The basic form of the temple in India is a square cell, oriented to the four cardinal directions, containing a platform with an image of the deity in the center, a flat roof overhead, and a doorway on the east side. In front of the doorway is a porch or platform, shaded by a roof supported by pillars, where worshipers gather before and after approaching the god. At the founding of the temple, priests establish a sanctified area in the center of the shrine and, while praying and performing rituals, set up the image of the god. The deity is then said to be one with the image, which contains or manifests the power of the god on earth. Every Hindu temple in India, then, exists as the center of the universe, where the god overlooks his or her domain and aids devotees.
Worship at the temple is not congregational. Instead, individuals or small groups of devotees approach the sanctum in order to obtain a vision (darshana
) of the god, say prayers, and perform devotional worship. Because the god exists in totality in the shrine, any objects that touch the image or even enter the sanctum are filled with power and, when returned to their givers, confer the grace of the divine on the human world. Only persons of requisite purity who have been specially trained are able to handle the power of the deity, and most temple sanctums are operated by priests who take the offerings from worshipers, present them directly to the image of the deity, and then return most of the gifts to the devotees for use or consumption later at home.
Since the sixth century, after the decline of Buddhism as the main focus of religious patronage, temples have been accumulating generous donations from kings, nobles, and the wealthy. The result is a huge number of shrines throughout the country, many of which, especially in South India, date back hundreds of years. The statuary and embellishment in some of the ancient shrines constitute one of the world's greatest artistic heritages. The layout of major temples has expanded into gigantic architectural complexes.
Along with architectural elaboration has come a complex administrative system to manage the many gifts bestowed by wealthy donors in the past and continually replenished by the piety of devotees in the present. The gods are legal landholders and command substantial investment portfolios throughout the country. The management of these fortunes in many states lies in the hands of private religious endowments, although in some states, such as Tamil Nadu, the state government manages most of the temples directly. Struggles over the control of temple administration have clogged the courts for several hundred years, and the news media readily report on the drama of these battles. Several cases have had an impact on religious, or communal, affairs. The most spectacular case involved ownership of a site in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, claimed by Hindus as the site of Ram's birth but taken over by Muslims as the site for a mosque, the Babri Masjid, built in 1528. After much posturing by the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP--Indian People's Party) and its nationalist parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS--National Volunteer Organisation), matters came to a head in December 1992 (see Modern Transformations, this ch.; Political Parties, ch. 8). Some 200,000 militant Hindus, under the direction of RSS marshals, descended on Ayodhya, razing the Babri Masjid to the ground on December 6, 1992. Reprisals and communal violence occurred throughout India and in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh (see Political Issues, ch. 8).
India is covered with holy sites associated with the exploits of the gods, the waters of a sacred river, or the presence of holy men. Texts called the Puranas (ancient lore in Sanskrit) contain lengthy sections that describe numerous sacred places and the merit gained by traveling to them in a devout manner. Bathing at such sites is a specially meritorious act. With the expansion of public transportation in the twentieth century, there has been a vast increase in the numbers of people who visit these spots to partake of the divine and visit new places. In fact, for many Indians pilgrimage is the preferred form of tourism, involving family and community groups in enjoyable and uplifting vacations.
Certain important sites are well-known throughout India and attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually. Probably the most significant is Varanasi (also known as Banaras, Benares, or Kashi) in southeastern Uttar Pradesh on the north bank of the Ganga. It is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains, who flock to the ghats, or steps, leading from temples down to the banks of the sacred Ganga in their search for an auspicious site for death, cremation, or immersion of ashes. Hardwar, in northwestern Uttar Pradesh, far up the Ganga in the foothills of the Himalayas, is theVaranasi of northwest India for Hindus living there and is a favorite spot for ritual bathing. There are numerous destinations in the Himalayas, including Badrinath and Kedarnath, isolated sites in northern Uttar Pradesh that once required a long journey on foot. In southern India, the rivers Kaveri, Krishna, and Godavari attract pilgrims to a large number of bathing sites, and the coastline features major temples such as the Ramalingesvara Temple in Ramesvaram, Tamil Nadu, where Ram and his army crossed over to Lanka to rescue Sita. Pandharpur, in Maharashtra, is the destination for many thousands of devotees of Vitthala, an incarnation of Vishnu, whose tradition goes back at least to the thirteenth century and was written about by the great Marathi bhakti
poets Namdev, Tukaram, and Eknath. There are smaller sites near almost every river or scenic hilltop.
For many pilgrims, the process of getting to their destination involves preliminary vows and fasting, intensive cooperative efforts among different families and groups, extensive traveling on foot, and the constant singing of devotional songs. On arrival, groups of pilgrims often make contact with priests who specialize in the pilgrim trade and for a fee plan the group's schedule and ritual activity. At some of the major sites, the families of the priests have served as hereditary guides for groups of pilgrims over many generations. Where a shrine is the focus, the devotee may circumambulate the buildings and wait in line for long hours just for a glimpse of the deity's image as security personnel move the crowds along. At auspicious bathing sites, pilgrims may have to wade through the crush of other devotees to dip into the sacred waters of a river or a tank. Worshipers engaged in special vows or in praying for the cure of a loved one may purchase shrine amulets to give to the god (which are circulated back to the shrine's shop) or purchase foodstuffs, sanctified by the god's presence, to take to friends and family. Nearby, souvenir hawkers and shopkeepers and sometimes even amusement parks contribute to a lively atmosphere that is certainly part of the attraction of many pilgrimage sites.
Data as of September 1995