the whys and hows of temples
The need to study temples (Pardon formatting errors...)
(My response to my earlier blog on temples....)
One of the major problems with teaching of Indian history for children is that they find no physical bearing of the past in their lives. Hence for many children history, which is largely taught in the four walls of the classroom, is a big bore. While past remains with us in so many aspects, material and non-material, for children it is important that they see, hold, and feel the past manifest in coins, artifacts, sculpture and temples. Hence visits to medieval temples and forts becomes an important entry point for taking the children into the past. The word entry point is to be noted since study of temples should not become an end in itself. It is important that, as many middle school textbooks do, not to burden the children with details of temple planning, execution, temple sculpture etc. While it is important for a child to have some background on the temple i.e. who built it, when it was build, it is perhaps more important to know how and why it was built.
When did temple construction start in India?
Temples were not being built since time immemorial as many would like to believe. It was not before 4th -5th century CE, during the period of the Guptas that temples and the attributes by which we identify temples really began to be built. In Karnataka, the Kadambas and Gangas can be seen to have pioneered temple building later perfected by the medieval Chalukyas, Hoyasala and Vijaynagar dynasties.
For worship obviously but the fact that temples began to be built at a particular point in history, i.e. CE 4 and 5th century onwards certainly suggests more than what meets our eye. This was the time when India entered a new socio-economic phase called feudal period. Trade and commerce were on the wane and few coins were minted. As historian R S Sharma points out with the decline of the Guptas new socio-economic system and states based on land grants emerged. These states/kingdoms needed new forms of social control. The rulers and ruling classes needed new ideology and ideas by which they could exercise authority and power over people. Since it was a period marked by warfare, insecurity and uncertainity,the propensity of the people to believe in the supernatural, mystical, the unknown was more intense than ever. Religious beliefs centring on idol worship, particularly practiced by eco-system people i.e. ‘tribals’ was sought to political advantage by the political class of the times. The fears of the people were channelised towards God and the house of God i.e. temples. Hence both the era of Bhakthi movement and temple building emerged concurrently.
Temple building became a very specialized activity by 6th century CE and by 9th and 10th centuries temple building entered its mature phase under the Rashtrakutas, Cholas, Chandelas and Hoysalas. While each region in India developed its own style of temple building, a temple was to have the following identifiable features:
Vimana– the tower like structure over the garbha griha
Gopura – the structure towering over the entrance of the temple complex
Mandapa – The prayer hall after the sanctum sanctorum and the ante –room
Garbhagriha – the place where idols were installed (sanctum sanctorum)
Antarala – the anteroom connecting the mandapa and garbhagriha
Though each region developed its own unique styles temples could be broadly classified into three major groups:
Nagara style (the kind of temples found in North India i.e. Khajuraho temples)
Dravida style (temples found mostly in Tamil Nadu i.e. Madurai Minakshi temple)
The Chalukya style – combined elements of both Dravida and Nagara style
Suggested activity/Teaching method: Temple study can never be accomplished in the classroom. When temples are being studied, children will have to be taken to the site of few medieval temples. Karnataka is blessed with some fine examples of temples. The Chennakesava and Hoysaleshwara temple in Belur and Halebid built by the Hoyasalas is a must visit. The teacher can ask the students to identify the parts of the temple as discussed above, once at the site. The local guides can take the students around to identify the other different parts of the temple and offer interesting tid-bits on the exquistely carved panels depicting scenes from the epics, puranas or mythology, the shapely celestial sculpture called the Mandanikas or its delicate filigree work. One needs to take some of the wisdom which these guides are excited to offer with a pinch of salt. It is important to corroborate these with information that can be gleaned from any of the innumerable websites or books.
Ask the children to closely observe the sculptures and engraved panels to find out if some informed guesses could be made about the lifestyle people lead in the past i.e. their dress, modes of transport, food, entertainment etc. (There are innumerable panels which gives more than an adequate idea to make informed guesses. The tourist guide may not highlight these but as teachers it is mportant to draw the child’s attention to dress, jewellery, amusements etc) Also ask the children what other function other than worship could the temple possibly have performed. Have a discussion on what forms of entertainment we have today and what forms of entertainment people could have had in the past and explain how temples fulfilled a important social and cultural role other than religious.