Vastu-shastra (5): Temple Architecture

by D. N. Shukla | 1960 | 69,139 words | ISBN-10: 8121506115 | ISBN-13: 9788121506113

This page describes Planning of Prasada—The Hindu Temple which is chapter 7 of the study on Vastu-Shastra (Indian architecture) fifth part (Temple architecture). This part deals with This book deals with an outline history of Hindu Temple (the place of worship). It furtherr details on various religious buildings in India such as: shrines, temples, chapels, monasteries, pavilions, mandapas, jagatis, prakaras etc. etc.

Chapter 7 - Planning of Prāsāda—The Hindu Temple

In previous pages while dwelling at length upon the doctrine of Pada-vinyāsa in Hindu Architecture, the classification of buildings in general, the classification of Prāsādas in particular as well as the origin and development of the Prāsāda-vāstu, side-lights have already been thrown on many of the topics of this chapter. It is however, incumbent upon me to deal with the most important topic of the Hindu Temple in detail in order that much that is still hidden, may come to the surface.

(a) Significance.

It is from two points of view that we have to understand the significance of Prāsāda, the Hindu Temple. From the purely architectural point of view, it relates to the character of the building of the Prāsada. This character, however, is only an outer manifestation of the real significance, a label, a trademark, as it were. We have to go deeper to find out its real significance. It relates to the religious background with metaphysical implication.

Man has never lived without some faith in the man ‘Supernal’, Material and spiritual advancements of mankind have been going on since the very birth of human civilisation. In India, this faith in the man ‘Supernal’ has culminated in the towering personality of the Hindu Temple, the Prāsāda. Each and every detail, right from its layout to the finial speaks of the significance. Popularly the Prāsāda is the seat and dwelling of God. But metaphysically it is the concrete manifestation of the Supreme Reality. It is micro-cosmic representation of the macro-cosmic Brahman.

Agni Purāṇa (LXI-25) says:

“The body (Ākṛti) of the temple is Prakṛti”.

The architectural motif of Āmalaka, the crown of the Nāgara temple, the most representative shape of Hindu Temple, as well as the finial (Stūpikā cf. Drāviḍa Temple) above Kalaśa are all aglow with the divine significance and full of metaphysical, the spiritual meaning. Samarāṅgaṇa Sūtradhāra designates this term with Āmalāsāra (chapter LVI. 49, 151 etc., where Āmalāsāraka is used as synonymous with Āmalaka). It means Pure essence. The Hindu TrinityBrahmā, Viṣṇu and Maheśa, is symbolised by the Amalaka [Āmalaka?].

The Skanda purāṇa (V.K. XII.9-23) says,

“Viṣṇu is seated at its bottom, Brahmā above and Śiva still higher. The sun is in its branches, the gods are in their ramifications and on its leaves, flowers and fruits. It is thus the support of all gods. The Āmalaka, tree of manifested deity, redeeming, supernal tree, has contributed to the temple the image of its fruit” (H. T. 356).

This is the significance of the Hindu Temple, the Prāsāda as indicated by one motif; others (cf. the manifold designations with similar implication, viz. Veṇukoṣa [Veṇukośa?], Aṇḍa etc. etc.) also tell the same story. The significance of the Prāsāda will be clearer when we take the topic of the Vāstu-maṇḍala and Vāstu-puruṣa. We have already hinted at this significance as inferred from the main parts of the temple—the Pillar, the Garbhagṛha the Jagatī (vide Origin and Development of the Prāsāda-vāstu),

(b) Purpose.

