Category Archives: Temple Architecture



As I am trying to study Hinduism Could I ask you another question? It is about ‘Dwarapal’.

I know only that they are security guard in Hindu temples, and every Divinity has his/her own Dwarapal. Vishnu, Shiva, Devi and others have those personal Dwarapals. I have seen them, made of stone, in temples in India. But I cannot find any additional information about Dwarapals in Google

Are there any texts about Dwarapals? What kind of beings they are, who they are by nature, what is their role in Hinduism or in worship of Deity? 

Best regards


Western Malwa -6th century

 1.1. Dear Atma Raga, Thank you. I am glad you asked the question. It is rather an unusual question, but an interesting one. Let me try.

1.2. Dvarapalas are regular features of a major Hindu or Buddhist temple complex. They are the formidable looking ‘gate-keepers’ and guards in service of the presiding deity of the temple. They are the servants and the protectors of their masters. They are typically envisioned as huge and robust warriors. The pairs of Dvarapalas are most usually placed at the entrance to the temple and also at the door way to sanctum (garbha-griha). As you mentioned, each god or goddess has his or her own set of Dvarapalas.

2.1. Dvarapalas are classified as parivara-devathas, meaning that Dvarapalas are semi-divine beings of a minor class who form the entourage of the main deity they serve. The Shilpa Sastra texts that deal with temple architecture (devalaya-vastu) after describing the temple layout, structure and other aspects  with particular reference to the attributes and disposition of the deity to be installed in the temple , do make a  mention of the nature and appearances of the Dvarapalas to be placed at different locations in the temple complex. There are in addition, numerous Dhyana-slokas, or word-pictures in verse that present graphic details of the form, substance and attribute of the deity and his or her attendants. These verses are meant for contemplation and guidance of the Shilpi, the sculptor. I do not know if there are any texts that deal exclusively with the depiction of the Dvarapalas. They form a detail of the larger picture.

2.2. Since Dvarapalas are parivara-devathas, their appearance, attributes etc have to be in accordance with that of their Master, the principal deity that resides in the sanctum. Therefore their costume, weapons, insignia or emblems are indicative of the powers, virtues and magnificence of the presiding deity. Their appearances and stance herald the nature and disposition of the main deity; and also the affiliation of the temple- such as Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi etc.

3.1. Accordingly, the Dvarapalas in a Vishnu temple are rather placid looking; modestly dressed and ornamented.  They are adorned with the signs and emblems of Vishnu such as the tilaka on their fore heads and urdhvapundra (Nama) on their faces, arms, chest etc.. They carry in their upper hands the conch (shankha) and   discus (chakra); and in the lower hands, the mace (gada) and a noose (pasha, coil of rope). They stand erect, cross-legged leaning on their mace as if they are resting. The gestures of their fingers and the look in their eyes caution one to behave properly in the presence of the divinity. The nature and appearance of the Dvarapalas of Vishnu are described in the Agama texts: Isvara Samhita and Pushkara Samhita.


Bhadra                                  Subhadra          

3.2. Similarly, the Dvarapalas in a Shiva temple take after Virabhadra, the ferocious aspect of Shiva. They look fierce with bulging eyes, protruding curved sharp canine teeth, horns (at times); and with their threatening stance and fearsome weapons. They have thick mustaches, bushy eyebrows and  hairy abdomen.  They wear the emblems of Shiva, such as the stripes of ash, animal hides, long flowing unkempt hair etc. They carry a trident, mace, broad-sword and a noose. They look ferocious, gesture ominously and stand planting firmly a foot on the mace. The features of the Dvarapalas of Shiva are described in the latter part (uttarardha) ofKashyapa Shilpa Sastra.


3.3. In the Shaktha tradition where the distinctions between the gross and subtle forms are marked and sharp, the Dvarapalas of the female deities who represent the grosser elements of nature are fearsome looking females, modeled after the ferocious aspect of their Mother deity. They carry cutlasses and tridents; wear garlands of skull; and sport wild unkempt hair. Quite often they are portrayed with flashy eyes, long protruding teeth and tongue spread out of the open mouth. The Dvarapalas of the Devi are pictured in Kalika Puranam.’

In the Dakshina-chara School (the right handed method) of Sri Vidya tradition the guarding deities are the physical (sthula) representations of certain symbolic concepts. For instance, the outermost enclosure (avarana) of Sri Chakra, named Bhupura Chakra – the earth stretch, has four gates (dvara). The Eastern gate is the way of the mantras; the Southern gate is the way of devotion or bhakti; the Western gate is for the performance of rites and rituals, or karma-kanda.; and the Northern gate is the way of wisdom, or Jnana. The Mudra devathas, the standard bearers, the approach to the divinities and carrying seals of authority, guard those entrances. They resemble in appearance the auspicious form of the Mother Goddess and carry weapons such as bow, arrows, goad and noose.

4.1. As regards the general features of all Dvarapalas placed in the temples, they are well built, muscular, broad shouldered, very tall and sporting fearsome moustaches. Each is endowed with four arms.  They are elaborately adorned with Kirita (headgear), Bhuja –kirti (shoulder ornaments), karna-kundala (hanging earrings). They are always soldier-like and larger than life; but they can hardly be called very terrifying. The Dvarapala are not provided with halos or garlands. They always carry weapons; and are always depicted as standing guard. Dvarapalas are always in pair or in even numbers. The Agama texts recommend four pairs of Dvarapalas, each pair to guard a cardinal direction.

The Dvarapala images are usually scaled in  saptha  (seven)  tala  or nava (nine) tala measure.   They are made either with two or four arms.

4.2. The Dvarapalas, in each case, are in some way associated with their main deity through a legend detailed in a Purana. The Dvarapalas of major deities such as Vishnu or Shiva have recognizable names and specified positions. In the Agamas they are termed Ganeshvara, the chief of the horde.

For instance the four pairs of Dvarapalas of Vishnu are (i) Chanda and Prachanda ;( ii) Dhatru and Vidhatru; (iii) Jaya and Vijaya; and (iv) Bhardra and Subhadra. The first named in each pair stands to the right of the doorway; and the other to the left.

Similarly, the Dvarapalas of Shiva are (i) Nandi and Mahakala (to the East) ;( ii) Herambha and Bhringi (to the South); (iii) Durmukha and Pandura (to the West) and(iv) Sita and Asita (to the North).

The Brahma too is said have four sets of Dvarapalas facing four directions: Satya-Dharma; Priyodbhava – Yajna; Vijaya – Yajnabhadra; and, Sarvakamada – Vibhava.

The Dvarapalas of Skanda are named as Sudeha and Sumukha. They are said to be Brahmin brothers; but , are depicted with four arms.

The four doors of Ganapathi temple are guarded by four sets of Dvarapalas : Avijna – Vijnaraja (East ) ; Suvakthra – Balavan (South ) ; Gajakarna – Gokarna (West ) ; and , Susoumya (Soumya ) – Shubadayaka (Abhaya ) on the North.  They are titled as Ashta-Prathihari (retinue of eight guards). All of them are short statured having cruel looks and carrying fearsome weapons.

Along with the Dvarapalas their subordinates are depicted in minor relief at on the base of the images.

4.3. The pairs of Dvarapalas guarding the temple and placed in its exterior (at the entrances) are larger in size and more ferocious or threatening in appearance , with a “dare not enter” look to their faces and gestures , perhaps to keep away the evil influences. The Dvarapalas flanking the doorway to the sanctum are comparatively modest.

The Dwarapalas in the Hoysala temples are particularly graceful with ornate jewellery to suit the delicately carved interiors; gently holding lotuses as if inviting the devotee to God’s home.

5.1. The historical development in the depictions of Dvarapalas is quite interesting.  The Dvarapalas in the Pallava temples were made fierce. But, the Dvarapalas of the Chola temples are truly awesome intended to strike terror in the hearts of the wicked. They are massive towering up on the walls, snarling you down with sharp oversized fangs, riding on the Yali (mythical beast) making one feel tiny and submissive.   However ,  by the time of Vijayanagar (15-16th century) the Dvarapalas grew a shade smaller but muscular and more ornate; they didn’t appear to lean on a mace or a lance- like weapon but stood tall or cross-legged.

5.2. But the artistic excellence in depicting the Dvarapalas reached its zenith in the Hoysala architecture. Their intricate patterns, adornments are chiselled like a jewel, with extreme care.  They are magnificent works of art in their own right.

6.1. Most of the Dvarapala images are sculpted according to the Agama prescriptions. But the shilpis do tend to improvise and avail artistic liberties. Sometimes, Shilpis the temple architects employed massive Dwarapalas at the entrances to symbolically emphasize the grandeur, majesty and magnificence of the Lord residing in the temple.

For instance, the Dwarapalas at the Brihadeshwara temple of Thanjavur are massive. But, what is more interesting is theme the sculptures devised to drive home the message. The entire Dvarapala panel is basically related to the image of the elephant, the largest land-animal, depicted within its frame; and you have to work back to gain an estimate of the size and power of the Dvarapala.

At the bottom of the panel is the image of an elephant which is being swallowed by a serpent which in turn is coiled around the mace held in the hands of the Dvarapala. The serpent looks quite tiny in comparison to the mace on which the Dvarapala has planted his foot. The mace looks like a toy in the hands of the Dvarapala. You can work-back the size and power of the Dvarapala, staring from the elephant.

The Dvarapalas in turn look modest in comparison to the temple and its tower. The Lord who has in his service such gigantic gatekeepers and who resides in such a magnificent temple must truly be mighty and powerful, true to his name Brihadishwara.



[A note about Kshetrapalas:

While the Dvarapalas guard the doors of their deities, the Kshetrapala, on the other hand, guards the entire temple –complex. The Kshetrapalas have broader functions; and , in hierarchy placed higher than Dvarapalas.

The Kshetrapala are the protectors of a settlement, a village, a field or a temple. Kshetra literally means a field or specifically a field of activity (In a broader sense the body is the Kshetra the field; and the one who resides in it as the Antaryamin is kshetrajna).

 Kshetrapalas are basically the folk guardian deities who are very popular in village cults.  They are entrusted with the task of safe guarding a Kshetra (a village, a field or a temple) against dangers coming from all the eight spatial directions. In the villages of South India Kshetrapalas are placed in small temples or in open spaces outside of the village..Sometimes in the village open- courtyards blocks of stone are designated and worshipped as Kshetrapala. They are offered worship on occasions of important community celebrations.

In a major temple complex, particularly of Shiva, the Kshetrapala is provided a small shrine on the North-East side within the temple courtyard for safeguarding the temple. Worship is offered to Kshetrapala prior to important rituals, praying for efficient and safe conclusion of that ritual. The Kshetrapala on the other hand have broader functions.

Kshetrapalas are installed and worshipped in Jain and Buddhist traditions also

Buddhist Kshetrapala

The Kshetrapalas are identified with Bhairava the terrible aspect of Shiva; as also with the ferocious looking Veerabhadra the son of Shiva. . According to one legend Siva created Kshetrapala along with others to organize the army of Kali when she went to fight the demon Daruka.

In the Sri Vishvanatha temple at Kasi, the Kshetrapala there also performs the function of Dvarapala, to guard the Lord against impure elements.

When Kshetrapala attends to Mahakala, the Lord of death who resides in the burning Ghats, it is said, Kshetrapala wearing a skull cup, holding a chopper, rides a black bear.

When the Kshetrapala are depicted in images, they are generally:  awe inspiring, terrifying, huge, three eyed, untidy, wielding a number of weapons and usually accompanied by dogs .]

Sources and references

I gratefully acknowledge the line drawings and notes from Brahmiya Chitra Karma Sastram by Dr.G.Gnanananda

The other pictures are courtesy of Internet.

 Gangaikondacholapuram by Dr .R. Nagaswamy

Indian Temples and Iconography


Posted by on September 29, 2012 in Temple Architecture


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Seven – Brihadishvara

[This is the Seventh article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on the  Art of Painting in Ancient India .

The present article looks at the surviving Chola murals (earlyeleventh -century) at the magnificenttemple of Brihadishvara, Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu.)  This temple is a jewel among the Indian temples; and is the best of the Chola temples.

A brief mention is also made of the paintings of the Nayak period (17th century)

In the next article we shall look at the Paintings at the historic temple of Pampa Virupaksha at Hampi (Karnataka) , which belongs to the Vijayanagara School of art. ]

Continued from the Legacy of Chitrasutra – Six – Sri Kailasanatha of Kanchipuram

23. The Big Temple

The greatest of Chola emperors Rajaraja-I (985 A.D – 1012 A.D) the son of Sundara Chola (Parantakaa-II) and Vanavanmaha – Devi, built a magnificent temple dedicated to Lord Shiva at Rajarajeshwaram near the head of the Cauvery Delta; and called his Lord as Rajarajesvara udaiya Paramasami (The Great God who resides at Rajarajeshwaram).He also affectionately addressed his god as Peruvudaiyar (the great lord or the great master) and his temple as Peruvudaiyar-kovil. The epigraphic evidences suggest that Rajaraja commenced his temple building project in the 19th year of his reign and completed it successfully on the 257th day in the 25th year of his reign (c.1010 AD), in just a matter of six years . A remarkable feat; especially when you consider that   the hard granite stones that went into the construction of the huge temple were not found anywhere nears the project site.

23.2. The inscriptions at the temple indicate that Rajarajesvaram was exclusively a royal temple conceived, designed, and managed by the Emperor himself. The Big – Temple was, in a way, an expression of the devotion as well as the power and grandeur of Rajaraja Chola. It also became a benchmark in the south Indian architecture, highlighting the maturity and technical excellence achieved by the Chola architects and sculptures.

23.3. The crowning glory of the temple is the staggering cupola of the Vimana comprising two huge, sculpted, granite blocks weighing 40 tonnes each. The engineering skills and the expertise that mounted  these huge stones atop the fourteen story  high tower structure, standing  over 216 feet tall organized by pilasters that break up the facade of the base creating spaces for niches and windows in between,   must have been way ahead of their times. Legend says that the stone was brought from Sarapallam(scaffold-hollow), four miles north-east of the city, using a specially designed ramp. The basement of the structure which supports the tower is 96 feet square. The architects and engineers attribute the stability of the massive temple to its pyramidal structure, more robust than the complex curvilinear profiles of other styles.

23.4. In course of time (17th to 19th centuries) the territory came under the rule of the Maratha Nayak rulers .They added various shrines and gopuras within the temple complex. During their time, the temple came to be known as Brihadisvaram; and its presiding deity as Brihadisvara. The temple-city came to be known as Thanjavur. In Tamil, the temple is the Thanjai Periya- kovil (the Big-temple of Thanjavur).

24. The Paintings

24.1. During the reign of King Vijaya Raghava Nayak (1645-1673), the restoration and improvement works were undertaken in the temple. Due to constant exposure to smoke and soot from the lamps and burning of camphor in the sanctum over a period of centuries, certain parts of the Chola paintings on the circumambulatory passage walls had been badly damaged. The artists of the Nayak period tried to set it right, as they thought it fit; and decided to replace the old paintings with paintings of their own. They went on to paint their pictures over the thousand year old Chola murals; covering the old murals completely. The modern day scholars could not help remark that the artists of the Nayaks’ rather overdid their task.

24.2. How the underlying Chola   murals again saw the light of the day after incarceration of about four hundred years, is an interesting story. It is said that, during the year 1930, while late Professor S.K. Govindasamy of Annamalai University was inspecting the walls of the six-foot wide dim lit  ambulatory (pradakshina patha) around the sanctum of the Brihadisvara, he noticed that the painted surfaces on the walls on either side of the ambulatory had,  at places, crumbled exposing some exquisite ancient paintings. He examined it further; and was thrilled when he discovered that the paintings hidden underneath the Nayak paintings were the thousand-year-old murals of the time of Rajaraja Chola. Professor S.K. Govindasamy published his findings in the Journal of the Annamalai University, Vol. II, 1933. Thereafter, attempts were made to bring to light the Chola murals; and at the same time to preserve the paintings of the Nayak period.

         The passage

24.3. The Department of Archaeology has done a remarkable conservation of scientifically cleaning the exposed portions revealing the excellence of the Chola paintings and at the same time retaining intact the upper layer on which the Nayak paintings are drawn. It is said that during the 1980s, the chemical branch of the ASI came out with a unique `destucco’ process to remove the upper layer of Nayak paintings and display the same on fibreglass boards. For a report on that, please check:

25. The Chola panels

25.1. The magnificent temple of Brihadisvara at Thanjavur is a splendorous jewel of Indian temple art and architecture.

The original Chola paintings, so far brought to surface, are mainly in the corridors of the ambulatory around the sanctum. They are on the South, North and Western walls of the sanctum.

The Maratha Nayak paintings (18-19th century) are on the ceiling of the adjoining great-hall (maha-mantapa); on the west and north walls of another pavilion (tiruchchurru-maaligai); and on the walls of the mantapa in front of the Subramanian shrine.

( For the paintings of the Nayaks’ period : please see the Appendix posted as Part 8 )

25.2. The themes depicted in the panels so far exposed (1,200 sq ft) are : Shiva as Dakshinamurthy; the story of Sundarar; Rajaraja and his three queens worshipping Nataraja at Chidambaram; Tripurantaka; the marriage of Shiva and Parvathi; Rajaraja worshipping the Linga to be enshrined in the temple; and Ravana at Kailasa mountain.

Sadly, none of these is panels is complete. The figures too are not very clear; and it is difficult to make out the details. But for the efforts of ASI these ancient wall-paintings would have been totally lost.

Let’s take a brief look at some those panels.

25.3. The Dakshinamurthy panel

The Dakshinamurthi panel is rather huge and occupies almost the entire  space  on the southern wall. It is often cited as an example for lucidity and display of imagination in Chola paintings. It depicts Shiva as Dakshinamurthi under a banyan tree.

However, the figure of Dakshinamurthy is barely visible. The panel is very rich in details; it is populated with sages, Bhirava as dog, playful monkeys and birds such as peacocks, swans and owls.

There is a stillness of body and reverence on the face of the sages worshipping Dakshinamurthi, in contrast to the vivacious animals. Flying apsaras and gandharvas (celestial beings)complete the scene .But as a cobra enters the picture; there is a sudden change in the scenery. A monkey rushes away while another stares at the new entrant. Another, on a faraway branch, is not yet aware of the danger. A few sensitive swans flutter their wings in fear. The owls do not react as the whole thing happens in daylight. A peacock bends his long neck to watch. A squirrel, unmindful of all this, happily bites into a nut. Below the tree is a herd of elephants; one ferociously breaks a branch and another runs uphill with its trunk coiled around the branch. Another one calmly enjoys the peaceful surroundings.

The other panels are fragmentary but they, too, contain some marvellously drawn figures, bearing testimony to the skilful brushwork of the Chola artists.

25.4. There are also the graceful pictures of the Apsaras.

25.5. Saint Sundaramurti Nayanar

The panel on the west wall depicts the episodes in the life of Saint Sundaramurti Nayanar. In this panel the scenes of Sundara’s wedding are depicted in detail. These include scenes of Lord Shiva appearing in the guise of an old man clutching a document proving his claim over the bridegroom Sundara, an angry Sundara in a white coat , examination of the document by the villagers assembled there, and Sundara appealing to the mercy of Shiva etc.


25.6. The scene of Indra (the king of gods)   worshipping the Linga is on the opposite wall.

25.7. The next panel in northwest corner is the scene of four disciples who are now

identified as disciples (Kuravars: Sanka, Sananda, Sanathana, and Sanathkumara) of Sri Dakshinamurthy. Two figures among them were earlier assumed to be that of Rajaraja standing behind his Guru, Karuvurdevar, portraying a sense of humility. Now, the scholars seem to doubt that plausible explanation.

25.8. Tripuranthaka theme of Shiva raiding a chariot like a warrior, going into a war fully armed and wielding a bow, followed by an army of his supporters was a favourite of the Cholas. The Brihadisvara too has a panel dedicated to Tripurantaka. It must have once been a magnificent and awe inspiring painting, bringing to life the power, glory and the grandeur of the imperial Cholas and their Lord. It is said that Shiva in the mural had a twin expression: the ferociousness in the eye and the sweet smile on the lips. The daemons too have been depicted in detail. The panel, sadly, has not survived in its entirety.

The demon with his consort on the Tripurantaka panel.

25.9. There is a picture of Ravana at Kailasa the snow-abode of Shiva; labouring hard to destabilize mountain peak.

26.Prof. C. Sivaramamurthy , a scholar and art historian of great distinction, described the Chola frescoes of the Thanjavur Big Temple as a masterpiece of Chola art, distinguished by power, grandeur, rhythm and composition, and unparalleled by any other contemporary painting. What is significant about the Chola paintings of Thanjavur is that there is great emotion in all the faces, whether it is the compassion of the guru counselling Rajaraja, or a contemplative rishi, a devout queen, an animated dancer or an angry Shiva.

26.1. Those who have examined the Chola paintings closely have observed that even while depicting a sombre theme of devotion, the artist does not neglect the mundane aspects. The bedecked royal ladies continue to chatter among themselves, in spite of their being in a holy place. In contrast, the common ladies and elders seem absorbed in the performance.


26.2. According to Prof. C. Sivaramamurthy, “If expression has to be taken as the criterion, by which a great art has to be judged, it is here in abundance in these Chola paintings. The sentiment of heroism – vira rasa– is clearly seen in Tripurantaka’s face and form; the figures and attitude of the Rakshasas (demons) … wailing tear-stained faces of their women… suggest an emotion of pity – karuna– and terror – raudra; Siva as Dakshinamurthy… is the mirror of peace – shanta; the hands… of the dancer suggests the spirit of wonder – adbhuta… the ganas (Shiva’s followers) in comic attitude represent hasya. The commingling of emotions is complete in this which is a jumble ofvira, raudraand karuna” (Paintings of South India).


