Heritage of ancient Hindu temples
India has millions of temples, thronged by millions of people. If there is anything great and concrete that has survived the rigors of time in India, then it is surely our ancient Hindu temples. Of the millions there are many ancient temples with a deep history, fascinating legends and where famous saints have gotten their ultimate experience of the ‘Supreme Truth through the installed deity’.
India has many magnificent temples that have found a place in World Heritage list. These include Sun Temple at Konark in Orissa, Khajuraho Temples in Madhya Pradesh, Ajanta Cave temples & Kailashnath temple in Ellora, Maharashtra, Brihadeswara Temple in Tajavuur and Sanchi Stupas in Bhopal. It is said that Temple construction in India started nearly 2000 years ago.
Like all things symbolic in Hinduism, temples also have a great purpose. Explaining the purpose of temples, Vedanta Masters like H.H. Swami Chinmayananda say that
“A temple is a sacred place of reverence, where the love of the mind and respect of the intellect come together. Temples are places where you practice what you have studied in the scriptural textbooks. They are gymnasiums for the mind. You have to go there and apply your mind to the ideal; remember, it is a mental gymnasium. Not a physical one. Surrender the mind in devotion unto the Lord. He will purify it and return it back to you in better shape.”
Ancient temples were not only places of worship but also great examples of art & architecture. Art is an integral part of any civilization and ancient India flourished in this. Temples are a direct proof of that ancient civilization. There is something about these ancient places of worship which is divinely awe-inspiring, though today the upkeep of some of these temples and the surroundings are not adequate.
Having seen and sanctified the generations of people over centuries, these temples exhibit and display the fine artistic sensibilities of the pious people through its rock cut and bronze sculptures. The paintings and inscriptions basically reveal the mental patterns and the evolution of people of that era, just like today’s structures reflect our tastes and priorities.
So, where do we get to know about the history of temples Every temple, like any place of worship elsewhere in the world, has a history. And yes it is recorded and documented. Technically this history and related legend is recorded in ‘Sthala Puraana’ ~ ‘Sthala’ means place and ‘Puraana’ in simple terms means ancient (record). The ‘Sthala Puraanas’ mainly narrates the stories of the temple’s creation and spiritual history. These scriptures usually extol the virtues of specific Hindu temples or shrines.
There are numerous Sthala Puraanas, most written in regional language and Sanskrit. Some of the Sanskrit versions also appear in a Mahapuraana or an Upapuraana. Additionally, there are also several Tamil Sthala Puraanas. Almost all temples had royal patronage. Sthala Puraana is the literature of each pilgrimage center. Sthala Puraana is numerous in number, mostly written in vernaculars. Some texts of Sthala Purana can be found with Sanskrit version as well and some of which also appears in a Mahapuraana or even in Upapuraana.
The previous head pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti Math ~ Sri Chandrashekarendra Saraswati Swamigal remarks that
“In my opinion, the Sthala Puraanas not only enables us to have an insight into history but also enrich our knowledge of local culture and local customs. For instance, take the Perumal (Vishnu deity) of the Srirangam temple (Tamil Nadu). The idol is unique in the sense that it faces south. There is an explanation for this in the Sthala Puraana pertaining to the temple. When Vibhishana was returning to Lanka after attending the coronation of Sri Ramachandra, Rama gave him the idol of Ranganatha that he himself had been worshipping. On his way the idol somehow got installed on the island skirted by the two arms of the Kaveri. Vibhisana was sad that he could not take it with him to his capital Lankapuri. So, out of compassion for him, Sri Ranganatha lay facing south. This incident is described in detail in the Sthala Purana of Srirangam.”
None of these temples have ‘warrants of fitness’ like we have for buildings today but their towering structures have stood the ravages of time and the onslaught of looters and invaders.
The major temples in ancient India were more known for their encouragement of arts and learning than as just places of worship. Hence you will find in old Indian temples, all amenities were available like hall, performance areas, pond within the complex, art work, dorms and I’m sure the architects & sculptors made sure the public ultimately noticed the hidden messages in rocks. The sanctum sanctorum was however the main attraction and purpose. As a direct result of this almost all the people from the local and adjacent areas used to visit the temples for one reason or another – atleast on important religious days according to the Hindu lunar calendar.
Yatras (pilgrimages), like in ancient times, are undertaken to age-old temples even today. Glaring examples like Amarnath yatra, Pandharpur yatra, Sabari Mala yatra, Kaashi yatra, the Kailas Mansarovar and the Chaar Dhaam yatras are just a few. Try searching in youtube for ‘Yatra Deepti Bahtnagar’ and you will see some fantastic temple yatras online. Also ‘7 wonders of India’ on youtube features some great Indian temples.