of the underlying reason behind certain aspects and purpose carried out by followers.
These examples suggest a detailed understanding of social anthropology and a deeper appreciation for craftsmanship and artistry of stone carving in ancient India. The architecture of temples complexes performed as an instrument to educate the people in the society about customs and home science practice without forcing that knowledge but merely displaying it as an integral design element.
Dear reader on your next visit to a temple complex, examine the details and see if the built-environment is informing you about a community or historical timeline or something beyond everyday life?