27. The Chola artists of the Brihadisvara murals were the inheritors of the hoary tradition of Chitrasutra. They preserved and practiced the concepts and the techniques of the Chitrasutra. The delineation of lines, use of colours and shades, arrangement of the figures on the canvass and treatment of the subject strongly resemble the murals of Ajanta. Its figures are alive with rhythm and movement.


The saints, kings and queens are celebrated in their idealized forms; the emphasis was on the ideal person behind the human lineaments rather than on their physical likeness. They figures of humans, animals, birds and vegetation always seem to suggest to something beyond the obvious. Its gods and goddesses too are full of virtue, vitality and grace; and have a universal appeal. They not merely stimulate the senses but also ignite the imagination of the viewer and set the viewer free from the confines of place, time and ego (self).The Chola murals of Brihadisvara have that magical quality, which brings out the essence of life and the grace that permeate the whole of existence.

[ I gratefully acknowledge the corrections and improvements suggested by Shri Vijay Kumar the creator of the delightfully articulate website on Shilpa and other related subjects : ] 

For the paintings of the Nayaks’ period : please see the Appendix posted as Part 8


The Vijayanagar period paintings on the ceilings of the Sri Pampa Virupaksha temple, Hampi (Karnataka)


References and Sources:

The Big Temple

The Great God of Rajarajeshwaram

Restoration of Chola paintings by ASI

A.A.S.A.I: Paintings Preservation

Legends across panels by Nandtha Krishna

The Swami as photographer

Tanjavur Paintings in Koviloor, Sittannavasal, Panamalai, Tanjavur Early Chola Paintings;

Photographed  by C. Nachiappan (Koviloor Swamy), Kalakshetra Publications.


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Temple Architecture – Devalaya Vastu – Part Nine (9 of 9)

Some norms adopted in the Shipla shastra

I. Determination of cardinal points (Dik nirnaya)

In Sanskrit, the root, ma, stands for that which gives existence to a thing, gives it a reality in our world; and demonstrates the relation between things. The term matir, for mother is derived from that root ma.There is a close relation in the Indian thought, between measurement (maa_na) and creation.Measurement separates and differentiates the elements of the world and provides them an identity or a recognizable standard form. Perhaps the first act of measurement in our universe was the breaking of the barrier between time and timelessness; and, it surely saved our existence from perpetual chaos.

Maana not merely measures the elements of space and time, but also governs the standard of ones conduct in life.

It is said that the ritual of measurement performed at the commencement of the temple building or of a Vedic altar is a re-enactment of creation of the world. The importance accorded to precise orientation and precise measurements in the construction of the temple reveals the symbolism involved in the act. The Sanskrit term, vimana, referred to the temple signifies a ‘well-measured’ or “well-proportioned” structure. The standard texts on temple architecture carry extensive discussions on the systems of proportional measurements and the techniques employed for determining true cardinal points.

The ancient text Shathapatha Brahmana repeatedly refers to the term prachee meaning the correct East-West line. Ascertaining the exact cardinal points and drawing the East-West line (prachee) was one of the primary concerns of the ancients. It was considered essential to align any auspicious structure say, yupa, the sacrificial altar; a mantapa, the pavilion; or a temple, along the prachee. The Sulaba Sutras of Bhodayana and Kathyayana too describe methods to determine true cardinal points.

The Yajna altar of the Vedic times, which was reconstructed each year around the time of vernal equinox, carried a rich symbolism. The altar built of five layers, represented the five seasons, five elements and five directions. The altar was surrounded by a wall of 360 bricks representing 360 days of the year. The fired bricks symbolized the elements of fire, earth, and water. The akasha   provided space and air by breathing upon the bricks of the altar and bringing them to life.

The Shilpa Shastra texts, such as Kashyapa Shilpa sutraVastu Vidya; Vishwakarma Vastu Shastra; Shilpa Rathnam; Ishana Shiva Guru Doctrine and Manasara etc   too discuss elaborately the instruments and the methods employed to determine true directions.

The instrument that the texts talk about in this regard is the Sanku Yantra or the gnomon. The gnomon is probably mankind’s oldest astronomical device.  The Sanku in its simplest form is a piece of sharp edged, smooth surfaced  pole made of wood or other material, firmly  erected perpendicular to a leveled ground rendered “as smooth as a mirror“, The method uses the movement of the Sun and the shadows it casts . And, it is often described as the Indian Circle Method.

The Sanku (gnomon) or its variations were used by all ancient civilizations for determining the east-west direction and also for knowing time. The Indian astronomers also used it for the determination of the solstices, the equinoxes and the geographical latitudes. For instance, Brahmagupta described a conical gnomon, the staff (yasti) of which represented the radius of the celestial sphere and was used for determination of the position of heavenly bodies, and also for terrestrial surveying. The Sawai Jai Singh’s Observatories at Ujjain includes a Sanku Yantra. (Please check: )

Sanku Yantra at Ujjain

For the limited purpose of our discussion, let us confine to the Sanku discussed in the texts of Shilpa Shastras and its use for determining the cardinal points. Each text of the Shilpa Shastra  recommends its own set of specifications for the height and girth of the gnomon; the material or the wood to be used for making the gnomon; the mode of embedding the gnomon into the earth; the type of ropes and the pegs to be used; and the measurements to be taken etc. Some of the salient recommendations of only four of Shilpa texts are briefly tabulated under.

  • Particulars



Vastu Shastra

Manasara Ishana Shiva


Height of Sanku above the ground level- (In inches)


–        15 inches 12 to 24



48 inches

for Temples



-18 inches

Kanista- 12inches

12 inches
Girth of sanku at the bottom 2 inches Uttama -2 inches

Madhyama -1inch


-1/3 inch

2 inches
Pointed edge at the top of sanku 1 yava Like a pin-head A sharp point

made of metal

Diameter of the circle drawn around the base of Sanku Twice the height of the sanku pole from the ground 24 inches Four times

the height of Sanku

Twice the height of


Ground on which Sanku

Is erected

Level –like a stone Level –like water surface Level- like water surface Smooth and level as a  mirror
How to embed the Sanku? Fixed firmly Some portion to be buried underground Some portion to be buried underground Erected

on the ground

Which wood to be used for making Sanku Sara vriksha Kadira,


Kshira vriksha

Kadira, Shami, Kshira

Or ivory




Season of the year for taking measurements Summer solstice, brighter half of the month Any auspicious day

barring Full –moon and New-moon days

Summer solstice,






Before drawing the plans and designs for a temple, the orientation of the site has to be established properly. The best way to go about it is to commence the exercise at a time when the sun is in the northern part of the sky, and on a day when there are no sunspots disfiguring its visible surface.

Before erecting the Sanku pole, it is essential that the ground is rendered absolutely clean, smooth and flat. The Mayamata and Manasara describe what is called as “water method” to ensure an even and a flat surfaced ground. The selected ground, in a square shape, is leveled and enclosed by a frame of bricks; and is filled with water. Then, with the aid of a measuring rod the height of water at different points are checked to ensure that the water column is of same height throughout. After it is dried out the uneven surfaces, wrinkles and blotches are corrected and evened out by suitably increasing/decreasing the level at selected points.

The Vastu Vidya Shilpa text suggests an improvement over the above method. After the leveling by water-method has been carried out, it recommends the use of a device called avanatha constructed out of three wodden strips of equal length (25 inches each).An equilateral triangle constructed out of the three wodden strips is placed at different points on the prepared ground. If the pendulum (plumb line) suspended from the apex of the triangle stayserect at all test-points; it means that the pegs stand at equal height. If not, suitale corrections have to be carried out, until it is required. Finally, after the ground has been dried, cleaned and fine-leveled, it again is checked by the avanatha.

The Sanku has to be erected in the mid region of the prepared ground. The ritual of erecting the Sanku is called Sanku_sthapana. The sanku is made of either ivory or the seasoned kadira (hard) wood which does not bend in the heat of the sun. Its surface should be smooth, perfectly circular and without irregularities; and pointed at one end.

The total length of the sanku would normally be 18 inches; of which six inches would be under the ground level. The effective height of sanku, above ground, would normally be 12 inches. The Manasara text however recommends 24 inches as the best (uttama) and 18 inches as next-best (madhyama) height of the Sanku. The girth of the Sanku at its bottom should range between two inches to six inches. Its top-end should be pointed; but it should not be too thin; else it might be difficult to mark its shadow on the ground, especially during the evenings. The diameters at the top and bottom should be proportionate to their length.

The Sanku should be fixed firmly and it should stand perpendicular to the ground. With the base of the Sanku as the centre, a circle should be described around the sanku, having a radius equal to twice the height of the Sanku. It is argued that the radius of that circle should not be too long; nor should it be too short. In either case of extreme, it would be difficult to obtain correct readings, especially during the evenings. Most texts recommend that the radius should be twice the height of the Sanku.

[There is some confusion here. Some texts say the diameter (vyasa) should be twice the height of the Sanku. While some other texts say that the radius (trigya) should be twice the height of the Sanku. But all texts say that the radius should not be less than the height of the Sanku. I have, in the interest of uniformity, adopted here the radius as equal to twice the height of the Sanku.]

The Shilpa texts such as Shilpa DipikaRaja_vallabha and Kunda _siddhi recommend a unique method to ensure that the Sanku is standing perpendicular to the ground. They suggest that in case the height of the Sanku is 12 inches, a circle should be described with the base of Sanku as the centre and with a radius of 16 inches. This in effect forms a right angled triangle , with the radius as the base of the triangle (16 inches), the Sanku as its height (12 inches); and the string(rajju) connecting the top of the Sanku to the point of intersection of the base of the triangle with the circle forming the hypotenuse. If the sanku stands absolutely perpendicular then the string (hypotenuse) should measure exactly 20 inches. This exercise was based on the theory of Brahmagupta (6thcentury AD) otherwise known as the Pythagorean Theorem.

Now, having completed the preliminary work — of leveling and smoothening the ground; erecting the sanku ; and drawing a circle , round its base, with a radius equal to twice  its height — you proceed with the task of  determining the cardinal points with the help of gnomon. It is recommended that the first reading is taken at sunrise during a month when the solar path is towards the north (uttarayana) during a bright fortnight when sunrise is clear, when there are no spots in the solar disc and when the sun is in the asterism of the appropriate fortnight.

As the sun rises in the morning, you keep observing the sanku’s shadow. When the shadow of the top of the Sanku just falls on the circle, mark the point. By evening, when the shadow of the sanku gets longer, you again mark the point where the shadow intersects the circle.Connect the two points with a straight line. This line points directly East-West. This East-West line is called prachee. A line perpendicular to the E-W line is the north-south direction.

In this method, as the sun rises in the east, the shadow points west. Then, as the day advances, the shadow first swings to the north and then to the east, as the sun travels to west.The problem with this method is that the shadows are shorter in the summer than in the winter, because the earth is tilted toward the sun in summer and away from the sun in the winter. Another issue is that the sun moves most rapidly at the equinoxes. And, therefore the points marked on the circle indicate   only approximately correct directions.

An improvement over this method is the drawing of circles with these East and West points as centres. The radius of the circles is the distance between those East and West points. The intersection of these circles creates a fish shaped figure. A line drawn between the points where the two circles intersect indicate the geographic North-South.



In Uttarayana Punyakala or Makara Sankranti, Sun in his entourage, after touching the southernmost tip of his path (23.5 degrees or Circle of Tropic of Capricorn – Makara Sankranti Vritta), he reverses his movement from travelling in southern direction and from that day onwards he starts travelling in the Northern direction for next six months, from Makara up to Mithuna signs, till he reaches northernmost tip of his path (23.5 degrees or Circle of Tropic of Cancer – Karkataka Sankranti Vritta). From that point, which termed as Dakshinayana Punya Kala, again he starts travelling in Southern direction, again for another six months, from Kataka up to Dhanu signs, till he reaches the circle of tropic of Capricorn. Utarayana can also be explained as the progress of the Sun to the north of equator – The Summer solstice. Dakshinayana is the progress of Sun to the south of the equator – The winter half of the year.

In a period of six months as the sun moves from the Tropic of Capricorn to the Tropic of Cancer his position shifts by 47 degrees. That is, the sun’s position shifts by about 8 degrees in each month. Accordingly, the sun shadow on the ground too shifts gradually during this period. Theoretically, the Indian circle method leads to the error up to 8′ in the time near spring and autumn equinox (March and September). If the East-West line (prachee) has to be fixed accurately, the readings taken earlier need to be fine-tuned. The Shiva Guru Doctrine suggests the following method in this regard.

The shadow points of the Sanku intersecting the circle drawn around it should be marked everyday both in the morning. Over a period of time these markings form a curvaceous line or an arc. Further, when the shadow of the Sanku is within the circle, three points have to be marked three circles should be drawn with these three points as the centre. The points of intersections of these circles should be marked. Let us name these points as A-a; and B-b. When the lines joining A-a  and B-b are joined and extended backwards they converge in the point N, as shown in the following diagram. A line drawn at 90 degrees to the line indicating North would be the East-West line.


As the sun rises and sets at shifting points on the horizon, the vertical gnomon casts its shadow in different directions on different days of the year, while the length of shadow also varies from day to day through the year.

The shadow of the sun will on any given day of the year follow a curved path from west towards east. From spring equinox to autumn equinox the path will curve towards south. From autumn equinox to spring equinox (yellow area above) the curving is northerly.

The amount by which the sun changes its declination during the day decreases as the sun moves away from equinox, and on the days of solstice the change is zero.

Shilpa Shastras caution that the points marked out on the ground based on the shadows cast by the sanku do not therefore indicate the true cardinal points. The readings need to be suitably corrected depending on the movement of the sun.

The texts suggest that the East- West line should be established with adjustments- by reduction- of the following numbers of digits for each ten day period of each month. There, again, is no uniformity in this regard. The corrections suggested by each text are different. Please see the following table for the month -wise corrections suggested by two major texts.

Rashi Chandraman





Reduction suggested

(in inches)


A B` C
kanya Bhadrapada Jul-Aug 01 02 02
Rishabha Vaishaka Apr-May 01 02 02
Mesha Chaitra Mar-Apr 01 00 00
Kumbha Magha Jan- Feb 05 04 04
Makara Pushya Dec-Jan 07 06 06
Mithuna Jesta May-Jun 03 04 04
Kataka Ashadha Jun-Jul 03 02 02
Simha Shravana Jul-Aug 01 00 00
Tula Ashviyuja Sep-Oct 03 04 04
Vrishika Karthika Oct-Nov 05 09 06
Dhanus Margashira Nov-Dec 07 08 08
Meena Phalguna Feb-Mar 03 01 01

 Corrections are as per Mansara. 

Rashi Chandraman





Reduction suggested

(in inches)


kanya Bhadrapada Jul-Aug 00 01 02
Rishabha Vaishaka Apr-May 01 01 02
Mesha Chaitra Mar-Apr 02 01 00
Kumbha Magha Jan- Feb 06 05 04
Makara Pushya Dec-Jan 08 07 06
Mithuna Jesta May-Jun 02 03 04
Kataka Ashadha Jun-Jul 04 03 02
Simha Shravana Jul-Aug 02 01 00
Tula Ashviyuja Sep-Oct 02 03 04
Vrishika Karthika Oct-Nov 04 05 06
Dhanus Margashira Nov-Dec 06 07 08
Meena Phalguna Feb-Mar 04 03 02

 A stands for first 10 days of the month; B stands for days from 11 to 20;And C stands for days from 21 to 30 of the month

After carrying out the corrections, you plot the readings and draw the lines and arcs. The final drawing will look as under.

The East-West line is named Brahma Sutra; The North-South line is named Yama Sutra; and, the Diagonal lines are named Karna Rekhas. The entire exercise is called Dik parchheda or Prachee sadhana, which is achieving the true cardinal points.

Guided by the stars

The practice of determining the directions, based on the position of stars is rather ancient. TheKathyayaneeya sulba sutra mentions that the true East can be determined with reference to the position of the pairs of stars: Chiita and Swathi;Shravana  and Prathi  shravana;Krutthika and Prathi krutthika; and Pushya and Punarvasu , when they are 86 inches above the horizon. The text however does not detail the method to be employed. There is no description, either, of Prathi Shravana and Prathi Krutthika stars.

The Shilpa texts –Kathyayaneeya sulba sutra, Raja Vallabha and Shilpa deepika– mention that the line connecting the polar star (dhruva) and the two stars of the Ursa Major (Saptha Rishi mandala) , when extended would point to North.


A few points need to be mentioned by way of clarification.

The exercises described were undertaken to find the geographic North Pole which is the pole about which the Earth seems to spin. They were not talking about the Magnetic North Pole.

The Magnetic North Pole is currently wandering at a few kilometers per year through the far north of Canada, while the Geographic North Pole is in the Arctic..

The methods which we discussed so far were being followed by the Shiplis until about the 17thcentury .Thereafter, with the introduction of magnetic compasses, the ancient methods were given up. Now everyone goes by the compass to ascertain the directions. Yet, many feel that determining the geographic north, as the ancient did, is a superior method.

Incidentally, the diagram, based on the Sanku method, for positioning the yupa, the sacrificial altar, looked as shown below.


II. Four Types of Architects

The ancients mention four types of architects – the Sthapati, Sutragrahin, Vardhaki and Takshaka.

The Sthapati is the chief architect or master builderempowered to plan, design and direct the construction from the beginning to the end. He is well-qualified in Shastras and the Vedas. He is pictured as a cultured, decent man free from vices. He has the ability to direct his team. 

The Sutragrahin is the supervisor and is said to be normally the Sthapati’s son or disciple. He is also well-qualified in the Vedas and Sastras. He is an expert draftsman or Rekhagna, who directs the rest of the work force. His job is to see that all building parts are aligned correctly. He should be able to give instructions to the other craftsmen.

The Vardhaki is the painter and has made a special study of it. He is also well-versed in the Vedas. Vardhaki joins together the building elements shaped by Taksaka.

Taksaka is the craftsman who cuts and shapes the building elements. The Takshaka is also the master carpenter who is responsible for all the intricate wood work including doors, windows, pillars etc.

These four classes are considered the representations of Viswakarma, Maya, Manu and Twasta, the sons of Brahma, the creator.

Acharya is the learned preceptor who gives the yajamana (one who sponsors the temple project) the necessary advice and guidance in selecting the proper site, the sthapati and other silpins. The sthapati, yajamana and the ahcarya form the trinity of vastusthapana (construction); they are compared to Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra .


III .Building Materials used in temple architecture

The building materials that are prominently used in temple construction are the stone, the bricks and the wood (apart from earth which we discussed separately in the earlier part of this series). The Shilpa texts describe in detail the nature of these materials and the criteria for their selection, for various purposes. Let us take a quick look at these three materials.



The stones are the major ingredients in temple construction. One cannot think of a temple constructed without using stones. It is therefore natural that the Shilpa texts discuss the stones quite elaborately.

The following, in brief, is the summarized observations and recommendations of some shilpa texts.

The stones collected from open source such as mountain or hill are stronger and more durable as compared to those dug out of earth. Similarly, the stones or boulders dug out from the coastal areas are considered weak, as they could be eroded by the chemicals and the salt content of the sea. They are not considered fit to bear heavy loads. The reason for preferring the stones from hills or mountains could be that they are well seasoned by constant exposure to the vagaries of weather; and are unaffected by salts and other chemicals.

Stone should be free from lines, patches, blotches, blots and cracks or other faults. The white lines or patches in a black or other coloured stone are acceptable. But, black lines or black patches in white or other coloured stones are not acceptable at all. The explanation given is, the white lines, the patches of quartz, strengthen the rock structure; while black lines of baser materials weaken the stones. The traces of chlorite or olivine cause green or black patches and weaken the stones; therefore, such stones are not recommended for temple construction. The Vishnu Darmottara Purana talks in great detail about the faults in the rocks and the methods to test the rocks.

Stones such as marble, steatite, khondalite, sandstone, basalt etc are not fit for carving a diety. They are not recommended in load bearing areas, either. They could be used in other areas, if needed.



As regards their colour, the stones are of four basic colours: white, red, yellow and black. Some of them could be tainted with traces of other colours. Stones of white colour are regarded the best for temple construction. The next in the order of preference are the red, yellow and black coloured stones. . It is preferable to use uniformly the stones of the same colour.

The Kashyapa Shilpa mentions seven categories of white stones: white as milk, as the conch, as jasmine, as moon, as pearl, as alum and as the kundapushpa (a variety of jasmine).The white stones with traces of blue or slight brown or bee-like black lines are considered good for temple construction.

The red coloured stones are of five types: Red as red hibiscus flower (japa kusuma), as kinsuka(bright red), as the indragopa insect, as parijatha flower, as the blood of a rabbit, and as pomegranate flower.

The yellow colour of the stones is of two types: yellow as the Banduka flower, and as koranti flower.

The black of the stones comes in ten colours: black as the pupil of the eye, as mascara, blue lotus, as bee, as the neck of peacock, as kapila cow, as urd gram etc.


The stones are also classified according to their “age”-: child (baala), youthful (taruna) and the old (vriddha).

If a stone when tapped gives out a faint sound or the sound is as that of mud, or of half burnt brick; such stones are classified as baala– the child; to mean raw or immature. The baala stones are not fit for making idols or for bearing loads.

If a stone when struck produces the sound resembling the ring of a bell and if such sound resonates for quite a while, such a stone is classified as taruna youthful. Such stone should have a cold touch and a soft feel. If the stones emanate fragrance it is much better. The taruna– the youthful – stones are fit for carving images and for crucial areas of temple.

