Mystical, Marvelous, Ancient Temples of India

By Dr. Thomas Mathew Joys

Temples in India are one of the most valuable assets, both religious and spiritual. There are quite a number of 1000-year-old temples in India that boast high spirituality. All these marvelous temples in India are serene places to worship god. They not only depict the ancient royal culture but also uphold high religious significance. These magical centuries-old temples in India will surely leave you awe-inspired!

Let’s explore a few of India’s ancient national monuments:

Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

Mahabalipuram is pre-eminently testimony to the Pallavas civilization of southeast India. The sanctuary, known especially for its rathas – temples in the form of chariots, mandapas – cave sanctuaries, and giant open-air reliefs, is one of the major centers of the cult of Siva. The influence of the sculptures of Mahabalipuram, characterized by the softness and supple mass of their modeling, spread widely up to Cambodia, Annam, and Java.

Founded in the 7th century by the Pallavas sovereigns south of Madras, the harbor of Mahabalipuram traded with the distant kingdoms of South-East Asia: Kambuja (Cambodia) and Srivijaya (Malaysia, Sumatra, Java) and with the empire of Champa (Annam). But the fame of its role as a harbor has been transferred to its rock sanctuaries and Brahmin temples which were constructed or decorated at Mahabalipuram between 630 and 728.

Most of the monuments, like the rock-cut rathas, sculptured scenes on open rocks like Arjuna’s penance, the caves of Govardhan Dhari and Mahishasura Mardini, and the Jala-Sayana Perumal temple (the sleeping Mahavishnu or Chakrin at the rear part of the Shore temple complex) are attributed to the period of Narasimhavarman I.


Chola Temples, Tamil Nadu

The Great Chola Temples of southern India are an exceptional testimony to the development of the architecture and the ideology of the Chola Empire and the Tamil civilization in southern India. They represent outstanding creative achievement in the architectural conception of the pure form of the Dravida type of temple, characterized by a pyramidal tower.

The Cholas were the second great historic dynasty of Tamil Nadu, the Tamil country, which was the home of the ancient Dravidian culture whose influence was so considerable in the whole of south-east Asia. The great temple of Tanjore was built in a few years, from 1003 to 1010, during the reign of the great king Rajaraja (985-1014), the true founder of the Chola Empire which spread throughout the whole of southern India, part of Ceylon, and the Maldive and Laccadive archipelagos.

Richly endowed by the sovereign, the sanctuary, which also bears his name – it is sometimes called Rajarajesvaram – had a permanent staff of several hundred priests, 400 devadasis (sacred dancers), and 57 musicians, according to inscriptions and chronicles. The Brihadisvara’s income in gold, silver, and precious stones during the Chola period has been precisely evaluated. These vast resources were efficiently managed and provided not only for the upkeep and improvement of the buildings, which continued until the 17th century but also for real investments to be made. Dedicated to Shiva, the Brihadisvara stands to the southwest of the historic city. A first rectangular surrounding wall, 270 m by 140 m, marks the outer boundary.

Sun Temple, Konârak, Orissa

Konârak is an outstanding testimony to the 13th-century kingdom of Orissa. It is directly and materially linked to Brahmin beliefs and forms the invaluable link in the history of the diffusion of the cult of Surya, which originated in Kashmir during the 8th century and finally reached the shores of eastern India.

On the eastern coast of India, south of the Mahanadi Delta is the Brahmin temple of Kimarak, still spelled as Konârak or Konârka, one of the most famous Brahmin sanctuaries of Asia. Konârak derives its name from Konârka, the presiding deity of the Sun Temple. Konârka is a combination of two words, Kona (corner) and Arka (Sun). It was one of the earliest centers of Sun worship in India. Built around 1250 in the reign of King Narasingha Deva (1238-64), it marks the apogee of the wave of foundations dedicated to the Sun God Surya. The temple was conceived as a chariot of the Sun God.

The present Sun Temple was probably built by King Narashimhadev I (1238-64) of the Ganga dynasty to celebrate his victory over the Muslims. The temple fell into disuse in the early 17th century after it was desecrated by an envoy of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The legend has it that the temple was constructed by Samba, the son of Lord Krishna. Samba was afflicted by leprosy and after twelve years of penance, he was cured by Surya, the Sun God, in whose honor he built this temple.

Elephanta Caves, Maharashtra

The island of Elephanta, the glorious abode of Lord Shiva and an epitome of Hindu cave culture, consists of seven caves on an island in the Sea of Oman close to Mumbai which, with their decorated temples and the images from Hindu mythology, bear a unique testimony to a civilization that has disappeared. Here, Indian art has found one of its most perfect expressions, particularly in the huge high reliefs in the main cave.

 The island of Gharapuri, the ‘City of Caves’, situated about 10 km from Mumbai on the east side of the harbor, owes its name to the enormous stone elephant found there by Portuguese navigators. This elephant was cut into pieces, removed to Mumbai, and somehow put together again. It is today the melancholy guardian of Victoria Gardens Zoo in Mumbai, the great metropolis of Maharashtra State and India’s second city population-wise.

The date of the famous Elephanta Caves is still very much debated and varies from the 6th century to the 8th century according to different specialists. They constitute one of the most striking collections of rock art in India. There are two groups of caves. To the east, Stupa Hill (thus named because of a small brick Buddhist monument at the top) contains two caves, one of which is unfinished, and several cisterns. To the west, the larger group consists of five rock-cut Hindu shrines. The main cave is universally famous for its carvings for the glory of Shiva, which is exalted in various forms and actions. The cave consists of a square plan mandapa whose sides measure about 27 m.

Pattadakal, Karnataka

Pattadakal represents the high point of an eclectic art which, in the 7th and 8th centuries under the Chalukya dynasty, achieved a harmonious blend of architectural forms from northern and southern India. An impressive series of nine Hindu temples, as well as a Jain sanctuary, can be seen there.

Three very closely located sites in the State of Karnataka provide a remarkable concentration of religious monuments dating from the great dynasty of the Chalukya (c. 543-757). There are the two successive capital cities – Aihole (ancient Aryapuram), Badami, and Pattadakal, the ‘City of the Crown Rubies’ (PattadaKisuvolal). The latter was, moreover, for a brief time the third capital city of the Chalukya kingdom; at the time the Pallava occupied Badami (642-55). While Aihole is traditionally considered the ‘laboratory’ of Chalukya architecture, with such monuments as the Temple of Ladkhan (c. 450) which antedate the dynasty’s political successes during the reign of King Pulakeshin I, the city of Pattadakal illustrates the apogee of an eclectic art which, in the 7th and 8th centuries, achieved a harmonious blend of architectural forms from the north and south of India.

(Dr. Thomas Mathew Joys is the director of IAPC and lives in Las Vegas, NV. He is a published writer and columnist.)

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