Asian Art and Culture: Hindu Temples

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In my previous posts, I have written a lot about art and its importance in representing the reality of the time. The deeper I sink into it, the more it fascinates me.

Eastern culture with all its peculiarities has always interested me, yet, I couldn’t understand it fully; grasping all the peculiarities and the enormous variety within it was rather challenging to me until recently, when I started to study Asian religious art.

As one of the oldest parts of the earth that has developed in isolation for centuries, then, suddenly, got introduced to the western world through the advancement of the trade roots, this part of the continent has a rich repository of various visual traditions. The preserved pieces perfectly illustrate the subtleties of the culture. The combination of style and symbolism elucidates the prevailing beliefs, the underlying philosophy, the development of thought and the change/enrichment of values throughout time and space.

Well, the term Asian religious art is too broad and too diverse to discuss in a single blog post. So, discussing the basic structure and symbolism of Hindu temples, I want to demonstrate how art can help understand cultural beliefs.

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Hindu temples are designed to simulate the paths to release (Moksha), that is- attainment of the knowledge of the Supreme Deity, or pilgrimage to a potent site where the divine presence dwells.

Prior to building a temple, the soil should be tested, purified and refined, since their God is going to reside there. When choosing a site for a temple, it is essential to consider the presence of water in the vicinity. The temple can be made of brick, stone, or wood, however, brick is considered a supreme choice since it is created using fire, which in Hindu terms, translates into tapas and rasas (the energy and the heat which illustrate power).

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The ground plan of a Hindu temple is normally square. This is aimed at mimicking a mandala, a diagram of the divine essence. The Mandapa is the porch, the entry. It represents the transition from external to internal, earthly to divine. The Garbhagriha, which literally means the womb-room, the place where the cosmic creation takes place is the innermost sanctum of the building; its actual body. One comes in from the entry, which may have steps, then, one walks around the gharbagriha in a circular manner (circumambulation) to worship the creation.

The Shikhara (superstructure) is the tower over the gharbagriha. Usually, it looks like a mountain. This verticality gives a sense of going up to heaven. The top part is called Amalaka (when literally translated from sanskrit, it means a cosmic egg).

Symbolically, the womb is a cave in a mountain. This metaphor of the Hindu temple represents the creation of the Earth. In the temple, the linga (the male sexual organ) and the yoni (the female sexual organ) unite to create the amalaka, and , in this way, life gets continuity.

At first glance, it might sound a bit ridiculous for people like me who were brought up in a culture with beliefs and visual traditions completely varying from this. However, one cannot help admitting  the preciseness with which it shows the agricultural nature and the simplistic philosophy of the Indus Valley Civilizations, where Hinduism emerged and prospered. Both the narrative and the style are the mirror images of the faith that this civilizations had. When one goes further and looks at the development of the style, one can clearly distinguish between the indigenous pieces and the ones bearing foreign influence coming from the trade roots. One can identify the points where the philosophy and the life of these people altered and one can see exactly how.

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