A Hindu temple is a symbolic house, seat and body of god. It is a structure designed to bring human beings and gods together, using symbolism to express the ideas and beliefs of Hinduism. The symbolism and structure of a Hindu temple are rooted in Vedic traditions, deploying circles and squares. A temple incorporates all elements of Hindu cosmos—presenting the good, the evil and the human, as well as the elements of Hindu sense of cyclic time and the essence of life—symbolically presenting dharma, kama, artha, moksa, and karma.

Significance and Meaning of a Hindu Temple

A Hindu temple reflects a synthesis of arts, the ideals of dharma, beliefs, values, and the way of life cherished under Hinduism. It is a link between man, deities, and the Universal Purusa in a sacred space.In ancient Indian texts, a temple is a place for Tirtha – pilgrimage. It is a sacred site whose ambiance and design attempts to symbolically condense the ideal tenets of Hindu way of life. All the cosmic elements that create and sustain life are present in a Hindu temple – from fire to water, from images of nature to deities, from the feminine to the masculine, from the fleeting sounds and incense smells to the eternal nothingness yet universality at the core of the temple.Susan Lewandowski states that the underlying principle in a Hindu temple is built around the belief that all things are one, everything is connected. The pilgrim is welcomed through 64-grid or 81-grid mathematically structured spaces, a network of art, pillars with carvings and statues that display and celebrate the four important and necessary principles of human life – the pursuit of artha (prosperity, wealth), the pursuit of kama (pleasure, sex), the pursuit of dharma (virtues, ethical life) and the pursuit of moksha (release, self-knowledge). At the center of the temple, typically below and sometimes above or next to the deity, is mere hollow space with no decoration, symbolically representing Purusa, the Supreme Principle, the sacred Universal, one without form, which is present everywhere, connects everything, and is the essence of everyone. A Hindu temple is meant to encourage reflection, facilitate purification of one’s mind, and trigger the process of inner realization within the devotee. The specific process is left to the devotee’s school of belief. The primary deity of different Hindu temples varies to reflect this spiritual spectrum.In Hindu tradition, there is no dividing line between the secular and the sacred. In the same spirit, Hindu temples are not just sacred spaces, they are also secular spaces. Their meaning and purpose have extended beyond spiritual life to social rituals and daily life, offering thus a social meaning. Some temples have served as a venue to mark festivals, to celebrate arts through dance and music, to get married or commemorate marriages, commemorate the birth of a child, other significant life events, or mark the death of a loved one. In political and economic life, Hindu temples have served as a venue for the succession within dynasties and landmarks around which economic activity thrived.

