ART OF MEDIEVAL INDIA – The Temples with Curvilinear Roof

The temples with curvilinear roof (shikhara) appeared towards the 8th century (e.g. the brick sanctuary of Lakshmana in Sarpur (Rajasthan) and the temples of Papanatha and Jambulinga).

The Lakshmana temple (Mahasamund district, state of Chhattisgarh, India), a 7th-century brick temple, mostly damaged and ruined.  Except for the sanctum (garbhagriha) and the tower, much it is in ruins.
The Papanatha temple is located in the Pattadakal complex of 7th and 8th century CE Hindu and Jain temples in northern Karnataka (India). This temple in particular has been dated towards mid 8th-century. The temple is noted for its novel mixture of Dravida, and Nagara, Hindu temple styles . Like the other temples, the Papanatha temple faces east towards the sunrise.
Also located in the Pattadakal monument complex, is the small temple of Jambulinga or Jambulingeshwara, probably completed between mid 7th and early 8th century. The temple was built around a square garbhagriha. This temple also faces east, greeting the sunrise.

From the beginning of the ninth century, the use of these curvilinear roofs extended to the northern kingdoms, where its use was perpetuated until the contemporary era, at the same time that it diversified following regional styles. Within these temples with curvilinear roofs, six main styles can be discerned. In first place we must mention the two most beautiful, not only for their aesthetic value, but because their study can be done following a continuous progression from the 9th to the 14th century thanks to a large number of examples grouped in the same place; the style of Odisha (from northeastern India) under the Somavarpśí and Gangâ dynasties, represented by the holy city of Bhubaneswar (end of the 9th century to the middle of the 13th) and the neighboring sanctuaries: the temples of Surya in Konark (mid-13th century) ) and Jagannatha in Puri (early 12th century, although modified until the contemporary era).

The Temple of Surya (Sun God) in Konark (about 35 km northeast from Puri on the coastline of Odisha, India) from the 13th-century CE. The remains of the temple complex have the appearance of a (30 m) high chariot with immense wheels and horses, all carved from stone. Once over 61 m high, much of the temple is now in ruins, in particular the large shikhara tower over the sanctuary.
The Jagannatha Temple of Puri (Puri, state of Odisha, eastern coast of India) is dedicated to Lord Jagannatha, a form of lord Vishnu. This temple is an important pilgrimage destination. The present temple was rebuilt from the 10th century onwards, on the site of an earlier temple.

The other style of an even more refined aesthetic quality is the style of Bundelkhand (from central India) developed under the Chandela dynasty, whose religious capital, Khajuraho, was one of the most prestigious in medieval India (9th century to the beginning of the 14th century). The other four styles are divided between Rajputana (the present-day Indian state of Rajasthan, as well as parts of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat) and central India, where, since the 11th century, the Muslim invasion interrupted (as happened in Gwalior) the development of the Hindu religious architecture; and finally, the Deccan, where this type of curvilinear roofs persisted from the 11th to the 13th century.

Despite the diversity of regional styles, it is possible to sketch the general evolution of these temples with curvilinear roofs and, at least, to highlight their essential characteristics, studying first their floor plans and second the shape and arrangement of their roofs. Regarding the floor plan, it should be noted first that, in the ancient phase (7th to 9th centuries), the temple with shikhara is only composed of the sanctuary (garbhagriha) preceded by a portico and crowned by the curvilinear roof. Then, in the 9th to 10th centuries, the sanctuary, the vestibule and the pavilion destined to the faithful were located one after the other; this whole was enclosed within an enclosure with a door delimited by two large pillars joined at the top by a decorated arch, thus forming a porch (torana). The most perfect example of this type is the small temple of Mukteshvara in Bhubaneswar (Odisha) mainly decorated with beautiful female sculptures. Here, the three elements of the temple are crowned each by a different type of roof: a shikhara for the sanctuary, a lower pyramidal roof with close and decreasing cornices for the vestibule, and an even lower, stepped roof for the pavilion.

