Temples are one of the most fascinating structures for architects and designers. The intricate details, the sheer scale of the structure, the strength and dignity it holds ever after so many years, and the dedication of devotees towards such structures which makes them willingly undertake arduous journeys to reach these humble destinations- all add up to make temples intriguing structures for researchers and scholars worldwide. But that is far from what temples were meant for, and from what they have come to be.
Humans have a natural tendency to ‘look at the bigger picture’, to believe in something beyond the self. Abraham Maslow, the founder of human psychology, called it the level of ‘self-transcendence’ and placed it on top of his ‘Hierarchy of human needs’, after self-actualization. Self-transcendence involves services to others or devotion to an ideal or religious faith.
Hinduism believes in devotional service to God. Concentrating on the higher power is considered suitable to align one’s energies with that of the universe which can then be channeled for productive use. But concentrating on the embodied form of God is not simple. As Arjun says in the Gita, ‘The mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong, O Krishna, and to subdue it, I think, is more difficult than controlling the wind.’ (Gita Verse 34, Chapter 6)
The need to concentrate on God gave rise to specific spaces suitable to perform the various rituals which aid in the endeavor. Temple structures rose to address this need, and soon became centers and mediums of communion with God. According to George Michell, an established researcher on temple architecture, the Hindu temple is designed to facilitate contact between a man and the gods, “it is here that the gods appear to man.” Temples are the bridge that connects the world of the ordinary to that of the divine.
The recent times have witnessed the incline of the general population deviating from traditions and beliefs of organized religion. Even then, the effect of these buildings on people hasn’t ceased to exist; an effect that is achieved through architectural simulations of elements such as light, form, and space.
A typical Hindu temple layout connects to the axes of energy from all cardinal directions. The movement of the visitor through the temple follows a spatial hierarchy which is emphasized by its lighting. The grading of light penetration in the interior is according to the importance held by the space- what is more important is highlighted by a greater contrast.
The sanctuary, called vimana, is located at vantage points in a city like a hilltop or a landform higher than the surroundings. The distinguishing feature of the sanctuary is its tapering roof, the shikhara, converging the broad base into a single point – where everything unites into a single point, the point which holds the most energy in the whole sanctuary. Trees are usually located near the entrance as if to mark the transition to the realm of the sacred. They help differentiate the environment from the hustle-bustle of urban life.
The sanctuary features extensive iconography and decoration which often tell stories from the ancient texts such as the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. The low entrance or the ardh-mandap leads into the mandapa- a pillared hall with a high, ornamented ceiling which is open on all sides or enclosed in ornamental jali work. As the visitor walks through the sequence of spaces he goes through the transition from a bright, chaotic outdoors to a calm interior and then thrown into a large volume which assures him to move forward- into the dimly lit garbhagriha with the lighting and the space tunneling into the idol. The perspective effect achieved in it suggests the pulse of the visitor penetrating the heart of the building.
These aspects follow natural proportions mentioned in ancient treatises like the Sthapatya Veda- site analysis, Silpa sastra- architectural and sculptural studies, Jyotisha- astronomical and astrological science and.
People find peace in the temple environment; humble devotees all around, their eyes closed in reverence for the almighty, their minds engaged in conversation, or at least a monologue, with Him. The temple doesn’t discriminate between its visitors- rich or poor, man, woman or child, a devout follower of the lord, a curious tourist or simply someone who was forced to accompany a parent or relative- everyone is received with the same composure and dignity, and provided with the same assurance – that life is going to be better, and you are going to do well.
In a place like India where the civilization is deeply rooted in its cultural and religious beliefs, people troubled by mental or emotional distress find solace in religious centers. Temple structures started being used as healing centers and with time, a new category of temples was devised- healing temples. One such temple is the Muthuswamy temple in Velayuthampalayampudur village, Tamil Nadu. It was built on the outskirts of the village in a graveyard more than seventy years ago.
The temple attracts people suffering from mental illness who may stay here without charge. Accompanied by a close relative to look after their daily needs, the ill people are free from any physical restraints. They are encouraged, instead, to participate in the daily routines of the temple like cleaning or watering plants.
Even with the deviation of an increasing part of the general population from religious beliefs, temples continue to be relevant even for the younger generations. They are the place where the mind is likely to find peace, irrespective of its engagement with religious beliefs. If the various elements of the temple can be integrated with contemporary building technologies to accommodate modern spatial typologies, it could give rise to a new kind of space that could help in finding solutions to the dilemmas of today.