Art Wanderer: the Hindu Temple- take2


Dharka outline, Gujarat, India Photo by T.Simonetti

After our brief introduction to the Hindu Temple and how it began, it is time to stride fast into the following years to see how the Temple evolved and possibly became similar to what it is today.

When one travels to India, or maybe I should not generalize on this… Let’s say, during my first contact to India, it was 1999, we all were totally subdued to the intensity of the life and precisely temples life there. We visited Tamil Nadu and the magnificent temples cities of Madurai, the incredible Brideshvar or Rajarajesvari Temple in Tanjore and many more. The scale and richness of those works, together with the fact of seeing re-enacted every day such feelings of piety, devotion and mysticism, made us all think and dream in what a spiritual land India was. A place where the divine was the daily fare.

Only that this is a tourist picturesque view. And quite wrong. For many reasons.

First , we thought, like many before us , that what we were seeing that day in 1999 was something repeating itself since the dawn of times. Very inaccurate , self-contented, western-centric opinion.

The first to point out how these were self made erroneous views was Said in Orientalism: without going into too many detail for a leisure reading, the first trick for westerners is using the Orient as means to understand and qualify the Occident as much as the illusion of the eternal perpetual immobility of the Orient, Eastern culture. Said showed how these beliefs were the basis for the British Empire, colonialism and imperialism. Well , what to say, we were not even that original in our deviated assumptions: we had been preceded by thousands of westerners before us in our mistakes.

Leaving aside the Western need of the East to define its own identity as a difference, then the other huge miss was to think that India, or better Southern India, was always identical in the centuries. There is no such thing: even Hinduism evolved through the centuries: it absorbed many of the sects and currents, those very movements aiming at challenging the power of the brahmins and establishment into the mainstream structure little by little (very clever to unload somebody’ else rifles by using that somebody’s else ammunitions).

What has this to do with the temple? The Hindu temple flourishing and prospering took momentum at the same time when the Hindu were switching to sectarian cults (the worship of VIshnu, Shiva or Devi, the Goddess) instead of the Vedic deities and in parallel to when bhakti movement took up momentum too. Bhakti was a movement that in opposition to the current Vedic rituals where a priest officiating in sanskrit (like latin today if not worse) was the necessary intermediary between the layman and the deity. Bhakti invoked the right of each one to access the divinity and the language was borrowed to love poetry, let it be the love of a partner, of a mother, of a son. Bhakti , which means more or less devotion, involved not only religion but very much literature. Many of his poets were actually saints. The abundance of poems and hymns and songs for Shiva, Vishnu detailed many aspects of the divinities and provided inspiration for sculpture and painting.

There is also another thing inside this bhakti story: let’s ask who built temples in India in the turn of the millennium? Mostly, kings. So the king was the first to express devotion, bhakti to the deity, and to pose himself as intermediary in the chain of devotion between the people and him (nice trick to resize the power of the priests caste). Before the hindu temple was there, the Vedic rituals had no temple, just an altar. So all the ritual for worshipping the god, the darshan, the ultimate exchange with the believer and the divinity gaze, was all borrowed from the royal protocol. Going to see the divinity and having darshan was repeating the audience with the king, that would have bestowed gifts or favors instead of divine grace upon seeing his loyal subjects.

So the devotion and ritual not only changed throughout centuries in a significant way but also borrowed from mundane courts many of its way of expression.

Furthermore, when we see these immense city-temples and marvel at how spirituality plays a role in Indian life, we should take another step back, another point of view. In ancient to medieval India, the temples were truly financial institutions: they were endowed with land, that they would rent to the villagers and temple could lend out money. Temples in Southern India, like in Madurai grew to be real cities. Dehejia (“Indian Art”) says again that Hindu never tried to kick out the merchants from the temple. During medieval wars in India, the rival kings would plunder the temples not out of bigotry but mainly because they knew the riches and money they would have found inside.

