Hindu temple architecture as the main form of Hindu architecture has many varieties of style, though the basic nature of the Hindu temple remains the same, with the essential feature an inner sanctum, the garbha griha or womb-chamber, where the primary Murti or the image of a deity is housed in a simple bare cell. Syllabus of Art and culture in UPSC mains GS paper 1 has Temple architecture and it is advisable for the aspirants to be thorough with the characterstics of the temples


  • Dravida Style
  • Nagara Style
  • Vesara Style
  • Famous Temples of South India


In the early part of the Vedic era there is no clear mention of temples. All worship and rituals were carried out before the holy fire, called the ‘yajnas’. However, in the later period of the Vedas, along with the ceremonial fire, idol worship also began to be practiced. These idols were housed in very elementary dwellings. The very first temples may have been simple earth mounds, later substituted by brickwork with grass roofs.

Early temples found in India before the distinctive styles emerged can be classified into following three types:

  • Sandhara type (without Pradikshinapatha)
  • Nirandhara type (with Pradakshinapatha) and
  • Sarvatobhadra (which can be accessed from all sides)

Some of the important temple sites of this period are Deogarh in Uttar Pradesh, Eran, Nachna-Kuthara and Udaygiri near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh. These temples are simple structures consisting of a veranda, a hall and a shrine at the rear.

Basic form of Hindu temple

The basic form of the Hindu temple comprises the following:

  • Sanctum (Garbhagriha literally ‘womb-house’), which was a small cubicle with a single entrance and grew into a larger chamber in time. The garbhagriha is made to house the main icon which is itself the focus of much ritual attention
  • The entrance to the temple which may be a portico or colonnaded hall that incorporates space for a large number of worshippers and is known as a mandapa
  • Freestanding temples tend to have a mountain-like spire, which can take the shape of a curving shikhar in North India and a pyramidal tower, called a vimana, in South India
  • The Vahan,e., the mount or vehicle of the temple’s main deity along with a standard pillar or dhvaj is placed axially before the sanctum.
  • Two broad orders of temples in the country are known— Nagara in the north and Dravida in the south. At times, the Vesara style of temples as an independent style created through the selective mixing of the Nagara and Dravida orders is mentioned as a distinctive style of temple architecture by some experts
  • Iconography of Indian temples
  • The study of images of deities falls within a branch of art history called ‘iconography’, which consists of identification of images based on certain symbols and mythologies associated with them. Every region and period produced its own distinct style of images with its regional variations in iconography.
  • The placement of an image in a temple is carefully planned: for instance, river goddesses (Ganga and Yamuna) are usually found at the entrance of a garbhagriha in a Nagara temple, Dvarapalas (doorkeepers) are usually found on the gateways or gopurams of Dravida temples, similarly, mithunas (erotic images), navagrahas (the nine auspicious planets) and yakshas are also placed at entrances to guard them
  • Subsidiary shrines around the main temple are dedicated to the family or incarnations of the main deity. Finally, various elements of ornamentation such as gavaksha, vyala/yali, kalpa-lata, amalaka, kalasha, etc. are used in distinct ways and places in a temple.


The Dravidian style of temple architecture of South India was pioneered by the Pallavas who reigned in parts of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and northern Tamil Nadu until the ninth century. Although they were mostly Shaivite, several Vaishnava shrines also survived from their reign.

The early buildings are generally attributed to the reign of Mahendravarman I, a contemporary of the Chalukyan king, Pulakesin II of Karnataka. Narasimhavarman I, also known as Mamalla, who acceded the Pallava throne around 640 CE, is celebrated for his architectural works.

The main features of this style of temple architecture are:

  • The Dravida temple is enclosed within a compound wall.
  • The front wall has an entrance gateway in its centre, which is known as a Gopuram.
  • The shape of the main temple tower known as vimana in Tamil Nadu is like a stepped pyramid that rises up geometrically rather than the curving shikhara of North India.
  • In the South Indian temple, the word ‘shikhara’ is used only for the crowning element at the top of the temple which is usually shaped like a small stupika or an octagonal cupola— this is equivalent to the amalak and kalasha of North Indian temples.
  • Fierce Dvarapalas or the door-keepers guarding the temple adorn the entrance to garbhagriha
  • It is common to find a large water reservoir, or a temple tank, enclosed within the complex.
  • At some of the most sacred temples in South India, the main temple in which the garbhagriha is situated has, in fact, one of the smallest towers. This is because it is usually the oldest part of the temple
  • It is common to find a large water reservoir, or a temple tank, enclosed within the complex.
  • Subsidiary shrines are either incorporated within the main temple tower, or located as distinct, separate small shrines beside the main temple
  • Kailashnath temple at Ellora is a famous example of a temple built in complete Dravidian style
  • Classification of Dravidian temples:
  • Just as there are many subdivisions of the main types of Nagara temples, there are subdivisions also of Dravida temples.
  • These are basically of five different shapes: square, usually called kuta, and
  • also caturasra; rectangular or shala or ayatasra; elliptical, called Gaja-Prishta or elephant-backed, or also called vrittayata, deriving from wagon-vaulted shapes of apsidal chaityas with a horse-shoe shaped entrance facade usually called a nasi; circular or vritta; and octagonal or ashtasra