Forms and designs of Hindu temples

Almost all Hindu temples take two forms: a house or a palace. A house-themed temple is a simple shelter which serves as a deity’s home. A temple is a place where the devotee visits, just like he or she would visit a friend or relative. In Bhakti school of Hinduism, temples are venues for puja, which is a hospitality ritual, where the deity is honored, and where devotee calls upon, attends to and connects with the deity. In other schools of Hinduism, the person may simply perform jap, or meditation, or yoga, or introspection in his or her temple. Palace-themed temples often incorporate more elaborate and monumental architecture.SiteThe appropriate site for a temple, suggest ancient Sanskrit texts, is near water and gardens, where lotus and flowers bloom, where swans, ducks and other birds are heard, where animals rest without fear of injury or harm. These harmonious places were recommended in these texts with the explanation that such are the places where gods play, and thus the best site for Hindu temples.The gods always play where lakes are, where the sun’s rays are warded off by umbrellas of lotus leaf clusters, and where clear water paths are made by swans whose breasts toss the white lotus hither and thither, where swans, ducks, curleys and paddy birds are heard,and animals rest nearby in the shade of Nicula trees on the river banks.ManualsAncient builders of Hindu temples created manuals of architecture, called Vastu-Sastra (literally “science” of the dwelling; vas-tu is a composite Sanskrit word; vas means “reside”, tu means “you”); these contain Vastu-Vidya (literally, knowledge of dwelling). There exist many Vastu-Sastras on the art of building temples, such as one by Thakkura Pheru, describing where and how temples should be built. By the 6th century AD, Sanskrit manuals for in India. Vastu-Sastra manuals included chapters on home construction, town planning, and how efficient villages, towns and kingdoms integrated temples, water bodies and gardens within them to achieve harmony with nature. While it is unclear, states Barnett, as to whether these temple and town planning texts were theoretical studies and if or when they were properly implemented in practice, the manuals suggest that town planning and Hindu temples were conceived as ideals of art and integral part of Hindu social and spiritual life.The planA Hindu temple design follows a geometrical design called vastu-purusha-mandala. The name is a composite Sanskrit word with three of the most important components of the plan. Mandala means circle, Purusha is universal essence at the core of Hindu tradition, while Vastu means the dwelling structure. Vastupurushamandala is a yantra. The design lays out a Hindu temple in a symmetrical, self-repeating structure derived from central beliefs, myths, cardinality and mathematical principles.The four cardinal directions help create the axis of a Hindu temple, around which is formed a perfect square in the space available. The circle of mandala circumscribes the square. The square is considered divine for its perfection and as a symbolic product of knowledge and human thought, while circle is considered earthly, human and observed in everyday life (moon, sun, horizon, water drop, rainbow). Each supports the other. The symbolism Hindu temple is a symbolic reconstruction of the universe and universal principles that make everything in it function. The temples reflect Hindu philosophy and its diverse views on cosmos and Truths. Hinduism has no traditional ecclesiastical order, no centralized religious authorities, no governing body, no prophet(s) nor any binding holy book; Hindus can choose to be polytheistic, pantheistic, monistic, or atheistic. Within this diffuse and open structure, spirituality in Hindu philosophy is an individual experience and referred to as kṣaitrajña (Sanskrit: क्षैत्रज्ञ). It defines spiritual practice as one’s journey towards moksha, awareness of self, the discovery of higher truths, true nature of reality, and a consciousness that is liberated and content. A Hindu temple reflects these core beliefs. The teams that built Hindu templesIndian texts call the craftsmen and builders of temples as ‘‘Silpin’’ (Sanskrit: शिल्पिन्), derived from ‘‘Silpa’’. One of earliest mentions of Sanskrit word Silpa is in Atharvaveda, from about 1000 BC, which scholars have translated as any work of art. Other scholars suggest that the word Silpa has no direct one-word translation in English, nor does the word ‘‘Silpin’’. Silpa, explains Stella Kramrisch, is a multicolored word and incorporates art, skill, craft, ingenuity, imagination, form, expression and inventiveness of any art or craft. Similarly, a Shilpin, notes Kramrisch, is a complex Sanskrit word, describing any person who embodies art, science, culture, skill, rhythm and employs creative principles to produce any divine form of expression (Hindu temple, n.d.)

Social functions of Hindu temples

Hindu temples served as nuclei of important social, economic, artistic and intellectual functions in ancient and medieval India. Burton Stein states that South Indian temples managed regional development function, such as irrigation projects, land reclamation, post-disaster relief, and recovery. These activities were paid for by the donations (melvarum) they collected from devotees. According to James Heitzman, these donations came from a wide spectrum of the Indian society, ranging from kings, queens, officials in the kingdom to merchants, priests and shepherds. Temples also managed lands endowed to it by its devotees upon their death. They would provide employment to the poorest. Some temples had a large treasury, with gold and silver coins, and these temples served as banks.Hindu temples over time became wealthy from grants and donations from royal patrons as well as private individuals. Major temples became employers and patrons of economic activity. They sponsored land reclamation and infrastructure improvements, states Michell, including building facilities such as water tanks, irrigation canals and new roads. A very detailed early record from 1101 lists over 600 employees (excluding the priests) of the Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur, still one of the largest temples in Tamil Nadu. Most worked part-time and received the use of temple farmland as a reward. For those thus employed by the temple, according to Michell, “some gratuitous services were usually considered obligatory, such as dragging the temple chariots on festival occasions and helping when a large building project was undertaken”. Temples also acted as a refuge during times of political unrest and danger.In contemporary times, the process of building a Hindu temple by emigrants and diasporas from South Asia has also served as a process of building a community, a social venue to network, reduce prejudice and seek civil rights together.Library of manuscriptsJohn Guy and Jorrit Britschgi state Hindu temples served as centers where ancient manuscripts were routinely used for learning and where the texts were copied when they wore out. In South India, temples and associated mutts served custodial functions, and a large number of manuscripts on Hindu philosophy, poetry, grammar, and other subjects were written, multiplied and preserved inside the temples. Archaeological and epigraphical evidence indicates the existence of libraries called Sarasvati-Bhandara, dated possibly too early 12th-century and employing librarians, attached to Hindu temples.Palm-leaf manuscripts called lontar in dedicated stone libraries have been discovered by archaeologists at Hindu temples in Bali Indonesia and in 10th century Cambodian temples such as Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei.Temple schoolsInscriptions from the 4th century AD suggest the existence of schools around Hindu temples, called Ghatikas or Mathas, where the Vedas were studied. In south India, 9th century Vedic schools attached to Hindu temples were called Calai or Salai, and these provided free boarding and lodging to students and scholars. The temples linked to Bhakti movement in the early 2nd millennium, were dominated by non-Brahmins. These assumed many educational functions, including the exposition, recitation and public discourses of Sanskrit and Vedic texts. Some temple schools offered wide range of studies, ranging from Hindu scriptures to Buddhist texts, grammar, philosophy, martial arts, music and painting. By the 8th century, Hindu temples also served as the social venue for tests, debates, team competition and Vedic recitals called Anyonyam.Hospitals, community kitchen, monasteries according to Kenneth G. Zysk – a professor specializing in Indology and ancient medicine, Hindu mathas and temples had by the 10th-century attached medical care along with their religious and educational roles. This is evidenced by various inscriptions found in Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere. An inscription dated to about AD 930 states the provision of a physician to two matha to care for the sick and destitute. Another inscription dated to 1069 at a Vishnu temple in Tamil Nadu describes a hospital attached to the temple, listing the nurses, physicians, medicines and beds for patients. Similarly, a stone inscription in Andhra Pradesh dated to about 1262 mentions the provision of a prasutishala (maternity house), vaidya (physician), an arogyashala (health house) and a viprasattra (hospice, kitchen) with the religious center where people from all social backgrounds could be fed and cared for. (Hindu temple, n.d.)


Hindu temples are found in diverse locations each incorporating different methods of construction and styles:

  • Mountain temples such as Masrur
  • Cave temples such as Chandrabhaga, Chalukya and Ellora
  • Step well temple compounds such as the Mata Bhavani, Ankol Mata and Huccimallugudi.
  • Forest temples such as Kasaun and Kusama
  • River bank and sea shore temples such as Somnath. Step well temples arid western parts of India, such as Rajasthan and Gujarat, Hindu communities built large walk-in wells that served as the only source of water in dry months but also served as social meeting places and carried religious significance. These monuments went down into earth towards the subterranean water, up to seven storey, and were part of a temple complex. This vav (literally, stepwells) had intricate art reliefs on the walls, with numerous idols and images of Hindu deities, water spirits and erotic symbolism. The step wells were named after Hindu deities; for example, Mata Bhavani’s Stepwell, Ankol Mata Vav, Sikotari Vav and others. The temple ranged from being small single pada (cell) structure to large nearby complexes. These stepwells and their temple compounds have been variously dated from late 1st millennium BC through 11th century AD. Of these, Rani ki vav, with hundreds of art reliefs including many of Vishnu deity avatars, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Cave TemplesThe Indian rock-cut architecture evolved in Maharashtran temple style in the 1st millennium AD. The temples are carved from a single piece of rock as a complete temple or carved in a cave to look like the interior of a temple. Ellora Temple is an example of the former, while The Elephanta Caves are representative of the latter style. The Elephanta Caves consist of two groups of caves—the first is a large group of five Hindu caves and the second is a smaller group of two Buddhist caves. The Hindu caves contain rock-cut stone sculptures, representing the Shaiva Hindu sect, dedicated to the god Shiva.

Arts inside Hindu temples

A typical, ancient Hindu temple has a profusion of arts – from paintings to sculpture, from symbolic icons to engravings, from a thoughtful layout of space to fusion of mathematical principles with Hindu sense of time and cardinality.Ancient Sanskrit texts classify idols and images in a number of ways. For example, one method of classification is the dimensionality of completion:

  • Chitra – images that are 3-dimensional and completely formed,
  • Chitrardha – images that are engraved in half relief,
  • Chitrabhasa – images that are 2-dimensional such as paintings on walls and clothes. Another way of classification is by the expressive state of the image:
  • Raudra or ugra – are images that were meant to terrify, induce fear. These typically have wide, circular eyes, carry weapons, have skulls and bones as adornment. These idols were worshiped by soldiers before going to war, or by people in times of distress or terrors. Raudra deity temples were not set up inside villages or towns, but invariably outside and in remote areas of a kingdom.
  • Shanta and saumya – are images that were pacific, peaceful and expressive of love, compassion, kindness and other virtues in Hindu pantheon. These images would carry symbolic icons of peace, knowledge, music, wealth, flowers, sensuality among other things. In ancient India, these temples were predominant inside villages and towns.A Hindu temple may or may not include an idol or images, but larger temples usually do. Personal Hindu temples at home or a hermitage may have a pada for yoga or meditation, but be devoid of anthropomorphic representations of god. Nature or others arts may surround him or her. To a Hindu yogin, states Gopinath Rao, one who has realised Self and the Universal Principle within himself, there is no need for any temple or divine image for worship. However, for those who have yet to reach this height of realization, various symbolic manifestations through images, idols and icons as well as mental modes of worship are offered as one of the spiritual paths in the Hindu way of life. This belief is repeated in ancient Hindu scriptures. For example, the Jabaladarshana Upanishad states: शिवमात्मनि पश्यन्ति प्रतिमासु न योगिनः |अज्ञानं भावनार्थाय प्रतिमाः परिकल्पिताः || ५९ ||- जाबालदर्शनोपनिषत्A yogin perceives god (Siva) within himself, images are for those who have not reached this knowledge. (Verse 59)— Jabaladarsana Upanishad, (Hindu temple, n.d.)

Historical development and destruction

A number of ancient Indian texts suggest the prevalence of idols, temples and shrines in Indian subcontinent for thousands of years. For example, the 4th century BC text, Astadhyayi mentions male deity arcas (images/idols) of Agni, Indra, Varuna, Rudra, Mrda, Pusa, Surya, Soma being worshipped, as well as the worship of arcas of female goddesses such as Indrani, Varunani, Usa, Bhavani, Prthivi and Vrsakapayi. The 2nd Century BC ‘‘Mahabhasya’’ of Patanjali extensively describes temples of Dhanapati (deity of wealth and finance, Kubera), as well as temples of Rama and Kesava, wherein the worship included dance, music and extensive rituals. The Mahabhasya also describes the rituals for Krsna, Visnu and Siva. An image recovered from Mathura in north India has been dated to the 2nd century BC. Kautilya’s Arthashastra from 3rd Century BC describes a city of temples, each enshrining various Vedic and Puranic deities. All three of these sources have common names, describe common rituals, symbolism and significance possibly suggesting that the idea of idols, temples and shrines passed from one generation to next, in ancient India, at least from the 4th century BC. The oldest temples, suggest scholars, were built of brick and wood. Stone became the preferred material of construction later.Early Jainism and Buddhism literature, along with Kautilya’s Arthashastra, describe structures, embellishments and designs of these temples – all with motifs and deities currently prevalent in Hinduism. Bas-reliefs and idols have been found from 2nd to 3rd Century, but none of the temple structures have survived. Scholars theorize that those ancient temples of India, later referred to as Hindu temples, were modeled after domestic structure – a house or a palace. Beyond shrines, nature was revered, in forms such as trees, rivers, stupas before the time of Buddha and Vardhamana Mahavira. As Jainism and Buddhism branched off from the religious tradition later to be called Hinduism, the ideas, designs and plans of ancient Vedic and Upanishad era shrines were adopted and evolved, likely from the competitive development of temples and arts in Jainism and Buddhism. Ancient reliefs found so far, states Michael Meister, suggest five basic shrine designs and combinations thereof in 1st millennium BC:

  • A raised platform with or without a symbol
  • A raised platform under an umbrella
  • A raised platform under a tree
  • A raised platform enclosed with a railing
  • A raised platform inside a pillared pavilionMany of these ancient shrines was roofless, some had toranas and roof.From the 1st century BC through 3rd Century AD, the evidence and details about ancient temples increases. The ancient literature refers to these temples as Pasada (or Prasada), stana, mahasthana, devalaya, devagrha, devakula, devakulika, ayatana and harmya. (Hindu temple, n.d.)

Customs and etiquette

The customs and etiquette varies across India. Devotees in major temples may bring in symbolic offerings for the puja. This includes fruits, flowers, sweets and other symbols of the bounty of the natural world. Temples in India are usually surrounded with small shops selling these offerings.When inside the temple, devotees keep both hands folded (namaste mudra). The inner sanctuary, where the murtis reside, is known as the garbhagriha. It symbolizes the birthplace of the universe, the meeting place of the gods and mankind, and the threshold between the transcendental and the phenomenal worlds. It is in this inner shrine that devotees seek a darsana of, where they offer prayers. Devotees may or may not be able to personally present their offerings at the feet of the deity. In most large Indian temples, only the pujaris (priest) are allowed to enter into the main sanctum.Temple management staff typically announce the hours of operation, including timings for special pujas. These timings and nature of special puja vary from temple to temple. Additionally, there may be specially allotted times for devotees to perform circumambulations (or pradakshina) around the temple.Visitors and worshipers to large Hindu temples may be required to deposit their shoes and other footwear before entering. Where this is expected, the temples provide an area and help staff to store footwear. Dress codes vary. It is customary in temples in Kerala, for men to remove shirts and to cover pants and shorts with a traditional cloth known as a Vasthiram. In Java and Bali (Indonesia), before one enters the most sacred parts of a Hindu temple, shirts are required as well as Sarong around one’s waist. At many other locations, this formality is unnecessary.

Temple management

The Archaeological Survey of India has control of most ancient temples of archaeological importance in India. In India, day-to-day activities of a temple is managed by a temple board committee that administers its finances, management, and events. Since independence, the autonomy of individual Hindu religious denominations to manage their own affairs with respect to temples of their own denomination has been severely eroded and the state governments have taken control of major Hindu temples in some countries; however, in others, such as the United States, private temple management autonomy has been preserved.

Etymology and nomenclature

In Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism, the word mandira means “house” (Sanskrit: मन्दिर). Ancient Sanskrit texts use many words for temple, such as matha, vayuna, kirti, kesapaksha, devavasatha, vihara, suravasa, surakula, devatayatana, amaragara, devakula, devagrha, devabhavana, devakulika, and niketana. Regionally, they are also known as Prasada, vimana, Kshetra, gudi, ambalam, punyakshetram, Deval, deula, devasthanam, kovil, candi, pura, and wat.The following are the other names by which a Hindu temple is referred to in India:

  • Devasthana (ದೇವಸ್ಥಾನ) in Kannada
  • Deul/Doul/Dewaaloy in Assamese and in Bengali
  • Deval/Raul/Mandir(मंदिर) in Marathi
  • Devro/Mindar in Rajasthani
  • Deula (ଦେଉଳ)/Mandira(ମଦିର) in Odia and Gudi in Kosali Odia
  • Gudi (గుడి), Devalayam (దేవాలయం), Devasthanam (దేవస్థానము), Kovela (కోవెల), Kshetralayam (క్షేత్రాలయం), Punyakshetram (పుణ్యక్షేత్రం), or Punyakshetralayam (పుణ్యక్షేత్రాలయం), Mandiramu (మందిరము) in Telugu[check quotation syntax]
  • Kovil or kō-vill (கோவில்) and occasionally Aalayam (ஆலயம்) in Tamil; the Tamil word Kovil means “residence of God”
  • Kshetram (ക്ഷേത്രം), Ambalam (അമ്പലം), or Kovil (കോവിൽ) in Malayalam
  • Mandir (मंदिर) in Hindi, Nepali, Marathi, Punjabi (ਮੰਦਰ), Gujarati (મંદિર), and Urdu (مندر)
  • Mondir (মন্দির) in Bengali Southeast Asia temples
  • Candi in Indonesia, especially in Javanese, Malay and Indonesian, used both for Hindu or Buddhist temples.
  • Pura in Hindu majority island of Bali, Indonesia.
  • Wat in Cambodia and Thailand also applied to both Hindu and Buddhist temple sites. Some lands, including Varanasi, Puri, Kanchipuram, Dwarka, Amarnath, Kedarnath, Somnath, Mathura, and Rameswara, are considered holy in Hinduism. They are called kṣétra (Sanskrit: क्षेत्र). A kṣétra has many temples, including one or more major ones. These temples and its location attracts pilgrimage called tirtha (or tirthayatra).


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