Devalaya Vyavastha (देवालयव्यवस्था)

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Devalaya (Samskrit : देवालयः) means 'the temple' as the abode of the deities has been the central axis around which the activities of Sanatana Dharma revolved till the recent centuries. The genius of Bharatavarsha is reflected with greater power nowhere else than in its philosophy, literature, sculpture and the perfect blending of these into the grand scheme of Dharmika Jivana vidhana. Nowhere except in the architecture of India has it been so divinely captured, with such unbroken continuity, displaying the ageless spirit of Bharat's Culture reflected in the Temple heritage of India.

People of Bharatavarsha did not look at life in compartments ; nor did they recognize the domains of art, religion, philosophy, moral values and mystic experience as separate. Our forefathers viewed existence as a whole; matter, life, mind and spirit, each included the other, weaving with each other into a harmonious pattern for a holistic life. Our outlook on life was based on an all-pervasive Dharma with four fundamental values of purusharthas (Dharma, Artha, Kama and Mokhsa). Both the literary and sculptural arts of India have the fulfillment of one or the other of these purusharthas as their goal to secure the integration of the human personality. In this comprehensive scheme nothing is omitted, even a papa (पापम्) is viewed as an obstacle to be overcome in one's grand journey towards the goal.[1]

Of all the civilizations in the world, one which has taken the sacred architecture to its heights is India. This does not mean that India has not given a thought to civil or military architecture. The civil and the military architecture in India, is an extension or modification of the sacred. The basic idea behind creating any building, any man-made structure, is the same.

Talk on Agama

विग्रहाराधना ॥ Image Worship

According to Dharmasutras Devayajna (देवयज्ञः) consisted of putting into fire offerings (of food or at least samidhas or fuel stick) with 'स्वाहा । svaha' uttered after the name of the deities in the dative case (चतुर्थी विभक्तिः)

देवेभ्यः स्वाहाकार आ काष्ठात्... (Apas. Dhar.

Baudhayana Dharmasutras (2.6.4) and Gautama Dharmasutras (5.8-9), the Devayajna is explained in similar lines. Manu (3.70) also looks upon homa as devayajna.

Sanatana Dharma advocates that worship of god is done in two ways:

  • Nirguna (निर्गुणः one without form) upasana (उपासना) where worship is achieved, without any outward symbol, involving a prayer (or chanting of mantra) and offering of oblations into the fire (Yajna), intending them for a deity.
  • Saguna (सगुणः one with form) upasana is where worship is achieved with a symbol, by the means of a form or image of the deity, along with the prayer to a particular deity.[2]

Somewhere in the remote past the religious outlook, rituals and the sacred Yajnas of the vedic period were gradually supplemented by worship through images. The abstract symbolism of the Yajna, was generally replaced by the Puja of images and the concept is called Vigraharadhana (विग्रहाराधना).[1]

चिन्मयस्याद्वितीयस्य निष्कलस्याशरीरिणः । उपासकानां कार्यार्थे ब्रह्मणो रूपकल्पना ॥ (Devatapratishtatattva of Raghunandana p. 50)[2]

Image worshippers also believe that god is pure consciousness (chit), one without a second (adv) who is not in parts, without a physical body and that the various images in which he is thought as in-dwelling are so imagined for the benefit of the worshippers.

देवालयः ॥ Temple

The worship of any deity through the medium of images is again two-fold, viz.,

  • Private worship of murti or vigrahas performed in smaller scale usually at home or in small gatherings. It involves lesser resources and mostly is a private affair.
  • Public worship of murti or vigrahas in temples is large scale activity involving a large number of people, procedures and runs systematically.

Private worship of images in one's house is included in the fold of Devapuja also called as devatarcharna (देवतार्चना). Public sites where deities are worshipped are called variously as Devalaya, mandir, temple(according to different languages) where the image of the deity is consecrated through a process called Pratishta (प्रतिष्ठा). Such worship is thought to be the best as it allows the celebration of festivals and the performance of the varied items or modes of worship (उपचाराः । upacharas).[2]

A temple integrates the community and is the binding force that promotes unity in the society. Thus temples, the place where the images of the deities are consecrated are either small structures, simple or elaborate with ornate designs or are architectural masterpieces which withstood the test of time. The establishment of images in temples is again of two kinds and their consecration differs in certain details.

