Buddhism was the earliest Indian religion to require large communal spaces for worship. This led to three types of architectural forms: the stupa, the vihara and the chaitya. Many religious Buddhist shrines came up between the 1st century BCE – 1st century CE. Stupa, originally the focus of a popular cult of the dead, is a large burial mound containing a relic of the Buddha. It celebrates the Buddha’s parinirvana (end of cycle of suffering), symbolizes his eternal body, and is an object of worship. Not many stupas have survived from these early times but the Great Stupa at Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh with its majestic four gateways (1st century BCE/CE) has survived intact. There is evidence of community patronage of landowners, merchants, officials, monks, nuns and artisans associated with these Buddhist projects.
Along with stupa architecture, a novel cave architecture or rock-cut architecture too developed in most parts. Most of Hinayana Buddhist rock-cut prayer halls/chapels (chaitya) and monasteries (viharas) came up in the Deccan region (120 BCE – 400 CE), along ancient trade routes that had excellent quality of rock. The best known are Karle (50 – 70 CE) and Ajanta (cave 9 and 10 in the c.2ndcentury BCE). Again after a gap of some 250 years, innumerable shrines and monasteries were cut into hills and rocks where Buddhist, Jain and Hindu monks could live and pray. Archaelogical data suggests that both the Buddhist chaitya and the Hindu rock-cut temple were contemporaneous in the 3rd – 1stcentury BCE. Some of the finest examples can be seen in western Deccan from the 5th century CE to almost for over 300 years. To this latter phase belongs the Kailashnath temple at Ellora caves (760 CE), built under the patronage of the Rashtrakutas (753 – 982 CE), to be followed by the rock-cut temples of Elephanta (c.500 – 760 CE). Rock-cut shrines were emerging elsewhere south of the Deccan as well.
Meanwhile free-standing shrines or structural temples started to develop as well. The earliest were small structures of brick and wood as the one that exists at Bairat, near Jaipur (c.250 BCE). Early structural temples of stone are found in the hilly tracts of Madhya Pradesh, on the southern fringes of the Gupta Empire (350 – 500 CE). They belong to the late Gupta period (c.400 CE). The area is rich in stone, unlike northern Madhya Pradesh, where most temples would have been of brick and hence have perished. But even among the stone shrines, less than a score remain, and none has an intact superstructure. These early Gupta temples are flat roofed small structures with ornate pillars. Like the elegant flat roofed Sanchi temple with a pillared porch and a walled sanctum, resembling a Greek shrine, is one of the earliest. But the Gupta Vishnu temple at Deogarh (c.500 CE) near Jhansi has a small tower on the sanctum. The Bhitargaon temple near Kanpur, the sole survivor among many brick temples too, has a definite curvilinear spire.
These simple structures, in the early medieval period, from the 6th – 13thcentury CE, began to expand, horizontally and vertically. This period in Indian history is marked by great temple building activity. The shrines, dedicated to various deities from the Hindu/Jain pantheon were a product of Bhakti or devotional Hinduism, the characteristic ideology of the early medieval centuries. Down the years, these temples became more institutionalized. Like around the 7th century CE, there was a significant change in the nature of the temple in peninsular India, as its organization became more complex. Rich donations of land, cash and other riches were made to these shrines that became the hub of social and economic activities. They were great craft and cultural centres and fostered many traditional performing arts. Many of them, as tirthas(pilgrimage centres) were located on trade routes, which in turn led to urbanization in early Medieval South India. Each region experimented and responded in its own local way and the temple forms with what we are familiar today emerged more definitive. Three distinctive styles, often overlapping, can be discerned, confirming that there was no all India uniform style.
The Hindu temple is the enshrined deity’s house (devalaya), and his or her palace (prasada), where the priests cater to his or her daily needs. The temple is a holy site (tirtha) where the devotees come to perform the circumambulation (pradakshina) to earn religious merit. The heart of the temple is the garbhagriha (literally, the ‘embryo chamber’), the sanctum sanctorum, where one is meant to feel the presence of the deity. The installation rituals of Hindu deities go back to the late Gupta text, the Brihatsamhita. The development of the Agamas, ritual texts, and especially the Pancharatra (tantric) system in the 5th century CE, led to elaborate temple rituals with metaphysical interpretations. These worship ritual texts, went hand in hand with the rise of Tantricism, a major movement that challenged Bhakti. Gradually, more functional buildings were added to the basic structure. These were the pillared halls (mandapa), the added portico (ardhmandapa), a connecting vestibule (antaral) to the sanctum sanctorum, and surmounting the garbhagriha, the spire (shikhara).
