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Sunday 5 April 2020

Ancient Temples & Modern Crowds: Imagining Solutions For Sri Rama Temple In Ayodhya

The Hindu society, after a very long wait, is finally ready to build the temple of Sri Rama in Ayodhya. But there still remain some problems to deal with. As this report suggests, there is a concern about the model of the temple already proposed by Chandrakant Sompura in 1987. It is expected that the crowds at the new Rama temple will be immense and the model suggested may not be able to incorporate such crowds. There are suggestions about increasing the size of the temple.

This is not an easy task. Any attempt to introduce change in the design of the temple is an elaborate and time consuming task. But before any decision is taken it is imperative to consider what our scriptures say about the temple architecture.

Vedic Architecture

Though the phrase ‘Vedic architecture’ is colloquially used quite often, the Vedas do not speak particularly on temple architecture. The term is broadly used to refer to the architecture of the Vedic civilization and in that sense it is right. But technically speaking, the concern of the Vedas is the yajna vedi and not the structural temple that we have become familiar about.

This does not mean that the Vedas do not have any connection to the temples. Dr R Nagaswamy in his brilliant work “Vedic Roots of Hindu Iconography” traces the roots of Hindu iconography to the Vedas. The Vedic connection to the temple is much deeper. The Hindu temple is an evolution of the Vedic fire altar, the Yajna Vedi, in which the Yajnas were performed. Stella Kramrisch says:

The Sulva-sutras contained in the Kalpa-sutras, represent the rules and give a proportionate measurement for laying out and piling up the Vedic altar. On them basically rests the building of the Hindu temple.” [I]Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple Vol I New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1946 (2015 ed) p 11

The priests who performed the yajnas invoked the deity through mantras and imagined the form of the deity in the Yajna fire. However, as the Vedic Yajna could only be performed by priests trained in the art of Vedic chanting of mantras, not everyone was able to take part in the process.

The temple was the solution to this problem. The deity who was invoked and imagined in the Vedic fire took a permanent form in the temple. The entire temple structure was imagined as the Yajna Vedi. The temple priest offered worship on behalf of the devotee and thus anyone who wished could undertake the divine process.

The Shastras

It was in the later ages that the temple became the dominant form of devotion for the Hindu society. It was during this age, that specific Shastras particularly dedicated to various aspects of temple building were codified. This does not mean that the Hindu temple is only as old as the oldest of the texts on Hindu architecture.

As Dr Bharat Gupt says, the Lakshana Grantha or the scripture about a particular art comes later than art. The art is primary and it comes first. Only when the practice of the art becomes common the scripture detailing the art form is codified. Thus, Natya (dance and drama) in India is much older than the age of the Natya Shastra which is around 2700 years old. Similar is the case with the scriptures detailing the art of Hindu temple architecture.

The knowledge of building a Hindu temple is spread in many scriptures written over a long period of time. The Samhitas too, like the Brhta Samhita, speak on the art of iconography. There are basically two categories of these scriptures: Vastu Shastras and Shilpa Shastras. Manasara, Mayamata and Samranganasutradhara are some of the most famous scriptures detailing temple architecture.

The Puranas too are a repository of temple architecture and iconography. Some of the most instructive Puranas on the subject are Agni Purana, Matsya Purana, Brahmanda Purana, Vishnu Dharmottara Purana etc. The Agamas are also a great source of temple building, iconography and the rituals associated with a temple. Some of the greatest Shilpa Shastras are Mayashastra, Suprabhedagama, Shilparatna Sagara etc.

The different scriptures have a different focus. Some of them were prevalent in one region, some of them in another. Some were more influential in the ancient age, some more in the medieval. That is why there is a lot of variety within the temple building tradition in India. This does not mean that these scriptures were exclusive of each other and closely studying them, there does emerge a general picture of the idea of the Hindu temple.

The Instructions on Iconography and Architecture

The most wonderful aspect of the Hindu temple is that despite being one of the most concrete of arts, it still takes the devotee on the most sublime of spiritual journeys. Most of the Hindu scriptures focus on the rituals that are to be completed from the moment the temple site is selected to the daily rituals that are to be followed in the temple.

Another important part is the pratima lakshana, where the relative size and proportions of the deities to be sculpted are given. Very detailed descriptions are given about the way particular deities are to be depicted. A lot of focus is on the mudras that they show, the ayudhas (weapons) that they wield and the poses that they take. 

Many scriptures like the Manasara, the Samranganasutradhara, and the Vishnu Dharmottara Purana detail the different kinds of garbhagrihas to be built for different deities and different forms of the same deity. Though the most common size of the garbhagriha is square, many other forms like the rectangular, the circular and the octagonal are also recommended. In other words, there are detailed and elaborate instructions on the shape of the garbhagriha of the temple.

