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As temples form the backbone of Indian medieval architectural heritage, it would be appropriate to discuss their basic architectural features before we move on to different styles of Indian architecture. Despite the vastness of the land, Indian temple architecture is remarkably uniform. It is, however, often distinguished into two chief styles, each having numerous sub-styles. The Northern or Indo-Aryan style is marked by a tower with rounded top and curvilinear outline while the Southern or Dravidian style has the tower usually in the shape of a rectangular truncated pyramid.

The standard type of the Hindu temple has remained fundamentally same from the 6th century AD to the present day. The construction of temples – whether in the north in the south – essentially followed a similar pattern. There is the sanctuary or the vimana of which the upper and outer pyramidal and tapering portion is called the shikhara, or pinnacle. The vimana is a rather dark place that houses the divine deity. This small area is called garbha griha, literally meaning 'womb house'. The entrance is through a doorway, normally from the eastern side. The doorway is reached through a mandapa or pillared hall, where devotees congregate for prayers. However, earlier temples may have had the mandapa at a little distance from the main temple (the Shore Temple in Mamallapuram near Chennai, circa 700 A.D.), although this practise was done away with in later constructions. Later it became necessary to unite both buildings, making way for the antarala or intermediate vestibule. A porch or a smaller room called ardha mandapa leads up to a hall (mandapa), which in turn goes into a maha mandapa. A tower generally surmounted the shrine-room while smaller towers rose from other parts of the building. The whole conception was set in a rectangular courtyard, which sometimes contained lesser shrines and was often placed on a raised platform. The most perfect examples of temples on this structure are the Khajuraho temples. Here, each chamber has its own separate pyramidal roof rising in gradual steps so that the final sanctum’s roof towers up, surrounded by smaller spires, finally forming a graceful, rising stepped pyramid.

In some parts of India, the ascending pyramid roof format was not followed. The roof in such temples was still pyramidal, but was formed of layers that gradually became narrower as they rose. A courtyard was built around the temple, and sometimes a wall would be constructed to ensure seclusion. The outer walls were treated by carving in an orderly group of repetitive miniatures. The shikhara or tapering roof was specifically based on this design, which may have originated from the domed huts of central and eastern India.


The Pratiharas, who ruled over an extensive empire from Ujjain during the 8th and 9th centuries, were among the significant successors of the Guptas. The Pratihara temples of Central India have their own unique designs and decorative schemes. The important temples of Ujjain include the Mahakaleshwar temple, which has one of the twelve Jyotirlingas of India, Kal Bhairava temple, which finds a mention in the Skanda Purana, and Mangalnath temple, which is regarded as the birthplace of Mars, according to the Matsya Purana.


The Pala School of Architecture (8-13th Centuries AD) flourished in Bengal and Bihar under the Pala and the Sena rulers. Nalanda was its most active centre, whose influence was spread to Nepal, Myanmar and even Indonesia. Stone sculptures of this period are found at Nalanda, Rajagriha, Bodh Gaya, Rajashahi and other places. The Pala School of art is seen at its best at Nalanda and several sculptures belonging to this period have been unearthed in excavations.


The Chandelas of Jijihoti or Bundelkhand were known as great builders during the l0th-11th centuries. It is they who built the temples at Khajuraho justly famous for their graceful contours and erotic sculptures. These 22 temples (out of the original 85) are regarded as one of world's greatest artistic wonders. The Khajuraho Temples do not illustrate a development over a long period of time but were built within a short period of hundred years from 950-1050 A.D. The Khajuraho Temples have highly individualistic architectural character and are generally small in size. Each temple is divided into three main compartments - the cella or garbha griha, an assembly hall or mandapa and an entrance portico or ardha mandapa. Some temples also contain the antarala or vestibule to the cella and the transepts or maha-mandapa. The Kendriya Mahadev temple is the largest and most beautiful of the Khajuraho Temples. The Shiva Temple at Visvanath and the Vishnu Temple at Chaturbhanj are other important temples at Khajuraho.

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