  • चलार्चप्रतिष्ठा ॥ Chalarcha is where the image can be lifted up, moved to another place.
  • स्थिरार्चप्रतिष्ठा ॥ Sthirarcha is where the image is fixed on a pedestal or is not meant to be lifted up or moved to a different place.

Pratishta (consecration of murti or vigraha) involves elaborate procedures performed by the acharyas as prescribed in puranas and agama shastras.

पवित्रता ॥ Sanctity

The basic idea behind the rituals involving any piece of architecture is that it is an act of aggression against Nature and proper rituals must be performed to make sure that the balance of Nature is not disturbed. The natural wildness of the site, in the form of the Vastu Purusha, a demon in its wild, uncontrolled state, has to be tamed. The various kinds of spirits that dwell at the site need to be expelled and the site should be readied for the sacred presence, and in the case of a temple, for the sacred presence of the deity. 

This is the basic idea at the foundation of any Hindu building, sacred, civil or military. The word ‘Vaastu’ denotes the site and everything that contains in it, not just the building. This is fundamentally different from the understanding in the West, where the corresponding word ‘architecture’ only denotes the building. This is what the great scholar Prasanna Kumar Acharya has to say about ‘Vastu-shastra’, the science of ‘architecture’ and related fields:

“In the Vastu-shastras the term architecture is taken in its broadest sense and implies what is built or constructed. Thus in the first place it denotes all kinds of buildings, religious, residential, and military; and their auxiliary members and component mouldings. Secondly, it covers town-planning; laying out gardens; constructing market-places including ports and harbours; making roads, bridges, gateways, triumphal arches; digging wells, tanks, trenches, drains, sewers, moats; building enclosure walls, embankments, dams, railings, landing places, flights of steps for hills and bathing ghats and ladders. Thirdly, it connotes articles of furniture such as bedsteads, couches, tables, chairs, thrones, wardrobes, baskets, cages, nests, mills, conveyances, lamps and lamp-posts for streets. It also includes the making of dresses and ornaments such as chains, crowns, head-gear and foot and arm wear. Architecture also includes sculpture and deals with carving of phalli, murti or vigrahas of deities, statues of great personages, images of animals and birds. It is also concerned with such preliminary matters as the selection of site, testing of soil, planning, designing, finding out cardinal points by means of a gnomon, dialling and astronomical and astrological calculations.”

But the Hindu temple, specifically, is more of a sacred than social or cultural site. Exclusively in Bharatiya dharmashastras many procedures for establishing 'soucha' (शौचम्) used in the meaning of cleansing, sanctifying and purifying a place or thing are in place, which are not seen in any other cultures of the world. Sanctity in word (achieved by the utterance of speech and mantras), thought (achieved by having good thoughts) and deeds (achieved by the physical act of cleaning the place, use of cow-dung etc) is a concept adhered to by the Temple administrators. hence the homas, pujas and sevas conducted in temples follow the rituals to maintain the sanctity of the place.  

यज्ञवेदी ॥ Vedic Fire Altar

Another significant point in understanding the Hindu temple is that it is an evolution of the Vedic fire altar in which the Yajnas were performed, and that the temple, in a sense, a permanent form of the Vedic fire altar, the Yajna vedi. Stella Kramrisch says:

“The Sulva-sutras contained in the Kalpa-sutras, represent the rules and give proportionate measurement for laying out and piling up the Vedic altar. On them basically rests the building of the Hindu temple.” 

The priests, who performed the Yajnas, invoked the deity through mantras and imagined his personified form in the Yajna fire. However, as the Vedic Yajna could only be performed by priests trained in the art of Vedic chanting of mantras, not everyone was able to take part in the process. 