It is interesting to note, however, that there is no instruction on the size of the temple. It is left on the contingencies of time and space. The purse of the ruler, or the local community, the site available and the crowds to be incorporated are some of the factors on which the size of the temple is decided. This is one of the reasons instructions are only about the garbhagriha. The mandapams are made according to the need and the idiom which suits the local ethos.

The point to be noted here is that the Shastras leave the size of the temple on the contingency of time and place. We are left to infer further instructions from the various styles prevalent across India and how they evolved over centuries.

Various idioms across India

There are three main styles in which the Hindu temple is built: Nagara, Vesara and Dravida. Without going into details, Nagara style is prevalent in all of north India from Kashmir to Maharashtra, from Gujarat to Assam. The Dravida idiom is prevalent in the south, mainly in the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kerala and some parts of Karnataka. The Vesara style, primarily a mixture of the Nagara and the Dravida is famous mainly in Karnataka.

Ayodhya, the birthplace of Sri Rama, obviously lies in the sphere of the Nagara idiom. The North Indian idiom itself is divided into many sub-idioms like the Kalinga style of architecture prevalent in Odisha; the Kashmir style, which was prevalent in Kashmir and Pakistan earlier; the Pahari Nagara style prevalent in Himachal and Uttarakhand; the Maha Maru style prevalent in Rajasthan, the Maha-Gurjar style prevalent in Gujarat; and the central India style prevalent in Madhya Pradesh.

Going by the style of the Shikhara: the three main divisions of the Nagara shikhara are Latina, Shekhari and Bhumija. The Latina is the oldest form of the Nagara. However, Shekhari became more famous over time. The proposed temple at Ayodhya plans to build a variant of the Shekhari mode. However, as very few ancient and even medieval examples from Uttar Pradesh survive till modern times, it is instructive to take inspiration from the idiom which is the nearest geographical cousin, the group of temples at Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh.

Accommodating modern crowds

The Rama temple is at the epicentre of the socio-cultural and religious rhythm of India. It is bound to attract lakhs upon lakhs of crowds and it is best to keep this in mind before going ahead with a plan.

Most of the ancient temples in North India are not huge in size. One would not be wrong to say that they are fairly small in size. One of the first structural examples of mainly the Gupta and Pratihara period at Deogarh, Nachna, Bateshwar etc. are often no more than a very simple garbhagriha with a shikhara topping it and nothing else. The entire structure hardly goes above 6 to 9 feet.

As we go proceed in time, we encounter bigger temples like the ones at Osian, the Ambika Mata Temple at Jagat, Udaipur, and the Surya Temple at Modhera etc. But even these are not very big. Some of the largest, like the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple or the Vishwanatha Temple at Khajuraho, can hardly hold more than a couple of hundred devotees inside the temple. Though the Kandariya Mahadeva temple is majestic and the shikhara touches the sky with exquisite sculpture all around, the entire structure is not designed to hold many devotees at one time.

Only in Odisha do we find bigger temples, like the Jagannath Temple at Puri or the Great Lingaraja at Bhubaneswar. But even here the central structure is hardly a little bigger. The Jagannath temple at Puri can hosts a few hundred inside its Jagamohan, more than any other, but still not enough to incorporate the crowds that we envisage in modern times.

But it is here that we start to find the solution to the problem of the modern crowds. The Jagannath temple at Puri is not a single structure. The main temple is surrounded by a great open courtyard ringed by massive walls. There are actually two concentric courtyards, one containing the other. One has to cross two gates from any side to arrive upon the main temple. And within these two courtyards, there are many subsidiary shrines. These open courtyards are very big and can hold thousands of devotees. Thus by inventing walled courtyards, the Odishan School of architecture solved the problem of incorporating bigger crowds into an ancient temple.

Odisha, however, was not alone in this. It was in South India, that a perfect solution of incorporating the modern crowds was found. The solution was the same, but the implementation was on a far bigger and far more continuous and integrative scale.

Dravida architecture of concentric courtyards

The Dravida style of architecture, most prevalent in Tamil Nadu, but also in all the five states of south India found a perfect solution to the crowds of the devotees. For the main structure of any temple, even such a huge temple as the magnificent Brihadeeswar Temple, Thanjavur was incapable of accommodating thousands of the devotees within the main temple. That is why in the Great Temple at Thanjavur, we see a great courtyard with a collonaded boundary wall contained thousands of Shiva Lingams. The courtyard is big enough to accommodate the crowds.

