Showing posts with label History of Ancient India. Show all posts
Showing posts with label History of Ancient India. Show all posts

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Vastu Shastra - ancient and medieval canons on city planning and architecture

Adherence to Vastu Shastra, the ancient and medieval canons on city planning and architecture, has suddenly assumed tremendous significance, particularly among the well-educated and affluent in 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, and factories etc. for many years to come.

Palace in Rajasthan
Interestingly, practically none of the practitioners of Vastu Shastra has an academic background. So there is a lot of genuine practice as well as hearsay going around. In this brief introduction, the intention is to give a broad overall picture of the Vastu Shastra with some examples.

Vastu Shastras 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 settings for the conduct of human life in harmony with physical as well as metaphysical forces. These Vastu Shastra 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, which appears to be the first step in ordering a part of the vast cosmic space, the brahmanda, for human habitation. According 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 not 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 divisions of a square and given each one a name. The most popular among those have 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 the west; Kubera, the Lord of Wealth, to the north; and Yama, the Lord of Death, to the 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 treated in different chapters of the canonical texts.

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

A similar test checks 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 more likely betrays the caste-ridden nature of some of the Shastra's recommendations.

The Shastras also deal at length with town planning and form of towns suitable for different purposes such as administrative towns, hill towns, coastal towns or religious towns built at a sacred place. Among the most famous examples of a town planned according to these standards 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, according to the Shastra's prescriptions, of the square mandala right from the whole to the smallest of the plots, the location of activities, and distribution of the caste groups.

City Palace Jaipur- Rajasthan
Based on the studies carried out by scholars it is suggested 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 references are also found in the Vedas, which deal with carpentry among other subjects.

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

Among the vasthusastra texts are Mansar, Maymata, Vishwakarma and Samrangana 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 traditions, and Maya who is architect to the gods in the Dravida or Southern tradition. In the northern tradition 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.
Bhrigu Rishi

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. 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.

One of the more recent texts goes so far as to suggest the location of 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 these suggestions, the available experience is equally divided. There seems to be an equal number of success stories as well as failures. Here, I believe, the analogy of the typical palmist is best. Perhaps there are genuine jyotish shastris as well as 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 the unknown to ensure a success? 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 beliefs and practices. Feng-shui, the Chinese version of Vastusastras, is practiced all over the Far East and South-east Asia. 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 one cannot explain this on a rational basis?

These texts (i.e. the genuine ancient and medieval 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 similar 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.

Even those uninitiated can learn and practice the entire range of connected activities 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 suggestions may indeed reflect more real concerns such as climatic suitability of locating 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 a 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 harmoniously 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 brahmanda, 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 brahmanda in its folds. When it does happen the architectural 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 Vasthusastras.

Sacred Cow

The world over, the term "sacred cow" has come to mean any stubborn loyalty to a long-standing institution which impedes natural progress. The term originates in India, where the cow is said to be literally worshiped, while thousands of humans suffer from undernourishment. The common, popular view of India in the West is that of an underdeveloped nation steeped in superstition. Overpopulated, overcrowded, undereducated, and bereft of most modern amenities, India is seen to be a backward nation in many respects by "progressive" Western civilization. "If only India would abandon her religious superstitions and kill and eat the cow!" Over several decades many attempts have been made by the "compassionate" West to alleviate unfortunate India's burden of poor logic, and to replace her superstitions with rational thinking.

Much of the religious West finds common ground with the rationalists, with whom they otherwise are usually at odds, on the issue of India's "sacred cow." Indeed, worshiping God is one thing, but to worship the cow while at the same time dying of starvation is a theological outlook much in need of reevaluation. Man is said to have dominion over the animals, but it would appear that the Indians have it backwards.

Brahmin Boy with Cow
Brahmin Boy with Cow
Popular opinion is not always the most informed opinion; in fact, this is usually the case. The many attempts to wean India from the nipple of her outdated pastoral culture have all failed. After 200 years of foreign occupation by the British, and after many subsequent but less overt imperialistic attempts, we find that although India has changed, the sacred cow remains as sacred as ever. In all but two Indian states, cow slaughter is strictly prohibited. If legislation were passed today to change that ruling, there would be rioting all over India. In spite of considerable exposure to Western ideas, one late Indian statesman said, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, "I think it is a good idea. When will they begin?"

An unbiased look at perhaps the longest-standing culture of the world, its roots and philosophy, may help us to see things a little more as they are — even about our own way of life. Sometimes we have to stand back to get the full picture. It is a natural tendency to consider one's own way the best, but such bull-headedness may cause us to miss seeing our own shortcomings. An honest look at the headlines of our home town newspaper may inspire us to question exactly what it is we are so eager to propound.

