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  • Chakravarti. S. Krishnan

Origin of the Temples

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Karnataka had many settlements of pre-historic human beings, mostly along the river-banks. Death of a person, as now, was a matter of fear and concern for the ancient man. There were memorials erected in the memory of the departed. Dr. A. Sundara had done pioneering work in this area,[1] especially in North Karnataka. The megalithic man started burying his dead ancestors and building megalithic monuments in their memory. Different types of megalithic monuments have been identified, on the basis of the morphological character, such as menhir, barrows, cairns, cist, dolmen, etc. This was more out of fear of the spirit rather than the respected to the departed alone.

As the times went by, and agriculture took over, slowly humans settled down in one place. Cattle was considered wealth. Thus, started the raids and reprisal wars between villages. Many brave men fell defending their village wealth of cattle. In their memories were erected Hero Stones[2]. The hero stones were set up originally on sites near to where the heroes met their death, or to where they were buried. It appears that at the root of this practice was the belief in the divisible nature of the soul, a part of which can inhabit a tree, animal, bird, or stone. Transmigration is implied in the order of ritual for the erection of these hero stones. Tolkappiyam an ancient Tamil work, ordains six ceremonies for the erection of these hero stones and memorials: these are (1) Katchi or Discovery; (2) Kalkol or Invitation to the departed soul to reside in the stone; (3) Neerpatai or The Ceremonial bathing of the stone; (4) Natuthal or Erection; (5) Perumbatai or Food offering and (6) Vazhthu or Invocation and blessing. Over time, these memorials, and the process of offering and invocation turned into the practice of worship[3]. This practice of erecting memorial, either by way of hero stone or Cairn Circle existed in South India from at least 1 Century CE[4]. A research thesis submitted to the University of Gauhati confirms a similar practice even today with the Karbi Tribes of Kamrup District of Assam[5].

The early man was scared of the natural forces – rain, lightning, thunder, and other forces of nature. This fear grew into respect and he started worshipping the natural forces. He also was dependent on these forces for rain, sun, and other inputs for his agricultural activities. Thus, he started praying for bountiful rain at the right time to these natural forces[6].

Many wild animals roamed and harmed the early man and his settlements. One of them the snake was particularly deadly, with its venomous bites. The snake also became the symbol of fertility. These believes induced worship of snake in the form of ant-hills and erection of snake stones (Nagar-Kallu), as a means of worship and appeasement. From these early attempts at pacifying the natural forces and worshiping and paying respects to the ancestors and paying respect to the fallen heroes, started the practice of building the temples.

As the philosophy of worship and that of Godhead developed, different aspects were given importance and religious beliefs of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were formulated. Of these, while the origin of Hinduism in Karnataka is not known, it is generally believed Jainism came to Karnataka along with Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, who, in his later life embraced Jainism and along with his preceptor Shruta Kevalin Bhadra Bahu travelled to Shravanabelagola during the late fourth century[7]. While epigraphical evidence supports the arrival of Chandragupta, some scholars believe Jainism came to Karnataka some decades ahead of the emperor[8]. As decided in the Third great Buddhist congregation held at Pataliputra headed by Moggali Putta Tissa, Ashoka sent several distinguished monks were sent to the different parts of India and Sri Lanka, including Karnataka to spread of the sect and to convert people to Buddhism[9]. This resulted in substantial Buddhist architectural and sculptural relics including a mahastupa, Sakya maha chetiya, numerous Brahmi inscriptions as at Kanaginahalli, and other Buddhist sites in the Krishna valley, dared to First and Second Century CE[10]. Other monuments of Buddhist origin are located in and around Banavasi and other sites in Karnataka.

The initial temples were made of mud, bricks, and timber. Over time, these transformed into cave temples and temples built of stone. As time went by, the temple structure was well defined and proper rules in building the temple was established[11]. These rules included proper selection of the land on which the temple would be built and the method of construction. The proportions of the building to the land, direction of the opening and other details was well established in these treaties.

In case of Jaina faith, the initial attempts at idol worship were limited to the engraved footprints of Preceptors and Acharyas, such as that of Bhadra Bahu. The next progression was to have cave temples, such as the once in Aihole and other places. Temples built of stone came next. The initial temples did not have many carvings. However, soon some exquisite carvings and embellishments arrived into the temple building process. This art of temple building reached a pinnacle during the rule of Kalyana Chalukya and Hoysala kings.

[1] Dr. A Sundara: Early Chamber Tombs of South India [2] R. Mutharasan (Drexel University): Nadukal and Veerakal (Private Communication). [3] N Vanamamalai: Herostone Worship in Ancient south India; Social Scientist, Vol 3, No 10 May 1975. [4] K. Rajan: Territorial Division as Gleaned from Memorial Stones, East and West, Vol. 51, No. 3/4 (December 2001), (Jstor) [5] Kalpana Choudhury: The Megaliths and their associated remains in Dimoria, Assam; Gauhati University [6] Bridget and F. Raymond Allchin: The Birth of Indian Civilization: India and Pakistan Before 500 B.C. [7] A. Sundara: Jainism and Buddhism in early Karnataka: A Contrasting Scenario in their progress and Significance.: Dr M.N. Deshpande Memorial Lecture Indian Archaeological Society January 2017 [8] Desai PB: Jainism in South India and some Jain epigraphs 1957 [9] Ibid. [10] Poonacha, K.P.: Excavations At Kanaganahalli, Archaeological Survey of India 2011. [11] Stella Kramrisch: The Hindu Temple (II Vol); Motilal Banarsidas.

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Sukumar Talpady
Sukumar Talpady
May 22, 2021

Good article very nicely presented with photographs. Congrats.

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