Just Like That | Temple architecture is a spiritual journey - Hindustan Times

Just Like That | Temple architecture is a spiritual journey

Feb 18, 2024 07:50 AM IST

Hindu temple architecture mirrors the human form; from the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum, it leads away from the material world to commune with the divine

The ancient treatise, Vishnudharmottara (mid-5th century) has a deeply interesting conversation between a king and a sage. The king wants to learn painting. But the sage tells him that first, he must learn the theory of dancing. The king, although mystified, agrees, because he is told that the laws of dancing are related to the principles that govern painting. However, the sage goes on to insist that the king must also study music, for no area of art can be pursued without a full knowledge of all the forms of creative expression.

These days the prana pratishtha of the Ram temple in Ayodhya is much in the news. The designing of a temple is part of this matrix of aesthetic inter-connectedness and, as per rules, follows a certain pattern(ANI) PREMIUM
These days the prana pratishtha of the Ram temple in Ayodhya is much in the news. The designing of a temple is part of this matrix of aesthetic inter-connectedness and, as per rules, follows a certain pattern(ANI)

The essential point is that Indian aesthetics is not fragmented. On the contrary, it is overwhelmingly holistic, representing an indivisible wholeness that must infuse the entire canvas of artistic imagination. The various branches of art may appear to be different, representing separate skills and training, but essentially the same notion of ananda (ultimate bliss) permeates all kinds of creation. With this as the focal ideological point, a great deal went into devising specific rules for each area of artistic expression. These are detailed in the Natya Shastra (200 BCE), the Vishnudharmottara and innumerable other treatises, which give precise instructions on conceptualization, iconography, proportion, preparation of materials, skill development and training.

These days the prana pratishtha of the Ram temple in Ayodhya is much in the news. The designing of a temple is part of this matrix of aesthetic inter-connectedness and, as per rules, follows a certain pattern. Its location must be carefully chosen, for ideally it has to represent the axis of the world, the axis mundi, and radiate spiritual energy. The entrance can be grand, consisting of a richly decorated crowning tower, followed by a courtyard of spacious and adorned pillared halls. This, in turn, should lead to a corridor leading up to the sanctum sanctorum, garbagriha, literally the womb, where the deity is placed.

The design is meant to illustrate the imperative that the spiritual journey needs to be directed inwards. To reach the spiritual core, one has to travel through the distractions of the material world, and as one proceeds further, prepare oneself for the emotionally personal—almost secretive—spiritual encounter. Suddenly, the noise and bustle of the outside world recedes and gives way, through the contouring of architectural space, to the possibility of personal communion. The shikhara or pinnacle soaring to the sky directly above the garbagriha demonstrates the power of the deity to confer the possibility of redemption beyond the confines of material space towards ananda.

Poet-scholar AK Ramanujan has said that the Hindu temple is designed to represent the human body. In the book Speaking of Siva, Ramanujan translates a work by Basavana, one of the four major saints of the Virasaiva movement.

“The ritual of building a temple begins with digging the earth and planting a seed. The temple is said to rise from the implanted seed, like a human. The different parts of a temple correspond to body parts. The two sides are called the hands or wings, the hasta; and a pillar is called a foot, pada. The top of the temple is the head, the shikhara. The shrine, the innermost sanctum of the temple, garbagriha, is the womb-house. The temple thus carries out in brick and stone the primordial blueprint of the human body,” writes Ramanujan.

According to the shastras, the sthapati or architect is the incarnation of Brahman, the creator himself in the form of Vishvakarma. The purpose behind this is to imbue architecture with a gravitas which is akin to the divine. The sthapati’s team, in the past, included the sutragrahi (draughtsman), the vardhaki (painter) and the taksaka (stonemason). There are innumerable Shilpa shastras, or treatises on sculpture, on the canonical requirements of a good sculpture. Thus, as the noted art historian Dr Alka Pande writes, the sculptor had to master six essentials: the knowledge of stones; the compositional diagram; the carving and the dressing of stone; the arrangement of the various elements of a sculpture; the representation of the mood of a piece; and the final integration of all its parts. Arun Yogiraj, the sculptor from Mysuru, who has made the idol of Ram Lalla, has certainly mastered all of these elements.

The preparation of yajnas, or the ritual consecration ceremonies, is also the result of precise mathematical design. Considerable thought went into the site of the consecrated space, the erection of the yupa or central pole and the construction of the altar. As the late Dr Kapila Vatsyayan writes: “The unit for constructing the altars is the brick. But these bricks must conform to exact measurements and specified shapes, the rectangular (adhyardha), the triangular (adhyardhardha), or the square (panchami). Each brick represents a unit of time, and the 360 bricks are the 360 days of the year… The five layers of the brick are the five seasons, and each is consecrated on a different day.” The entire ceremony, Vatsyayana says, is carried out to the accompaniment of recited verse which consecrates these items and gives them cosmic significance. Bhuh, bhuvah svaha is earth, sky and heaven. The recited verse in precise measure (the vak of the Rig Veda) is the methodology of this consecration.’

I am not a great believer in rituals, and pure devotion doesn’t need them. But behind rituals, there is usually a deeper meaning. When that meaning coincides with the ananda of aesthetics, the result is beauty: Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal

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