An old, the vriddha, stone does not give out any sound and has a dry appearance.It gives the touch and feel of a frog or a fish. It might have many holes or might be in a state of decay. Such old and spent stones are not fit for making images or for load bearing areas.


Stones are also classified according to their “gender”. Those stones which give bronze sound at the hammer   weight are called “male’. Those which give brass sound are called “female’. And, those that do not produce any sound are called genderless (neuter).

A hollow stone may be taken as pregnant and hence should be discarded. When smeared with a paste, overnight, it changes its colour. Shilpa Ratna describes dozens of such pates Some stones are said to carry poisonous effects. These stones too should be tested by application a paste; and should not be used.

It is suggested that male stones are used for carving male deities; female stones are used for carving female deities; and the neuter stones are used for other constructions. Further it is said, the male stones could also be used for construction of sikhara (tower) and stone walls; the female stone could be used for structures above foundations; and the neuter stones could be used for foundations.

Male stones are big, round or polygonal, are of a singular shape and uniform colour; they are weighty and give out sparks when hammered. When dug out, its apex will be towards north. If the apex is inclined towards north or west facing, the rock is considered inauspicious. Highly compact rocks like dolerites, bronzites, proxenites and peridoties as well as lamprophyres are regarded male rocks.

A female rock is of medium weight , square or octagonal, thick at root and thin near the apex, cold to touch, soft to feel and on being struck gives out sonorous notes like that of a mridanga (drum).

A neuter gender stone is one that doesn’t give any sound on being struck and narrow towards its bottom and triangular on its upper side ; and such stones may be used only for the foundation.

[ About Chisels and carving – Khanitra-pancakam srestharn -excerpts from Pride of India: A Glimpse Into India’s Scientific Heritage

Five types of chisels are good. The different varieties are lanji (biting), langali (plough like), grdhradanti (like vulture teeth), sucimukha (needle tipped) and vajra (diamond like). All are made up of steel and each one of two types is narrow and broad.

Men beat the chisel on the long mallet, with the short mallet people use for breaking stone. All instruments are sharpened, dipped in cow’s urine and then smeared with ingida (asafetida) oil and whetted in leather.

Bhedastu lafiji, Iangali, grdhradantI, suclmukha, vajra iti, sarve ayasa dvividha bhavanti ksinah prasastasca, musaladharubhe musaladandena khanitrarh ghatayanti prayojayanti silabhedane tat I Sarvastrani tiksnani, gavarnbuputitani I Tatah ingidalepitani carrnasanitani ca I

Sculptors apply a softening mixture. Shell-solvent, Kustharasa, sea salt and the powder of the bark of the ukatsa tree are thus the four fluids for the softening of stones. With this plan, after immersing the chisel for 10 days, sculptors use the chisel in sacrificial rites and also dig with ease.

Silpakarah pralepayanti dravakarasam II Sankhadravakustharasa -saindhavakharpara- ukatsavalkalacurnena sahitarh siladravanartha- mevam rasacatustayarn anena mantrena dasaharnardanante vaitane khanitrarh prayojayanti khananarnacaranti bhadrena sthapakah II]


[ The following are some prescriptions on preparation and mixing of the mortar

There should be 5 parts extract of beans, nine and eight parts molasses (thick treacle that drains from sugar ) and curd or coagulated by acid (respectively). Clarified butter (ghee) 2 parts, 7 parts milk, hide (extract) 6 parts.

Pancamsarn masayusarn syannavastarnsarn gudarn dadhi II Ajyam dvyarnsam tu saptarnsarn kslram carma sadarnsakam 

There should be 10 parts of myrobalan*. Coconut two parts, honey one part. Three parts plantain are desired.

Traiphalarh dasabhagarn syannalikerarn yugarnsakam II Ksaudrame karnsakam  tryarnsarn kadallphalamisyate

In the powder (thus) obtained, 1/10th lime should be added. Larger quantity than others of molasses, curd and milk is best

Labdhe curne dasarnse tu yufijItavyarh subandhanam II Sarvesamadhikarn sastarn gudarn ca dadhi dugdhakam

In two parts of lime, (add) karaka, honey, clarified butter, plantain, coconut and bean. When dry (add) water, milk, curd, myrobalan along with molasses gradually.

Curna dvyarnsam karalarn madhu ghrta kadall narikeram ca masarn Suktestoyarn ca dugdharh dadhigudasahitarn traiphalarh tat krarnena I

Now in the powder (thus) obtained, grow one in hundred parts. It (the compound) is said by leading thinkers who know the technology as rocklike.

Labdhe curne satarnsesmsakamidamadhuna canuvrddhirn prakuryadetad bandharh drsatsadrsamiti kathitarh     tantravidbhirrnunindraih II]


Coming back to the issue of acoustics in the stones, the Shilpis   displayed a remarkable skill and ingenuity in crafting “musical “pillars, which when struck at right points produce sonorous octaves. One can see such pillars in the Vijaya Vittala temple at Hampi; Meenakshi temple at Madurai; and at Sundarehwara temple at Trichendur. There might be such “musical” in other temples too. Usually such pillars are of granite and charnockites; and of different girths and volumes to produce the right octaves.

[ As regards the assembling Pillars Starnbha-sandhayah ,following are a few excerpts from Pride of India: A Glimpse Into India’s Scientific Heritage

Assembly of Pillars: It is said that there are five types of assemblies suitable for pillars; these are Mesayuddha, Trikhanda, Saubhadra, Ardhapani and Mahavrtta.

Mesayuddharn trikhandam ca saubhadram cardhapanikam I Mahavrttarn ca paficaite stambhanam sandhayah smrtah II

When there is a central tenon* (projection at the end of a piece of wood etc., with a width) a third (that of the pillar) and a length twice or two and half time its width, this is Mesayuddha (mortise – A hole to receive a tenon ,and tenon) assembly

Svavyasakarnamadhyardhadvigunam va tadayatam I Tryarnsaikam madhyarnasikham mesayuddharn prakIrtitam II)

In the Trikhanda assembly, there are three mortises and three tenons arranged as a Swastika, The assembly called Saubhadra comprises four peripheral tenons.

Svastyakararn trikhandarn syat satriciili trikhandakarn I Parsve catuhsikhopetam saubhadramiti sarnjfiitam II

An assembly is called Ardhapani (scarf joint) when half the lower and half the upper pieces are cut to size according to the thickness chosen (for the pillar)

Ardham chitva tu mule Sgre canyonyabhinivesanat I Ardhapaniriti prokto grhitaghanamanatah

When there is a semicircular section tenon at the centre, the assembly is called Mahavrtta, the well advised man employs this for circular section pillars

Ardhavrttasikharn madhye tanmahavrttarnucyate I Vrttakrtisu padesu prayunjita vicaksanah II

The assembling of (the different parts of) a pillar should be done below the middle and any assembling done above will be a source of accident; (however) the assembly which brings together the bell-capital and the abacus gives the certainty of success. When a stone pillar, with its decoration, (is to be assembled) this should be done according to the specific case.

Stambhanam starnbhadairghyardhadadhah sandhanamacaret I Stambhamadhyordhvasandhisced vipadamaspadam sad a II Kumbhamandyadisarnyuktam sandhanam sam pad am padam I Salankare silastarnbhe yathayogam tathacaret II

It should be known that the assembling of the vertical pieces is done according to the disposition of the different parts of the tree; if the bottom is above and the top is below, all chance of success is lost

Sthitasya padapasyangapravrttivasato viduh / Urdhvamulamadhascagram sarvasampadvinasanam II ]

B.Bricks (Ishtaka)

Bricks have been in use for thousands of years in construction of yupa the sacrificial altars and Chaithyas the early temples of the Vedic ages. Shathapatha Brahmana  as also Shilpa Rathna describes the methods for moulding and burning the bricks. The Sulba sutras and Manasara detail the dimensions of the bricks of various sizes in relation to the sacrificial altars constructed for various purposes. The remnants of the Indus valley civilization too amply demonstrate the extensive use of bricks in construction of buildings and other structures.

During the later ages, the bricks were used in the temple structures mainly for erecting Gopuras the temple towers and Vimanas the domes over the sanctum.

As per the descriptions given in Manasara the bricks were made in various sizes; the size of the bricks varying from 7 inches to 26 or even  to 31 inches in length. The length of the bricks were 1 ¼, 1 ½, 1 ¾ or 2 times the width .The height of the brick was ½ its width or equal to the width. Thus, bricks of different sizes, shapes, and types were made. The composition, shape and baking of a brick depended upon the use to which it was put.

Interestingly, the bricks with straight and linier edges were called male bricks; while those with a broad front side and a narrower back side or those of curved shape were called female bricks. The bricks in concave shape were called neuter bricks. The male bricks could be used in the construction of the prasada, the sanctum. The female bricks were used for the sanctum of female deities. The neuter bricks were generally not used in temple construction; but were used for lining the walls of the well.

According to Shukla Yajurveda Samhita, bricks were made from thoroughly mixed and pulverized earth and other ingredients. The earth was strengthened by mixing goat hair, fine sand, iron flake or filings and powdered stone. Earth was also mixed with ‘raal oil’, etc. and thoroughly beaten and blended in order to increase the strength of the material by enhancing the cohesion of the earth particles. Triphala concoction is said to render the earth, white ants (termite) and microbe proof.

[ Maya-mata and other Shilpa–texts give details about brick-making (Istaka-sangrahanam).  Following are a few excerpts from Pride of India: A Glimpse Into India’s Scientific Heritage

Salty, off-white, black and smooth, red and granulated, these are the four kinds of clay

Usaram pandurarn krsnacikkanarn tarnrapullakarn II Mrdascatasrastasveva grhniyat tamrapullakam I

Clay suitable for making bricks and tiles must be free from gravel, pebbles, roots and bones and must be soft to touch.

Asarkarasmarnulasthilostarn satanuvalukam II Ekavamam sukhasparsamistarn lostestakadisu

Then fill the clods of clay in knee-deep water; then having mixed, pound with the feet forty times repeatedly

Mrt-khandarn purayedagre janudaghne jale tatah u Alodya mardayet padbhyarn catvarirnsat punah punah 

After soaking the clay in the sap of fig, kadamba, mango, abhaya and aksha and also in the water of myrobalan for three months, pound it

Ksiradrumakadarnbamrabhayaksa – tvagjalairapi II Triphalambubhirasiktva mardayenmasamatrakam  

These (bricks) are in four, five, six and eight unit (widths) and twice that in length. Their depth in the middle and in the two ends (is) one fourth or one-third the width. Again these bricks should normally be dried and baked.

Catus-pancas adast abhi rmatrai staddhidvigul)ayatai:lll Vyasardhardhatribhagaikatlvra madhye parespare I Istaka bahusah sosyah samadagdhah punasca tah II

According to the experts, only after one, two, three or four months, again throwing (the baked bricks) in water, and extracting (them) from the water with effort, (will put the brick to use)

Eka –dvi- tri-catur-masarnatitya  -iva vicaksanah I Jale praksipya yatnena jala duddhrtya tat punah II)  ]


Brick lying was done with the aid of molds; and, the bricks were burnt in enclosed kilns. The works like Shilpa Ratna and Vastuvidya explain that the brick moulds were baked for 24 hours in a fire of firewood.

Bricks black in color or half baked or broken or defective otherwise were rejected. The bricks should be well burnt and be of uniform color.

According to Shulba Sutra, bricks measuring 22.8X11.4X5.7 cms were used in construction of walls. The Bodhayana Sulaba sutra specifies the arrangement of bricks, while constructing a wall. The brick should be directed in a dextral and laevo order. The brick ends should not be piled one over the other. The joints of the brick in each third row of brick may fall over the brick of the first row; this is the ‘Malla Lila’ style of fixing the brick, based on the arrangement of the joints of the brick.

The bricks having a smooth surface are not to be set one above the other, but are to be fixed in straight line and the wall should be of an equal thickness all over. The corners of the walls should be on the ratio of 5: 3: 4 and at right angle to each other. According to the Sumrangana Sutradhara, the square of the diagonal of the wall should be equal to the sum total of the square of the width of the wall.

It is said that the altar constructed for major sacrifices, bricks of about 200 types were used, depending upon the size and shape of the altar.


doors of temple

Wood has limited use in traditional temple structure of medieval times. Its application is mainly for carving doors, erecting Dwajasthamba  the flag posts and for other utilities such as platforms, stands etc. But, in rare cases (as in Sri Jagannath temple at Puri or at Sri Marikamba temple in Sirsi) the principal idol dhruva bhera is made of wood. The most extensive use of the wood is of course in the construction of the Ratha the temple chariot. In rare cases as in Puri a new chariot is created each year.

Shatapatha Brahmana a Vedic text of about 1500 BC or earlier makes repeated references to wood and its applications. During its time the temples and the images were mostly made of wood (kasta shilpa). The text mentions a certain Takshaka as a highly skilled artist who carved wood. It names a number of trees the wood from which was used for various purposes. For instance Shaala (teak) and Kadira a type of hard wood was used for carving images, pillars, gnomon (sanku) and other durables. Certain other trees are also mentioned as being suitable for pillaras, posts etc: Khadi, Shaal, Stambak, Shinshipa, Aajkarni, Kshirani, Dhanvan, Pishit, Dhanwalan, Pindi, Simpa, Rahjadan, and Tinduka.

Trees such as Nibaka (Neem), Panasa (jackfruit), Asana, Sirish, Kaal, Timish, Likuch, Panas, Saptaparni, wood are said to be best for roofing work.

Coconut, Kramuk, Bamboo, Kitki, Oudumbara (silk cotton etc. wood is suited for hut constructions, ribs and rafters etc.

However use of certain trees considered holy or godlike was not recommended in temple construction. The trees such as Ashwattha (Peepal), Vata, Nagrodha (banyan), Chandana (sandalwood), Kadamba, Badari, Shami, Bilva, Parijatha, kinsuka, and Bakula, were   some such sacred and godlike trees.

Chandana, Kadira, Saptaparni, Satwak, etc. were used for engraving and carving artwork.


The southern text Shilpa Rathnam states that the wood from the following is not suited for temple construction.;

Trees from a place of public resort, trees from a village or from the precincts of a temple, trees that have been burnt, trees in which are birds’ nests, trees growing on anthills, trees in which are honeycombs, trees fruiting out of season, trees supporting creepers, trees in which maggots dwell, trees growing close to tanks or wells, trees planted in the earth but reared by constant watering, trees broken by elephants, trees blown down by the wind, trees in burning-grounds, in forsaken places, or in places which had been paraclieris, withered trees, trees in which snakes live, trees in places where there are hobgoblins, devils, or corpses, trees that have fallen down of themselves, – these are all bad trees and to be avoided.


The lifetime of a tree was regarded as 103 years. The trees under the age of 16 were Baala – child trees; and those above 50 years of age were Vriddha– trees in their old age. The trees between the age of 16 and 50 years were regarded most suitable for construction of temple and homes.

Tall trees of uniform girth without knot and holes, in their youth, grown on dense hilly regions   are most suited for construction of pillars. The trees that are white under the bark are in the best category; followed by those having red, yellow and dark interiors; in that order. The juicy or milky trees are preferable.


The trees that are round from the root to its apex, give a gentle fragrance, are deep rooted, are solid and temperate may be taken as masculine trees, yielding male wood.

The feminine trees have slender roots and are thick at apical part, but a much thicker middle part with no fragrance or odor in the wood.

The wood should be straight and without any knot, crevice or cavity. The structure built by joining such male and female wood last for centuries

Neuter Trees

Slender and long in the middle of the trunk and having a thick head, is a genderless tree. While the male trees serve for pillars; female trees for wall-plates, beams, and capitals; the hermaphrodite trees serve for cross-joists, joists, and rafters.

Agastya Samhita has described the wood that is to be used in a chariot, boat or an aircraft. A youthful and healthy tree should be cut and its bark removed, thereafter, it should be cut in squares after which are to be transported to the workshop where these pieces should be stored upon spread out sand in an orderly manner for 3 to 8 months for seasoning. The root and apex sides must be marked because in pillars the root side is to be kept down and apex part up.

As far as possible, only one type of wood may be used for one particular construction. The use of more than tree types of wood in a construction is not recommended.

It is said the ISI standard A-883-1957 regarding a wooden items is based on the specification s mentioned in the ancient Indian Texts

Precautions in the selection of the building materials:

No used building material should be used.

Stolen and renovated material should never be purchased.

Materials confiscated by the King should not be used.

The wood culled from the trees cut down in a cremation ground; temple, ashram or shrine should not be utilized.


IV.Ayaadi Shadvarga

Ayadi _shadvarga is a matrix of architecture and astrological calculations.  According to Samarangana Sutradhara Ayaadi-shadvarga is a set of six criteria: Aaya, Vyaya, Amsha, Nakshatra, Yoni and Vara-tithi, which are applied to certain dimensions of the building and its astrological associations. The purpose of the exercise is to ascertain the longevity of the house as also the suitability to its owner. These norms are applied to temples too.

The term Aaya could be taken to mean increase or plus or profit; Vyaya – decrease or minus or  loss; Nakshatra,- star of the day; Yoni – source or the orientation of the building; Vara- day of the week; and Tithi – the day in lunar calendar for construction of building and performing invocation of Vastu Purusha..

The area of the structure is divided by certain factors assigned to each element of the Aayadi Shadvarga; and the suitability or longevity of the building is ascertained from the reminder so obtained.

For instance, if the plinth area of the house is divided by 8; and the remainder is either 1 or3 or 5, then these are called Garuda garbhaSimha garbha and Rishabha garbha, which are auspicious. Hence the plinth area of the building should be manipulated or altered to arrive at an   auspicious reminder.

The rule is also applied to ascertain the longevity of the building. According to this method the total area should be divided by 100 and if the reminder is more than 45, it is good and if it is more than 60 it is very good. For instance, if the length of the house 11 meters, and the width 5 meters, then its area is 11 X 5 = 55 sq.mts. Multiply the area by 27 (Nakshatra factor) , 55 X 27 = 1485. Divide the product 1485 by 100. The remainder is 85,-which indicates the projected longevity of the house. Since the reminder is more than 60, .it is a very healthy result.

There is another method for arriving at the Aayadi value. The result is categorized in to eight types of Aayas. According to this method, the area (length X breadth) is multiplied by 9; and divided by 8. The reminders 1 to 8 are interpreted as good or bad, as indicated in the following table.








Good. Brings wealth



Not good. ill heath of the head of the family and spouse.



 Very Good. Victory over enemies; health ,wealth and prosperity.



Bad. Ill health and bad omens.



Good. wealth and fortune.



Very bad. Head of family will turn a vagabond; premature death in family.



Good. Life of head of family and members brightens; improvent in heath and wealth.



Very bad. Sorrow to family; and no peace.

[For more on Ayadi calculations; pleaase check

Ayadi calculations]

Manasara says

When there is more merit than demerit, there is no defect in it; but if the demerit is more than the merit, it would be all defective.”



Vastu Darsha  by Dr. G Gnanananda.

Orienting From the Centre  by Michael S. Schneider…/summer/orienting/index.html

Cosmogony and the Elements… by John McKim Malville

Vastu Interiors


Posted by on September 10, 2012 in Temple Architecture


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Temple Architecture – Devalaya Vastu – Part eight (8 of 9)


The ancient Indian art of sculpture, Shilpa Shastra, developed its own norms of measures and proportions. It is a complex system of iconometry that defies rigid definitions .It is called Talamana paddathi, the system of measurements by Tala, the palm of hand (from the tip of the middle finger to the wrist). It plays a central role in the creation of temple icons and images.

Iconometry (the doctrine about proportions) was an integral part of the Murti shilpa, creation of the idols.

As explained in the earlier part of this post, the Dhyana shlokas, the contemplative hymns, delineate the spiritual quality of each deity and its forms and attributes, the lakshanas. The Dhyana Slokas also provide the details of the flexions – slight, triple, or extreme bends; the details of the number of arms and faces that endow a super-human quality to the idol; and also the descriptions of its ayudhas the weapons, the ornaments etc. They also specify whether the image should be dynamic or static, seated or standing; and they also detail the hand gestures and poses.

But, it is the elaborate rules of the traditional iconometry that guide the practicing Shilpi in sculpturing the image and realizing his vision. These rules specify thevarious standards to be adopted for ensuring a harmonious creation endowed with well proportioned height, length, width and girth. These rules also govern the relative proportions of various physical features – of each class and each type of the deities.

The standards of iconometry are of immense use for other reasons, as well. For instance, the iconometry of an image helps the sculptures of a later period in restoration work; in checking which of the known canons of iconometry were followed by the sculptors; in deducing which methods of sculpting were employed; and in hypothesizing how many sculptors were involved in executing the work. It also helps the art historians in dating sculptures; and the art students in studying the iconometric values of different Schools, across different periods and regions; and to ascertain the variations within a given set of stipulated proportions.

Two systems of iconometry seem to have existed; and both were called taalamana.

In the first system, the tala, measured by the length of the palm (from the wrist to the tip of the middle finer) of the shilpi or the yajamana, the one who sponsors the project, is taken as an absolute unit of measurement (and the image-face is made equal to that length). That tala is subdivided into twelve angulas; and such an angula becomes a fixed-length. In practice, the angula (literally ‘finger’) is a finger’s width and measures one quarter of the width of the shilpi’s fist (as explained in the earlier posts). The value of the angula so derived becomes a fixed length (manangulam). And, all other measurements of the image are in terms of that unit.

