Since the dawn of civilization, humans have felt compelled to raise structures to their gods. Before this, they modified things in nature and worshipped Mother Earth. This chain of events explains the development of votive structures. Starting with simple offerings placed in nature, places of worship evolved into small shrines, then large stone structures and finally the elaborate temple and church structures that you see all over the planet today.
Temples usually perform a few primary functions. They are places to give offerings and make sacrifices. This can be done in anything from a small shrine, such as a Thai spirit house, to a large set of buildings; what we usually think of as temples. Their role can often be as a place to perform rituals and ceremonies. Most temples around the world have some kind of rites performed within or on top of them.
Ancients often looked to the skies and believed their gods resided there. This resulted in many interesting developments in the religious structures designed by our ancestors. The daytime brought the sun and most ancient people worshipped it in some way. The Egyptians saw it as Ra, the sun god and the Inca tried to emulate it with gold costumes. The Inca also constructed Intihuatana (sun calendars) to predict the coming and going of the seasons. This can also be seen in England and the stone circles of ancient druids like Stonehenge were used to predict and then celebrate equinoxes and solstices.
Ancients didn’t stop at the sun; lunar and stellar movements were very significant to many civilizations. The Pyramids of Giza are reputed to have been built in alignment with the stars on Orion’s Belt. Orion represented their god Osiris and the position of the stars to the Milky Way is emulated with the pyramids in relation to the Nile. It is as if they were trying to create a heaven on earth. The Maya studiously marked the movement of the stars and they built observatories so they could follow the stellar motion. The Mesoamericans were generally interested in stars and planets, particularly Venus as it was associated with their god Quetzalcoatl. The Temple of the Morning Star at Tula, for example, is dedicated to an aspect of Quetzalcoatl, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the personification of Venus as the morning star.
As the gods lived in the heavens, places that were closer to the gods would have been considered as sacred. The closer to the stars, sun and moon you could get, the more significant you could become. Towers have this function, but so do many other structures. Biblically, the Tower of Babel served this purpose and so offended God, that he destroyed it so that people could not get too close to him.
Mountains have a universal spiritual appeal. In mythologies from around the world people seek wisdom and holiness on the mountain tops. In Exodus, Moses comes down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments. This association with closeness to the gods and the idea of becoming godlike is common in many cultures. In Chinese tradition, immortals learned immortality in the mountains. The Chinese word 仙 (xian) is made up of the character ren (people) and shan (mountain) and means an enlightened one in Taoism; an immortal. 山 shan is the nature element of a ba gua (eight diagrams) diagram. In Japan, mountains are seen as mystical abodes.
The ancient Greeks believed that their gods lived on Mount Olympus. Clearly, mountains have an important place in spirituality. Some early temple structures sought to emulate these magnificent natural wonders. In Egypt and the Americas pyramids were constructed. The Mesopotamians built ziggurats and the Khmers built mountain temples that are strikingly pyramidal. Chedis and prangs in southeast Asia are representations of mount Sumeru, the mountain that is in the centre of the Buddhist universe. The Hindu towers represent Mahameru, home of the gods and Shiva’s abode Kailash. In building a mountain-like temple, you are bringing the mountain to the people and allowing them to feel a heartfelt connection to the gods.
The huacas of the Lima people of Peru and the pyramids of the Toltecs and Aztecs of Mexico, were a powerful symbol of authority. Atop them human sacrifices would have been performed to please and appease their gods, particularly at the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. The heart cut out of the chest with an obsidian knife and raised to the sky as rivers of blood flowed down the man-made mountain to mix with the earth below. Both the pyramid and the looming presence of the volcano Popocatepetl would have been a stiff reminder to people of their place in the universe. This idea can be seen in Indonesia, where people have always lived under the fearsome sleeping volcanoes. Always ready to erupt at any moment, their power was realized by the Indonesians and on Java, the temples of Candi Sukuh and Candi Cetho are built on the volcano of Gunung Lawu. Perhaps they hoped to appease the volcano, or maybe they wished to harness some of its primeval power.
