The Structure of a Temple

 by Dr. Devapoopathy Nadarajah

“The unblessed town without the sacred temple… is no town but dense forest.” (Thirumurai 6:95:5)

The use of a special place for the worship of God has been found in India since times immemorial. The places might have been the shelter provided by trees with spreading branches, small buildings or large temples built specially for a deity, as may be deduced from our ancient literature. The phrase mukkat celvar nakar meaning “the temple of the three-eyed Lord” from Purananuru shows that a reasonably large temple had been built for Shivan. Though the word ‘nakar’ denotes towns or palaces (as in Purananuru  23:9 ; 142:8). It seems to have also denoted the temples where God, the Lord of the all souls, resides. Besides, the word koyil (ko = king; il = residence), also denoting a palace, has been used for temples. This is clear from the lines like,

The koyil (temple) of the Great Lord with a body unborn (Shivan)” and “The beautiful temple of the Red Lord with six faces,”

found in Cilappatikaram (5:169-170). Aalayam also means temple. Some scholars think it is made up of the words ‘aal’ and ‘aayam’. According to them, ‘aal’ is the banyan tree. Shivan has been worshipped in ancient literature as alamarcelvan or “the Lord sitting under the banyan.” Later when special temples were built for Shivan, the name Ayan used for Brahman the creator was also used to denote Shiva because He alone performed all the three functions. Ayam is the residence of Ayan. This explanation seems rather forced. According to Saiva Siddhantham, the temple is a place where the soul referred to as pasu (another term being ‘aa’) merges itself in (the thought and worship of) the Lord. This truth is symbolized in the vaahanam installed in temples.

Kodiyetram Temple front

The Hindu temples are not mere places of worship but sacred places where God resides. So they are places of beauty, capable of subduing the restless hearts and minds, and filled with the grace of God. Thus the temples of yore were built in places like riverbanks, seashores, mountain peaks, mountain slopes, caves and shades provided by the thick foliage of trees.

Later, when large temples were built, they were structured according to the Saiva Agamic tradition and the science and art of temple architecture.



A temple built in the Saiva Agamic tradition is surrounded by walls and has a tall gopuram known as the Rajagopuram. Its very sight, even from a distance, reminds one of the temple and God who resides therein. It is majestic, rising above the other buildings and has a shape quite similar to that of a lingam. Therefore it is referred to as Sthoola Lingam and those who see it pay homage to it as if to a lingam or any other form of God. Hence the saying goes that the sight of the gopuram leads to freedom of sins. On this gopuram, various statues are seen – divine forms, dhevar, asurar, semi-divine beings, humans, devotees of God, different species of birds and animals, and depiction of stories from Puranam and Ithihasams. Everything that may be seen in the universe may be found there. It is not possible to classify what is in the universe and what is not. There is good (dharmam) and there is also evil (adharmam). Those who see the gopuram are reminded of God and His greatness that permeates the whole universe and beyond, supporting and protecting it.

The rajagopuram usually has tiers built in odd numbers – three, five, seven or nine. Each number has its own symbolic significance.

  1. Three tiers – the soul’s 3 states of waking, dreaming and deep sleep
  2. Five tiers – the 5 senses
  3. Seven tiers – the 5 senses, manam (mind) and buddhi (intelligence)
  4. Nine tiers – the above seven, siddham (will) and ahankaram (ego)

The mind (manam), intelligence (buddhi), will(siddham)and ego (ahankaram) are referred to as internal organs as against the five external organs (five senses). The number of tiers show that though the soul comes to know the world through avasthai or its many states – the sense organs and the internal organs – these have to be left behind and it has to approach God with purity and mental concentration. Though each tier has an entrance, we can enter the temple only through the main entrance at the ground level. This shows that although there are various means of gaining knowledge, like the sense organs and the inner organs, only the mind is useful in knowing and realising God.



These are also constructed in odd numbers – one, three or five. These numbers also explain the philosophical concept of the human body as follows:

  1. One viti – the body of man
  2. Three viti – the concrete body, the subtle body and the astral body
  3. Five viti – five different bodies or sheaths that encase the soul and God who resides in the soul – viz. bodies made up of food, air and breath, mind, knowledge and bliss.

These five bodies are said to be situated one inside the other, with the sheath of bliss as the innermost, encasing the soul where God resides.

The structure of the temple proper as laid down by the Aagamams is of two types. One is said to resemble the human heart and is referred to as iruthayap pirastaram (spreading like heart). The other is like the human body or sarirap pirastaram. This seems to be more common as shown by the saying, “the temple or kshetram spreads like the body.” This is further stressed by Appar Swamigal who sings worshipping God,

“…with the body as the temple and subdued mind as His slave.”

Manikkavasagar too emphasises this idea when he addressed Shiva as,

“Oh Lord! Faultless Gem!
Who, causing this impure body of flesh to horripilate, and entering it as (if it were) a large golden temple melted all my bones and took this slave as your devotee.”