The construction of a temple is a virtuous act. All virtuous acts are fully rewarded. The four-fold purpose of human life—the four PuruṣārthasDharma, Artha, Kāma and Mokṣa are attained only by good deeds. Temple building is one of such good deeds. Before the Pauranic Dharma had its sway, the performance of sacrifice was deemed the most virtuous act. Every thing-progeny, cattle, wealth and even overlordship could be procured by the performance of sacrifices; the main purpose however, was entering into heavens—the blissful and everlasting life, beyond this ephemeral one,—“svargakāmo yajet”. This is what we understand by the doctrine of Iṣṭi. The Pauranic Dharma, the later phase of Hinduism enunciated or rather added another doctrine as a complementary to the former one called Pūrta (cf. Hema-Chandra’s definition). This doctrine of Pūrta though it consists in the construction of tanks, wells, lakes and houses of gods, the Temple-building over-shadowed them all. We can coin a new aphorism in place of “svarga-kāmo yajet”—“svargakamo mandiram kārayet”, Indian architecture being essentially religious in nature, the acts and rites in building the temple are sacrificial in nature. The builder of a temple is called Yajamāna, and the architect, the Sthapati, master mason has to be assisted by the Sthāpaka, the Ācārya, the priest.

The Samarāṅgaṇa, reads like a Purāṇa, especially on Temple Architecture. I have already hinted at its sayings of this nature to be gathered in a separate appendix. In these sayings the purpose of not only temple building in general but a temple type like Meru etc. in particular is fully brought out.

Throughout the ages, the Hindu Temple has been built with fervour of devotion, the Bhakti, as a work of offering and pious liberality, in order to secure for the builder a place in heaven. Hindu Temple is a Tīrtha made by art. Darśaṇa, the looking at the temple, the seat, abode and body of divinity and its workship—pūjā,are the purposes of visiting the temple which in their turn are amply rewarded (see Qs.).

(c) Sthapati and Sthāpaka (Kartṛ-kāraka-vyavasthā).

A good deal has already been written on the Sthapati (vide chapter 3rd, Part I). Here, therefore, only a bare mention of him need be made in relation to the Sthāpaka who too has been referred to several times. Though I have said before that for the secular planning the Sthapati is the sole authority, the temple building can not start without a Sthāpaka. The Sthapati, the foremost of the craftsmen, carries out the instruction of the Sthāpaka, the architect priest, the Ācārya. According to Āpastamba Śrauta Sūtra (XXII-7 6) Sthapati designates the Yajamāna, the sacrificer who is to be consecrated as priest. As builder of Hindu Temple, the Sthapati, by his special knowledge guided by Sthāpaka, the Ācārya, is competent to act for his patron, the Yajamāna. In Samarāṅgaṇa (LVI. 303) the patron or the donor of the temple is also designated as Kāraka, who makes the architect, the Kartṛ, do the work.

Śilpa-ratna (I. 29-42) describing in detail the qualifications of the architect, the Sthapati, and the architect-priest, the Sthāpaka, directs that the temple, begun by these two, should be continued by them only and by no other. In their absence the work should be done by their competent sons or disciples.

In the building of Hindu Temple, the trinity of Sthapati, Sthāpaka and Yajamāna, the patron is indispensable. The descent of the Vāstu Puruṣa, in which the patron, the Yajamāna, is brought into communion with the Vāstu-puruṣa together with the Vāstuśānti so essential before beginning the building activity, all these three collaborate to produce the marvel on earth to evolve a concrete manifestation of what is unmanifested.

This architectural trinity has its proto type, the real trinity of Brahmā, the Sthapati, Viṣṇu, the Yajmāna [Yajamāna?] and Rudra the Sthāpaka (I. G. P. IV. Ch. XXXIV and Mayamata XVI.159-161).

As in the beginning, the descent, so also at the completion of the temple building, the ascent, a symbolic rite, called Aṅkurāropaṇa (I. G. P. IV. Ch. XXXIV. 27; Kāmikāgama LXI. 3; Mayamata XVIII.166) is performed, in, the end of which, the Sthāpaka installs the Prāsāda, in its concrete shape (Prāsāda-mūrti) on its altar or pedestal (Dhiṣṇya-mūrti) and places in it the seed (bīja) of the temple. After the consecration of the Temple and the installation of the Image—the Prāsāda-mūrti, by the Sthāpaka the guru, the Yajamāna, the sacrificer, the patron, the donor of the temple presents gold, clothes, ornaments etc., to the Sthāpaka and Sthapati according to his ability.

