How did Hindu Temples evolve- Response to Patrick Olivelle column

  • Does size of temple or shraddha matter? How did worship evolve from caves to temples? Why did making of structural temples start in Gupta period? Lastly, pictures of stupas, caves and temples across India spanning centuries.  

In the run-up to the Prana Pratishtha of the Ram Mandir Ayodhya, the learned Patrick Olivelle (Professor Emeritus of Asian Studies, The University of Texas at Austin) wrote When did large Hindu temples come into being? Not before 500 AD 


To my mind size of temple does not matter. What matters is shraddha of devotees and architecture for e.g. the small Mukteshwar Mandir Bhubaneshwar is considered a gem of Odishan architecture. Further, we must realize that in Indic traditions, unlike in Abrahamic religions, thoughts evolve with time since followers do not follow one Holy Book or and one Founder. So also did temple size and design. There is no one size fit in Indian thought.

Further, as Professor Gavin Flood wrote in his seminal book-The Tantric Body, we are to divinize the body and a temple is a reflection of the microcosm of the human body. The macrocosm is structured like the body or the sarx. When this sarx, or flesh is sacralised , then we have temples. Temples in their turn help in this divinisation. So as long as we have endured, so long have temples been. And as long as we endure, so long will temples be.


At the outset, say that I am neither a scholar of the Vedas nor Dharmashastras. However, as a photojournalist I travelled to all states of India except West Bengal, Jharkhand and undivided Andhra Pradesh.


Key points made in Patrick ji’s article are in italics followed by comments. Matter covered goes beyond his article. An attempt is made to tell about evolution of temples in Indic tradition followed by pictures of caves, temples. 


1. “Vedic rituals were performed in purpose-built temporary structures. Domestic rituals described in the Grihya Sutras were performed at home. Terms for temple appear in the Dharmashastras and other literature composed in the 3rd century BCE or later. Dharmashastras opposed temple-based religious and ritual activities.” 


Author and Indic Scholar Subhash Kak says, “Temples are mentioned in Panini’s grammar (500 BCE) and I have written much on how the prototype of the temple goes back to the Agnicayana rite of the Yajurveda. The sacred ground for Vedic ritual is the precursor to the temple.” To read Kak’s paper Archaeoastronomy in India   (see section 4: The Plan of a temple)


Astronomer Varahamihira (505-587) wrote Brhat Samhita that compiled the received knowledge on a number of subjects include temple architecture and the science of building. 3 P 106


2. Imagine taking a trip in North India today and not before the start of the Common Era as written. “So, you turned to your travel guide and asked: Where have all the temples gone?” The guide was puzzled. He had no idea what you were talking about.” 


In North India, invaders destroyed temples so very few left. For e.g. Faces of Jain Tirthankaras were mutiliated 

Rock cut Jain Colossi, Gwalior Fort. 

Siddhanath Shiv Temple, Omkareshwar.


3. “What is a temple? Hindu traditions existed for over a thousand years before the need to construct temples was felt. The English word temple, for example, is used only in some contexts. Even in Indian English, one rarely uses the term ‘temple’ for a Sikh gurdwara or a Muslim mosque. So, what were the indigenous terms for what we call temples today?”


In India the word Mandir (Sanskrit-Hindi) is used for word temple. In Tamil temple is Kovil, Oriya is Deula, Kannada is Devasthana and Bengali is Mandira. Every English word does not capture essence of a Sanskrit one.


The actual name of the holiest Sikh shrine is Hari Mandir. In English it called Golden Temple. Golden after Maharaja Ranjit Singh donated Gold to this mandir, as he did to Kashi Vishwanath and Jwalamukhi (Himachal).


Prior to the Gurdwara it was called Dharamshala. “Nanak insisted that every Sikh house should serve as a place of love and devotion, a true guest house (Sach Dharmshala). Every Sikh was enjoined to welcome a traveller or a needy person and to share his meals. Bhai Gurdas says: “Wherever the holy feet of Guru Nank touched, Dharmashalas sprang to existence.” 1 P 659

SGPC booklet gives name as Hari Mandir.

4. Next, what does the word Mandir mean?

An article in refers to Mandir in Vastushashtra, “Mandira refers to a “temple”, and in a broader sense represents “devotional place” or “residence of God”. It is one of commonly used names for a temple, as found in Vāstuśāstra literature such the Mayamata and the Mānasāra. Mandira refers to an “abode”, according to the 11th century Jñānārṇava, a treatise on Jain Yoga in roughly 2200 Sanskrit verses composed by Śubhacandra.”



