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Music of India – a brief outline – Part Ten

Continued from Part Nine – Musical Instruments in Natyashastra

Part Ten (of 22) – Anibaddha, Nibaddha and Prabandha

Anibaddha and Nibaddha

1.1. In the early Indian systems of music, there were two broad categories of musical rendering: Anibaddha Gita and Nibaddha Gita. The terms Anibaddha and Nibaddha could roughly be translated as un-structured (un-bound) and structured (bound).

Nibaddha and Anibaddha are two related terms which have a long history. In the Natyashastra, while describing the three aspects of Pada (verbal syllabic structure) it is said: one that is governed by Chhandas and Taala signifies Nibaddha. And similarly, the absence of these is Anibaddha (NS. 32.28-29).

Sarangadeva defines Anibaddha as Aalapi which is not bound or which lacks rules (bandha-hinatva) – Alapir bandha-hinatvad Anibaddham itirita (Sangitaratnakara: 4.5).

1.2. Thus, Anibaddha Gita  is free flowing music that is not  restricted  by Taala; it is also   free from disciplines of Chhandas (meter) and Matra (syllables) ;  and, it does not also need the support of compositions woven with  meaningful words (Pada or Sahitya) . In fact, not one of these – neither Taala, nor Grammar, nor lyrics – has a role to play in the Anibaddha Samgita.

The Nibaddha Gita, in comparison, is rendering of a pre-composed structured musical composition that is governed by Chhandas and Taala; and has words (meaningful or otherwise); as also has a definite beginning and an end. In short; it is a composition (like Prabandha, Giti, and Kriti etc)

[ Bharata mentioned Pathya in the Natyasastra (17. 102); and, said:  “pathyam prayunjitam sad-alamkara-samyuktam” – the Sahitya of a song is called the Pathya, when it is embellished by six Alamkaras.  Abhinavagupta in his Abhinava- bharati explains that when any composition (sahitya) possesses six Alamkaras and sweet tones, it is known as a Pathya. These six Alamkaras are: Svara, Sthana, Varna, Kaku, Alamkara and Anga.  (Note: kakus are the variations of the vocal sound for expressing different ideas). Bharata considered Pathya under two heads:  Samskrita and Prakrita. Abhinavagupta followed Bharata in this respect.]

1.3. There is a mention of another way of classifying Nibaddha. It is said; there are two classes of Nibadda: Niryukta and Aniryukta. The Niryukta Prabandha was to be sung only to certain specified Taala, Chhandas, and Rasa etc. And, Aniryukta was free from such restrictions. Parshvadeva mentions a third variety called Ubhayatmaka Prabhanda in which some aspects of the song are fixed while others are optional.

[By about end of the 19th century, the terms Anibaddha Gita and Nibaddha Gita went out of use; and, were promptly replaced by the terms Manodharma Samgita and Kalpita Samgita. The revised names are very much in circulation today. Though the nomenclatures underwent a change, the principles behind the terms remained almost the same but with little variations.

Manodharma Samgita (just as the Anibaddha Gita) is improvised music that is not pre-composed. And, Kalpita Samgita is rendering a composition, which has already been constructed, with much practice and discipline. ]

1.4. In any case, whether be it Anibaddha/ Manodharma or Nibaddha/ Kalpita, the music that is created must be permeated with the fragrance of artistic beauty; and, at the same time, it must respect the norms and disciplines of the tradition in which the music that is played or sung is rooted. Improvisation could be understood as a means of self-expression, where the virtuoso artist brings in her/his own unique genius to adorn and to enhance the beauty and virtuosity of her/his presentation.  In other words, Improvisation is a means to upgrade the quality of presentation and give it a stamp of individuality; and yet, it will have to work within the bounds of the system, honouring its norms, disciplines and traditions.

2.1. The most well-known form of the Anibaddha type is the Aalapa (Raga Alapti)The Aalapa rendering is free from set words and Taala too. It is elaborate but delicate and precise presentation of a Raga.  It demands from the musician maturity, skill; complete understanding of the Raga and its nature; as also creative imagination.  It calls for patience and sensitivity in performing, if it has to evoke the listeners’ admiration and enjoyment. It is the Aalapa that, often, is regarded as a benchmark of a performer’s excellence.

2.2. The absence of Taala in Aalapa does not mean absence of Tempo. Aalapa generally follows a pattern of presentation.  It is said to be spread over in four stages. It usually has a rather slow introspective beginning (vilamba) in lower octaves (Mandra), followed by elaborations of the basic theme of the Raga in medium tempo, Madhyama-kaala, building into faster Tempo (Druta) leading to a crescendo (Ati-Druta). Indeed, Aalapa is one of the deeply moving, sublime experiences of the Indian music.

2.3. Apart from Aalapa, there are also other forms of Anibaddha type of music that are not pre-composed; that are not based in words; that are not played to a Taala; but yet , are the expansive elements of music. The most notable of that genre of singing/playing is Taana.

Taana or Taanam in Karnataka Samgita (comparable to Jor –Jhala in Hindustani Dhrupad and instrumental music) is played after the Aalapana, but before the commencement of the structured Kriti.  In Karnataka Samgita, Taana is performed both in vocal and instrumental music (but, particularly in Veena playing). These are unique in the sense that with the rise in tempo, the performer improvises and builds into the melody various patterns of rhythms, without, however, the element of Taala.

[Ugabhoga of the Haridasa-s, Shlokas and Ragamalikas, perhaps, fall in between Nibaddha and Anibaddha forms of music.  Here the Sahitya and the Bhava are important. But, these pieces are not set to Taala. And, the singer is also free to choose any Raga/Ragas to bring out the literary and musical values of the composition. The absence of Taala, somehow, seems to aid in enhancing the import of its Sahitya.]

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Manodharma Samgita

3.1. In this context, we may also talk about Sangathi, Neraval, Kalpana Svaras and such other elaborations in Karnataka Samgita. At the outset, I reckon these improvisations cannot strictly be considered as Anibaddha.

3.2. Sangathi is a way of weaving patterns elaborating certain lines of a Kriti. The Sangathi technique was, it is said, introduced by Sri Tyagaraja by adopting it from the Dance. In some of Sri Tyagaraja’s compositions, the Sangathi-s appear in the earlier segment (Pallavi) of the text (Sahitya).  But, it has since become a regular part of rendering of Kritis of other composers as well. The Sangathi is, usually, pre-conditioned variations of a phrase or a line of a song. And, the composer would already have envisaged briefer and finer variations of Sangathi-s into his work. The performer brings in her/his own improvisations to elongate the Sangathi-s.

3.3. Neraval, unlike Sangathi, is a small and flickering variation of a melody-filled line of a Kriti or a Pallavi. In Neraval, the Sahitya and its melody is spread out in various ways; and yet, keeping intact the original structure. The Neraval could also be expansive improvisation of the Raga-bhava. Creativity and spontaneous outpouring characterize an enjoyable Neraval.

The Neraval is comparable to the ancient Rupaka Alapti (as compared to Raga Alapti) where one line or the whole of the composition was taken up for melodic elaboration without , however, changing the text.

The Neraval of the present-day Karnataka Samgita is an aspect of the improvised Manodharma Samgita. And, in a concert, it precedes the Svara Kalpana.

3.4. Kalpana-Svara or Svara prastara is the expansion on the rhythmic patterns of the Svara (Sa, Re, Ga, Ma etc). It is a free-rendering. And, is a highly improvised presentation, often playful, that appears in the latter part of the song-rendering.  An entertaining Kalpana-Svara rendering calls for enterprising variations, often involving the accompaniments (Violin and the percussion instruments) in a good-humoured interplay (saval-javab). It, therefore, has great popular appeal.

3.5. As can be seen, Sangathi, Neraval or elaborations of the rhythmic patterns (Svara –prastara) are all based in Taala and are tied to the words in the text (Sahitya) of the composition. Though these provide immense artistic freedom to elaborate and to improvise in varied imaginative patterns, I reckon these are not strictly of the Anibaddha type.


Prabandha, Vastu and Rupaka

4.1. Sarangadeva (13th century) in the fourth Canto of his Sangita-ratnakara says: the Gayana (singing) is twofold – Nibaddha and Anibadda. That which is composed of Anga-s (limbs or parts) and Dhatu-s (elements or sections) is Nibaddha Samgita. And Alapita which is free from such structures is known as Anibaddha Samgita.

Then he goes on to say that Nibaddha has three names: Prabandha, Vastu and Rupaka. (But, he does not go into details of their internal differences.)

4.2. Parshvadeva a Jain musicologist (9-10th century) in his Sangita-samaya-sara (Ca.10-11th century) described Prabandha as a Giti (song) formed of four or six musical elements (Dhatu-s) –

(Chaturbhir-dhatubhih shadbhishcha-angairyah syat prarbandhate tasmat prabandhah).

He also recognized the classifications of Prabandha, Vastu and Rupaka.   In the fourth Chapter of his Sangita-samaya-sara, he explained the Prabandhas like Dhenki, Lambaka, Rasaka, Ekatali, etc. together with eleven kinds of Dhruva, and the process of singing (ganakrama), the Giti.

4.3. Sangita–shiromani (said to be a compilation by a group of scholars in the 15th century) says: One should know that Prabandha, Vastu and Rupaka are the three names of composed music based on Pada and other elements (Anga and Dhatu). Their internal structure is slightly different (13.6)

5.1. When the main sections of the composition contains all the Anga-s and Dhatu-s, either separately or in combinations, it is considered to be a Prabandha composition (13.7) .

5.2. As compared to Prabandha which has all the Angas, something which is exclusively composed of regular words (Pada) and musical metre (Taala) is said to be Vastu (lit substance or thing). It has the freedom to omit some of the Anga-s.

Kumbha (15th century) in his Sangita-raja (2.4-6) explains Vastu as one in which there is (vasanti) always (nityam) some Dhatu and some Angas (Dhatavo Angani kinchit); and its good sound is important (sad-vastu-dhvani-mukhyena). It is also said; that which ends in Apanyasa, Amsa and Nyasa (or else samnyasa), is Vastu.


Amsa the dominant note is the note in which the Raga resides (ragas ca yasmin vaasati) and manifests (raga-abhivyaktir bhavathi); and from which the movement of the low (mandra) and high (Tara) registers of five Svaras starts. Amsa is a Vivadi Svara.

Nyasa is the final note which occurs at the end of a section of the composition (Anga) – Nyaso hy Anga-samaptau. It is the note on which the song is fixed and ended. The final note is also described as the ‘name-giver’ as it gives the Jaati its name – Nyasas tu Svra-jaatishu namakrt.

As compared to Nyasa, Apanyasa is the penultimate note. It occurs before the final note (Nyasa), in the midst, which is to say in the Anga (section) – Anga-madhye.

Samnyasa is the final note of the first part of the song (Vidari); and, it is not a Vivadi Svara (dissonant)

Vidari is the section of a song. It is twofold: Mahathi and Avantara. That which fills up the Vastu is Mahathi. The others which are completed at the end of the episodes (Varna) are Avantara. Of both the kinds of Vidari, the final note is in the Vastu, the dominant. ]

5.3. Rupaka, derived from ‘Rupa’ (form), later was used as a general term for all dramatic compositions. In fact, Rupaka is the proper name for Sanskrit Drama; and, not Nataka.[And, Nataka is one of the ten recognized forms of Rupaka.]

The Dramatic compositions based in music (Geya-prabandha) also termed as Drshya Kavya ( a poem that is to be seen as also heard) were arranged as Rupaka  and Upa-Rupaka (minor forms of Rupaka). It is said; there were ten types of Rupaka-s and eighteen types of Upa-Rupakas (depicting a short theme or a self-contained section taken from a larger theme).

In Music, when there is scope for developing the melodic form (Raga) and other elements (ragadya-aropa) in a dramatic form, such composed music is called Rupaka (lit from) (13-8). It is explained by the later scholars that in Rupaka Alapti, either one line or the whole Prabandha is taken up and melodic variations are sung with the lyrics of the Prabandha.

[And, this perhaps resembled the Neraval of the present-day music].


6.1. Sangita–shiromani (15th century) says the song (gana) which has been written by composers (Vaggeyakara), which has special musical character (lakshana), which is based in Desi Ragas and which pleases people is Nibaddha (13.3)

Such composed music (Nibaddha) which is formed with Anga (phrasal elements) like: Pada (passage of meaningful words), Svara (tone syllables or passage of sol-fa syllables),Birudu (words of praise, extolling the subject of the song and also including the name of the singer or the patron), Taala (musical meter or time-units ),  Paata (vocalized drum syllables) and Tenaka (vocal syllables , meaningless and musical in sound with many repetitions) are known as Prabandha (13.5) ; and that which has in its main sections Dhatu-s (elements) : Udgraha, Melapaka, Dhruva and Abogha.

6.2. Thus, the best and the most well established form of Nibaddha Samgita is Prabandha. During the 5-7th centuries they were described as a form of Desi composition of varied nature and forms (Desikara- Prabandho yam), such as : kanda, vritta, gadya, dandaka, varnaka, karshita-gatha, dvipathaka, vardhati, kaivata, dvipadi, vardhani, dhenki, ekatali, etc

However, in the context of Music, Prabandha is a comprehensive term which refers to a well-knit composition. And, within in the gamut of Music itself, the Prabandha stands for a particular, specified form of songs constructed according to a prescribed format.

