Door Frame Designs on Nagara Temples

in Overview
Published on: 12 June 2018

Surabhi Sharman

Surabhi Sharman is a postgraduate student of History of Art at the National Museum Institute, New Delhi. She has a postgraduate degree in Arts and Cultural Management from King's College, London and an undergraduate degree in History from Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi.


The Hindu temple, since its earliest inception, has not only been the abode of the gods and goddesses but also an expression of the brilliance of Indian vernacular architecture and sculptural tradition. The temple as a devalaya, or the ‘house of god’, served as a primary site for devotion or bhakti and since the temple became a very important building and began to be so adorned it also became a haven of art (Singh:2008). The Hindu temple started to take form from the Gupta period onwards, as this was the time when dressed stone began to be seen as a more lasting material for construction than wood. The structural integrity of stone meant that more elements could be added to the design of the temple (Meister et al.1998). Thus, it is during this time that the temple evolved in space and design.


The early temples were very simple in conception and consisted of a square garbhagriha, or the sanctum sanctorum, where the image of the temple deity was placed. This space could be preceded by a small hallway or a mukhamandapa, which would support the ceiling with four pillars. The entire space was designed on the grid system as prescribed in the vastupurushamandala, which is the metaphysical plan of the temple. Since the structure itself was very simple, the only ornamentation it could afford was on its pillars and on its door frame. Hence, we see the earliest development of temple sculpture on door frames and pillars.


Temple-building activity saw a spurt under the Gupta rule when Brahminism started to become the dominant religion as it began to receive state patronage. The Buddhist shrines of earlier times still continued to inspire the sculpture and architecture of the age and the two religions flourished alongside each other. The door frames that were designed under the Gupta rule conformed to the injunctions made in the Brihat Samhita by Varahamitra (Donaldson 1976). The ancient sacred texts such as the Vishnudharmottaram prescribe the exact measurements of the garbhadvara, or the doorway. It has been prescribed that the size of the inner doorway should be less than one fourth of the main door’s measurement (Anon. 1961).


Each of the elements that was present on the door frame was not just an independent design idiom but had a deeper, more philosophical meaning attached to it. The trimmings that are added to the door jamb are known as sakha, which translates as ‘branch’. The mouldings of the door jamb constitute a number of branches - three (trisakha), four (catusakha), five (pancasakha), seven (saptasakha) or nine (navasakha). The carvings on one side of each sakha is replicated or completed with the complementary figural theme on the sakha on the other side (Kramrisch 1946).


The earliest Gupta temple door frames are seen with a T-shaped overdoor and with two or three sakhas. The T-shaped overdoor was a reminder of the wooden architecture of the earlier times. The two or three sakhas would be carved with designs such as rosettes and foliate patterns (patravali) and would be adorned by images such as those of the river goddesses such as Ganga and Yamuna (Meister, et al. 1998).


The earliest Ganga and Yamuna figures were placed at the top corners of the door frame and their modelling was inspired by the shalabhanjika (a sculpture of a woman holding a branch of a tree) type figures as seen in Buddhist monuments in Sanchi and Bharhut. An early example of Gupta temple architecture is the Sanchi temple no. 17. The door frame here is seen decorated with foliate and rosette designs and there is space on the top corners of the door frame, which perhaps suggests the space for the river goddesses. As has been mentioned earlier, each element that was placed on the temple came with a meaning, metaphorical or philosophical, attached to it, so did the river goddesses. The river goddesses are an element that is especially seen in the Nagara or the north Indian temples as the Ganga and Yamuna or their tributaries formed the lifeline of the northern part of India. These rivers were revered as life-sustaining deities and were accorded a special place in the temple. The rivers are seen to have descended from the heavens and their waters are considered holy. A dip in these rivers is believed to wash away all the sins of the devotees and gives them punya (fruit of piety).


The figures of these two riverine goddesses on the temple door frame were fused to indicate a metaphorical absolution of the sins of the devotee, purifying those who entered the most sacred part of the temple, the sanctum. The passage through the doorway is comparable to taking a religious journey, or a tirtha. The newly regenerated life that the devotee achieves is comparable to the bursting of life in a seed in the womb of the temple. The space becomes sacrosanct both physically and spiritually. This impression of the idea is seen in Kalidasa’s work Kumarasambhava. It mentions the presentation of the river goddesses in human form as attendants to the devas and devis with fly whisks. The river goddesses, although modelled from the shalabhanjika figures, have an established iconography of their own. They are supple figures, standing usually in tribhanga, and are modelled very delicately. They are figures dripping with the sensuality of youth and are seen holding creepers or branches. They are always seen with an attendant and standing on their vahanas, or vehicles. Ganga is seen standing on makara, which is part crocodile and part fish, while Yamuna is seen standing on kacchapa, or a turtle-like creature (Kramrisch 1946, Singh 2008).