The Mukteshvara Temple (Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India) is a 10th-century temple dedicated to Shiva. The temple dates back to 950–975 CE and is a monument of importance in the study of the development of Hindu temples in Odisha.
The decorated torana of the Mukteshvara Temple. This arched gateway dates back to about 900 CE.
One of the many sculptures of smiling women in languorous repose that decorate the torana of the Mukteshvara Temple.
A sculpture representing a dancing girl in the Mukteshvara Temple.
A female sculpture in the Mukteshvara Temple.













From the beginning of the 11th century and throughout the 12th this last type reaches its peak. The three indispensable architectural elements of the Hindu cult are thus united in a single sequence and with the passing of time supplementary rooms were attached to them, arranged one after another on the same axis from East to West and forming a single block. Its multiplication is a testimony to the prosperity of the Hindu sanctuaries of this era. The best examples of this style are seen in Bhubaneswar and in Khajuraho. Above a high base -with a molding- and decorated with low bas-reliefs, the floor plan of these temples often evokes the cross of Lorraine*, with multiple arms. In general, this type of temple was accessed by a wide staircase that led to a portico, then it was followed successively, and at the same level, by a pre-vestibule (ardhamandapa*) and then a vestibule (mundiupa), illuminated by windows overlooking the sides and provided with balconies. These elements were followed by a square hall called the great hall (mahimandapa* or juganbhana), whose roof was usually pyramidal and which gave access through an intermediate small room (antarala) to the sanctuary itself (garbhagriha). A corridor allowed the rite of circumambulation* (pradaksiná*) around the hall and the sanctuary.

The temple thus became an imposing ensemble characterized by the roof types of unequal heights, which were largely dominated by the shikhara of the sanctuary. The main bodies of the different buildings were adorned externally with characters carved in very sharp relief, cleverly arranged in registers or sheltered in more or less deep niches; their presence animate the walls thanks to the dynamic play of shadows and lights, an almost exclusive characteristic of this style and which also increases its artistic perfection.

A section of the detailed sculptural decoration carved in the exterior walls of the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple.

The interior of the temple was also provided with statues of divinities and very beautiful ceilings, whose superimposed overhangs were used for decorative purposes by using geometric compositions. The most beautiful temples of this type are, in Bhubaneshwar, the Lingaraja temple (first half of the 11th century) -whose roof culminates about 50 m above the ground- and, in Khajuraho, the Kandariya Mahadeva temple (of this same period).

A view of the inner roof of the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple.
The Kandariya Mahadeva Temple (meaning “the Great God of the Cave”), is the largest and most ornate Hindu temple found at Khajuraho (Madhya Pradesh, India). It is considered one of the best examples of temples preserved from the medieval period in India.

Another floor plan from the same period is that exemplified by the temples at Khajuraho (temples of Vishvanatha, Lakshmana, etc.): over a common rectangular terrace are arranged in a staggered pattern (pañcayatana) the sanctuary in the center and four chapels at the angles.

The Vishvanatha Temple (Madhya Pradesh, India) is also located among the western group of Khajuraho Monuments. The temple is dedicated to Shiva, who is also known as “Vishvanatha”, meaning “Lord of the Universe”. The temple is believed to have been commissioned by the Chandela king Dhanga, and was probably completed in 999 CE or 1002 CE. The Vishvanatha temple is characteristic of the Central Indian architectural style that begins with Lakshmana Temple (c. 930–950 CE) and culminates with the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple (c. 1030 CE). These three temples represent the most fully developed style at Khajuraho.
The Lakshmana Temple (Khajuraho monuments complex) was built in the 10th-century and dedicated to Vaikuntha Vishnu – an aspect of Vishnu. The entire temple complex stands on a high platform (Jagati). The structure consists of all the elements of Hindu temple architecture.

This type architecturally translates the traditional theme of the divine residence: the Mount Meru, the “axis of the World”, endowed with five peaks; a theme that was transmitted to the countries of the South Seas (the countries of the Indochina Peninsula, Philippines and Indonesia) where it gave rise to great constructions, among which the most notable is undoubtedly the temple of Angkor Wat, in the Khmer empire (the predecessor state of modern Cambodia, first half of the 12th century).