6.3. As said earlier, the Prabandha is conceptualized as Prabandha Purusha, a living organism , consisting six limbs , which function harmoniously as do the limbs of a healthy human body. Thus,  Prabandha could be understood as  a type of harmonious musical composition set to words, Raga, Taala, Chhandas, Vrtta; and governed by six Anga-s (Svara, Birudu, Pada, Tena, Paata and, Taala) and four sections-Dhatu-s (Udgraha, Melapaka, Dhruva  and  Abhoga).

6.4. Prabandha is basically a variety of Khandakavya (not particularly associated with Drama); and, at the same time it is also a song. And, therefore, the Chhandas and Taala rather than the musical element were central to the composition (perhaps with the exception of Geya prabandha s).

7.1. Prabandha-s do not figure in the earlier texts like Nāţyashastra and Dattilam.  They are dealt with in the texts  written after the 5th -6th century  , such as : Brihaddeshi (Ca, 5th century); Sangita-Samayasara ( Ca. 11th century); Manasollasa (Ca,12th century); Sangita-ratnakara (Ca,12-13th century) Sangita –samayasara (12-13th century) ; Sangitadamodara (Ca.14th century)  ; Sangita–shiromani (15th century);  Chaturdandi Prakasika (c.1635 CE) and  others. These texts describe the nature and the varieties of Prabandha, the salient features of their variations and the elements that are involved in the construction of Prabandha songs.

7.2. Prabandha as a class of Music was, perhaps, first mentioned in the final Canto of Matanga’s Brihad-deshi (Ca.5th century). Here, he described Prabandha simply as Prabhadyate iti Prabandhah (that which is composed is a Prabandha); and, classified it under Desi Samgita (a collection of many song types then popular in various regions). Matanga explains Desi Samgita with the aid of about forty-eight Prabandha songs. However, Matanga remarks that the Prabandhas are indeed countless; and ‘their complexities are beyond the understanding of weaker minds’.

Some of the Prabandha- types mentioned in this text are: Kanda, Vŗtta, Gadya, Catushpadī, Jayavardhana, Ela and Dhenaki. (He pays particular attention to Ela) And, while describing the nature of Prabandha-s, Matanga did not employ terms such as Dhatu and Anga, as was done in the texts of the later periods.

7.3. Prabandha received a detailed treatment in the fourth Chapter Prabandha-adhyaya of Sarangadeva’s Samgita-Ratnakara which appeared about five centuries after Matanga. By the time of Samgita-Ratnakara, Prabandhas had grown into thousands. Sarangadeva explained Prabandha as that which is pleasant; and that which is governed by rules regarding Raga, Taala, Chhandas, Vritta (Sanskrit verses) and Anga. In his work, Sarangadeva described about 260 types of Prabandha-s with their variations.

7.4. Sangītasiromai (15th century) in its Chapter Eight presents a wealth of details on the Prabandha-s. It describes the four classes or cycles (Shuddha Suda, Ali karma, Salaga Suda and Viprakirna) of the Prabandha songs; the criteria of six elements (Anga-s – Taala, Svara, Pata Birudu, Tena and Pada) and four substances or Dhatu-s (Chhandas, Raga, Varna, and Gamaka).

7.5. Later, in his monumental work Chaturdandi Prakasika (c.1635 CE) Venkatamakhin gathered various music-forms under a fourfold system (Chaturdandi) comprising Gita, Prabandha, Thaya and Aalapa. Here also, Prabandha was described as ‘prabandhayeti Prabandha’ – that which is well structured (Nibaddha) is Prabandha.

However, the definition of Prabandha was narrowed down to include only those compositions which are made up of Six Angas (shadbhirangaisca) and Four Dhatus (chaturbhidhaturbhischayah). He also names the six Anga-s or elements of the musical Prabandha-s are Svara, Birudu, Pada, Tenaka, Paata and Taala. The four Dhatus are Udgraha, Melapaka, Dhruva and Abhoga.

“Ucyate shadbhirangaisca chaturbhidhaturbhischayah I Nibaddah swarasandarbhastasminneva hibhūriśa I Prabanda iti lokānām vyavahāro nirīkśyate” II “śadangāniitichedbrumaha swaraschabirudam padam I Tenakah pātatālau cetyetānyangāniśatpunah II


[Strangely, by the time Chaturdandi Prakasika appeared, the Prabandha, as a class of Music, was already on its way out.]

8.1. The Prabandha, generally, appeared to be highly ornate, varied compositions formed out of many sections (Dhatu) . They were ornate both in their elaborate poetical diction (Alamkara) and abundance of rich language (Sabdalankara) adorned with meaning (Arthalankara).  They were varied in the sense that many songs featured a mixture of different languages (Bhasha), Taala-s, Ragas; and frequent alteration between meaningful text and meaningless syllables. They were sectional in that Prabandhas were divided into distinct formal divisions and components with many changes of tempo, Raga and Taala. The word-play (pada-jala) was also prominent in the repertoire with clever use of alliteration of letters (anuprasa); alliteration of words (pada prasa), ambiguous use of a word where it conveys different meanings depending upon the context (latanu-prasa), play of pun (slesha or sabda slesha), change of voice (kaku) , and  poetic subversion  or deviant expression (vakrokthi) etc. The word (pada), meter (Chhandas) and Music (gana) were well structured and coordinated.

Prabandha was the dominant song-form for about thousand years or a little more till about the 17-18th century, which is until the advent of the Trinity of Karnataka Samgita.

[In the later stages, Prabandha merely came to be understood as the fourth component of the fourfold system (Chatur-dandi) of: Raga, Thaya, Gita and Prabandha.]

Types of Prabandhas

9.1. As   Matanga   remarked, the Prabandhas are indeed countless; and, ‘their complexities are beyond the understanding of weaker minds’.   Yes; it is a virtual jungle.

9.2. Parshvadeva (Ca.10-11th century), a Jain musicologist, in his Sangita-samaya-sara divided the Prabandha-s into three classes: Suda, Alikrama and Viprakirna. And, later in the 13th century, Sarangdeva split the Suda into Shuddha Suda and Chayalaga (the Apabhramsa or colloquial form of Chayalaga is Salaga Suda).- [ The Chayalaga or  Salaga Suda – as a class of Prabandha – was not mentioned either  in Matanga’s Brihaddeshi, or in Someshwara’s Manasollasa (1131).]

With that, the major types of Prabandha were counted as four: Shuddha Suda, Salaga Suda, Alikrama and Viprakirna.

: – The Shuddha Suda was again divided into eight parts: Ela, Karana, Dhenki Vartani, Jhombada, lambaka, Rasaka and Ekatali.

: – And Salaga Suda was divided into seven parts: Dhruva, Mantha, Pratimantha, Nisaruka, Addatala, Rasaka and Ekatali.

: – Several unclassified types were grouped under Alikrama Prabhanda; and it was divided into 24 parts: Varna, Varnasvara, Gadya, Kaivada, Angacharini, Dandaka, Turangalila, Gajalila, Dvipadi and so on

: – The Viprakirna was divided into Sriranga, Tripadi, Chatuspadi, Shatpadi, Vastu, Vijaya etc.

9.3. There is also mention of several other types of Prabandhas such as:

: Virashringara, Chaturanga, Sharabalita, Suryaprakasha, Chandraprakasha, Ranaranga, Nandana and Navaratna. (There are no clear descriptions of these types Prabandhas)

: Divya Prabandha, Naga Loka Geya Prabandha and Bharati Prabandha etc

: Gita Prabandha, Vadya Prabandha, Nrtya Prabandha, Taala-Prabandha, Geya Prabandha , Rupaka Prabandha, and Lakshana Prabandha etc

: Kanda, Varana, Vichitra, Vastu, Chachari, Chakravala, Bhanjani, Pratigrahnika, and   Tribangi,


There are also countless other forms

10.1. It is virtually not possible here to discuss all or even the most of the Prabhanda varieties. For the limited purpose of this post let’s, therefore, confine to the main or the better known types of Prabandhas.

Let’s take a look at the major types of Prabandha, their structure, elements and their other components in the next Part.


Continued in Part 11


Sources and References

Indian Music: History and Structure by Emmie Te Nijenhuis

A History of Indian music by Swami Prajnanananda

Sagītaśiromai: A Medieval Handbook of Indian Music edited by Emmie Te Nijenhuis

Dattilam: A Compendium of Ancient Indian Music edited by Emmie te Nijenhuis

The Traditional Indian Theory and Practice of Music and Dance edited by Jonathan Katz

Music and Musical Thought in Early India by Lewis Eugene Rowe

Kalātattvakośa: by Ramesh Chandra Sharma

Sangiti Sabda Kosa by Bimal Roy

Suladis and Ugabhogas  by  Mahamahopadyaya Dr. R .Sathyanarayana

Prathamopalabda Swarasahita Samkeerthana Sila Lekhanamu by I.V Subba Rao

Darus in Carnatic Music by Dr. Gowri Kuppuswami and Dr. M Hariharan; Published in ‘Shanmukha’, October 1986 (Vol.XII; No.4)


Posted by on May 10, 2015 in Music, Sangita


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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.

Rám Ráz in his Essay on the Architecture of the Hindús describes seven kinds of Pillars (Sthamba) in relation to the thickness of the walls, the strength and breadth of the base, and the number of floors in the building. According to Rám Ráz :

When the base is taken as a reference point for the length of a pillar, than it may be 1¼, 1½, 1¾ or 2 times the height of the base. In total there are 12 varieties of the height of a pillar. For the pilaster (in other words a wall-pillar) it is 3, 4, 5 or 6 angulas. The diameter of a pillar is 2, 3 or 4 times the width of the pilaster.

The pillar has a constructive character. It must be able to withstand the forces in the building. When the amount of floors in a building is taken as a reference points for determining the height of the pillars, then the ground floor pillars of a twelve storey building are 8½ cubits in height. By subtracting one span for each storey a height of 3 cubits is obtained for the pillars of the top storey. The diameter of the ground floor pillars of a twelve storey building is 28 digits. By subtracting two digits for each storey 6 digits are obtained for the diameter of the pillars of the top-storey.

The proportions of the Adhisthána or base must be related to those of the building. In response to that, the rest of the pillar relates to the base of the pillar. (The Mánasára uses the base to define the pillars. The Mayamatam uses the amount of floors in a building to define the height of the pillars.)

As regards the form or shape of the pillars, Rám Ráz states :

There are 6 forms of pillars, namely: square, pentagonal (5 sides), hexagonal (6 sides), octagonal (8 sides), 16 sided and circular. These shapes are uniform from bottom to top, but the base and top may be square.

The top of a pillar consists of 7 elements : The bracket capital, the dye (featuring a human figure), the abacus, the bell capital, the support, the lotus and the band ornamented with garlands.


It is the distance between two pillars. For the intercolumniation, two different approaches can be used.

The first one is relative to the rest of the building: “The intercolumniation may be either two, three, four, or five diameters; it is measured in three ways, first from the inner extremity of the base of the pillar to that of another; secondly from the center of the two pillars, and, thirdly from the outer extremities of the pillars including the two bases.”

 The second approach to intercolumniation is not relative to the building. In this approach the intercolumniation consists of 9 different possibilities. These are defined by 2 or 4 cubits, where each time 6 digits can be added. The architect can chose all of the 9 possibilities. Here it doesn’t matter what its type is, but the disposition of the pillars has to be regular, because otherwise it is believed to bring destruction upon the building and upon its site.


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.



Mention is also made of other methods for determining the size of the Dhruva-bhera (the main idol) and its position/placement in the Garbhagriha . According to this method, the icon is considered to be made of three parts.; the con proper being two parts ; and, the pedestal making up the third part.

The whole length of the Icon including pedestal should be 7/ 8th s of the height of the doorway. (i.e. height + 7 x 8 = doorway). If the Icon is made 2 meters in height then the following measurements are calculated;

doorway = 2 .28 mtrs high x 1.14 mtrs in width.
Sanctum = 4.57 mtrs square
Vimana = 9.14 mtrs high
Mandapa = 9.14 mtrs wide
Plinth = 3 mtrs high

As regards the position of the Dhruva-bhera within the Garbhagriha :

The Garbhagriha  is divided into two  halves. One  half should again be sub-divided into 10 parts. The following is generally followed for positioning of the deity :

Shiva Linga in the 10th part i.e. center
Brahma is placed in the 9th part.
Vishnu is placed in the 8th part.
Shanmuga is placed in the 7th part.
Sarasvati in the 6th.
Surya in the 5th.
Ganesha in the 4th.
Bhairava in the 3rd
Shakti in the 2nd place from the rear wall.

srivatsa enless knot


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.

Indian architecture is a logical and an intellectual approach to how the vision of the architect, governed by the prescriptions of the texts, should be realised. It has clear rules on how a building should be constructed. It starts with defining the cardinal directions of North, East, South and West. These directions form the basis for designing the building; as also in erecting the walls of the temple.

The temple is based on the faith that it is a reflection of the Universe, which follows cyclic processes of creations and destructions. Therefore, the temple has also to project that cyclical notion. For that reason, its design grows from unity to multiplicity; simultaneously, tending back to unity through a process of dissolution and fusion. In this way, a temple is to be rendered cyclical, in its nature. These cycles can occur at different times, at different rates, and in different parts of a temple. In order to achieve such effects, several architectural tools are employed.

