Shape of worship: The architectural philosophy behind the structure of temples

Santanu Chakraborty | Updated on August 02, 2019

Spires and facades: At the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple in Khajuraho, the numerous scaled-down versions of the central spire attached to the main design creates a complex structure   -  Wikimedia

The structure of places of prayer, especially Hindu temples, represents the believer’s notion of the universe

If you were tasked with designing a temple, how would you go about it? To understand any monumental architecture, it is important to understand the thought processes — individual and collective — behind it as well as the technological methods that helped realise them. How to represent the sacred is a question that is now the preserve of the religious collective. Most places of worship follow long-established traditions that started off by blending the needs of a new religion with the possibilities offered by existing technologies. New ideas and methods were then added into the canon and, with time, they became the standard — shall we say rigid? — way of conceptualising sacred structures. Artists find ways to innovate and express within these constraints; sometimes they get into trouble, but often they evolve new traditions within a larger standard.

However, some constraints are purely man-made. Perhaps the temple is being built for a religion that is keen to find and unite new followers under one roof with frequent prayer gatherings. Then the structure must accommodate a multitude of men, women and children and should allow the congregation to move about freely. The trouble is that holding up a roof and having it span a large distance without any intermediate support is difficult. A society needs serious motivation to research and develop methods that could eventually lead to the construction of such architectural marvels. Religion, more often than not, has provided that motivation throughout history. Some of the grandest structures in existence today are churches, mosques, temples and pagodas. The process of building them led to the development of impressive structural styles, such as the monumental arches and domes.

While the size of the building is surely an element that might impress — as in the case of the pyramids — the architect must also decide what the structure will look like. The shape of a place of worship represents believers’ notion of the universe, and that belief manifests itself in the design of certain religious structures such as Hindu temples. While the intricacies of those structures are still being studied by researchers around the world, we can certainly look into some elements here. It will help us understand how grand spires have been imagined, computed and constructed. Early temple builders lived in a world where speculation about the cosmos led to systems of design that combined two ideas. The first is that the structure of the temple emerges from underlying generative principles. We can speculate that the ancient inhabitants might have thought of the universe as having certain underlying laws that governed its formation and evolution. By no means do these need to be verifiable ideas. For instance, astrology continues to occupy a decision-making role in the lives of many. While belief does not need to imply verifiable truth, it can get people to act. The ancient generations were unaware of scientific laws as we know them today, but they might have intuited — or maybe just imagined — that the order in the natural world could emerge from repetition of simple principles. This idea is manifest in the construction of Hindu temples.

The second is the idea that natural objects demonstrate a certain similarity independent of scale. Consider the leaves of a tree. Thousands of leaves of a tree can be imagined to be copies of a single leaf scaled to different sizes. The veins coursing through the leaves display a similar, structured pattern. View these patterns under a microscope to discover the similarity between the branching patterns of the tiniest leaf veins and the larger ones. The same is often true of blood vessels coursing through animals. So it would be easy to imagine, in one giant leap of faith, that objects in the universe share a certain similarity — a pattern that reappears — no matter the scale.

Look at the plan of the smaller Sas-Bahu temple complex in Gwalior (image below), and consider a systematic way in which you start with the innermost square, expand and distort it (stretch or compress along a given axis) to create the outer perimete.

Dots and lines: Temple designs are evolved from geometrical patterns; it is evident in the plan for the smaller Sas-Bahu Temple (left) and the Baroli Temple (right)   -  Wikimedia


The temple plan of Baroli will help you conceptualise the task as well as think of a method to attain your objective. The early temple designers used the intersections of circles, squares, rectangles and radial lines to come up with points that they could join to make the plans. The methods evolved to produce complicated plans such as the Sun Temple at Konark and the temple at Vishveshvur. The architect never enjoyed complete freedom as the design had to emerge, at least partially, from some geometric principles.

Complex art: The designs of temple evolved to produce complicated plans such as the Vishveshvur Temple   -  Wikimedia


Facades and spires of temples strictly abide by this idea. Observe the main spire — the large central one — of the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple in Khajuraho. Note how numerous scaled down versions of the same spire are attached to the main design to create a complex structure. Different styles of Hindu temple building use different ways of replicating inner elements.

The ultimate effect is that of a profusion, of similar forms emanating out of the structure. It is a way to express the builder’s notion of the divine as self-manifesting. Similar concepts exist in Buddhist art and architecture. The temple at Borobudur, Indonesia, is a magnificent example of similar forms arranged in a harmonic whole, interpreted differently from a classical Hindu temple.

A marvel: The Buddhist temple at Borobudur is a magnificent example of similar forms arranged in a harmonic whole   -  Wikimedia


We can consider these experiments to be a species’ stab at representing what it cannot comprehend.



Santanu Chakraborty is a Bengaluru-based engineer, scientist and photographer

Published on August 02, 2019

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