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Aesthetics Vs. Meaning Part I: The Importance of Hindu Architecture


The Perspective Heaven

Any student of architecture with reasonable skills in photography knows by instinct upon entering the precincts of an Islamic monument like the Taj Mahal, Agra, or the Bibi Ka Maqbara, Aurangabad that he has landed into perspective heaven.

The perspective here is easily coaxed out of almost any angle. Point the camera in the right direction and the perspective lines are ready-made. The beautiful gardens with many layers of fountains, water passages, shrub lines, and footpaths straddle throughout the monument.

The parallel and perpendicular lines that run across the precincts provide the third dimension to the photograph by creating depth in space. The geometrical designs crisscross in perfect symmetry in and around the monument framing it in a ready-made perspective from many angles.

Taj Mahal, Agra

Most of the Islamic monuments in India and abroad, much like their Renaissance counterparts were built from this aesthetic perspective. They were created to dazzle and impress the visitor with grandeur and power. They were built for beauty and beauty alone. Aesthetics is what drove them. Much thought went into creating them so that they would look perfect from every angle.

This is not just true of the Indo-Saracenic or the Mughal monuments in India. Taj Mahal is not the only one with the beautiful perspective lines. Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, Buland Darwaza in Sikri, the tombs of the Barid Shahi Kings at Bidar, and the Bibi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad are all built on the concept of perfect geometrical symmetry built to please the eye.

And this is where the Hindu temple differs from them.

In Search of Meaning

Of course, the Hindu temple is also built to please the eye. There is no art in India which violates the basic principles of aesthetics. Indian craftsmen were always well-versed in the universal principles which went into creating a piece of art that pleased the senses.

But this is not where they stopped. Beauty or aesthetics was the means, but it was not the goal of Indian art. The goal of Indian art was to transcend the beautiful, transcend what merely looked good to the eye. The goal of Indian art was to transport the viewer to the higher planes of consciousness. Coomaraswamy says:

‘Just as Professor Masson-Oursel has pointed out, ‘Indian art is aiming at something quite other than the copying of Nature. What we assume, quite superficially, to be the inspiration of art for art’s sake, really proceeds from religious scholasticism that implies a traditional classification of types established by convention. If here or there a relief or painting exhibits some feature drawn from life, it is only accidentally that the artist has, in spite of himself, transcribed something from actual Nature: and this is certainly, from the indigenous point of view, the least meritorious part of his work.’ Those who wish to study the ‘development’ of Indian art must emancipate themselves entirely for the innate European tendency to use a supposedly greater or less degree of the observation of Nature as a measuring rod by which to trace stylistic sequences or recognize aesthetic merit. Indian art can only be studied as showing at different times a greater or less degree of consciousness, greater or less energy; the criteria are degrees of vitality, unity, grace, and the like, never of illusion. (Transformation of Nature… 117)

He makes it clear that aesthetics is incidental to Indian art; it is never its primary goal. The primary goal is to guide the devotee towards the Ultimate Truth.

The Hindu temple is most certainly beautiful. Anyone who has ever laid his eyes upon the majesty that is the Kailashnath, Ellora; or looked upon the stupendous achievement that is the Brihadeeswar, Thanjavur; mused about the sheer will power and beauty personified that is the Kandariya Mahadeva, Khajuraho; or wondered about the caves of Elephanta, will swear that there is seldom anything in the Hindu temple that is not beautiful.

Shikhara of Kandariya Mahadeva with Miniature Shikharas creating the Main Shikhara

But the Hindu temple does not stop there. Beauty is a side product, but not the end goal of the Hindu temple.

One will find perspective lines in the Hindu temple too. Not as many and not as readily available to the camera as they do in an Islamic monument, but they are available. They are not the entire point thought. Ritual symbolism is always more important to Hindu architecture than symmetry. And thus you will find the temple pond always on the Ishana Kona of any temple which is absolutely not mirrored on the Agneya or the Nairittya side.

Symmetry is not the point here. Similarly, the Hindu temple grows organically, and different parts of the temple mirror different needs and symbolize different meanings.

A Temple Pond, Kerala

So the perspective lines do exist in the Hindu temple but as soon as you approach the structure your eyes start deciphering structures within the structure, temples within temples, rathas within rathas, gavaksha within gavaksha, shikharas upon shikharas, motifs decorated with miniature motifs.