Some of the tools that could help the Indian architect to design a temple; and, for achieving the pattern of its growth and of movement, as detailed by Adam Hardy in his Indian Temple Architecture: Form and Transformation (page 26) , include :

– Increasing aedicularity (principle of articulating the temple exterior as a matrix of inter connected shrines)

 – Aedicular density, meaning to move shrine images to get closer together

– Proliferation and fragmentation, meaning the repetition of a given type of designs and patterns culminating in a grand architectural composition. And , fragmentation is the breaking up the whole into minor  individual designs.

– Central emphasis: the cardinal axes of the Vimana as also those of the Mantapa become increasingly dominant, at various levels

– Using an increased sense of movement through various patterns which convey a sense of emergence and expansion

 – Staggering, where the forms become progressively more staggered creating certain visual architectural effects; say, from Vimana or Mantapa as a whole, through pillars to the moulding of the pilasters.

 – Continuity and alignment. This ensures horizontal continuity with the vertical structure; say, with each Tala (or the phase or the level) of the Vimana rising one over the other

 – Abstraction. Here the shrine-imagery, particularly in the shapes of moulding, develops away from the depiction of timber and thatch construction. The temple-structure is transported from the non-essentials towards  its idealized form.

– Assimilation.  The elements or details, which, are at first  scattered are systematically composed and assimilated with each other  into a framework that  finally defines the temple architecture

Thus, the temple-construction, which generally follows an evolutionary process combines in itself the stages of differentiation and fusion; creation and dissolution; and, emergence and mergence or blending . Although such dynamic processes are at once conflicting and complimentary, they all are harmonized in a meaningful composition to achieve the final and the idealized image of the temple.  The process is also analogous to the emergence from the unity of the the seed to the diversity of the tree with many branches.  


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 on the subject of the relation between the Vimana and the Gopura , please see the following extract from the response I  posted to the comment made by Dr.Ratti:

Valabhi_Temple_in_North_India_1The ‘Barrel-vault’ also known as a tunnel vault or a wagon vault is an architectural design looking like an oblong wagon-top or a vault or resembling a boat placed up-side down, is rather an old feature of the Indian temple architecture. Its curvy shape lends the structure a semi-cylindrical appearance. Such a design is assigned with many names, depending on the architectural school that it was involved with. The various parts of the temple are given different names in different parts of India.

For instance, in the Nagara tradition, which was practiced in the Northern, Western and Eastern parts of India, a barrel vaulted, rectangular superstructure that runs at right-angle to the entrance of the Gargha-griha is termed as Valabhi Prasada. The Valabhi turret is an ornamental structure on a flat roof. Usually, the sloping Valabhi resting on a flat roof is capped with multiple amlakas and finales, Shikhara.

I am given to understand that there are two explanations for derivation of the term Valabhi. The first one says; Valabhi is derived from the root Vala (enclosure) suggesting a turret or an upper room or a curved rafter. And, it might mean a kind of enclosure that would support a tunnel or barrel roof. And, therefore, Valabhi indicates a ‘mono-pitched roof.’

The other explanation suggests that the term Valabhi could relate to the name of an ancient city located in the Saurashtra region of Western India. It was the seat of the Maitraka dynasty who ruled the peninsula and parts of southern Rajasthan (from fifth to the eighth century). The City of Valabhi was also a celebrated centre of learning, with numerous Buddhist monasteries. It might be that such architectural type was the main characteristic of the Valabhi region, where there were numbers of Buddhist Chityas.

In the earlier periods, the temples and Stupas, which were successors to the huts, were constructed out of brick and timber. These were generally either elliptical (Kuta) or rectangular huts with gable roofs (Sala) made of bamboos. Therefore, the early temples, having vaulted domical and gabled (Sala) roof, resembled, in shape, a Chaitya hall (which itself was a successor to the Vedic stupa). It is also said; the palace architecture was developed form the Sala concept or design. And, since the palace was called Prasada, the God’s Palace (Devalaya) also came to be known as Prasada.

The Valabhi Prasada, generally, follows a rectangular plan; its length being thrice its width (ayata); with a barrel roofed superstructure running at right angle (tiryak) to the direction of entry to the Garbha-griha. Its slopes are either on all its four sides (hipped roof) or only on two sides. On its ridge, are placed three Amalasarkas. And, Dormer windows (Chandrasala) that projects vertically from a sloping roof are located on either side of the ridge.

In case the entrance to the shrine is located under the broader side of the ridge, such a Valabhi Prasada is classified as Bhadra; and, where the entrance is on the narrow, it is known as Dvarapala.

Because of its barrel vault roof, perhaps inspired by the early Chaitya architecture, the Valabhi is much wider than the Prasāda that you normally find in the Nagara temples. I believe, there are such ancient temples in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Uttarakhand (Nava-Devi temple in Yagesvar, Almora District) regions, too. Most of the Valabhi temples are dedicated to Devi, the Supreme Goddess.

Teli ka Mandir at Gwalior Vaital Deul Temple, Bhubaneswa Nakul & Sahadev Varahi Deula

As is well known, the earliest surviving example of Valabhi-Prasada is that of the Teli-ka-mandir (Ca.750 CE) of Gwalior, dedicated to Vishnu. And, though the temple stands on a Nagara base, its Valabhi Prasada resembles the Southern Gopura at the entrance of the temple complex. The later Jain temples of Western India (e.g., the fifteenth-century temple of Adinatha at Ranakpur) adopted similar designs, with slight modifications.

In Orissa, the same Valabhi mode is known as Khakhara (wagon roof or a bottle). The instances of such temples in Orissa are many. For example: the Baitala or Vaital Deul (8th-century) at Bhubaneswar; the Durga temple at Rameswar; the Varahi temple at Chaurasi, the Gopali and Savitri temple both in Bhuvanesvar and so on.

The Devi temple in Sibsagar (Assam); Terracotta temple at Vishnupur; and Siddheshvara Mahadeva temple in Barakar (Bengal) are also some of the many such Valabhi temples in Eastern India.

And, in the Southern tradition, a shrine of oblong plan with barrel vaulted roof or hut roof, topped by a series of stupi is named as Sala Vimana or Kosta or Sabha Vimana. It resembles a boat placed upside over a rectangular structure. A slightly modified Vimana of the Sala type where the hind part of the barrel-shaped roof is rounded, resembling the back of an elephant is called Gaja or Hasti prishta. This variety of Shikharas is also termed as Panjara or Nidha.

There are many instances of barrel vaulted Eka-tala Gaja-prishta Vimanas, in South India, principally at Aihole (Durga temple) and at Pattadakal.

Bhima Ratha, MahabalipuramAnd, there is the Bhima-ratha, one of the five Rathas or architectural models, at Mahabalipuram. Like the other four Rathas, the Bhima–ratha is also a stone-version or a model of a wooden structure. It is said to replicate the Chaiyta-model. The Bhima-ratha is an Ektala or single tiered oblong structure, with a barrel-vaulted roof (Sala Vimana) like a tilted boat, and ornate columns.


These were the forerunners of the architecture that flourished in the later centuries. For instance: Sri Kapoteswara Temple, Chejerla (AP) which dates back to third or fourth century A.D; Mahadeva swami Cave Temple, Malaiyadikurichi; Mukkoodal Appan Venkatesa Perumal Temple ; and so on . The Vimana atop the famed shrine in Srirangam (earlier to sixth century) has a curvy or a rotund shape at one end.

Amvar_Chejerla_Kapoteswara_temple_in_guntur_districtsrirangam temple rare picture

But, in the later periods, in the architectural designs of the temples, in North and East, the vaulted- roof Valabhi gave place to Prasadas having a large circular wheel shaped capstone block in the shape of a ribbed Amlaka ( myrobelan) . And in the South, the Vimanas rising in tiers (Tala), successively diminishing in circumference and ending in a point (stupi) over the cupola came into being, increasingly. This, over a period, gave rise to pyramidal or curvilinear form that we are familiar with.

[Before we move on to Vimanas of the South, lets briefly talk about the symbolism of the vaulted- roof Valabhi that you mentioned, as also of the Vimanas. At the outset, let me mention, there are countless symbolisms associated with the Vimana and the temple.

The temple, ideally, is regarded as an image (Bimba) of the Universe. It appears as though the inverted bowl of space under the wide Valabhi Prasada was imagined to be the vault of heaven, the starry region alive with the presence of dynamic light-deities (Adityas) and celestial beings such as the sun and moon, stars and such other sky gods.

The insides of the earlier vaulted roofs were, thus, imagined to be Akasha. The foundation of the temple is said to represent Earth (Prithvi); the walls of the sanctum, the Water (Apah); the tower over it, the Fire (Agni); the finale of the tower, the Air (Vayu); and, above it is the formless Space (Akasha). The sanctum is thus a constellation of the five elements that are basic to the Universe.


In the case of the Vimana, rising above the sanctum, it is said to symbolize the inverted tree with its roots above in the air; and, the branches spreading downwards (urdva mula; adah shakam).

The inverted tree, again, symbolizes the phenomenal world of matter and also the spirit having its roots the utmost subtle Absolute. The Man’s roots and energies are hidden in the abstract ‘thousand petalled lotus ‘(Sahasra), the invisible point just above the head, outside of the physical frame. That is his essence.

The Yoga texts speak of different psychic centres in the body, pictured as lotuses with their petals bent downward. The Yogi attempts to activate the vital currents within him to give the petals an upward stand.

While the Stupi, the point at the apex of the Vimana is considered as the root, the main mass of the Vimana represents the spreading branches.

Starting from the pointed copula, the Vimana is sculptured as an inverted lotus, with its petals spreading out and drooping down (Kumuda-vari). The Lotus is a symbol of life and consciousness.

Kailash Temple at Ellora vimanaShiv_temple_Tanjore

The petals of the lotus turn up when the sun shines on it. The divine grace is the sun (Aditya). That analogy is carried into the temple concept also.

The pointed finial of the Vimana symbolizes the dual act of gathering the essence from the from-less cosmos and letting it flown into the mass of the main tower. That essence descends into the icon placed at the centre of the sanctum, from where the divine grace flows into the Man. His effort is the ascent towards the spirit.

The shrine, thus, demonstrates the culmination of the human and the divine energies. The matter moves up evolving into higher state of consciousness; and, the grace, blessings flow down. ]

In the south, the earlier temples had taller Vimanas (say, as in Brihadisvara of Tanjore-58 meters; Gangaikonda-chola-puram – 48 meters). But the in the temples of later centuries, the Vimana tended to grow comparatively shorter. Over a period, the Vimanas assumed pyramidal or curvilinear form that we are familiar with. But the Gopura at the entrance (dvara) grew increasingly ornate, complicated, huge and monumental in size.

Thus, the Vimanas over the sanctum grew shorter or modest; and , in the process , lost their wide vaulted- roof- the Valabhi. In contrast to that, by about the twelfth century, the Gopura (gate-house) at the entrance grew amazingly massive, towering in pyramidal structures, as tall as up to sixteen stories, elaborately adorned and covered with brightly coloured plethora of sculpture of and guardian deities; and, capped at the top by an apsidal, eight-sided, or oblong, barrel vault shaped Sala (roof) pinnacle by a series of Stupi, the temple Kalashas.

Gopura Vimana

Thus, the ‘Barrel-vault’, the Valabhi, did not entirely disappear. It transformed, moved up and sat on the top of a magnificent Gopura.]


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


Tags: , , , ,

Temple Architecture- Devalaya Vastu – Part Four (4 of 9)

Temple Layout


South elevation plan of Kailash temple is Plate LXXX11 from the book “Cave temples of India” by Ferguson, James and James Burgess (Thanks to Dr.JB Ratti)

The Shilpa text Shiva-prakasha in its chapter titled vastu-bhumi-bedha, describes sixteen (Shodasha) types of temple layouts:  the Square (Chandura); Rectangle (Agatra);Trapezium ( with uneven sides – like a cart – shakata); Circle (Vritta); Elliptical (kritta vritta); triangular  (dwaja);  diamond or rhombus (vajra) ; Arrow (shara);umbrella (chatra) ; fish (meena);back of a tortoise (kurma);conch (shanka); crescent (ardha-chandra); pot (kumbha);sword (khadga); and lotus (kamala).


These layouts have specific applications; and are not to be used generally. For instance: the back of a tortoise (kurma), pot (kumbha), conch (shanka) and lotus (kamala) are recommended only for Vishnu and Shiva temples. Similarly the Square (Chandura), Rectangle (Agatra), fish (meena), diamond or rhombus (vajra) and sword (khadga) are recommended for Devi temples. The rest of the lay outs are for other (lesser) deities.

But all texts generally agree that the square or the  rectangular shape of layout are the best and most auspicious. Varaha-samhita calls such layouts as Siddha-bhumi, the best of all. In case the layout is rectangular ,the North South dimension should be greater than East-west dimension. It is also said , it would be better if the elevation on the west or the South is slightly higher.

For the limited purpose of this discussion let us stick to the square or rectangular layout, ignoring the rest.  Else, I fear, it might get too complicated.

The drawing of the court yard of the  Shiva temple at Thiruvālangādu,  by the famous artist Silpi.

thiruvannamalai temple top view

Having determined the suitability of the land for constructing a temple, and having drawn up the Vastu Mandala of the town and identified the temple location ; the next stage is to draw up a construction plan .This specifies the location, the size and the orientation of the  various temples to come up in the proposed complex. This again involves preparation of another Vastu Mandala.


