AGAMA in Brief to know about TEMPLE


The Agama literature includes the Silpa- Sastra, which is basic to iconography. Worship dealt with the Agama necessarily involves images which are worship-worthy. The rituals and sequences that are elaborated in the Agama books find relevance only the context of the context on an icon which is contained in the shrine. And icons are meaningful only in the context of shrines and worship.

Agama texts are not easily accessible to the people. A large number of them are still available only in manuscripts; some of them which have been printed are only their Sanskrit originals. There is need, therefore, to present relevant excerpts from them at least, to make the volumes on iconography more meaningful.

Further, Indian temples are to be considered only in the general framework of temple culture, which include not only religious and philosophical aspects but social, aesthetic and economic aspects also.

The volumes named Agama Encyclopaedia will deal with the temple-culture and Agama framework, the sectarian division of the Agama into Saiva, Vaisnava and Săkta, and topics selected from the Agama texts will follow. Thus, the entirety of the Agama, literature in so far as it is relevant to the temple-culture is brought within the scope of the Agama Encyclopaedia.

The volume deals with the general problems relating to the idea of Agama and the broad details of the tradition that is known after Agama. In the historic perspective Agama tradition and the Vedic tradition were initially distinguished, but the later the two fused. The circumstances that flavoured the separation and integration have been explained. The role Tantra played in crystallizing the Agama tradition has been elaborately explained and illustrated. And more importantly the volumes deals almost exclusively with the essential details of temple-culture in India without an adequate appreciation of this context, other aspects of Agama cannot become meaningful. In one of the appendices, a fairly exhaustive account of Tantra had been given, for this has provides the major dimension to the Agama, especially of the Săkta persuation. The volumes which were originally published in the period 1989-1994 Kalpatharu Research Academy, Bangalore are being re printed now, and iam grateful to my friend Shri Sunil Gupta of the Indian Book Centre, Delhi for publishing a revised edition of the volumes.

S.K.Ramachandra Rao
June, 2004.


It is impossible to indicate when exactly the custom of building stylized temples began in our country. There is hardly a structural shrine that can reach to the third or even fourth century A.D. But temples must have been there much earlier. The village shrines of thatch and mud, bamboo and wood not have been meant to survive till our days. The builders of such shrines had no eye for abiding fame. They did not aspire that their building should last “till the sun and the moon stars cease shining”, as the later kings and chieftains’ instruments of vanity or even acts of piety, but necessary means of worship.

There is evidence to suppose that the early shrines were temporary structures, erected when the occasion of community-worship demanded, and were pulled down later. The canonical concept of ‘pavillion’ (ma??apa) suggests that the gather to pavilion is to accommodate the people that gather to participate in the worship ritual.

It is only later that such structures tended to become more permanent, and the early stimulus came probably from the Indo-Greeks who became converts to Indian religions.

IMAGE (Icon)

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 dose not depends upon such activities for its continuance. It is true that the urge for the expression of the image has grown from simple ring of stones to a vast complex of shrines, chapels, pavilions, corridors, yards, and tanks. It is also true that some times townships have grown inside the temple enclosure; and the administrative machinery in many cases is elaborate and involved. But the basic truth about the temples is the image that people have, and this centres round the icon. The icon is the source of the image; and the image may reach far out.

It is not impossible to conceive of an icon devoid of the temple paraphernalia. In fact, it is not till a late period in the history of Indian religion that the temple as a distinct socio-religious institution began. Early shrines were probably confined to the icon. The custom of building the temple first and then preparing an icon to be installed in it is a latter one. According to strict canonical considerations, 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 image of the icon.