View of the Angkor Wat (meaning “Capital Temple”) temple complex in Cambodia and one of the largest religious monuments in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. The temple has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.

If we now study the shikhara itself, we can draw its evolution in its main lines. During the ancient period (7th-9th centuries), it was composed of superimposed cornices that gave the whole building a horizontally striated appearance that was accentuated in the course of its evolution; in the angles they alternate, in a vertical superimposition, cornices adorned with decorative windows (gavaksha*, in Tamil: kudu*) and with the flattened “pillow” (amalaka*). Each face of the roof is vertically divided into three segments (triratka), of which the one at the center, which forms a protrusion, always received a denser decoration than the other two, and at its base there was sometimes a large kudu forming a pediment. As examples of this type we can cite the temples of Pattadakal, in particular those of Jambulinga and Papanatha (8th century) (see pictures above).

This style was maintained until about the 9th-10th centuries, a time of transition during which the shikhara becomes increasingly elevated and is heavily decorated (see the Mukteshvara temple in Bhubaneswar, 10th century, see pictures above); the vertical segments on each side of the roof changed from three to five (pancharatha*).

The apogee of the shikhara occurred in the 11th and 12th centuries; it was characterized simultaneously by its much more daring elevation and by the decorative use, on the shikhara itself, of reduced towers (ańga shikhara), whose disposition was varied according to the local types and centuries. However, it must be taken into account that the shikhara without reduced towers was used at the same time and even became higher (e.g. the temple of Parshvanatha in Khajuraho).

The Parshvanatha temple (Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India), a 10th-century Jain temple. This temple is the largest among the Jain temples of Khajuraho.

Three main ways of ordering the ańga shikhara (reduced towers) on the roof can be enumerated; in the first category, well illustrated by the Lingaraja temple in Bhubaneswar, they are placed inside the angle of each of the intermediate divisions and overlap continuously, decreasing from the base of the roof to the top.

The Lingaraja Temple dedicated to Shiva, is one of the oldest temples in Bhubaneswar (Odisha, India). To this day, the temple is the most prominent landmark of Bhubaneswar and the largest temple in the city. The central tower of the temple is 55 m tall. The temple represents the quintessence of the architectural tradition at Bhubaneswar. The temple complex has 50 other shrines and is enclosed by a large compound wall.

The second category of curvilinear roof of this type has an abundant representation; the ańga shikhara were arranged on the central projection of each face; first in few numbers (one, then two or three), and later reaching up to four in the largest constructions with some smaller ańga shikhara framing them at the base of the roof. Several temples of Khajuraho (mainly the Kandariya Mahadeva temple) are the best examples of this category; the central shikhara is more slender than in the preceding category and the ańga shikhara seem to climb, by their ascending progression, towards the top of the main tower. This arrangement conferred a surprising dynamism to the whole building.

The main shikhara of the Kandariya Mahadeva temple with its 84 mini spires.

The third category, from the 12th century onwards, used the reduction of structures in a  more systematic way, filling with their silhouettes, regularly aligned in several overlapping registers, the intervals between the protrusions of each face (e.g. the temple of Nilakhapteśvara in Udaypur, Gwâlior).

Although during medieval times the temple with shikhara was widespread throughout Northern India, other architectural types also existed. The most notable example is perhaps the Vimala temple on Mount Abu (Rajasthan), one of the oldest and most complete examples of the Jain* architecture.

The Vimala Vasahi temple of mount Abu (Abu town, southwestern Rajasthan state, India), built in marble about 1031.

With a cruciform floor plan, it was built in 1031 in white marble over an equally cruciform platform. The central body, surmounted by a false dome, is surrounded by a hypostyle cloister with domes.

The interior of the “dome” at the Vimala Vasahi Temple.
The central “domed” room surrounded by the hypostyle cloister of the Vimala Vasahi temple.
An example of the decorative elements at the interior of the Vimali Vasahi temple.

