Unlike other organized religions, in Hinduism, it is not mandatory for a person to visit a temple. Since all Hindu home usually has a small shrine or ‘puja room’ for daily prayers, Hindus generally go to temples only on auspicious occasions or during religious festivals. Hindu temples also do not play a crucial role in marriages and funerals, but it is often the meeting place for religious discourses as well as ‘bhajans’ and ‘kirtans’ (devotional songs and chants).
History of Temples
In the Vedic period, there were no temples. The main object of worship was the fire that stood for God. This holy fire was lit on a platform in the open air under the sky, and oblations were offered to the fire. It is not certain when exactly the Indo-Aryans first started building temples for worship. The scheme of building temples was perhaps a concomitant of the idea of idol worship.
Locations of Temples
As the race progressed, temples became important because they served as a sacred meeting place for the community to congregate and revitalize their spiritual energies. Large temples were usually built at picturesque places, especially on river banks, on top of hills, and on the seashore. Smaller temples or open-air shrines can crop up just about anywhere – by the roadside or even under the tree.
Holy places in India are famous for its temples. Indian towns — from Amarnath to Ayodha, Brindavan to Banaras, Kanchipuram to Kanya Kumari — are all known for their wonderful temples.
The architecture of Hindu temples evolved over a period of more than 2,000 years and there is a great variety in this architecture. Hindu temples are of different shapes and sizes — rectangular, octagonal, semicircular — with different types of domes and gates. Temples in southern India have a different style than those in northern India. Although the architecture of Hindu temples is varied, they mainly have many things in common.
The 6 Parts of a Hindu Temple
1. The Dome and Steeple: The steeple of the dome is called ‘shikhara’ (summit) that represents the mythological ‘Meru’ or the highest mountain peak. The shape of the dome varies from region to region and the steeple is often in the form of the trident of Shiva.
2. The Inner Chamber: The inner chamber of the temple called ‘garbhagriha’ or ‘womb-chamber’ is where the image or idol of the deity (‘murti’) is placed. In most temples, the visitors cannot enter the garbhagriha, and only the temple priests are allowed inside.
3. The Temple Hall: Most large temples have a hall meant for the audience to sit. This is also called the ‘nata-mandira’ (hall for temple-dancing) where, in days of yore, women dancers or ‘devadasis’ used to perform dance rituals. Devotees use the hall to sit, meditate, pray, chant or watch the priests perform the rituals. The hall is usually decorated with paintings of gods and goddesses.
4. The Front Porch: This area of the temples usually has a big metallic bell that hangs from the ceiling. Devotees entering and leaving the porch ring this bell to declare their arrival and departure.
5. The Reservoir: If the temple is not in the vicinity of a natural water body, a reservoir of fresh water is built on the temple premises. The water is used for rituals as well as to keep the temple floor clean or even for a ritual bath before entering the holy abode.
6. The Walkway: Most temples have a walkway around the walls of the inner chamber for circum-ambulation by devotees around the deity as a mark of respect to the temples god or goddess.
As opposed to the all-renouncing ‘swamis’, temple priests, variously known as ‘pandas’, ‘pujaris’ or ‘purohits’, are salaried workers, hired by the temple authorities to perform daily rituals. Traditionally they come from the Brahmin or priestly caste, but there are many priests who are non-Brahmins. Then there are temples that are set up various sects and cults like the Shaivas, Vaishnavas and the Tantriks.