Ancient temples – home to demigods and celestial beings

Ancient temples – Tales of ancient society sculpted in stone

The ancient temples of India are no less than a history book. The intricate stone carving and sculptures tell us about the social customs that existed a thousand or more years ago. E.g., the weddings and festivals, the clothes and jewelry worn by common people and royals in that period, the weapons and animals used in battles; and even the musical instruments used in those days.

They also give us glimpses of the deep spiritual thoughts the society was guided by, and the philosophical concepts which were expressed through the sculptures. The precise geometry, the incredible architecture and the engineering precision that went into the creation of these temples is legion. However, the sculptures and their placements, the Gods and demigods that are placed in accordance with the scriptures, and the seamless placement of the human society and the celestial beings together, one in complete harmony with the other, makes these temples come alive with new meaning. The Gods and demigods become one with us, they are revered and yet they find themselves in the midst of society…as if they are both to be revered and loved; they become one with us and are kin. Friezes and panels combine to bring forth this beauty, each figure meticulously crafted in accordance with sculpting ratios that give a wonderful life-like quality to all the sculptures.

Demi gods, Deities, and Celestial beings

The exteriors and interiors of our ancient temples are filled with stone carving of mesmerizing figures. While some are important Gods and goddesses like Brahma, Vishnu, Shiv, Parvati and Lakshmi, there are demigods and other characters from our puranas as well. Though they are found in almost all temples, often we do not know much about them. Here I have tried to describe a few of them as I learnt from my past temple trips.


A celestial figure on the top of the outer wall or pillar of the temple. Quite a common sight in all temples; as if they are lifting the entire temple structure or carrying the entire weight of the structure on their shoulders. They are also known as Bhara-rakshakas or gana.



Shardul is a mythical creature. It has the body of a lion and head of a horse or sometimes an elephant. In some of the sculptures, Shardul is seen fighting with a man. He is considered to be the protector of the temple. For this reason, the sculpture of Shardul is a common sight on the exterior walls of temples.

Ashta Dikapal 

The Ashta Dikapal are the guardians of the temples from all eight sides or directions. They are Indra (guarding East) , Agni (South East), Yama(South), Nirriti (South West), Varuna (West) , Vayu (North West), Kuber  (North) and Ishaan (North East) . Each sculpture has a unique feature through which the particular dikapal can be identified. E.g. Agni can be recognized from the knot in his beard. Yama has vulture in one hand and skull in the other hand. Kuber, the god of wealth can be seen having a big belly and a pot in hand. Sometimes he can be seen with a mongoose. Ishaan is the ‘shant-roop’ or Calm-form of Shiv.



Ashta Vasu

Ashta Vasu are celestial beings representing eight elements of nature. They are bull-headed deities, often seen along with Ashta Dikapalas.



Apsara, Gandharva and Vidhyadhara are the celestial beings from the court of Indra.

Apsara’s are an essential part of temple sculpture in India. Apsara’s are very often seen on the exteriors of the temple. Enchanting beauties, they are also known as Sura Sundari, Alas Kanya or Shalabhanjika. These graceful yet sensuous beauties are sometimes seen as looking into the mirror, applying Kajal in their eyes, writing letters to their beloved, or just standing in a leisurely manner. The clothes and jewellery worn by them give a fair idea about the way women dressed in those days. Many times, they are seen dancing or playing some musical instruments. It tells us how ancient our musical instrument or dance forms are.





Vidyadharas are celestial beings with wings. The flying Vidyadharas are normally seen on the arches of the temple entrance.


Sapta Matrika

A group of seven Matrika (mothers) or goddesses representing the seven forms of Shakti.

Ganga and Yamuna 

Depiction of river goddess Ganga and Yamuna are normally found on two side of the doors of the main temple. Ganga can be identified by the swan and Yamuna by the turtle on her side.



Varaha is the 3rd avatara or incarnation of lord Vishnu. It is said that Varaha saved the earth or Prithvi from drowning by lifting it on his tusks. For this he had to enter the Patal lok ruled by king Shesh Nag.



Ardha Narishwar 

Ardha Narishwara is the combination of Shiv and Shakti.  Lord Shiv can be identified from his Trishul. He can be seen sitting in Lalit asana, with Abhaya mudra. The goddess is holding a mirror and a water vessel.


Naga Kanya, Naga Nagini stambh

The Naga’s are a combination of human and serpent. They have an upper body like a human and a lower body of a serpent.  The Naga and Nagini can be identified from their five hooded snake head. They are normally seen on the pillars of the temple. They are the residents of Naga lok or Patal lok, the mystical kingdom under the sea.





Gaja Simha statues are found near the entrance of the temples. The lion is seen to have overpowered the elephant. The lion represents might and the elephant wealth. This statue depicts the royal might over the material wealth.







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