Temple Construction

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Aspects in Temple Construction

There are many aspects involved in constructing a temple. Acarya, director for the temple construction and shilpi (sculptor) play major role in the construction of a temple. The temple's acarya is expected to know silpa sastra although not in as much detail as a shilpi. Temple construction begins with search of a proper site. Soil and location are examined by acarya and shilpi. This is called Bhupariksha.

This is followed by nagara/grama nirmana. 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. There are different names for different sizes of towns, like grama, kheta, kharvata, durga, nagara. Then the location of temple (brahma sthana) in the town is decided. Temple is usually in the center of village so that every villager has access to it. The entire arrangement is called grama vinyasa.

Then the size of temple is determined. For this, size of the image of main deity is to be known, since the size of a temple is always a fixed multiple of the size of image of main deity. Then wood/metal/stone is selected for the image. The icon has three parts, main icon (vigraha), pedestal (peetha) and platform (adhisthana or upa peetha). The tests to determine quality of stone are prescribed by the Agamas. There are three kinds of stone, male female and neuter. When hit with an iron rod if the stone produces good sound and spark, it is male and should be used for the main icon. If it produces sound but not spark it is female and should be used for pedestal. If it produces neither, it is neuter and should be used for platform. There are various standards for the relative proportions of image, gopura, prakara etc. and also the relative proportions of various parts of the vigraha. The units for measuring vigraha are tala, angula and yava. Tala is a multiple of angula and angula is a multiple of yava. More than the specific size of each unit, the multiplicity and relative sizes are important. The proportions of Head-Trunk-Arms-Legs of images are specified. The finer specifications like nose, nail, ears and their shapes are also mentioned. Generally the standard is to use dasatala (ten talas) for the height of image of male deity, navatala (nine talas) for His consort and astatala (eight talas) for bhakta.

Duties of temple administration are also specified in the Agamas - organizing festivals, encourage art forms and conduct shows to encourage artists, create accommodation for pilgrims from other towns, run hospitals, regularly conducting religious discourses etc.

Town planning, engineering, architecture, fine arts, civics, and many other subjects are dealt in the agamas, which relate to the various interests of people and involve them at different capacities and also direct their work towards a higher goal.

Steps in Temple Construction

The procedure for building a temple is extensively discussed, and it could be expressed in short as "Karshanadi Pratisthantam", meaning beginning with "Karshana" and ending with "Pratistha". The details of steps involved vary from one Agama to another, but broadly these are the steps in temple construction:

  1. Bhu pariksha: Examining and choosing location and soil for temple and town. The land should be fertile and soil suitable.
  2. Sila pariksha: Examining and choosing material for image
  3. 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.
  4. Vastu puja: Ritual to propitiate vastu devata.
  5. Salyodhara: Undesired things like bones are dug out.
  6. Adyestaka: Laying down the first stone
  7. Nirmana: Then foundation is laid and land is purified by sprinkling water. A pit is dug, water mixed with navaratnas, navadhanyas, navakhanijas is then put in and pit is filled. Then the temple is constructed.
  8. 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.
  9. Garbhanyasa: A pot made of five metals (pancaloha kalasa sthapana) is installed at the place of main deity.
  10. Sthapana: Then the main deity is installed.
  11. Pratistha: The main deity is then charged with life/god-ness.

Before the temple is opened for daily worship, there are some preparatory rituals to be done, like:

  • Anujna: the priest takes permission from devotees and lord Ganesha to begin rituals
  • Mrit samgrahana: Collecting mud
  • Ankurarpana: Sowing seeds in pots of mud collected and waiting till they germinate
  • Rakshabandhana: The priest binds a holy thread on his hand to take up the assignment.
  • Punyahavacana: Purifying ritual for the place and invoking good omens
  • Grama santi: Worship for the good of village and to remove subtle undesired elements
  • Pravesa bali: Propitiation of various gods at different places in the temple, rakshoghna puja (to destroy asuric elements) and of specific gods like Kshetra palaka (devata ruling the town)
  • Vastu Santi: Pacifying puja for vastu (this happens twice and this is the second time)
  • Yagasala: Building the stage for homas, along with vedika.
  • Kalasasthapana: Installing kalasam
  • Samskara: Purifying the yaga sala
  • Kalasa puja, yagarambha: Woshipping the kalasa as god and propitiating deities through fire
  • Nayanonmeelana, Pratimadhivasa: Opening eyes of the god-image, installing it and giving it life.