There is action everywhere. You become mesmerized with a war scene and just then your eye flits to another scene nearby in which a couple is in an amorous embrace. Then your eye catches the beauty and the relaxed poise of the Vishnu in tribhanga just nearby.

Once again your eye flits across and you see a Shiva Dakshinamurthy. In between, there are swans, elephants, horses, makaras, and other animals. There are doorways within doorways. Monoliths with a thousand individual sculptures carved in it. Look away and you discern a Puranic story being portrayed, an aspect of Rama’s or Krishna’s life portrayed.

You soon become overwhelmed. The Hindu temple is all action and yet it leads towards ultimate inaction inside the garbha-griha. But the outer walls are all action. It is designed to not let your eyes rest at one place. It is designed to make the disciple view the samsara in all its ephemeral avataras; to realize that all that is worldly will disappear and is impermanent.

Outer Walls of Laxman Temple, Khajuraho – Samsara in all its Complexity

The Hindu temple is not passive. It actively tells stories. It imparts meaning to every part of its structure; it tells stories and teaches deep truths with every figure of its sculptures.

There is no icon, no niche, no part of the Hindu temple which does not exude meaning and this meaning always leads to the realization of the Ultimate Truth, represented in its fullest by the deity in the garbha-griha.

While a mosque or a tomb is nothing more than beautiful, with its beauty lying in its social use and its historical details, the Hindu temple lends itself to many purposes, but most of all it readily and passionately lends itself to meaning, meaning which is not directionless but which guides the devotee towards the Ultimate Truth.

The intention of the creators of these great temples was never missed upon the audience that visited them. The rules that governed the concept and creation of the temple also went to condition the mind and the behavior of the devotee too.

Everyone who visited the temple had a certain expectation from it, and this expectation was neither aesthetic nor intellectual. The devotee came to the temple for having ‘darshana’ of the deity, for finding meaning in life and in the temple, as Coomaraswamy once again stresses:

“…whereas we make an aesthetic emotion the first and final end of art, medieval man was moved far more by the meaning that illuminated the forms than by these forms themselves…” (Christian and Oriental… 111)

The meaning is not just confined to the sculpture that adorns its walls or to the vigraha in the garbha-griha. The structural parts of the architecture also convey meaning. There is nothing purely decorative in the Hindu temple. Every piece of sculpture and every structure of the building conveys some meaning, tells some story. To a Hindu architect the adjective ‘decorative’ sounds pejorative, as Coomaraswamy explains:

“The product was not called “art”, but an “artifact,” a thing “made by art”; the art remains in the artist. Nor was there any distinction of “fine” from “applied” or “pure” form “decorative” art. All art was for “good use” and “adapted to condition”. Art could be applied either too noble or to common uses but was no more or less art in the one case than in the other. Our use of the word “decorative” would have been abusive as if we spoke of a mere millinery or upholstery: for all the words purporting decoration in many languages, referred originally not to anything that could be added to an already finished and effective product merely to please the eye or ear, but to the completion of anything with whatever might be necessary to its functioning, whether with respect to the mind or the body: a sword, for example, would “ornament” a knight, as virtue “ornaments” the soul or knowledge the mind.” (Christian and Oriental… 111-112)

The meaning in a Hindu temple exudes from the plan of the elevation, from the material that is used in the walls, and which is used to fashion the vigraha. The meaning is there in the Utsava Murti of the temple, but also in the rituals that are being followed. The meaning is in how the deity is worshipped; how the priests worship; and how the devotee has darshan.

The Hindu temple is beautiful, but it also transcends beauty. The Hindu temple is aesthetic, but it goes beyond it. The Hindu temple is a representation of the cosmos, but its meaning goes beyond even the cosmos and leads towards the timeless and the eternal; the Ultimate Consciousness.

The goal of the Hindu temple is not to impress its visitor by its architectural magnitude or even by its sculptural beauty. Its goal is to elevate the consciousness of the devotee, to transport him to higher planes of consciousness. The Hindu temple, like all other Hindu sciences, is a means to reach higher stages of consciousness. It is a means for self-realization.

At first look, it seems surprising that something as concrete as architecture can transport someone to sublime heights of philosophy, but the Hindu temple does just that. And it has developed special techniques to achieve that.

