Category Archives: Temple Architecture

Temple Architecture-Devalaya Vastu –Part One (1 of 9)

Agama and Temple architecture

Hindu temple

The Agama literature includes the Shilpa- Shastra, which covers architecture and iconography. The aspects of temple construction are dealt in Devalaya Vastu; and,  Prathima deals with the iconography. Sometimes, the term Shipa is also used to denote the art of sculpting; but , here Shipa refers to the practice of the technique; while Shastra refers to its principles.

The worship dealt with in the Agama texts necessarily involves worship-worthy images. The rituals and sequences elaborated in the Agama texts are in the context of such worship-worthy image, which necessarily has to be contained in a shrine. The basic idea is that a temple must be built for the icon,and not an icon got ready for the temples; for, a temple is  only an outgrowth of the icon; an expanded image of the icon. And an icon is meaningful only in the context of a shrine that is worthy to house it. That is how the Agama literature makes its presence felt in the Shilpa-Sastra, Architecture. The icon and its form; the temple and its structure; and, the rituals and their details, thus get interrelated . Further, the Indian temples should be viewed in the general framework of temple culture; which include not only religious and philosophical aspects but also the social, aesthetic and economic aspects .

Elaborate rules are laid out in the Agamas for Shilpa ; describing the quality requirements of the places where temples are to be built; the kind of images to be installed; the materials from which they are to be made; their dimensions, proportions; air circulation; lighting in the temple complex etc. The Manasara and Shilpasara are some of the works dealing with these rules. The rituals followed in worship services each day at the temple also follow rules laid out in the Agamas.

While describing the  essential requirements for a place of  pilgrimage ,  Shilpa Shatras of the Agamas elaborate on  the  requirements of the temple site; building materials; dimensions, directions and orientations of the temple structures; the image and its specifications. The principal elements that are involved are the Sthala (temple site); Teertha (Temple tank); and, Murthi (the idol). A temple could  also be associated with a tree, called the Sthala Vriksham.

Temple at Tiruvallur, near Tanjore

The Gupta Age marked the advent of a vibrant period of building and sculpting activities. The texts of this period such as the Arthashastra of Kautilya and Matsya Purana included chapters on the architecture of the way of summary. By the end of the period, the art and craft flourished; and branched into different schools of architectural thought; but, all were based on common underlying principles. These principles are now part of Vastushastra, the science of architectural design and construction. . It is explained that the term Vastu is derived from Vasu meaning the Earth principle (prithvi). This planet is Vastu; and, whatever that is created is Vastu;  and , all objects of earth and those surrounding it are Vastu.

During the medieval period, vast body of Sanskrit references, independent architectural manuals were written, without reservation or uniformity; and were scattered across the country. Apparently, later, some attempts were made to classify and evaluate their contents in a systematic way.

Of the many such attempts that tried to bring about order and coherence  in  the  various theories and principles of temple construction, the most well known compilations are Manasara and Mayamata. They are the standard texts on Vastu Shastra; and , they codify the theoretical aspects of all types of constructions; but specifically of temple construction. These texts deal with the whole range of architectural science including topics such as soil testing techniques, orientation, measures and proportion, divination, astrology and ceremonies associated with the construction of buildings.

Manasara is a comprehensive treaty on architecture and iconography. It represents the universality of Vastu tradition; and includes the iconography of Jain and Buddhist images. The work is treated as a source book and consulted by all.

The Mayamata too occupies an important position. It is a general treatise on Vastu shastra; and, is a text of Southern India. It is regarded a part of Shaiva literature ; and, it might belong to the Chola period when temple architecture reached its peak. It is the best known work on Vastu. The work is coherent and well structured. It defines Vastu as the arrangement of space, anywhere, wherein the immortals and mortals live.

These subjects are intertwined with Astrology. The Vastu Texts believe that Vigraha (icon or image of the deity) is closely related to Graha (planets).The term Graha literally means that which attracts or receives; and, Vigraha is that which transmits. It is believed that the idols receive power from the planets; and transmit the power so received. It not merely is a symbolism; but, it is also the one that provides logic for placement of various deities in their respective quarters and directions within the temple complex.

The texts that are collectively called Vastu Shastra have their origin in the Sutras, Puranas and Agamas; besides the Tantric literature and the Brhat-Samhita of Varahamihira (52 vāstuvidyā).

