The Doorway to the Temple Sanctum-Understanding the sculptures and motifs

  • Article explains the sculptures and motifs on the doorway to a temple sanctum.

A Hindu temple is a structure where sculptures abound on the outer wall surfaces, in the various halls or mandapas, on pillars, ceilings, and also on the shikharas/vimanas. However, such profusion of carvings end abruptly as one crosses the threshold of the sanctum, and enters it.

The sanctum or garbhagriha, also known as prasada, is a dark, cuboidal chamber inside the temple, and remains deprived of any artwork, except for the murti of the presiding deity or a symbol of the deity.

As a bhakta enters the temple with his mind focused on viewing the deity installed inside the prasada, he too becomes a part of the architecture as he stands to gaze or pay obeisance to the various sculptures spread across the mandapas that guide him slowly towards the garbhagriha.

These exquisite carvings come to an abrupt halt at the doorway to the prasada, and the bhakta sees them for the last time crowding the door jambs, the dwara sakhas, and lintels. As he steps inside or peers from outside into the darkness of the prasada with its stark empty walls, he finds nothing there to take his mind away, and his entire focus now centers on the divinity that stands inside.

Baseswara Temple, district Kullu.


Detail Caption - The blue wings of the door to the garbagriha (Baseswara temple, Bajoura village in district Kullu, Himachal Pradesh)


Sri Erakeswara temple, Telengana.


Detail Caption - In larger temples a bhakta crosses various pillared mandapas to reach the sanctum. Seen here is the nritya or ranga mandapa, in the Sri Erakeswara temple, Pillalamari village, Telengana.


As a bhakta approaches the prasada or sanctum, he is met with a framed doorway that follows geometric proportions as given in the Brihatsamhita. He sees the winged doors, a threshold below it, two doorjambs on two sides of the threshold, vertical mouldings or antepagments above the door jambs known as sakhas, and the horizontal top beam or lintel.

Chausath Yogini temple, Madhya Pradesh

Detail caption - The threshold shows a now weathered lotus motif, while the horizontal beam or lintel depicts a worn out Lakulisha at its centre, and the two river devis adorn the door jambs along with the dwarapalas.  Seen here is a chamber inside the Chausath Yogini temple in Morena, Madhya Pradesh.


Generally it is seen that the deity inside and the door to the sanctum are closely related, wherein his image is carved on the lintel at the centre; while his dwarapalas (their weapons signifying the main deity inside) stand guard two on two sides of the door jambs.

On the thresholds there are carved long stemmed lotus flowers, symbolising the divinity of the universe, and also the emotionless mind necessary to reach divinity. The priest and the bhakta entering the garbagriha must cross the threshold without treading on it. As one enters the sanctum, he or she is also raised to the status of the divinity, and the sculptures on the door of the sanctum help the priest and the bhakta to undergo that change.

Bateswara temple, Madhya Pradesh.


Detail caption - Long stemmed lotus on threshold with two elephants flanking it. While the lotus motif is fixed, the other components on two sides may vary. There may be depicted deities, animals, and kirtimukahs too. The photo is of a shrine inside the Bateswara temple complex in Morena, Madhya Pradesh.

Neelkanth temple, Ajmer. 

Detail Caption - Seen here is the sculpture of Shiva (Neelkanth temple in Alwar, Rajasthan) at the centre of the lintel, which is a manifestation of the presiding deity inside the sanctum. Often navagrahas or the nine planets are sculpted on the lintel panels on two sides of the main deity to denote the celestial world; while sometimes the trinity is also carved on the two end and the central niches on the lintel beam, with the presiding deity occupying the central niche. The presiding deity is also sometimes replaced with the image of Lakshmi or Gajalakshmi, where initiation or Diksha (the ritual bath before entering) is given greater importance.


In most Indian temples, on two sides of the two door jambs generally stand the two river devis: Ganga and Yamuna with their retinues, while above them are the dwara sakhas. The term sakhas denote branches, and it is believed that originally a number of branches were held and tied together to create a doorway to the deity, and the tradition was later artistically carried on in form of stone vertical mouldings that now form the dwarasakhas. The sakhas are always seen in odd digit numbers: 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9.

Dwara sakhas, Sri Erakeswara temple.


Above the rivers devis are the carved sakhas. The sakhas are in the form of vertical mouldings that with their sculptural motifs denote youthfulness and lives nurtured by these river waters.

Thus, we see sakhas with creepers, vines, flowers, leaves, mithuna couples, prancing yalis, and happy faces of baby like ganas arising triumphantly from the river devis standing on door jambs. These rivers, which originate from heaven, possess celestial powers, and as one crosses them, he or she undergoes the ritual bath, which symbolises ablution and an initiation to attain divinity. The sacred waters in their celestial state thus wash away human sins; akin  

The sanctum doors thus form to be the sculptural representations depicting the descent of the holy waters from heaven, and the subsequent rise of lives from them. The river devis not only help life to thrive, but they also foster the garbha (embryo) of the temple; while the dwarapalas on two ends of the door jambs protect the new lives arising from the river devis, and most importantly help to preserve the sanctity of the temple embryo

Bateshwar temple, Madhya Pradesh. 

Detail caption - The river devis on door jambs are often depicted without their water pots and vahanas. Often nagas and ganas accompany the river devis, as they form a part of the water world. The appearance of the two devis in temple iconography starts from around early Common Era (early Gupta period), prior to which floral scrolls were mostly seen on door jambs. There also instances of a yakshi shown riding a makara and vanadevis flanking the door jambs. Seen here are the river devis Ganga and Yamuna, without their vahanas on a door jamb in a shrine inside the Bateswara temple in Morena, Madhya Pradesh. 


Teli ka Mandir, Gwalior fort. 


The two river devis: Ganga stands on the right side of the door jamb on makara (her vahana), while Yamuna is on the left side on a turtle (her vahana). On their sides are their attendants, while the dwarapalas stand at the two ends. The dwarapalas show the attributes of the presiding deity inside the sanctum. The devis which rise from heaven (the dark cell inside) give birth to and nurture new lives; while the dwarapalas stand as protectors warding of all evil and preventing contamination of the seed and embryo (garbha) of the temple. (Teli ka mandir, Gwalior fort).


 Yamuna on her turtle. Source: wikipedia

Thus, for a bhakta entering the temple sanctum, the garbagriha door is not only a manifestation of the main deity inside, but it is also a point of initiation; a teerth by itself, which removes all his sins, wards off evil, flourishes life, and provides him with a changeover from his human form to achieve divinity for as long as he crosses the threshold and stays inside the sacred dark chamber.


1. Kramrisch Stella. 2013. Indian Sculpture. Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi

2. Gupta, S., and Asthana, P. S. 2002. Elements of Indian Art. Indraprastha Museum of Art and Archaeology, Delhi.

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Author studies life sciences, geography, art and international relationships. She loves exploring and documenting Indic Heritage. Being a student of history she likes to study the iconography behind various temple sculptures. She is a well-known columnist - history and travel writer. Or read here 


Article was first published on author’s blog and here Article and pictures are courtesy and copyright author.

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