A Hindu temple is a structure where sculptures abound on the outer wall surfaces, in the various halls or mandapas, on pillars, ceilings, and also on the shikharas/vimanas. However, such profusion of carvings end abruptly as one crosses the threshold of the sanctum, and enters it. The sanctum or garbhagriha, also known as prasada, is a dark, cuboidal chamber inside the temple, and remains deprived of any artwork, except for the murti of the presiding deity or a symbol of the deity. As a bhakta enters the temple with his mind focused on viewing the deity installed inside the prasada, he too becomes a part of the architecture as he stands to gaze or pay obeisance to the various sculptures spread across the mandapas that guide him slowly towards the garbhagriha. These exquisite carvings come to an abrupt halt at the doorway to the prasada, and the bhakta sees them for the last time crowding the door jambs, the dwara sakhas, and lintels. As he steps inside or peers from outside into the darkness of the prasada with its stark empty walls, he finds nothing there to take his mind away, and his entire focus now centers on the divinity that stands inside.
As a bhakta approaches the prasada or sanctum, he is met with a framed doorway that follows geometric proportions as given in the Brihatsamhita. He sees the winged doors, a threshold below it, two doorjambs on two sides of the threshold, vertical mouldings or antepagments above the door jambs known as sakhas, and the horizontal top beam or lintel.
Generally it is seen that the deity inside and the door to the sanctum are closely related, wherein his image is carved on the lintel at the centre; while his dwarapalas (their weapons signifying the main deity inside) stand guard two on two sides of the door jambs.
On the thresholds there are carved long stemmed lotus flowers, symbolising the divinity of the universe, and also the emotionless mind necessary to reach divinity. The priest and the bhakta entering the garbagriha must cross the threshold without treading on it. As one enters the sanctum, he or she is also raised to the status of the divinity, and the sculptures on the door of the sanctum help the priest and the bhakta to undergo that change.
In most Indian temples, on two sides of the two door jambs generally stand the two river devis: Ganga and Yamuna with their retinues, while above them are the dwara sakhas. The term sakhas denote branches, and it is believed that originally a number of branches were held and tied together to create a doorway to the deity, and the tradition was later artistically carried on in form of stone vertical mouldings that now form the dwarasakhas. The sakhas are always seen in odd digit numbers: 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9.
Above the rivers devis are the carved sakhas. The sakhas are in the form of vertical mouldings that with their sculptural motifs denote youthfulness and lives nurtured by these river waters. Thus, we see sakhas with creepers, vines, flowers, leaves, mithuna couples, prancing yalis, and happy faces of baby like ganas arising triumphantly from the river devis standing on door jambs. These rivers, which originate from heaven, possess celestial powers, and as one crosses them, he or she undergoes the ritual bath, which symbolises ablution and an initiation to attain divinity. The sacred waters in their celestial state thus wash away human sins; akin to a dip in the holy waters of a teertha.
The sanctum doors thus form to be the sculptural representations depicting the descent of the holy waters from heaven, and the subsequent rise of lives from them. The river devis not only help life to thrive, but they also foster the garbha (embryo) of the temple; while the dwarapalas on two ends of the door jambs protect the new lives arising from the river devis, and most importantly help to preserve the sanctity of the temple embryo.
Thus, for a bhakta entering the temple sanctum, the garbagriha door is not only a manifestation of the main deity inside, but it is also a point of initiation; a teerth by itself, which removes all his sins, wards off evil, flourishes life, and provides him with a changeover from his human form to achieve divinity for as long as he crosses the threshold and stays inside the sacred dark chamber.
Kramrisch Stella. 2013. Indian Sculpture. Motilal Banarasidass, Delhi
Gupta, S., and Asthana, P. S. 2002. Elements of Indian Art. Indraprastha Museum of Art and Archaeology, Delhi.