The Samarāṅgaṇa Sūtradhāra also in its 37th Chapter (32-37) hints at this tradition of old. It says,

“The Sthapati should be worshipped, because his worship is the worship of Viśvakarmā himself—the primordial Architect. Similarly, the Purohita, Sāṃvatsara and also the Parikarmakaras, the other masons and the labourers should also get honour and rewards so that they are fully pleased”.

With this traditional background of the Sthapati, the Sthāpaka and the Yajamāna, let us come down to the Kartṛ-kāraka-vyavasthā as has been enjoined by the Samarāṅgaṇa in case of certain representative temple types (Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra LVI. 36-43).

The praise of the temple-type Meru, the Prāsādarāja in the pages of Samarāṅgaṇa is simply supreme. It is in relation to this temple, the common abode of all deities that the text says that only a Kṣatriya can be its patron—the donor and a Vaiśya, an architect. Thus built, both of them, enjoy the fruits of their work. If contrary to this, a Kṣatriya, however skilled in the knowledge of the Vāstu-śāstra, assumes the role of its architect, he looses his virtue—moral and physical both. Similarly, a Brāhmaṇa however competent he may be, if he is the architect of the temple Meru, he and his patron both suffer equally and such a production is not to be welcomed.

(d) Vāstumaṇḍala and Vāstupuruṣa

Both these topics are inter-related and complimentary to each other, and, therefore, a composite name Vāstupuruṣa-maṇḍala would be more appropriate. The drawing of the square plan, of the Vāstupuruṣa-maṇḍala is deemed imperative prior to building a temple. As already mentioned (vide Chapter III, Part I), according to Samarāṅgaṇa, the knowledge of its meaning and execution is the first discipline which the architect must master (cf. Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra 15-2).

At the height of the temple building activity in India about the time of the Samarāṅgaṇa, drawing of the Vāstupuruṣa-maṇḍala together with so many other rites, seems to be the rule. Though the temple building was an outcome of the Pauranic Dharma in relation to the Bhakti cult, the Vedic rites did not loose their importance. They introduce and accompany the building of the temple. They were so stereotyped that the medieval text did not elaborate them. All these rites viz. Purification etc. though forming the very fundamentals of the temple building and its consecration and the installation of the image therein, however, had lost much of their charm. They were simply rituals as is the case these days. This also suggests the begin-ning of the secular architecture of which Samarāṅgaṇa is the founder, and the most representative work among the Indian Vāstu texts.

All these topics have been dealt with in a masterly way in ‘Hindu Temple’ by Dr. Kramrisch, where all the available material on the subject, has been utilised and a most authoritative and traditional exposition given. The special feature, however, of the treatment of this topic in the Samarāṅgaṇa is that the forty-five gods as the constituents of the different limbs in the body of the Vāstu-puruṣa (Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra chapter eleven 1-14) have found a slightly divergent exposition, indicative of the fact that the star gods form one, and presumably the more ancient series in the border of the Vāstumaṇḍala and the Padadevatās invariably talked of in every manual, are but loosely connected with the stars. Their real significance has been propounded in detail here in this text (vide Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra Chap. XII).

The conception of the Vāstu-puruṣa and the Square-plan as the fundamental form of the Indian Architecture, both these topics have been briefly expounded in a previous part (Part 1. chap. VI). Particular attention however, is again drawn to the fact that in this treatise the Paramaśāyika plan of eighty-one squares or the Maṇḍūka of the sixty-four squares, the two traditional plans for temples, have not been adhered to. The Samarāṅgaṇa Sūtradhāra (vide chapter XIII) assigns to all kinds of Prāsādas and Maṇḍapas, the Vāstu of 100 squares and the Vāstu of 61 squares to camps of kings (Śibiras) villages, hamlets and cities (ibid 4-5), The Paramasāyika plan of 81 squares is, in the opinion of the Samarāṅgaṇa Sūtradhāra (ibid 3), reserved for the palaces of Rajas and for the Indrasthāna, the temple of Indra (Indra, symbolic of Indian Royalty).

