India has many religious structures to vouch for its different religions and their vibrancy. With each religion and the structures, comes their architectural beauty. The architecture further has some carvings and symbols. These symbols are not there just for their beauty. Rather, all of these symbols are significant to a specific religion.
Some of these are a part of scriptures, while others are depicting of the lives of the Gods of that religion. Here is draw down of some of those for you.
The Hindu religion is one of the oldest and one of the major religions across the world. This is despite the fact that this religion is mostly confined to one single landmass. Being an ancient religion, it is also known as one of the most orthodox religions in the world, much like the ones that came after it. However, the attachment of the word orthodox with Hinduism has deteriorated the basic principles of the religion. Hinduism is not just a religion. It is not just a faith that one must follow to attain nirvana. Hinduism is a way of life. It is about the teachings of various faiths that existed before it. Also various faiths that existed along with it. All of these merged into one.
Hinduism is a religion that celebrates all the aspects of life. It encourages one to do good deeds, believe in a higher force, much like any other religion. However, if we study the texts and the ancient temples, we can deduce that the gods wanted us to enjoy the pleasures of life while being spiritually connected to the universe. Basically, the religion teaches us to be present for all the facets of life and never breaking the sacred bond of man and universe. The religion teaches us to do everything in moderation.
The first thing that comes to everyone’s mind when we talk about “Carvings on a Hindu temple” is the erotic carvings found in Khajuraho and various other temples. However, that is just depicted as one facet of life. Hinduism is one of the few religions which does not shy away from sex as part of life. We even have a god of sex & lust!
The Temple’s Carvings
The carvings at various temples show how the common man spent his day in those times. They show farmers working on their farms, women putting on makeup and nurturing their babies and other such regular aspects of life. Mostly, any such image depicting life as usual is depicted on the outer walls. Experts believe it shows that while entering the temple, we relive all the worldly pleasures and leave everything else outside. So it becomes easy to be one with the universe again.
The inner walls of the temple are generally painted with murals or sculptures related to the presiding deity. The murals show the deity in various scenarios that the mythological texts describe. For example, one can find murals of Lanka-Dehan or sculptures of Lord Hanuman carrying the Sanjeevani Booti mountain in a Hanuman temple. The inner sanctum of the temple is usually full of such paintings or sculptures.
Apart from these, one can also find various other sculptures or carvings on a temple wall. A temple is adorned at all sides by carvings of flowers and plants and various birds and animals. The flowers are usually a part of the prasada that is offered to the gods. Hence, flowers can be found carved in pretty much every Hindu temple. While mostly the flowers are carved in their smaller versions, there are many other temples where a whole ceiling is carved to show a flower in straight geometrical lines. These carvings can also be found at other monuments such as castles of Mughal or Rajput emperors and temples or mosques created by them.
The fauna can also be seen in the carvings. However, unlike the flowers, the fauna can only be seen as miniature versions of themselves and not in form of any carving covering a whole wall or ceiling. The birds are usually parts of murals that depict an episode in a mythological story. The animals that are depicted in the carvings are generally animals that symbolise power or might. These usually include lions, tigers, elephants or horses. One reason behind the temples containing such animals is that these temples were usually made by a king of the region. The kind deemed it fit to show a few carvings depicting his own life stories along with those of his gods. However, it was always taken care that such stories are depicted at a level lower than that of the gods.
The religion of Jainism is sometimes considered a branch of Hinduism. However, that is not the case. Jainism is an ancient religion and one of the few that has survived alongside Hinduism. The two religions have taken principles and practices from each other. At some places, the two faiths also share temples. However, there are still some significant differences among the two.
Hinduism, being a broader faith, allows for some pleasures like sex and non-vegetarianism through some of its infamous sub-faiths. Jains, on the contrary, are quite orthodox in their practices. They follow the principles of non-violence (Ahimsa) and stick to only nutritious organic food. Jainism is of the belief that the soul is a pure substance, dirtied by Karma. Here, Karma refers to the worldly pleasures that a human undertakes. The Jains believe that once a soul is free of the dependence of such Karmas, it will attain a higher spiritual level.
The Temple’s Carvings
As goes the temples, the Jain temples are quite similar to Hindu temples. They are on a raised platform and usually have a spire running up to the heavens. The temples are also painted with murals and various carvings that depict various scenes from Jain mythology texts. However, the content of the carvings is where they are different. This is because of the difference in content of the mythological texts. As explained above, the Jains, unlike the Hindus, try not to engage in worldly pleasures to attain spirituality. The temples depict this very well. The carvings that are found usually show the various gods, or Tirthankaras, attaining higher levels of spirituality. The outer walls cover the whole story of the presiding deity while the inner sanctum has the idols of the deity itself.
Another thing found to be in abundance in a Jain temple is the use of symbols. There are religious symbols used in a Hindu temple. However, these are almost in the same proportion as the other carvings. In a Jain temple, on the other hand, the symbols are used highly. Various life lessons and beliefs are taught through these symbols and their meanings.
This is one of the oldest religions of the world. It can also be termed as the simplest one. The principles of the religion are all based around one simple fact – “Do good and stay away from evil”. Yes, it can be argued (and quite successfully), that almost every religion in the world is based on this simple fact. However, religions expand on this principle while Zoroastrianism simply doesn’t.
This religion was founded on the teachings of the prophet, Zoroaster. Zoroaster claimed that there was one supreme god, Ahura Mazda, the wise and good one. The religion claims that Ahura Mazda was the creator of Asha, i.e. all things true and orderly. Asha’s opposite is known as druj which creates falsehood and disorder. The religion teaches its followers to keep about their daily work while being drawn to the benevolent god and shunning the evil one.