Pada Vinyasa


The land considered suitable for the purpose of constructing the temple (vastu bhumi) and   placed at the center (Brahma Sthana) of the Vastu mandala of the township must be in the shape of a rectangle or a square. The ratio between the breadth and the length of the area may be 4:8; 4:7; 4:6; or 4:5. (The square would be 4:4). Shapes of sites to be avoided are: circular (vritta), triangular (trikona), rod shaped (dandakriti), bow shaped (dhanur akara) and other irregular shapes. And, in case it becomes necessary to construct a temple on a land of such “un approved” shape, the area meant for the temple should be demarcated and rendered a square or a rectangle in shape.

Even the ancient temple of Sri Vishwanatha of Kashi that was later destroyed by Aurangzeb , during 1669 CE, was in form a square , with the sanctum at the heart  of it.

plan_of_the_ancient_temple_of_vishveshvur_by_james_prinsep_1832 (1)

Plan of the Ancient Temple of Vishveshvur, by James Prinsep

Incidentally, the Buddhist and Jain temples too follow the same principles. Even the Sri Harmandir Sahib, the Golden Temple at Amritsar is structured in a square shape; with the Sanctum placed in the Brahma sthana.

Golden Temple, Amritsar, Punjabi Miniature, c 1840

The following is the layout of a Jain temple.

In case of a rectangular site, it must have north – south orientation. The depth of the site (Aaya-profit) should be more than its breadth (vyaya-loss). That is the reason we find our temple walls (prakara) on north-south shorter than the walls on east-west.

The slope of the land surrounding the temple in the east and the north direction should be in the northeast corner.

Fountains or lotus ponds of the temple should be in the northeast direction.


In the open space surrounding the temple, Tulsi ( Basil) plants with raised bed should be in the east; the Jasmine, white Champak, Star Coral plants etc. should be in the northwest corner or the east. Four approach roads are much recommended.

Madurai Temple Graden

The preliminaries for construction of a shrine include preparations of a plan, Vastu Purusha Mandala, a Yantra, with unit cells (pada) of 64, 81 or 256 in number. The entire process is rich in symbolism.

The square shape of the Mandala is symbolic of earth, signifying the four directions which bind and define it; and the Vastu is the extent of existence in its ordered site; Purusha being the source of existence.

The ground plan, again, is symbolic and is the representation of cosmos in miniature. The Vastu Purusha represents terrestrial world with constant movements. The grid made up of squares and equilateral triangles is imbued with religious significance; with each cell belonging to a deity. The position of the deity is in accordance to the importance assigned to him .The central portion of the square (Brahma Sthana) is occupied by the presiding deity of the temple ; while the outer cells house deities of lower order.


Another important aspect of the design of the ground plan is that it is intended to lead from the temporal world to the eternal. The principal shrine should face the rising sun and so should have its entrance to the east. Movement towards the sanctuary, along the east-west axis and through a series of increasingly sacred spaces is of great importance and is reflected in the architecture.

This process of drawing the Mandala , known as Pada-vinyasa or Vastu mandala Vinyasa is essential not only for construction of the main temple but also for deciding upon the location, the orientation and the size of the sanctum; and for placement of retinue-divinities.

Let us look at the following example of an 81 cell parama-saayika layout.

The site-plan is to be regarded as the body of the Vastu-purusha whose height extends from Pitrah (in the bottom left corner) to Agni (top right corner).

The Vastu purusha mandala is in some ways a development of the four pointed or cornered earth mandala having astronomical reference points. The mandala of 81 squares has 32 squares around the border representing the four cardinal points and the lunar constellations. It is the representation of all cyclical time; lunar and solar. Brahma is the God at the centre.

The Manduka Mandala (8×8) the whole square would be divided by the two  axes that go North-south and East-west.

In the case of Parama Saayika Mandala (9×9) , the entire square would be unevenly divided.

Vastu Shastra purusha


The center of the mandala consisting nine cells is dedicated to Brahma, the first of beings and the engineer of universal order. The Three cells to its east are for Aryaman, three cells to its west are for Mitra and three cells to its north are for Prihvidhara. In this site plan 32 spirits reside in the outer ring. There are 8 spirits in four corners. There are four spirits surrounding Brahma. Thus there are in all 45 spirits (including Brahma).

Dikpalas or guardian deities of different quarters, who assist in the affairs of universal management, are an important part of the Vastu. Indra, Agni, Yama, Niritti, Varuna;, Vayu , Kubera and Isana; reside in the East , South-East , South, South-West, West, North-West, North and North-East respectively. All except Kubera are principal Vedic deities. This provides a method that determines the requirements of architecture in relation to its directions.

Establishing Vastu Mandala on the site

hore temple at Mahabalipuram datable to late 7th centurySouthern Temple Style - Dravidian

The vastu-purusha-mandala, forming a sort of map or diagram of astrological influences that constitute the order of the universe, is now complete. When placed on the building site the vastu-purusha-mandala determines the positions and orientations of the temples and the time for commencing the construction. Only by the combination of the vastu-purusha-mandala and the astrological calculations can this factor be ascertained.

From the diagram of the vastu-purusha-mandala the architect next proceeds to develop the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the temple. The square, the rectangle, the octagon and the pentagon are fundamental patterns in the horizontal or ground plan. In the vertical alignment the pyramid, the circle and the curve are more prominent. The subdivisions of the ground plan include thebrahmasthana (the main shrine and smaller chapels) and the mantapa(balconies, assembly halls and auditoriums). The vertical plan consists of drawings for the gopura (entrance ways), the vimana (the structure above the main shrine or chapel) and the prakara (the walls).

The construction of the temple follows in three dimensional forms, in exactly the patterns laid out by the mandala. The relationship between the underlying symbolic order and the actual physical appearance of the temple can best be understood by viewing it from above (top elevation).

In order to establish the vastu-purusha-mandala on the construction site, it is first drafted on planning sheets and later drawn upon the earth at the actual building site. The  ground for civil construction is demarcated by dividing the site into 81 cells, by drawing 10 lines from East to West and 10 lines from North to South in which Vastu Mandala deities are installed. In addition the deities of the Sarvathobhadra-mandala are also established after performing Vastu Homa.

The drawing of the mandala upon the earth at the commencement of construction is a sacred rite in itself. The cells sustain the temple in their own sphere of effectiveness, in the manner that the actual foundation supports its weight.


 Shilanyasa is the ceremony for laying foundation stone. It is the laying of the first stone (square in shape) or a brick signifying the start of construction. It is laid in the north-western corner of the building plan, drawn on the ground. After this, the construction of the foundation is taken up. The foundation is built and the ground filled up, up to the plinth level, except in the middle portion of the garbhagraha area, which is filled up three-fourths.

The sanctum is technically known as Garba-Griha. This part of the temple is usually constructed first. The ceremony related to it is known as Garba-dana or Garba-nasya; and, it involves letting in to the earth a ceremonial copper pot, containing nine types of precious stones, several metals, minerals, herbs and soils symbolizing creation and prosperity. The following is a little more detail about it.

The Brahmasthana , the principal location in a temple where the Garbagraha will eventually come up, is the nucleus of the Vastu Purusha Yantra. At thebrahmasthana, as drawn on the grounda ritual is performed calledgarbhadhana, inviting the soul of the temple (Vastu Purusha) to enter within the buildings confines. In this ritual, a golden box is imbedded in the earth. The interior of the box is divided into smaller units exactly resembling thevastu-purusha-mandala. All the units of the gold box are first partially filled with earth. In the thirty-two units representing the nakshatras (lunar mansions), the units of Brahma and the twelve sons of Aditi, the priest places an appropriate mantra in written form to invoke the presence of the corresponding divinity .An Image of Ananta , the hooded serpent , is also placed in the box. Ananta, meaning eternal or timeless, also represents theenergy that supports the universe. The box also contains nine precious stones – diamonds, emeralds, rubies, pearls, yellow sapphire, and blue sapphire, red coral, cats-eye and jade – to appease the nine planets.

A stone slab (adhara-shila) is thereafter placed over the spot the copper pot is buried.And, over this slab will rise the foundation for installing the Mula-bhera. The copper pot signifies the womb; and icon the life arising out of it. The sanctum constructed around it is the body.

That  pot represents the roots of the “temple-tree”; and the icon its sap.  The four walls around the icon represent the branches spreading around. The structure of the Vimana rises above it in a series of tiers. The roof resting over the walls is called Kapotha, meaning where the doves rest. The imagery suggested is that of a tree with birds perched on its branches. The sanctum is thus a model of a growing tree.

Another set of symbolism is that the foundation of the temple represents the Earth (prithvi); the walls of the sanctum the water (apaha); and the tower over it the fire (tejas). The final tier of the Vimana is air (vayu) and above it is the form-less space (akasha).The sanctum is thus a constellation of five elements that are basic building blocks of all existence.

Once the garbhadhana and agni-hotra ceremonies are complete the actual construction of the temple commences according to the plan. When the foundation is finished the vertical structure is raised. The external features of the temple are brought to life through finely sculpted figures and paintings. The art and sculpture frequently portray the forms of divine entities and the different stages of consciousness in the gradual evolution of life throughout the universe.

It is believed that the Vastu Purusha sleeps during Bhadrapada, Ashviyuja and Karhika months facing east. During Margashira, Pushya and Magha months he sleeps facing south; In phalguna, Chaitra and Vaishaka, he sleeps facing west. And, in Jeysta Ashada and Shravana, he sleeps facing north. The doors facing towards those directions   are fixed in the respective months.


Temple Layout and its symbolism


The Agama Shastras say that the Temple structure is a mini cosmos. The Temple entrance should face east – the direction of the Rising Sun. The ideal Temple should have at least one entrance, an Ardh-Mandapa, a Mandapa or a large hall, a Garba-Griha and a Shikara directly above the Garbha-Griha. The design comprises:


 1. A Towering structure called the Rajagopuram (pyramid in pattern) on the Eastern side at the entrance to the Temple.

2. A Dwajasthamba (pillar) in line with the main shrine immediately after the Rajagopuram.

3. Near the Dwajasthamba is a lotus shaped pedestal for offerings, called the Balipeeta.

4. A large Mandapa or hall for assembly of devotees.

5. The passage through the Mandapa leads to the “Garba-Griha” (womb chamber) where the Main Deity is installed.

6. Ardha Mandapa adjacent to the main Mandapa and before the “Garba-Griha”.

7. The Main Deity faces East word inside and the Garba-Griha is located inside a structure or sanctuary called the “Vimana”.

8. The pyramidal or tapering roof over the Deity is called “Shikara” or “Gopuram” which is a dome.

9. There is a circumnutating passage or “Pradakshira Patha” around the Garba Griha and Mandapa.

The above design applies both to the “Shiva” and “Vaishnava” Temples with small variations. Architecture is otherwise called “Shilpa” and the one who constructs the Temple is called a “Sthapathi”. The “Sthapathi” is an expert in Temple architecture and idol creation. The procedure of worship in the Temple is known as “Agama Vidhi”.

Madura Meenakshi temple.


The Temple is not only a home of God but his representation in the structure of temple which resembles human form. The symbolism of the temple plan and elevation suggests that the garbhagrha represents the head and the gopuram the feet of the deity. Other parts of the building complex are identified with other parts of the body. For instance, the sukhanasi or ardhamantapa (the small enclosure in front of the garbhagrha) is the nose; the antarala (the passage next to the previous one, leading to passage next to the previous one, leading to the main mantapa called nrttamantapa) is the neck; the various mantapas are the body; the prkaras (surrounding walls) are the hands and so on. Vertically, the garbhagrha represents the neck, the sikhara (superstructure over the garbhagrha) the head, the kalasa (finial) the tuft of hair (sikha) and so on.

Another interesting symbolism is that when a devotee enters the temple, he is virtually entering into a mandala and therefore participating in a power-field. His progress through the pavilions to reach the sanctum is also symbolic. It represents the phases of progress in a man’s journey towards divine. In accordance with this scheme, the architectural and sculptural details vary from phase to phase ; gradually leading him to the experience, which awaits him  as he stands in front of the deity in the in the sanctum. This is explained in the following way.

On reaching the main gateway, a worshipper first bends down and touches the threshold before crossing it. This marks the transition from the way of the world to the world of God. Entering the gateway, he is greeted by a host of secular figures on the outer walls; representing the outward and diverse concerns of man.

As he proceeds, the familiar mythological themes, carved on the inner walls attune his attitude. The immediate pavilion and vestibule near the sanctum are restrained in sculptural details and decorations; these simpler motifs and the prevailing semi darkness help the worshipper to put aside distractions and try focusing his attention on the sanctum. Finally the shrine, devoid of any ornamentation, and with its plainly adorned entrance, leads the devotee further to tranquility, to fulfilment and to the presence of God.

The garbhagriha is usually surrounded by a circumambulatory path, around which the devotee walks in a clockwise direction. In Hindu and Buddhist thought, this represents an encircling of the universe itself.

