Examining the Confluence of Tradition and Modernity in Modern Indian Temples
Anirudh Naveen

India as a country is renowned for its diversity, both in terms of geographical habitats and its social composition. This diversity rests on interplay of several factors, including economic, political and social structures that have been nurtured over the centuries. Underlying all these structures is a spiritual foundation, which rather inconspicuously exerts a powerful influence on our society. Scholars across the world have recognized India as a sacred geography, with all its disparate locations being tied together through pilgrimage routes. One of the most omnipresent structures within this sacred geography is the Hindu temple. The profusion of temples found across the subcontinent suggests that they continue to dominate our landscape in modern times.

A discussion on temples in ‘modern India’ may seem like a pointless exercise; it may raise the obvious question- how do temples affect our contemporary lives in any tangible manner? There seem to be so many other pressing issues, and temples, for millennials in particular, seem to be little more than relics from a bygone era. But such assertions arise from a tiny cross-section of our society; and can easily be disproved by the vibrant pilgrimage networks that continue to galvanise devotees from various parts of the country. What is it that makes the temple or a tirtha kshetra such a powerful symbol for lakhs of devotees? This essay seeks to probe and demonstrate the continuing relevance of temples in modern India. Studying the architectural and iconographical orientation of temples can allow us to realise the manner in which modern temples connect us to a sacred past, and also manifest the ambitions of a shared future. This essay will also analyse how modern aesthetic ideas have impinged themselves on temples, without tarnishing their sacred character. The thrust of this effort is to underscore how temples are the backbone of India’s millennia-old civilization, and continue to project some of the most elevated philosophical and spiritual ideas germane to our civilizational context.

At the very outset, it is useful to examine the meaning of a temple in Hindu tradition. Before venturing into the definition of a temple, the concept of sacred space deserves elaboration. From prehistoric times, man has been predisposed towards perceiving a ‘reality’ that does not belong to the world. This takes place through the manifestation of sacred reality, which is in direct opposition to profane experience. Historian Mircea Eliade characterizes this manifestation as ‘hierophany’, and this process encompasses its most elementary manifestation in ordinary objects to the experience of a ‘supreme’ reality (Eliade1987: 12). Maintaining this sacred space is an existential imperative for many societies, and there are numerous ways in which a consciousness of the sacred becomes visible. The sacred in other words bestows meaning on secular pursuits of everyday life.

India is well and truly a living landscape. Almost all topographical features like mountains, rivers, forests and villages are elaborately associated with stories of Gods and heroes. All such stories are suffused with metaphysical insight. These accounts are not to be viewed in isolation, as they significantly underpin the notion of a sacred geography.[1] Thus, in our paradigm, while differences in physical features are acknowledged, their connection with the cosmos is accorded pre-eminence. This almost exemplifies Eliade’s observation, ‘the cosmos in entirety can become a hierophany’. Temples need to be situated as components within this sacred landscape.

Oftentimes, we equate temples merely with shrines that house deity/s. However, this is a rather simplistic notion; as shrines are incomplete without the landscape that surrounds them. Moreover, there are many temples that lack elaborate shrines, wherein idols or natural objects serve the purpose. A temple can therefore be better understood as a confluence of structures, with a specific spatial orientation, consisting of features that produce a distinct spiritual ethos. It is impossible to comprehend the character of temples without acknowledging its philosophical basis, as temples are rooted in Vedantic ideals. Hinduism, which is inextricably tied to Vedanta, is concerned with liberation or moksha as embodying the ultimate purpose of life. Vedanta borrows heavily from the Upanishads, which stress on there being no duality between human beings and the ultimate reality (Brahman). Prakriti (nature) and purusha (soul) are one and the same, but human beings fail to realise this non-duality because of an illusory veil (maya) that impedes spiritual progress. In order to cast this veil aside, some actions have to be performed. A temple, along with its deity, is thus supposed to facilitate the transcendence of illusions so that a devotee can proceed towards moksha. In other words, the aforementioned concern for ‘wholeness’ and universal reality permeates the structural character of a temple.[2]

A temple removes all distinctions between man, nature and God, as these are considered to be inseparable entities. Such a creative fusion implies that the architectural plans of a temple as well as the icons placed within it are replete with symbolic value. In the words of scholar George Michelle “temples provide a symbolic expression to that which cannot be discursively expressed” (Michelle, 1988).

