Besides serving as centres of worship in ancient India, they gradually became the symbols of authority, status, political power and social influence
The temple in India originated as a place of worship or a cult centre, in the centuries immediately before and after the beginning of the Christian era. It was systematically built up as an institution, an innovative focus for all human activities-social, economic and cultural-and as a symbol of power by the ruling dynasties from the 4th century. The place where the deity was enshrined thus became a major concern for all aspirants to power. Hence, the art of building temples and carving images was promoted. For the upkeep of the place of worship, the temple, special provisions were made such as grants of land, cattle and gold by the rulers, to legitimise their sovereignty. Gift-giving also became the only means to acquire status in society for the land-holding elite, the merchant, the craftsmen and others in an ordered hierarchy.
In the early period of Indian history, the ritual of yajna (sacrifice) had a specific socio-cultural and economic context-that of a pastoral tribal society in the Vedic period (1500-600 BC), in which distribution of wealth through patronage and reciprocal acknowledgement of power was dominant. Dana or gift replaced yajna as an institutional means of exchange and distribution of wealth (land in particular) in the post-Vedic period (6th century BC onwards), and more intensively in the early historical period (3rd century BC to 3rd century AD) through institutions such as the Buddhist monastery and guild in a changing social and economic context dominated by trade and commercial activities. By the 4th century, the decline in the trading economy and the beginnings of a land-grant system brought about a major change in the socio-economic organisation, with new institutional forces and the crystallisation of a stratified agrarian society in the early medieval period (6th to 13th century AD). Puranic religion introduced the temple as the superordinate institutional means, both as a centre for worship and as an innovative focus of socio-economic and political integration during this period.
The institutionalisation of the temple dates from the Gupta period, when land grants (brahmadeya) to Brahmanas and religious institutions, including the Buddhist and Jain, began systematically. Land grants to Buddhist organisations are known from even before the beginning of the Christian era, but it was the recording of the grants to Brahamanas, from the Gupta period, on copper plates and stone temples, with various privileges to the donees, that marks the process of institutionalisation. The ruling elite followed the principles laid down in the Dharma Sastra (prescriptive code for social, political, economic and religious life) and other normative texts as also the Artha Sastra (codes for economy and polity), which recommend the extension of agricultural activities and the colonisation of new areas or hitherto uncultivated areas through such grants, by settling various occupational and ethnic groups, clearing forests, extending cultivation-the managerial functions invariably assigned to the Brahmanas.
Thus a conscious attempt to integrate different kinds of human settlements into a systemic organisation through agrarian expansion was made by the ruling elite, with the ideological support of the Brahmanical priests. The temple lands thus granted were cultivated by tenants and sharecroppers and other service groups in a lord-servant relationship, often in the form of a feudal organisation. Land-owning elite like the Brahmana priests, ritual specialists and high-caste non-Brahmanas administered temple lands on behalf of the temple, and committees were nominated to look after the various economic and ritual activities of the temple. The temple was the major consumer of articles of everyday use and also luxury items like silk, gold and precious jewels for the deities. Royal patronage provided the resources both as an act of legitimisation of their sovereignty and territorial authority and also for the promotion of agricultural and commercial activities. Temple service thus became the only means of ensuring a place in society for many of the non-land-owning and dependent rural and urban population.
Temples were repositories of inscriptional records registering endowments of various kinds. Grants for oil and ghee (clarified butter) for lamps, and offerings and other rituals were made to it in the form of cattle, to ensure a continuous supply of such items. These were ostensibly meant as gifts for the merit of the donor but were of economic significance for the pastoralists who were thus integrated into temple society and economy. Such grants were redistributed among the cowherds and shepherds, who were entrusted with the responsibility of supplying the required milk products to the temples.
Oil mongers as producers of oil for the temple lamps and other purposes, weavers supplying cloth, metal workers and all occupational groups providing for the rituals and other requirements of the temple, and local merchants and itinerant traders procuring consumable items like incense, camphor, aromatic wood for ritual and luxury items like precious stones and perfumery from distant lands, were the other groups brought into the orbit of temple society.
Land grants were similarly entrusted to the local assemblies of Brahmanas and the agricultural elite, who redistributed the land among tenant-cultivators to supply agricultural produce to the temple. From the 6th century, this process ushered in a systematic integration of pastoral and agricultural groups who had hitherto lived in settlements of a subsistence-level economy into a new agrarian organisation in which surplus production for the temple and land-owning elite became the basis for socio-economic relations.