The center is octagonal and rests on eight pillars joined together by jagged arches (which can be also seen elsewhere, especially in the temple of Surya in Modhera, State of Barod, from the 11th century, and which may have been influenced by the Indo-Muslim architecture); a circular dome with a central pinjabe and with rays in the form of characters unfolds under the tower.

Although the external appearance of this building is relatively simple, the heavy use of sculptures on the pillars, arches and roofs is excessive, and illustrates however a typically medieval style, whose taste for over-decoration is also seen in certain southern styles.

The Temple of Surya at Modhera (Modhera village, Mehsana district, Gujarat, India). It was built after 1026-27 CE. The halls have intricately carved exterior and pillars. The reservoir has steps to reach its bottom and numerous small shrines.


The architectural layout of the Khajuraho temples schematized in the Kandariya Mahadeva temple.


Amalaka: A segmented or notched stone disk, usually with ridges on the rim, that sits on the top of a Hindu temple’s shikhara or main tower. The amalaka either represent a lotus, and thus the symbolic seat for the deity below, or the sun, and is thus the gateway to the heavenly world. Other interpretations relate that the shape of the amalaka has been inspired by the fruit of Phyllanthus emblica, the Indian gooseberry, or myrobolan fig tree.This is called āmalaki in Sanscrit, and the fruit has a slightly segmented shape, though it is much less marked than in the architectural shape. The amalaka itself is crowned with a kalasam or finial, from which a temple banner is often hung.

Ardhamandapa: (meaning “half-open hall”).  In a Hindu temple architecture, a passage in front of the Garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) whose proportions are relative to those of the Garbhagriha itself. Apart from being used as a passage it is also used to keep the articles of worship including food offerings on special occasions.

Circumambulation: (from the Latin circum meaning “around” and ambulātus meaning “to walk”). Refers to the act of moving around a sacred object or idol. Circumambulation of temples or deity images is an integral part of Hindu and Buddhist devotional practice (known in Sanskrit as pradakśina or pradakshinaṇā). It is also present in other religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Cross of Lorraine: A heraldic two-barred cross, consisting of a vertical line crossed by two shorter horizontal bars. In most renditions, the horizontal bars are “graded” with the upper bar being the shorter, though variations with the bars of equal length are also seen.


Gavaksha: (from the Sanskrit meaning “bull’s or cow’s eye”). (Also known as kudu in Tamil). In Indian architecture, is a term used to describe the motif centered on an ogee, circular or horseshoe arch that decorates many examples of Indian rock-cut architecture and later Indian structural temples and other buildings. In its original form, the arch is shaped like the cross-section of a barrel vault.  In Hindu temples, their role is envisioned as symbolically radiating the light and splendor of the central icon in its sanctum. Alternatively, they are described as providing a window for the deity to gaze out into the world.

Jain architecture: (Or Jain temple). The place of worship for Jains, the followers of Jainism, an ancient Indian religion in which the devotees see a path of victory in crossing over life’s stream of rebirths through an ethical and spiritual life. The word is generally used in South India. Its historical use in North India is preserved in the Vimala Vasahi and Luna Vasahi temples of Mount Abu.

Kudu: See Gavaksha.

Mahimandapa: (Mahi or Maha, meaning “big”). In Hindu temple architecture, when a temple has several Mandapas, Mahimandapa refers to the biggest and the tallest of them all. It is used for conducting religious discourses.

Mount Meru: The sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmology and is considered to be the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. Many famous Hindu and similar Jain as well as Buddhist temples have been built as symbolic representations of this mountain.

Pancharatha: (From Snaskrit Pancha meaning “five” and Ratha meaning “Chariot”). A Hindu temple is referred to a Pancharatha when there are five rathas (on plan) or pagas (on elevation) on the tower of the temple (generally a shikhara). The rathas are vertical offset projection or facets. There are also temples with three rathas (triratha), seven rathas (saptaratha) and nine rathas (navaratha).

Pradakśina: The act of circumambulation in the Hindu devotional practice. It refers to the marching round the temple towards the right hand, which is done three times.