The Vastu texts classify the temple into three basic structures: Nagara, Dravida and Vesara. They employ, respectively, the square, octagon and the apse or circle in their plan. These three styles do not pertain strictly to three different regions ; but,  are three schools of temple architecture that might be employed commonly. The Vesara, for instance, which prevailed mostly in western Deccan and south Karnataka, was a derivation from the apsidal chapels of the early Buddhist period which the Brahmanical faith adopted and vastly improved.


These three  schools have given rise to about forty-five basic varieties of temples types. They too have their many variations ; and, thus the styles of temple architecture in India are quite diverse  and virtually unlimited .

Nagara style temples

southern temple

Northern style temples

Among the many traditions inherited (parampara) in India, the tradition of Vishwakarma is unique. The  mode of transmission of knowledge of this community is both oral and practical; and, its theories envisage a holistic universe of thought and understanding. 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  the  purity and sensitivity of its traditions; and, to carry it forward . This has enabled them to protect the purity of the art and skills without falling prey to the market and its dynamics.

jagannath puri

It is virtually impossible to state when the custom of building stylized temples took hold in our country.

The Rig Veda is centered on home and worship at home. There is not much emphasis on temple worship. The term employed in Grihya-sutras (Ashvalayana – 1.12.1; and Parashara – 3.11.10 ) to denote a temple was Chaithya , which  literally means, piling up ; as piling up of the fire alter , agni-chiti  from bricks (as in agni-chayana) where a Yajna was conducted – (Caitya yajñe prāk sviṣṭakṛtaś caityāya balim haret ; and ,caityavṛkṣaś citir yūpaś caṇḍālaḥ somavikray).

This perhaps suggests that Chaitya implied piling up bricks to form a shrine. This is consistent with the view that the earliest temples were relatively simple piled brick structures.

The use of the term Chaithya to denote a place of worship appears to have been in vogue  for quite a long period after the Vedic age . In Mahabharata, the Rishi Lomaharsha mentions to Yudhistira that the tirtha on the Archika hill is a place where there are chaityas for the 33 gods (MBh 3.125).

ārcīka-parvataś caiva nivāso vai manīṣiṇām /sadāphalaḥ sadāsroto marutāṃ sthānam  uttamam / caityāś  caite bahuśatās tridaśānāṃ yudhiṣṭhira (MB. 03,125.013

He also advises Pandavas to visit the Chaityas on the banks of the Narmada (MBh 3.121) –vaiḍūryaparvataṃ dṛṣṭvā narmadām avatīrya ca (MB.03.121.018)

[ Tirtha refers to any holy place, such as the river, the sea, or a site where a famous Yajna was conducted. It appears, in the ancient period, such Tirthas were, indeed, the pilgrim places; that is, before the emergence of temples per se. Even today, the rivers at Varanasi and Haridwar; the confluence of rivers at Prayag; the sea at Rameshwaram; the Nara-Narayana peaks at Badrinath; and the Mount Kailas are the primary worship centres to where the pilgrims depart devotedly. The temples in these places are either incidental or came up at a later time. ]

Mahabharata often refers to Chaithyas as being close to Yupas (chaithyupa nikata bhumi); Yupa being the spot where a major Yajna was performed. It is possible that small shrines were erected on the Yupa site to commemorate the Yajna.

Ramayana too mentions that Meghanada, the son of Ravana, tried to perform a Yajna in a temple located in the Nikhumba grove.

Zarathustra demands from Ahur Mazda “Tell me, can I uproot the idol from this assembly that set up by the angras and the karpanas?”. At another time, the Emperor Xerxes, a follower of Zarathustra declares “I destroyed this temple of daevas”.

The Buddhist and Jain texts mention of a certain Chaithya of Devi Shasti, consort of Kumara, at Vishala. Jain texts, in particular, mention the Chaithyas of Skanda in Savasthi; of Shulapani (Rudra) and of Yakshini Purnabhadra.

Therefore,  by about six hundred BC, the Chiathyas were quite common. They were perhaps small-sized constructions (usually of brick), surrounded by groves of ashvattha or audumbara trees.

The Maurya period described in the Artha-shastra, had Chaithyas for a number of Devis and Devas, such as Indra, kumara, Rudra, and Aparajita etc. A description of the Chaitya of goddess Kaumari suggests that it had multiple Avaranas, one enclosing the other ; and, the outer Avarana having a circular arch.  By the time of the Mauryas, the Chaithyas appeared to have steadily gained importance; and , become an integral aspect of city life. However, there is nothing to suggest that they were large structures like the classical Hindu temples that were to follow later.

