A Hindu temple is a symmetry-driven structure, with many variations, on a square grid of padas, depicting perfect geometric shapes such as circles and squares. Susan Lewandowski states that the underlying principle in a Hindu temple is built around the belief that all things are one, everything is connected. A temple, states Lewandowski, “replicates, again and again, the Hindu beliefs in the parts mirroring, and at the same time being, the universal whole” like an “organism of repeating cells.” The pilgrim is welcomed through mathematically structured spaces, a network of art, pillars with carvings and statues that display and celebrate the four important and necessary principles of human life – the pursuit of Artha (prosperity, wealth), the pursuit of kama (desire), the pursuit of dharma (virtues, ethical life) and the pursuit of moksha (release, self-knowledge).
The design, especially the floor plan, of the part of a Hindu temple around the sanctum or shrine follows a geometrical design called vastu-purusha-mandala. The name is a composite Sanskrit word with three of the most important components of the plan. Mandala means circle, Purusha is universal essence at the core of Hindu tradition, while Vastumeans the dwelling structure. Vastupurushamandala is a yantra. The design lays out a Hindu temple in a symmetrical, self-repeating structure derived from central beliefs, myths, cardinality and mathematical principles.
The four cardinal directions help create the axis of a Hindu temple, around which is formed a perfect square in the space available. The circle of mandala circumscribes the square. The square is considered divine for its perfection and as a symbolic product of knowledge and human thought, while circle is considered earthly, human and observed in everyday life (moon, sun, horizon, water drop, rainbow). Each supports the other. The square is divided into perfect square grids. In large temples, this is often a 8×8 or 64 grid structure. In ceremonial temple superstructures, this is an 81 sub-square grid. The squares are called ‘‘padas’’. The square is symbolic and has Vedic origins from fire altar, Agni. The alignment along cardinal direction, similarly is an extension of Vedic rituals of three fires. This symbolism is also found among Greek and other ancient civilizations, through the gnomon. In Hindu temple manuals, design plans are described with 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, 81 up to 1024 squares; 1 pada is considered the simplest plan, as a seat for a hermit or devotee to sit and meditate on, do yoga, or make offerings with Vedic fire in front. The second design of 4 padas has a symbolic central core at the diagonal intersection, and is also a meditative layout. The 9 pada design has a sacred surrounded center, and is the template for the smallest temple. Older Hindu temple vastumandalas may use the 9 through 49 pada series, but 64 is considered the most sacred geometric grid in Hindu temples. It is also called Manduka, Bhekapada or Ajira in various ancient Sanskrit texts. Each pada is conceptually assigned to a symbolic element, sometimes in the form of a deity or to a spirit or apasara. The central square(s) of the 64 is dedicated to the Brahman (not to be confused with Brahmin), and are called Brahma padas.
In a Hindu temple’s structure of symmetry and concentric squares, each concentric layer has significance. The outermost layer, Paisachika padas, signify aspects of Asuras and evil; the next inner concentric layer is Manusha padas signifying human life; while Devika padas signify aspects of Devas and good. The Manusha padas typically houses the ambulatory. The devotees, as they walk around in clockwise fashion through this ambulatory to complete Parikrama (or Pradakshina), walk between good on inner side and evil on the outer side. In smaller temples, the Paisachika pada is not part of the temple superstructure, but may be on the boundary of the temple or just symbolically represented.
The Paisachika padas, Manusha padas and Devika padas surround Brahma padas, which signifies creative energy and serves as the location for temple’s primary idol for darsana. Finally at the very center of Brahma padas is Garbhagruha(Garbha– Centre, gruha– house; literally the center of the house) (Purusa Space), signifying Universal Principle present in everything and everyone. The spire of a Hindu temple, called Shikhara in north India and Vimana in south India, is perfectly aligned above the Brahma pada(s).
Beneath the mandala’s central square(s) is the space for the formless shapeless all pervasive all connecting Universal Spirit, the Purusha. This space is sometimes referred to as garbha-griya(literally womb house) – a small, perfect square, windowless, enclosed space without ornamentation that represents universal essence. In or near this space is typically a murti. This is the main deity image, and this varies with each temple. Often it is this idol that gives it a local name, such as Vishnu temple, Krishna temple, Rama temple, Narayana temple, Siva temple, Lakshmi temple, Ganesha temple, Durga temple, Hanuman temple, Surya temple, and others. It is this garbha-griya which devotees seek for ‘‘darsana’’ (literally, a sight of knowledge, or vision).