Temple Architecture

India is the land of temples where one can as many temples as one is willing to locate. Temple Architecture is different as per the geographical, linguistic, and cultural differences are in existence. In this section, we will discuss the different architecture of the temples.

Ratha Temples

The Ratha temples were cut at Mahabalipuram during the region of Pallava king Narsimha Varmana I. The Rathas are an example of monolithic temple architecture. These are cut out of the live rock. The term “Ratha” doesn’t mean a Chariot. It refers to the procession form. It appears that the entire structure can move, though in reality these are fixed as they are part of live rock.

Ratha Temple architecture
Ratha Temple

The Ratha temples were cut out of granite rocks. These represent the top-down approach because a big hill/rock was cut into the Ratha temple. Ratha temples are part of the Mamalla type of Temple Architecture. This style flourished from 640 – 674 AD. In this style, cave temples & Ratha temples were cut.

This style preceded by the Mahendra style (610AD – 640 AD). In that style, only cave temples were cut. Mamalla style was followed by Rajasimha style 674AD – 800AD & Nando Varman style (800 AD-900AD). These styles manifested in form of a free-standing temple. Sapta Pagodas located at Mahabalipuram are the example of Ratha temples. These were cut in the reign of Narsimha Varmana I. These Sapta Pagodas are 8 in number, though the name suggests seven. Sapta Pagodas are Draupadi Ratha, Dharmaraj Ratha, Bhima Ratha, Arjuna Ratha, Nakul Sahadev Ratha, Ganesh Ratha, Pindari Ratha, and Valaiyan Kunthai Ratha. The outer wall of the Ratha temple contains a large number of images. Draupadi Ratha famous for Durga images & Arjuna Ratha is famous for Shiva images.

Mahabalipuram Bas Relief


A rock bolder located at Mahabalipuram contains a depiction of various god & goddesses in the Bas relief form. It appears that the entire heaven is portrayed. The gods are busy in their work. Among these portrayals God Vishnu, Shiva, and Narad. This bolder is named Arjuna’s Penance or descent of Ganges because there are different interpretations about a person worshiping God Shiva.

Free Standing Temple Architecture

Nagara Style

The earliest reference of the temple comes from the Nagari inscription, Rajasthan. According to this inscription Kanva king, Sarvahatara / Sarvatata build a wall around a place of worship. Nothing definite is known about this place of worship but it’s considered to be a temple.

The earliest archaeological evidence of the temple was discovered at Jandial a place located near Taxila. This temple was built in stone. It was a Zoroastrian temple. This temple consisted of a fireplace built on a raised platform. In this temple, image worship was not carried out. In the 4th century AD, the Nagara style of temple archaeology emerged. This style continued to flourish in North India for many centuries have after.

Nagara Style of Temple Architecture

Temple of Nagara style was built on a raised platform which is square/rectangular form. The main structure in which the image of temple deities was placed was known as Garbhagrha (Sanctum Sanctorum). The outer walls of Garbhagrha were ornamented by using images. The inner walls were plain. The upper portions of the wall of Garbhagriha converged inward slightly. This converged portion of the wall is known as Shikhar.

At times converged portion was in a straight line instead of being curvilinear such Shikhar was known as Rekha Shikhar. Seats of deities are known as an allowed entry inside Garbhagrha. Only priests & Devdas were allowed entry inside Garbhagrha. The spherical design was made at the top of the roof of Garbhagrha. It was known as “Amalka”. This symbolized the Globe/Earth.

A sacred portion known as “Kalash” was placed over Amalaka. It was to collect/gather cosmic energy nectar. A flag was erected over the Kalash. The flag symbolized the sovereignty of the deity. Images of doorkeepers (Dwarpalas) were placed on both sides of the gate of Garbhagriha. A pillared Varanda known as “Antarala” was built in front of Garbhagrha. It was a passageway leading the devotee from the entrance to Garbhagrha. At the entrance of the temple, “Mandapa”/ “Mantapam” was built.

It was a structure similar to Garbhagrha but smaller in size. Mandapa was used for the gathering of devotees. It was connected with Garbhagrha with Antarala. A pond or a well was built on a black farm or near to it to provide sacred water to the devotee. Temple of Nagara style was generally built on stone, the brick temple is rare. The mortar was not used in the construction of the temple of Nagara style. Metals were also not used. Nagara style of Temple

Vishnu temple mandapa at Eran, Madhya Pradesh, Temple Architecture
Vishnu temple mandapa at Eran, Madhya Pradesh

Architecture emerged during Gupta period large numbers of temples were built. For example, “Vishnu Temple” of Tighwa (Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh), “Vishnu Temple of Eran” – Sagar district, Madhya Pradesh, Parvati temple of Nachnara – Kuthar (Panna, Madhya Pradesh), Shiva temple of Bumra (Satana, Madhya Pradesh), Dashavatar temple of Deogarh (Lalitpur, Uttar Pradesh), Bhitargaon temple near Kanpur. (This is the only example of a temple made up of bricks of temple age), and the Vishnu temple of Shivpur (Mahasamund, Chattisgarh).

