A Synthesis of Styles Spanning Over Thousand Years
P.C. Kumar, P. Krishna Rao, R. Parthasarathy
(Reprinted from a previous Souvenir of SSVT)

Temples have held a central position in the life of the community in India. Several social and family activities revolved around the temple. Consistent with their importance and significance, temple architecture evolved in its stylistic forms to elaborate ornamented structures. These ornamentation’s reflected the rich Hindu mythology, seeking to provide a direct link between the community and its spiritual and social values.

This article provides a historical background and synopsis of architectural styles from the classical and neoclassical periods, still extant in India, now recreated in the SSVT. The SSVT architecture is truly authentic sample of styles evolved in many parts of India over the centuries. The project also shows that craftsmanship and technologies associated with ancient art form are well nurtured and preserved. The companion article by the temple architect Ganapathi Stapathi, dwells on the spiritual link between the art and the Hindu concept of divinity.

Functions of the Hindu Temple The Hindu temple is conceived as a link, which facilitates communion between man and divinity. The architecture attempts to dissolve the boundaries between human beings and the divine, seeking to stress the unification with the divine as the ultimate aim. An understanding of the relationship between forms and their meaning is essential to appreciate the role of the temple.

Temples are places where concepts are translated into visual images accessible to people and directly meaningful. Some of associated designations are:-

  • Prasadam: Seat or platform of God
  • Devagruham: House of God
  • Devalayam: Residence of God
  • Mandiram: Waiting or abiding place

The sanctum sanctorum within which the main deity is installed and worshipped is called the Garbagraha (literally the womb chamber) representing the kernel, signifying the essence. Rituals and ceremonies that form the core of Hindu worship have influenced the forms of temple architecture.

Styles of temple architecture

The earliest surviving brick and stone temples date back to the fifth and sixth centuries. They are divided into the “northern” (nagara) and “southern” (dravida) styles. The northern styles covered a vast area comprising the Himalayas to the Deccan plateau, Gujarat to Orissa and Bengal, which clearly differentiated regional variations. The Southern style was more homogeneous and consistent in its development. The two styles are not mutually exclusive. For example a mix of styles evolved in the Andhra. This broad classification does not include temples in peripheral areas such as the Himalayan valleys, Bengal, Kerala and certain sub-styles in the Deccan.

The term “classical” refers to the architecture created up to the seventh and eight centuries, characterized by simplicity in charm and virtuosity in technique; the “neoclassical” period extends up to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries characterized by large buildings with clear artistic embellishments. SSVT represents both classical and neoclassical art forms. The Main Entrance (Makara Thorana Vayil) The artistic yet simple architecture surrounding the middle entrance door is drawn from an early style, inspired by MAYA, considered to be the original temple architect.

The Pallava style

Developed mostly in the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries, Pallava architecture progressed from rock-cuttings to monolithic phase to structured temple construction. Rock-cut temple architecture began in many locations in Tamil Nadu under the patronage of the Pallava king, Mahendra. The general features consist of a pillared hall serving as a portico for one or more small sanctuaries cut deep into the interior wall. The next stage of evolution found in the cave temples of Mahaballipuram, developed under the patronage of the ruler. Marnalla saw distinct innovations, for example there are rudimentary parapets or moldings which rise above the overhanging eaves, and the lower parts of the pillars are fashioned into heraldic lions, a royal symbol. This style includes a molded plinth above, which the walls divide into a number of projections and recesses created by pairs of shallow pilasters. Sculptures of deities are set in rectangular niches. The curved brackets of the wall pilasters and the porch columns support eaves with carved arched windows framing a face. Examples of these are seen in the SSVT in the Subramanya and Sharada shrines. Rising above the level of the curved brackets is a series of moldings culminating in a parapet. This structure is created in a series of ornamental miniature roof forms arranged in rows around the building, and repeated in the form of receding stories or levels which are capped with a vimana (curved roof form) either square, rectangular, octogonal, or apsidal ended.

Stone constructions were encouraged by the Pallava King, Rahasimha. Ambulatory passageways were created around the principal shrine. The doorway to each shrine was emphasized by a prominent barrel-shaped roof form. The superstructures rise sharply and proceed in a series of repetitive schemes to be capped with an octagonal or pot-shaped vimana. The Kailasanath and Vaikuntapemmal temples at Kanchipuram, where the shrines connected to large courtyards, the “mukhamantpam” and “mahamantapam” are typical of this stage of development.
The Subramanya shrine has a unique perspective with the entire structure representing a decorated chariot drawn by elephants.

