The holy North-South divide: Exploring the Temple diversity of India
The holy North-South divide: Exploring the Temple diversity of India | Credit: Rn Mitrai Stock

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The holy North-South divide: Exploring the Temple diversity of India

Dec 11, 2018

Indian temples are breathtaking beauties and there are no two ways about it. Ours is a country where there is no dearth of beautiful structures that strike us with their sheer artistic grandeur and pristine settings. There are different layers of meanings behind the concept of temples and they are not simply places of worship. At times, they served as meeting places for like-minded people to socialise and also as serene environments for stressed out souls to meditate at. There are many theories that temples are strategically built to maximise the reception of cosmic energy and spread positive energy to visitors but no solid proof exists for these theories. Whatever maybe the science or concept behind temples, there is no doubt that a visit to temples puts our minds and bodies at ease and lets us de-stress.

With a vast landscape that comprises of deserts, plains, mountain ranges, tropical coastlines and snow peaks, it is only natural that India has a diversity of cultures and languages that few other countries can boast of. This astounding diversity is also reflected in the types of temples that are present in India. If Tamil Nadu boasts of humongous temple towers, then the regions near the Himalayas house simplistic temples that exude serenity. It is therefore rightly said that India displays a brand new culture for every 500 kms!

beautiful structures
beautiful structures

The temples of India can be broadly divided into North Indian and South Indian temples although even within each category there are several sub-categories. Let us look at some major distinctions between North Indian and South Indian temples.

Architecture

The architectural styles of temples in India can be generally classified into Nagara style, Dravidian style and Vesara style. Out of this, Dravidian style is found predominantly in the South side of the Deccan region, Vesara style is found in the Deccan region. So, these two styles can be clubbed together to describe the architecture style of Southern India. Nagara style temples can be found mostly in the area between the Himalayas and the Vindhya Range or the Northern side of India.

South Indian temples generally have a lot of intricate carvings on the outer and inner walls of the temple. These temples have characteristic Gopurams (towers) that are built in huge sizes. There is also generally a pond built within the temples for provision of water. Meanwhile, temples in North India have a more simplistic structure and have plain walls. The towers of these temples are in ascending order of height with the main tower housing the deity being the tallest. The temples are compact in size and are usually located in scenic area with a picturesque backdrop that invokes divine vibrations. Most of the North Indian temples are built near natural water bodies.

rituals
rituals

Rituals

Most of the South Indian temples are strictly governed by the Agama Shastra that describes specific ways to perform rituals in temples for various deities. Even the structure of these temples is governed by these guidelines to a large extent. So, there is a certain commonality among the rituals in various such temples as well. The priests at these temples are educated in Agama Shastra and take the responsibility to abide by it. Food is freely distributed in many of these temples as Annadanam.

Temples in North India have elaborate rituals as well. However, there is no single set of guidelines that is followed. These temples give more access to devotees and even let them perform Abhishekam (giving holy bath to deities) with their own hands. There is a wide variety of food that is given as Prasad in these temples.

landscape
landscape

Surroundings

With Southern India having a predominantly tropical climate round the year, temple visits in South India mean sweaty trips and walking on the hot stone floors of the temple with bare feet. Many South Indian temples are built in plains and some are built on hill-tops. There are few shore temples as well.

North Indian temples are built in more picturesque locations on the banks of holy rivers. Temples near the Himalayan range such as Badrinath temple have snow capped mountains looking at the devotees in the background and the beautiful temple in the midst of this is surely a sight to behold. These temples are generally built in secluded places that are away from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

idols of deities
idols of deities

Idols of deities

There is a distinct difference between the idols of deities in South India and in North India. South Indian temples have idols that are carved out of black stone. These idols are usually carved to depict traditional poses from classical dance forms or show the idols blessing the devotees in certain poses. The idols are bathed and dressed only by the priests and no one else is allowed to touch the idols. There are also multiple idols for the main deity. Most of the times, one idol is permanently placed inside the temple sanctum and one idol made from different metals is used to take around the temple for people to have a closer look. Statues of the animals that served a vehicle for the deities are also placed near the deity.

North Indian temples usually have beautiful idols made out of white marble or other similar stones. In many temples, devotees are allowed to touch the idols and worship directly. Some temples also allow devotees to give a holy bath to the main idol of the deity. These temples have only the idols of main deities inside the sanctum and do not have the tradition of taking a separate idol around the temple.

beautiful structures
beautiful structures

Shapes and carvings

North Indian temples have a more curvilinear overall shape when compared to South Indian Temples that have towers in more triangular shapes. There are also inscriptions carved into the walls of many South Indian temples which is not a very usual sight in North Indian temples.

Although these are the features of temples that are currently present in India, it is a fact that Northern India has seen more invasions and plundering when compared to Southern India and hence many ancient temples of Northern India have been destroyed while their Southern counterparts still remain.