Dravidian Style of Temple Architecture

Dravidian style of temple architecture commenced during the Pallavas period in the second half of the 7th century AD. This style continued to evolve with time from the Pallava to the Chola period and the Vijayanagar Empire. The temples were built in brick or stone using a bottom-up approach. Metal is also used in construction activities.

Temples were built under the patronage of the state as well as under private patronage, the foremen were dominant. In this way, the Dravidian style of Temple Architecture represented both popular art as well as court art. Temples of Dravidian style are mostly dedicated to God Shiva or Vishnu because these were 2 prominent faiths in South India. Temple dedicated to other deities is few.

Features of the Dravidian style of Temple Architecture

The temple was constructed without any raised platform, unlike the North Indian Nagara style. The pyramidic roof of the temple over the grabhagriha is known as “Vimana” was another unique feature. The interiors of Garbhagrha were highly ornamented. The exterior wall of Garbhagrha is also ornamented by using images. Large numbers of the image were used on Vimana for ornamentation purposes.

Other elements were similar to the Nagara style such as Amalaka, Kalash, Flag, Peetha, Dwarpala, Antarala, Mandapa, Pond/Well, “Pradikshina Path” (Circumambulatory Path) was also an important feature of the Dravidian style of Temple Architecture. It was built around Garbhagraha. It was a covered (rood) passageway.

Evolution of Dravidian Style of Temple Architecture

Rajasimha Style

This style represented the 1st phase of Dravidian style, a free-standing temple. It emerged during the reign of Narsimha Varmana II. This style flourished from 674AD – 800AD. “Shore Temple” at Mahabalipuram, “Iswara temple” at Mahabalipuram, “Kailashnathar temple”, Kanchipuram, “Vaikuntaperumal temple”, Kanchipuram & “Mukunda temple” of Mahabalipuram is the finest example of this style.

Shore temple has a large number of images of Ganesha, Skanda on its Vimana. A peripheral wall has a large number of oxen. Vaikunthaperumal temple is dedicated to Vishnu. Image is found on its wall through light on contemporary life. Its pillars are highly carved. Kailashnath temple represents the climax of the Rajasimha style. This temple is dedicated to God Shiva.

Nandi Varman Style (800AD – 900AD)

This style represents the declining phase of Pallava’s power because around 800AD, the Pallavas power had started declining & their Chola feudatories had started gaining power. The Temple of this style is small in size but the level of ornamentation is much higher. Mukteshwar & Matangeshwar temple at Kanchipuram. Parshurameshwar temple – Gudimallam is the finest example.

Chola Style

Chola rulers were great patron of art and architecture. More than 2300 & temples were built during the Chola period. Out of these more than 1500 is located in Tanjore – Tiruchy belt. The size of the temple at this age is massive but at the same time, the refinement is also a very high level. Because of this art historian, Fergusson commented that Chola artist conceived as giant & finished like jewelers.

Changes in Dravidian Style of Temple Architecture during the Chola Period

The height of Vimanas increased enormously because it indicated the power & prestige of the king. The more was the power of the king the greater the height of his Vimana. Vimana of Brihadeswar temple (Tanjore) is the finest example. This Vimana is 66m high.

Art historian Percy Brown commented that Tanjore Vimana is the touchstone of Indian architecture. Several additional/subsidiary structures were built near Garbhagrha/main temple during Chola to house the images of kings, queens, other god & goddess. As a result of this, temples got transformed into a big complex.

This horizontal expansion/elaboration of the temple complex was an indication of territorial expansion. (Size of the empire) because whenever the king used to return from a successful military campaign this additional structure was built. The Temple complex was surrounded by a peripheral wall & gateways known as “Gopuram” were built in four directions. At times, the height of Gopuram was even more than Garbhagrha.

For example, Vijayalaya Choleshvaram temple constructed by king Vijalaya – location – Nartamalai, Balasubramanya temple (Kannanur) built by Aditya I, Naveshvara temple (Kumbhakaran) by Aditya I, Koranganatha temple (Shinivasanallur) built by Parantaka I, Gangaikonda Cholapuram (Shinivasanallur) built by Rajendra I in memory of a successful military campaign organized against North India in which Pala king Mahipala was defeated, Airavateshwar temple (Darasuram) built by Rajaraja II, Sarabeswara / Kampahareshwar temple (Thirubhuvanam) built by Kulotthunga III, and Brihadeshvara temple built by Rajaraja I at Tanjore.

