Most Hindus worship over alters in their homes and at temples. Family altars are used for daily prayers. Temples are sought out for important matters or big events and occasions.

Unlike Christian churches which are places to worship, Hindu temples are "artificial mountains" built as objects of worship built to enshrine the image of a chosen deity. The Upanishads described them as a place “at the heart of this phenomenal world, within all its changing forms, dwells the unchanging Lord.”

Also unlike Christian churches, temples are generally not places where worshipers come to listen to sermons. Instead they are places where people come to engage in individual worship with deities and socialize with other people that they meet there. In the old days only kings, Brahmin priests and important nobles were allowed inside temples. Even today non-Hindus are generally not allowed to enter Hindu temples.

Worship at the temple is not congregational. Instead, individuals or small groups of devotees approach the sanctum in order to obtain a vision (darshana ) of the god, say prayers, and perform devotional worship. Because the god exists in totality in the shrine, any objects that touch the image or even enter the sanctum are filled with power and, when returned to their givers, confer the grace of the divine on the human world. Only persons of requisite purity who have been specially trained are able to handle the power of the deity, and most temple sanctums are operated by priests who take the offerings from worshipers, present them directly to the image of the deity, and then return most of the gifts to the devotees for use or consumption later at home. [Source: Library of Congress ]

The earliest existing examples of Indian architecture are stone Buddhist and Jain structures, some of them cut from rock caves. Temples before that were made of wood. The great period of Hindu temple building began in the A.D. 6th century. Much of the great architecture of India is Muslim rather than Hindu in origin. The Muslim Rajput maharajahs in Rajasthan and the Muslim Moguls produced great palaces and forts. Muslim influences began appearing in the 11th century. The period under the Moguls is regarded by many as the golden age of Indian architecture. The Taj Mahal is the most famous example of Mogul architecture.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures

Hindu Temple Architecture

Angkor Wat
Hindu temple architecture combines harmony and symmetry with a high degree of outer adornment. Elements are designed to have correct proportions and exert a positive influence on their surroundings. What makes the architecture as a whole so beautiful is the way the small details harmonize and mix with the massive architecture.

The basic form of the temple in India is a square cell, oriented to the four cardinal directions, containing a platform with an image of the deity in the center, a flat roof overhead, and a doorway on the east side. In front of the doorway is a porch or platform, shaded by a roof supported by pillars, where worshipers gather before and after approaching the god. At the founding of the temple, priests establish a sanctified area in the center of the shrine and, while praying and performing rituals, set up the image of the god. The deity is then said to be one with the image, which contains or manifests the power of the god on earth. Every Hindu temple in India, then, exists as the center of the universe, where the god overlooks his or her domain and aids devotees. [Source: Library of Congress ]

Hindu temple plans are based on yantras : diagrams of the universe. The simple ones are a circle within a square, within a rectangle, with four gates to represent the four directions of the universe. At the center of the temple is the sanctuary, where an image or symbol of the temple deity is kept. The builders of temples were believed to possess magical powers.

The possibilities for additions and decoration on this basic plan are endless. Many temples sit on top of a cruciform platform, with a tall spire called sikharas , or spires, the north over the sanctuary, and broad gate towers, or gapuras , leading into the temple grounds, in the south.

Complex temples have hallways and galleries built off the sanctuaries. They are usually set on platforms, with stairways connecting different levels. Large temples sometimes have separate buildings for meditation halls, offices and other purposes, and elaborate porches. An effort is made to make sure all the structures are balanced and in harmony as is the case with the Hindu universe.