The most powerful symbolism can be noticed in the association of temples with Mount Meru (also known as Sumeru). In Hindu mythology, Mount Meru is seen as the centre of the cosmic axis and the abode of Gods. The Himalayas and Bharatavarsha are located below this sacred mountain. Mount Kailash in the Himalayas is considered as the earthy manifestation of Mount Meru, which explains the sanctity of river Ganga, that originates in the Himalayan ranges. It is this cosmological paradigm that sustains the association of temples with natural features like caves, mountains and rivers.

As mentioned earlier, all distinctions between man and cosmos collapse when one enters a temple. The human body provides the most viable pattern for viewing the cosmos. Thus, a temple is nothing but the cosmos taking a human form. The Matsya Purana, presenting a general orientation of the Hindu house, also mentions the symbolic merger of body, space and cosmos (P.B Singh, 1992). In Kundalini Yoga, the seven chakras are seen as vital energy points present inside the body, connected to the ultimate reality or Brahman. A temple almost approximates a human body with these seven chakras. For instance, the garbha-griha or womb-chamber of the temple holds the Anahata-chakra, which relates to the energy of the heart (Bharne, 2012, p. 93). This is the sanctum-sanctorum of a templewhich housesthe deity, and its equation with the Anahata-chakra reflects how it signifies the very essence of the temple. As opposed to the superstructure or the pavilions, it remains relatively unadorned, to provide a sanctifying environment for spiritual pursuits. Likewise, various parts of the temple are divided in such a manner, to help the devotee realise the ultimate truth in his bodily form.

Temples are planned in accordance with the vastu-purusha-mandala, a scheme which indicates the underlying philosophical motivations governing temple. Vastu literally means ‘existence’; and its shape is cosmologically deemed to be a square. This is the reason temples generally have a square-plan, i.e. Mandala. As Stella Kramrisch observes, ‘Square is a fundamental form of Indian architecture….it is a mark of order, of finality, to expanding a life of perfection beyond life and death.’ (Kramrisch 1946: p.21).

As noted earlier, the cosmos is sought to be reimagined in the structure of a temple, and thus texts like the Mayamatam and Vishnudharmottara Purana prescribe that the image of the cosmic man (Purusha) should be identical to the planned site. The Purusha is equivalent to the totality of manifestation, and the vastu purusha mandala can thus be seen as a metaphysical plan of the temple.

This brief exposition on the nature of sacred space in the Hindu paradigm, and the cosmological orientation of temples can offer us a window into acknowledging the sacred character of modern temples.

Amalgamation of Tradition and Modernity in Modern Temples: the case of Akshardham

In modern temples, there is a very visible tussle between tradition and modernity. After all, the notion of a sacred space does evolve over time, and many ancient and medieval temples continue to be worshipped across the country. The Virupaksha temple in Hampi and the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram have been under worship for at least three hundred years. However, this essay shall primarily concern itself with temples that have been commissioned in independent India, including both monumental and canonical temples and ordinary shrines that dot our landscape.

Perhaps the most ambitious temple-building project in modern India is that of the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in New Delhi. This massive complex truly represents the country’s heritage in an inimitable manner. The Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar was constructed by the same organization called BAPS in 1992, and its popularity propelled this group under Pramukh Swami Maharaj to launch its second major project in the national capital on a much more ambitious scale in 2001. Quite revealingly, Vedic rituals were performed at each major juncture in the process of construction. Eight scholars of Pancaratra Sastra were called upon to consecrate the temple. Workers were also drawn from various segments of society, and prominently included local farmers and tribal women. Thus, canonical injunctions were adhered to while constructing this temple, and it also facilitated social integration.

