Hindu Temples

Tutor: Dr Layne Little
Start date: 10 October 2021


This visually rich course explores two thousand years of Hindu temple tradition – the origins and evolution of temple traditions and regional styles in India and globally.

Kings, merchant guilds, wealthy patrons and even simple agricultural communities have poured time, labour and resources in constructing these glorious edifices. These in turn become enduring institutions embodying a kind of continuity that perpetually responds to the pulse of social evolution and development.

This course is an Art History class. Students will gain a comprehensive understanding of Hindu symbolism and iconography and learn about the stories behind these images. We will gain insight into the life of temples by examining ritual and performance, adornment, processionals, and the festival calendar. We will also survey the spread of Hindu temples beyond India and Nepal by exploring the temples of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and recent architectural innovation in countries around the world.


Session One: Visiting a Hindu Temple / Temple Prototypes and Symbolic Origins

This session identifies Hindu temple architecture, iconography, and worship to give students an understanding of how worshippers navigate the temple experience. Temples have been designed, both structurally and ritually, to profoundly engage all the senses of the worshipper in such a way as to induce in the worshipper a meaningful religious experience. In both this and other sessions this exploration of Hindu temple traditions will continuously refer back to how temple art, architecture, ritual, and symbolism work in tandem towards cultivating a palpable experience in the worshipper.

Session Two: Types of Hindu Temples

This lesson begins with the primary differences between the two main temple types: the north Indian style temple (known as the nagara or shikara style) and the south Indian style temple (known as the dravida or vimana style). We briefly cover what is called the ‘mule’, or hybrid, Vesara style that blends the two together. We also explore some unique regional temple styles that evolved at the margins of the northern and southern styles within India, such as in Kerala and in the Himalayas and also some of the unique temple styles that have evolved in cultural contexts far removed from India, such as in Nepal, Bali, and Vietnam.

Beyond this we learn some of the specialised terminology that identifies key temple architectural forms and what they symbolise. In addition, we will look at the various parts of the Hindu temple and explore the specific ritual, festival, and symbolic functions they serve. As the course continues we will build on this infrastructure to map the development of these forms, from the simple to the complex, as we carefully examine how early established temple forms evolve across time and from region to region.

Session Three: Gupta Period

The period when Hindu temple traditions evolve through a rich experimental phase and proliferate through much of India and Nepal coincides with the reign of the Gupta Empire. The Gupta Period was one of great cultural ferment and creativity, partly stimulated by the expansion of trade routes on the Indian subcontinent as such connections enriched culture as well as inspiring whole new modes of creative expression.

Session Four: Rock Cut Temples

Hindu cave temples are sites of stark grandeur and haunting beauty that seamlessly blend into the natural environment. Where the vibrant gods seem to spontaneously emerge, enlivened, from the naked rock. These are sacred structures that call the worshipper to enter into the very earth itself in search of the divine. And this is perfectly fitting for a religious view that sees the divine every bit as much on earth as in heaven.

Session Five: Early Freestanding Temples

The earliest freestanding temple from India in the archaeological record is a small Buddhist shrine at the site of Sanchi likely built by Chandragupta II in 412–413 CE. Its design is similar to a four columned Greek portico shrine. Nevertheless, we can assume that there were earlier prototypes of Hindu temples crafted in wood and thatch.

Session Six: Srivilliputtur

Here we will be exploring a single temple site at length. For this in-depth case study we have chosen the small temple town of Srivilliputtur in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. We will examine in detail its unique festival calendar and also focus in on how its yearly festival cycle shapes one important aspect of temple ritual practice: alankara, or ritual adornment.

Session Seven: Unique Regional Forms of Hindu Temples

While this exploration of Hindu Temple traditions has focused on the formative period and the early stylistic development, there have been many other unique regional forms of Hindu temple tradition. Many of these reached a high degree of sophistication and refinement and spontaneously evolved a very distinctive aesthetic. This final session seeks to fill in some of the gaps in this survey by touching upon a selection of regional temple forms. In addition, we will also briefly bring into discussion how the forces of colonialism and the advent of the modern Hindu diaspora have impacted Hindu temple traditions and adapted temples to new cultural and geographic contexts in the recent past and contemporary context.


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.

Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies
13-15 Magdalen St, Oxford OX1 3AE
Regd Charity No. 1074458
Contact Us