All these things slipped from my eyes, partly because they are not so evident partly because we were already in quest of a very specific place when we travelled to India, manufactured by many other books and novels and so on.
At the end I still think I am very fascinated about the spirituality, the way simple things turn into something at a higher level but I also found that understanding the mechanics of it makes everything richer and more complex.
That a temple was not only this obscure place to mediate grace but also a living part of the community, the place where to meet and trade, the place that actually sheltered arts and dance, adds to the complexity and charms of the place.

So now let’s look again at how this was done.


From a small little box as we have seen last week, temples evolved in massive impressive breathtaking structures. The porch became a vestibule sometimes with protruding balconies, their base from the ground was raised, the inner sanctum was topped with a mountain like spire aiming at the sky and this mountain spire, the shikhara or vimana, was sometimes accompanied by other lesser mountains flowing off on the sides or preceeding it. There are obvious association that come to mind looking at them. The most powerful one is that of the mountain and indeed Mount Meru, the centre of the universe and indeed the temple was intended to evoke that mountain.Actually it goes beyond that: the temple not only represents the mountain at the centre of the world, the temple is that mountain, the physical dwelling of god (and the raising spire is not by hazard located on top of the sanctum, this is where the power irradiates from). That had huge implications: for example when a king had a temple called Kailasa built in Ellora, the intent was to bring the Kailash (the abode of Shiva) into that king’s domain. When different states were competing for power, it was usual to steal the other kingdom main temple icon and relocating it: that meant truly appropriating one’s kingdom with the source of power of its rival and of course because as I said money was there.

So how was a temple built? No surprises , of course something that was at the heart of community life had very precise rules. There were diagrams like today we have plans; the diagrams were called mandala and were squares supposed to contain the primeval man (Mind that the human figure as measure of all things was also a Greek concept). Harmony was dictated by precise ratios and proportions and harmony in the figure would call the God to inhabit the icon and the temple, in turn providing the welfare and prosperity of the community.

Do we know this for sure or is this just a hippie “all is harmony and well” guess? Indeed there are some treatises that reached us, probably not all of them to have a complete picture, but still some manuals called Vastu Shastras that go back to the 7th / 8th century, that define the proportions with an “obsession with numbers” according to Michell (“Hindu Art”), and whose proportions are found again in the existing temples.  In addition, other treatises, the shilpa shastras, standardized how to depict some figures: for example, women eyes had to be modelled on fish, how the women body was supposed to resemble a drum and the man torso a bull face. Anyone that has once admired at Indian sculptures has surely been seduced by the harmony of the forms, that at the same time are obviously unrealistic and yet bear a strange naturalism around them: this inspiration from day-to-day models may be a reason.


Bhubaneswar, India Photo by T. Simonetti


Sculptures in Surya Temple, Konark, Orissa, Photo by T. Simonetti

Whom where destined these temples to ?
Not everybody in fact, was allowed inside. Many of the lower castes could not enter temples and they had to wait until modern times until Gandhi, to enter. During Chola kingdom in Southern India, bronzes were made to bring the god out in processions that would give a chance to the devotees to see the divinity. Besides the favor of the people, the bronzes reached incredible beauty and are still incredible masterpieces. You can have a look here in the sensous and the sacred exhibition. The name of this exhibition may also bring in another question that one often wonders when first walks in India, how come that in a sacred space such sensuous sculptures have their place?

That is a very difficult question, with a lot of attempts to this day but none truly convincing. Many scholars say that actually there was never truly a distinction between secular and religious art, other point out that the goals of life encompassed not only the liberation (moksha) with which westerners are more familiar with, but also the duty and virtue (dharma), the personal self accomplishment and the gain of wealth through success in one’s profession (artha), love that could be either sexual or marital (kama). So these four could coexist in both temples or private palaces. I do not feel that any of these explanations really fit. Maybe we should not try to explain and just admire the beauty and grace of these artworks over temples.


Surya temple Konark, Orissa Photo by T. Simonetti


4 responses to “Art Wanderer: the Hindu Temple- take2

  1. Pingback: Art Wanderer: The Hindu Temples take 4- Southern Temples from Tamil Nadu and their exportation | Camel and cats·

  2. Pingback: Art Wanderer: the jor-bangla and the many tales of terra-cotta | Camel and cats·

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