THE Indian temple is conceived of as a place for the self-transformation of the devotee. It is here that one wishes to lose the attachments to maya or mithya , the illusions of the material world, and gain knowledge of the formless eternal—the nirguna , the arupa . The cares and confusions of the world around one are left behind and the journey, which connects one to all that there is, is begun here.
In early times, temples were carved out of the faces of hills, in secluded and peaceful locations. In later times, structural temples began to be made. The earliest surviving temple, belonging to the 5th century A.D., is at Sanchi, near the ancient city of Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. The earliest surviving grand structure is the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodhgaya (now in Bihar). This structure was built in the mid-5th century A.D. and renovated over the centuries. The Vishnu temple at Deogarh, also in central India, is of the early 6th century A.D.
The temple and the sculptures in it represent the cosmos and its eternal harmony. This is the theme that underlies early Indic religious traditions. The temple is conceived of as the cosmos in miniature. Brihatsamhita , written by Varahamihira in 6th century A.D., describes the centre of the sanctum as the place for Brahman, the formless divine which pervades all that there is. Around the shrine, manifestations of the deity are represented in forms most closely associated with it.
Series: This is the first part of a two-part article.