Famous Dravidian temples in India

  • The magnificent Shiva temple of Thanjavur, called the Rajarajeswara or Brihadeshwara temple, built in the Dravidian style was completed around 1009 by Rajaraja Chola, and is the largest and tallest of all Indian temples
  • Other famous Dravidian temples in the south are- Annamalaiyar Temple in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, Meenakshi temple, Tamil Nadu, Airavatesvara temple etc
  • The contribution of Pallavas to Dravidian architecture
  • In the south the Pallavas created beautiful monuments in th 7th CE AD
  • Mahendravarman and his son Narasimhavarman were great patrons of art and architecture (Their contribution to rock-cut architecture will be discussed elsewhere)\
  • The shore temple at Mahabalipuram was built later, probably in the reign of Narasimhavarman II, also known as Rajasimha. It has shrines dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu

The contribution of Cholas to Dravidian architecture

  • The Cholas perfected the Dravidian temple style inherited from the Pallavas. During this time, the architecture style became more elaborate by moving away from the early cave temples of the Pallavas
  • Stone came to be used as the predominant material for the construction of the temples during this time
  • Gopurams became more prominent. They were decorated with carvings representing various Puranas
  • The Vimanas attained a greater grandeur during the Chola period. Ex: The temple tower of Brihadeshwara temple is 66 metres
  • Greater emphasis was given for the use of sculptures in the construction of the temple


  • Nagara style of temple architecture that became popular in northern India is known as Nagara. In North India it is common for an entire temple to be built on a stone platform with steps leading up to it.
  • Another unique characteristic is that it does not usually have elaborate boundary walls or gateways.
  • The garbhagriha is always located directly under the tallest tower.
  • There are many subdivisions of Nagara temples depending on the shape of the shikhara.
  • Amalaka or Kalash which is installed on Shikhara is another characteristic feature of this form of temple style
  • Kandariya Mahadev Temple in Madhya Pradesh is an example for Nagara style of temple architecture
  • Other examples of Nagara style of temples in India are- Sun temple, Konark, Sun temple at Modhera, Gujarat and Ossian temple, Gujarat.

Classification of Nagara style of temple architecture based on the style of Shikhara

 Rekha-Prasad or Latina: These temples are characterized by a simple Shikara with a square base and inward curving walls that have a pointed top. Early medieval temples such as the Sun Temple at Markhera in Madhya Pradesh (MP). The Sri Jagannath Temple of Odisha has been constructed in the Rekha-Prasad Shikara style.

Shekari: is a variation of the Latina where the Shikara comprises of a main Rekha-Prasad Shikara and one or more rows of smaller steeples on both sides of the central spire. Additionally, the base and corners also feature mini Shikaras. The Khajuraho Kandariya Mahadev Temple is one of the most prominent temples built in this style.

Bhumija: Another type of Nagara temple that evolved from the Latina style was the Bhumija architecture developed in Malwa under the Paramara dynasty. These temples have a flat upward tapering projection comprising of a central Latina spire and miniature spires on the quadrant formed by the tapering tower. These mini Shikaras carved out both horizontally as well as vertically. The Udayeshwar Temple in MP is built in this style.

  • Valabhi: style temples are rectangular in shape comprising of barrel-vaulted roofs. The vaulted chamber roof has earned them the moniker wagon vaulted buildings/structures. Teli Ka Mandir, a 9th Century temple at Gwalior has been built in this style.
  • Phamsana: are shorter but broader structures comprising of roofs with numerous slabs that rise upwards in a gentle slope on a straight incline like a pyramid meeting at a single point over the mid-point of the building. The Jagmohan of Konark Temple is constructed in the Phamsana mode.
  • Sub-schools of Nagara style of temple architecture
  • Odisha School – The most prominent distinguishing feature is the Shikara (Deul) which rises vertically before curving inwards at the top. The main type is square while the upper reaches are circular. These temples have intricately carved exteriors and usually bare interiors. Unlike Nagara temples of the north, most Odisha temples have boundary walls.
  • Chandel School – Unlike Odishan style, these temples are conceived as a single unit and have Shikaras that curved from bottom to top. There are a number of miniatures Shikaras rising from the central tower and towers that gradually rise up to the main tower cap both the porticos and halls.
  • Solanki School – They are similar to the Chandel School except that they have carved ceilings that appear like a true dome. The distinguishing feature of these temples is the minute and intricate decorative motifs. Except for the central shrine, one can find carvings on both the inner and outer sides of the walls.