The second is the system of derived proportions (deha labdh angulam). Let me explain. The stone or the block of wood selected for carving is divided into a number of equal parts. In case the selected piece is divided into ten equal parts, the division is known as dasatala (ten face-lengths) or in case it is divided in to nine equal parts then the division is known as navatala (nine face-lengths) and so on.

The shilpa shastra normally employ such divisions on a scale of one (eka tala) to ten (dasa tala).Each tala is subdivided in to 12 angulas. For instance, if the intended height of the image is nine tala (which is regarded the standard height for images of certain deities and celestial beings), the texts mention that the selected piece of material should be divided into 108“Its own angulas “.The expression “its own angula” is explained thus: divide the total length of the selected stone or wooden piece, which will cover the entire height of the idol from head to foot, into 108 equal parts. One of the parts would then be its own angula.

There are obvious differences between the two systems. The manangulam system relies on a fixed set of measurements; while the deha labdh angulam is a system based on derived proportions. In the former system, the measurements are related to the size of the palm of the shilpi; and if the image is navatala, it would mean that the height of the image is nine times the size of the tala or the palm of shilpi; and the size of the image-face is one tala or one-ninth of the total height of the image.

In the second method, the unit of measurement is derived from the divisions marked on the stone piece. If the image is said to be navatala, it means that the height of the image is 108 times “its own angula”. This system is more flexible.

In Shilpa Shastra, the multiplicity and relative sizes take precedence over the absolute specific sizes of the units. Therefore, the proportions of the head-trunk-arms-legs of the image; and the finer specifications of nose, nail, ears and their shapes are always discussed in terms of their proportions and in relations to the other organs and particularly to that of the size of the face. Similar logic is extended to panels where more than one variety of images have to be accommodated harmoniously.

Dr. Gift Siromoney and his team who have carried out remarkable Iconometric studies based on measurements made by anthropometric instruments says:

“ In  Indian art the important figures in a group are often represented as taller figures and inferior beings are represented as smaller figures. To such smaller figures a lower tala is often prescribed. However, if both the larger and the smaller figures were to represent deities of equal rank (say Siva and Vishnu) then strictly speaking they should be made in the same proportion, or in other words in the same tala”.

I think this needs some explanation .Let us assume that three types of figures of three different statuses are to be depicted on the same panel. The sculptor, in such a case, would adopt the image of mid-status, as the standard; and relate the proportions of the other two images to that of the standard image. Those two images would then have to be made in different sizes; but in same proportions as that of the standard image. Assuming that the standard image was made by adopting the nava tala, the image would then have a height of 108 angulas, the angulas being “its own angulas”. The image with least status, among the three, would be made to a shorter height, say, of 96 angulas; but by borrowing the angula value from the image of the standard size. Similarly, the image with the best status, among the three, would be made to a greater height, say, of 120 angulas; but here again the angula value is borrowed from the image of the standard size.

In the two cases, other than the standard one, the basic unit of measure is not “its own angula”; but it is a unit borrowed from the standard Image. In other words, the proportions of these two images are derived from that of a third image. Such instances, perhaps, explain the need for adopting the second system; the flexible system of derived proportions.

Over a period of time, the two systems got mixed up ; and in some texts it became rather difficult to make out , which system the text was actually referring to. The confusion got compounded with both the systems carrying the same title, talamana paddathi. The practicing Shilpis do therefore have to check carefully whether the specifications mentioned in a given text belong to the first system or to the second system. In case they belong to the first system, the image- face length will have to be 12 fixed-angulas; irrespective of its total height.

Despite the differences, there are certain features common to both the systems. The first is, the face – length, in either case, is divided in to three equal parts: the fore-head, nose and nose-to-chin. Secondly, the pubis (base of the male organ) is the midpoint of the height of a nude figure. In other words, the distance from the sole of the feet to the pubis is equal to the distance from the pubis to the topknot. Thirdly, the celestial beings are assigned a higher tala compared to human figures. And, fourthly, children are represented in a lower tala like the chatusra tala (four tala). The face length will be comparatively large for children and dwarfs.

The Indian system makes use of the fact that persons with disproportionately larger faces appear short and those with smaller faces appear tall. Dwarf figures were therefore made by adopting the four “taala” system where the total height is only four times the face length. This demonstrated that the figures of different sizes can be made while following the same set of proportions.  For instance, the height of a nine tala image might be the same as that of a tentala image; but, the ten tala image with its smaller face-size looks taller than the nine tala image.

iconometric proportions of Buddha

As mentioned earlier, the shilpa shastra normally employs a method of division of the image-body, on a scale of one (eka tala) to ten (dasa tala). Each tala is divided in to 12 angulas. There are variations within each type of tala. That is, each type of tala is sub-divided into three sub-types: The standard or the mean height is the madhyama tala; while the extended height is Uttama tala. The diminished height is adhama tala. Accordingly,   along with the height, certain other dimensions of the latter two images are duly modulated, depending on the nature and the status of the image; and the importance assigned to it in the overall context of the theme of the sculpture.

For instance, the madhyama navatala (standard length of nine-face lengths) is normally used for images of celestial beings such as Yakshas, Apsaras and Vidhyadharas. Here, the height of the image would be nine talas (with each tala divided in to 12 angulas) or a total height of 108 angulas. And, the face length – from the chin up to the root of the hair on the forehead – would be 12 angulas or one tala. The length from throat to navel would be two tala; from navel to top of knee would be three tala; from the lower knee to ankle would be two tala making a total of eight tala. One tala is distributed equally between the heights of foot, knee, the neck and topknot. The nava tala thus has a total of nine tala units, in height (108 angulas).


 [From Matsya -puranam,  Pratima -nirmana -varnanam,– making of the idols

The worship of idols made of gold, silver, copper, gems, stone, wood, metal, or alloys with iron, copper, brass, and bronze is praised.

Sauvarni rajati vapi tamri ratnamayi tatha  / SailI darumayi capi lohasadhamayi tatha II

Ritika dhatuyukta va tamra-karmsya-rnayi tatha I Subhadarumayi vapi devatarca prasasyate II

Make idols in nine Tala ( with each Tala divided into 12 angulas) , starting with the face of one  Tala. The neck should be 4 angula (fingers) wide; then the chest one Tala. Below that, the beautiful navel famous for its depth and expansiveness of a finger width should be made with one Tala.

Pratima-mukha-manena navabhagan prakalpayet I Catur-angula bhavedgriva bhagena hrdayarn punah II

Nabhistas-madadhah karya bhagenaikena sobhana I Nimnatve vistaratve ca angulam parikirtitarn II

Build the parts below the navel in one Tala. The thigh and the knee come in 2 Tala in four fingers width. The legs are done in two Tala, the feet in 4 fingers (angula) width. Similarly, the crown is of 14 (angulas) fingers, as is well known.

Nabhir-adhastatha-medham bhagen-ekena kalpayet I Dvi-bhage-anayatavuru januni caturangule II

Janghe dvibhage vikhyati padau ca caturangulaih Caturdasa angulas tad van maulirasya  prakirtitah II   ]

The texts also mention that the images of the devas such as the eight Vasus, the eight Dikpalas and the eight Vidyeshwarsa are to be depicted in Uttama navatala. Whereas, the images of Rakshasas, Siddhas, Gandharvas and the pitris are to be depicted in adhama navatala.

In such cases, the images in uttama nava tala type are rendered four angulas taller and the images in the adhama nava tala type are rendered four angulas shorter. The said four angulas are to be distributed, evenly, between the heights of the foot, the kneecap, the neck and the topknot. These two variations are in effect, the deviations from the standard values of the image.

It is said that The uttama dasatala is built on the values of navatala ( regarded purest in terms of the proportions) by systematically adding one angula to each section of navatala ;  the thighs and legs being , as usual, twice the height of the “heart” etc. The uttama dasatala aims to project the majesty of the higher divinities.


There is no uniformity among the various Shilpa texts. Some texts describe a system of one to twelve talas. There is even a mention of a twenty-one tala image of Bhirava; but that measure is hardly in use.

Some texts mention that human figures and gods at rest, or while involved in some pleasant activity, should measure ten talas. And, when performing heroic deeds, their height increases to twelve talas. Further, in their fearsome aspect, they even grow to fourteen talas.

But, the Shilpis in South India do not, generally, go beyond ten talas (dasatala).Thus, in effect, only ten types of divisions from the eka tala (single tala) to dasa tala (ten tala) are in use. These ten talas correspond to 12, 24, 36, 48, 60, 72, 84, 96, 108 and 120 angulas, in sequence. The series is built by adding 12 angulas for each successive tala.

These talas have their three variations, as state earlier. The standard or the mean height is the madhyama tala; while the extended height is Uttama tala; and the diminished height is adhama tala.

Uttama dasatala(124) and nine other talas – by Shilpi Shri Siddalinga Swamy

As per the norms that are commonly in use, the animals and birds are depicted in four or less talas. For instance, tortoise and fish are depicted in one tala; crocodile and rabbit in two tala; and the dwarfs, the kinnaras , the birds and the vahanas of the deities are depicted in three or four talas.

Humans and demigods are depicted in five to eight talas; Vamana an incarnation of Vishnu in seven talas.

The relative height of goddesses is eight or nine talas, while children are six talas high. The consorts of the deities and minor goddesses are depicted in eight talas.

The talas from nine to twelve are meant for images of deities. But, again, there is no unanimity among the texts in this regard. Nine tala (nine face-lengths) is largely taken as the height of certain gods and celestial beings.

According to some texts, the Uttama dasatala is applied to major deities like Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, Rama, Buddha and Jina; so that they might look tall and majestic.

The madhyama dasatala is applied to the images of Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Uma and other major. The rest are depicted in Adhama dasatala, in accordance with the importance assigned to them.

The extra ordinary deities like Trivikrama or Narasimha or the huge demons are at times depicted in twelve talas.

Out of the ten varieties of talas mentioned above, four varieties are in wider use. The iconometry of these talas are briefly indicated in the following table.

Vertical proportions of four main types of Images

(Figures in angulas)

Type of the image/Particulars 7* Tala 8 Tala 9 Tala 10 Tala
Face 12 12 12 13
Neck 03 04 04 05
Neck to the horizontal line connecting the nipples(heart) 09 10 12 13
From there to navel(belly, udara) 09 10 12 13
From navel to genitals(lower belly, vasti) 09 10 12 13
Thigh 18 21 24 26
Knee 03 04 04 05
Leg 18 21 24 26
Foot 03 04 04 05
Total height in angulas 84 96 108 120

(One Tala = 12 angulas)

[I am also referring to Brahmiya Chitra Karma Shastram (translated admirably into Kannada by the renowned scholar Dr. Gnananda) a rare text of the Vaishnava Agama dated around fifth or sixth century. The text divided into four major divisions (adhikarana), twenty-three chapters has in total about 1115 verses (sloka).The third Adhikarana of the text titled Maanadhikarana Kaanda (chapters 16,17 and 18 of a total of 357 verses). This Adhikarana provides various types of units of measurements and proportions of dasatala and Uttama dasatala image .It specifies with precision the measure and proportion of the gatra of each body part.

Let’s, for instance, take the measures and proportions given in  the text in relation to Uttama Dasatala of 120 + 4 managulam. That is, the height of the proposed image is divided equally into 120 mana-angulas and providing for another four additional angulas distributed at different body-parts for corrections/ extensions at joints etc. A standard unit of a mana-angula is reckoned according to the following table:

Paramanu is the least and incredibly tiniest unit. And, it is described as:”when the sun’s rays pass through a close knit lattice (jaala) the minute breadth of a beam of light (anu-gatra) is Paramanu”. Human eye, of course, cannot make out a Paramanu.

8 Paramanu=one anu

8 anu = one renu (a speck of dust)

8 renu= one romagra or valagra (tip of a single brand of hair)

8 romagra = one likhya (it is not clear what it is; perhaps the egg of la very small insect)

8 likhya = One Yuka (a minute insect, perhaps)

8 likhya = One yuva (a standard grain of barley)


8 yuva = one mana-angula.

(In practice, an angula is taken as 1/12 of a tala. A tala in Dasatala is one-tenth (1 / 10) of the image height or the length from tip of the middle finger to the wrist of Shilpi’s or the Yajamana’ palm. The subdivisions of a Tala follow the above table.)

To take a specific aspect ,let’s say the length of a figure from its shoulder to the tip of the middle figure ,  the Sarvatala Vibhagaha – the chapter 18 of the text details the measurements of  fingers, figure joints, nails etc, among others.

According to that, the total length from shoulder point to the tip of the middle figure is taken as 63a 4y (63 ½ a). The length is accounted in this manner: arm= 27a + elbow= 2a + forearm = 21a + outer hasta-tala (from wrist to beginning or knuckle of middle finger) = 7a + middle figure =6a, 4y (6 ½ a).]

Stella Kramrisch explains in her Hindu Temple: the rules are that the proportions of the trunk are the same in all the four types. The distance from the root of the neck to the genitals is divided in to three equal parts, in each case:  neck-heart; heart-navel; and navel-genitals. The length of the thigh and that of the leg are twice as long as each of the three earlier mentioned sections. Further, the knee and the foot are of equal height. The actual lengths of these lengths might vary, but their proportions are maintained. As regards the size of the face, it is 12 angulas (except in the case of dasatala).

Sometimes, the height that is not included in the texts is added to the image by enhancing the height of the parts above its hair, starting from its forehead. Such height, at times, is quite considerable. Because, the gods of higher hierarchy are adorned with elaborate crowns in order to emphasize and enhance their majesty and grandeur. The height of the crown might often exceed the height of the face. The head together with the crown atop would form one sculptural unit. The elaborately crowned gods thus exceed the proportions of the human body and standout with a super natural appearance.

Apart from defining the relative height of the various gods, the tala also serves as a module for all representations of each separate figure. In addition to the norms concerning the height, there are extensive specifications for horizontal measurements such as the width of the shoulders, the waist, the head, the neck, the nose, the distance between the eyes, and so on. This is also the case with the measurements for depth; such as the distance between the back of the head and the tip of the nose, the back and the nipples, etcetera. There are measurements for the figure in the frontal position, in profile or in three-quarter profile. For such measurements, a central axis line or a plumb line is used, brahmasutra, which runs from the crown of the head through the navel to between the heels.

The position of the body (standing, reclining, seated, dancing, and so on), of the arms and legs, also plays an important role in the iconographic determination of the images. (please see the earlier part of this post)


Dr .Gift Siromoney and his team of researchers applied computer analysis methods to study a large sample of South Indian sculptures; those included the sculptures of the Pallava, Chola, and Pandya and Chera periods. It is said that anthropometric instruments were used for the analysis of facial proportions of the carvings; cluster analysis was used for collating the sculptures into groups that contain very similar features.

The team came up with the conclusion that there existed two systems of proportions which had run into each other. The average values of the facial proportions of the sculptures that were studied were at variance with the proportions prescribed in the canonical texts.

The sculpture seemed to have enjoyed a certain degree of artistic freedom within the framework of the Shilpa texts. The shilpis innovated or improvised their working methods for creation of well proportioned images.

Please visit Dr. Siromoney’s home page and other study reports:


Next post

Norms in temple architecture


Cannons of Icometry by Dr. Gift Siromoney

Line drawings

By Shilpi Sri Siddalinga Swamy,

Dr. Jnananada

And from Shilpa Soundarya


Posted by on September 9, 2012 in Temple Architecture



Temple Architecture – Devalaya Vastu – Part seven (7 of 9)

Iconography continued

For the purpose of this post let us confine the discussion to the Dhruva bera images.

The Dhruva bera, iconically, is classified according to its posture; which depicts its attributes, its dispensation or attitude or Bhava. The Shipa Shastras mention four basic postures of the idols. They are the sthanaka (standing), Aasana (seated), shayana (reclining) and yanaka (relating to deities like Hanuman or Garuda who serve as the ride for other deities). Each of these postures has its sub classifications.

A. Sthanaka

Abhanga etc

The Sthanaka posture ( standing posture) of the image will be in accordance with its nature (sattvic, rajas or tamasic) and its attitude of benevolence or otherwise. That expression of benevolence, grace or the other attitude depicted on the face of the image is enhanced by the manner and style of its stance. The standing postures are named Bhanga, which involves appropriate stance, position and bent of the neck (greeva), shoulder (bhuja), waist (kati), knees (janu) and feet (paada).

The basic styles of the standing postures are five in number. They are, briefly:

Samabhanga is standing erect, with the head, neck and torsos in a line, radiating peace, fulfillment and benediction, as in the case of Sri Venkateshwara, Chenna keshava or Jina.

Abhanga is a stance with only a slight bent of head or waist, or with a hand on the waist  as in the case of Dakshinamurthy, Velayuda or Vatu the boy Subrahmanya.

Dvibhanga is a posture with a bend at the waist, while the parts from waist to the head and from waist to feet are otherwise in samabhangha, as in the case of Sri Rama holding a bow, Shiva or bracket images of damsels.

Tribhanga is when the body is in three distinct delicate and graceful bends – at the neck, the shoulder and the waist, as in the case of female deities, Krishna dancing on Kalinga serpent and Ganapathi in dancing poses. This is essentially a classic dance pose.

And, athi bhanga is the one with several twists in the body and arms. This bhanga brings out anger and ferociousness as in the case of Durga slaying the demon; and Ugra Nrusimha slaying and tearing apart the demon; or to bring out wonder and amazement (adbhuta) as in the case of Trvikrama; or fearsome or grotesque attitudes as in the case of sculptures of kailasanath temple, Kanchipuram.

Narasimha atibanga

The idols in the standing posture, sthanaka, are also classified according to their nature: dhirodaatha, the sattvic type; dhira lalitha (rajasa) and Ddhiroddatha (tamasa).

B. Shayana

Shayana is the idol of the deity in reclining or sleeping position. Only Vishnu and the Buddha images are represented in this position. Apart from this, the baser elements such as the demons  (Apasmara) are shown lying under the feet of Nataraja or the Devi.

Sri Ranganatha or Anantha shayana is the most celebrated form of Vishnu in reclining posture.

Vishnu is represented in three forms of Shayana. In the Yoga shayana posture, Vishnu, with two arms and without his ayudhas, is depicted in yoga nidra, Yogic sleep, contemplating the unfolding of the universe. Vishnu is reclining on the coils of Anantha the serpent who symbolizes time; and Brahma the divinity responsible for creation is seated on the lotus emerging from Vishnu’s navel. The Yoga shayana images are installed in temples located in forest region or in forts on top of hills. Yoga shayana Vishnu symbolizes his creation, shrusti, aspect.


Bhoga shayana Vishnu is similar but is adorned with four arms, auspicious signs of srivatsa, kausthuba on his chest; and with his usual set of ayudhas. Vishnu’s gaze is fixed on his consorts serving at his feet. He has a very pleasing disposition. The temples of Vishnu in Bhoga shayana form are located in the midst of a populous city or town. Bhoga shayana Vishnu symbolizes his well-being, sthiti, his preservation aspect.

( Line drawing by Shilpi Shri Thippajappa)

The veera shayana form of Vishnu is adorned with four to eight arms. He is holding his weapons. He is represented as if he is just about to wage a battle. He is surrounded by the rishis, the gandarvas and his entourage including Garuda, his ride. Brahma is as usual seated atop the lotus from Vishnu’s navel. The demons Madhu and Kaitaba are shown at his feet. Veera shayana Vishnu symbolizes his absorption, samhara, aspect.

There is also an unusual form of Vishnu in shayana posture. The Abhicharika shayana does not have the serpent bed or the Brahma. Vishnu is reclining on the floor; he looks emaciated too. Such an inauspicious form of Vishnu is employed in Tantric worship; and it should not be located where people especially where women and children dwell.

C. Aasana

Aasana class is when the deity is in sitting posture. There are several modes and styles of sitting; and among them about eleven or twelve postures of sitting are usually depicted in temple architecture. These are again classified into sattvic, rajasa and tamasa.


The images depicting the deity in a peaceful, happy and benevolent disposition; radiating peace and joy; and blessing the devotees are the most common forms of sattvic class of idols in sitting posture. The deity, in such cases, is sitting in padmasana (lotus position) or yogasana (yogic posture, as in the case of Yoga Nrusimha or Ayyappa).Dakshinamurthy, the Buddha and Mahaveera being the other well known examples.

Sukhasana is sitting with one leg bent at the knee and across; and the other leg down and almost touching the ground. The deity is in a relaxed position looking happy, peaceful and joyous. Images of Padmapani , Vishnu, Shiva or Devi in Sukhasana are the most common examples.

The images of the deity sitting with its one foot down, almost touching the ground, radiating majesty and authority are the rajasa type of idols in Aasana posture ; Vishnu , Rajarajeshwari , Chandikeshwara( a form of Rudra ) are the  common examples. In some cases, the deity rests  his foot on an asura (demon) lying on the ground, as if displaying authority and power.

The images of goddess Durga, Chamundi, Mahisha mardini and such other forms of the Devi, sitting or mounted on a beast, with her one foot almost touching the ground are the tamasic class of idols in Aasana posture.

D. Nruthya bhanga: The deity is depicted in a classic dancing posture. The images of Krishna dancing on the Kalinga, Nataraja, nruthya Ganapathi and Sarawathi are some of the well known examples of this genre.


In the Yana, the postures of Hanuman, Garuda and Bhuvaraha are depicted.



Ayudha generally translates to weapons; but, in shilpa sastra, the term indicates whatever objects the idol holds in his or her hands. The Ayudhas delineate the nature, character and functions associated with the idol. In a way of speaking, they are the symbols of a symbolism. For instance, Saraswathi holds in her hands a book symbolizing the Vedas and learning; a Kamandala (a water jug) symbolizing smruthi, vedanga and shastras; a rosary symbolizing the cyclical nature of time; and the musical instrument veena symbolizing music and her benevolent nature. All these objects are not weapons in the conventional sense, but the shilpa employs those as symbols to expand and depict and interpret the nature  of the idol and its meaning.