The temple is today spread across an astonishing 100 acres of land, and the central monument is set in a pool of water, surrounded by sculpted stone colonnades. The monument seems to be modelled on the medieval temples of western India, constructed entirely using pink sandstone. In fact, the complex is not merely a temple; it is also a museum and has a theme park. Audio shows and computer-controlled fountains illustrate how devotion is intricately connected with technology. The Bharat Upavan (Gallery of India) is a park that contains bronze images of warriors, freedom fighters and numerous other legendary figures associated with India’s cultural heritage.

Kavita Singh has studied the iconography of this temple, and her study illustrates how the architecture at Akshardham seems to be inspired from several other classical temples of the subcontinent. The domes resemble those found in Shore temple, Mahabalipuram. The frieze of elephants at the lowest level of the plinth is similar to the elephant friezes found in Kailasanatha temple (a little more on elephants later). In fact, the influence of Jain temple architecture can also be discerned in this complex. Stone carvings found inside the central monument are similar to those of Jain temples at Dilwara and Ranakpur. Kavita Singh persuasively argues that the Akshardham temple resembles the dadabaris, which are memorial shrines built in honour of departed Jain gurus. The construction work has also been done using stone, without any trace of cement or steel, once again harking back to temple building traditions of yesteryears. The central complex features an exhibition on the life of Bhagwan Swaminarayan along with vignettes from the lives of other prominent Hindu saints.

The sculptural exuberance of the complex includes a bewildering range of deities from the Hindu pantheon, including Shiva-Parvati, Radha-Krishna, Sita-Ram and Lakshmi-Narayan. Again, the spirit of fusing prakriti with purusha can be noticed over here. The synthesis of different cults seeks to underscore the essential unity of the Hindu religion. The exhibitions and theme parks again invoke heroes from the past, and this deification of historicalpersonages is one of the most critical developments in recent temple building endeavours. A fusion of the ancient with the modern can perceptively be noticed in this magnificent complex. As former President of India, Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam also remarked during the temple’s inauguration in 2007, Akshardham truly represents India’s ‘civilisational heritage in dynamic form’. (Kavita Singh2012: 52)

Temples as Repositories of Values

Another important landmark in the capital city of Delhi is the Lakshminarayan (Birla) temple located near Connaught circle. This is once again a massive complex, whose construction was completed in 1939 under the watchful eyes of industrialist Baldeo Das Birla. It was inaugurated by none other than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. This was the first among a chain of Birla temples constructed by the Birla Foundation, and today such temples can be seen in cities like Kolkata, Hyderabad and Varanasi. The business-class funding temples is not a novelty in the Indian context, as right from ancient times, groups possessing capital have enriched the sacred sphere. The Ainurruvar (The Five Hundred) of Aihole are a case in point, as a large number of early medieval temples in North Karnataka were funded by this motley group of merchants.

The Birla temple in Delhi may not match Akshardham in its scale, but it also creatively synthesizes different architectural traditions. It follows the Nagara style of architecture, and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi. The temple has numerous paintings and sculptures which encompass the grand sweep of Indian history. For instance, the story of Shivaji and Ramdas is depicted in one painting, while Guru Gobind Singh’s sacrifice is projected in another. Verses of poems by Kabir, Surdas and Ramdas also embellish the walls of the temple. The most interesting locationin this temple is the Gita Bhavan, which contains an exhibition of paintings that reflect upon certain important messages from the Bhagavada Gita. Verses from Upanishads are also inscribed, giving an overview of some profound philosophical messages.[3]

Thus, the spatial organization of the Birla temple underscores the ways temples have become carriers of spiritual values. They are no longer seen as purely ritual-oriented structures, and have become repositories of cultural wisdom, performing a very significant educational role.