The temple was the solution to this problem. The deity who was invoked and imagined in the Vedic fire took a permanent form in the temple in the form of the temple deity and the entire temple structure was imagined as the Yajna vedi, the fire altar. A temple priest was appointed who maintained the ritual cleanliness, necessary to maintain the divine presence. And he would offer worship on behalf of the devotee and thus anyone who wished, could undertake the divine process. 

As the Shastras see it, the temple, as a concrete structure took form when people stopped seeing the divine and the sacred in everything; when divinity got limited to certain times and places; and need was felt to create a permanent structure in which a temple priest could officiate the sacred process. Thus, the Hindu temple took its present concrete form in stone. 

शिल्पकलानैपुणम् ॥ Architectural Excellence

The Hindu temple is also a brilliant piece of architecture. No other civilization has perfected the art of sculpting the stone and fusing it with architecture as India has. 

China worked mainly in wood and other perishable materials. Many other civilizations like Egypt, Persia or the Maya civilization in Central America focused on the scale of the building. Moreover, most of these civilizations built tombs and mausoleums with little focus on sacred architecture. Greece was an exception but it never viewed sculpture as an inseparable part of architecture. 

India, on the other hand has created both monumental architecture in the form of the Brihadeeswar temple, Thanjavur or the Kailash temple, Ellora, and has also achieved perfection in sculpture and seamlessly integrating it with architecture, for example in the Hoysala temples in the south and the Pratihara and Solanki temples in Gujarat and Rajasthan.  

Hindus were not the only ones to build great temples in India. Buddhists and Jains also did, but while the Buddhists never evolved to the structural temple and remained confined to the era of rock-cut architecture, the Jaina temple did not evolve into a separate category. 

The temple building was prolific all throughout India. All important dynasties of India built great temples, considering temple building an important responsibility of the State. 

Over the centuries, due to the destruction brought upon by the Islamic invaders, the Hindu temple fell into neglect and its memory as a beautiful piece of architecture also receded. It is only now that the world is waking up to the wonder that is the Hindu temple. 

शिल्पकलावेदिका ॥ Canvas for Sculpture

India is not the only civilization to attain excellence in sculpture, but it has one unique feature. Like no other civilization it has fused sculpture and architecture almost impenetrably in its evolved form. Though Greece also produced great sculpture, it was often studied and practiced as a separate discipline and not as an integral part of architecture. 

In India, the study of sculpture is inseparable from the study of architecture. The outer walls of the temple vimanas, the walls and pillars of the mandapa, the ceilings, and even the plinth and the base became a canvas for the Bharat's sculptor. It achieved its zenith in the Hoysala architecture, where the sculptors did not leave any part of the temple un-sculpted. In many parts of these temples, it is impossible to distinguish sculpture from architecture as many ‘parts of architecture’ are actually sculpted into the form.  

The Hindu temple became the platform for Bharat's sculpture, and continues to be so in some parts of the country. 

सांस्कृतिककेन्द्रम् ॥ Centre for Arts

For almost a millennium, starting from around 5th century, till the 16th century in India, temple in most parts of India became the premier institution of learning and teaching various disciplines of arts, most importantly, music, dance and painting. In many ways the Hindu temple inherited from the Sanskrit theatre in propagating knowledge through music and dance. The 108 Karanas described by Bharat Muni in The Natyashastra started to be sculpted on the walls of temples across India. 

Some of the most celebrated examples are the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram and the Brihadeeswar temple in Thanjavur, with the main deity of the temple at Chidambaram exhibiting one of the most famous of the 108 Karanas, that of Nataraja. 

Gradually Natya Mandapa or Ranga Mandapa (dance pavilion) became an important architectural part of the Hindu temple, hosting great performances of music and dance. The magnificent Ranga Mandapa of the Sun temple, Konark is an example. 

The Hindu temple was not only a centre for music and dance it also became a great centre for painting. This can be seen in the great paintings adorning the inner walls of the Brihadeeswar temple, Thanjavur. Most of the temples have been centres of cultural activity for ages harbouring great artists and giving them a livelihood and a platform to perform. 