Famous Nagara temples in various regions of India

Central India

  • Some of the oldest surviving structural temples belonging to Nagara style are from the Gupta Period are in Madhya Pradesh
  • These are relatively modest-looking shrines each having four pillars that support a small mandapa which looks like a simple square porch-like extension before an equally small room that served as the garbhagriha.
  • Deogarh (in Lalitpur District, Uttar Pradesh) was built in the early sixth century CE is a classic example of a late Gupta Period type of temple. This temple is in the panchayatana style of architecture where the main shrine is built on a rectangular plinth with four smaller subsidiary shrines at the four corners (making it a total number of five shrines, hence the name, panchayatana). The tall and curvilinear shikhara also corroborates this date. The presence of this curving latina or rekha-prasada type of shikhara also makes it clear that this is an early example of a classic Nagara style of temple
  • The Lakshmana temple of Khajuraho, dedicated to Vishnu, was built in 954 by the Chandela king, Dhanga.
  • A Nagara temple, it is placed on a high platform accessed by stairs. There are four smaller temples in the corners, and all the towers or shikharas rise high, upward in a curved pyramidal fashion, emphasizing the temple’s vertical thrust ending in a horizontal fluted disc called an amalak topped with a kalash or vase.
  • The crowning elements: amalak and kalash, are to be found on all Nagara temples of this period.
  • Kandariya Mahadeo temple at Khajuraho is the epitome of Nagara style of temple architecture in Central India. Khajuraho’s temples are also known for their extensive erotic sculptures; the erotic expression is given equal importance in human experience as spiritual pursuit, and it is seen as part of a larger cosmic whole

West India

  • Nagara temples located in Gujarat and Rajasthan
  • The Sun temple at Modhera which dates back to early eleventh century and which was built by Raja Bhimdev I of the Solanki Dynasty in 1026 is an example of Nagara style of temple in this region. The influence of the woodcarving tradition of Gujarat is evident in this temple

East India

  • Eastern Indian temples include those found in the North-East, Bengal and Odisha.
  • It appears that terracotta was the main medium of construction, and also for moulding plaques which depicted Buddhist and Hindu deities in Bengal until the seventh century
  • An old sixth-century sculpted door frame from DaParvatia near Tezpur and another few stray sculptures from Rangagora Tea Estate near Tinsukia in Assam bear witness to the import of the Gupta style in that region.
  • Regional variation: The style that came with the migration of the Tais from Upper Burma mixed with the dominant Pala style of Bengal and led to the creation of what was later known as the Ahom style in and around Guwahati. Kamakhya temple, a Shakti Peeth, is dedicated to Goddess Kamakhya and was built in the seventeenth century.

  • The Palas are celebrated as patrons of many Buddhist monastic sites; the temples from that region are known to express the local Vanga style. The ninth century Siddheshvara Mahadeva temple in Barakar in Burdwan District, for example, shows a tall curving shikhara crowned by a large amalaka and is an example of the early Pala style. It is similar to contemporaneous temples of Odisha. This temple is also an example of the regional variation of Nagara style of temple architecture
  • The temples of Odisha constitute a distinct sub-style within the Nagara order. In general, here the shikhara, called deul in Odisha, is vertical almost until the top when it suddenly curves sharply inwards.
  • At Konark, on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, lie the majestic ruins of the Surya or Sun temple built in stone around 1240. Its shikhara was a colossal creation said to have reached 70m
  • Other famous Nagara temples in this region are: Muktesvara temple, Rajarani temple, Lingaraja temple etc

The hill states of India

  • A unique form of architecture developed in the hills of Kumaon, Garhwal, Himachal and Kashmir. Kashmir’s proximity to prominent Gandhara sites
  • This began to mix with the Gupta and post-Gupta traditions that were brought to it from Sarnath, Mathura and even centres in Gujarat and Bengal.
  • As a result both Buddhist and Hindu traditions began to intermingle and spread in the hills. The hills also had their own tradition of wooden buildings with pitched roofs.
  • At several places in the hills, therefore, you will find that while the main garbhagriha and shikhara are made in a rekha-prasada or Latina style, the mandapa is of an older form of wooden architecture. Sometimes, the temple itself takes on a pagoda shape
  • Of the temples in Kumaon, the ones at Jageshwar near Almora, and Champavat near Pithoragarh, are classic examples of Nagara architecture in the region.