Hindu Temple Design

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Banteay Srei Temple in Cambodia
An ancient architecture treatise called the arthashashra requires Hindu temples: 1) to be made of stone; 2) to have a pillared hall followed by tower-topped sanctum, with the hall preferably preceded by a porch; 3) to be adorned on the outside with carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses and scenes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Hindu temples typically consist of a prayer hall called a mandapa and a sanctuary, inner sanctum, or central shrine called a garbhargriha . The sanctuary contains an icon of the Hindu deity the temple is dedicated to and is off limits to everyone but priests at the temple. Around the sanctuary and prayer hall is a covered space for worshipers to walk in a clockwise fashion. Above the inner sanctum is the main sikhara , or central tower. It is usually a dome- or pyramid-shaped tower that represents Mt. Meru. Some temples have elaborately-decorated, often brightly-colored, gateways or gate towers known as gapuras .

The focus of a temple is the inner sanctum, which sits on elevated platform below the central tower. It is the most sacred part of the temple and symbolizes a womb. The icon in the sanctuary can either be statue or image of the god or a symbol of the god such as a linga representing Shiva. The icon is believed to produce a force field of sacred energy.

The sanctuary shrine structure typically has a roof, a niche with the temple deity, a protective monster mask and images of Brahma and one of the avatars of Vishnu. Just outside the shrine is a vestibule dedicated to the mount of the temple god. Around the central shrine are images of gods associated with the temple god or popular gods.

Within the temple are shrines dedicated to other gods. They are often arranged in a very specific order and worshipers proceed from one shrine to the next in the order that is intended by the temple builder. A shrine for Ganesh is often one of the first ones because Ganesh is the remover of obstacles. Situated around the main temples are smaller secondary shrines dedicated to other gods or avatars or consorts of the god the temple is dedicated to. There may be others inside or outside the temples.

Hindu Temples and Mt. Meru

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Meru shumisen
Many temples are built as microcosms of Hindu cosmology with a central tower or towers representing Mt. Meru, the five-peaked home of the Hindu gods and the center of the Hindu universe. The halls, arranged around the sanctuary in a square plan, represent the mountains on the edge of the world. The galleries, corridors and halls are aligned with directions of the compass. Temple are usually built facing east towards the rising sun which is regarded as auspicious.

The central tower representing Mt. Meru is regarded as a cosmic axis between the heaven and the earth. Elaborate temples have a central tower surrounded by other towers. These towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru and are organized in a square plan around the central dome like a lotus flower and are often adorned with stucco or carved sandstone decorations. Their conical shape is formed by a series of stepped tiers that come together to form a rounded point at the top.

Great shrines and temples often have features connected with mountains. Some are painted white to symbolize the snowcapped Himalayas. Things like domes, spires, hexagonal or octagonal towers are representations of Mt. Meru, the peaks of Mt. Meru or other mountains. In the old days many temples had moats around them, representing the infinite ocean that surrounds Mt. Meru.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia is a good example of a Hindu temple.

Hindu Architectural Features

Antarvedi Temple
Most temples have an outer wall with gopuras (gates) that represents the four directions of the universe and are considered thresholds between the universe and the outer world. The gates are usually protected by sculpted warriors and sometimes river goddesses, such as Ganga or Jumna. The main gate is on the auspicious east side. The west was considered inauspicious and associated with death. The north was linked with elephants, which are valued because of their strength. The south was neutral.

Temples in southern India are known for their large gateways and barrel-vaulted roof which surmount the sacred inner chamber and temple hall. The great Khmer temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia is inspired by this style of architecture. Temples in northern India have more gently curved towers.

Large temples usually contain many shrine-rooms and courts. The shrines usually have an altar were prasad (offerings) are left. Many temples have a sacred pool and tanks filled with water. Water is regarded as an important elements in making temples attractive to deities. Large temples often have a religious school.

Hindu Temple Decorations

Indian architecture is known for its highly decorative style. Their exteriors are often covered by multitudes of carved imagery, sculpted images of deities, narrative reliefs from mythology and rich decorative carvings. Panels, niches and friezes contain images of plants, of monkeys and elephants, and of men and women in all conceivable postures.

Khajuraho Lakshmana Temple
The exteriors are generally more highly decorated than the interiors which are usually relatively plain. As the worshiper moves from the outer part of the temple towards the sanctuary the amount of decorations declines. Around the sanctuary the amount of decoration is minimal so as not to take anything away or divert attention from the icon in the central shrine.