Positions and orientations of the temples

The following plan indicates the position of gods and goddesses in an 81 celled temple-site. This plan relates to construction of a Vishnu temple.

 place for vishnu
Atri Samhita ( 2.38.42) prescribes that the central Brahma bagha must be divided into four  equal parts and the main shrine facing east must be located on the North-western side thereof. The shrine must have five sanctums, to house five forms of Vishnu; and the shrine should have three stories.
The icon of Vishnu , the principal object of worship, may be represented in the shrine  in one of his many forms . It could be single ( eka-murti-vidana) or many ( aneka-murti-vidana).  The aneka forms might be : 5 (pancha murti); 6 ( shan murti); or 9 ( nava murti). 
The opening of the sanctum on the Eastern side is preferred , specially in a shrine dedicated to Vishnu. The shrine must never have a door in the intermediate direction (Vidik)- Atri Samhita (2.32-33)
And, generally, the doorway to the East is the best , most auspicious (utta-mottamam) ;to the West is next best (uttama); to the South is middling (madhyama); and, to the North is not desirable ( adhama) – Vimanarchana kalpa (patala 3)
Vishnu as Vaikuntha-natha
The seventh-eighth century Pallava temple Viz. Sri Vaikunta Perumal temple of Kanchipuram (which follows the Pancharatra Agama) is an excellent illustration of the fulfillment of these requirements. Its architecture is unique, with three sanctums on the three floors one over the other and a concealed staircase leading to the upper floors. The three sanctums enshrine Vishnu in three postures – seated, reclining and standing. The Vimana is represented as a three dimensional Mandala. The central figure in the sanctum of the ground floor is Vasudeva facing west, i.e. the Earth; Sankarshana facing north, the realm of human life; Pradyumna facing east towards heaven; and Aniruddha facing south, the realm of ancestors. The sculptural scheme matches the Pancharatra concept, representing the six `glorious excellences’: omniscient knowledge (jnana), power (bala), sovereignty (aishwarya), action (virya), brilliance (tejas) and potency (sakthi). The sanctum of the third floor represents the realm of space-time, depicting Vasudeva as he appeared in the human form of Krishna (manusha Vasudeva). The temple per se signifies the `body of God.’


Coming back to the issue of placing the sanctum slightly to the North-West; this feature occurs in the temple of Sri Venkateshwara at Tirumala too. The enclosure immediately surrounding the sanctum called Mukkoti Pradkshina is rather skewed.  The width of the enclosure is uneven; and the enclosure is open on only three sides.

The path in the south (on the right side of the deity) is seven feet wide and twenty feet long; while the path on the other side (towards the left of the deity) is seventeen feet wide and ninety-two and half feet long. This skewed position of the sanctum, slightly to the North West; within the Brahma bagha was perhaps to satisfy the requirements of the temple vastu norms.

The Shiva temples too have their own configuration. In a Siva temple, the Shivaliga would be placed at the Brahma sthana, the shrines are dedicated to Parvathi, Ganapati, Subramanya , Veerabhadra  and Candesvara would placed in the surrounding cells of the temples Vastu Purusha Mandala; as illustrated in the following typical layout of the famous Shiva temple at Gangaikondacholapuram(mid 11th century).

Similarly in the Sri Kailasanathaswamy and Nithyakalyani Amman Temple, Ilayathakudi ( near karaikudi), Shiva shrine is at the Brahmastana, opposite to Shiva is lined Nandi, Bali pita and Dwajasthamba. The shrine of Nitya_kalyani Amman is located independently in the North. In the Mantapa adjoining the Sanctum are Ganapathi, Durga and Skanda. The Saptha Mathrikas, the seven female divinities, have their shrine in the Prakara behind the shrine.

Please also see the Floor plan of Ilayathakudi Temple), based on a drawing by Sri  V. Thennappan, Devakottai,

Floor plan of Ilayathakudi Temple.

Please also see the layout of the temple at Tiruvannamalai


The Shakthi temples have their layout with shrines for other manifestations of the Mother Lakshmi , Saraswathi , Durgi , Chamundi  and related goddesses.

Temple Layout Drawing


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.Kashyapa Shilpa Sastram by Prof.G Gnanananda


Posted by on September 8, 2012 in Temple Architecture


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Temple Architecture-Devalaya Vastu – Part Two (2 Of 9)

Temple and Township


The Indian temple is not a building; it is an image, a conception of divinity. While it is both natural and necessary for the image to be projected into a spatial arrangement and concretized by a structural movement, the image does not depend upon such activities for its continuance. The temple is an enclosure to the icon, and centres round the icon. A temple must be built for the icon, and not an icon got ready for the temples, for a temple is really an outgrowth of the icon, an image of the icon. One cannot think of a temple without an idol.

The temple construction process involves several steps. The procedure is cryptically expressed as “Karshanadi Pratisthantam“, meaning beginning with “Karshana” and ending with “Pratistha“. The details of the steps involved vary from one school of Agama to another; but broadly these are the steps in temple construction:

Bhu pariksha: Examining and choosing location and soil for temple and town. The land should be fertile and soil suitable.

Sila pariksha: Examining and choosing material for image

Karshana: Corn or some other crop is grown in the place first and is fed to cows. Then the location is fit for town/temple construction.

Vastu puja: Ritual to propitiate vastu devata.

Salyodhara: Undesired things like bones are dug out and removed.

Adyestaka: Laying down the first stone

Nirmana: Then foundation is laid and land is purified by sprinkling water. A pit is dug, water mixed withnavaratnas, navadhanyas, navakhanijas is then put in and pit is filled. Then the temple is constructed.

Murdhestaka sthapana: Placing the top stone over the prakara, gopura etc. This again involves creating cavities filled with gems minerals seeds etc. and then the pinnacles are placed.

Garbhanyasa: A pot made of five metals (pancaloha kalasa sthapana) is installed at the place of main deity.

Sthapana: Then the main deity is installed.

Pratistha: The main deity is then charged with life/god-ness.

Let us now try to briefly go over some significant stages commonly involved in temple construction, in a summary form.

Sthala (temple site)

The temple construction project begins with the appointment of a team of experts headed by a qualified and an experienced Sthapati, the Acharya, the director for the temple construction project and the Shilpi (sculptor). They are the key figures in the construction of a temple. The first step is, of course, to look for a proper site. This involves examination of all aspects relating to the location, the extent, the quality of Soil, the water source, the environment and astrological suitability of the site. This elongated process goes by the name: Bhupariksha.

The Temple construction, in the past, often began as the nucleus of a new village or a township which went by names such as grama, kheta, kharvata, durga, pura, nagara etc. Mansara explains that the proposed site for setting up a township should be determined by its smell, taste, shape and direction, sound and touch. The preferred sites for such townships should be along the banks of a river or near a tank or the seashore. Else, the water table had to be at about eight feet (height of a person standing with raised arms).

Manasara, an ancient text of Shilpa sahstra, recommends that if a town has to be located along a river bank it should then be at a height sloping towards the east or north (praganuthamuttara natham samam va bhumi)  ; and, it should be situated on the convex side of the river bend. The text mentions Varanasi situated along the convex side of the river Ganga;  and,  presenting  a semi-lunar phase as a classic example that satisfies this norm. 

And , similar is the case of the ancient city of Madurai  located along the convex side the Vaigai.

It is said; the ancient city of Madurai was re-designed by the King of Madurai , Vishwanatha Nayak (1159–64 CE), in accordance with the principles of Shilpa Shastra. The city was built with the temple dedicated to the Goddess  Sri Meenakshi at its heart. The city was square in its shape, aligned with the four quarters of the compass. The area between the temple at the center and the outer rim of the city was divided into series of concentric squares. And, each enclosure was provided with four gateways, with Gopura atop each entrance. The perennial river Vaigai curved its way along the edge of the city.

565cd-ma28city-map_1380140g madurai sepia


Maurai temple view

Tiruvannamalai temple

The temperatures had to be modest in summers and winters (sukha – samsparsa). The sites with inclination (slope) towards its Eastern or the Northern side, to receive sunlight, were preferred; or the site had to have equal elevation on all the sides’. The sites located to the west of a hill were avoided.

The Village boundaries should always be marked by rivers, hills, bulbous planes, caves, artificial buildings, or trees such as milky trees. Etc.

Mansara , the celnrated text of the Shilpa-shastra- instructs :  First test the earth (site); after that plan the construction. (Purvarn bhumirn parikseta pascat vastu prakalpayet )

The ground (Desha) is classified into three categories on the basis of sixteen criteria of physical features of the land (desha-bhumi). The three broad categories are: the Barren land where warm winds blow is Jangala; the second is Anupa, beautiful countryside with moderate climate and water sources; and the third Sadharana is of the average quality consisting vast stretches of unused land areas. The best land is Anupa, which abounds in lotus and lilies (supadma) and which inclines towards east or north.

 It is said : One should dig the ground till water is seen there, (Yavattatra jalarn drstarn khanettavattu bhutale)

As regards the colors of the soil, the colors could be white, yellow, red or black. A land which abounds in any one of these colors is preferable; a combination of colors, mixed colors are to be avoided. Sandy soils with assured supply of water are preferable.

However, some texts mention that soils of white color with ghee-like smell ; and, soils of  red with blood-like smell are preferred. Soils, yellow in color smelling like sesame oil is middle.  And soils , black in color smelling like rotten  fish are to be avoided.

The soil should have pleasant odor as of flowers, of grains; of ghee, of cow urine etc. The soils with obnoxious odor as of excreta, dead bones, of corpse, of fermented liquor etc should be avoided.

The taste of the soil too should be acceptable. The taste of sweet is said to be best. The others in order are astringent (kashaya), bitter and pungent. The soils tasting sour, salty should be avoided.

As regards the sound tested by pounding the soil , the soils giving out sounds of musical instruments like drums (mridanga), neighing of horse, or like  waves of the sea are considered best. The next in order is the soils that sound like birds, animals like sheep , goats etc. And, the soils that sound like donkey, drainage, broken pot etc are to,be avoided.

The soil should be pleasant to touch; warm in winter, cool in summer and one should generally evoke a happy feeling.

The sites which were earlier graveyards or the land bloated like the belly of sick animal, broken up with dead roots, bones, ash, or rotten material ;and with anthills, skeletons, full of pits and craters  should be avoided. (Valmikena samayukta bhumi rasthiganaistu ya I Randhranvita ca bhurvarjya gatighesca samanvita II )

There also other tests for determining the strength of the soil by digging test pits, filling them with water or driving pegs at various points are discussed in various texts.

One of the methods for testing the strength of soil was to dig a pit and refill it with excavated earth. If a lot of earth was left out, over pouring the pit , then the soil was said to be compact having a good load-bearing capacity.This testing procedure mentioned in the ancient text is in vogue even to this day

The text says :  The soil  should be tested by digging a pit of one arm length and refilling it with the same soil. If soil is more, one will beget prosperity; if short, one will beget loss; if equal, it is normal ( Ratnirnatramadhe garte pariksya khatapurane I Adhike sriyamapnoti nyune hanirn  samam  )


The site should have in their surroundings milky trees (four variety of trees having milky sap:nigrodhaoudumbaraashvatta and madhuka), trees bearing fruit and flowers; and also plenty of anti- malarial Neem (nimba) trees. The site should be suitable for growing Tulasi, Kusha, Dharba, Vishnukrantha, Hibiscus and Dhruva grasses and flowers.

The site should be large and should evoke pleasant feelings (manorama) and should generally be acceptable to all.

The text states : after examining the color, smell, taste, shape, sound and touch (of the soil) buy the best material as found suitable (Varna-gandha-rasa-akaradi-sabda-sparsa-anairapi I Pariksyaiva yatha-yogyam grhniyad dravyam-uttamam II)


Township Layout

The Shilpa text Shiva-prakasha in its chapter titled vastu-bhumi-bedha, describes sixteen (Shodasha) types of temple layouts:  the Square (Chandura); Rectangle (Agatra);Trapezium ( with uneven sides – like a cart – shakata); Circle (Vritta); Elliptical (kritta vritta); triangular  (dwaja);  diamond or rhombus (vajra) ; Arrow (shara);umbrella (chatra) ; fish (meena);back of a tortoise (kurma);conch (shanka); crescent (ardha-chandra); pot (kumbha);sword (khadga); and lotus (kamala).

These layouts have specific applications; and are not to be used generally. For instance: the back of a tortoise (kurma), pot (kumbha), conch (shanka) and lotus (kamala) are recommended only for Vishnu and Shiva temples. Similarly the Square (Chandura), Rectangle (Agatra), fish (meena), diamond or rhombus (vajra) and sword (khadga) are recommended for Devi temples. The rest of the lay outs are for other (lesser) deities.

But all texts generally agree that the square or the  rectangular shape of layout are the best and most auspicious. Varaha-samhita calls such layouts as Siddha-bhumi, the best of all. In case the layout is rectangular, the North South dimension should be greater than East-west dimension. It is also said, it would be better if the elevation on the west or the South is slightly higher.

Generally , the Vastu Shastra recommends five types of town -shapes: the Square (Chandura); Rectangle (Agatra); Circle (Vritta); Elliptical (kritta vritta); and circular (Gola). A diamond or a rhombus shape is not recommended. A bow shaped town is considered powerful. The square shape is considered secure and amenable to progress.