The Buddhism, in its initial stages, rejected the of the Vedic practices; however,  in due course, it came to adopt some features of the old religion. For instance; the ‘piling’ (Chayana) of the Vedic fire-altar was transformed into a Buddhist Chaitya. It is likely that the Buddhist Chaitya was initially meant to be a funeral pyre. But, in the later periods, it became a prime symbol of the Buddhist architecture. And, similarly, much later, Homa (offering oblation into the fire) became an accepted practice in the Mahayana Buddhism.

By about first century BC , the Buddhist places of congregation either as caves carved into rocks or as free standing structures, came to be known as Chaithya_grihas. These were patterned after the shrines of Vishnu, with the form of the fire altar being placed on the raised platform in the apse of the Chaithya hall. The term Chaithya later came to increasingly associated with the Buddhist Stupas or places of worship.

sanci stupa monastries

[ For more on the architecture of the Buddhist Stupas , please do read Stūpa to Maṇḍala: Tracing a Buddhist Architectural Development..  by Prof. Swati Chemburkar , Jnana-pravaha , Mumbai.]

It was perhaps during the period of the Imperial Guptas that a Hindu temple came to be regularly addressed as Devalaya, the abode of Gods. The oldest of the surviving structural shrines date back to the third or even fourth century A.D .They are made of bricks.

Some of the them might perhaps have been temporary structures, erected on occasions of community-worship. The canonical concept of pavilion (Mantapa) suggests that they might have been pavilions to accommodate those who gathered to participate in the worship ritual. It is only later that such structures tended to be permanent and bigger.

The earliest temples in North and Central India which have survived the vagaries of time belong to the Gupta period, 320-650 A. D. ; such as the temples at Sanchi, Tigawa (near Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh), Bhumara (in Madhya Pradesh), Nachna (Rajasthan) and Deogarh (near Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh). They consist of a square, dark sanctum with a small, pillared porch in front; both covered with flat roofs.

Sanchi.late Sunga Dynasty. c. 300 B.C.E.–100 C.E.

The  brick temple at Bhitargaon ; and the Vishnu temple at Deogarh, built entirely of stone, both,have a square sanctum; but,  instead of a flat roof there is a pyramidal superstructure (sikhara).

The rock-cut temple and monastery tradition also continued in this period, notably in Western India, where the excavations – especially at Ajanta acquired extreme richness and magnificence.

The temple groups at Aihole and Pattadakal in North Karnataka date back to about 5th century, and seem to represent early attempts to experiment with several styles; and, to evolve an acceptable and a standard regional format. Here, temples of the Northern and the Southern styles are found next to each other.  Besides, Badami, the capital of the Early Chalukyas, who ruled much of Karnataka in the 6th to 8th centuries, is known for its ancient cave temples carved out of the sandstone hills above it.

The school of architecture in South India seems to have evolved from the earliest Buddhist shrines which were both rock-cut and structural. The later rock-cut temples which belong to 5th or 6th century A.D. were mostly Brahmanical or Jain, patronized by three great ruling dynasties of the South, namely the Pallavas of Kanchi in the East; the Calukyas of Badami;  and  the Rastrakutas of Malkhed – all of whom made great contributions to the development of South Indian temple architecture. The Kailasanatha temple at Ellora also belongs to this period.

South Indian Temple

The next thousand years (from 600 to 1600 A.D.) witnessed a phenomenal growth in temple architecture. The first in the series of Southern or Dravidian architecture was initiated by the Pallavas (600-900A.D.) The rock-cut temples  (of the Ratha type) and the structural temples like those at the shore temple at Mahabalipuram;  and the Kailasanatha and Vaikuntha Perumal temples in Kanchipuram (700-800 A.D.) are the best representations of the Pallava style. The Kailasanatha (dating a little later than the Shore Temple), with its stately superstructure and subsidiary shrines attached to the walls is a great contraction. Another splendid temple at Kanchipuram is the Vaikuntha Perumal (mid-8th century), which has an interesting arrangement of three sanctums, one above the other, encased within the body of the superstructure.

vaikunta perumal temple kanchipuram


The Kailāsanātha temple of Kanchipuram is one of the masterpieces of Pallava architects. It is attributed to the time of Rājasiha Pallava (700-728 CE), also known as Nsihavarma II. His Queen Rangapataka is said to have associated herself actively in the construction of the Kailāsanātha temple.

