Axis mundi

The Hindu Temple as Mountain

10 March 2024

Grishneshwar Temple Attrib. Johnston, 1860s
Historic Photo of Grishneshwar Temple

When a worshipper steps foot into a Hindu temple, they are symbolically entering into a holy mountain, whose inner sanctum is at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal axes — the exact point where the divine and human worlds intersect.

In early Hindu cosmology, Mt. Meru is at the center of the universe, a concept crucial for understanding Hindu temples. These temples are a “symbolic reconstruction of the universe”,1 serving as places for human and divine communion. They are an “architectural facsimile of the sacred places of the gods”,2 such as mountains, caves, and rivers, establishing a significant link between the temple and the mountain.3

This connection is evident in the architecture and symbolism of the Hindu temple. The inner sanctum (garbhagriha) houses the deity’s representation (murti) and is the most sacred area. This area resembles a cave, “invariably small and dark as no natural light is permitted to enter”.4 This cave-womb is located directly under the most prominent feature of the temple structure in the northern style, the tower-like vertical structure called the shikhara, or “mountain peak.” This tower-like structure, aiming skyward, is an idealized “manufactured mountain” and creates a cosmic axis that facilitates direct communication with the divine.

The crowning finial on the shikhara is a vessel-like object called a kalasha, whose name bears a resemblance to Kailash — the name of the mountain Shiva is said to live on. A kalasha is a pot used in Hindu rituals, typically filled with water or other real (gold) or symbolic (grain) objects of value, representing abundance, life, and prosperity. The etymological connection between the mountain and pot is plausible when we consider the life-giving properties often associated with mountains. In Sanskrit, kalasha (कलश) refers to a jar, a water pot, a butter tub: symbols of life and abundance. And mountains have often been associated with abundance, the Shiva lingam, and water as we see in Mount Kailash (केलास). I should say here that Shiva’s consort is the goddess Pavarti, the daughter of Himavan — lord of the Himalayas — and whose name in Sanskrit literally means “mountain.” Together, Shiva (lingam) and Pavarti (yoni) represent the creative principle of the universe.

All that being said, the vast diversity of Hindu temple architecture across the Indian subcontinent and in places like Java and Cambodia complicates any attempt at broad generalizations. Nevertheless, it is possible to categorize Hindu temple architecture into two main groups: the northern and southern temple styles. There are several distinct styles or “orders” - nagara, dravida, and vesara. Each of these styles utilizes unique measurements, proportions, and terminology, sometimes using the same terms to refer to different aspects of the temple structure. For example, in the south, the shikhara is called the vimana, the term shikhara referring instead to the tower’s crowning dome and finial (not the vertical tower structure). This situation is somewhat analogous to the Greco-Roman architectural “orders,” where a unified visual language is articulated through distinct “dialects” unique to each order.

  1. George Michell, The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms (Chicago UP, 1977), 22. ↩︎

  2. Ibid, 69. ↩︎

  3. Michael W. Meister, “Mountain Temples and Temple-Mountains: Masrur,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 65, no. 1 (March 2006): 39. ↩︎

  4. Michell, The Hindu Temple, 69. ↩︎