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How the Temple of Shiva at Elephanta and the Temple City of Khajuraho Embody Hindus' Goal of Self-Realization

Updated on January 17, 2013

House of God

The Hindu faith has inspired its followers to give visual form in a physical medium to spiritual attributes as well as to religious ideals and aspirations. This visual form has taken many shapes and sizes and can be seen in countless Hindu temples, including the temple of Shiva at Elephanta and the temple city of Khajuraho. It is not only the figures and icons found within these shrines that serve to express spiritual concepts, qualities and aspirations, but the temples themselves as well, through their physical features, proportions and orientation.

Temple at Kajuraho

At the temple of Shiva at Elephanta, for example, the garbhagŗa enshrines the linga, which represents transcendent Shiva’s unmanifest and formless presence. The linga symbolizes the fundamental creative force in its latent state, so its resemblance to a phallus needs little imagination to understand. A secondary shrine at Elephanta is dedicated to a three-headed depiction of Shiva. It has been pointed out that the general shape of each of the individual heads of this depiction resembles the linga, as does the sculpture as a whole. This resemblance has led some to conclude that the monumental sculpture is a depiction of Sadashiva, the Unmanifest-Manifest Shiva as it begins to take form. According to this point of view, the head facing the viewer, serene and inscrutable, represents the divine omniscience of Shiva, while the fierce left profile, with snakes and skulls in its hair, denotes the divine being’s destructive aspect. In contrast to the left profile, the right is soft and feminine -- it is the face of infinite tenderness and compassion. Complementing Sadashiva and the linga, each depicted in its own grotto in the temple hall, there are eight aspects of Shiva in full manifestation expanding upon the god’s mythology.

Three-headed Shiva


A very credible interpretation of the layout of Elephanta is that it is meant to portray the progression of revelation: from the linga to the Unmanifest-Manifest denoted by Sadashiva and, finally, to the manifestations of Shiva fully known to mankind portrayed by the eight sculpted tableaux. This is a very elegant and arguable point of view. The linga can be understood to represent the unknowable, formless wellspring from which the cosmos emanates, while the triune breaks down the awe-inspiring omnipotence of a god into aspects comprehensible to humans. The eight tableaux denote the active participation of that god in the cosmos He has created and maintains, which is when He fully reveals himself to humanity. It is the play of that god, it is that god in his lila, that people experience directly in their everyday lives, and it is from this sphere of existence that mortals aspire to transcend, via the Unmanifest-Manifest expression of Shiva, back to the fountainhead represented by the linga.

In contrast to Elephanta, which is a cave temple built by cutting into a mountain, the temples of Khajuraho were built in what was to become the conventional mode of construction: piling stone upon stone. Despite their glaring differences, the two sites have much more in common than one might suppose at first glance (other than the entrances, there is not exterior to speak of at Elephanta, while there is much to say about the exteriors of the temples of Khajuraho). Like Elephanta, the temples of Khajuraho were built for the purpose of communing with God, and like Elephanta, these temples reveal the spiritual ideals and hopes of the builders.

As I have stated, the pivotal goal for the building of Khajuraho was communion with God. Then, since God was known to reside in the mountains, what better way to induce Him to inhabit a temple than to build a mountain-temple? The man-made mountains at Khajuraho were created by using the main towers (shikharas, mountain peaks literally) as architectural motifs. The shikharas of each temple were replicated as successively smaller, lower, and outward versions of themselves. This architectural technique resulted in the appearance of a mountain range at the temples of Khajuraho, including the Kandariya temple.

Kandariya Temple


It appears that the Kandariya temple, like the temple of Shiva, can be interpreted as an expression of the transcendental objective of life. Within the womb chamber of Kandariya, a linga is enshrined. Also as in Elephanta, the Unmanifest-Manifest Sadashiva can be found within Kandariya, although as a six-headed version, and the manifest forms of Shiva are located on the outer walls of the temple. So the gradual progression from potentiality to manifestation that is present at Elephanta can be found at Khajuraho as well.

And there is more that Elephanta and Khajuraho share in common, as far as expressing religious faith and all it entails. The ground plan of each site was conceived as a microcosm of the universe. Very basically, each site was laid out as a sacred mandala, with all its implications. In addition, each temple was constructed according to very specific mathematical formulas in order to harmonize with the structure of the cosmos. According to Hindu thought, numbers are building blocks of the universe, so they naturally effect the relationship between mankind and the universe. Every single feature of the temples, from the orientation of the structure as a whole, to the proportions of doorways, had to conform to the orientation and proportions of God’s creation. After all, the whole purpose of the temples is to house The Almighty.

So, as we can see, in their efforts to bid The Supreme Being welcome, the Hindu faithful have expressed their dearest, most intangible, most elusive hopes in absolutely concrete terms.


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    • cobras profile image

      cobras 5 years ago


      Thanks for pointing that out. I'll have to look into it when I get the chance.

      Since you already have some knowledge on the subject, maybe you can write something on the Balinese temples.

      Thanks for visiting.