Perhaps the most appalling aspect of the Western technological influence on India is found in the country's few "modern" cities. Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, and other cities can be most frustrating to the average Westerner. Crude attempts at modernization can be worse than none at all. Although India's technology lacks the polish and sophistication of the West, its employment in crude fashion nonetheless brings all of the adverse effects of a sophisticated form of the same amenities.

Indian god presence in cow
Real India is rural India. Village life accounts for the bulk of India's population of 700 million, and best illustrates the nation's ancient culture. The simplicity of India is often mistaken for ignorance, and her peacefulness mistaken for complacency. The serenity of Indian village life is overlooked or mislabeled by those who in the name of progress may really only be operating under the axiom of "misery loves company." Perhaps the people of India live as they do for a good reason: much of what goes along with Western "progress"—the mental anguish which causes us to do the most bizarre things that make many cities living hells—is relatively absent in India's rural lifestyle.

It is particularly difficult for Westerners to appreciate India's worship of the cow. After all, we live in the land of the hamburger. The "American" restaurant abroad is McDonald's. "Ole McDonald had a farm /Did it ever grow!" Western economists often contend that beef alone can solve India's food problems and lay a foundation for a lucrative export trade. This has caused cow worship and cow protection to come under attack for centuries. Cow protection has been called a "lunatic obstacle" to sensible farm management.

Hare Krishna, with Cow
India's cow is called the zebu, and an investigation of the controversy surrounding her brings us to the heart of village life in India. The average landholder in India farms approximately one acre. This is nowhere near enough land to warrant the purchase of a tractor. Even if the size of the land plots were increased to make the purchase of machinery cost-effective, the unique weather, a five-season year including the monsoon, would quickly render the tractor useless. After the monsoons, the soil is too soft for planting and must be quickly and efficiently prepared before the soon-to-follow intense heat brings an end to the very short growing season. The loss of even one day will considerably affect the overall yield. The zebu bullocks are ideal in this connection for they can easily plow the soft earth without overly compacting the soil as would heavy machinery.

Farming in India is a family affair, and the labor-intensive approach to cultivation involves everyone. This helps to sustain the family unit, which is sometimes considered to be the wealth of a nation. The staples of the diet are grains: wheat and rice. Most of India is vegetarian. While the bull plows the field, helping to provide the grains, the cow supplies milk from which many dairy products are produced. Day to day, year after year, the cow and bull are the center of rural Indian life.
Cow and Calf

According to Frances Moore Lappe in her best-seller, Diet for a Small Planet, "For every sixteen pounds of grain and soy fed to beef cattle in the United States, we only get one pound back in meat on our plates. The other fifteen pounds are inaccessible to us, either used by the animal to produce energy or to make some part of its own body that we do not eat (like hair or bones), or excreted. Milk production is more efficient, with less than one pound of grain fed for every pint of milk produced. (This is partly because we don't have to grow a new cow every time we milk one.)" If India, with its already strained resources, were to allocate so much more acreage for the production of beef, it would be disastrous. Advocates of modernization maintain that with the application of the latest farming techniques, the yield per acre would gradually increase, thus making it possible for beef to be introduced over a period of time. Such advocates contend that with the introduction of beef into the Indian diet, the population's health would increase, thus furthering productivity. However, it is interesting to note that although India is far from being free of disease, its principal health problems are a result of urban overcrowding and inadequate sanitation and medical facilities. Whereas high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, and cancer constitute the greatest health threats in the West, the Indian people are practically free from these afflictions. So the "fact" that India's health would increase with the introduction of beef into the diet is not likely to overcome the "superstition" of the people's religious beliefs which prohibit them from eating meat.

Kamdhenu cow
The religious "superstitions" of India are based on the Vedas, which constitute the most voluminous body of literature in the world. The Vedas and their corollaries deal elaborately with theism, describing many gradations of the theistic idea. The idea that one should not eat meat, although central to Hindu philosophy, is only a secondary theme. To a large extent it amounts only to common sense and sensitivity. It is from this basis of sensitivity, an indicator of healthy consciousness, that higher spiritual principles can be appreciated. Actually, the Vedas agree with the West's contention that man has dominion over the animals; however, the West's way of dealing with its dependents is revolting to Indians. After all, we have dominion over our children and ofttimes elders as well, but would we be justified in slaughtering them for food? We become incensed if someone even abuses our dog!

The Vedas do not teach that the cow is superior to the human form of life and therefore worshipable. Rather, the she gives so much practical help to human society that she should be protected. Her assistance frees mankind from much of the struggle of life, thereby providing us with more time for spiritual pursuits. Although modern technology may be said to do the same, the fact is that it actually complicates man's life more and more and distracts him from more simple living and high spiritual thinking. We may become so mechanistic that we can fool ourselves into believing that cows or pets have no feelings.

