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Nagara temple architecture – architectural school dominating pre-Islamic northern Bharat

Pre-Islamic northern Bharat was dotted with temples built in the Nagara style of architecture. In this article, we take you through the various types and regional variations of Nagara Temple-Architecture based on a tweet thread by Twitterati Adivaraha.

In ancient Bharat, temples formed the focal point around which life revolved. They weren’t merely places of religious worship but also doubled up as economic and education centers.

Key features of a Hindu temple

Every Hindu temple has certain key elements that are common to all temples across the country irrespective of the architectural style adopted in their construction.

Garbagriha – is the main part of the temple that houses the vigraha of the chief deity. Garbagriha literally translates to the “womb chamber” and is the central cave-like sanctum of the temple. The Shikara or the Vimana rises directly above the garbagriha. The circumambulatory path around the garbagriha is called the “pradakshina patha”.

Mandapa – is a portico or columned hall where devotees gather for prayers. At times, temples may have more than one mandapa of varied sizes. On the basis of their sizes, mandapas are classified as ardhamandapa, mandapa and mahamandapa.

Shikara or Vimana – The spire rising like a mountain is known as Shikara (north) or Vimana (south). While the Vimana is pyramidal, the Shikara is a curved structure.

Amalaka – is a disc made of stone atop which the Kalash (Kalasha) sits. It is mostly found in Shikaras of northern temples.   

Kalash or Kalasha – is a pot shaped structure above the Amalaka which forms the apex of a temple.

Antarala or vestibule – The transitional passageway that connects the garbagriha and mandapa is known as Antarala.

Jagati – The raised platform on which the temple is constructed is called “Jagati”.

Vahana – Every deity has a Vahana (vehicle) and every temple houses the vigraha of the temple’s chief deity’s Vahana along with the Dhvaj pillar.        

Various styles of temple architecture

Temple architecture of ancient Bharat can be divided into three broad categories on the basis of the architectural style employed to construct them. They are:

  • Nagara – northern style
  • Dravida – southern style and
  • Vesara – mixed style
PC: IAS Mania

This article deals with the Nagara architectural style which was popularised in northern Bharat.

Nagara temples are characterized by curvilinear spiral roofs (Shikaras), sanctum sanctorum (Garbagriha), and a pillared hall (Mandapa). Amalaka is another distinct feature of these often square-shaped temples that are mostly constructed on raised platforms with steps leading up to the temple.

Depending on the construction style and type of Shikara, we can classify Nagara temples into the below-mentioned subtypes –

  • Rekha-Prasad or Latina: These temples are characterized by a simple Shikara with a square base and inward curving walls that have a pointed top. Early medieval temples such as the Sun Temple at Markhera in Madhya Pradesh (MP). The Sri Jagannath Temple of Odisha has been constructed in the Rekha-Prasad Shikara style.
  • Shekari: is a variation of the Latina where the Shikara comprises of a main Rekha-Prasad Shikara and one or more rows of smaller steeples on both sides of the central spire. Additionally, the base and corners also feature mini Shikaras. The Khajuraho Kandariya Mahadev Temple is one of the most prominent temples built in this style. It was the preferred mode of construction in Maru Gurjara Temples of Western Bharat. The Somnath Temple and the Taranga Jain Temple belong to the Shekari style of temple architecture.
Shekari Latina type
PC: Britannica
  • Bhumija: Another type of Nagara temple that evolved from the Latina style was the Bhumija architecture developed in Malwa under the Paramara dynasty. These temples have a flat upward tapering projection comprising of a central Latina spire and miniature spires on the quadrant formed by the tapering tower. These mini Shikaras carved out both horizontally as well as vertically. The Udayeshwar Temple in MP is built in this style.
  • Valabhi: style temples are rectangular in shape comprising of barrel-vaulted roofs. The vaulted chamber roof has earned them the moniker wagon vaulted buildings/structures. The popular Teli Ka Mandir, a 9th Century temple at Gwalior has been built in this style.
  • Phamsana: are shorter but broader structures comprising of roofs with numerous slabs that rise upwards in a gentle slope on a straight incline like a pyramid meeting at a single point over the mid-point of the building. Generally, the Phamsana mode was used mainly for the mandapa in Nagara Shrines. The Jagmohan of Konark Temple is constructed in the Phamsana mode.

Regional variations of Nagara Temple architecture

There are several regional variations of the Nagara style of architecture.