The Aedicule in the Hindu Temple

In order to understand that we need to first understand the meaning of the term aedicule, this is frequently used about the Hindu temple. In the context of the Hindu temple, the term aedicule refers to the miniature shrine or a mini replica of the entire temple, temple shikhara or vimana, which is to be found most prominently on its shikhara and outer walls of the garbha-griha.

It is found in all three major varieties of Nagara, Vesara, and Dravida and is so profusely used in some architectural styles such as that of the Kalyani Chalukyas and Hoysalas of Karnataka that Gerard Foekema calls the very style as ‘architecture decorated by architecture’.

Kalleshvara Temple, Hire Hadagalli, Karnataka – Architecture decorated by Architecture

The aedicule is so universally present that it overwhelms the visitor, forcing him to constantly keep shifting his attention from one miniature shrine to another, making it hard for him to distinguish where one aedicule ends and another begins. It is this feature which led James Fergusson to observe that “everywhere…in India, architectural decoration is made up of small models of large buildings.” (Ferguson 285) Adam Hardy who considers the idiom of aedicule as the fundamental concept behind Indian architectural thinking, says:

“…it was some time after my first trip to India that it gradually became clear to me that aedicules are not just ornaments, but the basic units from which most Indian temple architecture is composed. Temple design is conceived as containing numerous smaller temples or shrines, arranged hierarchically at various scales, embedded within the whole or within one another. Once this simple concept is understood, other things fall into place.” (Hardy 10)

The Hindu philosophy imagines macrocosm in microcosm (Yatha pinde, tatha brahmande😉 and this thinking is reflected in all art in India. It is also the basic idea behind the idiom of the aedicule. The entire temple is reflected in its parts. Sometimes the aedicules are themselves made up of smaller aedicules and this series continues up to the point where architecture allows it to. It conveys the idea of an endlessly regressing series of aedicules, something like the fractal geometry.

Kashi Vishwanatha Temple, Lakkundi – Fractal Geometry at Display

As the temple is a representation of the universe, hence the entire universe is reflected again and again in the smallest parts of the temple. The idiom of aedicule is most prominently used in the shikhara of the temple. In some styles, like the Shekhari mode of the Nagara style, the shikhara is made of its smaller versions, called urushringas (half shikharas). These urushringas crowd together and rise to meet at the top beneath the amalaka.

Hindu Temple as Mount Meru

The Hindu temple architecture elevates the devotee to higher planes of consciousness by using spiritual symbols. In one symbolism, the Hindu temple is built and perceived in the image of Mount Meru, the sacred mountain.

Mount Meru represents ultimate knowledge and climbing it symbolizes attaining self-realization.

As a devotee enters a Hindu temple, such as the Kandariya Mahadev temple of Khajuraho, and as he proceeds through the various parts of the temple, from mukh mandapam, to mandapam, to mahamandapam, and then finally to garbha-griha, he symbolically climbs the Mount Meru, leaving the world, its multiplicity and ignorance behind and proceeds towards the pinnacle of knowledge, that is self-realization; he proceeds to have darshan of the deity in the garbha-griha, where he realizes his oneness with the deity or the Supreme consciousness.

Kandariya Mahadeva as Mount Meru

This process is mirrored in the symbolism. The outermost walls of the temple are full of every kind of sculpture but as one goes inside the sculpture becomes more divine in nature and gradually disappears in the garbha-griha except the main deity.

The garbha-griha is so named because it is literally the womb of the temple. It is the geometrical centre of the temple site, with its centre, the brahmasthana, occupied by the primary deity. It is called the womb because, under the deity, the ‘seed’ of the temple is inseminated in a kalasha (pitcher) and buried. It is directly above this that the image of the deity is installed.

