Temples in India are usually elaborate structures, be it scale, ornamentation or both. Think Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, the magnificent temples of Khajuraho, or the ornate Dilwara Temple of Rajasthan. So it may be a bit of a surprise that the oldest surviving temple in the country is a small, nondescript shrine in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh.
The tradition of temple building in India can be traced to the Gupta period (3rd to 6th century CE).
This does not mean that temples were not built before this time. Remnants of a Mauryan-era, brick-and-stone structure believed to be a temple have been excavated in Bairat district in Rajasthan and dated to the 3rd century BCE, and a similar oval, brick temple plan has been excavated at Besnagar, Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh dated to the 2nd century BCE. Also, as living shrines, many temples of great antiquity have undergone frequent renovation, making it very difficult to trace their origins and history.
That’s why ‘Sanchi 17’, a Gupta-period shrine, is so significant. Dated to the 5th century CE, it is the oldest surviving complete temple found in India to date. Sure, there are early apsidal (round-ended) shrines like those from the Kushana period (30 CE to 375 CE) excavated at Sonkh near Mathura by Dr Herbert Hartel, but once again they exist only on plan and not on elevation.
We don’t find intact temples predating the Gupta period probably because the modes of worship were different then or temples were built either from perishable materials like bamboo, wood, mud brick or even burnt brick, or were cut out of rock as we see in Udayagiri in Odisha or Barabar in Bihar.
Besides temple worship, yagyas were performed on fire altars, and one can see the influence of these altars on the design and layout of the early temples. Since tradition dictated that these sacrificial altars be built on the outskirts of a settlement and abandoned on completion of the ceremony, they have been lost over time.
Still, we have a lot to go on. Considering the heights temple architecture later achieved, it is 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.
Sanchi Temple 17: The oldest surviving temple in India
The town of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh is known for the Sanchi Stupa, an icon of ancient Indian architecture and religion. Sanchi also houses another significant milestone in the development of Indian architecture and religion, albeit a lot less glamorous. Located within the Stupa complex is one of the oldest surviving stone temples in India. ‘Sanchi 17’ may look basic but it holds the seeds of temple architecture in India.
Sanchi 17 is dated to around 400 CE or the late 4th or early 5th century CE, during the reign of Gupta dynasty.
Most scholars agree that the temple was used for Buddhist worship. While temple-building in Buddhism didn’t gain popularity, many of the elements of this temple would go on to be incorporated into Hindu temple architecture.
The structure of Sanchi 17 is extremely simple. It has a square, flat-roofed sanctum with a porch that as four pillars in the front. The interior and exterior of the temple are undecorated but the pillars are carved. They are carved with inverted lotuses while the capital, which supports the roof, is carved with lions. Near Sanchi 17 is Sanchi 18, which might have been a stone-and-brick temple from the 2nd century CE but little of its original structure survives.
Kevalanarasimha Temple, Ramtek, Maharashtra
The Kevalanarasimha Temple is the oldest extant Vakataka temple and the oldest stone temple in Maharashtra. The temple, dated to the 5th century CE, is a little younger or contemporary with Sanchi 17.
The temple has a square garbagriha with a slightly smaller square mandapa in front. It has a square doorway with rectangular door jambs carved with typical Vakataka-style ganas.
Dashavatara Temple, Deogarh, Uttar Pradesh
The Dashavatara Temple is in Deogarh, in Lalitpur district of Uttar Pradesh. This temple is also a Gupta-period shrine and dated to the late 5th century CE, between 475 and 500 CE. The temple is dedicated to Vishnu and it is believed that his various avatars were once depicted here.
The temple has exquisite relief sculptures and the doorway is elaborately adorned. One can see sculptures of Vishnu in his various forms here along with representations of deities like Ganga, Yamuna, Indra, Shiva and Kartikeya.
Noted archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham visited the site in 1875 and found several Gupta-era inscriptions here.
The temple at Deogarh is the oldest-known Panchayatana-style temple in India, where a main shrine is surrounded by four smaller shrines. Sadly, it is believed that most of the reliefs on the walls were stolen during the first few decades of the 20th century. A few others were taken to major museums such as the National Museum in Delhi and Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Museum in Ahmedabad.
Bhitargaon Temple, Uttar Pradesh: Oldest surviving brick temple
This temple in Bhitargaon in Kanpur district in Uttar Pradesh is one of the largest ancient brick temples to have survived. Like the one at Deogarh, this one too is a Gupta-era shrine dating back to the 5th century CE. It also has one of the earliest shikharas seen in Indian temples. The temple at Bhitargaon is also significant because it possibly has one of the earliest known ‘true arches’ in the country.
The temple has depictions of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Durga and scenes from Hindu mythology on its walls. The temple has been heavily damaged over the centuries, most notably by a lightning strike in the mid-1800s. In 1894, the local administration ‘repaired’ the temple, which caused a bit of damage to the original structure. In 1909, many objects were sent from here to the Lucknow State Museum. Facing official apathy for decades, it was only in the 1960s that historians began taking an interest in the temple. Today, it is an ASI protected monument.