Regional variations led to Hindu temples being broadly classified into the northern type (Nagara), belonging to the area between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas and the southern type (Dravida), falling in the region between river Krishna to Kanyakumari. A third one, taking the features of both these types is the Vesara, located between the Vindhyas and the Krishna. However, these are at times only arbitrary classifications as Nagar temples are found in Kurnool district in Andhra Pradesh and Dravida can be seen at Ellora in the Deccan. The distinction rests on the shape of the tower, the ground plan and the elevation. The Nagara tower (shikhara) has a curvilinear slope with a fluted disc (amalaka) at the pinnacle. The Dravida tower (vimana) is pyramidal, follows a dome and cornice pattern with diminishing stories (tala), and is crowned by a square, polygonal or a round dome. The Nagara elevation consists of a series of projections (rathas) and recesses, whereas the walls of the Dravidian type are relieved by enshrined images in recesses at regular intervals. In south India, temples are enclosed within enclosure walls having gate towers (gopuras), marking the entrances. The Vesara or the Chalukyan (also called the Karnataka – Dravida tradition) is the mixed type, located in the Deccan region. The Chalukyan, actually speaking has the same source of inspiration as the Dravidian, the earliest examples being at Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal in the Bijapur district in Karnataka. Aihole alone has as many as 70 temples. Temples in the regions of Bengal, Kashmir and Kerala evolved their own local variation, while subscribing to either of the styles.
The most striking feature of the Hindu temple is the profuse use of ornamentation on its surface. This ranges from narrative stone reliefs to depiction of figural, floral, animal, geometrical and other foliated designs. In the northern variation, the repetitive motif of thegavaksa(arch shaped window), derived from the Buddhist chaitya, is transmuted into intricate honeycomb patterns, creating a rich lace like surface texture. The South used variation on the gavaksa known as kuta, nasi, panjara or the sala (barrel-vaulted chaitya). The north was ingenious in the use of shikhara and the amalaka. These repetitive motifs follow clear geometrical rules and are conceived three dimensionally.
The vast technical-canonical literature on architecture, the Vastushastras describe the temple as a standing primeval man, the purusha. Each component of the temple matches the human body, such as the head, neck, shoulders, trunk, arms, thighs and feet. The centre stands for the nucleus of energy from where the cardinal directions emerge. At the centre of every temple is a vastupurusha, who presides over the temple site and protects it. The square ground plan is a perfect shape for the Hindu temple, according to canonical literature. The Brihatsamhita, one of the earliest works, selects two ideal ground plans (vastupurusha mandala), based on the grid system of 64 and 81 squares. The work mentions rare cases of circular and octagonal temples.
The symbolism behind the Hindu temple has been explained by Coomaraswamy. He interprets the temple not only as a building providing shelter to the image and the worshipper, but also as the image of the cosmos. The temple in this metaphysics is the house of God and his body, representing in its parts, the drama of disintegration and reintegration, which is an essential theme of Indian thought. Stella Kramrisch, in her mammoth work, The Hindu Temple (1946), further fine-tuned this concept that every element of the temple, its structure, sculpture, design and motifs are all imbued with intrinsic meaning. She argues that the temple is the cosmos, embodying the universe in its entire form. The statue enshrined is the manifestation of the deity from which divine energy radiates in different directions from the garbhagriha. The fragmentation and proliferation of motifs on the surface may be seen as the external expression of this emanation. Kramrisch also sees movement in the temple structure, which is both upward and downward, experienced by the spectator in the unfolding of the architectural forms as he moves towards mystical union. To the spectator, both the temple and the statue are a means to attain moksha (release from suffering).
Moving away from the symbolism of the temple, what has been the point of much debate in recent times is the issue of regionalization of art and architecture, as seen in the various temple types at this time in Indian history. The issue is wound up with the larger debate of the interpretation of early medieval Indian centuries. Devangana Desai in her writings treats the regionalization of art and architecture at this time against the backdrop of the feudalism hypothesis. According to her, numerous local centres of art emerged as religious donations increased with the proliferation of local rulers and feudatories. In the closed economy and localism of the feudal structure, art was increasingly conditioned by regionalism and canonization. Folk elements and tantric iconography in temples is seen against the background of a deprived urban milieu and patronage coming mainly from a rural aristocracy. The chief function of art was to glorify the status of opulent patrons, thereby failing to convey higher qualities, though apparently it was in the service of religion.
An alternative approach to comprehend the regionalization of culture is suggested by B.D. Chattopadhyaya, who views this change in terms of the historical processes of local state formation against the backdrop of political, social and cultural dimensions of early medieval India. Chattopadhyaya emphasizes on the factor of legitimation of temporal authority as the most significant ideological dimension of the period. The need to link one’s royal origins to religious and divine forces led to extraordinary temple building in this period. His writings further explore the spatial contexts and social linkages of the sacred spaces. He discusses the fluctuating patterns of regional powers, their relationship to their spiritual mentors, and their need for legitimation of their newly acquired power in the form of temple building.