Hindu Temple as a Fire Altar

The temple vimana is imagined as the fire of a fire altar, of a Yajna vedi or Vedic fire altar. The shape of the vimana which tapers, recedes, and coalesces into one point at the top with many of half-vimanas, or half-shikharas or miniature aedicular vimanas decorating the ascent of the vimana resembles the sacrificial fire of a fire altar. (Rao 74)

The Temple as the Divine Tree

The symbolism of the seed is taken further. This seed is believed to have sprouted upwards in the form of the temple vimana and branching out in various shoots, leaves, and branches, it again coalesces at the top in one kalash, bearing fruit which again contains the seed from which it came, and thus directly above this, outside the temple, over the vimana, another kalash is installed which has the same ‘seed’ which is deposited in the kalash underground. Here the temple vimana is imagined as a tree. As S. K. Ramachandra Rao puts it:

“The spot where the ‘womb’ is hidden would be the seat of the icon. The icon represents the sap of the temple-tree, the four walls would indicate the spreading branches all around. The roof resting over the wall is technically called ‘row of doves’ (kapota-pali or simply kapota), after the birds that perch on tree-tops. The sanctum is thus a neat model of the growing tree.” (Rao 74)

The seed in the underground holds the seed of supreme consciousness. When this consciousness sprouts, it takes the form of the deity in the garbha-griha. On the other hand, the consciousness from above also descends and meets the consciousness that is rising from below. The ascent of individual consciousness is complemented by the descent of the universal consciousness. It is a symbolic way of showing the individual consciousness rising up to meet the universal or supreme consciousness.

Shikhara of Brihadeeswar Temple – Gangaikondacholapuram – Temple as a Divine Tree

This ascent and descent are taking on the vertical axis of the temple, in the garbha-griha and in the vimana that tops it. The devotee that stands in the mandapam, in front of the deity lies on the horizontal axis of the temple. It is his active desire, his deep faith which lets him partake in the divine ascent and divine descent that is taking place in the garbha-griha.

Through the authority of the shastras; the agency of the temple as a Yantra to bring about desired goals; through the worship offered by the priest on the behalf of the devotee; and through divine grace, the devotee partakes in the ascent of consciousness. Deeply meditated upon, the ascent of the consciousness in the garbha-griha becomes his own ascent.

“The shrine thus demonstrates the constellation of the human and the divine currents; matter moves up and the spirit flows down. The devotee that stands in front of the icon is expected to partake in this transaction. The emanations that proceed from the icon must be picked up by the faith in his heart. Devotion is the transformer. The rituals conducted within the shrine involve these ideas and attempt to facilitate transformation along the horizontal axis of icon-devotee. The devotee represents active matter and the icon passive spirit. The two are brought together in the creative act of worship.” (Rao 80)

This is why darshan holds such importance for a Hindu devotee visiting a temple. More than prayers, more than signing devotional hymns, it is the act of darshan which is central to a temple visit and which transforms the individual consciousness of the devotee having darshan to higher levels.

The symbolism of the temple vimana as the tree is also understood by its etymology. The very Sanskrit word ‘vimana’ has two connotations: “that which is without comparison” and “that which brings about fruit”. Hence the word ‘vimana’ means the one which bears fruit.

Hindu Temple is all about Meaning

To come back to the point where we started, the Hindu temple is not just a monument. It is a living institution but even more than that it has a meaning and a goal. Through its imagery and play with sculpture and architecture, it elevates the devotees to higher planes of consciousness.

It is not just there to be seen and to be impressed with. It is not just a geometrical marvel. It is not just a photographer’s delight. It is more than the perspective that it offers. It is more than the faith that it commands. It speaks in the language of symbols. It aims to transcend the concrete.

It aims to carry the devotee towards truth through its brilliant imagery and potent symbols. The Hindu temple is not silent. It speaks. The Hindu temple is not passive. It acts. The Hindu temple is not just a place. It is a process: the process of self-realization.

The Hindu temple is all about meaning. It is a device which means to decipher the deepest secrets of life and existence to its devotees, through the most elaborate system of sculptural and architectural symbols.

This is where it differs from both the church and the mosque. But the philosophy behind the Hindu temple is also very different from the modern concept of architecture which will be pursued in the second part of this article.

REFERENCES

  1. Fergusson, James. A History of Indian and Eastern Architecture. London: John Murray, 1876.
  2. Hardy, Adam. The Temple Architecture of India. Chicester: John Wiley & Sons, 2007.
  3. Ramachandra Rao, S. K. The Vastu-Silpa-Kosha: Encyclopaedia of Hindu Temple Architecture and Vastu. New Delhi: Divine Books, 2012. Vol. I.
  4. Coomaraswamy, Ananda. K. The Transformation of Nature in Art. Munshiram Manoharlal, 2014.
  5. Coomaraswamy, Ananda K. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art. Munshiram Manoharlal, 2008.

 


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