How and when the first temple took its birth is anybody’s guess. Temples do not seem to have existed during the Vedic age. The practice of preparing images of the deities mentioned in the Vedic mantras might have come into vogue by the end of the Vedic period. The view that the yagasala of the Vedic period gradually got metamorphosed into temples by the epic period owing to the influence of the cults of devotion is widely accepted.
The earliest temples were built with perishable materials like timber and clay. Cave-temples, temples carved out of the stone or built with bricks came later. Heavy stone structures with ornate architecture and sculpture belong to a still later period.
Considering the vast size of this country, is is remarkable that the building of temple has progressed more or less on a set pattern. This is because there is a basic philosophy behind the temple, its meaning and significance, which will be explained later.
In spite of the basic pattern being the same, varieties did appear, gradually leading to the evolution of different styles in temple architecture. Broadly speaking, these can be bifurcated into the northern and the southern styles.
The northern style, technically called nagara, is distinguished by the curvilinear towers.
The southern style, known as the dravida, has its towers in the form of truncated pyramids.
A third style, vesara by name, is sometimes added, which combines in itself both these styles.
The earliest temples in north and central India which have withstood the vagaries of time belong to the Gupta period, 320-650 A. D. Mention may be meda of the temples at Sanchi, Tigawa (near Jabbalpur in Madhya Pradesh), Bhumara (in Madhya Pradesh), Nachna (Rajasthan) and Deogarh (near Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh).
Among the earliest surviving temples in South India are found in Tamil Nadu and northern Karnataka. The cradle of Dravidan school of architecture was the Tamil country which evolved from the earliest Buddhist shrines which were both rock-cut and structural.
The later rock-cut temples which belong roughly to the period 500-800 A.D. were mostly Brahmanical or Jain, patronised by three great ruling dynasties of the south, namely the Pallavas of Kanchi in the east, the Calukyas of Badami in the 8th century A.D, the Rastrakutas of Malkhed came to power and they made great contributions to the development of south Indian temple architecture.The Kailasanatha temple at Ellora belongs to this period.
In the 7th –8th Centuries AD, Kondavidu chiefs ruled over a large part of eastern Deccan. Bhairavakonda near Nellore has remains of several rock cut Hindu temples dedicated to God Shiva and other Hindu deities. The shrines have Lingas and also small images of Shiva and other gods. The column bases have seated lions and the entrances are guarded by huge figures with clubs. Monuments in Bhairavakonda are similar to the Pallava style of architecture that flourished further south in Tamilnadu.
Undavalli, (near Vijayawada)
Like Bhairavakonda, Undavalli is also a 7th – 8th century, Kondavidu site with rock cut Hindu temples. The largest among the temples is four storeyed in height; each successive upper storey being recessed from the lower one. Projected eaves separate the floors from each other. Parapets at upper levels are lined with large lions and other figures. There are four shrines in four interconnected mandapas. Columns and walls have images of Vishnu in Anantashayana and Vishnu on Garuda sculpted on them.