However, in Tamil Nadu, even more efficient and organic solutions were found in latter-day temples. To make an important note here, Tamil Nadu like all other regions of India bore the brunt of Islamic invasions, but except the Madurai Sultanate, no Islamic kingdom could rule Tamil Nadu for a very long period of time. And hence in this state, we see an organic development of the Hindu temple architecture, in an almost unbroken chain for sixteen hundred years, starting from somewhere around 5th century CE.

As times progressed the main temple structure started becoming smaller and more compact in style, and the problem of more crowds was solved by making more and more concentric courtyards, with the garbhagriha at its centre. Thus the temples kept becoming bigger and bigger, incorporating more and more crowds, without the need of making the superstructure of the garbhagriha higher.

In one of the most stunning examples of this evolution of temple architecture, we can take the example of the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world: Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam, Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu.

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam: Four outer gopurams

The temple has seven concentric courtyards, with seven gates on all sides. So, if a devotee enters the front gate from one side, he has to cross seven gates, and seven courtyards to finally arrive at the main temple structure, the garbhagriha housing Sri Ranganathaswamy. And these courtyards started incorporating more and more devotees. The size of these Dravida temples became so big that they started housing many of the communities in service of the deity and the temple. As a result, at Ranganathaswamy we see that there are broad roads with vehicles plying in, inside the temple. There are shops, dharmashalas and other utilities inside the temple. It is said about the Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam, that it is not a temple within a city, but a city within the temple.

The devotee upon entering the temple can have the darshan of the primary deity and then visit all the subsidiary shrines located within the walls of the courtyard of the temple, or he can do it the other way round. In any case, the devotee can spend hours within the temple without actually remaining in front of the garbhagriha for more than a few minutes.

This is not the only temple which came up with such solutions. Almost all Dravida temples in Tamil Nadu became big with this formula of smaller and compact garbhagrihas, and many large and concentric courtyards with massive walls and even more massive gopurams (gates). This is why the most familiar sight of a Dravida temple is its gopuram and not its garbhagriha. The massive gopurams of Sri Ranganathaswamy at Srirangam, Sri Meenakshi Amman at Madurai, Shri Arunachaleshwar at Thiruvannamalai and Srivilliputhur Andal temple, Virudhnagar are etched into the memories of many devotees. On the other hand, the garbhagrihas of all of these temples are quite simple affairs, with no lofty height of the superstructure.

Shri Arunachaleshwara Temple, Thiruvannamalai

The Hindu temple, thus, evolving with time and the changing needs, remained at the centre of the life of its devotees in every possible way. It remained a living institution and not just a religious structure. Entire cities in Tamil Nadu became organized around the temple as their sacred, religious and socio-economic centre. Chidambaram is nothing without the Great Natarajar Temple. Thiruvannamalai is all about the sacred hill and the temple nearby. The breathtaking view that the sacred Arunachala hill commands over the Arunachaleshwara temple actually shows us how even the grids of the city were aligned keeping in mind the temple as its sacred centre.

This would have been the natural path of evolution of the Hindu temple all over the country. The Hindu temple architecture that was exported to foreign countries like Cambodia shows the same structure of concentric squares with courtyards containing many shrines. In the rest of India however, this process was aborted by the devastating Islamic invasions.

The considerably smaller garbhagriha of the Natarajar Temple, Chidambaram

In the face of the immense destruction, the Hindu temple in the North, particularly in the Ganga-Yamuna doab, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, stopped being a living institution for a long period of time. Traditions were discontinued or went in hiding. Structures themselves were destroyed. Temple as a living institution, as the sacred heart of the town, as is still known in Tamil Nadu or Odisha gradually became unknown in the north.

In the twenty-first century time has come to resurrect the Hindu temple as the living institution that it is meant to be; to recreate it as the sacred centre of the town.

The best way to expand the Sri Rama Temple in Ayodhya is to adopt the idiom of concentric courtyards around the main temple structure. This way, the main structure can be designed in any manner. As long as the courtyards incorporate the crowds and organically accommodate the communities at the service of the deity and the temple, the main structure can be as it wants to be. This shall solve the problem of the crowds while also giving great freedom to design the main structure of the temple. May we soon see the grandest of the temples at Ayodhya, in the honour of Sri Rama.

References   [ + ]

I. Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple Vol I New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1946 (2015 ed) p 11
Pankaj Saxena
Pankaj Saxenahttps://www.sirfnews.com/
Author writing on history, Hindu architecture and literature, chief editor of Indic Varta, currently working at Centre for Indic Studies

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