Subjects including nagas (mythical multi-headed cobras that protect sacred places), representations of Hindu gods and scenes from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. The gods can often be identified by attributes---Vishnu with a conch and Shiva with a trident---or by the their mount---a lion for Durga or a mouse for Ganesh.

Many Hindu temples feature phallic lingams in the sanctuary and images of asparas---dancing, bare-breasted women considered the epitome of female beauty---on the walls. Some have sexually explicit images.

Some towers have rows of lotuses or lotus buds or mythical and heroic figures. The amalak is an architectural form found on the upper part of some towers. It is derived from the gourdlike myrobalan fruit.

Hindu Temple Worship

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Hindu temples are themselves objects of worship. Their typical form emulates the cosmic mountain that is the abode of the deity honored and housed in the temple. As the devotee circles the temple exterior in the proscribed direction, he or she worships the various gods portrayed on the walls, particularly the deity honored within. These images are arranged to aid the viewer on the path to spiritual release. Worship is usually individual rather than congregational, and only at times of religious festivals do crowds throng the temple compounds. A porch and gathering chamber lead to the inner sanc- tum, which lies beneath the central tower of the temple and contains the image of the main deity, usually made of stone. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Hindu worship has several distinctive features. Merit gathered through sight is called darshan. Viewing a temple itself accrues merit to the pilgrim who comes to see the god and makes offerings in the hope of receiving divine blessings. Hindus believe that the image of a god contains the actual living god, and that the god can see the devotee and thus bestow blessings upon him or her. Consequently, the eyes of the image are open. The consecration of a deity image includes a ritual to fill the figure with the breath of life (prana), followed by the “opening of the eyes” ceremony, in which the carving or painting of the eyes is finished and the eyes are opened with a ritual implement. Puja, the offering ritual before the image of a god, involves the other four senses as well. Through the intermediary of a priest, worshippers present flowers, food, and pour libations of water and milk over the image as they ask for its blessings. Mantras are chanted and bells rung. <*>

“In South India, copper statues of deities were worshipped both inside and outside the temple. They were equipped with rings and carrying bases so they could be carried in processions on festival days. Like a living king, they could view and be viewed by their followers. Within the temple, statues of deities were bathed, fed, clothed, and entertained by singing and dancing. Whether in a temple or a home, daily acts of devotion include waking the image in the morning, washing, dressing, and feeding it. The image is honored as a guest would be. In this way, the devo- tee develops a close and loving relationship with his or her god. Seeing the image of a god in a Hindu temple is a very different experience from viewing sculpture in a museum gallery: although sculptural figures of the gods are depicted with luxurious jewels and diaphanous garments that fall in delicate folds, in daily pujas they are covered with real clothing and garlands of flowers, and the carved details of the sculpture would be seen only by the priests.” <*>

Hindu Priests

Brahmin priest
People who acts as officials at temples, conducting or assisting on worship, are known as a pujari or priests. Their main duty is to act as intermediaries between the worshipers and god. These priests are supposed to be Brahmins---members of the highest ranking caste group that have traditionally been priests. Brahmin wear the sacred thread. They have traditionally been the final judge of purity and caretakers of temples. Only they could enter the inner sanctuaries of temples and invoke the deities there for a puja.

Technically Hindus are supposed to be assisted by a Brahmin priests when performing rituals or ceremonies, but most simple ceremonies such as making offerings, are done without one. A variety of intermediary priests, holy men and teachers perform and assist with rituals. Brahmin have traditionally have not performed rituals for lower castes anyway. In rural areas local headmen often preside over rituals.

These days Brahmas often serve as priests in temples for higher deities while priests from lower castes serve at temples for lower ranked gods. Many Brahmin either perform their temple duties as a kind of part time job or hobby. Many perform no priestly duties whatsoever. One Brahmin priest at a south Indian temple told the New York Times, "There's no money in it any more. I hope my sons do something else. The income is not enough to live any more.”

