Temples in South India

In looking for an old email message in my CharityFocus archives, I came across the following explanations about temples in South India written by Shuba Swaminathan (Writers – we need a profile on Shuba!) in response to a posting by Yaniv during his last trip to India in early 2003. At the time I received the message to Funbunch, I did not take the time to read it, but did save it (as I do many things… Nipun once told me that my computer would blow up with all the email that I save… and it did, many times…). I reprint Shuba’s explanations here for the benefit of all the people I know who will be in South India this winter.

Thank you Shuba!

Temples in South India

…At the entrance to the temple, you would have seen a “gopuram” – A towering structure with 3,5,7 or 9 (always an odd number, am not sure why) of stories. These towers tend to be broad at the base and taper
towards the top. At the top of these towers, you might have noticed brass pots lined up (again an odd number).

From the main door, you would have noticed that the idol is directly at your eye level.


The average human mind is deeply involved with the mundane. If one considers that the lowest level of spiritual evolution, that is represented by the broad base of the gopuram (temple tower). The assumed goal of human existance according to Hindu scriptures is to rise towards higher spiritual goals. Hence the tapered tower, indicative of the single-pointedness of a mind, that’s left its constant obsession with the mundane atleast partially behind. Different stages of spiritual evolution correspond to different tiers of the gopuram (temple tower).

The brass pots at the top of the tower are filled with water brought from rivers around the country. This is to make an express point using analogies – water by its inherent nature is colorless, shapeless and tasteless. Similarly, the supreme “brahman” (label it god, superior force, whatever you prefer to call it) is formless, shapeless and unbounded. Just like the waters from the rivers merge into the ocean, the soul in the individual self, “atman”, is a part of the “Brahman” (note: not the same as brahman, an upper caste person, or a Boston resident πŸ™‚ This self-realization represents the pinnacle of spiritual evolvement according to Vedanta (Hindu scriptures) and is indicated by the location of the pots on top of the taper.

However, since the average mind is not so evolved, it is presented with the sight of an idol at eye-level, to give the mind a point to focus on, to grasp, if you will, and learn to focus on things outside of itself.

A person entering the temple is expected to first look at the tower to remind himself of the journey he has before him, and then focus on the idol at eyelevel.

The towers are high because they were supposed to be visible from every nook and cranny of the village. Everytime one glimpses the tower, they are supposed to be reminded of their goal of spiritual evolution and
what lies at the end of the journey.

Once you enter the temple, you would have had to traverse multiple courtyards most of the outer ones being uncovered and pretty painful to walk on with your barefeet on a scorching hot day, before you can glimpse the deity in the inner sanctum. You probably also noticed that the inner sanctum is very dark, save for a few oil lamps, and the only way to really get a good glimpse of the deity is when a piece of camphor is lit in front of the idol.


The physical pain you feel when you traverse the courtyard, be it from burning feet or pouring rain, is to remind one of the trials and obstacles one faces going through the motions of day-to-day life. To spiritually evolve, its important that an aspirant not let these trials interfere with his eventual goal and continues to focus on his goal. The idol at the eye level, is to encourage precisely that. For the truly devout, their mind will be on the idol and not on their burning feet. Behavioral training for future aspirations πŸ™‚

The dark sanctum where the deity resides is symbolic of the ignorant human mind/heart, which is so caught up in its day to day existance and easily loses sight of the ultimate goal of spiritual evolution. When the
priest lights the piece of camphor, it casts light on the idol. This issupposed to symbolize the light of knowledge that removes the ignorance that darkens one’s mind/heart. Note however, that the light from the
camphor piece is temporary – quite similar to knowledge, which is easily forgotten if not grasped tightly.

Also significant: camphor is a sublimate compound. Solid camphor on heating vaporizes instantly and does not go through the intermediary phase of liquid. It also has a strong smell associated with it that vanishes when it vaporizes. The sanskrit word for smell is “vasana” and has a double meaning – it also means “natural tendencies”. The symbolic burning of camphor is indicative of a human being giving up his natural tendencies toward anger, jealousy, hate, involvement in the mundane etc. The fact that there is no liquid generated which can solidify is said to indicate that once a person gives up these negative qualities, he gives them up for good.


You might have noticed the devout placing the palm of their hand over the camphor flame and touching it to their closed eyes/forehead. You may or may not have also noticed that there’s a goody bag (prashad) one
gets as they leave the temple.


The touching of the palm to the eyes/forehead is symbolic – with this gesture, one is saying “May the light of knowledge stay in front of my eyes always, may the darkness of ignorance never return”.

The goody bag originally used to comprise of fruits. These fruits represent the fruits of knowledge, the benefit of having burnt one’s negative tendencies and the rewards reaped.


A person who is able to focus his mind without the need for external aids and reminders such as idols and temples, is free to eschew temple visits and concentrate on spiritual progress according to the scriptures.

This is probably more than you ever wanted to know about Hindu temples πŸ™‚ But it is this deeply spiritual symbol (to me, at least) that is being commonly perceived as ritualistic, without an understanding of the what-s and why-s of it.

Shuba S.
February 28, 2003

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