Odishan temples constitute one of the most distinctive regional styles of religious architecture in south Asia. They were built according to strict templates set down one thousand years or more ago in a body of canonical texts called the Shilpa Shastras. These specify not only every aspect of temple design, but also the overall symbolic significance of the building. Unlike Christian churches or Islamic mosques, Hindu shrines are not simply places of worship but objects of worship in themselves – re-creations of the “Divine Cosmic Creator-Being” or the particular deity enshrined within them. For a Hindu, to move through a temple is akin to entering the very body of the god glimpsed at the moment of darshan, or ritual viewing, in the shrine room. In Odisha, this concept also finds expression in the technical terms used in the Shastras to designate the different parts of the structure: the foot (pabhaga), shin (jangha), torso (gandi), neck (kantha), head (mastaka) and so forth.
Most temples are made up of two main sections. The first and most impressive of these is the deul, or sanctuary tower. A soaring, curvilinear spire with a square base and rounded top, the deul symbolizes Meru, the sacred mountain at the centre of the universe. Its intricately ribbed sides, which in later buildings were divided into rectangular projections known as raths, usually house images of the accessory deities, while its top supports a lotus-shaped, spherical amla (a motif derived from an auspicious fruit used in Ayurvedic medicine as a purifying agent). Above that, the vessel of immortality, the kalasha, is crowned by the presiding deity’s sacred weapon, a wheel (Vishnu’s chakra) or trident (Shiva’s trishul). The actual deity occupies a chamber inside the deul. Known in Oriya as the garbha griha, or inner sanctum, the shrine is shrouded in womb-like darkness, intended to focus the mind of the worshipper on the image of God.
The jagamohana (“world delighter”), which adjoins the sanctuary tower, is a porch with a pyramidal roof where the congregation gathers for readings of religious texts and other important ceremonies. Larger temples, such as the Lingaraj in Bhubaneswar and the Jagannath in Puri, also have structures that were tacked on to the main porch when music and dance were more commonly performed as part of temple rituals. Like the jagamohana, the roofs of the nata mandir (the dancing hall) and bhogamandapa (the hall of offerings) are pyramidal. The whole structure, along with any smaller subsidiary shrines (often earlier temples erected on the same site), is usually enclosed with in a walled courtyard.
An evolving style
Over the centuries, Odishan temples became progressively grander and more elaborate. It’s fascinating to chart this transformation as you move from the earlier buildings in Bhubaneswar to the acme of the region’s architectural achievement, the stunning Sun Temple at Konark. Towers grow taller, roofs gain extra layers, and the sculpture, for which the temples are famous all over the world, attains a level of complexity and refinement unrivalled before or since.