The religion encourages active participation in life and states that it is necessary to keep the chaos at a distance. Monasticism is discouraged and free will is an integral part of the prophet’s teachings. The Zoroastrians do not believe in reincarnation. However, it is believed that at the end of the world, all beings, good and evil will be consumed by Ahura Mazda and a new universe will be created.
The Temple’s Carvings
The major global population of Zoroastrians is settled in India. The religion started in Iran. However, after the Arab invasion, they settled in India. Hence, the effects of Indian temple architecture can be seen on the Zoroastrian temples. Even so ,the religion has stayed true to its faith and design for the longest period of time. Fire and water are considered very pure elements in the Zoroastrian faith. Hence, the temples here are known as Fire temples. There is always a goblet or a pot of fire burning in a fire temple.
To accomodate the fire, the temple’s inner sanctum is covered by a double dome. The dome is designed in such a way that it allows the smoke to escape but makes it difficult for rain to enter. The inner sanctum can only be accessed by the Zoroastrian priests. Also, the fire in a Fire temple can only be witnessed by a follower of the faith.
Apart from this, the Fire temple is much like any other place of worship. There are large spaces for people to gather and pray and the temple is adorned by carvings of various deities and symbols depicting mostly Ahura Mazda.
However, the most talked about building in the Zoroastrian religion is the Tower of Silence, or a Dakhma. Zoroastrians believe that a dead body is unclean. It is said to invite the corpse demon which contaminates everything it comes in contact with. To rid the universe of such uncleanliness, dead bodies are placed atop a raised circular structure where scavenger birds feed on the body and let it decompose quickly. This circular structure where the bodies are kept is known as the Tower of Silence. Mumbai is home to a few such Towers where such last rites can be performed.
This is another religion that has India as its birthplace. The religion of Buddhism came to creation in the Magadha region. It is based on the teachings of Gautam Buddha, or Prince Siddhartha Gautam, as he was initially known. Prince Siddhartha was destined to be either a great king or a great saint. He chose the latter. He gave away all his palatial pleasures and went on the path to become an ascetic. However, he soon discovered that being totally devoid of any indulgences was not the way to find out The ultimate truth. Gautam then started meditating. He established that the truth can be found by taking up a middle way, one that lies somewhere between over-indulgence and extreme discipline. After meditating for 49 days, Gautam awakened as an enlightened man and was hence called “Buddha“.
Gautam Buddha’s teachings were then eventually organised into a faith. He traveled all over North India and taught his lessons of non-violence, moderation of pleasures and good character. As with any other religion, Buddhism also started with the teachings of becoming one with the universe through a series of rebirths. However, since this is comparatively a recently formed religion, the followers are still on the path of trying to connect with the universe. Though a few temples in Nepal and other such Buddhist countries have started worshipping new Buddhist gods, apart from Gautam Buddha.
The Buddhist Architecture
In a land of temples with long spires and mosques with long thin minarets, A buddhist temple stands out with its distinctive dome styled architecture. Buddhist temples around the world are also seen with a tier type spire known as Pagodas. However, most Buddhist temples in India are seen with a dome. This dome is called a Stupa. The most famous of such Stupas is the one at Sanchi (M.P.). After the passing away of Gautam Buddha, his remains were cremated and the ashes and other remains were distributed to various Stupas all over the Indian subcontinent. Hence, a Stupa is generally a marker of the final resting place of Gautam Buddha or another such holy man.
The Buddhist temples can be seen as properly inspired from the teachings of Gautam Buddha. The temples are built as per a very simple design. Various spaces are provided for just the basic needs of any monks who might visit. Every temple has a prayer area, a large area which is kept empty, save for a few symbols adorning the walls and the main inner sanctum. Their are various small rooms cut out in the temple either on the periphery or the outer premises of the temple for the monks to rest and relax in. The perfect example of such architecture can be seen at Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra.
Initially in the birth years of the religion, there were no idols in the temples. Instead, the presence of Buddha was shown by various symbols. Such as his footprint, or an empty throne or the dharmachakra. This form of symbolic worship was again reminiscent of a teaching of Buddha. He says that the physical body is temporary and the human is better known to the universe by his actions, or karma.
Later around the first century, human images of Buddha started emerging in various parts of India. He was shown as a robe clad hermit in some. While in others as a bejeweled prince, depicting his earlier life. During the fourth & fifth century, in the Gupta period, there emerged a new image of Buddha which is the one used most today. This was a mix of various styles of Buddha. The Gupta Buddha, as it is known, was given curly hair and clad with a robe with one shoulder bare. The downward glance gave the idol an aura that made many disciples feel the sage’s blessings.
Over the years, the Buddhist temple has evolved, being inspired from Hinduism and other such faiths. It has become more elaborate and new deities have emerged in the religion. As goes Hinduism, the Buddhist religion also has shown gods and goddesses in embrace. This is to depict that salvation can be attained from the union of two pure souls.
Many temples can also be seen guarded by ferocious animal figures. The lion has been used as a Gautam Buddha symbol since before Buddha’s own image was used. However, the animals now used are more in the capacity of guardians of the temple and the religion.
All such changes, however, can be seen mostly in Buddhist temples. That is in Nepal and some in East Asian countries like Vietnam. The influence of Hinduism can be hence directly seen on the relatively new faith of Buddhism.