This similarity between the human body and the temple is explained variously:

1. The 6 Abodes

There are six abodes or bases (aadharams) in the human body. The six sectors of the temple known as mandapams are correlated with these six abodes

Abodes (Chakras) Mandapams
Moolaadhaaram – anal region Sabha Mandapam
Svaathistaanam – navel region Alamkaara Mandapam
Manipoorakam – stomach region Snapana Mandapam
Anaakatham – chest region Mahaa Mandapam
Visutthi – neck region Arddha Mandapam
Aaknjai – between the eyebrows Garbhagraham

(1) The sabha mandapam is the hall where performances are held;

(2) The alamkaara mandapam house the deities’ vehicles, sacrificial altar and the like;

(3) Sacrifices or yaagams are performed in the snapana mandapam;

(4) The special images used for festivals (eluntharuli or utsava moorthi) is housed in the mahaa maandapam;

(5) Arddha mandapam is the space between all these; and

(6) Garbhagraham or sanctum sanctotum is the most sacred place in the temple with the main deity of the temple (moolavar)


2. The 5 Parts of the Body

The conception of the body as a temple is explained as resembling a person lying on his back with his head and trunk touching the ground but the legs raised together at right angle to the body. In the human form which is a collection of various limbs, the head, neck, chest, the pulse or blood vessels (naadi) and feet are singled out in this correlation of the human form and temple, in which:

(1)The head is the garbhagraham;

(2)The neck is the arddha mandapam;

(3)The chest is the mahaa mandapam;

(4)The nadi is the yaaga mandapam; and

(5)The feet form is the gopuram;


3. The Body Is the Temple

Thirumoolar, using the heart, body, mouth, soul and the five senses, sings of the correlation of the human body and the temple:

“The heart is the eminent garbhagraham
The body of flesh and muscle, the temple
To the ever-generous Lord, the mouth is the entrance at the gopuram
To those with clear knowledge, the soul is Sivalingam
The five deceptive senses are beautiful jewel-lamps”

To those who have attained God-realisation with His grace, the heart is the sanctum sanctorum; the material body is the temple; the mouth that recites the five-lettered pancaksharam mantra is the entrance; the soul residing in the body is the Sivalingam; and the five senses that usually lead man to wrong and deceptive paths, serve as beautiful lamps used in worship.


The body is the temple
The heart is the garbhagraham
The mouth is the main entrance
The five senses are lamps
The Soul is God

This is further elaborated by equating,

The tongue with nandhi
And uvula with flagstaff.

The seven constituents (saptha thathu) viz. saliva, blood, semen, brain, flesh and tissues, bones, and skin of which the body is said to be made, are likened to the materials like bricks, lime, sand, metal rods and water used to raise the temple structure.



The soul cannot realise God through the knowledge of the material world around it (pasa jnanam) or through its knowledge of the soul (pasu jnanam). When it does, it will realise that the material world and its bonds therein are like the mirage in a desert and that only the feet of God can offer the cool shade necessary to protect the soul from the desert heat. To ensure that it enjoys this shade incessantly, it has to recite the pancakshara mantra. While explaining this, the Saiva Siddhanta texts offer the following advice:

“Knowing that the Nadaraja form is made up of the pancakshara mantra, one should offer the related 5 limbs and hand before reciting it. While reciting in the prescribed manner, the 3 sthanams or places in the body viz. the heart, navel and the spot between the eyebrows are to be treated as the places for pooja, homam and dhyanam respectively. Then God will manifest Himself in the soul.”

Here too, the heart is treated as the temple where God manifests Himself and where He is worshipped.

‘The Heart is the Sacred Temple’ – This concept has been understood by all devotes, but only some have put them in words. Appar Swamigal tells God, “I have kept the heart as a place for you alone.” Thirugnana Sambanthar sings of “the temple of the Ancient One within the lotus-like heart.” According to Suntharar, “He resides within those who melt (with devotion).” The Periapuranam relates with devotion how Poosalar built a temple within his heart and performed the Kumbhaabhishegam on an auspicious day.



By correlating the human body and the temple structure, our wise and learned ancestors have tried to stress some ideas that would help us lead better lives. It helps us to understand that the body itself is suitable for worshipping God within us. Through inner worship performed with a pure heart, we can realise God who shines as the soul of our souls. To keep our bodies pure, we not only have to bathe in clean water ridding it of dirt but also refrain from consuming non-vegetarian food, alcohol, drugs and the like. The heart, which is the sanctum sanctorum, also has to be kept clean so that impurities like greed, jealousy, falsehood and deceit don’t defile it. Only then God will reside in it as in a temple.

The temple is suitable for eternal worship. Since many come there to pray, it is also a social or communal institution. Yet we have to safeguard its purity just as we cherish the purity of our bodies, and observe a certain code of conduct necessary in a public but holy place. Through his we can establish the greatness of Saivism and at the same time attain the purpose of our births.


“I thought the body was an imperfection
Within it I saw Everlasting Truth (i.e. God)
The eminent One took abode as in a temple
(So) I live, cherish the body.”
–       Thirumanthiram