The noted scholar Gerd J.R. Mevissen writes: Three large temple complexes in South India, all of them royal foundations and innovative in their layout, have one feature in common: They are the only temples in which occur multiple images of Tripurāntakamūrti, the cosmic warrior form of Śhiva.

The three temples are:

the Rājasiheśvara (now known as Kailāsanātha), built by the Pallavaruler Narasihavarman II Rājasiha at his capital Kanchipuram in the early eighth century;

the Rājarājeśvara (now known as Bhadīśvara), constructed by Rājarāja Chola I at his capital Tanjavur in the early 11th century; and,

 the Rājarājeśvara (now known as Airāvateśvara), erected by Rājarāja Chola II at his temporary capital Darasuram in the mid-12th century

As regards Kanchipuram: In the early eighth century, the Rājasiheśvara (Kailāsanātha) temple at Kanchipuram was probably the largest structural Hindu temple complex thus far built anywhere in India. The central temple is located in the western part of a large rectangular prākāra (walled enclosure), which is encircled by more than 50 Devakulikā-s (subsidiary shrines). The surface of these sub shrines as well as the spaces between them are carved with hundreds of sculptures, all related to Shaiva iconography, thus assembling the largest pantheon of Śhivamūrti -s perhaps ever created in India. Also the temple’s main body (Vimāna) with originally at least seven Parivara shrines built against its outer walls is carved all over with different forms of Shiva.

[Rājasiha is also credited with the construction of Rājasiheśvara or the Shore temple at Māmallapauram; Talagirīśvara at Paamalai; and, other temples for Shiva in Kāñci such as the Mukteśvara and Matangesvara.]


The architecture and iconography of the Kailāsanātha of Kāñci has been examined in recent times by many scholars from different points of view. some say it was a base of the Yogini cult, coexisting with Shivaism; having detailed the iconographic designs of the male or female syncretistic forms, such as: Somāskanda, Ardhanārīśvara, Harihara and so on. However, this is a much-debated subject; and the presence of the cult of Yoginis at Kailasanatha in inconclusive.

There is also a view that the temple Iconography, though the ideology is rooted in the Linga and Somāskanda, follows the Trimurthi concept, with the presence of Shiva in the crest; and Brahma and Vishnu in secondary and tertiary chambers.

Kailasanatha 2

About twenty- five images of Devī are in the Kailāsanātha of Kāñci. The location of these images is: Four on the Mukha-maṇtapa sections; four in southern Deva-kulikās; three on southern Deva-koṣṭhas; and, nine on the northern Deva-kulikās and so on.

The Kailasanatha temple is unique in plan; unlike in other Pallava temples.

Oblong and east-facing, the first to be built within the four walls is called Rājasiheśvara that occupies the western part of the complex.

The eastern half was fitted with another temple for Śiva, called Mahendra-varmeśvara added by his short-lived son, Mahendravarma III.

Both the temples in the Garbha-gha accommodate the Śiva- Linga superimposed on the back wall by the anthropomorphic Somāskanda.

The entire temple is fenced by a wall, which is fitted with miniature chapels, called devakulikā s. This is a distinctive pattern that we do not come across in other temples of South India.

Kailasanatha ground plan

The Kailāsanātha during the early eighth century was erected with sandstone, plastered and painted. What we find in the present temple is that the original plaster and paintings have fallen or disappeared in most cases. The fallen plaster seems to have been re-plastered sometime in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Several Pallava temples have undergone renovation in Kāñci, nearby Kurram, and the Pallava feudatory Muttaraiyar cave temple at Malaiyaippaṭṭi in the Pudukkottai region, especially for Ranganatha (and Pandya caves at Kuṉṉakkui. Therefore, Dr. R.K.K. Rajarajan , in his research paper The Iconography of the Kailāsanātha Temple , advises that  when a scholar studies the Pallava iconographical features in the temples of Kāñci, he has to be very careful in differentiating the original Pallava with later re-plastered images.



Located about 10 kilometres to the southwest of Madurai is the suburban town of Thirupparankundram (also spelled Tiruparankundram) with a massive monolithic rock. It is called Skandamalai locally. It consists of several layers of construction; the earliest is dated to the 8th-century early Pandya period, and the last to the 13th-century.