Caves have always been seen as mysterious and spiritual. They are a gateway to the underworld; a portal into the very earth itself. Many cultures believe that creatures live in caves. The ancient Scandinavian people thought that trolls and goblins lived in the caves and mountains. In the Middle-East, Djinn (genies) live in caves and in some Christian traditions Jesus Christ was born in a cave rather than a barn. Offerings would have been left in caves for primordial gods and turning caves into grottoes would have been a natural progression. The cave grottoes in China, such as at Longmen or Yungang are superb examples of Buddhist caves. In India the cave temples of Ajanta and Karla are intricately carved out of the rock itself. In Bagan in Myanmar, artificial cave temples were created to emulate the contemplative nature of caves. From here it is easy to see how the large temple mountain structures became chambers inside of the guphaya temple mountains.
Having lived in trees for 60 million years of our existence, we have a shared memory of the safety, sanctuary and nourishment they provided our more ape-like ancestors. It is only natural then that trees are sacred to humans. Myths abound with world trees and magical trees. In Southeast and East Asia, you will often see trees that have been bedecked in ribbons and offerings. It is believed that spirits live within the tree and that those beings can help out humans in need. A Shinto temple in Japan will often have shrines built next to or around shinboku (divine trees) that contain spirits. A Buddhist temple is not complete in Southeast Asia unless it has a Bodhi tree, as it was under such a tree that Buddha gained enlightenment. The ancient Greeks took it a step further. Groves were always important in their religion and forest creatures such as satyrs and dryads lived side by side with gods in the sacred woods. The temenos (Greek temple) is a representation of the grove. Meaning sacred precinct, the columns are the very trees themselves. Entering a structure such as the Parthenon in Athens, it does not take much imagination to see through the eyes of the architects and artist Kallikratēs, Iktinos and Phidias who designed it.
The Greeks saw the temple as a house of the god it honoured. Stepping into the temenos, you would have been brought into the very presence of the actual god. This tradition can also be seen in the earlier Egyptian civilization. Their temples were mansions of the gods, and the gods were thought to reside within them. This tradition of housing a god is almost entirely universal and followers of many religions consider themselves to be in the house of the god. What is a cathedral, but a palace to God? Christians refer to a church as the ‘house of God’. It is a place to find sanctuary and ask God for forgiveness and help.
Of the Aramaic religions, Christianity is the only one to see their temple as a house of God. To the Muslims, the masjid (mosque) is ‘the place for kneeling’ to Allah (God). It is not seen as housing the spirit of God, but rather as a place from which you can show your respect towards him. Jewish Bet Knesset (Synagogues) are ‘houses of meeting’. They are seen as a place for discourse and talk. This reflects the scholarly and philosophical roots of the Jewish faith and demonstrates how their religion encourages discussion.
The Buddhist temples of Asia are built in order to create an environment to inspire peace and contemplation; fundamental aspects of the faith. The similarly philosophical Taoism in China has a corresponding attitude to their temples. A daoguan (Taoist temple) is a ‘place of contemplation of the Tao’. Much like in Judaism, the idea of looking at things for yourself is a prized ideal. As Buddha once said, ‘doubt everything, find your own light’.
China is also home to several religious systems, but their folk religion (Shenism) not only worships immortals (xian), but also ancestors. Their temples are called miao (ancestral halls) and are used to pay homage to generations past. The number of joss sticks that are found burning in them gave rise to the English name for them; Joss House. Confucianism too has ancestral halls and promotes the reverence of past generations. This, in many ways is the most ancient religious concept. Across the ancient settlements of Europe, the Americas, Africa, Oceania and Asia, people gave offerings to their ancestors.
Göbekli Tepe is generally considered to be the most extant ancient temple site. Built by settled people who performed animal husbandry and agricultural practices, the circular Neolithic religious structures feature t-shaped pillars, ferocious animal imagery and anthropomorphic humanoids. The evidence suggests that sky burial and ancestor worship was conducted there along with nature worship. The site was home to shamanistic rites and the origins can be traced to around 11,000 BC. The site may possibly be a precursor to the Sumerian religion of Mesapotamia.
The multitude of reasons for temple construction are what have given us our rich and diverse cultural and spiritual heritage. All around the globe, regardless of religion, denomination, race or creed, people have felt duty-bound to build in order to honour their gods. It is something that unites us all. Despite philosophical differences, humans have a basic need to try to reach for something more and find a deeper meaning in, what to many, may seem mundane. We need to believe that there is something more and then demonstrate that to whatever it is we believe in.