Architecture

Cosmos in miniature

Print edition : March 20, 2015

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya, Bihar. The temple, built in the mid-5th century A.D. at the spot where the Buddha gained Enlightenment, near Gaya, is the oldest standing grand structure in India. Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim who visited the site in the 7th century, described Bodhgaya as "the centre of the Buddhist world". This is one of the four holiest places for Buddhists.

Chaitya-griha, Kushinagara, Uttar Pradesh. This commemorates the place where the Buddha achieved Parinirvana in his 80th year. The Parinirvana is when the Buddha left his mortal body and attained freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. This is another of the four holiest places for Buddhists.

Gilded statue of the Parinirvana, Kushinagara.

Buddhist Temple, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, 5th century. World Heritage Site. This is one of the most important well-preserved structures here. Its simplicity is characteristic of the early Gupta period.

Apsidal Durga Temple, Aihole, Karnataka, 8th century. The apsidal architectural form was the most popular in early Buddhist rock-cut chaityas. This beautiful form was sometimes replicated in later structural temples, usually with a barrel-shaped roof. This is a very unusual instance in which the apsidal form is combined with a shikhara, or tower, of the north Indian temple style.

The Virupaksha Temple, Pattadakal, Karnataka, 8th century. The temples of Pattadakal are a World Heritage Site. The Virupaksha temple, along with the Kailasanatha Temple in Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu, formed perhaps the most impressive structures of its time. These temples presage the era of vast temples to come, which were made to convey the grandeur of the kings of Tamil Nadu and the Deccan.

Kailasanatha temple, 8th century. Narsimhavarman II Rajasimha made this glorious temple in Kancheepuram for his personal worship. A foundation inscription states that he erected this extensive and wondrous house of Siva to reflect his own glory and the laughter of Siva. The temple is dedicated to Siva Gangadhara, the bearer of the river Ganga.

Shore Temple, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, 8th century. This is the oldest surviving free-standing structural temple in south India. It was built during the rule of Narsimhavarman II Rajasimha.

Pancha Ratha, Mamallapuram, 7th century. The temples of Mamallapuram are a World Heritage Site. The five temples, misnamed rathas, or chariots, depict the various forms that the South Indian temple structure had taken. These are cut out of huge boulders in imitation of structural temples. In that period, there would have been many structures of these shapes made out of wood and other ephemeral materials, which have not survived. The numerous kinds of temples seen here, along with rock-cut relief and caves, give a fairy-tale like quality to Mamallapuram, a fascinating town of divine structures.

Siva Temple, Pandrethan, near Srinagar, Kashmir, 8th-9th centuries. A well-preserved example of Kashmiri architecture. A figure of Lakulisha above the doorway indicates that it is a Siva temple. The temples that were built in Kashmir show the wealth and diversity of the cultural roots of Kashmiri architecture. The trefoiled arches seen here were probably derived from Gandhara and the triangular gables are reminiscent of Byzantine and Syrian buildings. These were replicated in the monasteries built by Kashmiri architects and sculptors in the trans- Himalayas.

Martand Sun Temple, Kashmir, 8th century. This majestic sun temple may have been one of the grandest structural temples standing in India in its time. It is also one of the oldest surviving monuments shoing the art and architecture of early Kashmir.

Vrttuvankovil, Kalugumalai, Tamil Nadu, 8th century. Majestically carved out of the living rock of the hill is the unfinished Siva temple, not very far from Kanyakumari. The temple was built during Pandya rule. After the cave temples of the early period, the style of rock-cut excavation to replicate free-standing structures developed at Mamallapuram and kalugumalai. The vast Kailasanatha temple complex at Ellora, Maharashtra, would have been made soon after this.

Narayan Nag temples, Wangath, Kashmir, 7th-12th centuries. High atop a mountain, amidst the verdant beauty of nature, this site has the remains of Narayan Nag temples.