Lastly, as already hinted at (vide Padavinyāsa, Part I), special credit goes to the author of this work in the respect that it speaks of circular Vāstu of 64 and 100 squares to be used in circular shrines (XII. 13),

“The ground plan of the temple, whatever may be its variations, is analogous to the Vāstupuruṣamaṇḍala and retains in its rhythmic order proceeding from the centre and in the modulations of its perimeter, the knowledge of the Vāstupuruṣa in all his parts. The rhythm (chandas) of the ground plan is derived from the order in the Vāstuamaṇḍala. The relation of sacred architecture to the Vāstu-puruṣamaṇḍala is reflected moreover in the sculptures on its walls; their iconography is essentially an iconometry (Tālamāna)”—H T. page 80.

(e) The material and the Measurements.


This topic of the material has already been viewed in relation to the House Architecture. Among the four principal categories of the building material namely, wood, brick, stone and plaster; wood has already been discussed (vide Part III, Chapter VI).

Brick is the most ancient material for a sacred building. Iṣṭikā-nyāsa (the installation of the bricks) is performed as a part of the main foundation rite of the temple (cf. the Balidāna, Kalaśasthāpana Vāstu-pūjana etc.). Later on with the introduction of stone as building material, the Iṣṭikanyāsa [Iṣṭikānyāsa?] was substituted for Śilānyāsa in both secular and religious buildings. Iṣṭikā and Śilā became synony-mous so far as the Foundation-laying-ceremony was concerned.

Iṣṭikās in the ancient sacrificial symbolism are the body of the sacrifice—yajña-tanu (Taitt. S. IV. 4.9) and this symbolism is equally applicable here too. The very word Prāsāda, (etymologically the piling up—Sādana [Sādanam]) indicates it. The Prāsāda, the symbolic manifestation of the formless Puruṣa, gets concrete manifestion (Mūrta) with the help of the Iṣṭakās or Silas or any such material—all as Iṣṭakās pertaining to ritual. The Vedic Agni was a massive pile, the Prāsāda, the main and integral part of the Hindu Temple is also nearly a solid monument (but for the small space of its sanctuary and such technical devices which lessen the weight of the mass piled above it).

The Samarāṅgaṇa Sūtradhāra mentions about half a dozen substances of which the temples are made. In the 59th chapter (Vimāna etc. 61 Prāsādas) details are given of wooden temple Harmya (ibid 217), the rock-cut temple Layana (ibid 236-7), the cloth made temple Paṭṭiśa (ibid 238-9) and earthen temple (mṛṇmaya) Vibhava (ibid 241).

The temples made of stone and baked bricks are greater in number and the special statement of the text is that such temple are characteristic of the towns (Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra XLIX. 6; LVL 7 and 8). In hamlets however, they can be built of ordinary mud and wood or bamboo also (cf. Vibhava 59. 240-1).

Again temples are also made of metals and jewels; with the difference that temples made of gold and silver and decorated with gems are reserved for the gods in heaven; those made of brass and copper etc. for the demons etc; and those built of stones are characteristic of the Pātāla, the lower world (LVL 4-6), It is only on earth that temples can be built of any of these substances: stone, burnt brick, wood, cloth, bamboo, and mud, (ibid 7 and LXIII.21). It maybe interesting to note that the Mahānirvāṇa Tantra (XIII. 24, 25) says that it is 100 times more meritorious to give a brick temple than a thatched temple (i.e., wooden temple-writer), 10,000 times more meritorious to give a stone temple than a brick temple.

Lastly, it may be indicated that Iṣṭakānyāsa, mentioned in the previous paras, has got a detailed ritualistic procedure as Śilānyāsa in the text—(Śilānyāsa-vidhi, the 35th Chapter—see Summary for details).

(ii) Measurement.

