Religion has always been an expressive element in any given architectural movement throughout the world. The evolution of the ancient architecture of India in the Indian subcontinent is the most vivid example of how changes in the politico-religious landscape can shape structures and their surroundings. Conquest, growth, and decay of kingdoms or civilizations (great or small) triggered a unique evolution (or cross-over, if you may) in the existing modules of the temple architecture of that period.

This article intends to explore the ways religion and regional events affected the ancient architecture of India as we see it today. It would mean that we would jump across periods as we explore some important structures individually, exploring the stylistic and location-based choices made during the construction of the same.

Hinduism is the religion around which the majority of our architecture is centered. We had distinct styles of temple architecture, which depended on the region of India they belonged in. We are aware of the basic planning of Hindu temples, namely –

1) Ardha-Mandapa (entrance porch)

2) Mandapa (hall)

3) Antaraala (vestibule)

4) Garbha-Griha (Sanctum Sanctorum)

5) Pradakshina (concentric passage surrounding Garbha-Griha or circumambulation)

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Basic Planning Principles of Hindu Temple ©

These planning principles of Hindu temples originally evolved from the Stupa of Sanchi, a Buddhist temple. Buddhism branched from Hinduism, which practices in moderation. Both religions hold similar thought processes towards ways of life, meditation, and attaining Nirvana/Moksha through consistent devotion.

The Stupa is one big dome within which Buddha’s remains/scriptures are placed at its center. Around this Stupa, a circumambulation is provided for devotees for circling 108 times, as they chant away their mantras. The engravings of flora and fauna were also found on the gates of Stupa. These intricate sculptings and planning principles kicked off a new trend in Hindu Temple from that point.

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Parts of Stupa ©

Some of the earliest experiments of temple designs used simple forms and techniques. Taking an example, Lad Khan Temple (5th Century, Aihole, Karnataka) set the basics in planning principles of Dravidian temple architecture. Some characteristics, like using sculptural motifs from various ancient scriptures, were derived from the Stupa of Sanchi. Shikhara (a pyramid-like vertical) mounted over Garbha-Griha was derived from the Anda (the dome) of Stupa and Chhatras mounted atop. This temple has a square plan but the entrance is rectangular, which became the beginning of ‘Ardha-Mandapa and Mandapa’ concept as well. Later on, the same Ardha-Mandapa evolved into gopuram, an entry tower functioning like a marker for places of worship. Unlike the carved monolithic temples in Mahabalipuram, this temple was constructed manually by mimicking a wooden structure and using stone masonry.

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Lad Khan Temple ©

Mundeshwari Temple follows nearly the same pattern, which is the earliest temple of Nagara architectural style. However, the Nagara style commands the entire 5 containments (Panchayatna) around the Sanctum Sanctorum. This configuration is seen in ancient temples throughout all regions of India, except in the South.

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Mundeshwari Devi Temple, Bihar ©

The first intra-religious influence over ancient architecture was based on what God’s people worshipped. Temples like Lad Khan Temple, Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Bhadrachalam Temple, etc, had square/rectangular shaped Kalasha (present at the tip of the Shikhara), identified as Vaishnavite temples (temples holding Lord Shiva within Its shrine).

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Padmanabhaswamy Temple ©

Shaivite temples (temples holding Lord Shiva within Its shrine) on the other hand, have circular-shaped Kalasha. Some of the prime examples are Shore Temple (700 AD, Mahabalipuram, Tamilnadu), Bhimashankar Temple (13th century, Pune, Maharashtra), and Kandariya Mahadev Temple (c. 1003 CE, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh).

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Trayambakeshwar Temple, a Shaivite Temple (Nashik) ©

The conquest of Islamic Kingdoms changed the face of Indian architecture from that point onwards. The earliest proven event is of Muhammad Ghori creating a mosque by partially demolishing an old Sanskrit college, which is now known as Adhai Din ka Jhonpra (c.1192) (lit. a shed for 2.5 days).

Some pillars and carvings of Hindu and Jain temples were retained or installed on Ghori’s demands, for he was impressed with the sheer detail and beauty of local architecture. The use of a corbelled arch and mortar masonry was done for the first time in India. Under Qutubuddin Aibak, a general to Muhammad Ghori, most of the carvings in facades were defaced and quotes from the Quran were inscribed over entryways and pillars with the help of local Hindu masons. The inspiration of intricate sculptural facades and sheer grandeur of Hindu temples laid the groundwork for Indo-Islamic architecture that was to be made in the time ahead.

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Arches made using corbelling, Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra at Ajmer, Rajasthan. Photo credits to Varun Shiv Kapur ©

Qutubuddin Aibak also built a small minaret in the same complex, inscribing the greatness of Muhammad Ghori on its levels. This minaret was a prototype for Qutub Minar (1199) in Qutub Minar Complex (Delhi). The construction of this ornate minaret became a towering gospel for many more Indo-Islamic buildings including Humayun’s Tomb, Agra Fort, and Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

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View of Qutb Minar (Delhi) through the corbelled arch ©

The effect of religion does not stop at places of religious or communal importance. It is very well spread to social spaces and urban planning as well. Taking the earliest example, King Ashoka embraced Buddhism after the Kalinga Invasion (3rd Century BCE) and ordered the rest of the citizens to follow suit. A sincere patron of art and architecture, he incorporated various town planning measures to accommodate its residents. The first step was to create Stupas, which were made out of wood originally. This led to the creation of Stupa of Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh), which in the future was an inspiration to Hindu temple planning.  This led to the creation of Chaityas (prayer halls) and Viharas (residence for monks), which were mostly rock-cut and intricate. It was also said that the roads were lined with trees to provide shade during hot days so that anyone could rest during long travels.

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Stupa of Sanchi, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh. ©

On the other hand, the Portuguese invasion in Velha Goa was a lesson for the invaders that came in spades. The plague outbreak caused due to improper town planning, overcrowding, and poor drainage led to a lot of deaths. This caused the royals to shift their base to New Goa, this time with strictly enforced drainage planning, building codes specifying material used for the construction of homes, big windows for ventilation, and colors to be used on the outside of their houses. These houses are well preserved on the stretch of Saotome and Fountain has. This gave birth to a Portuguese proverb, “He who has seen Goa need not see Lisbon.”

However, the most interesting effect comes down to the Mala region. This region has homes that bear more resemblance to a hut. Due to the strict application of building codes established by Portuguese rule, their homes hold the form of a Goan Hindu home. The characteristic courtyard surrounded by rooms, smaller-sized windows, and thick laterite walls lends its introverted nature as if shielding itself from the foreigners.

A mix of existing Goan Hindu homes and Portuguese building code. Photo credits to Shivang Mishra ©

These events in history led to the creation of new architectural languages throughout every existing civilization in India. Many such examples are out in the open and religion still has a strong effect on everything we build to this day.


N. R. K. S. Teja is an architect, who loves minimalist works, survives on spicy food and an internet junkie, absorbing all kinds of information related to interior design and architecture. He believes if drawings speak more, words articulate better.