Then specific worship is done to deity, as prescribed. For instance in the case of Siva, this is followed by astabandhana and kumbhabhisheka.

Temple Design

From the proportions of the inner sanctum to the motifs carved into the pillars, the traditional temple takes its first form on the master sthapati's drawing board. The architect initially determines the fundamental unit of measurement using a formula called ayadhi. This formula, which comes from Jyotisha, or Vedic astrology, uses the nakshatra (birth star) of the founder, the nakshatra of the village in which the temple is being erected matching the first syllable of the name of the village with the seed sounds mystically associated with each nakshatra and the nakshatra of the main Deity of the temple. This measurement, called danda, is the dimension of the inside of the sanctum and the distance between the pillars. The whole space of the temple is defined in multiples and fractions of this basic unit.

The Shastras are strict about the use of metals, such as iron in the temple structure because iron is mystically the crudest, most impure of metals. The presence of iron, sthapatis explain, could attract lower, impure forces. Only gold, silver, and copper are used in the structure, so that only the most sublime forces are invoked during the pujas. At especially significant stages in the temple construction (such as ground-breaking and placement of the sanctum door frame), pieces of gold, silver and copper, as well as precious gems, are ceremoniously embedded in small interstices between the stones, adding to the temple's inner-world magnetism. These elements are said to glow in the inner worlds and, like holy ash, are prominently visible to the Gods and Devas.

The ground plan is described as a symbolic, miniature representation of the cosmos. It is based on a strict grid made up of squares and equilateral triangles which are imbued with deep religious significance. To the priest-architect the square was an absolute and mystical form. The grid, usually of 64 or 81 squares, is in fact a mandala, a model of the cosmos, with each square belonging to a deity. The position of the squares is in accordance with the importance attached to each of the deities, with the square in the center representing the temple deity; the outer squares cover the gods of lower rank. Agamas say that the temple architecture is similar to a man sitting - and the idol in garbagriha is exactly the heart-plexus, gopuram as the crown etc.

The construction of the temple follows in three dimensional form exactly the pattern 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 seeing it from above which was of course impossible for humans until quite recently.

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. A typical temple consists of the following major elements

  1. an entrance, often with a porch
  2. one or more attached or detached mandapas or halls
  3. the inner sanctum called the garbagriha, literally 'womb chamber'
  4. the tower build directly above the garbagriha.

Significance of the number eight in temple design

Vastu Shastra describes the inner sanctum and main tower as a human form, structurally conceived in human proportions based on the mystical number eight. According to Dr. V. Ganapati Sthapati, Senior Architect at the Vastu Government College of Architecture, the vibration of the space-consciousness, which is called time, is the creative element, since it is this vibratory force that causes the energetic space to turn into spatial forms. Therefore, time is said to be the primordial element for the creation of the entire universe and all its material forms. When these vibrations occur rhythmically, the resultant product will be an orderly spatial form. This rhythm of the time unit is traditionally called talam or layam.

Since every unit of time vibration produces a corresponding unit of space measure, vastu science derives that time is equal to space. This rhythm of time and space vibrations is quantified as eight and multiples of eight, the fundamental and universal unit of measure in the vastu silpa tradition. This theory carries over to the fundamental adi talam (eight beats) of classical Indian music and dance. Applying this in the creation of a human form, it is found that a human form is also composed of rhythmic spatial units. According to the Vastu Shastras, at the subtle level the human form is a structure of eight spatial units devoid of the minor parts like the hair, neck, kneecap and feet, 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.

Since the subtle space within our body is part of universal space, it is logical to say that the talam of our inner space should be the same as that of the universe. But in reality, it is very rare to find this consonance between an individual's and the universal rhythm. When this consonance occurs, the person is in harmony with the Universal Being and enjoys spiritual strength, peace and bliss. Therefore, when designing a building according to vastu, the architect aims at creating a space that will elevate the vibration of the individual to resonate with the vibration of the built space, which in turn is in tune with universal space. Vastu architecture transmutes the individual rhythm of the indweller to the rhythm of the Universal Being.