This is true of practically the whole of India, but a complete picture of the pivotal role of the temple is available in the rich south Indian inscriptional records, which are numerous. In regions of commercial importance, and for long-distance trade carried on by itinerant traders, the temple again provided the institutional focus, acting not only as the recipient of gifts from traders but also often as a bank with gold and money deposits, by investing them in the production of goods of daily consumption and procurement of luxury items.
These were often under the control of the local elite, the influential Brahmanas, and non-Brahmanas, who acted as executives and administrators through their assemblies called sabhas, urs, and nagarams. Under powerful regional kingdoms like these of the Cholas, they were more directly supervised by royal functionaries, who audited temple accounts, checked income and expenditure, misappropriation or failure to execute grants and sometimes also re-allocated resources.
The economic outreach of the temple, especially of those in royal and sacred centres, was impressive. Temples had educational institutions attached to them, where Vedic and Sastric knowledge was imparted by scholars well-versed in Sanskrit and vernacular traditions, depending upon the nature of royal and elite patronage. They also received grants for the maintenance of hospitals, where the science of medicine was taught and practised.
Leaders of different religious communities had their mathas located either within the temple precincts or in its immediate vicinity, as they came to exercise control over the temple’s enormous resources in important religious centres, and fostered community consciousness among the followers of different religions, including the so-called ‘heretical’ Jainism, which also adopted the temple as its central institution.
The temple played the most significant role in the societal change that accompanied the economic restructuring of the early medieval period. Land grants were given to the Brahmanas, who were learned scholars and teachers and comprised the highest rank among the Brahmana caste, both for their scholarly pursuits and purity.
The temple priests, who were also Brahmanas, but with a lower rank in society, next to the scholarly Brahmanas, were similarly assigned lands in lieu of payment for their services in the temple (for conducting worship and other rituals), which in turn came to be shared between the priests and the cultivators entrusted with production.
Dancers, musicians and other functionaries attached to the temple were given lands and houses for their services. Menial servants were paid wages again in the form of food grains or other consumable items, depending on the importance of their service and rank in the hierarchy. Thus, a very complex system of resource mobilisation and redistribution through the temple as the major institutional force developed and continued till the 17th -18th centuries.
The priestly order and the ruling families stood at the apex of this caste hierarchy, reinforced, in a way, by the temple organisation. Other temple service personnel and elite groups in an agrarian and an urban context were assigned ritually lower ranks, followed by crafts groups and menial service groups who were assigned to the periphery. Such an organisation is also reflected in the morphology of a settlement or place, rural and urban, with the temple as the nucleus surrounded by a horizontal segregation of the different quarters where these social groups lived, the ritually higher in the centre, the ritually lower in the immediate surroundings, and the ritually impure (untouchables) on the outskirts of the village or city.
The priests were divided into hierarchical groups for various ceremonies and services. The main priests had to undergo a long and arduous process of diksha or initiation before they were admitted to the inner sanctuary to perform rituals. This was common to all priests, but was specially conspicuous in canonised temples like Chidambaram, which set a model for all Siva temples in south India. Priestly and other services tended to become hereditary as the rights of performing puja were handed down from one generation to another in the families of the priests as kani (rights of enjoyment).
Other Brahmana ritual specialists (each known by the name associated with his/ her service) had various duties assigned to them, like the lighting of lamps, bringing water for abhisheka, and flowers for offerings, and the preparing of food to be later distributed as prasada among the devotees. It was in the distribution of the prasada that the stratified ritual ranks of various groups was observed. The higher castes like the Brahmanas and the royal families were served first and the residue was given to the lower castes.
The non-Brahmana staff, some of whose services were required mainly at festival periods, consisted of musicians, dancers, singers, masters of ceremony, carpenters, potters, washermen, garland-makers, palanquin-bearers, administrators, guards and cleaners. This led to the multiplication of castes among temple servants, including the devadasis who were dancers and singers.
The temple thus stood at the centre, creating physical and active space for every aspect of life in the early and medieval periods of Indian history. Above all, it was a symbol of authority, status, political power and social influence.
However, in the colonial period and post-independence era, the political, economic and social role of the temple decreased in importance due to the changing economic conditions and sources of power brought in by the advance in science and technology, and by the industrial and capitalist instruments of change.
The temple retained its role as a centre of worship and pilgrimage, while its enormous lands and other properties came to be entrusted to important people (trustees) of its locality, under the strict control of government bodies such as the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Board.