The Chola Style

The Chola style, evolved mostly in the tenth and eleventh centuries reflects the impact of the major political force. Beginning with modest single stoned shrines with square or octagonal towers, this style was characterized by multi-faceted columns with a projecting square capital. Sculptural work adorned the walls. Note the highly stylistic forms of the dwaarapalakas or “doorkeepers” at the entrance to the Siva, Subramanya and Ananthapadmanabha shrines

The first great Chola building projects were initiated under the patronage of Rajaraja at the beginning of the eleventh century. The famous Brihadeswara Temple in Tanjore, completed around the year one thousand is an example. In this temple several structures – the sanctuary, the Nandi pavilion, pillared hall and assembly hall- were aligned axially in the center of a spacious walled enclosure-. The walls were divided into projections and recesses by pilaster with deeply cut sculptures. The whole structure is capped with an octagonal vimana (domed roof form). A similar structure was built in Gangaikondacholapuram, the prominent feature being a 150 -pillar assembly hall. The vimana of the Ganapathi and Parvathi shrine have square vimanas (Pallava style), whereas the Sharada shrine has an octogonal vimana (Chola style). The rooftop vimana on the Siva shrine, visible from the outside, has a square shape.

The Vijayanagara Style

The Pandya, Vijayanagara and Nayaka rulers provided the impetus for temple architecture from the twelfth to the seventeenth century, until the Muslim and European invasions. The integration of the temple into urban environment was a major theme during this era. -Influence of the temple on the city life has been dominant in the Vijayanagara empire of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Structures created in earlier periods were enlarged by the addition of successive enclosure walls. Expression of existing temples rather than construction of new ones reflected the belief that sanctity cannot be transferred.

The major architectural feature of these expansions is the elaborate embellishments of all parts of the temples. The typical gopura has a rectangular plan with a central opening at the ground level. The tapering tower rises usually with a concave profile. The tower has a number of stories, which repeat richly ornamented sculptured figures on a diminishing scale from the lowest level. The summit is capped with a vimana in a barrel shaped roof form. This type of vimana can be seen at SSVT from the outside, on top of the Ananthapadmanabha shrines. Inside the temple, the Rama and Hanuman shrines also have similarly ornamented vimanas.

The principle of repetition and continuous expansion led to a tendency to multiply the elements of the vertical profile of the wall. The plinth, for example, was split into a greater number of subdivisions. Particularly under the Vijayanagara rulers, the “thousand-pillared halls” embellished with exquisite work became popular. The pillars in the SSVT although not as richly ornamented as in these “originals”, are characteristic of this style. The Andal and Mahalakshmi shrines have ornamental superstructures inspired by the Vijayanagar style.

Temple Styles of Kerala and Coastal Karnataka

Temple styles in these areas real another facet f the impact of the environment. The heavy tropical rainfall in these regions has led to the creation of unique roof systems, consisting of low and overhanging eaves with a series of diminishing gables covered with tiles. The plans for these temples have a variety of shapes- square, circular and apsidal-ended. – sometimes in combination with columned halls. The Ayyappa and Krishna shrines at SSVT are examples of this style of architecture.

Recent past

Muslim invasion since the sixteenth century saw a mix of suppression of Hindu temples and tolerance or reverence by some enlightened Muslim rulers. The British, on the other hand, had a policy of benign neglect. In either case temple architecture did not flourish to any significant extent. Since Independence. and more recently in the past few decades, a vigorous return to this art form is discernible; many temples are being constructed or renovated in India and overseas, and architectural talent is again being nourished.


Down the ages, temples and humans had an influence on each other. There is a continuity of philosophical and social purpose in these successive changes in architectural styles. The emotional commitment and desire to retain Hindu values of life always persist. This is universal. It is interesting to note several themes that emerge in the construction of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple that are similar to the historical perspective described in the above paragraphs-. Temple architecture has been adapted to local environmental conditions; the immigrant-inspired SSVT follows this idea. Temples have always received patronage and support from kings, and. later, from rich landlords. SSVT receives its support from the generous congregation. Temples were also influenced by a relatively homogeneous demographic composition.

Depending upon a wide and democratic base of support, responding to the needs of the congregation, SSVT continues the tradition of the to the ancient Hindu temples- service to the congregation. The SSVT calendar has a variety of observances to meet the requirements of a congregation grown out of different family traditions and ishtadevatha worship. There are other similarities: SSVT has assimilated cultural characteristics of modern times, and not only provides a place for community worship but also is a forum for several cultural events and fine arts.

The goal is to provide current and future generations a center for community worship and for the maintenance and development of Hindu culture in United States.