Each of these Ayudhas signifies a certain aspect or it stands for a concept. For instance, the mirror signifies a clear mind and awareness; the flag signifies victory or celebration; the Ankusha (goad) signifies exercising control over senses and baser instincts, Damaru in the hands of shiva signifies creation and origin of sound and learning; and, the scepter signifies authority and rule of law.

The Dhyana slokas associated with each deity specify the Ayudhas to be held in its right or left or upper or lower arms. The Ayudhas held by auspicious deities are in even number.

Apart from the weapons a variety of objects are employed as Ayudhas. These include instruments of various professions (pen, chisel, hammer, plow, sickle etc.), musical instruments (flute, veena, drums, pipes, trumpets etc.), plants and trees (ashvatta, bilva, seedlings of paddy, grass etc) and miscellaneous objects (mirror, bell, book, flag, lamp, vase, umbrella etc.)



Mudra means sign or a seal. It is a symbolic gesture or position usually of hands and fingers. They are commonly used in tantric worship, yoga, dance and music. The Shilpa shastra has however its own use for the mudras ; and it has developed its own set of mudras .There are in general two types of mudras, those with one-hand and those with two-hand. The one handed mudras (asanyuktha orkevala) number about 28; while the two hand mudras (sanyuktha) are about 23.The mudras give an expression and eloquence   to the attributes of the image and to its message.

All these symbols and mudras form the pool of Indian art language. They are commonly employed by the Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina traditions.


According to Tantrasara Vishnu has 19 mudras (shankha, chakra, Gadha, padma etc.), which mean attributes; Shiva has 10 mudras (yoni. Trishula, linga tc.); Ganesha has 7(ankusha, dantha, modaka etc.); Saraswathi has 7(maala, pusthaka, veena, etc.); and Agni has 7 (flames, horns etc,) and so on. The Tantrika also include Jata, Tilaka, Bhasma, Chandana etc.

Mudras are again classified into those that convey a message (sankethica), which are mostly single hand mudras. The next are the vastu rupa mudras which suggest as if the diety is holding in his or her hands some object. And, the third is ayudha grahana , where the diety actually  holds an ayudha.

Among the Sankethica mudras, the better known are the Abhya mudra with right palm fingers pointing upward assuring protection; Varada mudra with the fingers pointing down ward in act of giving; Vyakhna mudra as if teaching or explaining as in images of Dakshinamurty and the Buddha; and ala_padma with raised palm conveying happy welcome as in the images of dwarapalakas, the guards at the sanctum.

The common examples of Vastu rupa mudra are those of Saraswathi or Dakshinamurthy with hands in such a position as if the deity is playing on the veena. The other examples are those of Rishba_rudha Shiva as if Shiva is reclining against his ride the bull; of Sri Rama as if he is holding the bow; and  of Shiva as if he  is holding the damaru, a sort of drum (damaru hastha).


Vrishbha-ruda Shiva – as if  reclining against Nandi bull.

The Ayudha mudras are those where the deity actually holds an object such as pasha (rope),ankusha (goad or hook) as in the case of Ganapathi; Danda , a staff in the hands  of Skanda(danda hastha)


In Hindu Iconography, Paada mudras the position of the lower limbs and the feet are as important as the hand gestures (hastha mudras).It is the paada mudra that suggest movement or animation or stillness of the image. The samarangana Sutradhara lists six paada mudras: Vaishnavam (one leg straight and another slightly curved- adidaivatha form of Vishnu); Sampadanam (standing erect with legs joined and body weight distributed evenly); Alidanam (Standing like an archer, with right leg drawn forward); Prathyalidanam (opposite of Alidanam- left foot in front); Ardhasam or Mandalam (one leg is thrown out and the other remains stable – as in Nataraja or Vishakadeva); and there are the legs folded in sitting postures as in Udarabhandam (as in Ganesha) and in paada-patta or Yoga –patta (as in Yoga Nrusimha )


Kirita, makuta and Jatamakuta

The headgear is a distinctive feature of the Indian icons. The head-gears that are commonly mentioned are the Kirita -makutaKaranda-makuta and Jata-makuta.  Mansara, the ancient text of Shilpa shastra, classifies these types of head gears under the term makuta or mouli (MansaraMauli-lakshanam: 49; 1-232). The kiritas or the makuta (crown) emphasise the nature (sattva, rajas or tamas) and the nobility of the image.  For all the makuta-s, the width commencing from the bottom should be gradually made lesser and lesser towards the top.

Among these, the Kirita-makuta is an highly ornate  elaborate crown that adorns major gods such as Vishnu and his forms (Narayana) and also emperors (Sarvabhouma).It has the appearance of Taranga-s (waves) and its middle is made into the shape of flowers and adorned with precious stones. The base of the Kirita-makuta should be curved like a crescent (ardha-chandra) just above the forehead. The height of the Kirita-makuta should be two or three times the length of the wearer’s face.

The Karanda-makuta is prescribed for lesser gods and for goddesses when depicted along with their spouse. It is simpler and shallower as compared to Kirita-makuta. The Karanda-makuta is a small conical cornet receding in tier. It  is   shaped like an inverted flowerpot, tapering from the bottom upwards and ending in a bud. The width of a Karanda-makuta at the top should, however, be only one-half or one-third less than that at its base. The female deities such as Saraswathi and Savithri have kesha_bandha or Kuntala type of hair arrangement.

The jata- makuta is suitable according to Mansara for Brahma , Rudra or the Buddha , as also for consorts of Shiva. Jata-makuta,is made up of jata or matted locks, which are twisted into encircling braids of spiral curls and tied into a knot looped at the top. It is held in place by a patta (band); and is adorned with forest flowers and by a number of ornamental discs like the makara-kutapatra-kuta, and the ratna-kuta. In the case of Shiva, the jata-makuta is adorned with a crescent of the moon, a cobra and the Ganga.

The Hoysala School of sculpture in particular adorns its images with elaborate and highly ornate crowns, rich in design.Usually,   highly ornate kirita, makuta adorns images of Vishnu and his aspects. A simpler crown of the Karanda class is meant for lesser deities.

Jataa-makuta, coiled hair mopped on top of head is for the images of Shiva, Brahma, the Buddha and the sages.

Nataraja’s hair is flying in the wind as he swirls in his tandava dance. His hair is prasarith jata, the flying hair.

Agni has a special hairdo called agni_kesha with his hair spreading out like tongues of fire.


Alankara -ornamentation:

The shilpis took great delight in adorning the image with rich and finely carved ornaments. While the other segments of the carving are regulated by the prescriptions of the Sahastras and the tradition, the Alankara element offers the artists abundant scope to exercise their imagination and to display their ingenuity. Therefore, the amazing varieties, the patterns and the desingns of ornaments that one comes across in the Indian sculpture are virtually limitless.

The major deities, both male and female, are adorned with rich ornaments; the minor deties and humans are provided modest ornaments. Often, the ornaments serve as the costume of the image.

The term used for ornamentation is Alankara which encompasses forms of beauty and visual appeal in all forms of Indian art including poetry and music. Alankara is not merely bejeweling but it also implies enhancing the grace and beauty of the image and to enchant and please the eyes of the beholder. Alankara also conveys the nobility, the grandeur and the lovely nature of the adorable image. The Hoysala sculptures in particular are rich in ornamentation.

Specific names are given to the ornaments that adorn various body- parts of image. The ornaments below or around the neck are Kanti (like a collar), Skandamaala (necklaces) and manihara (strings of precious stones or beads).

In the abdomen region, are the Yajnopavitha (sacred thread), Kati bandha or kati sutra (waist belt).

Katakas are bangles made of gold or precious stones.

The feet are adorned with paada jalaka (ornament made of strings), nupura (the bells) and rings that decorate the toes.



Shilpa Soundarya by KT Pankajaksha

The Lord of Seven Hills by Prof. SKR Rao

Line drawings of kirita and ornaments by the renowned Shilpi and Yogi Sri Siddalinga Swamy  of Mysore

Other Line drawings from Shilpa Soundarya

Other pictures from internet


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Posted by on September 9, 2012 in Temple Architecture


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Temple Architecture – Devalaya Vastu – Part Six (6 of 9)

Symbolism of the temple

Symbolism of the temple

A Temple is a huge symbolism; it involves a multiple sets of ideas and imagery.

The temple is seen as a link between man and god; and between the actual and the ideal. As such it has got to be symbolic. A temple usually called Devalaya, the abode of God, is also referred to as Prasada meaning a palace with very pleasing aspects. Vimana is another term that denotes temple in general and the Sanctum and its dome, in particular. Thirtha, a place of pilgrimage is it’s another name.

The symbolisms of the temple are conceived in several layers. One; the temple complex, at large, is compared to the human body in which the god resides. And, the other is the symbolisms associated with Vimana the temple per se, which also is looked upon as the body of the deity. And the other is its comparison to Sri Chakra.

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Let’s start with the temple complex being looked upon as a representation of Sri Chakra.

At the centre of the temple is the image of divinity and its purity that generations after generations have revered and venerated. That image residing at the heart of the temple is its life; and is its reason. One can think of an icon without a temple; but it is impossible to think of a temple without an icon of the divinity. The very purpose of a temple is its icon. And, therefore is the most important structure of the temple is the Garbagriha where the icon resides.

In fact, the entire temple is conceived as the manifestation or the outgrowth of the icon. And, very often, the ground-plan of a temple is a mandala. Just as the Sri Chakra is the unfolding of the Bindu at its centre, the temple is the outpouring or the expansion of the deity residing in Brahmasthana at the centre.

The temple as also the Sri Chakra employs the imagery of an all – enveloping space and time continuum issuing out of the womb. In the case of Sri Chakra the Bindu is the dimension-less and therefore imperceptible source of energy. The idol, the Vigraha, in the Garbagriha represents the manifestation of that imperceptible energy or principle; and it radiates that energy.

The devotee- both at the temple and in Sri Chakra- moves from the gross to the subtle. In the temple, the devotee proceeds   from the outer structures towards the deity in the inner sanctum, which compares to the Bindu in the Chakra. The Sri Chakra upasaka too proceeds from the outer Avarana (enclosure) pass through circuitous routes and successive stages to reach the Bindu at the centre of the Chakr, representing the sole creative principle. Similarly the devotee who enters the temple through the gateway below the Gopura (feet of the Lord) passes through several gates, courtyards and prakaras, and submits himself to the Lord residing in the serenity of garbhagrha, the very hearts of the temple, the very  representation of One cosmic Principle.

The other symbolism is that the human body is a temple in which the antaryamin resides. The analogy is extended to explain the various parts of the body as being representations of the aspects of a temple. In this process, the forehead is said to represent the sanctum; and the top of the head, the tower. The space between the eyebrows, the ajna chakra, is the seat of the divinity. The finial of the tower is the unseen the sahasrara located above the head.

Accordingly, the sanctum is viewed as the head; and Right on top of that head is the passage through which the currents of life ascend to the tower through that stone slab Brahma-randra_shila. Around the four corners of this slab are placed the images of the vehicles or emblems that characterize the icon inside the sanctum.

Another interesting aspect is that the temple concept is a curious mixture of Vedic, Tantric and Agama principles. The Tantra regards the human body as a Mandala; and it is mobile (chara or jangama) Mandala. The Agama shastras regard a temple too as Mandala; and here it is an immobile (achala or sthavara) Mandala. The analogy of the temple with the human body finds closer relationships.

The symbolism extends to the conception of Vimana or the central part of the temple as the physical form of god. For instance, the sukanasi or ardhamantapa (the small enclosure in front of the garbhagrha) is the nose; the antarala is the neck; the various mantapas are the body; the prakaras are the hands and so on. Vertically, the garbhagrha represents the neck, the shikhara (superstructure over the garbhagrha) the head, the kalasha (finial) the tuft of hair (shikha) and so on.

The names assigned to various parts of the Vimana seem to go along with this symbolism. For instance, Pada (foot) is the column; jangha (trunk) is parts of the superstructure over the base; Gala or griva (neck) is the part between moulding which resembles the neck; Nasika (nose) is any nose shaped architectural part and so on. The garbhagrha represents the heart and the image the antrayamin (the indwelling Lord).  These symbolisms also suggest seeking the divinity within our heart.

The temple is also seen as a representation of the subtle body with the seven psychic centres or chakras. In the structure of the temple, the Brahma randra is represented in the structure erected on top of the sanctum. The flat-roof (kapota) of the sanctum is overlaid by a single square stone slab known in the texts as Brahma-ranhra-sila (the stone denoting the upper passage of life). The sanctum is viewed as the head; and right on top of the head is the passage through which the currents of life ascend to the tower through this stone slab.

Interestingly, the Kalasha placed on top of the Vimana is not imbedded into the structure by any packing it with mortar or cement. It is, in fact, placed in position by a hollow rod that juts out of the centre of the tower and runs through the vase, the Kalasha. It is through this tube that the   lanchana ‘tokens’ (cereals and precious stones) are introduced. One of the explanations is the hallow tube represents the central channel of energy the Shushumna that connects to the Sahasra, the seat of consciousness, through the Brahma randra.

The other symbolisms associated with the Sanctum and the tower above it are, that sanctum is the water (aapa) principle and the tower over it is Fire (tejas); the finial of the tower (Vimana) stands for air (vayu) and above the Vimana is the formless space (akasha). The sanctum is thus a constellation of the five elements that are basic to the universe. And fire being the active element that fuses the others, the tower becomes an important limb in the structure of a temple.



Before we deal with iconography per se , let’s briefly go-over some its general principles associated with it .

The Agama shastras are based in the belief that the divinity can be approached in two ways. It can be viewed as nishkala, formless – absolute; or as sakala having specific aspects.

Nishkala is all-pervasive and is neither explicit nor is it visible. It is analogues, as the Agama texts explain, to the oil in the sesame-seed, fire in the fuel, butter in milk, and scent in flower. It is in human as antaryamin, the inner guide. It has no form and is not apprehended by sense organs, which includes mind.

Sakala, on the other hand, is explicit energy like the fire that has emerged out of the fuel, oil extracted out of the seed, butter that floated to the surface after churning milk or like the fragrance that spreads and delights all. That energy can manifest itself in different forms and humans can approach those forms through appropriate means. The Agamas recognize that means as the archa, the worship methods unique to each form of energy-manifestation or divinity.

The idea of multiple forms of divinity was in the Vedas. Rig Veda at many places talks in terms of saguna, the supreme divinity with attributes. The aspects of the thirty-three divinities were later condensed to three viz. Agni, the aspect of fire, energy and life on earth; Vayu, the aspect of space, movement and air in the mid-region; and Surya the universal energy and life that sustains and governs all existence, in the heavenly region, the space. This provided the basis for the evolution of the classic Indian trinity, the Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.

The concept of polytheism gave tremendous impetus to all branches of Indian arts, literature and iconography. The polytheism is, in fact, the lifeblood of iconography; for it is only through a divinity with aspects one can represent and worship ones ideal with  love, adoration and earnestness. Making an image involves an understanding of its attributes, virtues, powers, characteristics, symbols and its disposition. An image is the visual and concrete form of idealism; the idioms of beauty grace and power nurtured and honed by generations after generations. It is a representation of a community’s collective aspirations.

Iconographic representations of gods and goddesses are the idioms aiming to give expression to their attributes, powers, virtues and disposition. Multiplicity of heads denotes presence of their concurrent abilities; and multiplicity of hands denotes their versatile abilities. For instance, three heads of a divinity indicates trio guna (guna-triad: sattva, Rajas and tamas) or shakthi traya [iccha (will), Jnana (consciousness) and kriya (action) shakthis or powers] . Four heads represent compreneshion  or enveloping four Vedas ; or overseeing four directions . Five heads stand for five principles or elements  (pancha-bhuthas) or five divine attributes or five stages of the evolutionary process

shristi (creation), shthithi (expansion), samhara (withdrawal),  triodhana (concealing) and anugraha (preserving  till the commencement of the next cycle  of evolution) ]

Not all divine representations are made through icons. Shiva is represented usually by a conic linga or an un-carved rock ; Vishnu and Narasimha are worshipped at homes as Saligrama (a special types of smooth dark stones found on bed of the Gandaki river); Ganapathi is best worshipped in the roots of the arka plant, and he is also represented by red stones (sona shila) or turmeric cones or pieces (haridra churna). The Devi in Kamakhya temple is worshipped in a natural fissure of a rock. Yet all these divinities have specified well defined iconographic forms.


Since the very purpose of the temple structure is the image residing in it; and the temple is regarded the virtual expansion of the image, let us talk for a while about temple iconography.

Iconography, in general terms, is the study and interpretation of images in art. But, in the context of this discussion it could be restricted to the study of icons meant for worship and the images used in temple architecture. The temple iconography is more concerned with the concept, interpretation and validity of the icon in terms of the themes detailed in the scriptures or the mythological texts; and with the prescriptions of the shilpa shastra. There is not much discussion on the styles of architecture or the art forms, per se.

[A short explanation about the term iconography. We are using it for want of a better term in English. The word icon is derived from Greek eikon; and it stands for a sign or that which resembles the god it represents. In the Indian tradition what is worshipped is Bimba, the reflection or Prathima, the image of god, but not the god itself. Bimba means reflection, like the reflection of moon in a tranquil pool. That reflection is not the moon but an image (prathima) of the moon. In other words, what is worshipped in a temple is an idea, a conception or the mental image of god, translated to a form in stone or metal or wood; but, it is not the god itself. The Indian term for Iconography is therefore Prathima –lakshana, the study of images.]

Besides the agamas, there are several texts that detail the processes involved in practicing the art; and specify the rules governing iconography and iconometry.  The Brihat Samhita of Varahamihira (6th century AD) is an ancient text that provides descriptions of certain images. It refers to one Nagnajit, as the author of a contemporary work on Silpasastra – but not much is known about him or his work. Shukranithisara is another treatise which discusses aspects such as the proportions and the measurements recommended for the images of various classes and attributes. The subject he dealt with has since developed into Iconometry. Someshwara’s (a 1th century western Chalukya king) Abhilashitartha Chintamini contains interesting iconographical details of many important deities.  And, Hemadri (13th century AD) who hailed from Dakshina Kannada region authored Caturvarga_chintamini, which deals with temple architecture and construction. He is credited with introducing a method of construction that did not use lime.

In addition, there are the major and authoritative texts that deal comprehensively with all aspects of Devalaya Vastu. These include Kashyapa shilpa samhitha, Mayamata, Manasara, Shilpa rathna, Kumaratantra, Lakshana_samuchayya, Rupamanada; and the Tantrasara of Ananda Tirtha (Sri Madhwacharya) , which contains sections dealing with the study of images (iconography and iconometry).

Among the puranas, the Agnipurana details the Prathima_lakshanam (the characteristics of images), Prathimavidhi (the mode of making images), and Devagraha nirmana (the construction of places of worship).

Similarly, the Matsya Purana (dated around second century AD) has eighteen comprehensive chapters on  architecture and sculpture. This purana mentions as many as eighteen ancient architects (vastu_shatropadeshkaha): Brighu, Atri, Vashista, Vishwakarma, Brahma, Maya, Narada, Nagnajit, Visalaksa, Purandara, Kumara, Nanditha, Shaunaka, Garga, Vasudeva, Aniruddha, Shuka and Brihaspathi. Many of these names appear to come from mythology; but quite a few of them could be historical. Sadly, the works of most of these savants are now lost. The Mathsya purana says that the best aspect of karma yoga is the building temples and installing deities; and therefore devotes several chapters to the subject of temple construction and image making.

The Vishnu purana (dated about 3rd century AD) too contains several chapters on the subjects of architecture and sculpture. Further, it includes the Vishnu_dharmotthara_purana (perhaps an insertion into the Vishnupurana at a later period), which is a masterly treatise on temple architecture, iconography and painting. This work which is in the form of a conversation between the sage Markandeya and the King Vajra is spread over 42 chapters. In part three of the text there is virtually a catalouge of the various deities with  descriptions of their features, stance and gestures (mudras) apart from their disposition and attributes.

In addition to  the Sanskrit texts, the Tamil works – Mandalapurusha’s Chintamini Nigandu and Sendanar’s Divakara nigandu, are well known and widely accepted. Besides, there is an ancient work by an unknown author, Silpam (perhaps a translation of an ancient Sanskrit text), which is popular among the shilpis.

A special mention needs to be made about iconography ‘s (prathima lakshana) relation with Natyasastra.

The Shilpa and Chitra (painting) are closely related to Natyasastra (ca. second century BCE). The rules of the iconography (prathima lakshana), in particular, appear to have been derived from the Natyasastra. The Indian sculptures are often the frozen versions or representations of the gestures and poses of dance (caaris and karanas) described in Natyasastra. The Shilpa (just as the Natya) is based on a system of medians (sutras), measures (maanas), postures of symmetry (bhangas)   and asymmetry (abhanga, dvibhanga and tribhanga); and on the  sthanas (positions of standing, sitting, and reclining). The concept of perfect symmetry is present in Shilpa as in Nrittya; and that is indicated by the term Sama.

The Natya and Shilpa sastras developed a remarkable approach to the structure of the human body; and delineated the relation between its central point (navel), verticals and horizontals. It then coordinated them, first with the positions and movements of the principal joints of neck, pelvis, knees and ankles; and then with the emotive states, the expressions. Based on these principles, Natyasastra enumerated many standing and sitting positions. These, demonstrate the principles of stasis, balance, repose and perfect symmetry; And, they are of fundamental importance in Indian arts, say, dance, drama, painting or sculpture.

