Architectural Design of Religious Temples

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Over time, new innovations and discoveries have taken place in bringing advancement to technology. So, society, people, and their expectations have adapted to technological advancements. The things they use have been modified, and so have their tastes. Similarly, there has been a huge change in the environment, architecture, the spaces they use, the type of food they have, etc.

Considering these changes in society, there has also been a significant change in the way a TEMPLE; a place of worship, is related to society. Over centuries, the temple’s function changed from a social institution to a place of community gathering, although there is no considerable change in its design. Is it due to the imitation of the architectural form from one generation to another? Does this piece of architecture tell us about the society of this period as other pieces of architecture do? Does it still show advancements in technology? Is it still run under high backing? This thesis attempts to consider these issues and come up with a solution on how a contemporary temple should look like.

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In Hinduism, a ‘TEMPLE’ (mandir) is a structure that houses the Gods (Encyclopaedia). It was designed to be used as a focal point for all aspects of life, namely spiritual, cultural, educational, and social. It helps a visitor transcend from their world so that they connect with the supreme authority, GOD. They are also considered as places of enlightenment and liberation. Hence, the principles of designing temples were derived, keeping everything in mind.

Initially, the temple did work the way it was designed to be.

A piece of architecture is said to reflect the time and the type of society to which it belongs. There is a change in everything around us. We started living and working in multi-floor flats with glass frontages, leaving behind the huts and cottages. However, a considerable change in temples is not witnessed. After the development of the temple typology, subsequent designs were merely imitations or embellishments.

‘In the real world of architectural construction, temples were built by imitation: one generation copying the predecessor or one rival architect, but always with some minor alterations to keep client interest alive.’ (Oijevaar, 2007)

Importance of time in the past

A temple was once the most important building in society. It proved to be the divine power, the tallest building in the society. The king paid for its construction of it. It also symbolized the power and wealth of the land. Hence, a vast land was allocated, and a massive amount of money was commissioned in the construction. A lot of masons, engineers, sculptors, and laborers were engaged in its design and execution.

The making of a temple was a big festival that continued for years, depending on the size of the temple. There are temples that were built over the reigns of two to three dynasties.

The making of the temple was also a way of employment in the land.

Design derivation

Temples marked the passage of the Vedic faith into Hinduism. The practice of symbolizing everything of importance with a human figure and devising graven images to idolize them led to the outgrowth of a temple.

Initially, the typology was inspired by Buddhist architecture. The first singular temple, the Durga Temple at Aiholi, was said to be a chaitya hall with a peek on the top. The idea of a ‘cave in a mountain’ was imitated by the designers of that period, which led to the development of an interior sanctum or garbha griha, a place where the graven image was placed. A pillared hall known as mandapa was designed in front of it so that people could stand and worship.

Hence, the initial temple was merely a building made as a reproduction of a cave in a mountain with only two rooms, namely garbha griha for the graven image and a mandapa for other activities, respectively. These were square rooms (square taken as a sanctum form according to Vastu Shastra) covered with a slab above so that the devotees are not disturbed by any external elements. The examples of such temples are found in various places around Karnataka (Aihole), which was taken as the place of experimentation for temple architecture.

After the development of the basic plan type in Aihole, the challenge emerged in giving it a proper form so that it becomes a brilliant piece of architecture that overpowers the society. Hence, the demand for a dominant characteristic in the building emerged, which subsequently gave rise to a perpendicular shrine or shikara. In initial illustrations, one can detect shikara merely on the garbha griha with a flat roof on the mandapa, but in the course of time, the flat roof on the mandapa was also replaced by a shikara (smaller than that on the garbha griha).

Slowly, the priest started living next to the temple, and the school (Veda patashala) where younger boys were taught Vedas also became a function of the temple, which led to the development of more small rooms around the temple. Besides the functions like entertainment in terms of dance or/and music performances for God, the place to feed people with the prasadam led to the development of more number of mandapas.

The temple with its mandapas, other small deities (generally somehow related to the main deity), pundits’ house, Veda patashala, temple tank, etc., came to be known as the temple complex. Finally, a huge wall was built around it to safeguard the place allotted to the temple with an entrance also known as gopuram.

Besides, the temples were developed in a manner that gives a visual feast to the visitor entering it so that he enters into a different world mentally. This is done by designing the insides of the temple and adorning them with sculptures, pictures, and inscriptions from various books like Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, etc.

Though the development seemed to be very common all over the country, the aspect of regionalism has played an important role in the development of a temple’s design. Hence, many differences have been noticed in the various temples of different regions. One known as the north Indian or the Nagara had a different approach to designing compared to that of South Indian or the Dravidian. Still, the essential features of design, namely garbha griha, mandapa, shikara, remain present in both styles, although they appeared differently.


“The shrine proper is termed as Vimana (measured out) in the southern context, the northern equivalent being Prasada (castle; literally a place of the divinity)” (Hardy, 2007).