The Tirupparankunram south cave consists basically of three cellars; two on the lateral; and, the main, dedicated to Mahisāsura-mardinī, on the back wall. The lateral shrines are dedicated to Linga-Somāskanda (east-facing) and Visnu­Vaikunthamūrti (west facing).

In the Trikūta pattern, having a triangle structure at the summits, which are occupied by the  sculptures of Trimūrtis (Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshvara). But, in the later times (by about the 8th Century), in the North group of the caves at Thirupparankundram, the Brahma figures were etched out; and, were replaced by the figures of the Devi.  

Tirupparankunram 2

According to Dr. Rajarajan, during the reign of Varaguna Pāndya (AD 767-815) some alterations and additions were made to the original rock-cut temple in the Kali year 3,874 (AD 773-4), to create cells for the images of the Devi. He also suggests that within the Pyramidal set-up of the North Cave of the Tirupparankunram temples, the images of the Devi were accommodated as per the Sri-Chakra structure (isometric).

Tirupparankuṉṟam temples


The Talapurisvara temple at Panamalai is another excellent example. The Pallavas laid the foundations of the Dravidian school which blossomed during the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Vijayanagar kings and the Nayaks.

Talagirisvara Temple

Most important of a large number of unpretentious and beautiful shrines that dot the Tamil countryside are the Vijayalaya Colisvara temple at Narttamalai (mid-9th century), with its circular sanctum, spherical cupola, and massive, plain walls; the twin shrines called Agastyisvara and Colisvara, at Kilaiyur (late 9th century); and the splendid group of two temples (originally three) known as the Muvarkovil, at Kodumbalur (c. 875).

Vijayalaya Colisvara temple at Narttamalai

The Vijayalaya Colisvara temple, with its first and second thala (base) of the Vimanam square in shape, the third in circular (vasara) and the griva and Shikhira also in circular shape; is a forerunner of the magnificent temple at Gangai-konda-chola-puram built by Rajendra Chola. Its  Vimana is a fine mixture of Nagara and Vesara styles.

These simple beginnings led rapidly (in about a century) to grandeur and style. The temples, now built of stone, were huge, more complex and ornate with sculptures.

Dravidian architecture reached its glory during the Chola period (900-1200 A.D.). Among the most magnificent of the Chola temples is the Brhadishvara temple at Tanjore with its 66 meter high Vimana, the tallest of its kind. The later Pandyans who succeeded the Cholas improved on the Cholas by introducing elaborate ornamentation and huge sculptural images, many-pillared halls, new annexes to the shrine and towers (gopurams) on the gateways. The mighty temple complexes of Madurai and Srirangam set a pattern for the Vijayanagar builders (1350-1565 A.D.) who followed the Dravidian tradition. The Pampapati Virupaksha and Vitthala temples in Hampi are standing examples of this period. The Nayaks of Madurai who succeeded the Vijayanagar kings (1600-1750 A.D.) made the Dravidian temple complex even more elaborate by making the Gopurams very tall and ornate and adding pillared corridors within the temple long compound.



The Hoysalas (1100-1300A.D.), who ruled the Kannada country, improved on the Chalukyan style by building extremely ornate, finely chiseled, intricately sculptured temples mounted on star shaped pedestals. The Hoysala temples are noted for the delicately carved sculptures in the walls, depressed ceilings, lathe-turned pillars in a variety of fanciful shapes ; and fully sculptured vimanas. The exterior is almost totally covered with sculpture, the walls decorated with several bands of ornamental motifs and a narrative relief.Among the more famous of these temples, which are classified under the Vesara style, arethe twin Hoysalesvara temple at Halebid, the Chenna Kesava temple at Belur (1117), the Amrtesvara temple at Amritpur (1196), and the Kesava (trikuta) temple at Somnathpur (1268).


In the North, the major developments in Hindu temple architecture were in Orissa (750-1250 A.D.) and Central India (950-1050 A.D.) as also Rajasthan (10th and 11th Century A.D.) and Gujarat (11th-13thCentury A.D.). The temples of Lingaraja (Bhubaneswar), Jagannatha (Puri) and Surya (Konarak) represent the Kalinga-Nagara style. The greatest center of this school is the ancient city of Bhubaneswar, which has almost 100 examples of the style, both great and small, ranging from the 7th to the 13th century. The most magnificent structure, however, is the great Lingaraja temple (11th century), an achievement of Kalinga architecture in full flower.

