Hinduism: Temples and Holy Places | 9


Temples and Holy Places

Hundreds of thousands of villages, towns, forests, groves, rivers, and mountains in India are considered sacred.

In a larger religio-political context, India is personified as a Mother in literature and practice, and almost every part of this motherland is said to be sacred. In recent centuries it has been hailed in many songs as “Mother India” (Bharata Mata) and as a compassionate Mother goddess.

While many early texts advocated living in India as part of one’s religious duties, Hindus have also migrated to other countries—starting with Southeast Asia in the centuries before the Common Era—and recreated the sacred lands in their new homes.

Although there are many standard Hindu pilgrimage itineraries, some places are considered especially sacred. Pilgrimage routes are often organized thematically.

For instance, in India devotees may visit:

- the 108 places where Śakti, or the power of the Goddess, is said to be present;
- the 68 places where emblems of Shiva are said to have emerged “self-born”;
- the 12 places where Shiva appears as the “flame of creative energies” (jyotir linga);
- the 8 places where Vishnu spontaneously manifested himself (a form called svayam vyakta);
- and so on.

Hindu holy texts extol the sanctity of many individual sites:

For pious Hindus, to live in such places or to undertake a pilgrimage to one of them is enough to destroy a person’s sins and to assist in the attainment of liberation from the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Texts that discuss the sanctity of the holy places tend to have narratives about how a particular deity manifested himself or herself there and promised rewards in this life and in the afterlife for all the worshipers.

Most holy places also have temples to mark this divine revelation. The temple itself is like a “port of transit,” a place from which a human being may “cross over” (tirtha) the ocean of life and death.

Because water is also considered to be purifying, many temples and holy places are located near an ocean, lake, river, or spring:

When such a body of water is not close by, there is usually an artificial ritual well or pool, a feature that may date back to the time of the Harappa civilization (c. 3000 to 1750 B.C.E.). Pilgrims sometimes cleanse themselves in these pools before praying in the temple.

Mountains, lakes, groves, and rivers are also sacred. The Ganges, Yamuna, Cauvery, and Narmada rivers are believed to be so holy that bathing in them destroys a person’s sins.

Confluences of two rivers or of a river and the sea are particularly sacred. Pilgrims journey regularly to bathe at Triveni Saṅgama (“Confluence of Three Rivers”) at Prayāga, where the Ganges, the Yamuna, and a mythical underground river, the Sarasvatī, all meet.

Small sealed jars of holy water from the Ganges are kept in homes and are used in domestic rituals to purify the dead and dying.

Many temples are located on hills and mountains because they are considered to be sacred. In Southeast Asia, where there were no hills, artificial mountain-temples were erected.

It is not clear exactly when temples became popular in India, because the earlier houses of worship were probably made of perishable materials.

Inscriptions in Champa (now Vietnam) mention Hindu houses of worship that existed in Southeast Asia during the early centuries of the Common Era.

Some of the early places of worship were in the Chalukya capital of Vātāpi (modern Badami), where in the late 6th century C.E. exquisite carvings of Vishnu and Shiva were carved into rock caves.

That an adjacent cave is a Jain holy site is evidence of the amicable coexistence of religious traditions in India. Experimental modes of temple architecture can be seen in nearby Aihole and Pattadakal (c. 7-9th centuries).

Temple architecture was different in Northern and Southern India, with many variations within both areas. Temples, palaces, and all buildings were part of the guided practices of the Hindu tradition.

Texts on architecture, dwelling places, and choice of building sites gave instructions on how to build these structures and on the ratio of the measurements. Large complexes have many shrines, each oriented in a specific direction.

Temples were major religious, cultural, and economic centres. They were (and to a large extent continue to be) built to represent the whole cosmos, and there are elaborate rules that determine their design.

Many temples, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, also include proportions connected with Hindu systems of time measurement. For instance, the various measurements of a temple could correspond to the number of years in the various yugas (ages).

Many temples were also built in accordance with the observed movements of the Sun, Moon, and stars. The sun would shine on icons, sculptures, or specific areas of the temple at certain times, such as the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes.

The main part of a temple is an inner shrine where a deity is consecrated. Hindu worship is not generally congregational, so the entrances to the inner shrine allow only small groups of people to enter.

For many sectarian movements, the deity in this shrine is not a symbol; it is the actual presence of the god or goddess in the midst of human beings, a veritable incarnation. The deity resides in the temple as long as the devotees worship there.

Devotees believe that the presence of God in the temple does not detract from his or her presence in heaven, immanence in the world, or presence in a human soul. The deity is always complete and whole no matter how many manifestations take place.

In most parts of Southern India the pan-Hindu deities are known and worshiped only with local names; in the Tirumāḷai-Tirupati temple (the wealthiest religious institution in India), for instance, Vishnu is known as Veṅkaṭeśvara, or the Lord of the Veṅkaṭa Hills.

Many of the temple complexes in India are associated with the major sects—that is, they enshrine Vishnu, Shiva, or the Goddess and their entourages. In many of them the deities are known by their local or regional names.

A typical temple may have separate shrines for the deity, his or her spouse, other divine attendants, and saints.

Temples in the diaspora generally cater to a broader community of worshipers and have images of Shiva, Vishnu, the Goddess, and other deities enshrined under one roof.


A holy place in the Hindu tradition is one in which devotees come to see the enshrined deity and hear sacred words from holy texts.

In the past religious teachers were careful about whom they imparted their teachings to, and they screened their devotees carefully.

Today, however, the Internet allows anyone to see images of deities, teachers, and gurus and even to hear the recitation and music sacred texts and songs. Some websites call their home pages “electronic ashrams.” An ashram is a traditional hermitage or place of learning.

Some Hindus believe that there is no aspect of life that is not sacred to them, but not all Hindus interpret sacredness this way. In Hinduism the lines between the sacred and the secular are blurred and depend on context.

Every paper and every book is sacred because they represent knowledge; if a person’s feet come into contact with a sheet of paper, a Hindu may spontaneously do a small act of veneration to compensate for the disrespect.

While many aspects of nature are sacred, a few important emblems are notably holy:

Special ash that the devotees of Shiva put on their forehead is holy.

Hindus venerate particular plants that are said to be sacred to Vishnu (tulsi leaves and flowers of the Parijāta-tree) or Shiva (leaves of the Bilva-tree).

Cows are not worshiped, but they are held as sacred and venerated. In ritual contexts snakes are considered emblematic of good fortune or fertility and are deemed worthy of respect.