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HVK Archives: The crux of the matter - On Vastushastra

The crux of the matter - On Vastushastra - The Economic Times

Muktirajsinhji Chauhan ()
17 November 1996

Title : The crux of the matter - On Vastushastra
Author : Muktirajsinhji Chauhan
Publication : The Economic Times
Date : November 17, 1996

Adherence to Vastushastra, the ancient and medieval
canons on city planning and architecture, has suddenly
assumed tremendous significance, particularly among the
well-educated, well-to-do as well as largely westernized
urban India. It may be difficult to predict if this is
just a fad or if it will be a way of building dwellings,
offices, factories etc. for all time to come. The fact
remains that as of today, it is a serious concern of all
involved in architecture and planning, and their patrons.

Interestingly, this field in India also finds that most
of the persons dealing with it are practitioners and
practically none has an academic background. So there is
a lot of genuine practice as well as hearsay going ar-
ound. In this introduction, the intention is to give a
broad overall picture of the vastushastra with some
examples. The illustrations accompanying this text serve
an altogether different purpose. They illustrate entire-
ly from the field of practice, suggestions generally
recommended by present day Vastushastra on proper sites,
location of facilities on the site as well as location of
activities within a dwelling such that the planning will
be as per the Shastras.

Vastushastras are canons dealing with the subject of
vastu which means the environment. Put differently, one
may regard them as codification of good practices of
design of buildings and cities which will provide set-
tings for conduct of human life in harmony with the
physical as well as metaphysical forces. These canons
provide guidelines for design of buildings and planning
of cities such that they will bring health, wealth and
peace to the inhabitants.

Mythological beliefs are certainty at the root of the
origins of these canonical texts and their discourse. The
first of these relates to Vastupurusha. It also appears
to be the first step at ordering a part of the vast
cosmic space, the brahmand, for human habitation. Ac-
cording to myth, long ago there existed an unnamed,
unknown and formless being which blocked the sky and the
earth. The Gods forced it down on earth and pressed it
face down. To ensure that it did riot escape again, Lord
Brahma, the supreme creator, along with other gods
weighted it down and called it vastupurusha.

Lord Brahma, of course, occupied the central portion and
in a hierarchic distribution along concentric rings
assigned different quarters to different major and minor
gods. Thus emerged a geometric configuration which is
called mandala. From one basic square, the canons have
listed up to 1024 division of a square and given each one
a name. The most popular being those having 64 and 81
divisions known as Manduka Mandala and Param Sayika
Mandala respectively, which are widely used for temple
and dwelling plans.

The mandala is also given an orientation with Surya, the
sun-god occupying the central point of periphery to east,
Varuna, the Lord of winds to west, Kubera, the Lord of
Wealth to north and Yam the Lord of Death to south. The
rest of the squares are occupied by the other minor gods.
With the positions thus assigned and the beneficial or
otherwise attributes of gods established through other
myths, it is possible to assign the activities of living,
working and support facilities over the mandala and
therefore the layout of a city or a building.

The mandala is, of course, the most popular aspect of the
vastushastras as it is constantly referred to for the
location of the various activities in a building. The
proper texts themselves, however, deal with a wide range
of topics relating to built-environment. These include
site selection, soil testing, building materials and
techniques, design of temples separately by number of
floors, palaces, dwellings, gates, image of the deity,
their vehicles and seats even including the making of
image of a linga for Shiva temples. All these are treat-
ed in different chapters of the canonical texts.

As an example one may mention the matter of site selec-
tion which is dealt with in both scientific and religious
terms. A scientific, suggestion describes the method of
digging a pit and refilling it with excavated earth. If a
lot of earth is left out then the soil is compact with
good load-bearing capacity.

A similar test cheeks the seepage of water in the soil.
It if is quick, the soil is obviously not good. The
religious prescription suggest that if the soil is white
with ghee like smell, it is good for Brahmins, if red
with blood like smell it is good for Kashtriyas, yellow
with smell like sesamum oil, it is good for Vaishyas and
black with the smell of rotten fish, it is good for
Shudras. While the first two suggestions would still find
the approval of a modern engineer, the third perhaps
reflects the status quoist nature of some of the Shas-
tra's recommendations.

The Shastras also deal at length about town planning and
form of towns suitable for different purposes such as
administrative towns, hill towns, coastal towns or relig-
ious towns built at a sacred place. Among the most famous
example of a town planned according to Shastra is the
example of Old Jaipur which is based on a Prastar type
town described in several texts. Built in 1727 AD, the
final form and structure of the town shows a skillful
manipulation of the square mandala right from the whole
to the smallest of the plots, the location of activities,
distribution of the caste,groups etc. is all according to
Shastra's prescriptions.

Based on the studies carried out by scholars it is sug-
gested that these texts were written down largely between
the 7th century AD to 13th century AD following the Gupta
period. They, are found in all the major languages of
medieval India. Of course, the earliest reference are
also found in Vedas which deal with matter of carpentry
etc.

Vastushastras can be said to be companion texts to Shil-
pashastras and Chitrashastras dealing with sculpture,
icons and painting respectively. Strangely, among all
these texts, those devoted exclusively to one of the
areas. ie. vastu, chitra or shilpa are rare. This is
because, in the Indian artistic traditions, each was an
important and integral part of the creative endeavour
largely because all of these, including performing arts
such as the dance and music, were based at the temple.