It contains a sanctum, garbha griha, normally square. While some early shrines seem to have been level-roofed, a Nagara or Dravida shrine has a superstructure as an integral part. The inside of the ace construction is seldom accessible and sometimes filled with solid and rubble. Shrines may be rectangular, apsidal, round or octangular. However, the garbha griha by and large remains in square form, except for the rectangular shrines. Most of the programs are square or square generated, giving importance to the four central ways. Generally, square-generated external programs undergo a maximal number of projections and evolve towards a more marked central accent.

Garbha Griha:

The interior sanctum is known as the garbha griha. The garbha griha is a small dark room in which the graven image is placed. Derived from the concept of ‘cave in a mountain.’ It is generally square or derivative of square in form. Not accessible for the general public, private space of God.


All the shrines have a porch that allows people or the god retainers to carry out their activities known as the mandapa. A mandapa might be a closed one or an open porch. The closed mandapas get light through the doorways. The number of doorways to the mandapa may vary from one to three. In addition, the thick walls of mandapas hold bright holes of rock traceries as windows for the light to penetrate inside. Sometimes light pouches are also given in the roof of the construction.

The light entered here reflects from the floor and reaches the ceiling, creating a divine effect inside the mandapa. Hence, the ceilings are carved in most of the mandapas. The mandapas were constructed in post and beam construction, copying the wooden architecture that existed before. The distance between the columns depended on the length of the rock, which itself is dependent on the class and distance of the prey. Spans barely exceeded 2.5m.

The initial mandapas (6th-7th centuries) had level roofs where a rock was laid out as a ceiling with a few carvings from indoors so as to create a sophisticated effect. From the 8th century onwards, the mandapas started reflecting the shrine itself though in a relatively smaller scale. A central bay started dominating the program, which also acts as the axis.

‘Corbelled construction – the method of stepping horizontal classes increasingly forward to cover a space, prevented from tumbling by the weight of masonry pressing down at the rear – developed well from the 10th century’ (Hardy, 2007).

Pradakshina patha:

The circumambulatory way one takes around the temple in a clockwise way is termed as pradakshina. Here, the outside of the sanctum conveys the thought of an interior temple. For this purpose, a way is built around the temple with rocks, and this way is known as the pradakshina patha. It is believed to be a sacred way and is taken in a clockwise way as the sun’s way is clockwise.

Natya mandapa:

In later times, there were numerous additions in a temple. The temple started developing more as a societal establishment; therefore, things like entertainment also became a part of its rites. To continue these rites, a different mandapa, generally connected or a standalone construction in front of the jagmohana, was built. This mandapa is known as natya mandapa. There is a huge difference in the way the natya mandapa was built when we compare it from Lingaraj to Konark. It has seen a tremendous development due to the increase in the project size or backing.

Bhog mandapa:

A mandapa was also designed in later temples where people can sit and have the prasadam of the temple. Basically, they are pillared halls with beautifully carved pillars where people sit and eat. Bhog signifies prasadam, and that’s how the name of it has been arrived. This is not usually found in a large number of temples. A feature present in developed Nagara temples from Lingaraj to Puri. It disappeared after Puri in Konark.


The entryway gateway of a temple is known as a gopuram. It was initially a grade-able construction, smaller than the shrine proper, to mark the entryway to a temple. Over time, it evolved to be the most important construction, and hence its size increased. The tallest and the most brilliant gopurams are seen in Meenakshi temple Madurai, where the gopuram expressions like commanding the nature around. Gopurams are generally found in Dravidian temples. Coming to Nagara temples, a gopuram was found in Mukteswar, but in further development, it just disappeared.


This typology is basically defined to possess curvilinear steeples with square programs. After the experimentation of the basic design in Aihole, the further development of this typology happened in Odisha near Bhubaneswar.



Bhubaneswar became the experimentation land. The first noteworthy temple, here is known as parasurameswar, is a temple devoted for the GodShivabuilt in 7th century AD. ‘The temple has a level roofed rectangular pillared hall known asjagmohanaattached to atri-rathadeul ( sanctum ) , which carried a chunky heavy- shoulderedshikara. The carvings are known for their appeal and inactive volume’ ( ASI ) .


Following remark-able development is marked by the temple of mukteswara, built in 10thcentury AD with the debut of a gopuram and a boundary wall to the temple. Mukteswara is defines as ‘a dream realised in sandstone’ ( Ganguly, 1961 ) , ‘a treasure in Odishan architecture’ ( ASI ) . Elegantly decorated from top to bottom it is designed with a low heighted boundary wall and an entrywaytorana. This temple is known for its sculptural beauty and besides its archeological promotion. From the level roof over the


Jagmohana has been developed into a pyramidic deul. This was achieved by corbelling the rocks, and it was a significant achievement at the time of its design. The deul is pancha ratha on the program and stands on a low platform. The peda deul (pyramidic shikara) has two latticed windows on the north and south, where the outermost portion of the window depicts humorous scenes of a monkey’s life. The ceiling of jagmohana is intentionally carved in the form of a blown Nelumbo nucifera.