The Vastu-Purusha-Mandala

The goal of a temple's design is to bring about the descent or manifestation of the unmanifest and unseen. The architect or sthapati begins by drafting a square. The square is considered to be a fundamental form. It presupposes the circle and results from it. Expanding energy shapes the circle from the center; it is established in the shape of the square. The circle and curve belong to life in its growth and movement. The square is the mark of order, the finality to the expanding life, life's form and the perfection beyond life and death. From the square all requisite forms can be derived: the triangle, hexagon, octagon, circle etc. The architect calls this square the vastu-purusha-mandala-vastu, the manifest, purusha, the Cosmic Being, and mandala.

The vastu-purusha-mandala represents the manifest form of the Cosmic Being; upon which the temple is built and in whom the temple rests. The temple is situated in Him, comes from Him, and is a manifestation of Him. The vastu-purusha-mandala is both the body of the Cosmic Being and a bodily device by which those who have the requisite knowledge attain the best results in temple building.

In order to establish the vastu-purusha-mandala on a construction site, it is first drafted on planning sheets and later drawn upon the earth at the actual building site. The drawing of the mandala upon the earth at the commencement of construction is a sacred rite. The rites and execution of the vastu-purusha-mandala sustain the temple in a manner similar to how the physical foundation supports the weight of the building.

Based on astrological calculations the border of the vastu-purusha-mandala is subdivided into thirty-two smaller squares called nakshatras. The number thirty-two geometrically results from a repeated division of the border of the single square. It denotes four times the eight positions in space: north, east, south, west, and their intermediate points. The closed polygon of thirty-two squares symbolizes the recurrent cycles of time as calculated by the movements of the moon. Each of the nakshatras is ruled over by a Deva, which extends its influence to the mandala. Outside the mandala lie the four directions, symbolic of the meeting of heaven and earth and also represent the ecliptic of the sun-east to west and its rotation to the northern and southern hemispheres.


The center of the mandala is called the station of Brahma, the creator of the universe. Surrounding Brahma are the places of twelve other entities known as the sons of Aditi, who assist in the affairs of universal management. The remaining empty squares represent akasha or pure space. The vastu-purusha-mandala forms a diagram of astrological influences that constitute the order of the universe and the destinies of human lives. When placed on the building site, along with astrological calculations, can the auspicious time to begin temple construction be determined.

The ground breaking ceremony

From the diagram of the vastu-purusha-mandala the architect proceeds to develop the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the temple.

The plotting graphs of the temple are divided into two main sections-the ground plan and the vertical alignment. 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 most prominent. The subdivisions of the ground plan include the brahmasthana (the main shrine and smaller chapels) and the mandapam (balconies, assembly halls and auditoriums). The vertical plan consists of drawings for the gopuram, entrance ways, the vimana, the structure above the main shrine, and the prakara, walls.

The brahmasthana is the principal location in a temple and is where the seat of the presiding Diety will be placed. At the base of the foundation of the brahmasthana, located at the station of Brahma on the vastu-purusha-mandala, a ritual called the garbhadhana is performed called. The ritual invites the soul of the temple to enter within the buildings confines. During this ritual, a golden box is placed in the earth as part of the ground-breaking ceremony. The interior of the box is divided into smaller units exactly resembling the vastu-purusha-mandala. All the units of the gold box are first partially filled with dirt. In the thirty-two units representing the nakshatras, 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 Devata.

The sanskrit mantras chanted by the priest are as important as the actual mandala. The mantra infuses the mandala with spiritual powers. The mantras are the subtle form of the mandala and therefore the two are inseparable.

In the unit of Brahma, Ananta, a golden serpent with many raised hoods is placed. It is then surrounded with nine precious jewels or navaratna. Ananta represents the energy of God in which the universe rests in space. The nine jewels invoke the astrological influence of the nine planets and are composed of a diamond, emerald, ruby, pearl, yellow sapphire, blue sapphire, red coral, cats-eye and jade.

A gold lid with the seven continents of the earth engraved on it is placed on top of the box following which the agni-hotra, or sanctification ceremony. During the agni-hotra the priest offers clarified butter, the symbol of religious principles, into the fire, which represents the mouth of the Cosmic Being. Along with the offering of clarified butter five types of grains-rice, wheat, barley, rye and dhal, are also offered with the chanting of mantras.