विद्याकेन्द्रम् ॥ Centre for Learning

A temple is not just a brick and stone structure. It functions on various other planes than the formal religious one. When a social institution develops around the sacred precincts of a temple, it becomes a ‘Matha’ or an ‘Ashram’. Most of the big temples in ancient and medieval India were part of this bigger entity called Matha. 

A Matha is a adhyatmik establishment of Hinduism, also to be found in Jain and Buddhist traditions. It is a place where sadhus and meditational practitioners following the dharmic code, reside around a temple, living the life of meditation, quiet reflection, with the goal of self-realization. 

The Matha is a centre of learning. It is also a home for many sadhus and adhyatmik seekers who learn to practice meditation and study Shastras such as Vedas, Upanishads, Agamas and other dharmic scriptures. Great sadhus and scholars reside and meditate in these temples, creating great literature for the benefit of the posterity. 

सामाजिकसंस्था ॥ Social Institution

The Hindu temple is a vast and complex adhyatmik, religious, cultural and socio-economic entity. It is many things in one but it is also a socio-economic enterprise. There are many cottage industries going on within a temple, using the produce of its farmlands. The local people are engaged in this micro-economy. They till the land of the temple which is given to them on lease. They grow produce for themselves, the temple and also for selling in the market. The temple combines agriculture, industry and trade, based on indigenous methods. Adam Hardy, the scholar of Hindu architecture does not miss this point:

“The foundation and endowment of temples played a central role in the development of state and society. Temples became social and educational centres, and important economic institutions – landowners, employers, moneylenders and dispensers of charity. They were a canvas for the visual arts, a stage for the performing arts. By the end of this period the great temple complexes in south India could have hundreds of employees, from priests and administrators to masons, dancers, cooks and potters.”

Most of the ancient temples, particularly in south India, celebrate many festivals round the year. For these festivals and for daily worship offered to the deity many articles are needed which are procured from specific sellers or artisans, thus sustaining their livelihood. Therefore, along with priests, sculptors, architects, scholars, musicians, dancers, singers and painters, a temple also needs weavers, goldsmiths, black smiths, garland makers, caretakers of elephants, cows and horses etc. sustaining many different crafts and livelihoods.  

The Hindu temple is a social welfare institution. Every temple runs many social welfare institutions like schools, hostels, hospitals, orphanages, old age homes, develops forests, Goshalas (cow shelters) and other such institutions. 

दानकेन्द्रम् ॥ Temple as a Centre for charity

The temples get charity from the rich as well as the poor. The kings and the administrative authorities also gave grants to the temples in ancient times. In turn, the temples redistribute this money and wealth among the people who most need it. Most of the beneficiaries of this system are the poorest of the society. In this way, the surplus wealth of the society is redistributed in the society through the agency of the temples.

The temples also function as ‘Social Security System’. They help in times of emergencies like floods, famines, epidemics and other such emergencies by providing relief work. They help the poorest sections of the society. 

Till Bharat's Independence, the temples functioned as the judicial arbitrator for the rural population. In some cases they still do. Just about a hundred years ago people in the rural areas looked towards a temple for solving their disputes based on ethical and moral standards as depicted in the Shastras and interpreted according to the needs of the time. 

The centrality of the Hindu temple in the social life of the Hindu community cannot be stressed enough. After a period of decline it is again becoming the focus in the 21st century. A proper understanding of the Hindu temple is necessary to understand Bharat's society. Moreover, in the age of social media, it is necessary to make a proper study of the still extant Hindu temples and to network them on a single platform on internet. The articles included here aim to expose the reader to the world of Bharatiya Devalaya Vyavastha.   


  1. 1.0 1.1 Munshi, K. M. and Goswami, A. (1956) Bharat's Temple Sculpture. Publisher: Lalit Kala Acadami in cooperation with the Government of India and several State Governments
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Kane, Pandurang Vaman. (1941) History of Dharmasastra (Ancient and Medieval Religious and Civil Law). Volume 2, Part 2. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute