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Poetry in Stone:
Crystallization of The Hindu Temple
|by Ashish Nangia|
In the previous article, we saw how the form of the modern temple gradually started emerging, from a leafy shelter in the woods, to the first hesitant experiments with stone, and the adaptation of existing communal buildings in villages. Gradually, as the masons gained greater confidence, temple forms all over the country started crystallizing. Just as in a church, a temple too has its distinctive elements.
The Temple in its Final Form
The principal architectural features of a temple are as follows:
The sanctuary as a whole is called a vimana, and the pyramidal or tapering roof above this is called the shikhara. Inside the vimana is a dark chamber, the cella, called the garbha-griha (literally the 'womb-house'), and this is entered by a doorway on one side. In front of the doorway is a pillared hall, or mandapa, which serves as an assembly for devotees. In some examples the mandapa is detached from the vimana by an open space. Leading up to the mandapa is a porch or ardh-mandapa. In some parts of the country it was common to enclose the temple complex by a boundary wall made of rectangular cells facing inward, thus forming a courtyard.
With this, the Middle Ages in India (A.D. 800 onwards) saw the proliferation of hundreds and thousands of temples. This was an age of unparalleled construction activity. "… so in India every hamlet had its cluster of shrines, and in every town the tall spires of temples rose singly and in groups, as proved by the remains observable all over the country to the present day."1
Architectural Details, Decoration and Sculpture
A detailed analysis of temple architecture reveals that much of its character was the result of repetition of motifs. Thus looking at the Shikhara we see that it is made up of many miniature ones repeating themselves time and again. In fact these repeating motifs in themselves were miniature shrines. Two main types of motifs/mini shrines exist, depending on the geographical location of the temple. These two types make up the Indian temple 'orders', and are called the Dravida, found mostly in the south, and the Indo-Aryan, in the north.
The origin of the Shikhara is the subject of intense debate, due to its prominence and characteristic form. Some theories on its derivation: from the sphere of the Buddhist stupa, from the domed huts of central India, and also from the pyramidal covering on a ceremonial chariot of the Aryans.
It is fairly clear that some of the architectural character of the temple was a direct influence from Buddhist architecture. For example, the introduction of the chaitya arch (kudu), and the unmistakable vaulted roof as survives in the Teli-ka-Mandir at Gwalior.
However, in spite of all these distinctions, there were certain fundamental principles throughout which guided and controlled the art of building in all its phases. This fact becomes even more amazing when we see that "a similar stylistic content reveals itself in the distant Indo-Buddhist monuments of Java and Cambodia."
Guilds and the Vastushastra
Two institutions that greatly influenced temple construction brought about this close coordination. The first was the seni, or guilds. Initially a system of apprenticeship, the guilds slowly became hereditary and knowledge of temple construction and sculpture was passed down through the generations from father to son. A large project necessitated a guild being obliged to settle on the site for a long period, sometimes a generation or more. Thus "a large architectural undertaking became an art center from which a local school and style were derived."
The second influence was that of the silpas, treatises codifying rules for Art, Sculpture and Architecture and the Vastushastra in particular, a book setting down the rules of architecture. The silpas were committed to memory and passed down the generations simply by learning them by heart. Thus the workmen had infallible rules, by following which they could be assured of success.
Materials and Construction
Indian temple architecture has often been called sculpture on a mass scale rather than true architecture. This is because there was little structural inventiveness or technical ingenuity. No attempts were made to solve the problems of spanning large distances by the use of the arch, vault or dome, which were by this time common in other parts of the world. Instead the Indian mason relied on gravity and mass for his structure to stand, and the piling of massive blocks one on top of the other ensured stability without using mortar.
However, the finished structure showed a fine appreciation of mass and the value and effects of shadow to a marked degree. Every part of the building was the result of generations of conscious and sub-conscious knowledge. This has made Indian temples poetry in stone, mute sentinels to the skill of their unnamed builders.
1 Brown Percy, Indian Architecture (Buddhist and Hindi), P.62, DB Taraporevala Sons and Co Pvt Ltd,
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