Over the stone slab mentioned above, the neck (griva) is introduced. And on the ‘neck’ rests the dome of the tower. The term vimana refers to the structure between top-slab (upana) and the finial (stupi). Early vimanas were circular and conical, in keeping with the one to twelve talasof diminishing circumference until it ended in a point of the finial. Later the body of the vimana tended to be polygonal. Four sided vimanas have become popular; six-sided and eight-sided are not rare. There are few temples with the vimana having as many as sixteen sides. The Ka??a?a?gar temple in Madurai is reputed to have as many as 65 sides! The prevailing shape in all such towers is pyramidal. But the early conical towers were closing imitations of the conical thatched roof which projected beyond the roof. Whatever the later form the tower took the basic image of the cone or spire or pyramid persisted. The branches of the inverted tree spreading all-round, is the vision in the background.


This feature has several members, such as “the foot-hold” (padagrahi) which is structurally imbedded in the masonry of the tower, “the egg” (a??a) or the belly, “the neck” (griva), “the lotus-band” (padma-pa??ika), “the rim” (kar?ika) and the “bud” (bija-pura). The shape of this unit could resemble the bell, the flower bud, the lump, coconut, alter or pot. The significance of all these shapes is that it symbolizes the potentialities of life.

Above the vimana rests the “vase” (kalasa), representing the roots of the inverted tree. Texts mention that the original kalasa was born as one of the fourteen precious gems that came out of the milky ocean when it was churned/; and they suggest that it symbolizes blessing (prasada-man??ana). The old name of this unit was “kama-ku?ba” or “the pitcher of desire”. In the architectural development of the Indian temple this feature arrived late, and its arrival appears to be subsequent to the canonical texts. And the early kalasas were probably only stone blocks, round or ribbed. They were in the nature of cap-stones that held structurally as well as stylistically the vimana, especially when it was tall and tapering, as in the North Indian temples. The copper vases were later innovations. Sometimes brass were used; but the agama books favour copper. The kalasa is actually a vessel that is deposited under the sanctum. And like the latter, this also is made to contain tokens of growth and prosperity, viz., cereals with subtle seeds (such as millet) and nine precious stones.


The sanctum which is the most important structural detail is closely associated with ‘the dispensing seat’ (bali-pitha) which is installed in front of the sanctum directly facing the icon. It is a low stone alter, frequently modelled in the form of a lotus in bloom. In the earlier shrines it is a bear block of stone, but later it assumed a relatively elaborate form with base, cornices, wall-surface and the top-lotus. Actually there will be several seats of this nature, installed in various ritualistically determined positions inside enclosure and out side the sanctum. However; the one in front of the sanctum is the ‘chief-seat’ (pradhana-pitha), and it is one this that the sculptor spends his skills. The purpose of these seats is to offer food to the attendant and secondary deities, after the main offering has been made in the sanctum. The canons specify that the real temple comprises of the sanctum, the tower on the top of it. These are the essential parts of a shrine. Some texts even proclaim that the extent of the shrine reaches only as far as the ‘dispensing seat’ and no further. Sanctum water (ap) and the tower over it Fire (tejas); the finial of the tower stands for air (vayu) and above it is the formless Ether (akasa). The sanctum is thus a constellation of the five elements that are basic to the entire universe. And fire being the active element that fuses the others, the tower becomes an important limb in the structure of a temple.

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). The sanctum is viewed as the head. Right on top of the head is the passage through which the currents of life ascend to the tower through this stone slab. Around the four corners of this slab are placed the images if the vehicles or emblems that characterize the icon inside the sanctum.


People gather to worship at the temple only occasionally. Every house had its own shrine, and daily worship would be conducted there. Two kinds of shrines are recognized; ‘private’ shrines meant for individual devotee and for his family (atmartha); and ‘public’, meant for all the people in the community (parartha). In the former case the performer and the participants are not different, whereas in the latter the priest are the performers and the people are the participants. The sanctum of public shrine would be for the performance of the worship ritual, and the pavilions for the participants to assemble and partake of the proceedings. Temporary structures would be put up when large groups of participants are expected to gather.