Spiritual guide Neeta Shakhashree gives an understanding of the term Mandir that many Indians can relate to. “Mandir’ is made of the Sanskrit words ‘mana’ meaning ‘inner self’ and ‘dir’ meaning ‘a place’; a place where inner self lives in. It can also be said that ‘Mandir’ comes from ‘Manas’ meaning spirit, intelligence, thought, mind, imagination or perception and ‘dhiraya’ meaning ‘sigh, comfort, warmth, coming to a standstill, calm’. It means a place where ‘mana’ or mind (which is fickle, unstable’ becomes calm or nestles in the warmth of spirituality. Similarly the word ‘Masjid’ is made of the Arabic root ‘ma’ meaning ‘of’ and ‘sajid’ from ‘Sajood’ meaning ‘prostration’. It means a place where a devotee prostrates to the Divine.” Source


With time temples were required. “Consolidating the austere cosmologies of ritual sacrifice, making visible the face of human devotion, giving space to increasing congregation, temples became the essential frame-body for contemporary Hinduism.” 3 P 109   


5. Does size of temple matter?

Dr. Ujjwala Palsuley, Ph. D. in Dravidian and Khmer temple Architecture, Cambodia and Founder of Samrachana-Heritage Conservation & Research Initiative, Pune says, “Temple size depended on the patronage and its importance in the society. When kings or royal families constructed temples, they were majorly social, cultural, institutional and administrative centres so they are supposed to cater to all the needs of society. However, in the temple the only important parts would be a small mandala, Antarala and Garbhagraha).”


6. “On the ground, monumental religious architecture was first associated with Buddhist sites. Beginning with Ashoka (3rd century BCE) and culminating in the Kushan empire (2nd century CE), Buddhist architecture was well developed when Hindu temples began to be constructed probably around the 1st or 2nd century CE. Yet, Brahminical texts composed in the first half of the 1st century CE take no notice of such images or the rituals surrounding them.”


How did key Buddhist sites like Bodhgaya and Sanchi evolve?


On Bodh Gaya Mandir the ASI site says, “Emperor Asoka visited Bodh Gaya around 260 B.C. and constructed a small temple (diamond throne representing the seat of enlightenment) near the Bodhi tree. An inscription datable to 1-2nd century A.D. mentions that the temple of Asoka was replaced by a new one. Several additions and alterations took place and the present temple may be datable to the 6th century A.D.” Senior journalist Sandhya Jain wrote, “In the 13th century the Mahavira was sacked by the Turks. Around 1590 a Saivite saint took charge of the Mahavira. In 1883, Sir Alexander Cunningham, J.D.M. Beglar and Dr Rajendra Lal Mitra renovated the temple on scientific lines.”

From the UNESCO site, “The temple is considered to be the oldest and best preserved example of brick architecture in India from this particular period.” A brick stupa was constructed at Sujata Garh near Bodhgaya. The excavations yielded an inscription date 8-9th century a.d.


Since India has many stupas what is a stupa? Stupa means heap in a dome-like form erected over the mortal remains of Buddha and Buddhist saints. The practice of erecting mounds over the body remains of the dead goes back to pre-historic times. 3 P 37


Asoka was responsible for developing stupa puja into a popular cult.


According to the World Heritage series on Sanchi published by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), “In the first century B.C. the elaborately carved gateways to stupa 1 were built during the rule of the Satavahanas. The earlier stupa was built of burnt bricks and mud mortar and suffered from wanton damage, before the middle of the 2nd century BC, after which it was completely reconstructed. Later, during the Gupta period, several temples were built and sculptures added. Construction continued at the site well up to 12th century a.d. The foundations of the great religious establishment at Sanchi, was perhaps laid by Ashoka when he built a stupa and erected a monolithic pillar there. In Temple 17 at Sanchi, we find one of the earliest Gupta temples noted for its well balanced proportion, restraint in ornamentation and elegance.”


Archaeological evidence available today indicate temples came to exist after 3rd century a.d.


However, according to this UNESCO site, “Evidences prove the origin of the Srirangam temple in 1st century CE during the Sangam period. However, as it stands today, the temple represents an accretion of building activity over centuries, the architectural idioms coming from the several royal dynasties who were captivated by and adored the Temple.” In India, temples were built over periods of time. Some historians say temple history goes back to the 3rd century B.C. whilst others believed it was built in the 9th century a.d. Source Temple was attacked by invaders in 1323. So also, “The Chidambaram Temple, in Tamil Nadu, sculptures depicting the Thillai trees date back to the 2nd century CE. Source


Now details of key Indic sites.


Of the 28 caves at Ajanta, five date back to before the Christian era. 2 P. 471 These caves were in line with Indian tradition in which since time immemorial natural caves were used as ideal places for meditation. 3 P. 74   


Udaygiri Caves Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh can be dated about the beginning of the 5th century a.d. Caves like Khangiri in Odisha were monastic abodes. 


Buddhist caves Ellora were probably excavated between 550-750 A.D 2 Pg. 484 in the 5-6th centuries the image of Buddha assumed more importance so the need for a chaitya hall diminished and thus the Buddhist rock-cut shrines went out of use. 3 P 79


Badami Cave no 1 was excavated in rock in 550 A.D. during Chalukya rule.