For India, the cow represents the sacred principle of motherhood. She symbolizes charity and generosity because of the way she distributes her milk, which is essential for the nourishment of the young.

India's critics have pointed out that although Indian village life may be simple, it is a marginal existence; it is a life of little surplus. If a farmer's cow turns barren, he has lost his only chance of replacing the work team. And if she goes dry, the family loses its milk and butter. However the situation is not as bad as the technologically advanced may think. In village life, people are more interdependent. Helping one's neighbor is also considered sacred. Sharing is commonplace. All of the father's male friends are affectionately referred to by the sons and daughters as "uncle", while all of the village women are seen as mother. Often the responsibility of caring for and nursing the young is shared by several mothers.

Perhaps the heaviest criticism of the pastoral culture of India is directed at the insistence of the farmers on protecting even sick and aged cows. Westerners find this to be the height of absurdity. At least they could be killed and eaten or sold. But no. Animal hospitals or nursing homes called goshallas, provided by government agencies or wealthy individuals in search of piety, offer shelter for old and infirm cows. This is thought to be a luxury that India cannot really afford, as these "useless" cows are seen to be but competitors for the already limited croplands and precious foodstuffs. The fact is, however, that India actually spends a great deal less on their aging cattle than Americans spend on their cats and dogs. And India's cattle population is six times that of the American pet population.

The Indian farmer sees his cattle like members of the family. Since the farmers depend on the cattle for their own livelihood, it makes perfect sense both economically and emotionally to see to their well-being. In between harvests, the cattle are bathed and spruced up much like the average American polishes his automobile. Twice during the year, special festivals are held in honor of the cows. These rituals are similar to the American idea of Thanksgiving. Although in principle the same, there is a basic difference in the details of how we treat the turkey and how the more "primitive" Indians treat their cows.

India cares for over 200 million zebus. This accounts for one-fifth of the world's cattle population. Critics say that if India does not eat her cows, the cows will eat India. Exasperated critics feel that even the cow is underfed. However, in more recent years, India's critics have come to agree that she is essential to India's economy. Cattle are India's greatest natural resource. They eat only grass --which grows everywhere--and generates more power than all of India's generating plants. They also produce fuel, fertilizer, and nutrition in abundance. India runs on bullock power. Some 15 million bullock carts move approximately 15 billion tons of goods across the nation. Newer studies in energetics have shown that bullocks do two-thirds of the work on the average farm. Electricity and fossil fuels account for only 10%. Bullocks not only pull heavy loads, but also grind the sugarcane and turn the linseed oil presses. Converting from bullocks to machinery would cost an estimated $30 billion plus maintenance and replacement costs.

The biggest energy contribution from cows and bulls is their dung. India's cattle produce 800 million tons of manure every year. The Vedas explain that dung from cows is different from all other forms of excrement. Indian culture insists that if one comes in contact with the stool of any other animal, they must immediately take a bath. Even after passing stool oneself, bathing is necessary. But the cow's dung, far from being contaminating, instead possesses antiseptic qualities. This has been verified by modern science. Not only is it free from bacteria, but it also does a good job of killing them. Believe it or not, it is every bit as good an antiseptic as Lysol or Mr. Clean.

Most of the dung is used for fertilizer at no cost to the farmer or to the world's fossil fuel reserves. The remainder is used for fuel. It is odorless and burns without scorching, giving a slow, even heat. A housewife can count on leaving her pots unattended all day or return any time to a preheated griddle for short-order cooking. To replace dung with coal would cost India $1.5 billion per year.

Dung is also used for both heating and cooling. Packed on the outside walls of a house, in winter it keeps in the heat, and in summer produces a cooling effect. Also, unlike the stool of humans, it keeps flies away , and when burned, its smoke acts as a repellent for mosquitoes.

When technocrats were unable to come up with a workable alternative, they came up with a new argument for modernization. They suggested that the cattle culture be maintained, but that it should be done in a more efficient manner. Several ambitious programs were initiated using pedigree bulls and artificial insemination. But the new hybrids were not cheap nor were they able to keep up the pace with the zebus. The intense heat of India retired many of them well before old age. Although they produced more milk, this also created more problems, because there was no efficient system for distributing the surplus of milk throughout India's widespread population.

India's system of distribution is highly decentralized. Although the solution seemed simple, modernization again met its shortcomings. With bottling plants, pasteurization, and other sophisticated Western methods of distribution, it was thought that all of India could have fresh, pure milk. Behind the automats set up for the distribution of powdered milk, milk, and cream was the expectation that in time, people would begin to appreciate the abundant rewards bestowed by these new modern deities of technology, and worship of cows would gradually disappear. But in the end it was modernization that failed to prove its value.

