The Earliest Temples of India


India is known to be the land of temples. From grand, ornate edifices to simple, austere shrines, these symbols of faith can be seen in almost every corner of the country today. But temples, as architectural establishments, have undergone a great deal of evolution over the years. Before the magnificent stone structures came up, temples were built of perishable material like wood and timber. They were also constructed using bricks or were cut out of rocks.

While there are remnants of a few structures, believed to be temples from as early as the 3rd and 2nd Century BCE, it wasn’t until the 3rd Century CE, in the Gupta age, that the temple building tradition gained prominence in India. But do you know where the earliest surviving standing temple in India is? Or which is the oldest dateable sculpture of Ganesha in India?

Let us take you on a tour of India’s ancient and earliest surviving temples.

Temple No. 17, Sanchi, 5th Century CE
Temple No. 17, Sanchi, 5th Century CE|Wikimedia Commons

India’s Oldest Temple

The town of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh is synonymous with Sanchi Stupa, an icon of ancient Indian architecture and religion. So it might be a bit of a surprise to know that it also houses the oldest surviving temple in the country. A small, nondescript shrine, known as Temple No. 17 in the Sanchi Complex, it is dated to around early 5th century CE, during the reign of Gupta dynasty.

It is believed that under the Guptas the free-standing stone temples in India evolved. During the same period, they also built the Udaigiri cave temples around 10 km away from Sanchi. The evolution of temple architecture is quite visible between the caves of Udaigiri and the temple at Sanchi.

Find out what these structures tell us about the history of temples in India in this video.

Bhitargaon Temple, Uttar Pradesh, 5th Century CE
Bhitargaon Temple, Uttar Pradesh, 5th Century CE|Wikimedia Commons

The Earliest Surviving Temples

Much before the temples came to exist in form, people had different ways to offer their prayers to their deities. This also included worshipping the icon or the image. Records suggest that yagyas, as a way of worship, were performed on fire altars. Though these altars influenced the design and layout of the early temples, they themselves no longer remain.

Many temples today are a testimony to the heights that temple architecture later achieved. It is thus difficult to imagine the simplicity of the earliest shrines but couched in that apparent simplicity are the basic elements that define the elaborate temples of the later, medieval period.

From the oldest surviving brick temple at Bhitargaon in Uttar Pradesh, belonging to the 5th Century CE, to the remnants of Ahom-period temple in Assam, let us explore some of the earliest temples in the country and see how temple architecture evolved from the 5th to the 7th centuries CE. Read more.

Udayagiri Ganesha is considered the oldest representation of the elephant god in the country
Udayagiri Ganesha is considered the oldest representation of the elephant god in the country|Wikimedia Commons

Tracing The First Ganesha

While we do know about the earliest extant temples, did you know there also exists one of the earliest dateable idols?

Worshipped as the god of ‘Auspicious Starts’ and ‘Remover of Obstacles’, Hindu god Ganesha finds a place in homes and hearts alike. But it was in a cave on a hill, in Udayagiri in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, that the oldest dateable representation of the elephant god, Ganesha was found.

This doesn’t mean that older images or representations of elephants have not been found. Harappan seals with elephants have been found but there are no traces of them being worshipped.

The 5th century CE, Gupta era image found in the cave no. 6 of Udaygiri cave complex is of a portly Ganesha with the matrikas or mother goddesses next to him. Interestingly enough, another Ganesha sculpture at the Bhumara Shiva Temple in Satna district, also in Madhya Pradesh can also take the spot of being the earliest one, as it belongs to the same period.

Read this fascinating tale of the earliest Ganesha.

Northern (Upper) Temple at Badami, 7th Century CE
Northern (Upper) Temple at Badami, 7th Century CE|Wikimedia Commons

Badami and Pattadakal

After the Guptas, the next milestone in temple architecture was achieved between the 6th to 8th Centuries CE. The cave temples of Badami along with the temples at Aihole and Pattadakal form one of the epicentres of Brahmanical/Hindu temple architecture in the Deccan.

The cave temples of Badami are located in the town of Badami in the north-central part of Karnataka. Formerly known as Vatapi, Badami was the capital of one of the greatest dynasties in Southern India- The Chalukyas. The Chalukyan kings adorned the capital with a number of beautiful rock-cut temples. These temples, dating between the 6th and 8th centuries CE, are a timeless monument to this dynasty.

Read about the wonders of Badami.

Virupaksha Temple at Pattadakal, 8th Century CE
Virupaksha Temple at Pattadakal, 8th Century CE|Wikimedia Commons

The group of temples, belonging to 7th and 8th Century CE, at Pattadakal represent a great blend of North and South Indian architecture.‘Pattadakal’ literally means ‘coronation stone’ and it was here that the kings of Chalukyan dynasty were anointed. The soil at Pattadakal, which also gives it the name of Kisuvolal, meaning the ‘valley of red soil’, or the sandstone from the hills that surround the region was used to build the many temples here.

Spread across 5.56 hectares, there are ten major temples at Pattadakal – nine Hindu and one Jain. The Hindu temples are all dedicated to Lord Shiva and face east.

Explore the temples of Pattadakal with us.

Cover Image: Dashavatara Temple, Deogarh

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