However prestigious the Pala school may have been, it was far from representing the medieval art of India: it was nothing more than a particular phenomenon of the art of India and its very conservative philosophy didn’t allow the spectacular creations made at the same time in other regions of the country.

Because India’s political fragmentation and the variety of local styles, its artistic production has obeyed two main movements: on the one hand, the use of principles common to all regions and a general trend that could be described as “in fashion”; on the other, a diversification due to different political views, often equal in their power. If we stick to the general trend without studying the details, it is possible to establish some great valid lines for the evolution of the whole art of India.

What dominates in the art of India during the medieval period (unlike the Pala and Sena schools where the massive destruction of their monuments doesn’t allow to study their architecture) is the prodigious development of the religious architecture and the simultaneous use of sculpture in high relief as a decorative element or as an architectural complement: nowhere else, as in medieval India, can one see such an intimate combination of these two techniques. This wasn’t an invention of the time; it is, on the contrary, the logical continuation of previous artistic experiences, especially those of the architecture carved into the rock as in Mahabalipuram in the times of the Pallava (seventh century) on the southeast coast, or in Ellora (eighth century) in the west of the Deccan in the times of the Rashtrakuta. According to the laws of “Indianness” there have never been abrupt mutations, but an evolution that takes place slowly and continuously by an almost systematic accumulation of traditional elements and that transforms gradually. In the case of the architecture in India, this accumulation ended up taking gigantic proportions and producing new creations. We can observe the development of this process, both in the North and in the South, and we will now see how its effects were manifested in more particular ways.

The Indian architectural treatises have proposed several classifications of the temples: according to a pseudo-geographical distribution or according to their forms or shapes. The first classification takes its terminology from region’s names: the categories Nagara, Vesara, and Dravida that seem to apply respectively to the northern, central, and southern provinces of India. This terminology has the drawback of designating precise types of sanctuaries and of over-understanding that each one of them is located in a specific and exclusive region, which doesn’t correspond to reality. The Nagara type for example, located to the North, refers to the curvilinear roof temples, and yet this roof is also seen in the South, even in the Madras region. It is, therefore, more satisfying to follow a classification based on morphology, as it can be appreciated in the temples. The floor plan, on the one hand, and the type of the roof, on the other, are precise criteria with the help of which it is possible to observe the development of the temples of the medieval period.

The 3 most common Hindu architecture categories: the Nagara (or northern-style temples), Dravida (or southern-style temples) and Vesara styles. The style now called Vesara combines elements of both the Nagara and the Dravida styles.

With the triumph of Brahmanism and with the experience acquired since the Gupta period in relation to the use of brick and stone in construction, the way was paved for the Hindu temple (whatever its religious sect) to evolve and fully develop, which has been translated into different forms both in the North as in the South. To satisfy the needs of the cult and rituals, a Hindu temple usually includes the sanctuary itself (garbhagriha*), an antechamber (antarala*) and a hypostyle hall (mandapa*), this last element located on the same axis at the head of the group. The sanctuary contains the image of the god and only the priest can enter it which implies a cell of small dimensions although the temple’s size can be very vast; the antechamber separates the space to allow for the ritual preparations that the priest must perform; under the hypostyle pavilion certain ceremonies are held in view of the faithful as well as sacred dances in honor of the god. The architects have combined these three essential elements in different ways; very often these three spaces have each been covered with a different type of roof obeying a kind of hierarchy, in which the roof of the sanctuary is manifestly the most important by its elevation, shape, and richest decoration.



Scheme showing the architectural layout of a Hindu temple (illustrated here by a Nagara style temple) with the traditional elements of the building.

In the previous period, three types of sanctuaries were the norm: one, with an apsidal plan and covered by a semi-cylinder that hugged the curve marked by the apse, the other two, with a square floor plan, were covered by a roof that curved towards the top and by a stepped pyramidal roof. Of these, the first type (the semi-cylindrical roof) was abandoned from the middle of the ninth century (Baitala Deula in Bhubaneswar). The other two types (curved and pyramidal roofs) remained, giving rise to the most beautiful artistic achievements of the Hindu medieval era.

The Baitāḷa deuḷa temple, from the 8th century (Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India). Its semi-cylindrical roof is an example of the Khakhara order of temples characterized by a rectangular building with a truncated pyramid-shaped roof. The name Khakhara comes from Khakharu (=canteen or bottle) because of the shape of the roof.
An example of a curvilinear roof temple (Nagara style), the Galaganatha temple in Pattadakal (Karnataka) from the 8th century.
An example of a Hindu temple with a pyramidal roof (Dravidian architectural style), the main East entrance of the Kapaleeshwarar temple in Mylapore (state of Tamil Nadu), built around the 7th century CE.


Antarala: (from the Sanskrit meaning “intermediate space”). The small antechamber or foyer between the shrine (garbhagriha) and the hypostyle hall (mandapa), more typical of north Indian temples.

Garbhagriha: (from the Sanskrit meaning “womb chamber”, “garbha“= womb and “griha“= house). The sanctum sanctorum, or the innermost sanctum of a Hindu temple where resides the idol or icon (murti) of the primary deity of the temple. Generally in Hinduism only ‘priests’ (pujari) are allowed to enter this chamber. Although the term is often associated with Hindu temples, it is also found in Jain and Buddhist temples.

Mandapa: In Indian architecture, a pillared outdoor hall or pavilion for public rituals, the hypostyle hall of a Hindu temple.