In the realm of Dharma, it is the place to perform Acaras (customs, ceremonies, rituals, celebrations) like Namakarana (naming ceremony), aksharabhyasa (initiation ceremony where a child learns to write alphabets), vivaha (wedding), and so on. These ceremonies are part of the individual discharging his/her Dharmic duties. In the realm of the community, the Devalaya is the place for conducting mass marriages, Utsavas, Jatras, Annadanam, and other such celebrations. Indeed, not too long ago, the Devalaya was also the place where justice was dispensed as seen even today in Dharmasthala in Karnataka.
On the plane of the Adhidaivika (divine, spiritual), we can consider the Deity of Vastushastra, Lord Viswakarma. His nine sons including Malakara, Darukara, Kuvindaka, Kumbhakara, Sutradharaand others represent the respective professions of garland-maker, carpenter, weaver, potter, and sculptor. These apart, we also have the farmer, chef, runner (or messenger), singer, artisan and accountant among others. In other words, we do not fail to notice in these instances, how these professions are sanctified by making them the descendants of a particular Deity. Every profession had its rightful place and every professional could make a living through honest labour. Needless, from this, it is equally clear how all of these professions make up an entire economic system spawned and supported solely by a temple.
It is precisely this that we observe in every temple town across Bharatavarsha: Kashi, Mathura, Kanchi, Chidambaram, Tirumala-Tirupati, Madurai, Palani, Pandarapura, Badirnath, and Puri. We can also consider a tangential facet here: any Daana (donation, endowment, gift) given to a temple became what’s known as Devasva (from which the word “Devaswom” is derived) or the property of the Deity over which nobody (including the donor and the king) had the right. This in a way illustrates how well-thought-out the system of checks and balances that were implemented. Dr. S Srikanta Sastri explains[iv] the various facets of the Devalaya Ecosystem quite picturesquely in a passage that merits quoting at length:
…temples occupied a prominent place from the perspective of education, fine arts, [reflected the] economic condition [of the kingdom] and social service.
Thus, people had a firm belief and faith in the pious act of donating to temples. [Donors included] everybody from the monarch to the most ordinary citizen…temples were governed and maintained by a duly elected board. They distributed money, food grain, and seeds to farmers from the Deity’s Treasury…[temples] were also engaged in moneylending…temples conducted various celebrations like Pakshotsava [fortnightly utsavas], Maasotsava [monthly utsavas], Brahmotsava, and oversaw the distribution of the harvest derived from temple lands.
Theatre and dance halls organized dramas during Utsava days in both Sanskrit and Desha Bhashas. Music and dance recitals offered as Seva for the Deity immensely enriched art forms like classical music, Bharatanatyam, and Vastushilpa [sculpture art]. Moral and spiritual discourses by learned scholars, Yatis, and such other eminences were drawn from the Vedic and Puranic lore thereby instilling and reinforcing Dharma among the pilgrims and others who visited the temple.
There were also lecture halls for imparting higher education in Veda, Vedanga, Medicine and other subjects by teachers and scholars employed by the temple. Students were given free scholarship and boarding and lodging…
Massive temples were secure like fortresses and contained an abundance of food grain, water and other supplies and provided shelter to refugees during wartime…Because Hindu kings regarded temples as sacred spaces, they deferred harming or despoiling them even slightly even if this caution meant certain defeat in war….
Temples in island nations like Java, Bali, Sumatra, Burma and Cambodia were built following the ideals, ideals and physical plan of various Indian temples.
As with most facets of our culture and society, temples also show a remarkable sense of unbroken continuity and cultural unity in that they are still a living memory. The majestic Somanatha Devalaya that was rebuilt in 1951 is a superb testimony to this inherited knowledge-heritage, traditions, and rituals which were preserved intact even after hundreds of years of repeated destruction and alien rule of Bharatavarsha. Similarly, many of the ancient temple towns that have also survived brutal shocks but still continue to thrive also echo the same.
Art forms such as Natyamelas, Harikata, Yakshagana, Kudiyattam, and Kathakali are the direct offshoots of this same, sprawling Devalaya Ecosystem. For centuries, these art forms became the immensely popular and excellent vehicles for transmitting a towering, beautiful, and sublime culture. One can refer to Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma’s evocative and vividly descriptive essays to glean valuable details and insights about the contribution of the Devalaya Ecosystems especially during the Vijayanagara Era.
[i] Devalayatattva: Pg 166: Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh
[ii] Bharateeya Samskruti: Pg 171: Dr. S Srikanta Sastri
[iii] Other excellent works include Prof S K Ramachandra Rao’s Indian Temple Traditions, Stella Kramrisch’s The Hindu Temple (in two volumes),and Ananda K Coomaraswamy’s writings on Indian art and sculpture.
[iv] Ibid: PP 171–72