Temples as Multi-purpose Centres: Chhatarpur

At the opposite end of the national capital, one finds another intriguing modern temple complex in Chhatarpur. Spread over sixty acres, the temple is dedicated to Goddess Katyayani, an incarnation of Goddess Durga. Architecturally, the temple seamlessly blends Nagara (North Indian) and Dravida (South Indian) styles and there are more than twenty shrines dedicated to a number of deities including Rama and Shiva. Sculptures of tigers and lions can be seen at the entrance of these temples, as can elephants. Elephants, as noted earlier, are symbolic of wisdom and physical strength, and several temples from ancient India too contain elephants on the plinths. On the opposite end of the Katyayani mandir stands a giant 10-feet Hanuman statue.

Chhatarpur has become a veritable temple town, but adding to the significance of this place are a school and a diagnostic centre. The Sant Nagpal Public School, affiliated with the CBSE board, is attached to the temple complex, while a few paces down the road, one can find the Sant Nagpal Diagnostic centre. Thus, temples are evidently intervening in such domains as education and health that are very high in the priorities of policy makers.[4]

Grama-devatas and Wayside shrines: Crystallisation of Communities.

But our sacred space isn’t only dominated by massive temples; there are a large number of wayside shrines that straddle the Indian subcontinent. Most of these temples do not subscribe to rigid architectural canons, and innovatively create a sacred environment. Many of these shrines gradually metamorphose into larger sacred entities.

However, a majority of shrines remain simple, unadorned and yet of profound significance for the common man. Many a times, trees or coconuts are also deified, and worshipping them before heading to workplace is almost a routinised practice in several parts of modern India. This is also tied to the philosophical concerns of Vedanta, as God is considered omnipresent, and this allows people to fulfill their devotional ambitions without traversing long distances. In the words of Diana Eck, “In the pilgrim’s India, we encounter over and over the powerful conception of a god who fills and exceeds the span of space and is simultaneously fully present in this very place.” (Eck 2012) Thus God is treated as transcendent, yet part of a devotee’s immediate reality. The installation of Shiva lingas in remote corners of the country attests to the popular notion that the divine can be discovered anywhere, if the devotee is willing to apprehend and perceive the divine presence. If one visits Aihole in Karnataka, a number of early medieval temples can be seen tucked away in a corner, maintained by some obscure merchant or fishing community. This consciousness in both the omnipresence and immediacy of the divine has passed down over the generations, and permeates modern Indian society to a great extent. This remarkable continuity attests to the deeper philosophical and spiritual pursuits of devotees in modern India.

Temples often become focal points for the crystallization of communities. This process is particularly notable in rural India, as almost 600,000 villages across the subcontinent have their own ‘grama-devatas’ (Bharne 2012: 164). Thus, in rural habitats, the temple isn’t primarily a sacred centre; the deity or grama-devata is synonymous with every facet of life in the village. All rivers, hills, fields and houses are part of the spirit of the grama-devata. Even otherwise, in rural India, temples are intertwined with the daily chores of village life. For instance, the majestic Sun temple in the village of Modhera in Gujarat, has a flight of steps leading to a tank (Kund) connected to the river Pushpavati. People come over here to bathe, wash clothes and also perform rituals during the festive seasons. Thus, the religious and social life of people in the village is intertwined, and temples act as socio-sacred nodes that sustain the spiritual and material requirements of villages.

Such informal and ‘plebian’ shrines also undergo innovations in urban contexts. Anthropologist Joanne Punzo Waghorne in his monumental study of Hindu temples in Chennai presents the case of a very intriguing temple in the Adyar neighbourhood of South Chennai. This is the Madhya Kailasa temple, and it houses a deity called ‘Shree Adhyantha Prabha’. Half of the deity’s body is Lord Ganesha while the other half is Lord Hanuman, a one-of-its-kind combination to be found in the Indian subcontinent. Ganesha here embodies Aadhi (beginning), given that the elephant God is often associated with sound; while Hanuman embodies Anta (end), or breath, as he is the son of Vayu (wind god). This represents the notion that it is only with the fusion of life and death that ‘purnam’ (totality, complete life) can be attained. This is a very fascinating synthesis, without any precedent in the country. Waghorne’s conversations with devotees revealed that unlike other temples, devotees over here are allowed to perform kumbha-abhishekam (consecration of deity) by themselves, without the intervention of a priest. The devotees expressed their delight in being endowed with such authority and also stressed on the temple being open for ‘everyone’, regardless of sectarian or religious distinctions. This inclusiveness has to be marked out because the deity almost signals a fusion of Shiva and Vishnu; Ganesh as the son of Shiva and Hanuman, the companion of Lord Ram.

