Hindu Art

Architecture of Hindu Temples

Hindu architecture, representing a plurality of beliefs, is commonly divided into the northern Nagara and southern Dravidian styles.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between the northen Nagara and southern Dravidian styles of Hindu temple architecture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Hindu art represents a plurality of beliefs and has deeply influenced the painting, sculpture, and architecture of the Indian subcontinent. Architecture and sculpture are inextricably linked in Hindu temples, which are usually devoted to a number of different deities .
  • A Hindu temple generally consists of an inner sanctum, in which the idol of the deity is housed; a congregation hall; and sometimes an antechamber and porch.
  • Two main styles of temples exist in India: the north Indian Nagara style, characterized by a beehive shaped central tower, and the south Indian Dravidia style, characterized by a graduated tower with multiple layered pavilions.
  • The period between the 6th and 12th centuries was marked by the appearance of a large number of Hindu states and was a productive and creative period for Hindu temple architecture.

Key Terms

  • shikhara: The tower surmounting a Hindu temple.
  • om: A sacred, mystical syllable used to invoke God in Hindu prayer and meditation.

Introduction: Hinduism and Hindu Art

Hinduism is the predominant religion of the Indian subcontinent. Dating back to the Iron Age , it is often called the oldest living religion in the world. Hinduism has no single founder and is a conglomeration of diverse traditions and philosophies rather than a rigid set of beliefs. Most Hindus believe in a single supreme God who appears in many different manifestations as devas (celestial beings or deities), and they may worship specific devas as individual facets of the same God.

Hindu art reflects this plurality of beliefs, and Hindu temples, in which architecture and sculpture are inextricably connected, are usually devoted to different deities. Deities commonly worshiped include Shiva the Destroyer; Vishnu in his incarnations as Rama and Krishna; Ganesha, the elephant god of prosperity; and different forms of the goddess Shakti (literally meaning “power”), the primordial feminine creative principle. These deities are often portrayed with multiple limbs and heads, demonstrating the extent of the god’s power and ability. Hindu art is also characterized by a number of recurring holy symbols, including the om , an invocation of the divine consciousness of God; the swastika, a symbol of auspiciousness; and the lotus flower, a symbol of purity, beauty, fertility, and transcendence.

Hindu Temples

A Hindu temple generally consists of a garba griha (“womb chamber”), the inner sanctum in which the murti , or idol of the deity, is housed; a congregation hall; and sometimes an antechamber and porch. The garba griha is surmounted by a shikhara , or tower. Two main styles of temples exist in India: the northern Nagara style and the southern Dravida style.

The Nagara Style

In the northern Nagara style, the shikhara takes the shape of a curvilinear beehive. The temple is a square with a number of graduated projections in the middle of each side, giving a cruciform shape with a number of re-entrant angles on each side. The projections in the plan are also carried upwards to the top of the shikhara, giving a strong emphasis on vertical lines in elevation .

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Lingaraj Temple, Bhubaneshwar, Orissa: The 11th century Lingaraj Temple is a fine example of the north Indian Nagara style of temple architecture, marked by its curvilinear, beehive-shaped shikhara.

The Dravidian Style

In the southern Dravidian style, the tower or gopuram consists of progressive smaller stories of pavilions. These temples were square in plan and pyramidal in shape; included porches (mandapams) and pillard halls (chaultris or chawadis); and contained tanks or wells for water to be used for sacred purposes or the convenience of the priests.

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Brihadeeswarar Temple Gopuram Detail: The Brihadeeswarar Temple in Tanjore has the tallest Dravida style tower (216 feet) in India. The multiple stories are ornately carved.

History and Well-Known Temples

The earliest Hindu temples found in India date back to the Gupta period (ca. 320–550 CE); one of these is the Dashavatara Vishnu Temple in Deogarh in central India, built ca. 500 CE. The period between the 6th and 12th centuries was marked by the appearance of a large number of states, most of which were ruled by Hindu dynasties . This was a deeply productive and creative period for Hindu temple architecture, and many beautiful examples survive to the present day. Some surviving works include the monumental , rock-cut Kailashnath Temple (754–774 CE) dedicated to Shiva at Ellora in the western state of Maharashtra; the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple in Tanjore in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, which is India’s largest temple; and the Sun Temple (1238–1250 CE) at Konarak in Orissa. Although many Hindu temples were destroyed during the period of Muslim rule in India (12th to 18th centuries), Hindu influence on Indian art and architecture has withstood the test of time and continues to shape works of art.