The plan for the village or the township commences with placing the temple right at the centre and expanding the layout in layers and layers of streets, and entrances, in accordance with the appropriate Vastu Mandala. The entire township is laid out in the form of a square. If a square shape is not possible then the city could be laid out in a rectangular shape.The following are a few of the general recommended features of a city.

sarvathobhadra0011 croppedNandyavarta0024 cropped

1. The city should appear as a big square or a rectangle comprising of so many small squares, separated by the roads that run north-south and east-west.

2. Fortifying walls should be built round the city.

3. The city would be divided into four parts by two broad royal   roads (Raja marga) that run north-south and east-west. Their width would be about 10 to 12 meters.

4. To go round the city, on the interior side of the fortifying wall, a broad road would be built. .

5. The dwelling places of the people of various castes and professions are identified.

6. The markets would be in North East and prisons would be in South West.

7. Places like the royal palaces should be in the East.

8. And in case of temple cities , say as in the case of Srirangam and Madurai, the principle temple would be at centre of the city, in the Brahma Sthana..  And, there would be fortifying walls built round it; and in which the temples of other deities are accommodated..  And the place beyond that fortified wall  would belong to the  humans and other beings.

The best example of such a formation is the ancient city of Madurai. Please check this site (Madurai, the architecture of a city by Julian S Smithfor the layout map of the old city.

Another example of a well laid out Temple Town is that of the Tirumala Tirupati .The holy deity of the temple has a history dating back to about two thousand. The temple structures around it, developed in stages, spread over several centuries. The temple is on top of a hill series, at about 3200 ft above sea level. But, the temple, per se, is located in a depression surrounded by raising hills on its three sides; leaving open an approach from the North-East. The temple  is enclosed in a box-like formation, with bulging mounds of about fifteen feet, rising in all four directions. Some parts of these mounds now been levelled to make room for “developments”.


The outer walls of the temple, enclosing an area of more than two acres, measure 414feet (E-W) and 263(N-S), in length. The temple complex is in a rectangular shape, with the depth (Aaya) being more than the breadth (Vyaya). .The streets (maadas) running around the outer walls of temple are of uneven length. The North-South streets running by the side of the outer walls measure 800 feet, in length. The west side street (behind the temple) measures 900 feet in length; while the East side street (in front of the temple) measures 750 feet, including the swami-pushkarini area. The main temple  occupies only one-fourth area of the total area; and ,  its Eastern and Northern side are open areas.

Tirumala arielview

The temple is facing east. The Garbhagriha is situated slightly  to the South-West. The Swami Pushkarini (water element)  is located to the northeast of the temple. A waterfall is also in the northern direction ; and, the water from it is used for the holy bath of the main deity every day. The Kitchen is in Southeast (Agni), while the temple store houses  for storing grains and other items required in the kitchen are in the North-West and North side.

Tirumala devasthana

tirupati (1)

The outer walls of the temple, enclosing an area of more than two acres, measure 414feet (E-W) and 263(N-S), in length. The temple complex is in a rectangular shape, with the depth (Aaya) being more than the breadth (Vyaya). .The streets (maadas) running around the outer walls of temple are of uneven length. The North-South streets running by the side of the outer walls measure 800 feet, in length. The west side street (behind the temple) measures 900 feet in length; while the East side street (in front of the temple) measures 750 feet, including the swami-pushkarani area.

The temple faces east and has only one entrance, about 11 feet wide. There are three enclosures or Pradakshina-pathas, for circumambulating the temple.The main entrance leads into Sampangi Pradkshina , of about 120 feet in depth.There are are a number of pavilions within this enclosure,; such as Prtathima mantapa, Ranga mantapa, Tirumalaraya mantapa and others. The Dwajasthamba is in front of the Tirumalaraya mantapa.Presently this enclosure is closed to pilgrims.

The Second enclosure is the VimanaPradakshina, measuring about250 feet(E-W) and 160feet(N-S).This enclosure contains shrines to house Varadaraja, and narasimha .The Kalyana mantapa(80×36) and kitchen are also here.

The third enclosure is the Mukkoti Pradkshina, which encloses the sanctum. Presently, it is rather difficult to identify it as an enclosure. The width of the enclosure is uneven; and the enclosure is open on only three sides. The path in the south (on the right side of the deity) is seven feet wide and twenty feet long; while the path on the other side(towards the left of the deity) is seventeen feet wide and ninety-two and half feet long. This skewed position of the sanctum within the Brahma bagha was perhaps to satisfy the requirements of the temple vastu norms.

In the case of Sri Rangam an entire township was placed within the well laid out rectangular temple complex.

The prakaras or walls that fortify the temple may vary in size and number according to the dimensions of the temple. Larger temples, like the one in Sri Rangam, are sometimes surrounded by up to seven concentric walls , said to  represent the seven layers of matter-earth, water, fire, air, either, mind and intelligence-that cover the original consciousness of the living entities in the material world.

Jaipur was another city which was laid out according to Vastu Shastra, with the Palace and temple at the centre; and roads with East-west and North South orientation.Roads running in Eastern axis ensure purification by sun rays; and the roads running North South ensure circulation of air and cooler atmosphere.

In the recent times , Chandigarh is said to be designed on the Vastu principles


[ Source : Indian Architectural Theory: Contemporary Uses of Vastu Vidya  by Vibhuti Chakrabarti ] 

Vastu Purusha Mandala for the township

To start with the Vastu mandala of the entire village needs to be drawn and the location of the temples to gods, Vishnu and others  be fixed. Here, the layout of town, its size, breadth of different levels of streets, locations and sizes of facilities like water tanks are determined based on the size of town.Then the location of temple (Brahma sthana) in the town is decided. Temple is usually in the center of village. The entire arrangement is called grama vinyasa. The thumb rule is , the area demarcated for the temple at the centre should at least be 1/9th of the total area of the proposed township.

Prambanan temple

There are, different types of Vastu Purusha Mandalas depending upon their applications such as residential buildings, palaces, auditoriums, temples etc. About 32 types of Vastu Purusha mandalas are enumerated, the simplest among them is with one square. But the most common ones are those with 64 squares (padas), 81 padas and 256 padas. They are called Mandukaparama-saayika andtriyuta, respectively. As for Manduka Mandala (8×8), the whole square would be divided by the two axes that go North-south and East-west.  In the case of Parama Saayika Mandala (9×9), the entire squire would be unevenly divided.

Among these, the different texts such as Marichi, Maya-mata and Vastu-Vidya have their slight variations. To summarize their position on the question of locating the  Vishnu temple within the town; a shrine may be constructed in the centre of the township or on the western side; but always facing the town. When it is in the centre, the site – plan should provide for locating the shrine at the North-western direction within the Brahma bagha.The Vishnu icon may be in any posture: standing, sitting or recumbent. Vishnu may be single or accompanied by the two Devis. The sanctum may house only the Dhruva and Kautuka Bheru (immobile) idols. It is best if the temple complex has nine, six or five forms of Vishnu installed, if one can afford; else, a single icon of Vishnu would suffice.

Orientation of the temples in existing towns

As regards constructing temples and their orientation in already existing village or towns three principles are generally followed: First, the temple should face the rising Sun in the east. Second, the temple should face the centre of the town or village. Third, the deity in a peaceful (shanta) aspect should be located in, and facing towards the place where people live, and wrathful (urga) aspect should be situated outside and facing away from where people live.


In certain exceptional cases a temple may face south, provided it faces a natural formation say a hill or a water body .

The temples and images to be turned away include Narasimha and Rudra. Siva should be turned away except when situated in the east or west. The proper place for Siva temples is in forests and mountains according to one text.

The direction of a temple is according to this triple orientation – towards the Sun, towards the centre, towards man. The majority of the preserved temples do face the east, but it is not necessary that they physically must. The other directions can be described as \being east. To the tantrics who have some obscure symbolism about Sunrise in the east, south, west and north relative to ones spiritual evolution; any direction may represent east.

Most temples face east, west is next best, even south is permissible but they definitely should not face the north.

Where it is impossible, for some reason, for the temple to face the town, this is remedied by painting an exact likeness of the sacred image in the Garbhagrha upon the wall of the temple facing the desired way towards the village.

Mahadev Temple-Itagi,Koppal


A. Maps of Madurai and Sri Rangam

By courtesy of Kultur in Indien

Madurai , India architecture of a city by Julian S Smith

B. Other pictures from Internet.

C. Devalaya Vastu By Prof. SKR Rao


Posted by on September 8, 2012 in Temple Architecture


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Agama Shastra And Temple Worship


The Hindu temples are complex institutions. They represent the culmination of social and religious aspirations of a society. Temple is the focal point in the life of a community and often represents its pride, identity and unity. It is also the index of the community’s wellbeing. It draws into its fold people from its various segments and denominations; and binds them together. In smaller communities the temple apart from being a source of spiritual or religious comfort, also serves as centre for education and recreation.

Faith Groups and Monuments

A temple is also a treasure house of art and architecture, designed according to the principle of Vaastu Shastra, characterized by their majesty, serenity and beauty of intricate sculpture and designs. A temple evokes in the visitor a sense of beauty in art and in life as well. It lifts up his spirit, elevates him to a higher plane dissolving his little ego. At the same time, it awakens him to his insignificance in the grand design of the Creator.

The most significant aspect of the temple worship is its collective character. Peoples’ participation is both the purpose and the means of a temple. The community is either actually or symbolically involved in temple worship. The rituals that dominate temple worship are therefore socio- religious in character.

The worship in a temple has to satisfy the needs of individuals as also of the community. The worships that take place in the sanctum and within the temple premises are important; so are the festivals and occasional processions that involve direct participation of the entire community. They complement each other. While the worship of the deity  in the sanctum might be an individual’s  spiritual or religious need ; the festival s are the expression of a community’s joy , exuberance , devotion , pride and are also an idiom of a community’s cohesiveness .

The appointed priests carry out the worship in the temple on behalf of other devotees. It is hence parartha, a service conducted for the sake of others. Priests, generally, trained in ritual procedures, pursue the service at the temple as a profession. As someone remarked, “other people may view their work as worship, but for the priests worship is work.” They are trained in the branch of the Agama of a particular persuasion. The texts employed in this regard describe the procedural details of temple worship, elaborately and precisely.


The term Agama primarily means tradition;  Agama represents the previously ordained practices generally held in regard (Agama loka-dharmanaam maryada purva-nirmita -Mbh 8.145.61). Agama is also that which helps to understand things correctly and comprehensively. Agama Shastras are not part of the Vedas. The Agamas do not derive their authority directly from the Vedas. They are Vedic in spirit and character and make use of Vedic mantras while performing the service.

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 Vedas do not discuss about venerating the icons; though the icons (prathima or prathika) were known to be in use. Their preoccupation was more with the nature, abstract divinities and not with their physical representations. The Vedas did however employ a number of symbols, such as the wheel, umbrella, spear, noose, foot-prints, lotus, goad and vehicles etc. These symbols, in the later ages, became a part of the vocabulary of the iconography.

The idea of multiple forms of divinity was in the Vedas .They spoke about thirty-three divinities classified into those of the earth, heaven and intermediate regions. Those comprised twelve adityas, aspects of energy and life; eleven rudras, aspects ferocious nature; eight vasus, the directional forces; in addition to the earth and the space.

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.

Rig Veda at many places talks in terms of saguna, the supreme divinity with attributes. The Vedanta ideals of the absolute, attribute- less and limit-less universal consciousness evolved as refinements of those Vedic concepts. The Upanishads are the pinnacles of idealism that oversee all horizons. But, in practice common people worshipped variety of gods in variety of ways for variety of reasons. They are relevant in the context of each ones idea of needs and aspirations; fears and hopes; safety and prosperity; and, the pleasures and pains.

One often hears Agama and Nigama mentioned in one breath as if one follows the other or that both are closely related.  However, Nigama stands for Vedas and Agama is identified with Tantra.The two traditions- Veda and Tantra – hold divergent views on matters such as God; relationship between man and God; the ways of worship; and path to salvation etc.The Vedic concept of God is omniscient, omnipotent, a formless absolute entity manifesting itself in phenomenal world of names and forms. The Agama which is a part of Tantra regards God as a personal deity with recognizable forms and attributes.

Vedic worship is centered on the fire (the Yajna), certain religious and domestic rituals, (shrauta sutraas and griyha sutraas), and the sacraments, (samskaara). In this tradition, the gods and their descriptions are, mostly, symbolic. The hymns of the Rig Veda are the inspired outpourings of joy and revelations through sublime poetry. The Yajur and Sama Vedas do contain suggestions of sacrifices; but they too carry certain esoteric symbolic meaning. Very few of these rituals are in common practice today.

The most widespread rituals of worship today are of the Aagamic variety. The Agama methods are worship of images of God through rituals (Tantra), symbolic charts (Yantra) and verbal symbols (Mantra). Agama regards devotion and complete submission to the deity as fundamental to pursuit of its aim; and hopes that wisdom, enlightenment (jnana) would follow, eventually, by the grace of the worshipped deity. The Agama is basically dualistic, seeking grace, mercy and love of the Supreme God represented by the personal deity, for liberation from earthly attachments (moksha).

As compared to Vedic rituals (Yajnas) which are collective in form, where a number of priests specialized in each disciple of the Sacrifical aspects participate; the Tantra or Agamic worship is individualistic in character. It views the rituals as a sort of direct communication between the worshipper and his or her personal deity. The Yajnas always take place in public places and are of congregational nature; and in which large numbers participate with gaiety and enthusiasm. A Tantra ritual, on the other hand, is always carried out in quiet privacy; self discipline and intensity is its hallmark, not exuberance or enthusiasm.