The most famous of all Kalinga temples, however, is the colossal building at Konarak, built by the Chandellas, dedicated to Surya, the sun god. The temple and its accompanying hall are conceived in the form of a great chariot drawn by horses.

surya temple

The Surya temple at Modhera (Gujarat) and other temple at Mt. Abu built by the Solankis have their own distinct features in Central Indian architecture. Bengal with its temples built in bricks and terracotta tiles and Kerala with its temples having unique roof structure suited to the heavy rainfall of the region developed their own special styles.

The Sri Ramanathaswami temple (12th century) has the longest corridor among all temples in India; and, is elaborately decorated 

Ramanathaswami temple

Hindu temples were built outside India too. The earliest of such temples are found in Java; for instance the Shiva temples at Dieng and Idong Songo built by the kings of Sailendra dynasty ( 6th -9thcentury). The group of temples of Lara Jonggrang at Paranbanam (9th to 10th century) is a magnificent example of Hindu temple architecture.

Candi Prambanan temple Java created by Peter Jordaan

Candi Prambanan in Java- Image created by Peter Jordaan

Other major temples are: the temple complex at Panataran (Java) built by the kings of Majapahit dynasty (14th century); the rock-cut temple facades at Tampaksiring of Bali (11th century); the Mother temple at Beshakh of Bali (14th century); the Chen La temples at Sambor Prei Kuk in Cambodia (7th – 6th century); the temples of Banteay Srei at Angkor (10th century) and the celebrated Angkor Vat temple complex (12th century) built by Surya Varman II.

ankor vat


Pictures from Internet

Devalaya Vastu By Prof. SKR Rao

Encyclopaedia Britannica

konarak old

To follow :

Vastu Purusha Mandala

Temple Layout

Parts of the Temple


Norms and Measurements


Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Temple Architecture


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Temple worship and rituals (2 of 5) – Symbolism of Rituals in Temple Worship

Symbolism of the temple

– Symbolism of Rituals in Temple Worship

The Agama texts mention that divinity may be worshipped in one of the four ways: (1) Japa, recitation of the holy name as initiated by the Guru ;( 2) Homa, oblations offered in Agni accompanied by appropriate hymns ; (3) Archana, actual worship (of nine types); and (4) Dhyana, meditation on transcendental and empirical aspects of divinity.

The first approach is through a pattern of sounds (nada/shabda) while the second is through the medium of Agni. Meditation isindependent of concrete representations. All these three are individual approaches. It is the Archa, the worship of a deity individually and in communion with fellow devotees that is easiest. Further, the Archa includes in itself the essentials of the other three approaches as well. Archana in temples is an integrated mosaic of individual and congregational worship; and is the most popular approach.

The formal worship of deities in Hindu traditions broadly follows the Vedic, Tantric or the mixed (Misra) procedures. The Vedic traditions are centered on Agni (fire) the visible representation of divinity and a medium to approach other gods in celestial realm. Oblations offered into Agni accompanied by recitation of appropriate hymns constitute Vedic worship. The Vedic traditions do not generally provide for worship of icons.

Tantric ideology views the divinity in terms of human or semi human forms (murti) and as represented by diagrams (mandala) and incantations of great merit (mantra).

The temple and iconic worship may appear like tantric. However, in practice the worship at temples involves both homa and archa rituals. The rituals here are a combination of concepts, procedures and symbolism. The symbolism behind this method of worship is that God pervades the universe and that the entire creation is his manifestation. The human mind with its limitations cannot easily comprehend God in absolute; but tries to comprehend divine spirit and bestow a form to the formless. (Na cha rupam vina devo dyatum kenapi sakyate, Vishnu samhita 29, 51).

The worship helps the devotee to visualize the incomprehensible divinity in chosen form and attributes so that he may dwell on it and engage himself in a certain service; else, the mind of an ordinary person might lapse into drowsiness or wither away. The texts suggest that human form of God’s image helps the devotee better to meditate on the divine attributes ; and to relate to the spirit of god with love, affection, friendliness, devotion, reverence etc. The temples generally house images of god in human form except in Shiva temples where the image will be in lingam form (even here the processional image will be in human form).

The worshipper is aware all the while that the forms (murti), sounds (mantras) and diagrams (mandalas) employed in worship are human approximations and are inadequate representations of God (prathima svalpa buddhinaam). Yet, he tries to find through them an approach to the Supreme. It is not very important whether it is archa or the Agni you choose, but it is the devotion and sincerity of purpose that matters. Here, concepts are more significant than precepts; procedures more significant than concepts and symbolism more relevant than procedures.

