Hindu temples were built not only with the intention of it being the nucleus of religious life, but also social activity. In south India most of the temples were built on a grand scale. The BRIHADEESHWARA temple in Tamil nadu is just one example of this. All Hindu temples irrespective of their size have certain common elements.
ELEMENTS OF A HINDU TEMPLE
GARBA GRIHA or the sanctum sanctorum is the most important part of the temple as the presiding deity is enshrined in this. It is a square enclosure, which has a small roof with no windows, apart from the single opening in front. Access to this area is restricted only to the priest who is usually a Brahmin.
Around the sanctum sanctorum is the PRADAKSHINAPATHA, which is a circumambulatory passage for devotees. In front of the Garbha Griha is the MUKHA MANTAPA, also called ARDHA MANTAPA, which is normally used for keeping articles of worship. ANTARALA is the narrow passage, which connects GARBHA GRIHA and MUKA MANTAPA to the hall called MANTAPA This the place where religious discourses or the recitation of mythological verses takes place. All temples have a DHVAJASTAMBHA or flag post in front of the MANTAPA. On top of this is the LANCHANA or insignia of the deity. For example in Vishnu temples it is GARUDA. Near the DHVAJASTAMBHA is the BALIPEEDA, which is a pedestal for sacrificial offering. High walls called PRAKARA are built on the perimeter of the temple complex and in the main entrance is the GOPURAM, which is the main gate with a high tower. In most South Indian temples of Tamil nadu, Andhra and Karnataka these Gopurams are adorned with icons of Gods and Goddesses facing east with three subsidiary entrances on all the other three sides. Many South Indian temples also have a lamp post called DEEPASTHAMBHA in front and a temple tank called PUSHKARINI by the side.
All temples have minor shrines connected with the main deity. So Vishnu temples have Lakshmi, Hanuman and Garuda as minor deities and in Shiva temples it is Ganapathy, Parvathy and Subrahmanya.In big temples there are also YAGASALAS (for conducting Vedic sacrifices) and PAAKASHALAS (temple kitchen). All temples in Tamil nadu, Andhra and Karnataka are built using granite. However temples of Kerala and Dakshina Karnataka are built mostly of wood with an architectural style unique amongst Indian temples.
SOCIO CULTURAL ACTIVITIES AND ADMINISTRATION
Though temples are intended to be places of worship, the entire socio-economic and cultural activities sometimes centers on it. This is true particularly of very important shrines, and temples in small villages. Temples like TIRUPATI or GURUVAYUR have an entire town, which depend upon it. In ancient times temples were not only a source of livelihood for people in a community but also a place of refuge during times of calamity and war. This explains the existence large PRAKARAS around temples. In Kanchipuram there are temples with several enclosures all built with the intention of being a sanctuary for people in times of crisis.
Temples were showcases of art and sculpture and even the most modest temple displayed a profusion of either sculpture or painting. Temples of Tamil nadu, Andhra and Karnataka are architectural marvels. Whether it is the PANCHARATAS of Mammallapuram (old Mahabalipuram) or the ruins of Hampi, the meticulousness of the sculptor is evident everywhere. In Kerala it is the mural paintings, which add to the beauty and luster of the temple.
Temples were also centers of cultural activities. Devotional music and dance forms like Bharatanatyam in Tamil nadu, and KOODIYATTAM and KRISHNATTAM in Kerala, were staged in temple premises. In fact in Kerala there are a host of dance forms, which originated in the temple. The well known KATHAKALI or RAMANATTAM had emerged from the confines of temple premises. KRISHNATTAM continues to be confined to the precinct of Guruvayur temple. There were also ritualistic dance forms like THEYYAM found mostly in North Kerala. So too was CHAKKYAR KOOTHU and OTTANTHULLAL. In fact many big Kerala temples have a place to stage it called KOOTHAMBALAM, which is elsewhere referred to as NRITHAMANTAPAMS.
Most temples were run either by royal patronage or by large endowments made by affluent devotees. After India became a republic, temple administration bodies called DEVASTHANAMS or DEVASWOMS under the supervision of a Government body called Hindu Religious Endowment Boards run most of these temples. There are however temples affiliated to Religious Mutts and communities, which enjoy independence from Government interference.