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  The temple is perhaps most simply defined as a building erected for the purpose of ritual or worship of the divine. Such buildings are a feature of the built environment of most developed societies. The Latin word, templum, from which the word derives, originally signified a staked out piece of land which belonged to the people or the deity and was used for the reading of the stars; use of the term to include structures built for religious purposes came later.

In most cultures, the temple appears to have been treated as the dwelling place of the deity, and the character and style of the architecture reflected his or her importance. The ‘house’ would resemble a palace, and the activities of the priests were modelled on those of a royal household. The presence of the deity was often signified, as in for example Hindu temples, by images or symbols, secluded by a structural barrier in what might be called a ‘sanctuary’.

The significance of a temple site was often by association with the real or supposed history of the deity. The great Buddhist centres, for example, were constructed on sites that had been significant in the life of the Buddha. In the Christian religion, shrines and churches were often on the sites of miraculous events. In early aboriginal nomadic tribes tents would be pitched around a pole which was treated as the sacred centre of the settlement, and in the pueblo architecture of Mesa Verde in North America, a subterranean room was carved out for the purpose of ritual under the centre of the grouping of mud huts which constituted the pueblo itself: the deity\'s ‘home’ thus, literally, underlay the homes of his or her worshippers, and was part of the settlement.

The form, design and layout of temples was influenced by the rituals performed, by the nature of the acts of worship and their inclusion or exclusion of the secular. The form of the temple was also often influenced by other matters of belief, and was symbolic in origin; Christian churches, similarly, were cross-shaped.

In many cultures, temple architecture has had an enormous influence over secular architecture. The temple style of ancient classical Europe, for example, has significance beyond its contemporary religion as it became the focus in later centuries for revivalists of classical prototypes who regarded the colonnaded temple as in some ways the archetype of good architecture. In certain ways, Buddhist temple styles in Asia, Hindu temple styles in India, and the style of Shinto shrines in Japan, all had their influence on secular architecture, and gave a distinctive vernacular style first to grand buildings in public places, and then to the more domestic houses and work-places which drew on their styles. JM

Further reading G. van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: the Holy in Art.



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