The demonstrations of those principles of alignment could be seen in the sama-bhanga of Vishnu, Shiva, abhanga of Kodanda-Rama and tribhanga of Nataraja; and in the vibrant movements of dance captured in the motifs carved on the walls of the Indian temples depicting gandharvas, kinnaras, vidyadharas and other gods and demigods. If the saala bhanjikas (bracket figures) recreate the caaris(primary movements) , the flying figures recreate the karanas (larger movements).The representations of about one hundred and eight of the karanas described in the Natyasastra find expression on the walls of temples spread across the country.

It is as if the rich and overpowering passages of Natyasastra are translated in to stone and published on temple walls.

For the purpose of creating an image , initially, a square grid is divided into sixteen equal squares . These squares are grouped into six  segments : Brahma -bhaga ( the central four squares) ; Deva -kesha or Deva shiro-alankara -bhaga ( two squares on top of Brahma-bhaga for depicting the crown or elaborate hair arrangement) ;Vahana-bhaga or peeta-bhaga ( space for pedestal – two bottom squares , below the Brahma-bhaga);Bhaktha -bhaga ( two bottom sqares on either side of Peeta -bhaga for locating images of the worshipping devotees); Devi-bhaga ( two squares each on either side of Brahma-bhaga for the accompanying female deities) ; and Gandharva-bhagha (two squares in the top on either side of Shiro-bhaga for depicting the Gandarvas).

The image of the main deity along with that of the consorts and subsidiary figures are located within the square grid. The central part of the main deity is accomodated in the Brahma-bhaga; its head or crown or hair-do is figured in the Deva-shiro-bhaga, while the f eet of the deity, the pedastal and the mount (vahana) are in the lower vahana-bhaga.

The  verticle and horizontal axis of the square as also its diagonal axis of the square pass through what is known as the Brahma-bindu right at the centre of the Brahma-bhaga. It is at the Brahma-bindu the navel (nabhi) of the deity would be located. All other image parts are co-related to the Brahma-bindu.

Dhyana shlokas

One of the main resources for a practicing shilpi is the collection of Dhyana shlokas.

Before a shilpi starts on a project to sculpt an image, he needs to be clear in his mind on its form, its aspects, its countenance, the details of its physiognomy, its facial and bodily expressions; its posture, details of the number of arms, heads and eyes; and details of its ornaments, ayudhas (objects it holds in its hands) etc. For this purpose, the Shilpis generally refer to a wonderful collection of most amazingly articulate verses called Dhyana Shlokas, the verses in contemplation. These verses culled from various texts of Shipa Shastra, the Agamas and the Puranas; and also from Buddhist and Jain texts, describe, precisely, the postures (dynamic or static, seated or standing), the Bhangas (flexions – slight, triple, or extreme bends), Mudras (hand gestures), the attitudes, the nature, the consorts and other vital details of each aspect that provides the deity with power and grace. it is said that there are about 32 aspects or forms of Ganapathi, 16 of Skanda, 5 of Brahma, 64 of yoginis, and innumerable forms of Vishnu, Shiva and Devi .Each one of those forms has a Dhyana shloka illustrating  its aspects and attributes.

Dhyana shlokas are more than prayers or hymns; they are the word-pictures or verbal images of a three-dimensional image. They help the Shilpi to visualize the deity and to come up with a line drawing of the image. It is said that there are more than 2,000 such Dhyana shlokas. How this collection came to be built up over the centuries is truly amazing. These verses have their origin in Sanskrit texts; and the scholars who could read those texts knew next to nothing about sculpture. The Shilpis who actually carved the images had no knowledge of Sanskrit and could not therefore read the texts or interpret the shlokas. This dichotomy was bridged by the generations of Shilpis who maintained their own set of personal notes, explanations and norms; as also references to shlokas; and passed them on to their succeeding generations and to their disciples.

 [ Ram Raz (Rama Raja) (1790–1830) in his remarkable  Essay on the Architecture of the Hindús  also observed that only a few Brahmins could assist him in interpreting the Shilpa Shastras but they had no idea what so ever of architecture. The active rural craftsmen he approached were ignorant of Sanskrit and were unable to read the texts, their extensive practical knowledge having been learnt through pupillary succession. There seemed to be no interdependence between theoretical treatise and practical process.]

Thus, among the many traditions (parampara) inherited in India, the tradition of Vishwakarma is unique. The  mode of transmission of knowledge of this community is both oral and practical. The rigor and discipline required to create objects that defy time and persist beyond generations of artists, has imbued this tradition with tremendous sense of purpose, and zeal to maintain purity and sensitivity of its traditions; and to carry it forward. This has enabled them to protect and carry forward the knowledge, the art and skills without falling prey to the market and its dynamics.

With the emergence of the various academies of sculpture and organized efforts to collate and publish the old texts with detailed explanations, there is now a greater awareness among the shilpis of the present day. Yet, the neglect of Sanskrit and inability to read the texts in Sanskrit is still an impediment that badly needs to be got over.

Please look at the summary of a few Dhyana shlokas.

The image of Lord Narayana must be made with ten , eight, four or two arms. His head should be in the form of an umbrella, his neck should be like counch, his ears like sukthi, he should have high nose, strong thighs and arms. His breast must bear the Srivatsa mark and be adorned with the Kaustubha gem. He should be made as dark as the Atasi (Linum usitatissimum), clad in yellow robes, having a serene and gracious countenance. He should be wearing a diadem and ear-rings. Of the eight hands the four on the right side must have the sword(nandaka), mace(kaumodaki), arrow and abhaya _hastha, mudra of assurance and protection (the fingers raised and the palm facing the devotees), and the four on the left side, the bow(saranga), buckler, discus (sudarshana) and conch (panchjanya).

South Indian, late 19th c, Vishnu

In case the image is to have only four arms, the two hands on the right side will display the abhaya mudra or lotus; and discus respectively. And, in his hands in the left, he holds the conch and mace. 


And, in case he is made with only two arms, then the right hand bestows peace and hope (shanthi-kara-dakshina hastha) and the left holds the conch. This is how the image of the Lord Vishnu is to be made for prosperity. 

Vasudeva Perumal stands in samabhanga

When Vishnu is two armed and carries discus and mace, he is known as Loka-paala-Vishnu.

Yogasana_ murthi (yoga Narayana) is Vishnu seated in yogic posture on a white lotus, with half-closed eyes. His complexion is mellow –bright like that of conch, milk or jasmine. He has four hands with lower two hands resting on his lap on yogic posture (yoga mudra). ; And the upper two hands holding conch and discus. He is dressed in white or mild red clothes. He wears modest but pleasant ornaments. He wears an ornate head dress or a coiled mop of hair. [Yogesvara is sometimes shown with four faces and twelve hands.]

vishnu seated2

Surya, the Sun-God should be represented with elevated nose, forehead, shanks, thighs, cheeks and breast; he should be dressed in robes covering the body from breast to foot. His body is covered with armor. He holds two lotuses in both of his hands, he wears an elaborate crown. His face is beautified with ear-rings. He has a long pearl necklace and a girdle round the waist. His face is as lustrous as the interior of the lotus, lit up with a pleasant smile; and has a halo of bright luster of gems (or, a halo that is made very resplendent by gems on the crown). His chariot drawn by seven horses has one wheel and one charioteer .Such an image of the Sun will be beneficial to the maker (and to the worshipper).

The dhyana shloka preceding the middle episode of Devi Mahatmya gives the iconographic details of the Devi. The Goddess is described as  having eighteen arms,  bearing string of beads, battle axe, mace, arrow, thunderbolt, lotus, bow, water-pot, cudgel, lance, sword, shield, conch, bell, wine-cup, trident, noose and the discuss sudarsana. She has a complexion of coral and is seated on a lotus.

The Mahakali is “Wielding in her hand the sword, discuss, mace, arrow, bow, iron club, trident, sling, human head, and conch, she has three eyes and ornaments decked on all her limbs. She shines like a blue stone and has ten faces and ten feet. That Mahakali I worship, whom the lotus born Brahma lauded in order to slay Madhu and Kaitaba when Hari was asleep”.

Pancha bera

The images in the Hindu temples can be classified into three broad groups: Shaiva, Shakta and Vaishnava, representing the three cults of Shiva, Shakti and Vishnu, respectively. The images in the temple could be achala (immovable) Dhruva-bimba or dhruva-bera; and chala(movable). The chala bera, usually made of pancha loha (alloy of five metals), are meant for other forms of worship and ceremonial services.

The dhruva-bera is the immovable image of the presiding deity of the temple and resides in the sanctum and to which main worship is offered (archa-murti). It is usually made of stone. In a temple following the Vaikhanasa tradition, the immovable (dhruva-bera) represents the primary aspect of the deity known as Vishnu (Vishnu-tattva). The other images in the temple that are worshipped each day during the   ritual sequences are but the variations of the original icon (adi-murti). These other forms are emanations of the main idol, in successive stages. And, within the temple complex, each form is accorded a specific location; successively away from the Dhruva bera.

A major temple, apart from the Dhruva bera, would usually have four or five representations of the principal deity (pancha bera).They are:

:- Kautuka –bera is a mini replica of the main idol (usually madeof gems, stone, copper, silver, gold or wood and about 1/3 to 5/9 the size of the Dhruva-bera), and  is placed in the sanctum near the main idol and is connected to it by a metal string or silk thread. It receives all the daily worship(nitya-archana) including those of tantric nature.

:- The next is the Snapana-bera (usually made of metal and smaller than Kautuka) which receives ceremonial bath (abhisheka) and the occasional ritual- worship sequences(naimitta-archana).

:- The third is the shayana-bera, to which the services of putting the Lord to sleep are offered.

:- The fourth is the Uthsava (always made of metal); is meant for taking the idol out of the temple premises on ceremonial processions.

:- The fifth idol is Bali – bera ( always made of shiny metal) taken out , daily ,  around the central shrine when  food offerings are made to Indra and other devas, as well as to  Jaya and Vijaya the doorkeepers of the Lord ; and to all the elements.

To this, sometimes another icon is added for daily worship, special rituals, and processions and for food-offering, it is known as Bhoga-bera.

These five forms together make Pancha bera or Pancha murti.  But, these different icons are not viewed as separate or independent deities; but are understood as emanations from the original icon, Dhruva–bimba.

[One of the few cases (that I am aware of) where the principal deity is taken out of the sanctum for procession, is that of Lord Jagannath of Puri. Such images are regarded chala-achala (both movable and immovable)]

According to Vyuha -siddantha of the Agamas, the dhruva bera which is immovable represents Vishnu (Vishnu-tattva); and it symbolizes Para, the transcendent one (Vishnu). The kouthuka is bhoga (worship idol) representing purusha (personification of the Supreme), Dharma and Vasudeva. The snapana is ugra (fearsome aspect) represented by Pradyumna or Achutha. The uthsava bera is vaibhava (the resplendent) representing Jnana (knowledge), truth (Sathya) and Sankarshana. And, the Bali bera is antaryamin (one who resides within) representing Vairagya (spirit of renunciation) and Aniruddha.

And again it is said, Purusha symbolized by Kautuka-bera is an emanation of the Dhruva-bera. Satya symbolized by Utsava-bera emanates from Kautuka-bera. Achyuta symbolized by Snapana-bera emanates from Utsava-bera. And, Aniruddhda symbolized by Bali-bera emanates from Bali-bera.

The symbolisms associated with the four murtis (chatur-murti) are many; and are interesting. The four are said to compare with the strides taken by Vishnu/Trivikrama.  The main icon represents Vishnu who is all-pervasive, but, does not move about. When the worship sequences are conducted, the spirit (tejas) of the main idol moves into the Kautuka,-bera, which rests on the worship pedestal (archa-pitha). This is the first stride of Vishnu.Again, at the time of offering ritual bath, the tejas of the main idol moves into the Snapana-bera which is placed in the bathing-enclosure (snapana –mantapa). This is the second stride taken by Vishnu. And, the third stride is that when the Utsava-bera is taken out in processions. This is when the tejas of the Main idol reaches out to all.

In Marichi’s Vimana-archa-kalpa the five forms, five types of icons, the pancha-murti (when Vishnu is also counted along with the other four forms) are compared to five types of Vedic sacred fires (pancha-agni): garhapatya; ahavaniya; dakshinAgni; anvaharya; and sabhya. These in turn are compared to the primary elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space). And, the comparison is extended to five vital currents (prana, apana, vyana, udana and samana).

Further it is explained; the Vaikhanasa worship-tradition retained the concept of Pancha-Agni, but transformed them into five representations of Vishnu (pancha –murthi): Vishnu, Purusha, Satya, Achyuta and Aniruddha. And, that again was rendered into five types of temple deities as pancha-bera: Dhruva, Kautuka, Snapana, Utsava and Bali.


Let us, for instance, take the case of the idols in the shrine on the hills of Tirumala. The practices at the Tirumala temple are slightly at variance with the standard procedures, perhaps because the temple predates most of the other temples in South India and that it has a tradition of its own.

The dhruva bera at the Tirumala shrine is of course the magnificent and most adorable image of the Lord made of hard-black-stone; and has a recorded history of about two thousand years. He is addressed as Sri Venkateswara, Sri Srinivasa and by host of other names. (Let’s talk more about the dhruva bera, towards the end of this post).

It is said that around the year 614 AD, the Pallava Queen, Devi Samavai (also known as Kadavan-Perundevi), donated an almost (but not exact- as it holds the Sanka and Chakra ) replica of the dhruva bera, made of silver. In terms of the Agama texts, this image is called kouthuka bera; but in the Tirumala shrine it is called Bhoga Srinivasa., In Tirumala , the kauthuka   serves as snapana bera too  (that is, the one to which ceremonial bath service is rendered). This image has come to be  known as Bhoga srinivasa; perhaps because the other services such as the daily ceremonial bath and Ekantha seva that are due to the dhruva _bera are rendered to it. There is a six cornered Vaishnava chakra (mandala)- in the shape of two inter placed equilateral triangles –  placed at the foot of the kauthuka, representing the six virtues of knowledge (jnana), abundance (Aishvarya), power (shakthi), strength (bala), resplendence (tejas) and valor or virility (veeerya). The kauthuka is placed right in front of the Lord’s foot stool (paada pitha) and is linked to the dhruva_bera through a string with strands of gold, silver and silk. It is ever linked to the dhruva bera and is never brought out of the antarala (bangaru vakili). For that reason it is also addressed as sambhandha-sutra-kauthuka-murthy. 

The Uthsava_bera at Tirumala shrine is named Malayappan, the earliest reference to which is found in an inscription dated 1369 AD. This idol might have entered into the temple regimen with the rise of the Pancharathra School of worship. Malayappan is a very skillfully crafted, beautiful image, made of panchloha, standing three feet tall on a pedestal of fourteen inches. It does not greatly resemble the dhruva_bera. Yet, it has a very pleasing disposition and is modestly ornamented. His consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi (of about twenty-nine inches height) are on his either side. All services, processions and celebrations conducted outside the sanctum are rendered to Malayappan.

The Bali bera in Tirumala shrine is addressed as Koluvu srinivasa. After the rendering the ceremonial food service to the dhruva_bera, offerings are made to the bali_bera who accepts it on behalf of the basic elements in nature , the host of spirits guarding the temple and other minor deities. A unique feature of the bali_bera in Tirumala shrine is that, it seated on a golden throne placed in Snapana Mandapam,  presides over the formal court summoned at the commencement of the day, where the day’s almanac is read out, and where the accounts of the previous day’s collections at the Srivari hundi are submitted. This is done is Snapana Mandapam before the dusk ;and, in Ghanta Mandapam after dawn. The traditional distribution of the daily remuneration, in the form of food grains and provisions, to the temple priests and attendant staff takes place in the presence of koluvu_srinivasa. It is not clear how this practice came into being at Tirumala.

The other bera in the Tirumala temple is the Ugra Srinivasa, which apart from the dhruva bera is perhaps the oldest idol in Tirumala shrine. But, it has a rather sad history. The earliest reference to this idol is in an inscription dated 10th century. Ugra Srinivasa was used as the Uthsava murthy till about 1330 A.D, when a fire broke out in the temple; and thereafter it was replaced by Malayappan. The Ugra Srinivasa no longer serves as the uthsava bera and it is never bought out of the temple after sunrise; except on a single occasion in a year (utthana dwadasi in karthika month-Kaisika Dwadasi ) that too well before the sunrise. It is feared that if the sunrays touch the idol, it would spark fire in the temple premises.

The iconography of Sri Venkateshwara in the Tirumala temple:

There are no known descriptions or specifications of the iconography of the Sri Venkateshwara idol in any texts of the Shilpa shastra. Till about the Vijayanagar period there were no temples of Sri Venkateshwara, outside Tirumala, Tirupathi and Mangapura regions. The idol does not also fall within the interpretations of any of the known schools of architecture such as Pallava, Chalukya, and Chola etc. That might be because the image of Sri Venkateshwara predates all such schools.

The sanctum at Tirumala is eka murthy griha a sanctum housing a single deity; Sri Vekateshwara is standing alone, not accompanied by his consorts. The icon is made of hard- black – polished stone (often described as saligrama shila) .Though the precise measurements of the image of the deity cannot be ascertained, it is said,  it stands  more than  six feet in height,  with the Kirita , the crown,  measuring about twenty  inches high; and  the idol is mounted  on a pedestal of about eighteen inches. The pedestal with lotus motif is almost at the ground level. The total height of idol is estimated to be a little more than eight feet (A person of normal height with arms raised just falls short of reaching the top of the idol’s crown) .

The idol, crafted with great skill, is wonderfully well proportioned and is very pleasing to look at. It has four arms though its two upper hands are always kept covered (for whatever reason). Of the other two hands, the right hand is in Varada mudra, in a posture of benediction, blessing the devotees. The left hand is almost near the left knee in Katyavalambita mudrawith the thumb almost parallel to the waist, as if to assure that the mire of the samsara , the mundane existence , is only knee deep for those who submit to him and seek salvation.

Let’s discuss  some  specific forms of iconography in the next segment.

Khajuraho tempie

Iconography continued in the next part…>


Shilpa Soundarya by KT Pankajaksha

The Lord of Seven Hills by Prof. SKR Rao

Line drawings of kirita and ornaments

By the renowned Shilpi and Yogi Sri Siddalinga Swamy of Mysore

Other Line drawings are from Shilpa Soundarya

Other pictures are  from internet


Posted by on September 9, 2012 in Natya, Temple Architecture


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Temple Architecture – Devalaya Vastu – Part Five (5 of 9)

Measures and proportions

The structural harmony, the rhythm and a fine sense of proportion is the hall mark of Indian temple architecture. It not merely resolves the contradictions but also expresses harmony by encompassing all contradictions, transforming into pure and uncompromised details of structure. The aim of a proportional system, meaning not merely symmetry, is to manifest a sense of coherence and harmony among the elements of the temple and it’s whole. The proportional harmonization of design, therefore, is of utmost importance in the construction of a temple. It is believed that the power and purity of the structure radiates from its exact proportions and measures as specified in the texts. It is also believed that a meticulously well constructed temple radiates peace and joy; and ensures the welfare of the world and its people.

Without harmony, symmetry and proportion there can be no principles in the design of any temple. This is analogues to the precise relation between the features and organs of a well proportioned, good-looking person.

The ancient texts, therefore, insist on a high degree of precision in their measurements. The standard text Mayamata  mentions “Only if the temple is constructed correctly according to a mathematical system can it be expected to function in harmony with the universe. Only if the measurement of the temple is in every way perfect, there will be perfection in the universe as well.”

The Hindu temple is a feast of a variety of visual aspects, and wherever one engages one of them, entering a doorway, circumambulating or approaching the inner sanctuary or worshipping there– one is accessing an aspect of the whole.

The rules of Vastu-shastra render beauty, structural stability and quality of spaces by virtue of light, sound and volume management. They also evoke in the devotee an attuning of his person to its structure and ambience.

The lighting of spaces inside a temple is orchestrated such that the mukha mantapa (i.e. entrance porch) is semi-open with maximum light. If the directions and measurements are followed correctly the sun rays should fall into the mantapa for at least six hours (from 9.00am to 3.00pm, if the sun rise is at 6.00am). The Sabha Mantapa (for worshippers) has moderate light with few openings.   Garbhagirha with a single opening in front of deity allows light only on deity; and, is illumined by natural oil lamps, placed on either side of the deity. The net effect of this arrangement is that it projects the images against the dark wall. Further, the surroundings of the Garbhagriha are modest in sculptural details. These help the worshippers to keep away the distractions and to focus their attention on the deity.

Echoes are avoided by a clever manipulation of open spaces, elevations and designs in the structured areas. Absolute quiet is ensured in the Sanctum vicinity. The Shilpis, in some cases (Meenkshi temple, Madurai; Sundareshwara temple Tirchendur; and the Vijaya Vittala temple of Hampi- Vijayanagar) displayed remarkable ingenuity in sculpting “musical” pillars, which when struck at precise parts, produce the seven swaras (octaves).

As regards the volumes, every part of the temple is rigorously controlled by a precise proportional system of interrelated measurements, maintaining the fundamental unity of the architecture and sculpture.

The ancient shilpis used a great degree of precision in their measurements. Much of this system is followed by the present shilpis too. An interesting feature of these systems is the standard unit of measurement; the smallest unit mentioned is the anu or the particle, which is hardly perceptible. The anu measure was employed for extremely delicate or intricate or the most vital aspects of a sculpture; for instance, the eyes and facial features of the image of presiding deity; or in the amaziningly  delicate and minute carvings of the Hoyasla images. The norms and measures specified in the Southern texts, it is said, are still in use. These measures are in two categories; one for delicate and intricate work and the other for normal structures.

