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The Hindu Temple Explained
By David Raezer
All Hindu templeso matter where they are in the world: from India’s North (Orissa and Khajuraho), South (Shore Temple, Kanchipuram, Madurai, Tanjore) and Southwest (Hampi, Somnathpur, Halebid, Pattadakal); to the island of Bali; to Java’s Prambanan
A microcosm of the Hindu cosmological universe, the temple is the meeting point of the divine and the profane.
Mountaintop residence of the gods. The temple’s overall form — dominated by its large central tower (vimana) — symbolizes the mountain at the center of the universe, Mount Meru. The gods reside on the summit.
God’s cave. The sanctuary proper, located directly under the tower, is where an image of the deity resides. Its dark interior represents the cave into which the god descends from his mountaintop home and becomes accessible to human beings in physical form.
The sacred intersection. Inside the Hindu temple’s sanctuary, the worlds of the divine and human connect: the god’s vertical axis (mountaintop to cave) intersects with the visitor’s horizontal axis (temple entrance to cave). The entire universe emanates from this intersection, as unity with god is the goal of earthly existence. In Hinduism, the god — typically one of the trinity: Shiva, Vishnu or (rarely) Bramha — is believed to temporarily physically inhabit his representation in the sanctuary.
It is here, in a cave at the foot of Mount Meru, that the visitor’s symbolic journey ends in nirvana: the pairs of opposites characteristic of worldly existence (e.g., good versus bad, right versus wrong) fuse into a single infinite everythingness beyond space and time.
Hindu temples have a few trademark features designed to reinforce the sacred nature of the event in the sanctuary.
Circumambulation. Walking in a clockwise rotation (pradakshina) around the god’s sanctuary is critical to Hindu temple ritual, symbolizing the repetitive process of rebirths (samsara) until illusion is cast aside. After circumambulating the temple, the faithful prepare to enter the sanctuary itself.
Entering the temple. Fierce guardians at the sanctuary’s entrance serve as the final line of defense for the gods: visitors who have not abandoned earthly attachments — a precondition for enlightenment — will surely recoil in fear.
Small sanctuaries designed for personal interaction. The faithful enter to engage in direct interaction with the god. Unlike other faiths, there is no religious intermediary and no abstraction: god is manifest before the devotee’s eyes, a profound encounter. Further, the internal sanctuary space is small, not designed for congregational worship; the journey is a personal one.
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