A full-bloomed lotus is usually seen carved on the threshold (udumbara) of the doorway. The lotus is seen as a symbol of the universe and of the impassivity of the devotee to the material world while entering the sacred space. The passage of the deity through this threshold raises the status of the devotee to that of divinity. Through the divinity figures that are carefully carved on the door jamb, a devotee is reincarnated as a pure and pious being who is ready to enter into the penultimate presence of the Supreme Being in the womb of the temple (Kramrisch 1946). It is also conjectured that a pitcher is buried beneath the door jamb of the garbhagriha. The pitcher, or the kalasha, is believed to contain the ‘seed’ from which the entire universe emerges. The process of insemination of the ‘seed’ under the threshold of the garbhagriha is known as garbhadana (Rao 2012).


The next phase of the evolution of the door frame sees the introduction of the lintel design, or the lalatabimba, and further elaboration of the ornamentation of the dvarasakhas. The lalatabimba was a small sculpture in the centre of the lintel that acted as an indicator of the deity that the temple was devoted to. The figure is seen as presiding over the door guardians and other figures on the door frame. One commonly seen figure on the lalatabimba is that of Gajalakshmi, where the goddess Lakshmi is shown seated or standing on a full-bloomed lotus while two elephants flank her and spray holy water over her as if performing an abhisheka (consecration) on her (Kramrisch 1946). The additional function of the lalatabimba, especially for modern archaeologists and scholars, is that it identifies who the temple was dedicated to in case the entire structure doesn’t survive the ravages of time or the installed deity is missing.


An example of this evolution can be seen at the temple at Tigawa from the later part of the 5th century where we see an elaborate trisakha door frame. The dvarasakhas are decorated with floral and rosette patterns, along with mithunas (amorous couples) and kirttimukhas (a face of glory). A change in the position of the river goddesses is seen in this temple as the river goddesses are shifted from the top corner of the door frame to the lower portion of the door jamb. The lintel design has floral motifs and vidyadhara mithunas (celestial musicians as amorous couples) depicted on it (Singh 2008).


The Siva temple at Sakor in Madhya Pradesh also has an ornamented trisakha doorway, which, along with the standard designs that had been developed until then, also has images of bharvahakas, or goblins, that seem to be holding the weight of the structure. The lintel has a row of six vidyadharas, or celestial musicians, alongside a row of 17 lion heads. At the extreme ends of the lintel, the kirttimukhas are carved. In the middle of the lintel is a figure of Siva in a dancing pose (nrtyamudra), suggesting that the temple is dedicated to Siva or to someone in Siva’s pantheon (parivara devatas).  


It is during this period that we see the introduction of the door guardians as important figures in the temple door-frame designs. The door guardians stand as fierce beings, placed to guard the space from evil spirits. They are modelled with fearful expressions and are seen holding weapons. The weapons that are usually held by these guardians are the weapon traits of the particular deity who is housed inside the garbhagriha. These door guardians are overlooked by the tutelary aspect of the deity that is installed on the lintel on the doorway (Kramrisch 1946). At the Parvati temple at Nachna in Madhya Pradesh, we see a catusakha door frame, where on the bottom of one of the sakhas on each side, we see a Saiva dvarapala, or a door guardian. Above the figures of the door guardians, we see figures of ganas, or goblins, who are emanating scrolls from their navel. The other motif we see on the dvarasakhas is the ghatapallava motif, or a pot overflowing with leaves, which is interspersed with the ghata (pot) motif without any pallavas, or leaves.  Other decorations include the standard door frame designs and figures (Singh 2008).


The temples of the later Gupta period follow the sculptural style that was developed in the period. There are a few variations as can be seen in the temple at Mahua from the Pratihara period. The right side of the temple dvarasakha is lost. On the left side, we see additional motifs of the dormer windows, or the candrashalas. The upper portion of a sakha is figured like a miniature shikhara, perhaps because by this time the temple had evolved from a flat-roofed structure to one with a superstructure, or a shikhara, on top. On the lintel, we also see a figure of a gana who is stretching his mouth with his fingers and patralata (foliate) designs are seen coming out of his mouth (Singh 2008).


A few other motifs also enter the door-frame design idiom in the Pratihara period (c. 8th‒9th century), although essentially the embellishments of the Gupta period continued. One recurring motif that is introduced during this period is the bell hanging on a chain. This probably came as temple bells might have been introduced during this period. In the 9th century, we see additional changes as lintels carved with navagrahas (nine planetary deities) and seated sapta matrkas (seven mother goddesses) are also found. The ends of the lintel start to see figures such as those of Ganesha and Kartikeya.


