Does this ring a bell? Marg celebrates South Asia’s diverse temples

There are temples in India that resemble churches, others inspired by Islamic domes, and still others that imitate the architecture of local homes. The terracotta temples in Bengal have sloping roofs with curved cornices. Some in Kerala have a unique circular design, with roofs that almost touch the floor.

With this extraordinary variety as their focus, the quarterly art magazine Marg chose the changing perspectives of temple studies as the theme of its recent 75th anniversary issue. Titled Readings on the Temple, the issue explores architecture, patronage, and the social, economic and cultural roles temples play across India as well as in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, starting with the question: what defines a temple?

“Establishing a house for a God can be done conceptually, in a mandala, or physically, in a space which we call a temple. However, the perception of what makes a temple can be very different for different communities,” says Marg general editor Naman P Ahuja, who is also a professor of Indian art and architecture at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Readings… will be the first in a four-volume series. The other three will explore Indian art, dance and textiles respectively. “Together they should add up to a larger narrative on how we study these major expressions of culture,” Ahuja says. Excerpts from an interview.

The articles in the first chapter of this issue deal with this very complex question. They answer it in completely different ways. Given that many Hindus believe the divine to be “nirgun” or “niraakaar” (“without form”), what makes temples full of images valid as manifestations of deities? The articles take us from the idea of defining a temple on the basis of its form to looking at the rituals that can turn any space into a temple. For some it is a vision of a celestial paradise. For others it is a space that performs a public role.

This issue of Marg is designed to move beyond the well-known examples of Konark, Khajuraho and Thanjavur to look at rock-cut temples, extraordinary wood, bamboo or brick ones, circular yogini temples and modern multi-storey concrete-and-steel temples. Temple cultures also extend beyond national boundaries. This reflects an even greater plurality of cultures, yet held together by a few unifying ideas. Nepal, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sindh… some of the most fascinating temples are outside India too.

The temple also provides for community needs and public administration. Some of the articles, for instance, deal directly with the construction of water reservoirs and the temple’s control on water management. Some of their kitchens had to feed hundreds of people every day. Some had retinues of dancers and musicians. This volume brings together studies that allow the reader to gain insight into the varieties of functions that temples served.

Some Goan temples drew inspiration from churches. Banarasi and Gujarati temples often have domes and later even cusped arches. Ones in Bengal, Kashmir and Kerala each have distinctly different designs of sloping roofs.

The Byzantine-type vaulting of the historic (and mostly forgotten) Gupta-period terracotta temple at Bhitargaon near Kanpur was certainly a major surprise. It shows the experimental nature of the architects of Hindu temples, who appear to have been able to respond to global trends in architecture while still defining and holding onto an idea of tradition.

None of the living sacred temples has stayed static. Renovation can happen with new material, such as cement, which was absent in older temples. Time can alter style and taste: from the 14th century domes and arches became increasingly popular in temples across northern India. The renovation can happen at a time when we have different expectations: larger rooms, better climate-control, electrification. The volume ends with studies of the changes of the past 150 years: the very process of selecting land for a sacred purpose, who the new patrons are, and how new building technology is being used by architects who still need to think about respectfully communicating “tradition”.