In ancient India, temple architecture of high standard developed in almost all regions. The distinct architectural style of temple construction in different parts was a result of geographical, climatic, ethnic, racial, historical and linguistic diversities. Ancient Indian temples are classified in three broad types. This classification is based on different architectural styles, employed in the construction of the temples. Functions of Temples-  Religious, Administrative centres, Centre of education.

Three main style of temple architecture are the Nagara or the Northern style, the Dravida or the Southern style and the Vesara or Mixed style

Perhaps the most important part of the ancient Indian temples is decoration. It is reflected in the multitude details of figured sculpture as well as in the architectural elements. Another important component of Indian temples was the garba-griha or the womb chamber, housing the deity of the temple. The garbha-griha was provided with a circumambulation passage around. However, there are also many subsidiary shrines within temple complexes, more common in the South Indian temple.

In the initial stages of its evolution, the temples of North and South India were distinguished on the basis of some specific features like sikhara and gateways. In the north Indian temples, the sikhara remained the most prominent component while the gateway was generally unassuming. The most prominent features of South Indian temples were enclosures around the temples and the Gopurams (huge gateways). The Gopurams led the devotees into the sacred courtyard. On the other hand there were many common features in the Northern and the Southern styles. These included the ground plan, positioning of stone-carved deities on the outside walls and the interior, and the range of decorative elements.

Some of the best examples of the north Indian style (Nagara style) of temple architecture are the Khajuraho Group of temples, Sun temple, Konark, Sun temple at Modhera, Gujarat and Ossian temple, Gujarat. The finest examples of Dravidian style (south Indian style) are temples of Tanjore, Madurai, Mahabalipuram, Badami, Pattadakal and Kanchipuram.

The basic form of a Hindu structural temple consists of the following.



  • It literally means ‘womb-house’ and is a cave like sanctum.
  • In the earliest temples, it was a small cubical structure with a single entrance.
  • Later it grew into a larger complex.
  • The Garbhagriha is made to house the main icon (main deity) which is itself the focus of much ritual attention.Drawing_2


  • It is the entrance to the temple.
  • It may be a portico or colonnaded (series of columns placed at regular intervals) hall that incorporate space for a large number of worshippers.
  • Dances and such other entertainments are practiced here.
  • Some temples have multiple mandapas in different sizes named as Ardhamandapa, Mandapa and Mahamandapa.

Shikhara or Vimana:

  • They are mountain like spire of a free standing temple.
  • Shikhara is found in North Indian temples and Vimana is found in South Indian temples.
  • Shikhara has a curving shape while vimana has a pyramidal like structure.


  • It is a stone disc like structure at the top of the temple and they are common in North Indian temples.


  • It is the topmost point of the temple and commonly seen in North Indian temples.

  Antarala (vestibule):

  • Antarala is a transition area between the Garbhagriha and the temple’s main hall (mandapa).3911-004-E94F3FDF


  • It is a raised platform for sitting and praying and is common in North Indian temples.


  • It is the mount or vehicle of the temple’s main deity along with a standard pillar or Dhvaj which is placed axially before the sanctum.

Sculptures, Iconography and Ornamentation

  • Iconography is a branch of art history which studies the images of deities.
  • It consists of identification of image based on certain symbols and mythology associated with them.
  • Even though the fundamental myth and meaning of the deity may remain the same for centuries, its specific usage at a spot can be a response to its local or immediate social, political or geographical context.
  • Every region and period produce its own distinct style of images with its regional variations in iconography.
  • The temple is covered with elaborate sculptures and ornament that form a fundamental part of its conception.
  • The placement of an image in a temple is carefully planned: for instance,river goddesses (Ganga and Yamuna) are visually found at the entrances in a Nagara temple, Dwarapalas are usually found on the gateway or gopurams of Dravida temples, similarly mithunas (erotic images), navagrahas ( the 9 auspicious planets) and Yakshas are also placed at the entrances to guard them.
  • Various forms or aspects of the main divinity are to be found on the outer walls of the sanctum.
  • The ashtadikpalas (deities of direction) face eight key directions on the outer walls of the sanctum and/or on the outer walls of the temple.
  • Subsidiary shrines around the main temple are dedicated to the family or incarnations of the main deity.
  • The various elements of ornamentation are gavaksha, vyala/ yali, kalpa-lata, amalaka, kalasha, etc.

Classification of Indian Temples

Indian temples can be classified into two broad orders as

  • Nagara (in North India) is associated with the land between the Himalayas and Vindhyas.
  • Dravida (in South India) with the land between the Krishna and Kaveri rivers.
  • At times, the Vesara style of temples as an independent style created through the mixing of Nagara and Dravida orders.Temple-Architecture-Styles

source- clearias

The Nagara or North Indian Temple Architecture


  • Nagara is the style of temple architecture which became popular in Northern India.
  • It is common here to build an entire temple on a stone platform with steps leading up to it.
  • Unlike in south India, it doesn’t usually have elaborate boundary walls or gateways.
  • Earliest temples had only one shikhara (tower), but in the later periods multiple shikharas came.
  • The garbhagriha is always located directly under the tallest tower.


The Dravida or South Indian Temple Architecture

dravida vimana Picture1

  • Unlike the nagara temple, thedravida temple is enclosed within a compound wall.
  • The front wall has an entrance gateway in its centre, which is known asGopura/ Gopuram.
  • The shape of the main temple tower is known as Vimana (shikhara in nagara style).
  • Thevimana is like a stepped pyramid that rise up geometrically rather than the curving shikhara of north India.
  • In south India, the word Shikhara is used only for the crowning element at the top of the temple which is usually shaped like a small stupika or an octagonal cupola (this is equivalent to the amalaka or kalasha of north Indian temples).