Pasteurization proved to be a waste of time and money for Indians, who generally drink their milk hot, and thus boil it before drinking. With the absence of modern highways and the cost of milking machines and other necessities of factory dairy farming, it was seen to be impractical to impose the Western dairy system on India; the cost of refrigeration alone would make the price of milk too expensive for 95% of India's population.

Eventually, after repeated attempts to modernize India's approach to farming—and in particular its attitude toward its beloved zebus—it became clear that these technological upgrades were not very well thought out. They were not to replace a system that had endured for thousands of years; a system not only economically wise, but one that was part of a spiritually rich heritage. On the contrary, it may well be time to export the spiritual heritage of India to the West, where technology continues to threaten the tangible progress of humanity in its search for the deeper meaning of life.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Architecture of the Hindu temple

Ancient Indian thought divides time into four different periods. These durations are referred to as the Krta; Treta; Dvapara; and Kali.

The first of these divisions (Krta), is also known as satya-yuga, or the Age of Truth. This was a golden age without envy, malice or deceit, characterized by righteousness. All people belonged to one caste, and there was only one god who lived amongst the humans as one of them.

In the next span (Treta-yuga), the righteousness of the previous age decreased by one fourth. The chief virtue of this age was knowledge. The presence of gods was scarce and they descended to earth only when men invoked them in rituals and sacrifices. These deities were recognizable by all.

In the third great division of time, righteousness existed only in half measure of that in the first division. Disease, misery and the castes came into existence in this age. The gods multiplied. Men made their own images, worshipped them, and the divinities would come down in disguised forms. But these disguised deities were recognizable only by that specific worshipper.

Kali-yuga is the present age of mankind in which we live, the first three ages having already elapsed. It is believed that this age began at midnight between February 17 and 18, 3102 B.C. Righteousness is now one-tenth of that in the first age. True worship and sacrifice are now lost. It is a time of anger, lust, passion, pride, and discord. There is an excessive preoccupation with things material and sexual.

Temples appeared on the horizon only in the Kali-yuga. During this existing last phase, temples (as public shrines), began to be built and icons installed. But the gods ceased to come down and appear in their own or disguised forms. However, their presence could be felt when the icons were properly enshrined, and the temples correctly built. In contrast to the previous periods when the gods were available to all equally, now it is only the priests, belonging to a traditional hierarchy of professional worshippers, who are the competent individuals to compel this presence.

From the contemporary point of view, temples act as safe haven where ordinary mortals like us can feel themselves free from the constant vagaries of everyday existence, and communicate personally with god. But our age is individualistic if nothing else. Each of us requires our own conception of the deity based on our individual cultural rooting. In this context it is interesting to observe that the word ‘temple,’ and ‘contemplate’ both share the same origin from the Roman word ‘templum,’ which means a sacred enclosure. Indeed, strictly speaking, where there is no contemplation, there is no temple. It is an irony of our age that this individualistic contemplative factor, associated with a temple, is taken to be its highest positive virtue, while according to the fact of legend it is but a limitation which arose due to our continuous spiritual impoverishment over the ages. We have lost the divine who resided amongst us (Krta Yuga), which is the same as saying that once man was divine himself.

But this is not to belittle the importance of the temple as a center for spiritual nourishment in our present context, rather an affirmation of their invaluable significance in providing succour to the modern man in an environment and manner that suits the typical requirements of the age in which we exist.

Making of the Temple

The first step towards the construction of a temple is the selection of land. Even though any land may be considered suitable provided the necessary rituals are performed for its sanctification, the ancient texts nevertheless have the following to say in this matter: “The gods always play where groves, rivers, mountains and springs are near, and in towns with pleasure gardens.” Not surprisingly thus, many of India’s ancient surviving temples can be seen to have been built in lush valleys or groves, where the environment is thought to be particularly suitable for building a residence for the gods.

No matter where it is situated, one essential factor for the existence of a temple is water. Water is considered a purifying element in all major traditions of the world, and if not available in reality, it must be present in at least a symbolic representation in the Hindu temple. Water, the purifying, fertilizing element being present, its current, which is the river of life, can be forded into inner realization and the pilgrim can cross over to the other shore (metaphysical).