The temple worship ritual has two distinct aspects; symbolic and actual. The former is the inner worship (manasa puja or antar yajna) and the latter is the procedural aspect, the service (Upachara). In manasa puja, God is the worshipper’s innermost spirit; while in Upachara the personified god is treated and revered as the most venerated guest. The services are rendered with gratitude, love  and devotion.


The Aagama texts, Tantra Sara and Siddha yamala list as many as sixty-four upacharas. However, in practice, about sixteen upacharas are conducted; hence the expression Shodashopachara puja. They are , in sequence:

  • (1) seating ( aasana),
  • (2) welcoming (swagatha),
  • (3) offering water to wash feet (padya),
  • (4) offering water to wash hands (arghya),
  • (5) offering water to sip and rinse mouth (aachamana),
  • (6) providing a bath (snana),
  • (7) offering fresh clothes and decorations (vastra- abhushana),
  • (8) offering fresh sacred thread ( yajno_pavitha),
  • (9) offering aromatic substances like sandal paste (gandha),
  • (10) offering flowers (pushpa),
  • (11) burning incense (dhupa),
  • (12) waving lights ( deepa),
  • (13) offering four kinds of food (naivedya),
  • (14) offering tambula (betel leaves with areca nut, camphor and spices),
  • (15) prostrations (namaskara) and
  • (16) send off(visarjana).

The offerings during the worship are meant to please different aspects of the divine. For instance, Arghya is offered to please celestial deities (deva priyartha), sandal paste is a favorite of the Brahma; flowers favor prosperity; dhupa is dear to Agni (vaishvanara priya); aarathi signifies victory (jaya prada); and offering food– naivedya or havis is for abundance (samruddhi).

Each of the five senses contributes to our joy in life. The five fold offering (Panchopachara) – of Gandha (sandal paste), Pushpa (flowers), Dhupa (fragrance), Deepa (lights) and Naivedya (food) – are submission to the Lord with a request to direct our five sensestowards the goodand the God.  

Abhishekha (pouring water over the deity) is an act of love and submission. It purifies the worshippers’ mind and fills with devotion. Flowers confer prosperity, gladden the mind   and hence are Sumanas.Dhupas just as the flowers, gratify the deities immediately. Lights represent energy, fame and upward motion. Lights dispel darkness and ignorance. Satvic food(Naivedya)  of  agreeable scent and appearance mixed with milk  along with flowers and fruits ,offered with reverence and devotion gratify the deities .These offerings submitted with devote  bows , prostrations and absolute surrender do please the Lord.

Prasad and Charanmrit (the residue of the offerings made to the Lord) is most precious, sacred and purifying. It is most the sought after and one who receives it considers himself most fortunate and blessed.

These Upacharas are submitted to the deity only after conducting ceremonial purification of various kinds, infusing life force into the deity and establishing a proper communication with the divinity residing in the icon.

The entire ritual of daily worship  is broadly classified into five stages of worship:

(1) Aasana, welcoming the divinity to partake the worship;

(2) Sthapana, seating and invoking life force into the deity;

(3) Sannidhi_karana, establishing proper communication with the deity;

(4) Archana main worship; and

(5) Visarjana bidding farewell or literally dismissing.

Incidentally, in Mahabharata (Anushasana parva), Bhishma describes , among other things , the virtues of worship and talks about the  significance of offering flowers , fruits , lights and food to the deity .

(KM Ganguli’s translation )

All the sixteen (shodasha) upacharas like tendering invitation, offering seat; offering water for the feet and to sip and to rinse the mouth and also for bath; presentation of dry and fresh garments,; serving food etc. are performed with devotion and reverence. The personified God is also the Lord of the Lords who oversees the universe (lokadyaksha).Therefore the honors that are due to a king are offered to the icon as Rajopachara. These include white umbrella, flywhisk, music, dance, vehicles of various sorts, flower pavilions, swings, chariots etc.

All the while the worshipper and the devotees are aware that the external worship characterized by splendor and spectacle is an overflow of religious devotion and is secondary to the main worship, the inner worship manasa puja of the antaryamin (the inner being) residing in ones heart.