The pillars of this temple are noteworthy. The debut of serpent pillars, relief figures and statuettes, gaja simhason pilasters were all new. The torana, known as makara torana, has two crocodile’s heads facing two different sides, and their tails meet each other. The carvings of different goddesses are also present on it.

The cellar of the pillars supporting the arch, square in section, contains on each face an illuminated temple flanked at the top by gaja simhas. The sixteen-sided shafts consist of four blocks of rock, of which the topmost has loops of pearl strings hanging down from the mouths of a row of kritti mukhas above.

The following temple that marked a significant development is the temple of Raja-Rani. Though it deviated slightly from the development process, it still has its own contribution to the development of Nagara typology. The names of all the Shiva temples end with the name of Ishwar, e.g., Parasurameswar, Mukteswara, etc.

There is a story behind the name of this temple. This temple was expected to be a pleasure resort for the king and queen as the idol is missing, but M.M. Ganguly rightly rejects it by talking about the absence of stalls, outhouses, etc. “The name Raja-Rani has been derived from very fine-grained yellow sandstone known as Raja Rani in common parlance” (Ganguly, 1961).

Due to the absence of the deity inside the temple, there are still confusions if the temple was dedicated to Lord Shiva or Lord Vishnu. “The subsequent milestone in development, the temple of Ananth Vasudev being a Vaishnavite temple and on the scrutiny ‘khura pristha’ or the upper pedestal carved as it is with the petals of Nelumbo nucifera, it appears that the temple was meant for being dedicated to Vishnu” (Ganguly, 1961).

Hence, there is no verification of the deity of this temple. The torana that appeared in Mukteswara was lost by the time Raja-Rani was built. There is not much difference in the program form. The deul is a pancha ratha program that stands on a certain pedestal.

In the following line is the Vaishnavite temple, the temple of Vishnu in the form of Lord Krishna known as Ananth Vasudev. Here, two new mandapas have emerged in the regular program form. By then, the function of the temple in society had drastically increased. The temple became more of a social institution rather than just a religious place.

Hence, functions like entertainment, contribution, etc., have come into the temple premises, increasing the scale of the temple and giving rise to the Natya and Bhog mandapas. All these mandapas were covered by a pyramidal deul (pida deul), except for the rekha deul on the garbha griha. The rekha deul is the tallest of all with decreasing height of each deul in order.

In terms of program, the Lingaraj temple is very similar to Ananth Vasudev, but it is a Shaivite temple. The program form has evolved to a greater extent in Ananth Vasudev, and as time passed, the hugeness of the temple increased. Lingaraj is the most noteworthy temple in all of Odisha. It stands in the midst of numerous small shrines.

Like Ananth Vasudev, it has a three-chambered frontal portion consisting of jagmohana, natya mandapa, and bhog mandapa. There are clear signs that the other three mandapas were later additions to the existing construction, though there is continuity of sculptures found.

Moving from Bhubaneswar, the next notable temple was built in Puri, commonly known as Jagannath Mandir. For the first time, a temple was designed in the form of a chariot. The chariot being the vehicle of God, the temples have also taken the form of a chariot. This temple has a garbha griha, jagmohana, natya, and bhog mandapas placed on a ratha.

The ratha was basically a raised platform with wheels carved on it. The scale of the temple was immense compared to Lingaraj, though the program form remained the same. A compound was designed for it with boundary walls, and a proper entrance was provided. Inside the complex, there were numerous small shrines dedicated to different Gods along with the main shrine.

The Konark temple, defined as the ‘black pagoda’ (Behra, 2007), is situated in Konark, a place near Bhubaneswar. The scale of the temple is very immense compared to the rest of the buildings of that epoch. It is considered one of the best in terms of technological advancement of that time.

Coming to the program form, this temple’s form is a little different compared to the Jagannath Mandir, though it is also designed to be a chariot. A chariot of the Sun God which had 12 pairs of wheels carved out on its pedestal. Over the chariot are the garbha griha and the jagmohana. A natya mandapa remains to be a standalone construction in the compound. The complex contains other smaller shrines along with the main shrine.

All these temples represented the time in which they were built. They represented the society, the profusion of the land, and the technological advancement of that time, which is not exactly what the temples of today represent.

Furthermore, I would like to explore the development in Dravidian typology, discuss the design of temples today and their relation with society and technology, and conclude with the parameters required in designing a contemporary temple.


  1. Online lexicon ( hypertext transfer protocol: // )
  2. Oijevaar K.J, September 2007, The South Indian Hindu temple constructing design system on the architecture of shilpa shastra and the Dravidian manner, Delft University of engineering, Netherlands, pg.4
  3. Karuna Sagar Behra, 1993, Temples of Orissa, Orissa sahitya academy
  4. Krishna Chandra Panigrahi, 1961, Archaeological remains at Bhubaneswar, Kitab Mahal, pg.87-101
  5. Adam Hardy, 2007, The temple architecture of India, John Willey and Sons ltd. Britain, pg.90-105
  6. Karuna Sagar Behra, 2005, Konark – The Black Pagoda, Publications Division, Ministry of Information & A ; Broadcasting, Government of India

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