A new book by photographer and author Tarun Chopra tells us how temples play a crucial role in social and cultural life

Since times immemorial India is being described and perceived as the land of temples. While travelling one comes across numerous temples of varied antiquity, size and religious importance giving the country its unique identity. So it is not surprising to see droves of domestic and foreign tourists visiting them. Advertisements of tour operators specifically mention holiday packages and itineraries focusing wholly on temples. Devotees from Japan, South Korea and Sri Lanka take up the Buddhist sector tour to visit places connected with their faith. Likewise, for Hindus there are packages covering the four dhams. In Delhi, the Laxminarayan Mandir sees hordes of tourists and locals praying while the Pracheen Hanuman Mandir in Connaught Place is visited by faithful not just on Tuesday but other days too.

What beckons youngsters to these places of worship? Is it belief or fear of the Supreme Being? Or is it the sense of restlessness egging them to seek solace? Are many drawn by the size, beauty and craftsmanship of the statues and temple structure? Mihir Dasgupta of Chittaranjan Park, who has visited many temples, including the Sanchi, Brihadisvara, Tanjore, Ellora and Bhubaneswar, says, “It is not merely the edifice which impresses but the fact that people worshipped here hundreds of years ago that makes the place special.”

For Jayant Damani, an IT professional, temples are akin to sanctuaries. “A visit to Konark’s Sun Temple, or the Tirupati or Amritsar’s Harmandir Sahib provides tranquillity in the midst of the hectic urban life.” Sukanya Balakrishnan, a major in history from the Delhi University, compares temples to museums. “Showcasing an array of craft and relics, it gives you insight into the minds of those who made it and the times they lived in. You tend to admire as well as envy the architects, sculptors and designers for their intricate and exquisite artistry. One can’t take eyes off the Ranakpur Temple ceiling while the Luna Vashi temple of Dilwara with its marble columns is spectacular.” Different strokes for different folks.

Viewing temples from a different prism –– that of spirituality –– photographer and author, Tarun Chopra sees them as places where the faithful come to experience the divine. Having spent nearly a decade in putting together the text and photographs to trace the evolution of temple-building in India, Chopra knows what he is talking about. His Prakash Books publication “Temples of India-Abode of the Divine” covers 28 temples sites and is illustrated with photographs, illustrations, ground plans and cross-sections which helps readers to understand the science of geometry and architecture of the temples and the rules of Shilpa Shastra and Vastu Shastra applied. Suffused with stories and nuggets of information, the text by him complements the visuals well.

Temples have always occupied a prime place in a town or village. Acting as social hubs where people gathered to exchange their sorrows and joys, these places enabled families to spend quality time together away from home. With grown ups busy with their acquaintances and friends, children made merry playing in the temple precincts. Many view the circumambulation –– the act of going around the sacred idol or place –– a good form of physical exercise. On another plane, temples were ideally suited for those wanting to meditate by concentrating on the divine sculpture place in the sanctum sanctorum –– garbhagriha.

Down the ages, temples became sites for development of dance and music too. Indian classical dances as religious performance art were dance drama form relating to different sects, epics and Vedic literature. Performed either inside the sanctum or near it, distinct dance forms came into being in different areas. Julius Lipner in his book “Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices” says: “Hindu classical dance developed in a religious context and was given high profile as part of temple worship.” Same holds true for the classical music. Mainly confined to temples and courts, singing at the places of worship gave exposure to many talented artists to reach out to the masses at large thus gaining recognition and fame. A case in point is the Haveli sangeet practiced by followers of Vaishnavism in Rajasthan and Gujarat, it moved to the confines of haveli due to restrictions on temples during the reign of Muslim rulers.

Many places have acquired prominence because of the temples. India is dotted with many such temple-towns. “This is especially true in places like Khajuraho, which was the religious capital of the Chandelas in the 10th Century,” says Chopra. He cites examples of similar towns in South India like Madurai, Trichy and Chidambaram.

It is hard to believe that temple building came into being 1,500 years ago in India. In the early stages of civilisation, forces of nature like sun, moon, rain and thunderstorms and natural objects like tree, caves, mountains, fire and rivers were primarily worshipped. In the Indus Valley civilisation, renowned for its town planning and civic administration, seals suggesting spiritual and mystical thought have been found but there is no conclusive evidence of temples. During the Vedic period fire worship –– yagna –– involving an altar, lighting fire within it and chanting of hymns while pouring offerings, was practised. Chopra mentions in the book that as ancient man began to build basic refuges with locally available material that afforded shelter from the rain and sun, he did the same for the cult images he worshipped. Wooden beams both flexible and bent were used to build structures which later transformed to those of stone. The early Buddhist stupas being their foremost example.

Chopra’s book chooses the sites chronologically to demonstrate the evolution of temple-making during the period 2 BCE to 16 CE in which some of the architectural trend setting temples were built. “The Sanchi Stupa is a prime example of how the earlier existing wooden designs were copied and translated into stone. The railing of the Stupa and its four torans are the prime example. Later temples were carved into the mountain sides such as cave temples at Elephanta, Ajanta and Ellora. The next phase was chiselling a giant rock into a temple. The Kailasha Temple at Ellora is epitome of this architectural style.” Continuing he traces the advent of free standing temples. “These simple one room structures which over centuries became elaborate temples as the master craftsmen became more comfortable in making lofty structures by balancing stone on stone in dry masonry.” Interestingly some temples documented represent the transition from one stage of evolution to the next like the Aihole in Karnataka from rock-cut temples to freestanding ones. At Mahabalipuram, near Chennai one can see right from the early cave temples to monolithic rocks and finally the freestanding structures. Pattadakal, a world heritage site, has 10 temples, four are in the Nagara style and the remaining in Dravidian.

The evolution of temple making can be attributed to improvement in the skills of the craftsmen and the increase in funding provided by kings and rich merchants. But now things have changed. With not many temples on that scale being built there is significant reduction in the number of temple makers and craftsmen. Chopra feels this will force many of them to seek alternative employment rendering their excellent skill extinct.