Every temple type described in Samarāṅgaṇa has distinct and definite proportions of measurements. Full justice can not be done in the limited space of this sub-section. I have left out this topic here to keep it reserved for its elaborate exposition in another volume—“The Architecture and Sculpture of Samarāṅgaṇa” under preparation. Here it is indicated that perfect measurements have been viewed as of fundamental importance in connection with all buildings and more so in the religious structures esp. the temples. Samarāṅgaṇa’s injunction “pramāṇe sthāpitā devāḥ pūjārhāśca bhavanti hi” (XL. 13½) is already referred to (vide House Architecture Part III). Special attention however, is to be invited to the fact that a comparative study of the earlier texts with this medieval text reveals the modifications in the proportionate measurements of the Prāsāda, by the early part of the eleventh century when the Samarāṅgaṇa was written. Samarāṅgaṇa epitomises these modifications and I propose to take a detailed notice of these modifications in the subsequent volume. A brief outline of these modifications may be seen in one of the subsequent chapters i.e. XI.

(f) Ornamentation and Mouldings.

The mouldings of the Prāsādas, I have described in tabular form and they may be seen in the Glossary. As regards their architectural position, they go with the ornamentation and the decoration of the Prāsādas. After all, the exuberance of the manifold mouldings in any structure has a decorative value.

We have already seen that ornamentation in Temple Architecture is characteristic of the Lāṭa style. This ornamentation was associated with the profusion of pillars and super-structures together with mouldings and the door. As in paintings so in architecture, the Patrajāti and the celestial beings—Yakṣas, Gandharvas and the celestial nymphs together with the auspicious objects (vide door decoration—the House Architecture), provided the greatest fascination for decoration. Thus the natural world, the animal kingdom, both of land and water, and also the mythological world—these principally provided the largest number of various decorative elements. All these aim at aesthetic experience and so are fundamental in an artistic creation in India.

The Samarāṅgaṇa-sūtradhāra draws a line of demarcation between the decorative elements of houses and those of temples. Those prescribed for one are proscribed for the other—vide Vāstu-lakṣaṇas under ‘Prayojyāprayojya’—with what to decorate and with what not to,

(g) The Consecration of the Temple and the Installation of the Image.

Lastly the planning of the temples can not be complete unless it is consecrated and the image is installed. This topic is more ritualistic than architectural, but as, according to the genesis of Indian Architecture, architecture is a grand ritual, we have to consider this topic. Samarāṅgaṇa treats this topic in a modified manner. It speaks of the dedication of the temples, a detailed mention of which is made in Vāsu-lakṣaṇa.

The following account from Dr. Kramrisch’s Hindu Temple would not be out of place here:—

‘At the end of Prakṛti’ (‘Agnipurāṇa’ CI. 13) in the Kalaśa, the golden Prāsāda-Puruṣa is installed in the Empyrean below the Paramount Point of the finial. The temple as house and seat of God in which dwells His Essence is also His body; the temple contains the whole manifestation (‘Mayamata’ XVIII. 193) in which He is beheld as Puruṣa, Supernal Man. “The Prāsāda should be worshipped as Puruṣa” (‘Śilparatna’ XVL 114). It is both His house and representation. The several parts of the temple communicate His living presence and are likened to the body of man in the same way as the square of the plan and its partitions are the ‘body’ of the Vāstupuruṣa’. The door is the mouth, the Āmalaka or the High Dome is the head; its Brahmarandhra or foramen is pierced so as to receive the tenon (kīla) of the finial (stūpikā). The image in the Garbhagṛha is the Life (jīva) of the temple concealed in the darkness of the cave, enclosed by the mountain of its walls. The outside of the bulwark, teeming with ordered shapes and figures, is its explicit form. The temple is conceived from inside and visualised from outside; the communication between inside and outside is brought about by the radiating power from within which assigns its place to each and every facet of the walls; the inner dark is extracted through closed doors and windows (Ghanadvāra and Gavākṣa) as a chiaroscuro which adheres to the Prāsāda extended in mid-space and facing all the directions. Tier upon tier in a solidified ascent, its bulk is reduced in the tapering super-structure and carried towards the Paramount Point (page 359).

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