The inner worship that takes place in the privacy of the sanctum is more significant than the external worship. These are in a sequence such as Shudhi (purification of elements), Mudras (assumption of appropriate and effective gestures), Pranayama (regulation of breath to enable contemplation of the divinity), Dhyana (contemplation), Soham_bhava (identity of the worshipper with the worshipped), Mantra (words to help realize the deity in worshipper’s heart) and Mandala (diagrams representing aspects of divinity).

Shuddhi is not merely the purification of the sanctum and its ambiance as the worshipper purifies the earth (bhu shuddhi) and the elements but is also the symbolic transformation and accommodation of all the elements that constitute worshippers body and world around him.

Dhyana is an important sequence in internal worship. It is not a prayer in the sense, it is not recited in praise of the deity nor is the worshipper seeking through it fulfillment of his desires. It is essentially to attune the inherent divine nature of the worshipper with the divinity of the deity. The worshipper visualizes and contemplates on the resplendent form of the deity as abiding in his own heart.

Mantras that seek to evoke the power of the deity and the mystical designs (yantras or mandalas) that serve as fit abodes for the deity are also important.

The next step is very significant. According to Tantra ideology, the worshipper regards his body as a Yantra where the deity resides. As a prelude to worship per se, the worshipper literally breathes life into the deity during prana_prathista sequence. The idol is transformed to divinity itself. The worshipper does this by extracting the power or the luster (tejas) of the divinity residing in his heart by means of inhalations and exhalations (ucchvasa and nishvasa), and investing it upon the deity. At the same time, the worshipper draws the presence of the Highest Spiritual being (paramatma) into his own individual being (jiva).This process symbolizes invoking the divine residing in ones heart, extracting it (bahir agatya) and transferring it with ease (sukham thistathu) in to the deity in front (asmin bimbe).The transferred Tejas stays in the deity until the worship is formally concluded.

The placement (nyasa) of divine presence in the structure of the icon as also in the worshipper is an essential ritual sequence before the actual service (upacharas) commences. Through these nyasas collectively called bhagavad_aaradhana adhikara_yogyata-siddhi, the worshipper secures competence to worship the deity. He invokes divine presence in himself.This takes three forms.

(1) Matrka-nyasa: placement of fifty seed-sounds (beeja mantra) in several psychic centers (chakras) on different parts of the body.

(2) Devata-nyasa: placement of different aspects of divinity on limbs and different parts of body; and

(3) Tattva-nyasa: Endowments of twenty-four basic factors (as per Samkhya) to the deity in order to individualize it.

The first two forms of nyasa are Tantric in character and are intended to transform the abstract form of divinity residing within the worshipper into a concrete form of divine as invested in the icon.

The second form of nyasa is designed to suit a specific type of deity .The Vaishnavas adopt Keshavadi nyasa; the Shaivas adopt Srikantadi nyasa while Shakthas adopt kala nyasa.

The third nyasa is largely Vedic with traces of Tantra. It sometimes provides a structure for abstract form of worship.

It is only after the deity is thus properly invoked (Avahita), established (stapitha), close at hand (sanhita), positioned right in front of the worshipper (sammukha), confined in a place of honor (sanniruddha) and well concealed under a canopy  (avaguntitha), the worship (upachara) commences and acquires a significance. Unless the worshipper establishes his identity with the worshipped, the rituals have no meaning. The Agama texts prescribe, “God is not to be worshipped by one who has himself not become God” (nadevo bhutva devam pujayet).

After the formal worship is completed, the deity is dismissed (visarjana). This ritual signifies withdrawal of the divine presence (temporarily lodged in the icon) and taking it back into worshipper’s heart (which is its permanent residence). The mantras recited in this context say “ Come ,oh God residing in the icon come back into my heart-lotus” (Ehi ehi, prathima sthitha purushottama , mama hrutkamale); “Reside in my heart , O Lord of the worlds , along with your glory” (hrudaya kuru samvasam sriya saha jagatpate).

vishnu with sridevi bhudevi

The foregoing is the broad pattern of ritual worship and its symbolism. However, certain temples where the deity is Self-manifest (Swayambhu) or installed by celestial beings (Deva prathistaha) say, as in Tirumala, follow a slightly different procedure. Here, the deity is the repository of divine powers ; and the priest need not go through the prana-prathista ritual. The Upacharas (services) are rendered not to the main deity but to a smaller image of the Lord (Kauthuka beru).It is the kauthuka beru that is infused with prana at the time of upachara worship. The priest evokes Tejas from the main deity , not from his own heart , and transfers it to kauthuka beru.

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