The temple worship is the culmination of dissimilar modes  or streams of worship. Here, at the temple, both the Agama worship-sequences and the symbolic Tantric rituals take place; but each in its sphere. A temple in Hindu tradition is a public place of worship; several sequences of worship are conducted in full view of the worshipping devotees; and another set of Tantric rituals are conducted by the priests in the privacy of the sanctum away from public gaze. The worship or service to the Deity is respectfully submitted to the accompaniment of chanting of passages and mantras taken from Vedas. There also plenty of celebrations where all segments of the community joyously participate (janapada) with great enthusiasm and devotion; such as the periodic Utsavas, processions, singing, dancing, playacting, colorful lighting, spectacular fireworks , offerings of various kinds etc.; as also various forms of physical austerities accompanied by sincere prayers.

It could be argued that a representation of the Supreme Godhead is theoretically impossible; yet one has also to concede that an image helps in contemplation, visualization and concretization of ideas and aspirations.  Towards that end, the worship in a temple takes the aid several streams ideologies and practices.


The temple worship , per se,  is guided by its related Agama texts which invariably borrow the mantras from the Vedic traditions and the ritualistic details from Tantric traditions.  This has the advantage of claiming impressive validity from Nigama, the Vedas; and at the same time, carrying out popular methods of worship.

For instance, the Bodhayana shesha sutra and Vishhnu-pratishtha kalpa outline certain rite for the installation of an image of Vishnu and  for conduting other services. The Agama texts combined the rules of the Grihya sutras with the Tantric practices and formed their own set of rules.

While installing the image of the deity, the Grihya Sutras do not envisage Prana-prathistapana ritual (transferring life into the idol by breathing life into it); but the Agamas borrowed this practice from the Tantra school and combined it with the Vedic ceremony of “opening the eyes of the deity with a needle”. While rendering worship to the deity the Agamas discarded the Tantric mantras; and instead adopted Vedic mantras even  for services such as offering ceremonial bath , waving lights etc. though such practices were not a part of the Vedic mode of worship. The Agamas, predominantly, adopted the Vedic style Homas and Yajnas, which were conducted in open and in which a large number of people participated. But,  the Agamas did not reject the Tantric rituals altogether; and some of them were conducted within the sanctum away from common view..

The Vaikhanasa Vasishnava archana vidhi, which perhaps was the earliest text of its kind, codified the of worship practices by judicious combination of Vedic and Tantric procedures. In addition, the worship routine was rendered more colorful and attractive by incorporating a number of ceremonial services (upacharas) and also presentations of music, dance, drama and other performing arts. It also  brought in the Janapada, the popular celebrations like Uthsavas etc, These  ensured larger participation of the enthusiastic devotees.

The Agamas tended to  create their own texts. That  gave rise to a new class of texts and rituals; and coincided with the emergence of the large temples. It is not therefore surprising that town-planning, civil constructions and the arts occupy the interest of early Agamas.

In due course the Agama came to be accepted as a subsidiary culture (Vedanga) within the Vedic framework.


Agamas are a set of ancient texts and are the guardians of tradition . They broadly deal with jnana(knowledge), Yoga (meditation), Kriya (rituals) and Charya (ways of worship).The third segment Kriya(rituals) articulate with precision the principles and practices of deity worship – the mantras, mandalas, mudras etc.; the mental disciplines required for the worship; the rules for constructing temples and sculpting the images. They also specify the conduct of other worship services, rites, rituals and festivals. The fourth one, Charya, deals with priestly conduct and other related aspects. [Incidentally, the Buddhist and the Jaina traditions too follow this four-fold classification; and with similar details].

The Texts hold the view that Japa, homa, dhyana and Archa are the four methods of approaching the divine; and of these, the Archa (worship) is the most comprehensive method. This is the faith on which the Agama shastra is based. The Agama shastra is basically concerned with the attitudes, procedure and rituals of deity worship in the temples. But it gets related to icons and temple structures rather circuitously. It says, if an image has to be worshipped, it has to be worship- worthy. The rituals and sequences of worship are relevant only in the context of an icon worthy of worship; and such icon has to be contained in a shrine. 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. 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 really only an outgrowth of the icon, an expanded image of the icon.

The Shipa Shatras of the Agamas describe the requirements of the temple site; building materials; dimensions, directions and orientations of the temple structures; the image and its specifications. The principal elements are Sthala (temple site); Teertha (Temple tank) and Murthy (the idol).

I am not sure about the historical development of the Agamas. However, I think, the most of the present-day Hindu rituals of worship seem to have developed after the establishment of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy (darshanas). The changes in religious rituals from the Vedic to the Aagamic seem consonant with the themes prevalent in the six orthodox systems. A very significant change is the integration of Yoga methodology into the rituals. Four of these eight stages are an integral part of all worship , namely, posture, (aasana), breath (life force)-control, (praanaayaama), placing or fixation, (nyaasa or dhaaranaa), and deep concentration and contemplation (dhyaana). . The temple architecture too follows the structure of the human body and the six chakras’ as in yoga.

Surely the Agama tradition began to flourish after the 10th or the 11th century with the advent of the Bhakthi School.


There are three main divisions in Agama shastra, the Shaiva, the Shaktha and Vaishnava. The Shaiva branch of the Agama deals with the worship of the deity in the form of Shiva. This branch in turn has given rise to Shaiva Siddantha of the South and the Prathyabijnana School of Kashmir Shaivisim. The Shaktha Agama prescribes the rules and tantric rituals for worship of Shakthi, Devi the divine mother. The third one, Vaishanava Agama adores God as Vishnu the protector. This branch has two major divisions Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra. The latter in turn has a sub branch called Tantra Sara followed mainly by the Dvaita sect (Madhwas).

Each Agama consists of four parts. The first part includes the philosophical and spiritual knowledge. The second part covers the yoga and the mental discipline. The third part specifies rules for the construction of temples and for sculpting and carving the figures of deities for worship in the temples. The fourth part of the Agamas includes rules pertaining to the observances of religious rites, rituals, and festivals.

Agama is essentially a tradition and Tantra is a technique; but both share the same ideology.But, Agama is wider in its scope; and contains aspects oh theory, discussion and speculation.

The term Agama is used usually for the Shaiva and Vasishnava traditions and the Shaktha cult is termed as Tantric. But, there is an element of Tantra in Agama worship too, particularly in Pancharatra.


Vaikhanasa Agamas

As regards Vaikhanasa, after the emergence of temple – culture, Vaikhanasa appear to have been the first set of professional priests and they chose to affiliate to the Vedic tradition. That may perhaps be the reason they are referred to also as Vaidikagama or Sruthagama. Yet, there is no definite explanation for the term Vaikhanasa. Some say it ascribed to Sage Vaikhanasa whowho taught his four disciples: Atri, Bhrighu, Kasyapa, and Marichi; while some others say it is related to vanaprastha, a community of forest-dwellers.

Vaikhanasa claim to be a surviving school of Vedic ritual propagated by the sage Vaikhanasa.  The Vaikhanasa tradition  asserts that it is the most ancient; traces its origin to Vedas and steadfastly holds on to the Vedic image of Vishnu. For the Vaikhanasa, Vishnu alone is the object of worship; and that too the pristine Vishnu in his Vedic context and not as Vasudeva or Narayana. Though it admits that Vasudeva or Narayana could be synonyms for Vishnu, it prefers to address the Godhead as Vishnu, the Supreme.

Vaikhanasa worship is, therefore, essentially Vishnu oriented. And, it assures that when Vishnu is invoked and worshipped, it means the presence of all other gods and their worship too (Vishnor archa sarva devarcha bhavathi).Hence, according to Vaikhanasa, worship of Vishnu means worship of all gods.

Agama Grihya sutras explain: the Godhead is formless –nishkala; filled with luster tejomaya; beyond comprehension achintya; and is of the nature of pure existence, consciousness and bliss sat-chit-ananda; and abides in the heart-lotus –hridaya-kamala– of the devotee.

But because of the limitations of the human mind the worship of Brahman –with form, sakala, is deemed essential for all of us who live ordinary lives. The human mind finds it easier to deal with forms, shapes and attributes than with the formless absolute.A sense of devotion envelops the mind and heart when the icon that is properly installed and consecrated is worshipped with love and reverence.By constant attention to the icon, by seeing it again and again and by offering it various services of devotional worship, the icon is invested with divine presence and its worship ensures our good here (aihika) and also our ultimate good or emancipation (amusmika).That is the reason the texts advise that icon worship must be resorted to by all, especially by those involved in the transactional world.  In the Agama texts, the Nishkala aspect continues to be projected as the ultimate, even as they emphasize the relevance and importance of the sakala aspect. The devotee must progressively move from gross sthula to the subtle sukshma.

The worship of gods is of two modes: iconic (sa-murta) and non-iconic (a-murta).The Yajna, the worship of the divine through fire, is a-murta; while the worship offered to an icon is sa-murta. According to Vaikhanasas, though yajna might be more awe-inspiring, Archa (worship or puja) the direct communion with your chosen deity is more appealing to ones heart, is more colorful and is aesthetically more satisfying.

The Vaikhanasas were greatly in favor of iconic worship of Vishnu; but they did take care to retain their affiliation to the Vedic tradition. Not only that; the Vaikhanasa redefined the context and emphasis of the Yajna. The Yajna, normally, is ritual dominant, with Vishnu in the backdrop. But, the Vaikhanasa interpreted Yajna as worship of Vishnu; and, Yajna as Vishnu himself (yajno vai Vishnuhu). The religious scene shifted from the Yajna mantapa to temple enclosures. Vedic rituals were gradually subordinated to worship of Vishnu. But, the Vedic rituals were not given up entirely.Employment of Vedic passages and mantras during the rites lent an air of purity and merit to the rituals.The Vedic rites too were incorporated into the worship sequences in the temple. Along with the rituals, it stressed on devotion to Vishnu and his worship. The Vaikhanasa thus crystallized the Vishnu cult and lent it a sense of direction.

The very act of worship (archa) is deemed dear to Vishnu. The major thrust of Vaikhanasa texts is to provide clear, comprehensive and detailed guidelines for Vishnu worship. The Vaikhanasa texts are characterized by their attention to details of worship-sequences. It is not therefore surprising that Vaikhanasas do not employ the term’ Agama’ to describe their text .They know their text as ‘Bhagava archa-shastra’.

The characteristic Vaikhanasa view point is that the pathway to salvation is not devotion alone; but it is icon-worship (samurtha-archana) with devotion (bhakthi). ‘The archa with devotion is the best form of worship, because the icon that is beautiful will engage the mind and delight the heart of the worshipper’.   That would easily evoke feeling of loving devotion (bhakthi) in the heart of the worshipper. The icon is no longer just a symbol; the icon is a true divine manifestation enliven by loving worship, devotion, and absolute surrender (parathion). And, Vishnu is best approached by this means.

The Agamas combine two types of scriptures: one providing the visualization of the icon form; and the other giving details of preparation of icon for worship. This is supplemented by prescriptions for worship of the image and the philosophy that underlies it.

The Agamas also deal with building a shrine to Vishnu (karayathi mandiram); making a worship-worthy beautiful idol (pratima lakshana vatincha kritim); and worshipping everyday (ahanyahani yogena yajato yan maha-phalam). The Agamas primarily refer to ordering one’s life in the light of values of icon worship (Bhagavadarcha). It ushers in a sense of duty, commitment and responsibility.

For worship, Godhead is visualized as in solar orb (arka-mandala) or in sanctified water-jala kumbha; or in an icon (archa-bera).

When Godhead is visualized as a worship-worthy icon, a human form with distinguishable features (sakala) is attributed to him. Vishnu’s form for contemplation (dhyana) and worship (archa) is four armed, carrying shanka, chakra, gadha and padma. His countenance is beatific radiating peace and joy (saumya), delight to behold soumya-priya-darshana, his complexion is rosy pink wearing golden lustrous garment (pitambara). A beautiful image of Vishnu with a delightful smiling countenance and graceful looks must be meditated upon.

As regards its philosophy, Srinivasa –makhin (c.1059 AD), a Vaikhanasa Acharya, terms it asLakshmi-Visitad-vaita.Though the term Visistadvaita has been employed, the philosophical and religious positions taken by Srinivasa –makhin vary significantly from that of Sri Ramanuja in his Sri Bhashya.

Srinivasa –makhin in his Tatparya chintamani (dasa vidha hetu nirupa) explains that Brahman (paramatman) is nishkala (devoid of forms and attributes) as also sakala (with forms and attributes).They truly are one; not separate. The sakala aspect is distinguished by its association with Lakshmi (Prakrti). For the purpose of devotion and worship the sakala aspect is excellent. The Vaikhanasa therefore views its ideology as Lakshmi-visitadaita (the advaita, non-duality, refers to Vishnu associated with Lakshmi) Lakshmi is inseparable from Vishnu like moon and moonlight. Isvara associated with Lakshmi (Lakshmi visita isvara tattvam) is Vishnu. Those devoted to him as Vaishnavas.If Vishnu (purusha) grants release from the phenomenal fetters (Mukthi), Lakshmi (Prakrti) presides over bhukthi the fulfillment of normal aspirations in one’s life. The two must be worshipped together.