The Madhya Kailash temple is one among many other temples that reflect the creative freedom accorded to devotees within the Hindu tradition. This case also helps us realise the complex ways in which communities living in urban spaces craft their own understanding of the ‘sacred’, turning temples into spaces where new communities and identities get forged.

Reclamation of Sacred space: Somnath, Ayodhya

Somnath is a site of immense cultural significance. Situated close to the ancient port of Veraval, is associated with the pilgrimage site of Prabhasa. The Bhalka Tirtha, situated in proximity to the temple, is known to have been the place where Krishna left behind his human body. Prabhasa represents the confluence of three great rivers- Saraswati, Kapila and Hiranya, and this riverine association is a feature of any major temple in India. The temple in Somnath is considered to be the first among the 12 jyotirlingas found in the country. A temple dedicated to Lord Shiva was first constructed in Prabhasa somewhere around the 7th century AD, but was subjected to the iconoclastic zeal of Islamic invaders at least thrice in the course of thirteen centuries. This however, did not dampen the resolve of local kings, as temples continued to be erected (at a distance from the site of demolition) from time to time. Sardar Vallabhai Patel, India’s first Home Minister, strongly believed that Somnath was an integral component of India’s heritage; with profound implications for the lived reality of millions of devotees. After the accession of Junagadh in 1948, Patel resolved to restore the temple, and in this effort was supported by veteran educationist K.M. Munshi. The temple was completed within three years, and in May 1951, inaugurated, much to the chagrin of the Prime Minister J.L. Nehru, by the President of India, Rajendra Prasad. It is quite revealing that the restoration of the Somnath temple was among the first projects undertaken in independent India. Prasad’s statement during the consecration ceremony sums up the impulse behind this project- “The power of reconstruction is greater than the power of destruction.” (Pande et.al 2021: 120)

Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram, is presently witnessing the construction of a Ram temple that in many ways echoes the dual project of invoking a glorious scared heritage and capturing the ambitions of a bright national future. The town is believed to have been founded by Manu and ruled by Ikshvaku. The cultural memory of losing the Ram temple to invasive onslaughts by Mughal emperor Babur has profoundly impinged itself on the layered contemporary history of this site. The Ram Janmabhumi movement was carried forth with the singular agenda of resurrecting the Ram temple, and as temple construction gathers steam, a number of inferences can be made. The temple complex is projected to cover a whopping 1.35 lakh square feet of area. The three-storied complex will contain five domed mandapas and one shikhara, giving it a height of 151 feet. The chief architect of this temple is Chandrakantbhai Sompura whose grandfather Prabhakarji Sompura had designed the Somnath temple. The parallels that have been struck between Somnath and Ayodhya attest to a shared heritage of reclaiming sacred space. Interestingly, the architectural style of the proposed temple is also largely similar, as the Ram temple is being constructed in the Maru-Gurjara style that traces its roots to early medieval Gujarat and Rajasthan. The Rudra-Mahalaya temple of Gujarat, Khajuraho temple in Madhya Pradesh and five Jain temples in Dilwara have also been constructed in this style, characterized by “superimposed registers with lower bands of mouldings”. (Times of India, 2020). The temple will be having an open-air theatre, a library, a museum and a theatre centre, clearly on the lines of the majestic Akshardham temple. Cutting-edge modern technology will be harnessed to “offer a 3D experience of the sanctum sanctorum for pilgrims” (Indian Express, 2021). Moreover, a shed adjacent to the make-shift shrine already houses some of the key artefacts excavated by the Archaeological Survey of India that establish the Hindu claim over the site.

