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Magazine Web Edition > July/August/September 2009 > Insight: Approaching God - Elements of Worship & From Shrine to Temple
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II. From Shrine to Temple

Each temple in India is different: its architecture, decoration, size and contents are unique to its own history and specific purpose. Most are built upon sites that have been in worship for as long as anyone knows. The central image in many is primordial, a natural stone that has been viewed as a God or Goddess for millennia, like the Svayambhu Linga in the temple in the story of Vivek and Manika. The structures around these images have grown up over centuries through the contributions of grateful devotees.

A temple's growth is entirely based upon the Hindu concept of reciprocity. In contacting a God or Goddess in puja, a devotee's desires may be implicit, without a special request, or may include prayers for something specific, such as good employment, or increased wealth, or improved health. In either case, devotees who consequently experience good luck must share their fortune in acts of kindness and also in honoring the Deity to whom they have prayed. A greater fortune demands a bigger repayment. A large temple may well have begun as a shrine to a local gramadevata (village Deity). Today many temples are being built on the spots where gramadevatas have been worshiped for centuries. When a positive change happens in the village, gifts are given to the local shrine, which is most often associated with a tree.

In contemporary India, the economy of the burgeoning middle-class is improving rapidly. Many people have relatives that send them money from overseas; new technologies at home have created new jobs; better education engenders more employment choices. Whatever the source of improvement, the recipient must thank his or her Deities with presents. Often the community will join together to give something to the shrine; they may raise money through subscription; or particularly fortunate individuals may make large donations on their own. Accordingly, a family may give money to the local shrine to erect a new platform or even a small building. Another family may commission a stone sculpture of the God or Goddess to be carved and placed in the shrine. Someone else may want his own ishtadevata to be honored by financing the building of a secondary shrine. The accoutrements of puja are improved. Large bells may be tied to the tree, fine arati plates and lamps given, and jewelry commissioned to adorn the sacred stones or the new images. Gradually, the wealth of the shrine grows and locked doors must be installed to protect the new objects from theft. The consequence of all this change is that the tenor of the shrine's atmosphere changes.

Decisions must then be made as to the care of the larger complex. Are there funds to employ a caretaker? Should the pujas continue to be conducted by non-brahmana pujaris, or should a brahmana priest be hired for the position? The answers to these questions may well alter the dynamics of the shrine. Many non-brahmana communities that have conducted their worship services according to their own traditions for centuries choose to change with the times, to modernize by employing brahmanas. The reasons are complex: brahmana priests have been trained since childhood in the intricate prescriptions of rituals, underlining the implicit message that the pujas they conduct are more pleasing to the Gods; and broad social pressure suggests that brahmana superiority will improve the status of the community. (Brahmana priests are always male, organized in large temples into complex hierarchies. Occasionally, pujaris in non-brahmana shrines and temples are female, further complicating the choice.) Not all enlarging shrines choose to hire brahmana priests. Some continue to retain the services of their traditional pujaris. But usually the rituals conducted by these non-brahmana priests will be amended to fit the stature of the new surroundings.

If the good fortune of individuals or the entire community continues to increase, then architects and stone carvers may be hired to build a complete temple. The style of the temple is usually governed by that of local architecture, although recent growth in the influence of mass media and the popularity of certain historical and contemporary styles have resulted in new, eclectic Hindu temple architecture in India and abroad. Nevertheless, the modern trend simply continues an historical precedent: temples have always grown through the combined influences of reciprocal donations, traditional values and fashionable technology. The architecture of many of India's most important ancient temples is an eclectic blend of many regional styles.

Virtually all of India's temples have grown through this process: either gradually through the donations of grateful individuals and groups, or rapidly through the sponsorship of one powerful and wealthy person. Many of the most magnificent temples were built by royalty. For example, a king might create an enormous stone edifice for two purposes: to demonstrate gratitude to his God for his position and to proclaim to his subjects his supreme sovereignty. Some of the finest temples recently constructed in India, including the Birla temple in Calcutta, were financed by the country's new rich.

A new temple most often stands directly on a spot that has been a focus of worship by the local community for generations. In some cases a building will be constructed to incorporate a sacred tree. More often the requirements of a large building will mean that the new central shrine is situated alongside or even some distance from the tree. Special rituals are carefully enacted to cleanse and purify the new area before construction begins. The architecture of the new building will be carefully planned so that its proportions and alignment both cater to the demands of ritual and facilitate the needs of worship. Decisions must be made as to whether to continue using the natural stones or sculpted images that have been the focus of pujas, or to carve or cast sculptures. The form of a new image may portray the iconography of a pan-Indian God or Goddess, or may accentuate the personality of the local Deity. If the ancient image is to be installed in the new temple, then special ceremonies are enacted to ensure its proper transference to the new sanctum. The svayambhu Linga worshiped by Vivek and Manika was originally established in this manner when the Siva temple was built many centuries ago. Even after the primary images have been transferred from an older sacred site to a new temple, unofficial pujas generally continue at the original spot. Sacred trees, like the Naga tree, remain in worship inside temple compounds throughout India.

If a new image is to be consecrated, then elaborately prescribed rituals must be followed precisely to transfer the energy of the Deity from its original source. The final act in the consecration of any new image, whether in household, shrine or temple, is the ritual opening of the eyes, which facilitates darshan, enabling the Deity to see as well as be seen. At the last moment, eyes may be chiseled in, or painted on, or added in metal or stone before the life force is breathed into the image (prana pratishtha), bringing it full divine consciousness. Now the Deity is fully present in the image, to be bathed, dressed, adorned and honored in the manner befitting a God or Goddess.

Occasionally a temple will be built on an entirely new spot. Over the past two centuries, as the Indian population has increased by a thousand percent, many previously undeveloped areas have been settled. Industrialization created new factory towns; and increased commerce and changes in government engendered new cities and suburbs. All of these communities require shrines, and many have sponsored the construction of temples. The process of selecting the site for a temple is complicated; it must be chosen with great care. Astrologers and seers are consulted, and the history and legends of the property assessed. There should be no demons or ghosts associated with the site and any negativity must be removed through complex purification rituals. If possible, the temple should be near water, preferably a pond, river or stream. If not, then water must be accessible, either by well or reservoir. A temple is usually aligned on an east-west axis so that the entrance and all of the subsidiary gates, where applicable, are directly in front of the inner sanctum. Ancient scriptures govern the ground plan of the temple and the position of all the subsidiary buildings to conform to the delineations of a sacred geometric diagram, or mandala. This large square mandala is divided into a grid of many smaller squares, each associated with positions of the stars, sun, moon and planets, and with the Deities related to these heavenly bodies. The sanctum is placed at the center of the mandala--all other buildings, walls and entrance ways revolve around it. The temple compound is thus a microcosm, a conscious replica of the conceptual universe. It functions not only as a seat of the Gods, but also as a metaphysical means of transcending the exterior worlds and entering the center, visualized as the matrix of creation. Consequently, the entire temple plan is intended to assist the progression of the devotee from mundane existence to divine realization.

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