Rock-cut Temple, Masrur, Himachal Pradesh, 8th century. In the Himalayan foothills, a high ridge of sandstone was carved into a magnificent temple complex. This was the period when hills were carved both inside and out, to create temples far south at Kalugumalai and in Western India at Ellora. The Masrur temple has five towers and is a precursor to such a temple at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Somnath temple, Junagadh, Gujarat. The ancient temple, reconstructed in 1951, is located in the Prabhas Kshetra near Veravel in Saurashtra. This is the first amongh the 12 Jyotirlinga shrines of Siva.

Vijayalaya Cholisvara, Narthamalai, Tamil Nadu, 9th century. Located atop a hill, the temple elevates the spirit of the visitor. This is an exquisite structure, but not on the vast scale of the later Chola temples. The natural beauty of the unspoilt site further enhances the spiritual experience.

Siva on the façade, Somnath temple.

Airateshvara temple, Darasuram, Tamil Nadu, 12th century. King Rajaraja Chola II made this splendid temple, continuing the grand tradition established by his predecessors. The temples of the Chola period are marked by sophistication and regal grandeur. They are indeed embodiments of the majesty of the spirit.

Kailasanatha temple, Cave 16, Ellora, Aurangabad, Maharashtra, 8th century. The grand climax of rock-cut architecture in India was the making of the Kailasanatha temple, hewn out of an entire hill. The conception staggers the mind: it is a vast multistoreyed structure, carved inside and out, made out of the heart of the rock.

Siva, high on the façade, Mooverkoil, Kodambulur, Tamil Nadu, 10th century. The sculptures of the early Chola period are among the finest ever made. Their grace transports the viewer far from the cares and confusions of the material world to a realm of joy and harmony.

Mooverkoil. The temples of the early Chola period are not as vast and impressive structures as the later Chola temples. Yet there is a sense of refinement and harmonious balance in them, which is not to be seen in later temples.

Chaurasi temples, Bharmaur, Chamba district, Himachal Pradesh, 7 -10th centuries. The Chamba region is secluded and has provided a peaceful haven for the continuation of ancient culture. The worship at shrines located here has continued uninterrupted for centuries and many of the images of the original deities are still to be found in these temples.

Kedarnath Siva Temple, Uttarakhand. This is one of the holiest Hindu temples dedicated to Siva. It is in the Garhwal Himalayan range, near the Mandakini river. Owing to extreme weather conditions, the temple is open only from the end of April (from "akshaya tritriya") to Kartik Purnima (the autumn full moon, usually in November). During the winters, the images of the deities at the Kedarnath temple are brought to Ukhimath and worshiped there for six months.

Rajarani temple, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, 11th century. From the nagas coiled around the pillars of the entrance of the jagmohan (hall of audience) to the profuse depictions of deities and beautiful maidens upon the deul (shrine), this temple conveys the fruitful and pulsating life of the natural order.

Sun temple, Konarak, Puri, Odisha, 13th century. One of the few major Sun temples that remain in India, the Konarak temple, constructed by King Narasimhadeva, is typical of Odisha architectural styles. However, what makes it unique is that its form resembles a chariot being drawn by seven horses, each representing a day of the week. Abul Fazl, the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s court historian, remarked about the Sun Temple in the 16th century thus: “Even those whose judgement is critical and who are difficult to please, stand astonished at its sight.” This is a World Heritage Site.

Brhadisvara temple, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, end-10th century. The end of the 10th century saw the making of the grandest temple in all of India. King Rajaraja Chola made this temple dedicated to ‘The Great Lord Siva’, to display the magnificence of Siva as well as his own considerable power.

Gangotri temple, Uttarakhand. Gangotri is the origin of the river Ganga and the seat of the deity Ganga. The original temple was built by the Gurkha General Amar Singh Thapa. The river is called Bhagirathi at the source and acquires the name Ganga from Devprayag onwards where it meets the Alaknanda. The origin of the river is at Gaumukh in the Gangotri glacier, and is a 19-km trek from Gangotri.

Lingaraja temple, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, 12th century. Standing tall, it is one of the crowning glories of Odisha sculpture. Gone are the small, approachable temples of the early period; the home of the deity is now presented in all its magnificence.

Brhadisvara temple, Gangaikondacholapuram, Tamil Nadu, 11th century. The temple soarsto the skies in graceful majesty. The vimana has a unique concave shape and is carved profusely.

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