Devalaya Vyavastha (देवालयव्यवस्था)

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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.

Temple as a Sacred Site

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, idols 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. The issue will be discussed in detail later. 

Temple as a 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 Hindu 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 Hindu 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. 

Temple as a Brilliant Piece of Architecture

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. 

Temple as a 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 Indian 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 Indian sculpture, and continues to be so in some parts of the country. 

Temple as a 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. 

Temple as a Centre of 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 spiritual establishment of Hinduism, also to be found in Jain and Buddhist traditions. It is a place where saints 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 saints and spiritual seekers who learn to practice meditation and study Shastras such as Vedas, Upanishads, Agamas and other dharmic scriptures. Great saints and scholars reside and meditate in these temples, creating great literature for the benefit of the posterity. 

Temple as a Social Institution

The Hindu temple is a vast and complex spiritual, 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, old age homes, Goshalas (cow shelters) and other such institutions. 

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 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 Indian 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 take the reader to the world of Bharatiya Devalaya vyavastha.