With the advent of the medieval period, a few changes in circumstances are noticed such as the efflorescence of regional dynasties in the absence of a stronger central dynasty, which led to the coming up of various regional styles and local ramifications in the development and evolution of temple architecture. There was a certain kind of homogeneity of style throughout northern India but other than that various regional idioms proliferated in temple architecture.


The burst of temple-building activity in Kashmir in the 8th century C.E. provides a unique example of architecture that had influence from outside the present boundaries of India because of its geographical location. The Gandharan style held a very strong influence over Kashmiri architecture. The shrines in Kashmir, such as that at Martand, had well-ornamented doorways for both the main shrine and the courtyard. The door frame was surmounted by a trefoil arch but otherwise the sakhas had the usual elements of a door frame (Singh 2008).


Temples of the Rajputana saw ornamented doorways that would have sakhas, which would range from three to seven, but never exceed nine. The usual entourage of the river goddesses, dvarapalas, foliate patterns, nagas and ganas is beautifully carved on the door frame. Some of the door frames began to have a two-tiered lintel, which became like an elaborate small shrine of its own. The saptamatrikas and the navagrahas began more commonly to find a place in the lintel designs. There is often a row of shikharas that look like miniature shrines. Each of this is shown with an image of a deity inside them. The image in the central shikhara is representative of the tutelary aspect of the deity (Singh 2008).


The temples of the Madhyadesa, or central India, began to be known for their beautiful ornamentation—both externally and internally. They derived their traditional idiom directly from the preceding rule of the Pratiharas and the Guptas in the region. Initially, the norm was to have pancasakha doorways but now saptasakha and navasakha doorways are also found. They were adorned with rosettes, foliate designs, nagas, vyalas (composite animal beings, often with a rider on the back), srivriksha, bhuta, garland designs, along with mithuna couples, who would often be depicted in erotic positions. The lintel would be divided into often at three registers. The central Indian temples began to see additional doorways at the rangamandapa (performance hall) as well, for example, as seen at the Mahadeva temple in Nohta.


The Kalinga style of temple architecture that emerged in Orissa from the latter half of the 6th century C.E. established its very unique artistic idiom. The door frame acquired a distinct primacy in the sculptural plan of the temples and the dvarasakhas ranged from three to five. The standard sculptural idioms are juxtaposed with scrolls, srivriksha motif, birds, etc. The saptamatrikas and the navagrahas find a prominent place in the lintels, although in the earlier Kalinga temples, Ketu is seen to be omitted. The door guardians are seen generally with four arms. The nagas, or intertwined naga, couples also find a place in the doorjamb decorations of the region. In the later Kalinga temples, we see that the Ganga and Yamuna figures seem to lose out on their importance and are increasingly left out of the decorative programme of the door frame. In the Orissan temples, we see that the decoration is dominated by scroll work (Donaldson 1976). The scroll work on door frames is not merely awe -nspiring for its aesthetics but also, like every other motif in the temple, has a deeper meaning attached to it. It is a motif to ward off evil and to provide protective coverage to the temple. The ornate scroll work is juxtaposed with an image of a deity, so that the motif becomes as sacred as a divine image. Sometimes other vegetative and zoomorphic elements are also added to it (Donaldson 1978).


Following the ancient Indian tradition, the medieval dynasties inherited a well-developed style of temple building, which they continued to patronize. What was added to this classical style, which saw its inception under the Gupta rule, was a local flavour. The regional dynasties juxtaposed their own stylistic preferences and newer elements were added to increase the grandiosity of the door frames. The evolution of the temple itself, from a flat-roofed structure to an elaborate building with beautiful moldings and carvings, reinvestigates the development of thought and workmanship in the Indian subcontinent. The evolution of the door-frame design is not a mere stylistic elaboration but also a consequence of the amplification of the socio-religious and philosophical narrative that surrounded these sacred symbols. The images that are constantly available over centuries provide us with the stylistic idiom of that particular age and the evolution of the iconography as well.




Anon. 1961. Visnudharmottara-Purana Third Khanda. Baroda: Oriental Institute.


Donaldson, T., 1976. 'Doorframes on the Earliest Orissan Temples.' Artibus Asiae 38.2/3:189‒218.


Donaldson, T. 1978. 'Scroll Motifs on Orissan Temples.' East and West 28 1/4:225‒48.


Kramrisch, S. 1946. The Hindu Temple. s.l.:Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.


Meister, M.W., M. Dhaky, and K. Deva, eds. 1998. Encyclopedia of Indian Temple Architecture, North India: Foundations of North Indian Style. New Delhi: American Institute of Indian Studies.


Rao, S.R. 2012. The Vastu Silpa Kosha: Encycopaedia of Hindu Temple Architecture and Vastu, vol. I New Delhi: Divine Books.


Singh, D.T. 2008. Architecture of North Indian Temples. New Delhi: Jnanada Prakashan.