Srinivasa –makhin explains that in the Pranava (Om-kara), O-kara represents Vishnu; U—Kara: Lakshmi and Ma-kara, the devotee. The Om-kara binds the three together.

According to Vaikhanasa ideology, the four aspects of Vishnu -PurushaSatyaAchyuta andAniruddha– are identified with Dharma (virtue), Jnana (wisdom), Aishvarya (sovereignty) and vairagya (dispassion). Of the four faces of Vishnu, the Purusha is to the East; Satya to the South; Achyuta to the west; and Aniruddha to the North. The four virtues or planes Vishnu are regarded the four quarters (pada) of Brahman: aamodapramodasammoda and vaikuntaloka (sayujya) the highest abode –parama pada.

[The individual jiva that frees itself from the fetters of the transactional world enters into the sphere of Vishnu vishnuloka through four successive stages; each stage being designated a plane of Vishnu-experience Vaishnava-ananda. The first stage is aamoda where the jiva experiences the pleasure of residing in the same plane as the Godhead is Vishnu (saalokya)- associated with Aniruddha. The next stage is pramoda where the jiva experiences the great delight of residing in proximity to with the Godhead Maha-vishnu (saamipya)-associated with Achyuta. The stage higher than that is saamodawhere the jiva experiences the joy of obtaining the same form as the Godhead sadaa-Vishnu (sa-rupya) –associated with Satya. The highest plane is vaikunta loka where the individual jiva experiences the supreme joy of union with the Godhead Vyapi-narayana (sayujya)- associated with Purusha.]

In the context of the temple worship and layout, the four forms represent the four iconic variants of the main image in the sanctum (dhruva bhera) which represents Vishnu. And, within the temple complex, each form is accorded a specific location; successively away from the dhruva bhera.  Purusha symbolized by Kautuka-bera is placed in the sanctum very close to dhruva bhera; Satya symbolized by Utsava-bera (processional deity) is placed in the next pavilion outside the sanctum; Achyuta symbolized by snapana-bera (oblation) too is placed outside the sanctum; and Aniruddhda symbolized by Bali bera (to which food offerings are submitted) is farthest from the dhruva-bhera in the sanctum.

As regards its differences with the other Vaishava –Agama the Pancharatra, the Texts such asprakina-adhikara (kriya-pada, ch 30 -5 to 11) mention that Vaikhanasa mode of worship is more in accordance with Vedic tradition (which does not recognize initiation rites such as branding);Vaikhanasa worshipper being deemed garba-vaishnava –janmanam; he is Vaishnava by his very birth, not needing any initiatory rites (diksha) or branding.The Vaikhanasa are distinguished by acceptance of Vishnu in his Vedic context. Vishnu is supreme; and Vishnu alone is the object of worship. Though they are now a recognized sect of Sri Vaishnavas, their allegiance to Sri Ramanuja as the Guru or to the Alvars or to the Visistadvaita philosophy is rather formal. They also do not recite passages from the Tamil Prabandham. The worship is conducted mainly through verses selected from Rig Veda and Yajur Veda; and performance of the yajna as prescribed in Krishna-yajur Veda. There is also not much use of the Tantra elements of worship such as uttering Beeja-mantras etc, except   for the sequence of projecting the deity from ones heart into the icon; that is, the assumed identification of the devotee with the deity during the worship . The Vaikhanasa worshipper, in privacy behind the screen, recites the ‘atma-sukta’ aiming to enter into a state of meditative absorption with Vishnu. That is followed by the symbolic ritual placements (nyasas). The icon attains divinity after invocation (avahana) of life force; while divinity always abides in the worshipper.

The Vaikhanasa is regarded orthodox for yet another reason; they consider the life of the householder as the best among the four stages of life. Because, it is the householder that supports, sustains and carries forward the life and existence of the society. They treat the worship at home as more important than worship at the temple. A Vaikhanasa is therefore required to worship the deities at his home even in case he is employed as a priest at the temple. There is not much prominence for a Yati or a Sanyasi in this scheme of things. They decry a person seeking salvation for himself without discharging his duties, responsibilities and debts to his family, to his guru and to his society.

The Agama texts make a clear distinction between the worship carried out at his home (atmartha) and the worship carried out as priest at a temple(parartha ) for which he gets paid. This distinction must have come into being with the proliferation of temples and with the advent of temple-worship-culture. It appears to have been a departure from the practice of worship at home, an act of devotion and duty. Rig Vedic culture was centered on home and worship at home.

The worship at home is regarded as motivated by desire for attainments and for spiritual benefits (Sakshepa). In the temple worship, on the other hand, the priest does not seek spiritual benefits in discharge of his duties (nirakshepa). He worships mainly for the fulfillment of the desires of those who pray at the temple. That, perhaps, appears to be the reason for insisting that a priest should worship at his home before taking up his temple duties.

Traditionally, a person who receives remuneration for worshipping a deity is not held in high esteem. The old texts sneer at a person “displaying icons to eke out a living.” That perhaps led to a sort of social prejudices and discriminations among the priestly class. But, with the change of times, with the social and economic pressures and with a dire need to earn a living, a distinct class of temple-priests, naturally, crystallysized into a close knit in-group with its own ethos and attitudes. Whatever might be the past, one should recognize that temples are public places of worship; the priests are professionals trained and specialized in their discipline; and they constitute an important and a legitimate dimension of the temple-culture. There is absolutely no justification in looking down upon their profession. Similarly, the Agamas , whatever is their persuasion, are now primarily concerned with worship in temples. And, their relevance or their preoccupation, in the past, with worship at home, has largely faded away.

Pancharatra Agama

From the end of the tenth century Vaikhanasa are prominently mentioned in South Indian inscriptions. Vaikhanasas were the priests of Vaishnava temples and were also the admistrators.  However with the advent of Sri Ramanuja, who was also the first organizer of temple administration at Srirangam Temple, the Vaikhanasa system of worship lost its prominence and gave place to the more liberal Pancharatra system .Sri Ramanuja permitted participation of lower castes and ascetics , the Sanyasis ( who were not placed highly in the Vaikhanasa scheme)  in temple services. He also expanded the people participation in other areas too with the introduction of Uthsavas, celebrations, festivals, Prayers etc. This change spread to other Vaishnava temples particularly in Tamil Nadu. Vaikhanasas, however, continues to be important in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and in some temples of Tamil Nadu. It was explained that while the srauta and smarta rituals of the Vedas were intended for the intellectuals, the Pancharatra was given to ordinary people who longed to worship with heart full of devotion and absolute surrender to the will of God.

As regards Pancharatra, it appears to have been a later form of worship that gained prominence with the advent of Sri Ramanuja. Pancharathra claims its origin from Sriman Narayana himself.

Here Vishnu is worshipped as the Supreme Godhead. Pancharatra described as ‘Bhagavata shastra’or ‘Vasudeva –matha’ is centered on worship of Vishnuthe Godhead (Bhagavan) as Narayana identified with Vasudeva of the Vrishni clan. He is regarded as Bhagavan as He is the manifestation of six divine attributes: jnana (omniscience), shakthi (omnipotence), bala (unhindered energy), aishvarya(sovereignty), virya (matchless valor)and tejas (great splendor).

Pancharatra as a system of thought prescribes that worldly involvement must be minimized (nivrtti) in order to engage oneself exclusively in devotion to Bhagavan (ekanta bhakthi). The Pancharatra doctrine is associated with the Samkhya ideologies.

The Pancharatra philosophy is characterized by its conception of the Supreme assuming five modes of being (prakara). They are in brief:

Para, or transcendent form;

Vyuha or the categorized form as Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha, who are brought together in worship and adoration as a complete body of divine power;

Vaibhava, or the several incarnation of God;

Archa, or the form of God worshipped in an image or an idol symbolizing the Universal entity;


Antaryamin, or the indwelling immanent form of God as present throughout in creation.

The recognition of three modes of the Deity (para, vyuha and vibhava) assumes great importance in the context of Pancharatra ideology and practice of icon-worship (archa).

The peak of Vaishnava devotion is in Dashamaskanda, the Tenth Book of the Bhagavata Purana, and in Nalayira Prabhandam the four thousand Tamil verses of the Vaishnava saints, the Alvars; and especially in the thousand songs known as Tiruvaimozhi of Nammalvar. The ecstasy of the Gopi-type of God – intoxicated-love is exhilarating and gives raise to divine intoxication in Nammalvar’s poetic compositions.

Therefore, the Tamils verses and songs are prominent in Pancharatra worship. This method also employs more Tantras, Mandalas and Uthsavas which makes room for a large number of devotees of all segments of the society to participate. There are more Jaanapada (popular) methods of worship than mere Vedic performance of Yajnas. Even here, each prominent temple follows its favorite text. That is the reason there are some minor differences even among the Pancharatra temples.

The differences between the two systems

As regards the differences between the two systems, one of the major differences is their view of the Supreme Godhead Vishnu. The Vaikhanasas view Vishnu in the Vedic context ; as the all-pervading supreme deity as Purusha, the principle of life; Sathya, the static aspect of deity; Atchuta, the immutable aspect; and Aniruddha, the irreducible aspect.  Here the worshipper contemplates on the absolute form (nishkala) of Vishnu in the universe and as present in the worshippers body; and transfers that spirit into the immovable idol (Dhruva Bheru) and requests the Vishnu to accept worship. Vishnu is then worshipped as the most honored guest. Lakshmi , Shri is important as nature, prakriti, and as the power, Shakti, of Vishnu.

The smaller movable images represent Vishnu’s Sakala that is the manifest, divisible and emanated  forms. The large immovable image representing Vishnu’s niskala form, ritually placed in a sanctuary and elaborately consecrated; and the smaller movable images representing Vishnu’s sakala form are treated differently.

The Pancharatra  regards  Narayana and Vasudeva too as forms of  Vishnu the Supreme Principle (Para). In his manifest form (Vyuha) he is regarded as Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha,representing Krishna, his elder brother, his son and his grandson, respectively, who are brought together in worship and adoration as a complete body of divine power.

It is explained that Vasudeva, the Supreme Brahman, out of compassion, voluntary assumed the bodily forms so that the devotees may have easy access to his subtle form. The approach to the divine is again graded. The devotee worships the Vibhava form; or the incarnation of God, on several occasions such as Rama , etc and moves on to worship the Vyuha forms. And , from Vyuha form he progresses to worship the subtle forms of Vasudeva.

Among the other differences between Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra, the latter say, they gain eligibility to worship (Diksha) after the ceremonial Chkrankana, which is imprinting the symbols of Vishnu on their body. Vaikhanasa see no need for such a ritual. The pregnant mother is given a cup of Payasamwith the Vishnu seal in the cup. They recognize as worthy only such Garbha_Vaishnavas.

Vaikhanasa follow the lunar calendar while the Pancharatra follow the solar calendar.

Vaikhanasa consider Vishnu_Vishvaksena_Brighu as the guru_parampara; while Pancharatra considerVishnu_Vishvaksena_Satagopa_Nathamuni_Yamuna_Ramanuja as the guru -parampara.

Vaikhanasa think it is enough if the daily worship is performed once in a day or, if needed be, stretched to six times in a day (shat kala puja). Pancharatra do not place any limit. If needed the service could be even 12 times a day, they say.

The  Vaikhanasa worship is considered more Vedic, the mantras being Sanskrit based and there is a greater emphasis on details of worship rituals and yajnas. Even here, the householders and celibates get priority in worshipping the deity. They consider Griha_archana the worship at home as more important than the congregational worship. The Sanyasis or ascetics have no place in this system.

Whereas in Pancharatra, the emphasis is almost entirely on devotional idol worship than on yajnas; and more Tamil hymns are recited and there is greater scope for festivals , celebrations and processions where all sections of the society including ascetics can participate.


What surely is more important than the rituals is the symbolism that acts as the guiding spirit for conduct of rituals. At a certain level, symbolism takes precedence over procedures.

I think, ultimately, there is not much difference between Pancharatra and Vaikhanasa traditions. Both are equally well accepted. The differences, whatever might be, are not significant to a devotee who visits the temple just to worship the deity and to submit himself to the divine grace.

The Shaiva Agama worship is less formal than the Vaishnava, less restrained and less accustomed to social forms of regulations. Siva is the Supreme God of the Shaiva system, who is Pati, or Lord over all creatures, the latter being Pashu, meaning animal or of beastly nature. The Jiva or the individual is caught in the snare of world-existence and attachment to objects. The grace of God, alone, is the means of liberation for the individual.

The worship in  Shaiva is graded in steps: Charya, or the external service rendered by the devotee, such as collecting flowers for worship in the temple, ringing the bell, cleaning the premises of the shrine, and the like; Kriya, or the internal service, such as actual worship as well as its preparations;Yoga, or seeking identity with Shiva; and Jnana, or wisdom, in which the Shiva and the seeker are one. In Southern Shaivism the great Shaiva saints Appar, Sundarar, Jnanasambandar andManikyavachagar, are said to represent, respectively, these four approaches to Shiva.

Kashmir Shaivism is a world by itself. Similar is the Shakta Agama, the Tantra worship of Shakti, the Divine Mother. These subjects deserve to be discussed separately.


 gratefully acknowledge

Soulful paintings of Shri S Rajam


Agama Kosha by Prof. SKR Rao


Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Agama, Temple worship


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