The practical preparations for building a temple are invested with great ritual significance and magical fertility symbolism. The prospective site is first inspected for the ‘type,’ of the soil it contains. This includes determining its color and smell. Each of these defining characteristics is divided into four categories, which are then further associated with one of the four castes:

- White Soil: Brahmin
- Red Soil: Kshatriya (warrior caste)
- Yellow Soil: Vaishya
- Black Soil: Shudra

Similarly for the smell and taste:

- Sweet: Brahmin
- Sour: Kshatriya
- Bitter: Vaishya
- Astringent: Shudra (a reminder perhaps of the raw-deal which they have often been given in life)

The color and taste of the soil determines the “caste” of the temple, i.e., the social group to which it will be particularly favourable. Thus the patron of the temple can choose an auspicious site specifically favourable to himself and his social environment.

After these preliminary investigations, the selected ground needs to be tilled and levelled:

Tilling: When the ground is tilled and ploughed, the past ceases to count; new life is entrusted to the soil and another cycle of production begins, an assurance that the rhythm of nature has not been interfered with. Before laying of the actual foundation, the Earth Goddess herself is impregnated in a symbolic process known as ankura-arpana, ankura meaning seed and arpana signifying offering. In this process, a seed is planted at the selected site on an auspicious day and its germination is observed after a few days. If the growth is satisfactory, the land is deemed suitable for the temple. The germination of the seed is a metaphor for the fulfilment of the inherent potentialities which lie hidden in Mother Earth, and which by extension are now transferred to the sacred structure destined to come over it.

Levelling: It is extremely important that the ground from which the temple is to rise is regarded as being throughout an equal intellectual plane, which is the significance behind the levelling of the land. It is also an indication that order has been established in a wild, unruly, and errant world.

Now that the earth has been ploughed, tilled and levelled, it is ready for the drawing of the vastu-purusha mandala, the metaphysical plan of the temple.

The Metaphysical Architecture of the Temple

The basic plan of a Hindu temple is an expression of sacred geometry where the temple is visualized as a grand mandala. By sacred geometry we mean a science which has as its purpose the accurate laying out of the temple ground plan in relation to the cardinal directions and the heavens. Characteristically, a mandala is a sacred shape consisting of the intersection of a circle and a square.

The square shape is symbolic of earth, signifying the four directions which bind and define it. Indeed, in Hindu thought whatever concerns terrestrial life is governed by the number four (four castes; the four Vedas etc.). Similarly, the circle is logically the perfect metaphor for heaven since it is a perfect shape, without beginning or end, signifying timelessness and eternity, a characteristically divine attribute. Thus a mandala (and by extension the temple) is the meeting ground of heaven and earth.

These considerations make the actual preparation of the site and laying of the foundation doubly important. Understandably, the whole process is heavily immersed in rituals right from the selection of the site to the actual beginning of construction. Indeed, it continues to be a custom in India that whenever a building is sought to be constructed, the area on which it first comes up is ceremonially propitiated. The idea being that the extent of the earth necessary for such construction must be reclaimed from the gods and goblins that own and inhabit that area. This ritual is known as the ‘pacification of the site.’ There is an interesting legend behind it:

Once when Shiva was engaged in a fierce battle with the demon Andhaka, a drop of sweat fell from Shiva’s forehead to the ground, accompanied by a loud thunder. This drop transformed into a ravenously hungry monster, who attempted to destroy the three worlds. The gods and divine spirits, however, rushed at once on to him and held him down. When the demon fell on the ground face downwards, the deities lodged themselves on to the different parts of his body and pressed him down. It is because of this reason that the recumbent individual came to be known as ‘Vastu,’ which means the lodgement of the gods. He is pictured as lying down inside the mandala with his arms and legs so folded as to cover the whole area, and his head pushed into the north-eastern corner of the square. As many as forty-five gods are lodged on his body directly on the limbs and joints.

This vastu-purusha is the spirit in mother-earth which needs to be pacified and is regarded as a demon whose permission is necessary before any construction can come up on the site. At the same time, care is taken to propitiate the deities that hold him down, for it is important that he should not get up. To facilitate the task of the temple-architect, the vastu-mandala is divided into square grids with the lodging of the respective deities clearly marked. It also has represented on it the thirty-two nakshatras, the constellations that the moon passes through on its monthly course. In an ideal temple, these deities should be situated exactly as delineated in the mandala.

In the central grid of the vastu-mandala sits Brahma, the archetypal creator, endowed with four faces looking simultaneously in all directions. He is thus conceived as the ever-present superintending genius of the site. At this exact central point is established the most important structure of the sacred complex, where the patron deity of the temple is installed. Paradoxically this area is the most unadorned and least decorated part of the temple, almost as if it is created in an inverse proportion to its spiritual importance. Referred to as the sanctum sanctorum, it is the most auspicious region in the whole complex. It has no pillars, windows or ventilators. In addition to a metaphysical aspect, this shutting off of air and light has a practical side to it too. It was meant to preserve the icon, which, in olden days, was often made of wood. Also, besides preventing the ill effects of weathering, the dark interior adds to the mystery of the divine presence.