Hindu Sculpture

Hindu sculpture represents the themes of its religion through its depiction of deities and recurring symbols, such as the lotus flower.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the religious themes that contribute to an understanding of Hindu sculpture

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Most Hindus believe in a single supreme God who appears in many different manifestations as devas, or celestial beings or deities ; Hindu sculpture reflects this plurality of beliefs.
  • Because religion and culture are inseparable with Hinduism , recurring symbols such as the gods and their reincarnations, the lotus flower, and extra limbs make their appearances in many sculptures of Hindu origin.
  • Deities are often portrayed with multiple limbs and heads, demonstrating the extent of the God’s power and ability.
  • Hindu sculpture is characterized by recurring holy symbols such as the om , an invocation of the divine consciousness of God; the swastika, a symbol of auspiciousness; and the lotus flower, a symbol of purity, beauty, fertility, and transcendence.
  • Sculpture is inextricably linked with architecture in Hindu temples, which are usually devoted to a number of different deities.

Key Terms

  • Hinduism: A religion or a way of life found most notably in India and Nepal; with over one billion followers, it is the world’s third largest religion by population.
  • dharma: A key concept with multiple meanings in the Indian religions Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism; in Hinduism, it signifies behaviors that are considered to be in accord with the order that makes life and universe possible, including duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues, and “right way of living.”

Themes of Hindu Art and Sculpture

Hinduism is a conglomeration of diverse traditions and philosophies rather than a rigid set of beliefs. Most Hindus believe in a single supreme God who appears in many different manifestations as devas (celestial beings or deities), and they may worship specific devas as individual facets of the same God. Hindu sculpture, as seen in other forms of Hindu art, reflects this plurality of beliefs. Because religion and culture are inseparable with Hinduism, recurring symbols such as the gods and their reincarnations, the lotus flower, extra limbs, and even the traditional arts make their appearances in many sculptures of Hindu origin.

Depictions of Deities

Deities commonly worshiped and portrayed through sculpture include Shiva the Destroyer; Vishnu in his incarnations as Rama and Krishna; Ganesha, the elephant god of prosperity; and different forms of the goddess Shakti (literally meaning “power”), the primordial feminine creative principle. These deities are often portrayed with multiple limbs and heads, demonstrating the extent of the god’s power and ability. For example, the goddess Sarasvati is always depicted with a minimum of four arms: two of the arms will be playing a vina, representing the tuning of her knowledge; her other two hands often hold prayer beads and a scripture, both of which represent her devotion to her spirituality. As the goddess of learning and art, she is depicted in this way as very capable and powerful in her area of expertise.

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Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance: Nataraja from Tamil Nadu, India. Chola dynasty copper alloy sculpture, ca. 950–1000 CE. The deity is depicted as having multiple arms, as is common for idols of Hindu gods.

Symbols in Hindu Sculpture

Hindu sculpture is also characterized by a number of recurring holy symbols, including the om, an invocation of the divine consciousness of God; the swastika, a symbol of auspiciousness; and the lotus flower, a symbol of purity, beauty, prosperity, fertility, and transcendence. The lotus flower is associated with these attributes due to its own process of blossoming: the flower grows out of mud and rests atop the water in which it grows, illustrating the hardship it must endure in order to achieve maximum beauty. Many deities have their name based on the Sanskrit word for lotus, such as Lakshimi. In addition to these symbols, flowers, birds, animals, instruments, symmetric mandala drawings, objects, and idols are all part of symbolic iconography in Hinduism.

Connection to Architecture

Sculpture is inextricably linked with architecture in Hindu temples, which are usually devoted to a number of different deities. The Hindu temple style reflects a synthesis of arts, the ideals of dharma , beliefs, values , and the way of life cherished under Hinduism. Elaborately ornamented with sculpture throughout, these temples are a network of art, pillars with carvings, and statues that display and celebrate the four important and necessary principles of human life under Hinduism—the pursuit of artha (prosperity, wealth), the pursuit of kama (pleasure, sex), the pursuit of dharma (virtues, ethical life), and the pursuit of moksha (release, self-knowledge).