Though it remains to be seen whether the temple eventually incorporates all of these features, the very process of construction reveals conscious efforts to bestow it with a national character. A bell, weighing 613 kg, was wheeled all the way from Rameshwaram in 2020, and is set to be installed in the premises. The superstructure of the temple is being prepared using pink sandstone sourced from Bansi Paharpur in Rajasthan. Moreover, the fund collection drive carried out by the Ram Janmabhoomi Teertha kshatra ensured that people from every corner of the country could contribute at their discretion. Such efforts clearly bring to light the temple’s proposed status as an instrument of national integration. It can be surmised that the Ram Janmabhumi temple brings together some of the features discussed earlier with regard to modern Indian temples. It revives the glorious heritage of Hindu architecture, while neatly tying it with contemporary sensibilities. Ayodhya is being seen as a potential tourist hub, and the presence of a museum within the complex suggests that the Ram temple is primed to project India’s spiritual values to a larger audience. Moreover, new communities and market networks are bound to coalesce around this temple complex, making this structure a potential harbinger of social change.

Conclusion

This essay has presented the Hindu temple as a site of negotiation between cultural inheritance and modern aesthetic principles. The cosmological and philosophical ideas underlying construction of temples demonstrates that temples are not merely brick and mortar shrines, standing in isolation. They represent a concord between human anatomy and the larger sacred landscape, consisting of trees, rivers, mountains and other topographical features. Modern Indian temples like Swaminarayan Akshardham and Lakshminarayan (Birla) temple carry forth the rich philosophical and spiritual messages of yore in a modern idiom. They also illustrate the ways in which temple complexes have become conveyers of profound meaning and veritable educational institutes in themselves. In carrying forward the rich philosophical and civilizational ideals to have emerged in the subcontinent, temples- by their very existence- are doing the nation a great service. The imperative need to live in harmony with environment and cosmic forces can be reinforced through the architectural layout of temples. Thus, the construction of temples must be seen as a nation-building exercise rather than an activity having religious overtones.

References:
Books:
  1. Eck, Diana. India: A Sacred Geography (Harmony books, 2012)
    Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of religion. (Harper One, 1968)
  2. Jain, Meenakshi. Flight of deities and rebirth of temples. (Aryan Books International, 2019)
  3. Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple Vol. 1 (University of Calcutta, 1946)
  4. Krusche, Krupali. Vinayak Bharne. Rediscovering the Hindu temple: The Sacred Architecture and urbanism of India (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012)
  5. Madan, T.N. (ed.) ‘Religion in India’ (Oxford University Press, 1999)
  6. Michelle, George. The Hindu Temple: An introduction to its meanings and forms (University of Chicago Press, 1988)
  7. Waghorne, Joanne Punzo. Diaspora of the Gods: Modern Hindu temples in an Urban middle-class world (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  8. Pande, Vikrant, Manu Pillai, Haroon Khalid Et al. Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen temples and their (hi)stories. (Westland, 2021)
Research papers:
  1. P.B. Singh, Rana. “Nature and Cosmic Integrity: A search in Hindu geographical thought.” GeoJournal 26 (1992): 139-147
  2. Singh, Kavita. “Temple of Eternal return: The Swaminarayan Akshardham complex in Delhi.” ArtibusAsiae 70, no. 1 (2010): 47–76.
  3. Singh, Amita. “Nature in art, architecture and landscape.”LandscapeResearch, UK, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1995)
Newspaper articles/reports:
Endnotes :

[1]For a deeper reading into the nuances of India’s sacred geography, particularly from the perspective of pilgrimage and rituals, See Diana Eck, ‘India: A sacred geography’ (Harmony books, 2007), pp.1-43
[2]To know more about the philosophical ideas that constitute temples, see Vinayak Bharne, Krupali Krusche, ‘Rediscovering Hindu temple’ (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), pp 1-19
[3]Observations based on a field visit to the Lakshminarayan (Birla) temple, Connaught circle, New Delhi.
[4]Observations based on a field visit to the Chhatarpur temple complex

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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