See Brahmin, Caste System

Hindu Temple Customs

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Puja Shiva, offering
Non-Hindus are not allowed to enter some temples or some parts (particularly the inner sanctum) of temples. Sometimes there are signs indicating where non-Hindus are not allowed. Sometimes there are not. People should avoid entering a temple with items made from leather since cows are regarded as sacred. Women are not supposed to enter Hindu temples when the are menstruating. Some temples have two doors. One is for menstruating women and people from lower castes. The other is for ordinary Hindus.

Hindu temples that allow non-Hindus generally require visitors to remove their shoes and headwear. Short pants and skirts are often regarded as inappropriate dress. Men wearing shorts are sometimes given a sarong or robe at the entrance. Women should have their knees and arms covered. It is important to step over the threshold not on it when entering a temple. When moving around inside a temple or outside always move in a clockwise circular direction, with your right side facing the venerated object. To walk in a counterclockwise direction is regarded as inauspicious and disrespectful to the temple god.

Visitors to temples are sometimes offered a pieces of coconut or banana. It is considered a great honor to be offered these things. One should take it and eat it. It is considered sacrilegious to refuse. If you are worried about eating it for health reasons give it to someone else. Don't throw it away. If someone puts a thread bracelet around you arm, you are expected to give them a few rupees.

India’s temples feed millions of people every day. They are among the world’s largest food buyers. Many have their own agricultural land. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams temple in Madras spends $70 million a year to provide free meals. Sikh temples also provide lots of free meals.

As is true with mosques, Hindu temples use crackling loud speakers to blare chants and prayers. The Hindu equivalent of a muezzin is mandira, which is a form of chanting blasted out of loudspeakers at 5:00am.

Temple Rituals, See Rituals

Hindu Prayer Rooms and Family Altars

Most Hindu homes have family altars with garish pictures of Hindu gods and photographs of living and dead family members. Sometimes they are decorated with tinsel and colored lights. Here family members perform their daily puja (prayers and offerings). Some traditional large Hindu houses have an entire prayer room with a large elaborate altar. Most small houses have an altar on the side or corner of one of the rooms. Wealthy families sometimes have a large shrine outside their home.

Hindus also have roadside shrines and theoretically they can make offerings anywhere that has some connection to the gods . Some times red powder is smeared on sacred rocks or at the bases of trees. Basil, known as tulsi , is a sacred plant. It is often found growing in special planter and periodically receives puja.

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Puja Sanwaliaji

Patronage and Politics and Temples

Since the sixth century, after the decline of Buddhism as the main focus of religious patronage, temples have been accumulating generous donations from kings, nobles, and the wealthy. The result is a huge number of shrines throughout the country, many of which, especially in South India, date back hundreds of years. The statuary and embellishment in some of the ancient shrines constitute one of the world's greatest artistic heritages. The layout of major temples has expanded into gigantic architectural complexes. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Along with architectural elaboration has come a complex administrative system to manage the many gifts bestowed by wealthy donors in the past and continually replenished by the piety of devotees in the present. The gods are legal landholders and command substantial investment portfolios throughout the country. The management of these fortunes in many states lies in the hands of private religious endowments, although in some states, such as Tamil Nadu, the state government manages most of the temples directly. Struggles over the control of temple administration have clogged the courts for several hundred years, and the news media readily report on the drama of these battles. Several cases have had an impact on religious, or communal, affairs. The most spectacular case involved ownership of a site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, claimed by Hindus as the site of Ram's birth but taken over by Muslims as the site for a mosque, the Babri Masjid, built in 1528. After much posturing by the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP--Indian People's Party) and its nationalist parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS--National Volunteer Organisation), matters came to a head in December 1992. Some 200,000 militant Hindus, under the direction of RSS marshals, descended on Ayodhya, razing the Babri Masjid to the ground on December 6, 1992. Reprisals and communal violence occurred throughout India and in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. *

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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