Discovering Ancient Temples

Tutor: Dr Himanshu Prabha Ray
Start date: 10 October 2021


In this course we learn about Hinduism through the prism of archaeology. We explore the multiple identities of sacred sites and how these are negotiated. We learn how archaeology can uncover changes in ritual, transformations in diet, and changes in how sacred spaces are used. The texts tell us only part of the story, the stones tell their own tales.


What we cover in this course

Session One: The Beginnings of Archaeology in India

In our first lecture we discuss the history of archaeology in India and how it has contributed to our understanding of Hinduism and the Hindu temple. Who were the pioneers in this field and what do we think of them now?

Session Two: Water and Temple Rituals

“Certain areas on earth are more sacred than others, some on account of their situation, and others because of their sparkling waters, and others because of the association or habitation of saintly people.” (Mahābhārata Anuśāsana Parva 108: 16-18)

Session Three: Varanasi – Making of a Sacred Landscape

Also known as Banaras or Kashi, Varanasi is one of the holiest cities of India, sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. An early account of Varanasi in modern times is by the Protestant missionary M. A. Sherring (1826 – 1880), who writes of the ‘flourishing’ state of Hinduism in the city because of the ‘peace and prosperity’ ushered in by colonial rule under the British and the competition between it and Christianity. The author states categorically that Christianity is on the ascendancy, while Hinduism is in decline…

Session Four: The Coastal Temples of Gujarat

Gujarat’s coastline of 1600 km has been settled for at least 5000 years. Gujarat’s coastal temples provide insights into the communities who inhabited the space between the ocean and the hinterland and helps us understand their history, religion, and culture.

Session Five: Temples of the Malaprabha Valley

The Malaprabha river is a tributary of the river Krishna that flows through the present state of Andhra Pradesh into the Bay of Bengal. The 25 km long fertile valley of the Malaprabha river in Bagalkot district of north Karnataka houses the temple site of Badami with its huge tank and temples. We also find Aihole and Pattadakal with its complex of riverside temples. Another temple, Mahakuta, continues to be a place of pilgrimage.

Session Six: The Royal Temples of Tamil Nadu

We credit the Chola kings with the sponsorship of more than three hundred temples and with the aesthetic culture of their age. These give us ‘Chola bronzes’ and ‘Chola temples’ and the establishment by the Cholas of a ‘royal Śiva cult’. The Cholas are also believed responsible for the use of Tamil hymns into temple liturgy, as well as the worship of the poet-saints who authored these hymns; and for the elevation of the Nataraja temple at Chidambaram to a position of central importance.

Session Seven: The Terracotta Temples in Bengal

We turn our attention to the brick temples of Bengal and their terracotta decoration. The big question here is the relationship of the terracotta temples to the religion of early Bengal. Rather than viewing temple construction in the region as a result of external stimulus, such as the arrival of brahmanas from north India in the fourth century, it should be viewed as a result of religious development starting as early as the fourth and third century BCE.


Course delivery is 100% online

7–9 weekly sessions

Study in your own time

Your tutor is available by email and forums

Communicate online with your fellow students

All course materials are delivered via the web

Student forums with tutor participation

Recorded lectures available in video and mp3 format

All required lecture notes included

Audio interviews with specialists in Hindu Studies

Supplementary materials taken from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies teaching and research programme

Assessment is optional and is on the basis of successful completion of a single essay of 2000 words, with the exception of our Sanskrit courses which are assessed on weekly course work.

Courses can be completed in as little as seven weeks. There is a final deadline for essays or course work of twelve weeks from the beginning of the course.

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