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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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The Garbagriha

The inner sanctum of the temple is called the garbagriha, literally translated as "chamber of the womb." It holds within its dark and unadorned recesses the potency of the central image, the absolute power of the God or Goddess. No one but a qualified priest is allowed to enter here--to do so might adulterate the purity of the power. Even the priests must undergo rituals of purification each time they wish to enter this womb. All other devotees approach as close to the image as possible for darshan with the Deity. In some temples they are allowed to touch the base of the image or the feet of the Divine, believing that by doing so they absorb the God's radiance through their fingertips. Non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the innermost areas of many of the most important temples, as it is feared that by inappropriate thoughts or gestures they might desecrate the image. Some temples, such as the Jagannath Temple in Puri, are considered so pure that no non-Hindus may enter the entire compound.

The path to the inner sanctum is intentionally long in order to properly prepare the devotee for an encounter with the Deity. The process is achieved through ritual circumambulations (pradakshina) in which the individual walks around the center several times, symbolically shedding more of the mundane world with each pass. In large compounds this is achieved through a series of up to five concentric corridors--the nearer to the central temple, the more sacred the corridor. The final pradakshina is made in a windowless passage that surrounds the chamber of the womb. All existence is focused upon the sacred. All of the five senses are then activated as the devotee reaches the inner sanctum: bells ring and priests chant; lamps and arati are lighted; incense and ghee burn; the heat of the fire is felt with one's fingers; and prashad is eaten. For the devout, a sixth sense is also activated: the sense of the presence of the Divine.

The position of the womb chamber within the temple is usually marked by a tower or dome, its fluidity of line and refined decoration contrasting directly with the dark simplicity of the inner chamber. Hinduism, in common with many other religions, has always associated mountain peaks with sacred purity and deems them the abode of the Gods. Siva and his wife Parvati are believed to live on Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas. Many Hindu saints have achieved enlightenment in these mountains, and a pilgrimage trek around the sacred peaks is believed to bring great spiritual merit. The towers of many temples are built to resemble stylized mountains reminiscent of these peaks. Many are elaborately carved in stages from ground to spire, some beginning with animals and the mundane activities of man on the lower levels, sacred symbols and celestial figures at the middle range, and Gods and Goddesses at the top. The capstone or flag on the peak is directly above the primary image, accentuating by its height and by the progressive arrangement of its levels, the same process of sacred transformation.

Styles of temple architecture vary greatly throughout the subcontinent, and the contrast is particularly pronounced between the north and south. The tower, or shikhara, above a northern Indian temple is usually tall, its verticality continuing the niches and tiers of the projecting walls in a fluid line from base to peak. A South Indian temple is generally a flatter structure with a proportionately smaller pyramidal tower (vimana) to represent the cosmic mountain. The entrance gates to most South Indian temples, however, are enormous, elaborately sculpted structures with barrel-vaulted caps; they are visible from great distances to entice the devotee to prayer. In contrast, northern Indian temple gateways are usually relatively understated, their shikharas drawing the devotee's attention.

The difference between north and south is further underlined by a comparison of the numbers of remaining ancient temples. Islam spread into India in the eighth century and over the next eleven centuries countless Hindu temples were either destroyed in the name of Allah or fell into disuse and decay through lack of sufficient patronage, particularly in the north where Muslim influence had its strongest impact. Few ancient temple complexes remain there. Urban temples were forced into smaller spaces, often sharing buildings with businesses and living quarters; while small rural temples either were unthreatened or were torn down and rebuilt in later years. The exception was among isolated kingdoms in the central plateau and on the East coast, and those of powerful maharajahs in Western India who made political and economic liaisons with Muslim rulers. Consequently, the contemporary northern states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat retain many magnificent temples. In contrast, most South Indian temples were protected from widespread destruction by Muslim invaders by their geographic boundaries and the consolidated strength of strong Hindu kingdoms. The greatest number and largest of India's temple complexes are in the South, and many have continued to grow steadily throughout history. For example, the huge temple to Vishnu in Sri Rangam, first constructed in the tenth century, has been added to and changed in every century since then. The sculpted superstructure of its seventh outer gateway was completed in 1987.

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