Comparison between Nagara and Dravidian style of temple architecture

  • In north Indian temples we can see images such as Mithunas (erotic) and the river goddesses, Ganga and Yamuna guarding the temple. But in the Dravida style of temple architecture, instead of these sculptures, we can see the sculptures of fierce dvarapalas or door keepers guarding the temple.
  • A large water reservoir or a temple tank enclosed in the complex is general in south Indian temples.
  • Subsidiary shrines are either incorporated within the main temple tower, or located as a distinct, separate small shrine besides the main temple.
  • The north Indian idea of multiple shikharas rising together as a cluster was not popular in dravida style.
  • At some of the most sacred temples in south India, the main temple in which the garbhagriha is situated has, in fact, one of the smallest towers.
  • This is because it is usually the oldest part of the temple.
  • When the population and the size of the town associated with the temple increased, it would have become necessary to make a new boundary wall around the temple (and also associated structures).
  • An example for this is the Srirangam temple at Thiruchirapally, which has as many as seven concentric rectangular enclosure walls, each with gopurams.
  • The outermost is the oldest while the tower right in the centre housing the garbhagriha is the oldest.
  • Just as the nagara architecture has subdivisions, dravida temples also have subdivisions. These are basically of five different shapes:
  1. Kuta or caturasra – square
  2. Shala or ayatasra – rectangular
  3. Gaja-prishta or vrittayata (elephant backed) –elliptic
  4. Vritta – circular
  5. Ashtasra – octagonal


  • The Pallavas were one of the ancient south Indian dynasties that were active in Andhra region from the 2nd century onwards and moved south to settle in Tamil Nadu.
  • Their history is better documented in the inscriptions in stone and several monuments.
  • Although they were mostly Shaivites, several Vaishnava shrines also survived from the reign, and there is no doubt that they were influenced by the long Buddhist history of the Deccan.
  • The early buildings of Pallavas were rock-cut; while the later ones were structural (structural buildings were well known to them when rock cut ones being excavated).
  • Theearly buildings are generally attributed to Mahendravarman I, contemporary of Chalukya king, Pulikeshi II of Karnataka.
  • Narasimhavarman I, who was also known as Mamalla,acceded the throne around 640 CE.
  • He expanded the empire and also inaugurated most of the building work at Mahabalipuram which is known after him as Mamallapuram.

  The shore temple at Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu


  • It is a structural temple and was built during the reign ofNarasimhavarman II, also known as Rajasimha.
  • The temple is facing to east towards the sea and has three shrines – east and west to Shiva and the middle for Vishnu (Anantashayana).
  • This is unusual because temples generally have a single main shrine and not three areas of worship. This shows that it was probably not originally conceived like this and different shrine may be added at different times.
  • In the compound, there is an evidence of a water tank, an early example of a gopuram, and several other images.
  • Sculpture of the bull, Nandi, Shiva’s mount, lines the temple walls.
  • The temple has suffered severe disfiguration due to erosion by salt water laden air over the centuries.


  • The best example ofChola temple architecture is the Brihadeswara temple at Tanjore.
  • The temple isalso known as Rajarajeswara temple.
  • It was completed around 1009 byRajaraja Chola, and is the largest and tallest of all Indian temples.
  • The temples pyramidal multi-storeyed Vimana rises a massive seventy metres, topped by a monolithic shikhara, and thekalasha on top by itself is about three metres and eight centimetres in height.
  • The main deity of the temple is Shiva, who is shown as a huge lingam set in a two storeyed sanctum.
  • Painted Muralsand sculptures decorate the walls surrounding the sanctum.


Comparison between Pallava and Chola Architecture

  • Yali – Pallava used yali or lion motif at the base of the pillar
    Chola abandoned it and used yazhi at base or kudus in other parts of the pillar.
  • Dwarapala – In pallava architecture dvarapalas are comparatively benign.
    In chola architecture dwarapala became fierce with protruding tusk.
  • Gopuram – The gopurams in pallava dynasties were comparatively dwarfed.
    But in chola dynasty they became enlarged with high enclosure walls.
  • Finial – The finial in Pallava dynasy was a little swelling in the top of the vimana.
    But in Chola dynasty it became beautiful vase with artistic design.

Significance of Chola Architecture

Apart from the discussed features, Chola temples had a beautiful shikara stone at the top. It had elaborate and carefully made carvings. It is a marvel how these structures weighing in tonnes is placed without the help of cranes. During their reign, Cholas made temples in Nagaeshwvara, Brihadeshwvara, Airavateshwara and Chidambaram. Other kingdoms in South India and Sri Lanka followed their style.


-Created their own architecture style named Provida style which plays a lot of emphasis on piers and pillars.

-Built of hard stone, the temples are large structures with spacious Mandapas and lofty Gopurams .

-Exquisitely carved pillars and the massive solid granite rathas with three huge wheels in the open courtyard with exceptional carvings and murals both within and on the outer walls.

-Inscribed stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata on the walls of the various temples.

-Depiction of animal like horses and elephants on the walls were common figures.

-Important temples were Vithalswami and Hazara temples at Hampi, Tadapatri and Parvati temples at Chidambaramand Varadraja and Ekambarnatha temples at Kanchipuram.



  1. It will interesting if u cud add more about the drawing and sculpture’s on and around the temple wall…there is a lot of diff between south and north temples with regard to the sculptures…appreciate if u cud share this..


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