Look at the table of measurements for minute and delicate carvings.

Eight anus (particles) = one nulu (breadth of a fine cotton or silk fiber),

Eight nulu = one hair (breadth of horse hair),

Eight hairs = one grain of sand,

Eight grains of sand = one mustard seed,

Eight mustard-seeds = one bamboo seed,

Eight bamboo-seeds = one angula.

The angula (1.875 cms) and the hasta (cubit, 45 cms) are the units that are normally used for deriving the dimensions, proportions, the height and other details of a sculpture. The Danda (four cubits) used for measuring less-delicate or lengthier structure is equivalent to 180 cms.

One Hastha = one cubit= 45 cms;

Four Hasthas = one Danda= 96 angulas = 180 cms.

One Hastha =24 angulas = 45 cms.

Thus one angula = 1.875 cms.

The old Sanskrit texts too mention a set of measurements. According to them Anu or paramanu, the particle, was the smallest measure.

8 anus = one ratha renu (grain of dust);

8 ratha renu = one valagrasa (hair end);

8 valagrasa =One grain of yava;

4 yavas = one angula;

12 angulas = one vitasta or Tala (span)

2 Vitasta or Tala = Hastha (cubit) = 24 angulas

26 angulas= Dhanurbhagha (handle of a bow).

4 hatas = One Danda;
8 Dandas = One Rajju (rope)
1000 Rajju = One Yojana

The proportions of the head-trunk-arms-legs of images; and also their finer specifications like nose, nail, ears and their shapes are specified in the texts. Generally: it is dasatala (ten talas) for the height of image of male deity, navatala (nine talas) for his consort and astatala (eight talas) for bhakta. These are not absolute measurements; but are meant as guidelines to maintain proper proportions.(We shall discuss more about these aspects in the part dealing with Temple Iconography.)

Further, the Vastu believes that every unit of time vibration produces a corresponding unit of space measure; and derives that the time is equal to space. This rhythm of time and space vibrations is quantified in terms of eight and as multiples of eight.  According to the Vastu, at the subtle level the human form is a structure of eight spatial units apart from elements  like the hair, kneecap and toe nails, each of which measures one-quarter of the basic measure of the body and, when added on to the body’s eight units, increases the height of the total form to nine units. Traditionally, these nine units are applied in making sculptures of gods.

Similarly, the lengths, the breadths the heights of various elements of the temple too are related to each other by certain ratios. These lend esthetic appeal and stability to the temple structure. For instance, it is said, by restricting the height of the tower, Shikhara, to twice its width at the base, the weight of the tower is contained within itself. Further, as the size of the pada (bay, distance between two pillars) increases, the cross section of pillars also increases in size and width of beam has to be exactly same as that of the pillar.


The size of the structure will also determine the various kinds of building materials to be used at different stages of the construction. They also help to control the proportions of the dimensions of the temple. These norms carry shades of religious intentions too; the set of six formulae or Ayadivarga viz., the Aaya, Vyaya, Yoni, Tithi, Vaara and Nakshatra are applied by the Acharya to derive the proper orientation and dimensions of the structure. (More of Ayadivarga in the final part.)

The Vastu Purusha Mandala of the temple projects the temple in two main sections: the ground plan and the vertical alignment. The square, the rectangle, the octagon and the pentagon patterns drawn in the Mandala relate to the horizontal section or the ground plan. The subdivisions of the ground plan detail the Brahmasthana (the main shrine and smaller shrines) and the Mantapas (pavilions). The vertical alignment consisting the pyramid, the circle and the curve are meant for designing the Gopura (entrance ways), the Vimana (the structure above the main shrine) and the prakara (the walls).

How these designs of certain measurements and proportions are translated into three dimensional constructions, is really interesting.

Hindu temple construction is strictly based on a complex system of measurements and proportions. These proportions control every aspect of a temple’s design, from its width and height to the size of its doorways and moldings.  There are a number of prescribed methods. Let us look at just two of them.

A. This relates to the construction of the Garbhagriha (sanctum) and the Vimana or Prasada on top of it.

In this method, the square of 4 (16) and the square of 8(64) are considered auspicious. All the main horizontal as well as vertical proportions are with reference to either of these numbers (mulasutra).The area of the Vimana (the prasada or the tower above the sanctum) is divided into 16 squares (maha-pitha) or 64 squares (manduka), as the case may be; in which case the width would be 4 or 8 units.

If the width of the Vimana is 4, then the width of the sanctum would be 2 units; the height of the Vimana would also be 4; and the base of the Vimana would be a cube. The Sikhara on top this cube would be twice its height (that is, 4×2).The cube and the Sikhara would together rise to a height of 12 units. This proportion builds a relationship between the vertical and horizontal extents of the other parts of the temple.

In case the width of the sanctum is 8 units, The total height of the sanctum with Sikhara would be three times the width of the sanctum(8×3), of which the height of the Sikhara would be 2/3 the total height.

B. In this method, the size of the sanctum and the Dwajasthamba is determined by the height of the image of main deity in the sanctum. The size of a temple is always a fixed multiple of the height of image of main deity.

The normal height of a man is taken as six feet; and the sanctum would be in the shape of a square of its inner length and width, of six feet. The width of the sanctum walls would be two feet. The outer measurement of the sanctum would be 10 feet on each side.

A mantapa, in front of the sanctum, would have certain special features. The inner length and breadth of a mantapa should be twice that of the sanctum. For instance, in this case, the outer side of the sanctum is ten feet; and therefore the inner side of the Mantapa should be 20 feet, in width. This is achieved by extending the face (door) side of the sanctum on either side to form the inner dimension (20’) of the Mantapa.

If the directions and measurements are correctly followed the sun rays should fall into the mantapa for six hours (from 9.00am to 3.00pm, if the sun rise is at 6.00am).

For a sanctum of this size, the idol, in standing position, should be six feet tall. If the idol is less than six feet tall, its pedestal should be raised to obtain the required height. The idol should be installed exactly at the mid-point of the chosen direction (usually facing east).

The Dwaja –sthamba should be perpendicular and placed directly opposite to the idol.

A line drawn at an angle of 22 ½ degrees from the mid-point between the brows of the idol should cut the top of the Dwajasthamba. The height of the Dwajasthamba thus is related to the to the height of the image. Some scholars say, this perhaps is relates to the axis of the earth which makes an angle of 22 ½ degrees with the sun.

Sometimes, a hole is made in the roof of the mantapa, at the point where the imaginary line drawn from the idol emerges out of the roof of the mantapa, on its way to reach the top of the Dwajasthamba. Thus, it is ensured that the mid point between the brows of the idol, the hole in the roof and the top of Dwaja sthamba are all aligned along one straight line.

The line when extended further from the top of the Dwaja sthamba should touch the Kalasha on top of the Gopura.

Thus, the distance and the height of the Gopuram get related to the height of the idol and the Dwajasthamba.

The actual construction process of a temple can be divided into three steps. The first is the planning of the temple by architect, second is the carving of different parts and the third is assembling the parts.

In the first stage, the architect prepares a list of all the parts that go into the details of the temple; like the figures, pillars, beams, and brackets etc. These parts are usually composed of several elements. For example, a pillar is made of at least five parts, while the dome is made of several units. This is one of the reasons, it is said, why the temples do not normally collapse in case of earthquakes or cyclones; as its parts are not joined rigidly (say by materials like cement) but can vibrate within the surrounding structured space.

In the second stage, the teams of assistants of the Shilpi carve the parts and segments according to the temple Acharya’s and Shilpi’s drawings, designs, specifications and guidelines.  The parts thus got ready are transported to the site. And, at times the transportation to the site, itself, becomes a huge task. For instance, it is said that a four km long ramp was constructed to transport and place in position the dome of the Brihadishwara temple in Tanjore.

The stability of the temple structure is attributed to its principles of unity, harmony, balance and distribution of weight. It is said, if one member of this family breaks, the unity, peace and stability of the family is sure to crumble. . Hence, no member moves from its place, and holds the structure together even in the face of destruction all around. These aspects are ensured during the third stage.

The third stage is the assembling of the readied parts i.e. the actual construction of temple. The various elements and parts of temples are interlocked to hold in position. All the parts have mortise and tenon joint for ensuring strength; and a hole or slot is cut into each piece of readied part, for a projecting part tenon of the adjacent part to be inserted into the next. These mortise and tenons not only hold the parts their positions securely but also allow space for the stones to expand in heat or even to vibrate modestly.

The third stage and the second stage have to be well coordinated in order to take care of precise alignments and possible corrections. Though this stage, inevitably, means the slowing down of the construction pace, it is said, the Sthaphti or Sthalapahi, the one who supervises the actual construction process on site, takes extra care to ensure precise positioning and alignment of each part and segment; and to meticulously follow the overall proportion, stability and visual appeal, as specified and envisaged in the Vastu mandala and the construction plans.

The size and the nature of the structure will determine the various kinds of building materials to be employed at different stages of its construction. Generally the use of iron, considered the crudest of metals, is strictly avoided within the temple structure, as iron tends to get rusty and endangers the stability and the life of the structure. The stone which has a far longer life and is less corrosive, is the major building material employed in temple construction. (There are elaborate methods for testing and grading the stones; and more about that in the final part) The main structure and the dome are invariably constructed of tested stone.

The Building materials like stone, brick, mortar, wood, etc., are selected for the main body of the temple, whereas elements like gold and silver are be used for final ornamentation. Marble is not used in Southern structures. Materials like simulated marble, plastic and asbestos, strictly, are not acceptable building materials. Only organic materials are used in temple architecture. The traditional Indian temples of stone, it is said, are designed to last for 800 years unlike RCC structures which are guaranteed for 80 years. Incidentally, the Ayadi aspects are worked out to ensure longevity of the temple.

Some essential aspects of Temple Structure

A typical South Indian temple has a certain fairly well defined features and a generally accepted layout. The most important structure of a temple is the garbhagriha or sanctum sanctorum which houses the idol of the presiding deity.

The Garbagriha is followed by four types of mantapas or pavilions. Mantapa means any roofed, open or enclosed pavilion (hall) resting on pillars, standing independently or connected to the sanctum of the temple.

Screen Shot 2013

The first of the mantapas is the antarala (sometimes called sukanas or sukanasi or ardhamantapa), a narrow pavilion connecting the gharbhagriha and the navaranga.  It usually will have niches in the north and south walls, occupied by a deity, with attendant divinities in secondary niches flanking the central niche.  In a few temples the antarala serves as the navaranga too.

The next mantapa is nrttamantapa or navaranga, is a big hall used for congregational services like singing, dancing, recitation of mythological texts, religious discourses and so on. The navaranga will usually be on a raised platform and will have nine anganas (openings) and sixteen pillars.

This is followed by Sanapana mantapa, a hall used for ceremonial purposes. This leads to mukha mantapa the opening pavilion.


The Dwajasthamba (flag post) in front of either the garbhagrha or antarala or the mantapa is another common feature. It represents the flag post of the ‘King of kings’. The lanchana (insignia) made of copper or brass fixed like a flag to the top of the post varies according to the deity in the temple and his/her nature.

The Balipitha (pedestal of sacrificial offerings) with a lotus or the footprints of the deity is fixed near the Dwajasthamba, but nearer to the deity. Red-colored offerings like rice mixed with vermillion powder, are kept on this at appropriate stages of rituals for feeding the parivara_devatas and panchabhuthas or the elements.

A Dipastambha (lamp post) is situated either in front of the Balipitha or outside the main gate. The top of this post has a bud shaped chamber to receive the lamp.

The whole temple is surrounded by a high wall (prakara) with one main and three subsidiary gates, opening in the cardinal directions. A gopura (high tower,) adorns these gateways.

These were of course later developments; and in due course became characteristic features of South Indian temple architecture. It is said, the Agama texts provide for as many as 32 prakaras, the concentric – enclosing walls. But, they recommend five to seven as advisable, in case more than one enclosure is needed.  In many cases, the main area of the temple, plus the halls, tanks, and gardens are surrounded by a single wall (prakara) or enclosure. But many major temples  do have a series of enclosures.  As mentioned earlier the Sri Rangam temple has seven enclosing walls, enveloping the whole township.

The Agama texts prescribe that each enclosure must have door-ways in all four directions. But, very few temples followed this rule, perhaps with the exception of the great temple at Tiruvannamalai. In most cases, the doorways lead from one courtyard to the next, finally  leading to the sanctum. And, it became customary, since 10th century, to erect towers (gopuras) over such gateways, though a gopura was not an essential feature of the temple per se. It is needless to mention that the prakara contributes to the security and beauty of the temple

With the growth and development of the temples , their structures and details became increasingly complicated .The  structural arrangements of the major temples  became   more elaborate. The prakara in its many layers provides for a number of minor temples or shrines for the deities, connected with the presiding deity of the temple. Apart from these, the temple precincts include a yagasala, (a hall for occasional yajna or yagas), kalyana-mantapa, marriage or a general purpose hall; asthana-mantapa, where the processional deity holds court; Vahana mantapa , to store the various “vehicles” used to mount the processional deity during festivals and processions; alankara-mantapa, where the processional deity is dressed before being taken on procession; vasanta-mantapa, a hall in the middle of the temple tank used for festivals; and utsava mantapa, hall used on festive occasions. Temples will also usually have a treasury, a kitchen (paka-sala), a store room (ugrana), and a dining hall. A well or a puskarini (tank), flower garden and Ratha (the temple chariot) and its shed are the other essentials associated the temple.

The garbha-griha is encircled by the first prakara, called antara-mandala. This is a passageway, often narrow, permitting the devotees to circumambulate the sanctum in a customary act of devotion. The flight of stairs that connects the first prakara with the sanctum sanctorum is called the sopana. In front of the sopana is the main mantapa.

Around the main mantapa and antara-mandala is the second prakara (antahara). This forms a broad verandah with doorways on all four sides. The antahara leads out into an enclosure containing the main bali-pitha.

The next enclosure is called madhya­hara. Beyond this and just outside the main bali-pitha is the flagstaff (dhvaja-stambha).

The fourth enclosure is called bhayahara. The fifth prakara (enclosure) is the maryada (limit), or last wall.


Let us briefly go over the broad features of some of the essential aspects of the temple.


The most important part  of a temple, its very heart as it were, is the garbhagrha or  the sanctum sanctorum,  the cave-like cube-shaped “womb room,” located within the Brahmasthana of the Vastu Purusha Mandala, directly above the gold box, placed earlier in the earth during the garbhadhana ceremony. Here on the altar, the deity in the Dhruva Bheru (immovable) form is installed.

According to the nature and placement of the Duruva Bheru, the presiding deity, the entrance will be determined either to North or to East of Garbagriha. The placement of other deities will also be determined accordingly.

Garbhagriha usually is a cube with a low roof and with no doors or windows except for the front opening. The image of the deity is stationed in the geometrical centre, facing the midpoint of the chosen direction. The whole place completely dark, except for the light that comes through the front opening. The name garbhagriha perhaps has reference to the devotee finding his way to this secret inner place and being reborn from it, emerging later, transformed, by grace.


The sixth century text, Vishnu dharmottama purna, indicates certain specifications of the sanctum. It says the idol should preferably face east; and the placement of the other deities in the temple should be in relation to the main idol.

“It is commendable to place the central door of the temple in one of the cardinal points. The height of the door should be made double its width, o king. [One should make] the image together with the pedestal on 1/8 lower than the height of the door. The image [should be] two parts [of the whole] and the pedestal a third part. It is commendable to make the width of the door equal to 1/4 of [the width of] the shrine

“The height of the door should be [that of] the deities increased by 1/8. One should make the height of the door double [its] width”.

To illustrate, if the total height of the idol is 6’.0”; the pedestal would then be 2’.0” high and the image would be 4’.0” high. The height of the sanctum door would be 6’.9”; and its width, would be 3.’4 ½ “. The width of the sanctum would be (four times the width of the door) 13’.6”. The sanctum would be in the shape of a square.

As regards the thickness of the sanctum walls (bhitti), the text seems to suggests that the walls should be 1/8 the width of the sanctum. Applying this norm to our illustration   , the walls of the sanctum would be about three feet thick. (It is a bit confusing, here. I am not sure, if the portion relating to the sanctum walls sounds reasonable.)

Next, the text seems to suggest that the width of the sanctum should be 8/15 of the length of the enclosure surrounding it. If we apply this to our illustration, it seems to suggest that the passage around the sanctum would be about 3 ½ feet in width. (I am not certain.)


The sculpture and carvings at the doors and the vicinity of the Garbagriha are modest and not so exuberant as to distract the attention of the devotee. Absolute quiet is ensured in the vicinity of the sanctum. Further, the only light entering into that part of the temple falls on the deity. The oil lamps that illumine the deity enhance the ambiance of serenity and peace.

Garbagriha is the very purpose of the temple. Its enclosures are supplementary in nature. Some texts therefore argue that that the temple, per se, comprises only the sanctum and the tower on the top of it; and these two are the only essential parts of a shrine.

Some texts say that the shrine extends up to Balipeeta, the ‘dispensing seat’ and no further. In some temples, a pradaksinapatha (a circumambulatory passage) is provided just round the garbhagrha, to enable the devotees to go round the deity. The vesara temples do not have this passage.

The walls of the sanctum raise above a series of moldings, constituting the socle (adhisthana), a base that sticks out from under the bottom wall. The adistana should be strong and massive, as it carries the entire weight of the Garbha griha, the mantapa and the path for circumblation pradakshina; and also of the weight of the super structures, such as the Vimana and its details.

The adhisthana consists of several mouldings (from bottom up); Upana or upatala (the base), Padma (a layer of lotus motif), Jagathi (straight and mnodestly decorated), Kumuda (round and ribbed), Kanta (neck) and Kapolapalika (double layer of lotus petals)

In the Hoysala or the Vesara architecture, particularly from the late 10th century onward, this arrangement of the superstructure is loaded with decoration.

While on the subject, the sanctum of the most celebrated temple in India that of Sri Venkateshwara in Tirumala is a square of twelve feet and nine inches. The sanctum is considered so holy that it is addressed as Koil Alwar meaning the divinity in the form of temple. The three sides of the sanctum (other than the one with the opening to view the deity) are enclosed by another set of wall/s. The total thickness of the walls surrounding the sanctum is about seven feet and two inches. Perhaps this is the most secure sanctum wall one can find. The pleasing Ananda Nilaya Vimana stands on these sets of walls. It is surmised that the outer wall might have been erected sometime around 1260AD.


The term Vimana has acquired various interpretations. Sometimes the term Vimana stands for the temple. Often, Vimana means the tower shikara, raised to its final height above the sanctum .

Vimana from Manasara

But, some say that the term Vimana should, strictly, refer to the rotund structure above the series of elevations (tala) which stand on kapota (the flat roof over the sanctum).

In other words, the term vimana, it is said, should refer to the structure between the final Tala and the stupi, the end. The Vimana rests or is surrounded by the Kanta (neck).

Another interpretation is that Sikhara meaning mountain peak, refers to the rising tower of a temple constructed as per the architecture of North India; and is it’s most prominent and visible feature. While the Northern texts identify the Sikhara as Prasada; the Southern texts call them Vimana. The Vimana is pyramid like; and Prasada is curvilinear in its outline. We may for the present go with the last mentioned interpretation.

Among the several styles of Sikharas that obtain in temple architecture, the three most common ones are: the Dravida prevalent in south India; the Nagara   the most common style; and the third born from the synthesis of the other two called the Vesara, seen mostly in Hoysala and later Chalukya temples of Karnataka.

The Dravida style is highly ornate; the Nagara style is simpler and consists of a curvilinear dome. In the Vesara style, the dome is highly ornate and emerges from the Sukanasi or from the richly carved outer walls of the temple. In every style of Sikhara/Vimanam, the structure culminates with a Kalashaat its peak.

The early vimanas, in south, were circular until they ended in a point of the finial (stupi); like  the vimanam of Kadambar koil.

In some cases , the flat-roof (kapota) of the sanctum on which the tower rest and rises is overlaid by a single square stone slab known in the text as “the stone denoting the upper passage of life” (brahma-ranhra-sila). In certain structures, slab after slab is placed in a diminishing order with the final slab crowned by a perforated stone ring (amalaka) giving the structure a pyramid shape.

During the later times, the body of the Vimana tended to be more complex and multi layered rising up in several stages (tala). Each stage of the sikhara contained within itself several layers of mouldings depicting traditional motifs. The layers in a Tala are called Varga; and the sadvarga (six modules) is regarded the classic version. The southern texts describe the temples as sadvarga Devalaya. The sadvargas of a Vimana are Adistana, Pada, Prastara, Kanta, Sikhara and stupi. The vertical expansion of the sadvarga developed into Vimanas of Dvitala (in two stages) and tritala (in three stages) structures.


The most celebrated Dvitala Vimana is the Ananda Nilaya Vimana  atop the sanctum of the Sri Venkateshwara shrine on the hills of Tirumala. It is not clear when it was constructed and who caused it to be constructed. The earliest reference to the Ananda Nilaya Vimana was in the inscription of Virasinga Deva Yadava who ruled the Tondamandala region, around 1250 AD. It is said; he performed Tula-bhara and donated gold, equitant of his weight, for covering the Vimana. The Vimana was renovated in the year 1417 by the Kings of Chandragiri. The most famous patron, in the later years, was, of course, Krishnadeva Raya of Vijayanagar Empire, who, in the year 1517, donated 30,000 pieces of gold for covering the Ananda Nilaya Vimana with gold polish.(please also see para below)

Before we go further we may talk a little more about Vimana.

