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Gupta Temples

At the end of the 4th century, the rise of the Gupta rulers coincided with a revival of Hinduism, after almost 700 years of dominance of Buddhism and Jainism. Although many elements of this new religion were common with the religion of the Aryans (e.g. the importance of the Vedas) there were fundamental differences in rituals and dieties. In particular, the Aryan element gods (such as Indra and Agni) were replaced by two main dieties, Shiva and Vishnu each of whom had a multitude of forms or incarnations as well as consorts (these allowed local dieties and cults to be appropriated into the Hindu pantheon). The preferred method of worship also changed from open-air sacrificial altars to viewing the diety (darshana) in a confined sanctum. The Guptas patronized this religion and sponsored temples to Vishnu and Shiva from the beginning of the 5th century AD. These temples marked the beginning of an architecture that drew on earlier Buddhist sculptural techniques, but initiated a new movement, ultimately leading to the great and elaborate Hindu temples of the 8th century onward.

Two main types of temple were built in the Gupta period. The first consists of a square sanctuary with a pillared porch in front. Both porch and sanctum are post-and-lintel style and without any superstructure. This type of temple answers the simplest needs of worship, a chamber to house the deity and a roof to shelter the devotee. Temple No 17 at Sanchi is a classic example of this type. Another temple of this type is the Kankali Devi shrine at Tigawa, which has new types of pillars, provided with the overflowing vase (kumbha-panjara) or the vase-and-foliage (ghata-pallava) capital.

The second type of temple also has a square sanctum but with a pyramidal superstructure (sikhara). Among the most interesting examples are a brick temple at Bhitargaon and the Vishnu temple at Deogarh built entirely of stone. The sanctums walls are provided with central projections on the outside that extend from the base of the walls right upto the top of the sikhara (spire). The section of the central offset that extends across the wall has a niche, in which is placed an image. The frame around the sanctum entrance is very elaborate, carved with several bands carrying floral and figural motifs. On either side of the entrance base are rows of worshippers, including river goddesses. This basic formula proved highly successful and was to be repeated and adapted throughout the subcontinent for many of the following centuries. The Deogarh temple is placed on a large terraced platform with four corner shrines (now ruined). This arrangement, known as the panchayatana, also became popular throughout the subcontincent, even upto the 18th century.

The Parvati Devi temple at Nachna Kuthara, perhaps of a slightly later period has further elaborations including a covered circumambulatory around the sanctum and a large hall in front. The great Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya, commemorating the spot where the Buddha gained enlightenment is also essentially a temple of this period but so burdened with later restorations that it is hardly recognizable as a Gupta-period temple. It has a particularly majestic sikhara, decorated with ornamental niches and arches rising over a square sanctum to a great height.

Bangalore, 2006


Tigawa Temple, 5th c, © historyforkids.org


Deogarh Temple, 5th c, © harekrsna.com


Deogarh Temple, 5th c, © harekrsna.com

Photos and Text © Amit Guha Feedback