Vesara is a combination of Nagara and Dravidian style of temple architecture styles. The term Vesara is believed to have been derived from the Sanskrit word vishra meaning an area to take a long walk. Many historian agree that the Vesara style originated in the what is today Karnataka.

  • The trend was started by the Chalukyas of Badami (500-753AD) who built temples in a style that was essentially a mixture of the Nagara and the Dravida styles, further refined by the Rashtrakutas of Manyakheta (750- 983AD) in Ellora, Chalukyas of Kalyani (983-1195 AD) in Lakkundi, Dambal, Gadag etc. and epitomized by the Hoysalas (1000-1330 AD)
  • The Hoysalas temples at Belur, Halebidu and Somnathpura are prime examples of this style.

Unique features of Vesara style of temple architecture

  • Ornamentation: In case of ornamentation of temple walls and pillars, Chalukyan temple shows indigenous quality.
  • Transformation of Dravida tower: The Chalukyan builders modified the Dravida towers by minimizing the height of each storey and arranging them in descending order of height from base to top with much ornamentation in each storey.
  • Transformation of Nagara tower: Instead of inclined storey here modification is seen in the vertical shape of the tower
  • Two special features of Chalukya temples – Mantapa and Pillars:
  • Mantapa: The mantapa has two types of roof – domical ceilings (the dome like ceilings standing on four pillars are very attractive) or Square ceilings (these are vigorously ornamented with mythological pictures).
  • Pillars: the miniature decorative pillars of Chalukya temples stands with its own artistic value.
  • Famous temples built with this style include: Kallesvara temple, Kukkanur; Ramalingesvara temple, Gudur; Mahadeva temple, Ittagi; Kasivisvesvara temple, Lakkundi (and several other temples at Lakkundi); Brahmadeva temple, Savadi – notable for being fully stellate; Mallikarjuna temple, Sudi (and Joda-kalasha temple)

Influence of Nagara and Dravidian style of temple architecture on the style of Vesara

  • The plan of shrine, subsidiary shrine, panchayatan style bears similarity to Nagara School.
  • The plan of vestibule joining the sanctum to mantapa bears resemblance to Odishan temples.
  • The most of the temple pillars in Karnataka region bears similarity to sekhari and bhumija type of pillars in northern India.
  • The stepped diamond plan that is a plan of design arrangement as seen in Chalukya temples is from northern region.
  • The most of the temples in kalyani portrays Nagara articulation projecting stepped diamond or stellate plan.
  • The Dravida influence is mainly visible in vimana of the Chalukya temples in first part of the Chalukya rule
  • Miniature decorative towers and ornamentation of walls in Chalukya temples show combination of both Nagara and Dravida style.


Chalukyan architecture

  • Their architecture consisted of admixture of Nagara and Dravidian styles.
  • Temples built during this time can be found in- Aihole, Badami and Pattadakal
  • Temples built during their time period do not have a covered ambulatory path
  • The Virupaksha temple at Pattadakal built in imitation of Kailashnath temple is the jewel of Chalukyan architecture
  •  The Rameshwaram temple at Ellora built in 7th century was also built during the Chalukyan time period
  • Lad Khan temple and Durga temple at Aihole are other noteworthy monuments built during this time period

Rashtrakuta architecture

  • They were the successors of the Chalukyas
  • Their temples were built mostly imitating the Chalukyan style
  • The Kailas temple at Ellora, built during the time of Krishna II is the representative form of architecture of the empire
  • The Navalinga Temples in Kukkanur is another temple built during this period
  • Hoysala temple architecture
  • Kesava temple at Belur built during the time of Vishnuvardhana to commemorate his victory over the Cholas is a representative art of this period
  • In this temple, there are multiple shrines grouped around a central pillared hall and laid out in the shape of an intricately-designed star
  • Such an arrangement could be found in temples during this time in Halebid, Somnathpur and elsewhere
  • Hoysaleswara temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is another famous temple built during this period

Vijayanagara architecture

It is a vibrant combination of the Chalukya, Hoysala, Pandya, and Chola styles

  • Local hard granite was the building material of choice, as it had been for the Badami Chalukyas.
  • Vijayanagar temples are characterized by ornate pillared halls and rayagopurams, or monumental towers adorned with life-sized figures of gods and goddesses that stand at the entrance of the temple.
  • Vijayanagar temples are also known for their carved pillars , which depict charging horses, figures from Hindu mythology, and yali (hippogriphs)

Some of the larger temples are dedicated to a male deity, with a separate shrine intended for the worship of his female counterpart. Some famous temples exemplifying the Vijayanagar style include the Virupaksha Temple at Hampi and the Hazara Rama temple of Deva Raya I

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