Throughout all subsequent developments in temple architecture, however spectacular and grandiose, this main shrine room remains the small, dark cave that it has been from the beginning. Indeed it has been postulated (both by archaeology and legend), that the temple developed from the cave-shrine of the extremely remote past. This is another instance in Hinduism where the primitive and the modern, along with all the developments in-between, can be seen to co-exist remarkably and peacefully.

When the devotee enters a temple, he is actually entering into a mandala and therefore participating in a power-field. The field enclosures and pavilions through which he must pass to reach the sanctum are symbolic. They represent the phases of progress in a man’s journey towards divine beatitude. In accordance with this scheme of transition, architectural and sculptural details vary from phase to phase in the devotee’s onward movement, gradually preparing him for the ultimate, awesome experience, which awaits him in the shrine.

This process mirrors the four-phased spiritual evolution envisaged in yoga, namely the waking state (jagrat); dream state (swapna); the state of deep sleep (sushupti); and finally the Highest state of awareness known in Sanskrit as turiya. This evolution takes place as follows:

On reaching the main gateway, the worshipper first bends down and touches the threshold before crossing it. This marks for him the fact that the transition from the way of the world to the way of god has been initiated. Entering the gateway, he or she is greeted by a host of secular figures on the outer walls. These secular images are the mortal, outward and diverse manifestations of the divinity enshrined inside. In this lies a partial explanation behind the often explicit erotic imagery carved on the outer walls of temples like those at Khajuraho, where the deity inside remains untouched by these sensuous occurrences. Such images awaken the devotee to his mortal state of existence (wakefulness). The process of contemplation has already begun.

As he proceeds, carvings of mythological themes, legendary subjects, mythical animals and unusual motifs abound. They are designed to take one away from the dull and commonplace reality, and uplift the worshipper to the dreamy state.
The immediate pavilion and vestibule before the icon are restrained in sculptural decorations, and the prevailing darkness of these areas are suggestive of sleep-like conditions.

Finally the shrine, devoid of any ornamentation, and with its plainly adorned entrance, leads the devotee further to the highest achievable state of consciousness, that of semi-tranquillity (turiya), where all boundaries vanish and the universe stands forth in its primordial glory. It signifies the coming to rest of all differentiated, relative existence. This utterly quiet, peaceful and blissful state is the ultimate aim of all spiritual activity. The devotee is now fully-absorbed in the beauty and serenity of the icon. He or she is now in the inner square of Brahma in the vastu- mandala, and in direct communion with the chief source of power in the temple.

The thought behind the design of a temple is a continuation of Upanishadic analogy, in which the atman (soul or the divine aspect in each of us) is likened to an embryo within a womb or to something hidden in a cave. Also says the Mundaka Upanishad: ‘The atman lives where our arteries meet (in the heart), as the spokes of the wheel meet at the hub.’ Hence, it is at the heart center that the main deity is enshrined. Befittingly thus, this sanctum sanctorum is technically known as the garba-griha (womb-house).

The garbhagriha is almost always surrounded by a circumambulatory path, around which the devotee walks in a clockwise direction. In Hindu and Buddhist thought, this represents an encircling of the universe itself.

No description of the Hindu temple can be complete without a mention of the tall, often pyramid-like structure shooting up the landscape and dominating the skyline.

This element of temple architecture is known as ‘shikhara,’ meaning peak (mountain). It marks the location of the shrine room and rises directly above it. This is an expression of the ancient ideal believing the gods to reside in the mountains. Indeed, in South India the temple spire is frequently carved with images of gods, the shikhara being conceived as mount Meru, the mythical mountain-axis of the universe, on the slopes of which the gods reside.

In North India too, it is worthwhile here to note, most goddess shrines are located on mountain tops. Since it rises just above the central shrine, the shikhara is both the physical and spiritual axis of the temple, symbolizing the upward aspiration of the devotee, a potent metaphor for his ascent to enlightenment.


Man lost the divinity within himself. His intuition, which is nothing but a state of primordial alertness, continues to strive towards the archetypal perfect state where there is no distinction between man and god (or woman and goddess). The Hindu Temple sets out to resolve this deficiency in our lives by dissolving the boundaries between man and divinity. This is achieved by putting into practice the belief that the temple, the human body, and the sacred mountain and cave, represent aspects of the same divine symmetry.