According to the ASI book on Mahabalipuram, the majority of the monuments were constructed under the Pallava ruler, Narasimhavarman (630-670 a.d.) Structural architecture was introduced by Rajasimha (700-728). The 5 Rathas (ratham in Tamil) are monoliths i.e. free-standing temples cut out of solid rock.


The Hindu caves at Ellora date from 650 a.d. 2 P 494 Jain Caves Ellora can be datable to 10-11th century a.d.


Pattadakal (from latter part of the 7th century grew into a centre of temple models) and Aihole (Ravanphadi cave attributed to 6th century.) in Karnataka are considered to be the cradle of Indian temple architecture.


7. “By the Gupta period, that is, around the 5th century CE, large Hindu temples became commonplace in the Indian landscape, especially at sacred sites.  Temple architecture flourished, giving rise to a rich array of regional style.” The Gupta period (320 to about 500 A.D.) is considered the Golden Period of India. Why is that and its impact on temple making?


Kulapati K M Munshi wrote in Foreword to volume 3, “The Gupta emperors upheld Dharma. The age saw the speculative thought among others of Vasubandhu and the Nayanars; the perfect lyric and drama of Kaildasa; the astronomical discoveries of Varahamihira; the iron pillar of Delhi; the beginnings of structural temples; the beauty of the early Ajanta frescoes; the rise of Vaishnavism and Saivism; Greatness of the empire lay in its integral outlook.” 2 Pg xiv


“Its strength was based as much on military strength as on internal order and economic policy; the sap of its vitality was drawn from ancient tradition which they maintained, re-interpreted and replenished. Life was never happier, our culture never more creative than during the Golden Prime of India.” 2 Pg xv


Key points are cultural uprising during the Gupta period, economic prosperity and resultant surge in creativity. Peace and prosperity are essential for growth of artistic pursuits. Plus cave excavations were not suited to the ritualistic needs connected with the worship of Murtis so structural temples required for proper enshrinement of the deity. 2 P 501


“The Gupta period heralded a new period in Indian temple architecture. Earlier shrines were made of perishable items like wood, bamboo. Now temples were made in permanent materials, esp. brick and dressed stone.” 2 However, Buddhism was not deprived of royal patronage.


In religious architecture there is always an aspiration for ascending height. No sikhara temple can probably be placed before 6th century a.d. 2 P 513


It started with caves, bricks etc. and then stone. Here are select pictures of stupas, temples etc. across India.  


Sanchi Stupa. Made 1st century B.C. onwards. 

Udaygiri and Khandagiri Caves Odisha. Caves excavated 1st century BC to 10/11th A.D.

Dhamek Stupa Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh. (3rd century B.C. to 12th century A.D.)

Ajanta Caves no 17, Maharashtra.  475 to 500 a.d. 

Badami Caves, Karnataka. Cave 1 carved in 550 a.d.

Badami Maha Vishnu Cave.  

Five Rathas Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu.  Made 630-668 a.d.

Ratnagiri Monastery, Odisha. Hiuen Tsang referred to in 639 a.d.

Buddhist Cave no 10 Ellora, Maharashtra.  7th century a.d.

Sangamareshwara Temple Pattadakhal. Karnataka. Built around 720 a.d. 

Shore Temple Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu. 700-728 a.d.

Kailasanathar Temple Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. Built by Pallava king Rajasimha (700-728). 

Surya Martand Mandir Kashmir. Made 724-761 a.d. 

Kailasa Temple Ellora, Maharashtra. Made 725-773 a.d.

Aihole Malikarjuna Temple, Karnataka. Made 8th century a.d.

Bateshar Temples Morena, MP. Made 6-9th century a.d.

Sujata Garh Bodhgaya. Excavations yielded an inscription date 8-9th century.

Telika Mandir Gwalior Fort, MP. Made 9th century a.d.

Padawali Temple Morena, MP. Made 10th century.

Mukteshwar Temple Bhubaneshwar. Outer walls built in 966 a.d.

 Brihadesvara Temple Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. 1010 a.d. 

Surya Mandir Modhera, Gujarat. Made between 1022-1063.

Dilwara Temples Mount Abu, Rajasthan. 1st two temples built in 1031 a.d.

Rock cut 11-12 century UNAKOTI, Tripura. A temple existed prior to carvings 9-10th century.

Jain Caves Ellora, Maharashtra. Made 10-11th century a.d.

Kiradu Temples Barmer, Rajasthan. Made 11-12th century.

Madanmohan Temple Bishnupur, West Bengal. Made 1694.  

 Does any country have such a rich heritage? India's heritage has survived and grown over 1500 years! 

All pictures except Sanchi stupa copyright . This article should not be published without written permission of Errors if any are unintended and without malafide intent.



1. History and Culture of Indian People Volume 7 published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

2. History and Culture of Indian People Volume 2.

3. Cultural Heritage of India Volume 1 published by the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture.

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