To name a few of the vastushastra texts mention can made
of Mansar, Maymata, Vishwakarma Vastushastra and Samran-
gana Sutradhara which is credited to Raja Bhoja. The
others are believed to have been authored by ancient
saints and sages. These include Lord Vishwakarma who is
architect to the gods in the Nagara or northern tradi-
tions, and Maya who is architect to the gods in the
Dravida or Southerns tradition. In the northern tradi-
tion Maya is regarded as architect to the danavas or
demons. To give some idea about the size of the text
Masar comprises 5400 verses organized in a total of 70
chapters.

However the nature, content and format of the texts as
discussed above is in total contrast to the books that
have recently been published and gone through, in some
cases, half a dozen reprints in a span of one year.

As far as I know, and I have held both the kinds of texts
ill my hands, they share very little in common. As to
what are the origins of the practitioners' texts recently
published, I can only suggest, that these would he more
ritualistic practices broadly interpreted by the various
puranic texts such as Agni Purana, Matsya Purana and
their Agmic versions in the Dravidian traditions. The
parallel I can draw upon is of Brigusamhita used by the
palmists, which by itself has no serious pretensions to
astronomy. The practitioners themselves are silent and
unresponsive when questioned about these aspects.

It is therefore all a matter of belief and faith in the
manner the vastushastra is practised today with the
Vastushastris suggesting where one should locate what.
These suggestions may include location of the main gate,
locations of water tank, electrical installations, which
part to be left open, which to build higher, location of
the kitchen, toilets, bedrooms, staircase, direction of
the bed, store etc.

In one of the texts I have read, the suggestion went to
the extent of locating two weighing scales in different
parts of the plot in a factory. One was for weighing raw
materials which would in that location weigh less than
actual, and the other one of weighing finished goods
which would register more weight than actual. Very neat,
one may say, and very tempting for the factory owner.

As to the beneficial aspects of following the vastushas-
tri's suggestions, the available experience is equally
divided. There seems to be an equal number of success
stories as well as failures. There are also some reported
instances of vastushastris' conniving with the buyer-
seller for a commission to advices against or for.

Here, I believe, the analogy of the typical palmist is
best. And it is suitable on grounds of both, believe it
or not, as well as genuine jyotish shastris and the
frauds. Is it that human beings want to be able to put
blame on some unknown forces for failures? Or that they
would want to appease all the unknown to ensure a suc-
cess? These are more a matter of faith rather than
belief.

Fortunately, Indians are not alone in this in recent
times. Across Asia there is a resurgence of these be-
liefs and practices. Feng-shui, the Chinese version of
Vastushastras is practised all over South-East and the
Far-East. There too the situation is one of either you
believe and practice or you don't believe and don't
practice. Does this mean that there is no way one can
explain the worth or purpose and meaning. Of vastushas-
tras on a rational basis.

Yes, there is. Foremost, a mention must be made of the
fact that these texts (ie. the genuine ancient and me-
dieval canons) dealt with the classical manner of arts
and architecture. This meant that irrespective of who was
doing what and where, a certain quality, content and
Perfection would always be achieved just by following the
texts. To paraphrase Einstein's observation for a simi-
lar work, "it makes good easy and bad difficult". This
means that a temple made on the banks of Ganga would be
as perfect as one made on shipra though patronised and
designed by different persons.

The other is that even those uninitiated could learn and
practice the entire range of activities connected with
vastu right from the selection of a site to the execution
of all the elemental details. Then there is some reason
to believe that some of the suggestion may indeed reflect
more real concerns such as climatic suitability of locat-
ing the human activities in a building. An entrance
front north ensures that it will always be in cool shade
in India, besides allowing the wealth to flow in as it is
the direction of Lord Kubera. The next alternative of
entrance from east certainly brightens up the morning
environment with the first rays of sun to start a great
new day on cheerful note.

Then there is a metaphysical aspect to it all. This one
concerns the fears of the unknown on one hand, and
attempts to intellectually grasp the nature of the world
on the other hand. And between these two is the human
desire to do things right, in conformity and in harmony
with the unknown world and its forces. This is where
particularly the mandala diagrams become very useful.
These, in abstract terms, manifest or represent the
cosmological conception of the world, albeit the world as
conceived or interpreted by the ancient and the medieval
scholars.

It is therefore natural that buildings and cities which
represent a significant alteration of the terrestrial
world be based on the mandala to make them harmonize with
the unknown world. In other words, it, is undertaking a
human act in tune with the nature as well as the unknown
in the belief that these will not clash but work harmoni-
ously to bring peace and prosperity to the builder and
the inhabitants.

Architecture is a human act. It requires carving out a
segment of that omnipotent, universal space of the brah-
mand, the cosmic space, for the use of the human beings.
It is not often that architecture truly rises to the
challenges of capturing the divine character of the
brahmand in its folds. When it does happen the architec-
tural experience exalts generations of people to come. Is
this not true of Mahabalipuram, Khajuraho, Kailashnath?
Or the city of Jaipur, its havelis as well those of Samod
and Shekhavati region? Let us remember that these are
all based on the Vastushastras.



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