Truly, the most modern man can survive only because the most ancient traditions are alive in him. The solution to man’s problems is always archaic. The architecture of the Hindu temple recreates the archetypal environment of an era when there was no need for such an architecture.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hindu City - Hidden in secret - Angkor Wat

Ankor Wat
One of the most archeological site of South East Asia, stretching over 400 km2 along with the forested area is Angkor which is the name formally given to the region of Cambodia which served as the base of Khmer empire that bloomed from 13th to 19th century A.D. The word Angkor is actually originated from the Sanskrit word "nagara" which literally resembles a city.The Khmer Hindu monarch King Jayavarman II who called himself as the universal monarch and god-king of Cambodia began the Angkorian period by 800 A.D

Sunset at Ankor Wat
The Angkor Civilization or Khmer Civilization is the name given to an important civilization of southeast Asia, including all of Cambodia and southeastern Thailand and northern Vietnam, with its classic period dated roughly between 800 to 1300 AD. It is also the name of one of the medieval Khmer capital cities, containing some of the most spectacular temples in the world.

It is actually located 200 miles north-west of current capital  city Phnom Penh and is surrounded by jungle. The nearby town of Siem Riep has become a tourist destination on account of Angkor. The city of Angkor is filled with more than a thousand temples and other architectural accomplishments but the greatest sight is the temple of Angkor Wat. 


The ancestors of the Angkor civilization are thought to have migrated into Cambodia along the Mekong River during the 3rd millennium BC. Their original center, established by 1000 BC, was located on the shore of large lake called Tonle Sap, but a truly sophisticated (and enormous) irrigation system allowed the spread of the civilization into the countryside away from the lake.
Hidden temple in Ankor Wat
The Khmer society was a cosmopolitan blend of Pali and Sanskrit rituals resulting from a combined Hindu and High Buddhist belief system, probably the effects of Cambodia's role in the extensive trade system connecting Rome, India and China during the last few centuries BC.The Khmer society was led by an extensive court system with both religious and secular nobles, artisans, fishermen and rice farmers, soldiers, and elephant keepers; Angkor was protected by an army using elephants. The end of Angkor came in the mid-14th century, and was partly brought about by a change in religious belief in the region, from Hinduism and High Buddhism to more democratic Buddhist practices. At the same, an environmental collapse is seen by some scholars as having a role in the disappearance of Angkor.

Dawn at Ankor Wat
The place is famous for several stone temples ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, and together they comprise the most significant site of Khmer architecture. Visitor numbers approach two million annually. In the year 2007 the place was declared as the largest preindustrial city of the world covering an urban area of about 3000 square kilomaters.
Sunset at Ankor

The temples of Angkor, built by the Khmer civilization between 802 and 1220 AD, represent one of humankind's most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. From Angkor the Khmer kings ruled over a vast domain that reached from Vietnam to China to the Bay of Bengal. The structures one sees at Angkor today, more than 100 stone temples in all, are the surviving remains of a grand religious, social and administrative metropolis whose other buildings - palaces, public buildings, and houses - were built of wood and are long since decayed and gone.
Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.

About Temples

Full view Ankor Wat
Many of the temples of the area are Buddhist, but Angkor Wat is a Hindu temple dedicated to the God Vishnu. The temple is surrounded by a moat and encompasses an area of 1,500m by 1,300m (approximately 1 square mile). There are numerous smaller buildings that make up the Angkor Wat compound, and there is elaborate sculpture and carving on every surface. The bas-relief carvings show scenes from mythology, ancient battles, and other aspects of Khmer life. The 5 rounded towers give the temple a distinctive profile. Angkor Wat took 37 years to complete with a work force of more than 50,000 men.

The temple is the epitome of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country's prime attraction for visitors.Dedicated to the Hindu Gods Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. It was a holy place for many. But soon in the ruling of King Jayavaraman VII decided that the Gods of Hinduism had failed him. Buddhism was prevalent in the construction of Angkor Thom, a new nearby capital. The Hindu decorations and deities were replaced by Buddhist carvings, statues, and other art, when it became a Buddhist shrine. 
The entire city where Angkor Wat is located extends fifteen miles (24 kilometers) from east to west and eight miles (13 kilometers) north to south. Around the temples the terrain is landscaped by and intricate system of reservoirs, canals, and moats that were used for water control and irrigation. The whole system symbolized the Hindu thought of a central mountain, Mt. Meru, a dwelling place for the Gods. Angkor Wat's five central towers represent the peaks of the holy mountain. The enormous moat surrounding the shrine suggests the oceans at the edge of the world. 