The ritual of installing the metal vase over the brick and mortar body of the tower is an interesting one. The vase is not bound to the tower by any packing material like mortar and cement. It is only fixed by a hollow rod that juts out of the centre of the tower and runs through the vase. It is through this tube that the ‘tokens’ (cereals and precious stones) are introduced. It is sealed above the body of the kalasa before the ‘buds’ raises.

The body has five limbs: the ‘seat’ (pi?ha) in the form of a lotus flower whose petals poen out completely; the ‘neck’ on which the bulging out ‘pot’ (ku?bha), which is the next limb, rests; the ‘birm’ or lid for the ‘pot’; the ‘flower’ which opens upward; and finally the ‘flower’ bud which tapers off to a point.


The vehicles are normally on a level lover than their owners. What then is the significance of the deities of the vehicles above the sanctum? They act as door-guardians for the icon in the sanctum. But where are the doors there? Hear is an interesting aspect of the tower. He guarding deities stand between the sanctum and the tower, admitting the forces that descend through the tower into the sanctum. The tower is the inverted tree. The main mass of the tower represents the spreading branches and finial above it the roots.


The forehead of man is said to represent the sanctum, and the top of the head, the tower. The space between the eyebrows is the seat of the icon. The icon is located in the aj?a centre. The finial of the tower is unseen above the head, in the sahasrara region; and the ‘womb’ of the sanctum at the tip of the nose.

Mention must be made here of the structural detail known as the alter or ‘the dispensing seat’ (bali-pitha), which is an indispensable associate of the sanctum. As already described, it is a small but stylized stone seat that is installed directly in front of the icon and vary near the sanctum. Some texts prescribe that it must be outside the gopura or the first enclosure (Visnu-tilaka, Manasara). It is on this seat that the food offerings to the attendant divinities and the guardian goblins are placed, after the main food offering to the attendant divinities and the guardian goblins are placed, after the main food offering to the icon in the sanctum has been completed. There will be several such seats around the sanctum in positions determined by the canonical texts. Usually asters are provided in the eight directions, but the one in the front of the sanctum is regarded as the chief (pradhana), and it will be the most ornate, and stylistically majestic, with several limbs such as the base, cornices, wall-surface with door-lets or niches. It is usually made of hard granite, but it is also built in bricks and mortar. There is a provision also for metal ones and when the alter is wooden it is recommended to be covered by metal sheets (Karanagama). Texts like Silpa-ratna indicate that mud altar were also common at one time. 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, altar are classified into several types such as Sri-bandha, Sri-bhadra, Sarvato-bhadra and so on.


The flag-staff (dhvaja-sta?bha) is often seen close to the ‘dispensing seat’ in south Indian temples. It is usual for the two to be together. Some texts prescribe that the ‘dispensing seat’ must be located between the sanctum and the flag-staff, although in practice the flag-staff frequently takes the middle position. The custom of erecting this tall thin column, whose height varies from fifty to eighty feet, appears to be a late one. The early purpose was only to indicate the position of the sanctum. Even today, the mean shrines in villages and on the highway when they are otherwise indistinguishable have flag on hem, to show that they are places of worship. In North Indian temples, it is a practice to fly long flowing banners from the tower itself. The canonical texts favour wooden or bamboo poles, with an uneven number of joints, up to twenty-five. Covering them with metal plates was optional. And the flag-staff was not necessarily intended as a permanent structure. Putting it up marked the commencement of occasional festivals in the temples.

However, in course of time the permanently fixed flag-staff became a common feature in temple architecture. The wooden pole, covered with copper, brass, or even silver plates gilded, is installed on a raised stone platform, often square in shape 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 ‘seat’ of the flag-staff as well as the mast with perches came to be highly stylized in South India during the days of the Co?a and Pa??ya rulers, for the flag-staff was uniquely a royal insignia.

When the flag-staff became a permanent detail in the temple, the commencement of festivals began to be signalized by ceremonially hoisting a flag on it (masuraka).

The Agama literature includes the Silpa- Sastra, which is basic to iconography. Worship dealt with the Agama necessarily involves images which are worship-worthy.