Vijayanagara Architecture

 The early phase of Vijayanagara Architecture

The 1st phase of Vijayanagara architecture can be seen in the monument of the 14th century. During this phase, monuments were deeply influenced by the Deccani style of architecture that flourished under Chalukyas of Badami / Vatapi. Temples of this phase are simpler without much ornamentation. Vidyashankar temple at Hampi & Jaina Shrine at Humpi is the finest example.

Provida Style

In the 15th century, a typical Vijayanagara style of architecture emerged which is known as the Provida style. It was a developed/evolved form of Chola architecture/Dravidian style. The chief Goddess of the temple started residing in a new structure known as Amman Shrine.

For the ceremonial union of the chief God & Goddess, a new structure known as “Kalyanam Mandapa” (Marriage Hall) was built in the temple complex. At beginning of the Mahanavmi festival image of the chief God & Goddess were carried to Kalyana Mandapa with great fanfare (Celebration). A 1000 pillared hall known as “Vasanta Mandapa” was also built in the temple complex. It was used for the gathering of the devotee.

The pillars of this hall have the image of a charging horse (attacking/running). These pillars are known as Yali Stamba. The gateways to the temple complex became massive. These are known as Raya Gopuram. These changes in architecture & the emergence of new temple ceremonies were the outcome of greater prosperity during the Vijayanagar period. For example, Hazara Rama temple – Hampi (the modern name of Vijayanagar) – built by King Devaraya I, Vitthala temple – Hampi – Krishnadev Raya, Hazara Rama Swami temple Krishnadev Raya, and Virupaksha temple Krishnadev Raya.

Nayaka Style

The Nayaka’s were the senior military commander appointed as provincial governor in peripheral areas. They were autonomous & were under the nominal control of the central authority. Nayaka’s used to have their court, own coins & own army.

After the defeat of the Vijayanagar Empire in the battle of Talikota in 1565, the central authority became weak & Nayaka gained immense power. As a result of which a typical style of temple architecture emerged under the patronage of Nayaka in the 17th century. Temples of the Nayaka style are smaller in size but they are highly ornamented. Meenakshi temple built by Kulashekhar Pandya at Madurai in the 17th century is the finest example.

Vesara Style (6th – 8th Century)

The four Vesara styles of Temple Architecture flourished in Deccan covering parts of Southern Maharashtra & Karnataka. This style emerged during the period of Chalukyas of Badami during the 6th to 8th centuries. The term Vesara has originated from the Sanskrit word “Vishvana” which means movement/journey. This style emerged as a result of the movement of features from the Nagara style & Dravidian style from the South.

In this style, temples of Nagara & Dravidian style built at the same place simultaneously. This co-existence of temples of both styles is an important feature. At times, the feature of Nagara & Dravidian style was combined in one temple. Vimanas in these temples are more like Shikhars of Nagara style. The roof is flatter. A covered circumambulatory path is not found generally in temples of Dravidian temples. Large numbers of images were used on the outer wall & the tower of the temple.

Temples of Vesara style are found at Badami/Vatapi, Aihole & Pattadakal. At Badami, there are three Hindu & one Jaina temple. Aihole is known as the “City of Temple”. More than 70 temples are located here. Among these temples, Ladhkhan Harchchimalligudi & Durga temple is the most prominent. Ladhkhan Harchchimalligudi has a flat roof. It’s pillared Varanda in front of the sanctum is highly ornamented. Durga temple is built on a raised platform.

Meguti temple was built by Ravikirti at Aihole. It is a Jaina temple. Ravikirti was minister of peace & was (Mahasandhi Vigrahika) of Pulkesin II. The famous Aihole inscription was found on the wall of this temple. Ten temples were located at Pattadakal. Out of these four are of Nagara style & six are of Dravidian style.

Hoysala Style of Temple Architecture (1100AD – 1300AD)

This style of Temple Architecture flourished during the reign of Hoysalas in Karnataka. Hoysalas ruled with the capital at Dwar Samudra (at present known as Helebidu ) during 1100AD – 1325AD. This style is also known as the Karnata–Dravida style because of its similarity with the Dravidian style of temple architecture. The star-shaped layout of the temple is the most essential feature of this style. Multiple Shrine/Garbhagrha are built around the pillared hall.

At the time there were two (double temple), three (triple temple) & four (quadruple temples). All these temples were duplicated of main Garbhagraha. They were having the same part. These are dwarfish in size. The pillars are highly ornamented. These pillars are the most beautiful among all pillars in peninsular India. For example, Channakeshava (Belur), Hoyasaleshvara (Helebidu), and Keshava (Somanathpura). This style of Temple Architecture was succeeded by Vijayanagar architecture because the Vijayanagar Empire emerged in the same area after a few decades of decline of Hoyasala (in 1336).