  • Himavan: were temples with pented roofs of Kashmir Valley
  • Himadri: are the temples in western Himalayan states of Himachal & Uttarakhand constructed in both stone and intricately carved wood
  • Madhya Desa: These are Nagara temples of modern Uttar Pradesh (UP) where only one pre-Islamic stone temple has survived although several brick temples belonging to the period of Maukhari, Pushyabhuti and Pratihara rulers of Kannauj still stands intact
  • Magadha Desa: Much like the neighboring UP, a few ruins and the Mahabodhi temple are the only surviving Nagara temples constructed in this style
  • Jejakabhuti: This is the modern Bundelkhand region where the world-renowned Khajuraho temples stand as a testimony to the beautiful Nagara architecture of yore
  • Dahala Desa: is present-day Jabalpur which was under the reign of Kalachuris during medieval times. The Chausath Yogini Mandir in Bhedaghat is a surviving architectural marvel of this style
  • Dakshina Kosala: is what is today known as Chhattisgarh. Lying amidst impenetrable jungles and on the banks of the Mahanadi, these temples remind us of the rich cultural heritage of the benevolent Nalas and Panduvamsis
  • Dasarna Desa: This corresponds to the eastern region of present-day MP where ancient cities such as Vidisha and Gopagiri (Gwalior) were situated. What began as simple but ornate Mandapika shrine gradually evolved into intricate architectural marvels under the patronage of Pratiharas and Kachhapghata rulers.
  • Malwa: Initially it comprised of Western MP and expanded in the medieval times to include Dasarna Desa too. With the patronage received under the Paramara dynasty in general and Raja Bhoj in particular, the Bhumija style of Nagara architecture was developed here
  • Kalinga Desa: is modern-day Odisha which was able to produce architectural marvels such as the Jagannath Puri, Konark Sun Temple, and the Lingaraja Temples. Minimal Islamic invasions helped these marvels to survive and flourish
  • Saindhava/Maitraka: are temples belonging to the Saurashtra region of Gujarat
  • Maha Gurjara: is the Nagara architectural style that came to birth in North Gujarat as a result of the assimilation of several local traditions including Saindhava style
  • Maha Maru: Maru means desert and in keeping with its name this architectural style finds its origins in the local Gupta Age variants of Rajasthan
  • Maru Gurjara: Under the Solankis, this style of Nagara architecture came into being by combining elements of Maha Maru and Maha Gurjara. The sword of Rajput rulers and patronage of mercantile castes helped these temples to survive the Islamic onslaught
  • Hemadpanthi: This style was founded by the legendary Hemadri Pandit, popularly known as Hemadapanta who was the Prime minister of the medieval Seuna Yadava (Sevuna Yadavas or Yadavas of Devagiri) dynasty. Hence, it has been named after him. Although Islamic rule caused a lot of damage, the establishment of Hindavi Swaraj and subsequent patronage, as well as temple reconstruction activities by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and his successors, ensured that their glory is revived and the saffron flag flies high
  • Karnata Nagara: It is at the Chalukyan sites in Karnataka that the northern and southern styles meet to give birth to some of the best known architectural marvels
PC: IAS Mania

Three sub-schools of Nagara architecture

Apart from each region developing its own variant of Nagara architecture, Nagara architecture is classified into three broad sub-schools.

Odisha School – The most prominent distinguishing feature is the Shikara (Deul) which rises vertically before curving inwards at the top. The main type is square while the upper reaches are circular. These temples have intricately carved exteriors and usually bare interiors. Unlike Nagara temples of the north, most Odisha temples have boundary walls.

Chandel School – Unlike Odishan style, these temples are conceived as a single unit and have Shikaras that curved from bottom to top. There are a number of miniatures Shikaras rising from the central tower and towers that gradually rise up to the main tower cap both the porticos and halls.

Solanki School – They are similar to the Chandel School except that they have carved ceilings that appear like a true dome. The distinguishing feature of these temples is the minute and intricate decorative motifs. Except for the central shrine, one can find carvings on both the inner and outer sides of the walls.

It is an apt tribute to the skill of our ancestors that the Sri Ram Janmabhoomi Temple will be constructed in the Nagara style of architecture.

(Featured Image Source: The Twitter account of Adivaraha)

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A opinionated girl-next-door with an attitude. I'm certainly not afraid to call myself 'a proud Hindu' and am positively politically incorrect. A Bharatiya at heart who loves reading, music, sports and nature. Travelling and writing are my passions.



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