The GAP - Great Angkor Project conducted recent work using radar remote sensing applications to map the city and the surroundings. They result showed that the city covers an area of about 3000 square kilometers and consists of several temples. agricultural farms, residences and hydraulic network and thus making it a world's largest pre-industrial city of the earth.
Conventional theories presume the lands where Angkor stands were chosen as a settlement site because of their strategic military position and agricultural potential. Alternative scholars, however, believe the geographical location of the Angkor complex and the arrangement of its temples was based on a planet-spanning sacred geography from archaic times. Using computer simulations it has been shown that the ground plan of the Angkor complex – the terrestrial placement of its principal temples - mirrors the stars in the constellation of Draco at the time of spring equinox in 10,500 BC. While the date of this astronomical alignment is far earlier than any known construction at Angkor, it appears that its purpose was to architecturally mirror the heavens in order to assist in the harmonization of the earth and the stars. Both the layout of the Angkor temples and iconographic nature of much its sculpture, particularly the asuras (‘demons’) and devas (‘deities’) are also intended to indicate the celestial phenomenon of the precession of the equinoxes and the slow transition from one astrological age to another.

Style and Architecture

The Angkor wat temple is the prime example of Khmer architecture. By the 12th century Khmer architects had become skilled and confident in the use of sandstone  as the main building material. Most of the visible areas are of sandstone blocks, while laterite was used for the outer wall and for hidden structural parts. Angkor Wat has drawn praise above all for the harmony of its design, which has been compared to the architecture of ancient Greece or Rome. 

Things to see

The city was accordingly built around a central temple on a hill, which symbolized Mount Meru, the home of the gods.The central tower of each temple also represented Mount Meru. The outer walls of the temple represented the mountains that were believed to encircle the cosmos.

River side Ankor
The many waterways, canals and moats of Angkor served a dual purpose: they symbolized the waters of the cosmos and improved water control and rice irrigation.

Angkor Wat consists of five central shrines, encircled by a moat and three galleries. On the west side of the complex a paved causeway, leading over the moat and under a magnificent portico, extends for a distance of a quarter of a mile to the chief entrance of the main building.

The western exterior forecourt of the main temple contains two "libraries," or smaller temple structures. As of 2004, the library on the left was under renovation by a Japanese archeological team.The area surrounding the exterior moat is a lawned park, incongruous in Cambodia.
Bramha Ankor

Khmer decoration, profuse but harmonious, consists chiefly in the representation of gods, men and animals, which are displayed on every flat surface. Combats and legendary episodes are often depicted; floral decoration is reserved chiefly for borders, mouldings and capitals. 
Sandstone of various colours was the chief material employed by the Khmers; limonite was also used. The stone was cut into huge blocks which are fitted together with great accuracy without the use of cement.

Visitors to Angkor Wat take away varied impressions of these amazing temples. Some gain insight into Buddhism or archaeology, and some relate their experience as connecting with the spiritual energy of the temples. The one common thread, though, is the visitors' impressions of sunrise and sunset. 

The skies over Angkor always put on a show; if you time it right, you can see the dawn or the day's afterglow framed in temple spires or glowing off the main wat. Here are a few hints for catching the magic hours at the temples:

Monks Walking
  • The sunrise and sunset views from the upper terraces of Angkor Wat itself are some of the best, though it's a tough climb for some. Ignore half-hearted entreaties by staff to leave after the first clears of the horizon at sunset; stay for the afterglow.
  • It's a bit crowded, but the views from Phnom Bakeng (Bakeng Hill), just a short drive past the entrance to Angkor Wat, is stunning at both sunrise and sunset. It's a good little climb up the hill, and those so inclined can go by elephant.
  • The open area on the eastern side of Banteay Kdei looks over one of Angkor's many reservoirs, this one full and a great reflective pool for the rising glow at sunrise.
  • For the best view of the temples, hands down, contact Helicopters Cambodia Ltd., at tel. 023/213-706. For a hefty fee, you can see the sites from any angle you choose.

Lost and Rediscovered

Angkor was abandoned in the mid 1400s when the Thai armies invaded. With few records surviving from that time, there are no solid facts as to the historical events that took place. It's believed that the capital was moved to Phnom Penh around 1434.

The ruins of Angkor Wat were rediscovered in 1860 by a French botanist, Henri Mouhot, who was exploring the Cambodian jungles. This lost civilization was of great interest to Western archaeologists and historians who flocked to the site to learn more about the Khmer. Before the ruins were found, even the locals thought the existence of the temple city was likely a myth. Some who had seen the city said that it had been built by the Gods themselves

After the city of Angkor fell to invaders, Angkor Wat receded into the jungle but continued as a Buddhist temple and a pilgrimage site over the centuries.Angkor Wat is the best preserved example of Khmer architecture in Cambodia and is so grand in design that some rank it among the seven wonders of the world.

The historical and mysterious beauty of the archeological city Angkor is a very familiar tourist spot and the culture and religious nature of the temple is well preserved by the visitors and also by the local settlers. The historical story related behind the establishment of the city and the temple is simply inspiring and interesting and these temples serve as the witness of the myths.