The Vimana in the South Indian temple history had an interesting career. For instance, the most magnificent Vimana of the Raja-rajeshwara temple at Tanjavur (1009 AD) rises to an imposing height of 58 meters. Another temple of the same period at Gangaikonda-chola-puram (1025 AD) rises to a height of 48 meters. Thereafter, in the subsequent periods, the Vimanas tended to grow shorter. But the Gopuras, the towers that stand over the gate-ways (dwara-gopura) became increasingly ornate, complicated and huge.

The sanctity of Vimanas was not in any manner affected by its diminished size. While the sculptures on the outer Gopuras could house secular and even erotic themes, the Vimana had to be austere and carry only the prescribed divinities associated with the mula-bhera in the sanctum. The Vimana is verily the representation or the outer visible form of the murthi that resides within it; and is revered as such. It represents the glory (vaibhava) of the deity the antaryamin who resides within it. The Gopura on the other hand does not usually command an equal status.

While the temple complex is designed as a Mandala with the sanctum at its heart (Brahma –sthana); the sanctum along with the Vimana atop is itself regarded a Mandala. The image is located in the mid-point of the sanctum which is designed as a square; that is, where its diagonals intersect each other. This point is elevated, in a three dimensional projection, and rendered as the sthupi or the central point of the Vimana. The Kalasha is installed at this point.

In order to appreciate the Mandala configuration of the Vimana, one could take its top-elevation; that is, take an aerial view from directly above the Vimana. The entire structure of the Vimana resting on a square base, projecting into the air in successive diminishing tiers and concluding into a needle (bindu) is a Mandala resembling the Chakra. The sanctum with its Vimana, thus, represents the worshipful (archa) form of the divinity. The different deities associated with the mula-bhera are aligned along the four sides of the Vimana (Mandala), according to their importance, starting with the grosser ones on the outer periphery of the Vimana (outermost layer of the Mandala).The sthupi , the central point , the needle of the Vimana being  the  bindu of its Mandala configuration.


Ananda Nilaya Vimana is of Vesara architecture; and the Vimana is in Dvitala, meaning that structure above the Kapotha slab has risen in two stages; and on the top of the second tala is the Vimana, per se, in a rotund shape. Its total height from its base to the top of the Kalasha is 32’08” .Both the Talas are square in shape. The lower Tala depicts, in its four sides, the icons of the Vaikhanasa School: Purusha, Sathya, Achtuta and Aniruddha. The upper tala depicts about fifty-nine images including those of Hanuman, Garuda and several Rishis. The most famous Sri Vimana Venkateshwara is on the North face of the upper Tala.

The Kanta (neck), at the end of each Tala , is circular in shape. The rotund Vimana, atop the second Tala and enclosed by the circular Kanta (neck) is adorned with lotus motif.

In the later stages of South Indian architecture, the Vimanas grew more complex and muti-sided. The six-sided and eight-sided Vimans became quite common. It is said there are a few temples with their Vimana having as many as sixteen sides. The temple in Madurai is reputed to have as many as 65 sides!.

The basic shape of the Vimana is pyramid like. The imagery associated with its shape is that of an inverted tree with its branches spreading downwards. This has reference to the ancient imagery of the universe.

Sri Vaikuntha Perumal temple at Kanchipuram i (mid-8th century) has a unique and an interesting arrangement of three sanctums, one above the other, encased within the body of the superstructure.

Some of the best examples of the Vimans come from the massive temples erected by the Chola kings. The Brhadisvara or Rajarajesvara, temple, built at the Chola capital of Thanjavur is a fine example of the grandeur and majesty of the temples of this period. The temple construction begun around 1003 and was completed about seven years later. The main walls are raised in two stories, above which the superstructure rises to a height of 190 feet. It has 16 stories, each of which consists of a wall with a parapet of shrines carved in relatively low relief.

The crowning glory of the Brihadeeswara temple is the staggering cupola of the Vimana comprising two huge, sculpted, granite blocks weighing 40 tonnes each. The engineering skills and the expertise that made the mounting of these huge stones atop a structure that is nearly 200 feet high must have been way ahead of their times. Legend says that the stone was brought from Sarapallam (scaffold-hollow), four miles north-east of the city, using a specially designed ramp.

Vertically the vimana is organized by pilasters that break up the facade of the base, creating spaces for niches and windows in between.  However, the temple departs from southern Indian convention in one significant way: the vimana is taller than the gopura (gateways) of the temple’s walls.  Normally the gopuras are taller than the vimana.

The Vimana rises to a height of abut 216 feet, a tower of fourteen storeys. The basement of the structure which supports the tower is 96 feet square. The gilded Kalasa over it is 12.5 feet high. It is believed the sikhara and the stupi does not throw on the ground. The dome rests on a single block of granite, 25.5 feet square.

The architects and engineers attribute the stability of the massive temple to its pyramidal structure. They say it is more robust than its counterparts from north India with their complex curvilinear profiles.

Another fine example of the Chola temple architecture is the temple in Gangaikondacholapuram, which succeeded Tanjore as the capital of the Chola Empire. The Vimanam of this temple, in contrast to the rigid pyramidal structure of the Brihadeeswara temple, rises up in a concave manner with fluid lines. (For more information, please visit

The tallest Sikhara of a Hindu temple, it is said, is under construction at Mayapur in west Bengal. The temple when completed (say by 2014) will be 35 stories tall and almost as high as the great pyramid in Giza.


The crowning glory of the Vimana is its Kalasha, the vase. Some say it is reminiscent of the life giving Amrita-kalasha that emerged out of the milky ocean when it was churned. Kalash symbolizes blessings and well-being.

In the development of the Indian temple this feature appears to have arrived rather late.  The early kalashas were perhaps made of stone blocks, round or ribbed. They might have been in the nature of cap-stones that structurally held   the tall and tapering vimana,    as in the North Indian temples. The copper and brass vases seem to have been the later innovations; and the agama books favor use of copper vases.

Kalasha  has several members, such as “the foot-hold” (padagrahi) which is its foothold, the egg (anda) or the belly, the neck (griva), the lotus-band (padma-pashika), the rim (karnika) and the bud  (bija-pura). The shape of this unit could resemble the bell, the flower bud, the lump, coconut, alter or pot. all these shapes symbolize the potential and the possibilities  of life.

Interestingly, the Kalasa placed on top of the Vimana, it is said, is not imbedded into the structure by packing it with mortar or cement. It is, in fact, placed in position by a hollow rod that juts out of the centre of the tower and runs through the vase, the Kalasha. It is through this tube that the   lanchana‘tokens’ (cereals and precious stones) are introduced. One of the explanations is the hallow tube represents the central channel of energy the Shushumna that connects to the Sahasra, the seat of consciousness, through the Brahma randra. This is completes the analogy of the temple to the purusha ot to the human form.

I have heard of inserting a “golden person “inside the Kalasha; but have not come across much discussion about it. It appears, the Kalasha, the pot, has an important hidden component, the golden person (suvarna purusha) who is regarded the personification of the temple-spirit. The belly of the Kalasha contains a tiny cot made of silver, copper or sandal; over which is laid a soft feather mattress. A tiny golden icon holding a lotus flower and a triple flag rests on that cot. Four tiny pots made of gold, silver or copper containing consecrated water are placed on the four sides of the cot. There is also a tiny pot of ghee near the cot. This entire procedure of introducing the “golden-person “into the Kalasha is known as hrudaya-varnaka-vidhi.

Another kalasha is deposited under the sanctum. And, like the one on top of the Vimana, this Kalasha also contain tokens of growth and prosperity, viz., cereals with subtle seeds (such as millet) and nine types of precious stones. The womb, the icon and the sthupi the finial run along the same axis.

There are a few other symbolisms associated with the Kalasha. The structure of the Kalasha resembles an inverted tree; and is almost a replica of the “womb” buried under the sanctum. Both are described as roots. The one at the bottom urges upward growth; while the one atop is the root of the inverted tree.


The Garbagriha is followed by four types of mantapas or pavilions. Mantapa means any roofed, open or enclosed pavilion (hall) resting on pillars, standing independently or connected to the sanctum of the temple.

The first of the mantapas is the antarala (sometimes called sukanas or sukanasi or ardhamantapa), a narrow pavilion connecting the gharbhagriha and the navaranga. It usually will have niches in the north and south walls, occupied by a deity, with attendant divinities in secondary niches flanking the central niche.  In a few temples the antarala serves as the navaranga too.

The next mantapa is nrttamantapa or navaranga, is a big hall used for congregational services like singing, dancing, recitation of mythological texts, religious discourses and so on. The navaranga will usually be on a raised platform and will have nine anganas (openings) and sixteen pillars.

This is followed by Sanapana mantapa, a hall used for ceremonial purposes. This leads to mukha mantapa the opening pavilion.

Nandi Mandapam

Bali pitha

Bali_pitha is an indispensable associate of the sanctum. It is an altar or the dispensing seat of the deity. It is a small but stylized stone seat that is installed directly in front of the icon and very near the sanctum. It is the seat on which offerings to deity are placed.

The chief (pradhana) Bali_pitha will be directly in front of the icon and often near the Dwajasthamba. It is usually made of hard granite and will be highly stylized, ornate, and majestic, with several limbs such as the base, cornices, wall-surface with door-lets or niches. Most texts suggest that the size of the altar should be 1/8, 1/7 or 1/5 of the dimension of the sanctum. Depending on their sizes and shapes, the altars are classified into several types such as Sri-bandha, Sri-bhadra, and Sarvato-bhadra and so on.

The Pradhana Bali-pitha will often be covered metal sheets .The more affluent temples as the one at Tirumala, give the Pradana Bali-pitha a metal covering with gold polish.

It is on this Bali_pitha that the food offerings, in the form of vermilion colored rice, and rice mixed with pepper are offered to the attendant divinities and the guardian goblins. These offerings are placed only after the main food offering to the presiding deity, in the sanctum, is completed.

 While the main (pradhana), Bali_pitha will be directly in front of the icon; there will be several such other altars, located in the prakara, positioned in eight directions, around the sanctum. Their positions are determined in accordance with the prescriptions of the canonical texts that the temple follows.

Some suggest that the yupastambha (Sacrificial post) and the balipitha (sacrificial pedestal) of the Vedic age have metamorphosed into the dhvajastambha and the balipitha of the present day.

A dipastambha (lamp post) is situated either in front of the balipitha. The top of this post has a bud shaped chamber to receive the lamp

Flag staff

The dhvajastambha (flag post) in front of either the garbhagrha or antarala or the mantapa is another common feature of the temples. It should be perpendicular and directly opposite to the idol. It will be located very close to the Bali pitha; and the Bali pitha will be between the sanctum and the Dwajasthamba. It represents the flag post of the ‘King of kings’. The lanchana (insignia) made of copper or brass fixed like a flag to the top of the post varies according to the deity in the temple. The figure on the lanchana is invariably that of the vahana (carrier vehicle) of the deity. For instance, in Siva temples it contains Nandi. In Devi temples it is the lion that finds its place. In Vishnu temples the Garuda gets that honour.

The practice of erecting tall columns of fifty to eighty feet in height appears to be of recent origin. In the early stages, these flag posts were perhaps meant to indicate the position of the sanctum. Even today, the temples in North India fly long flowing banners and flags from the tower atop the sanctum.

The old texts favoured wooden or bamboo poles, with odd- number of joints, up to twenty-five.  And, the flag-staff was not intended to be a permanent structure.  The ceremony of flying the temple flag marked the inauguration of a major Uthsava at the temple. The flag also served as signal to indicate to the people of the town and the visitors that a Uthsava is on. The old customs required that no major domestic auspicious functions be held in the village while the temple flag is hoisted. This was perhaps to suggest that the celebrations at the temple took precedence over those at homes; and that everyone in the village should participate in the temple celebrations.

In course of time the permanently fixed flag-staff became a common feature in temple architecture. The older temples had flagstaffs made of stone. That gave place to the practice of erecting a stone pillar or wooden pole covered with copper, brass, or even silver plates gilded and installed on a raised stone platform, often square in shape,located in front of the sanctum. The top portion of this tall mast will have three horizontal perches (symbolizing righteousness, reputation and prosperity, or the three divinities Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the destroyer), pointing towards the sanctum.

The pedestal or the seat of the flag-staff as well as the mast with perches became highly stylized in South India during the days of the Chola and Pallaya rulers, for the flag-staff was uniquely a royal insignia.


In the case of major temples, the entire temple area is surrounded by a series of conectric protective walls, the prakaras. The lofty towers erected over the entrance gateways of these walls are the Gopuras. These rectangular, pyramidal towers, often fifty metres high dominate the city skyline. And, adorned with intricate and brightly painted sculptures of gods, demons, humans, and animals, have become the hallmark of southern architecture; though, strictly, they are not the essential aspect of a temple layout or its structure.  The Gopura emphasizes the importance of the temple within the city.

The Gopura is a unique feature of the Dravidian architecture. It had its origin and development in South; and the other schools of architecture do not have equivalent features.

It is said in the older texts that the concept of Gopura  originated from extensive cow-stalls (Go-griha) which was  virtually a gate-house at the doorways of a huge building , monastery , temple or even a town (Pura-dvaram tu gopuram I Dvara-matre tu gopuram I ). The Gopura, therefore, technically, denoted gate-houses of palaces, cities and residential buildings of various descriptions; and that they did not necessarily belong to temples alone.

The advent of Gopura in Dravidian architecture was rather late. The practice of erecting a Gopura at the entrance gateway to the temple seems to have come into being during the mid-12th century. And, with the decline of the mighty Cholas and with the increasing threat from invading armies, the temple cities (prominently Madurai and Sri Rangam) found it expedient to erect a series of protective walls to safeguard and defend their temples, palaces and cities. The Gopuras constructed on the gateways leading from one enclosure to the next, initially, served as watch and defensive towers.

By about the tenth century, the temples in South India, generally, came to be surrounded (perhaps as a defence-measure) with high walls (Prakara) with one main and three subsidiary gates, opening in the cardinal directions. A Gopura (high tower,) adorned these gateways. And in due course the Gopura became a characteristic feature of South Indian temple architecture. Many major temples   have a series of enclosures (Prakara).  For instance; the Sri Rangam temple has seven enclosing walls, enveloping the whole township; and, the entrance to each Prakara is adorned with a Gopura.


The later Agama texts mention that each enclosure must have door-ways in all four directions. But, very few temples followed this rule, perhaps with the exception of the great temple at Tiruvannamalai.


In most cases, the doorways lead from one courtyard to the next, finally leading to the sanctum. And, it became customary, since 10th century, to erect towers (Gopuras) over such gateways, though a Gopura was not an essential feature of the temple per se. It is needless to mention that the Prakara contributes to the security and beauty of the temple.

The whole temple is surrounded by a high wall (prakara) with one main and three subsidiary gates, opening in the cardinal directions. A Gopura (high tower,) adorns these gateways.

These were of course later developments; and in due course became characteristic features of South Indian temple architecture. It is said, the later Agama texts provide for as many as 32 prakaras, the concentric – enclosing walls. But, they recommend five to seven as advisable, in case more than one enclosure is needed.  In many cases, the main area of the temple, plus the halls, tanks, and gardens are surrounded by a single wall (prakara) or enclosure. But many major temples do have a series of enclosures.  As mentioned earlier the Sri Rangam temple has seven enclosing walls, enveloping the whole township.

With the growth and development of the temples, the structures and details of the Prakara-s and Gopura became increasingly elaborate and complicated. The main entrance, somehow, popularly came to be known as Raja-Gopura.

There is mention of Gopura-s with sixteen storey’s, divided into ten classes. These ten classes were made having in view the number of its architectural members designated as Shikara (cupola), Stupika (dome), Gala-kuta (side-tower or neck portion) and Kshudra-nasi (minor vestibules or nose). A Gopura is thus, technically, a Shiro-bagha (caput or head) having a Shikha (tuft or spire) resembling a Shala (arrow-head) . The Gopuara usually has a circular surrounding dome and is furnished with a side-tower, four small vestibules and eight large vestibules.

The fifteen kinds of Gopuras are mentioned having one to sixteen or seventeen storeys. But the details of only five storeys are given; the others being left to the discretion of the architects. These give the descriptions of the ornaments and moldings of each storey; the central or main hall as well as all other rooms, together with different parts such as pillars, entablatures, walls, roofs, floors, and windows, etc.

[ But, the traditional view according to ancient texts on Shilpa-shastra , the most important part  of a temple, it’s very heart as it were, is the Garbhagrha or  the sanctum sanctorum,  the cave-like cube-shaped “womb room,” located within the Brahmasthana  of the Vastu Purusha Mandala. Sometimes the Garbagriha with its Vimana alone is defined as temple per se. But, generally, its extended by an Ardh-Mandapa, a Mandapa or a large hall up to the Bali-pita.

All that is to suggest the Raja-Gopura is not an essential part of the temple; and its structure is left to the discretion of the architect.]

What started as a defensive structure rapidly developed into a prominent and an architectural extravaganza with great visual appeal. The Gopuras grew in size from the mid-12th century and came to be greatly emphasized, until the colossal ones rose to dominate the temple complex, surpassing the main sanctum .Some of them are extremely large and elaborately decorated with sculpture,; and quite dominating the architectural ensemble.

Among the finest examples are the Sundara Pandya Gopura (13th century) of the Jambukesvara temple at Tiruchchirappalli and the Gopuras of the great Siva temple at Chidambaram, built largely in the 12th–13th century.

The Gopuras of the Meenakshi temple at Madurai are of course the most magnificent array of temple towers.There are twelve impressive Gopuras soaring over the three tier Prakara walls. The outer four towers dominating the city landscape are truly huge in size and magnificence.


The nine -storied towers came up between 13-16th centuries during the reign of Madurai Nayaks. The edifice of the Gopuras measure 174 ft. from north to south, and 107 ft. in depth.The gateway is 21 ft. 9 in. wide; and the gatepost is 6o ft high, made of blocks of granite, carved with the most exquisite scroll patterns of elaborate foliage. The heights of the Gopuras range from 161 feet to 170 feet.

The Gopuras appear to have influenced revision in the temple design and layout. Such was the emphasis placed on the eminence of Gopuras that as time went by; the Southern temples came to be designed as a series of courtyards, as if to justify the Gopuras. The spaces around the shrine became hierarchical; the further the space was from the main shrine, the lesser was its eminence. The outermost ring had buildings of a more utilitarian or a secular nature – shops, dormitories, sheds, workshops etc., thus transforming the temple from a purely place of worship to the hub of a vibrant living city. A particularly interesting example of this is the Sri Ranganatha temple at Sri Rangam, which has seven enclosure walls and as many as twenty-one Gopuras, halls, other temples and township constructed over several centuries. The seventh, the outer most, enclosure is 3072 feet in length and 2521 feet in breadth; enclosing an area of about six hundred acres.

The grand Meenakshi temple in Madurai is another great illustration of this development which was initiated by the Pandya kings. It was during this period that the building of a temple became the nucleus of a town-planning exercise, which we discussed in the earlier parts of this article. 


Though the evolution of the Dravidian temple architecture stalled briefly after the demise of the Pandyan Empire, the architectural expression scaled new heights during the reign of the Vijayanagara kings (15th and 16th centuries). Although the later temples were not huge in size, they often were of very fine workmanship. For instance, the Subrahmanya temple of the 17th century, built in the

Brhadisvara temple complex at Thanjavur, indicates the vitality of architectural traditions even at that late date.

The Raja-Gopuram of Sri Rangam temple, completed during the year 1987, is perhaps the tallest in South India. The Gopura with 13 stories is 243 feet high; and with twelve Kalashas adorning its peak.

In the meantime a 249 feet tall gopura, said to be the tallest gopura in Asia, has come up in the Shiva temple at Murudeshwar in the coastal district Uttara Kannada, in Karnataka. The twenty-one story high gopura measures 249 feet high and is taller than the 243 Raja Gopura at Sri Rangam and 239 feet tall gopura of Brihadeshwara. The gopura is fitted with elevator services and the temple plans to have museums and art galleries on all the 21 floors of the gopura.

A Gopura is generally constructed with a massive stone base and a superstructure of brick and pilaster. It is rectangular in plan and topped by a barrel-vault roof crowned with a row of finials.  It differs from the Vimanam in that it need not necessarily be square-based. Above that rectangular base a pyramidal structure covered with brightly coloured plethora of sculpture is raised to a great height. A Gopura has to be towering and massive.

In the ancient times, the cities all over South India could be discerned from afar by the distinctive shape of their Gopuras dominating the skyline.

When viewed from top, the Gopura too resembles a Mandala; With the Goblins, Yalis, mythical animals and other beings located in the outer enclosure, as if supporting the weight of the mandala. The humans and the divine beings are in the inner enclosures. The peak of the Gopura, the Kalasha is at the centre of the Mandala

Symbolically, the Gopura and the entrance to the temple represent the feet of the deity. A devotes bows at the at the entrance, the feet of the Lord, as he steps into the temple and proceeds towards the sanctum, leaving behind the world of contradictions.

In the Sri Rangam temple the seven concentric prakara walls are said to represent the seven layers of matter-earth, water, fire, air, either, mind and intelligence-that envelop the consciousness of the living entities in the material world. The gopuras, or gateways through the prakaras, are symbolic of being liberated from the bondage of matter as one enters the temple and proceeds toward the central shrine.



CONTINUED in the next part->


A. Maps of Madurai and Sri Rangam

By courtesy of Kultur in Indien

B.Other pictures from Internet.

C. Devalaya Vastu by Prof. SKR Rao

D. Vastu – Astrology and Architecture

E. Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple,


Encyclopaedia Britannica


Tirumala Anandanilaya


Posted by on September 9, 2012 in Temple Architecture


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