Kapoteswara Temple, Chejerla, Andhra Pradesh; and Trivikrama Temple, Ter, Maharashtra
The Kapoteswara Temple at Chejerla in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, and the Trivikrama Temple at Ter in Osmanabad district of Maharashtra are very similar in architecture and relatively small. Both have been dated to approximatel 5th century CE. They are some of the earliest examples of barrel-vaulted, apsidal temples (with a semi-spherical end) in India. They are essentially built like rock-cut chaitya halls but freestanding and in brick.
According to some historians, the Chejerla Temple was built by the Ananda kings of coastal Andhra, while the Trivikrama Temple was built during the Vakataka period (3rd to 5th century CE), making it the oldest standing structure in Maharashtra.
Many scholars believe that these shrines may have been Buddhist chaityas or prayer halls that were later converted for worship by Hindus. Today, the temple in Ter is used to worship Trivikrama, a form of Vishnu, while the temple in Chejerla is used to worship Shiva as Kapoteswara. The image inside the Ter temple is in the Vakataka style, which points towards it being a Hindu shrine from its inception.
Shiva Temple, Bhumara, Madhya Pradesh
The Shiva Temple in Bhumara in Satna district of Madhya Pradesh is dated to the 5th-6th centuries CE and is ascribed to the Gupta period. This temple, built from red sandstone, has some exquisite sculptures like the depictions of Ganga and Yamuna on the door jambs. The Ekmukh Shivling inside is one of the most significant sculptures of the Gupta period.
The temple also contains one of the oldest surviving images of Ganesha in India, along with the one at the Udayagiri caves in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh.
Although the temple is badly damaged and many of its sculptures have been taken to museums across the world, the sanctum has survived and one can see the remnants of a mandapa.
Gop Temple, Gujarat
The Gop Temple is located in Jamnagar district of Gujarat. Dated to the 6th-7th century CE as there is a lack of clarity about its exact dates, the temple is believed to have been built during the Maitraka Dynasty. It is the oldest surviving temple in Gujarat.
Colloquially called the Gopnath Mahadev Temple, it is believed to have originally been a Sun temple even though some believe that it may have always been a Shiva temple.
Dah Parbatia Temple, Assam
While most early temples are found in Central India and the Gangetic plains, with a few to the west and south, an interesting find are the remains of a temple at Dah Parbatia, a village on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Tezpur district in Assam. Only the base of the garba briha, door jambs and lintel of the temple survive. It is considered a pre-Ahom period temple by art historians and scholars, and is believed to date to the late 5th or 6th centuries CE.
Lakshmana Temple, Sirpur, Chhattisgarh
The Lakshmana Temple is a brick temple dated to the 7th century CE and is located in Sirpur district of Chhattisgarh. The temple is surmounted by a brick shikhara. According to an inscription found in the temple, it was constructed by Queen Vasata, the mother of King Shivagupta Balarjuna of the Panduvamshis of South Kosala. Although the image of the deity from the sanctum sanctorum has been lost, the depiction of Vishnu on the lintel and his various avatars on different panels of the temple suggest that it must have been a Vaishnav temple.
Uttareshwara Temple, Ter, Maharashtra
The Uttareshwara Temple is the oldest surviving brick temple in Maharashtra, dated to the immediate post-Vakataka period of the 6th-7th centuries CE. The temple consists of a garbha griha surmounted by a shikara with a small square mandapa in the front. The temple is particularly noteworthy because of its moulded brickwork as well as the carved wooden door frame of the sanctum, which is the oldest surviving wooden architectural feature in India.
Mundeshwari Temple, Bihar
The Mundeshwari Temple in Kaimur district of Bihar is regarded as the oldest temple in Bihar. According to an inscription here, it is dated to the year 635 CE. The temple is made of stone and has an octagonal plan. The original shikhara collapsed and was lost over the centuries. The temple’s walls are elaborately carved with vases and foliage. The door jambs have the image of Ganga, Yamuna and Dwarapalas on them. Inside the temple, a Chaturmukhi Shivling is worshipped.
Durga Temple, Aihole, Karnataka
The Durga Temple in Aihole, Karnataka, is an excellent example of an apsidal temple and has been dated from the mid-6th to the mid-7th century CE. It is ascribed to the Chalukyan period. The temple is very similar to the temples at Ter and Chejerla but lacks doesn’t have a barrel-vaulted roof. The temple was built on an elevated platform and surrounded by an open corridor. The temple had many subsequent additions made to it, including the addition of a shikhara.
How to get there: Durga Temple is 190 km from Belgaum Airport and 25 km from Badami railway station
These are some of the earliest temples in India and ones which laid the foundation of temple architecture. Subsequently, temple architecture in India evolved into two distinct and elaborate styles – North Indian and South Indian styles. Yet it is to these simple shrines from the ancient era to which their origin can be traced.
*Cover Image: Dashavatara Temple in Deogarh, Uttar Pradesh
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books