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Classical Dance and Temple Architecture

A study to look at the relationship between dance and architecture as well as integrate theoretical questions with practice based research and explore its relevance to contemporary architectural work.

Project aims

The project had three main aims:

  • To explore the relationship between dance and architecture, two disciplines which deal with space in ways which are analogical and complementary, taking the Hindu temple and Indian classical dance as a starting point for the comparison.
  • To integrate theoretical questions with practice based research, providing a basis for charting an alternative, interactive account of historic Hindu architecture, moving away from assumptions of space as contained and bound.
  • To make this exploration of relevance to contemporary architectural work which serves and satisfies the socio-cultural needs of a South Asian diasporic community in its search for different, identity-defining spatialities.


The exploration took place in combined dance and architectural workshops, and seminar discussions, culminating in an exhibition at De Montfort University in March 2003, which included:

  • drawings
  • clay models
  • a computer animation accompanied by a music score composed by mridangist Balachander
  • video recordings of dance workshops led by Vena Ramphal in collaboration with Dr Lopez and Jhilmil Kishore
  • video recordings of seminar sessions.

Composition in Hindu architecture

The research team began by considering composition. The compositional elements of Hindu architecture are in the form of shrine-images or aedicules, conceived three dimensionally and as if embedded in the body of the temple. An analogy was drawn between the aedicule and the karana, described in the Natyasastra (a sanskrit canonical text on dance music and drama) as a unit of dance movement.

In either art form the basic components are grouped into larger wholes within the overall composition. In dance the larger groupings of karanas are the angaharas, movement sequences composed of three or more karanas.

If the temple is thought of as an entire dance, then the architectural equivalents of angaharas are the architectural sub-groupings of elements within the composition. Clusterings of this kind can be seen in the composite temple forms, above the scale of the individual aedicules, created within the overall matrix.

It is in the patterns of movement expressed by Hindu temple architecture that the connection with the human body can most palpably be experienced. Discussion of movement in architecture seems usually to be about people moving through buildings - performing rituals, or simply experiencing.

Links between dance and architecture tend to be seen from this perspective, focusing on buildings as the spatial setting for dance, and on dance movements in relation to this setting. Discussion of architectural rhythm tends to relate to the movement of the eye and mind over or through the architecture. This is more analogous to music than dance, though approaching dance when the actual or imagined bodily experience of such rhythm is considered.

There is ample scope to explore Hindu temple architecture in these ways, given the long tradition of dance in ritual contexts; not to mention the sculptural depiction of dancers on temple walls, that has already given rise to a body of scholarship. However, the ways in which architecture can actually represent movement have never been explored in relation to dance.

One obvious parallel is the concept, in both art forms, of movement as originating at a single point, and relating to a vertical axis. In the tradition of dance the point of origin is the navel conceived as the mid-point of a circular mandala, positioned frontally and vertically, divided into four quarters by vertical and horizontal axes passing through the navel. The navel area also corresponds to a cakra, which emphasises its potency.

In a Hindu temple the underlying axiality is strikingly similar to this, but at the same time quite different. Here the mandala is both horizontal, aligned with the four cardinal directions, and three-dimensional, with a central, vertical axis rising to the point at the summit. Movement is expressed as progressing downwards from this point, and outwards from the vertical axis, all the way down its length, predominantly towards the cardinal points.

It is in these directions that the aedicular components are made to appear to proliferate, to emerge and expand out from the body of the shrine, and out from one another, as interpenetrating elements differentiate themselves and come apart. As the forms are conceived as three-dimensional and embedded, the rhythm is an accelerating pulse from within, not simply a ripple across the surface.

This pattern of growth (and simultaneous dissolution) is conveyed through clearly identifiable and mutually reinforcing architectural means:

  • projection
  • staggering (multiple projection)
  • splitting
  • bursting of boundaries
  • progressive multiplication
  • expanding repetition.

The dynamism is conceptual, but also often illusionistic, almost cinematic. Just as the idea of the aedicule, the little god-house, is very concrete, human and graspable, so the dynamic structure of the relationships between the aedicules is, once seen, eminently human and best explained through bodily gestures.

In a literal sense the architectural elements of a temple composition are arranged statically in space, their positions and interrelationships fixed in stone. Thus at first sight a temple design seems the opposite of dance, where poses are momentary instances in a continuum, linked in the memory through a sequence of movements.

The overall structure of the dance, conceived in terms of the body, can be held only in the mind. But temple architecture, conceptually, also has a temporal structure, of which a given spatial arrangement is a momentary glimpse, or rather a succession of such glimpses. A series of elements, or of configurations of elements, is sensed not as a chain of separate entities, but as the same thing seen several times, at different stages, evolving and proliferating.

Project lead

Professor Adam Hardy

Professor Adam Hardy

Emeritus Professor

+44 (0)29 2087 5982


Alessandra Lopez Y Royo, 'Embodying a Site: Choreographing Parambanan', in Journal of Material Culture, Vol. 10(1): 31-48, 2005, pp. 31-48.


This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.