Sacred Architecture
by Shashikala Ananth

The high civilizations the world over reached their zenith and inexplicably died. For some reason, this culture that blossomed in the subcontinent of India, has flourished for thousands of years. Despite many attempts to destabilise and destroy it, India still lives as a cultural whole, though her identity is being slowly eroded. One of the most vital aspects of this heritage is the existence of a multiple belief and diverse philosophical system. At no point in her history have the people been divested of their secular and openended quality of perception. As a result of this, we are today the holders of a very vibrant psychological universe which not only inquires into the individual freedom from the cycle of birth and death but also explores the profile of communities capable of sustaining and nurturing the human quest to explore its primal beginnings. Among the many schools of philosophical thought and enquiry, there also existed the practical applied vignana which gave rise to a highly developed civilization. Today, these links lie broken, and we have very little data to build the scientific cohesion within the structure of society. The texts known as the Vaastu Shilpa Shastras pertain to science and technology of spatial experience and the manifestation of forms be it sculptural or architectural.

Unlike the cerebrally evoked systems of philosophy (which developed much later) the Vaastu Shastras maintain that science or vignana, grammar or lakshana, experience or anubhava and integration or samyoga between the Jivatma and Paramatma are all part of the total Universal process. There is no way in which this process can be separated and compartmentalised.

This can be stated in another way. The Brahmam is the original Being and it is from Him that all creation takes place. He is …………… He feels ………… He wills ……….. He vibrates ……… He acts ……….. He becomes ……….. He is sentient.

At no point in this movement can we separate the original 'He' from the created Sthula Sharira. It is he who emerges as the final manifested object. Thus the image of Him is a true representation of Him, it is the totality of Him though in a microcosmic form a microcosmic object.

In todays context, the consciousness of a primal He or a cosmic sentient being can be understood as the Sacred Seed of life, which is variously known in the tradition as Bijam, Bindu, Purusha and Prakriti.

The Sacred Principle

In the last couple of decades global concern has shifted from a mere acquisition of material wealth into an examination of cultures and their belief systems which sustained the balance between man and the environment. Tribals, Adivasis, Forest dwellers, Desert dwellers have carried oral wisdom which has inextricably united man with his ecosystem. Sacred groves and Sacred water, concern for the flora and fauna of an environment, sustainable development of land, judicious deforestation, individual consumption that talks not of depleting resources and so on, have been part of the nature dependent communities. Today, it has become imperative that we re-examine the anchors of this worldview so that the valueless society we inhabit may transform itself into a more human and more life respecting system.

In the Vaastu Shastras and also in the oral wisdom of the folk systems of architecture there lies the basis of mans understanding for his built environment.

The carpenter was traditionally also the guardian of the forests. He held in his family the text known as Vana Samrakshna Samhita - the nurturance and propagation of trees and forests. The Vaastu texts abound in information regarding the types of trees that may be cut, the danger of over-felling, and the caution needed to keep natural vegetation in its true state.

Sacredness is not only in the maintenance of the natural order but also in the creation of new order. Out of this premise comes the application of Sacred Geometry of space and form.

Space, Time, Energy, and Form

To satisfy man's endless desire to achieve a meditative and sublime state of mind, the traditions of Vaastu as well as the folk traditions have attempted to create manifested form that is capable of resonating to mans' highest vibration and bestowing upon him an experience close to the cosmic being. This is known as Atmanubhavan. All buildings be they for inhabiting or for spiritual pursuits were invested with these proportions and aesthetics.

To achieve this synchronicity of man, his abode, and the cosmic being the texts have set out some ground rules or lakshana for design.

These principles can be compressed into three major categories : Bhogadyam, Sukha Darsham, and Ramyam.


To achieve the three aspects of Bhogadyam, Sukha darsham and Ramyam the designer needs to be sensitive to the following aspects:

a. He has to understand the need of the user and the various components that go into the design.

b. He has to bring grace and proportionate use of design elements to the building, so as to achieve aesthetic appeal.

c. He has to achieve a harmony between the built space and the natural environment, as well as, create a feeling of well-being in the user through the employment of PADA VINYASA and AYADI calculations.

It is self evident for many of us that some buildings live beyond their time in the elegance and beauty of their proportions even when they have been irreparably damaged. I have met designers from various parts of the world who are on a quest to understand the secret behind sacred proportions and the quality of inward experience. Every religion has attempted to create this sublime experience on their buildings to a god or a spirit. Some structures have achieved the effect while many others have failed. It is important to note that since the vehicle of application is a man or women, there is bound to be some distortion in even the highest of principles. The quality of the applicant also pervades the built space, hence his/her limitations also get indelibly represented for posterity. But, within the format of the principles there lies an endless fountain of wisdom for each of us as designers to learn and in our own ways, there is freedom to apply the grammar in changing contexts. Only time will tell whether the structure would withstand or get diluted in history.

Vaastu Purusha Mandala (or Pada Vinyasa)

Pada Vinyasa is the method by which a site of land is divided into an uniform grid. By this method, more manageable units are created, within which the design may be conveniently laid out. The planning principle known as Pada Vinyasa has relevance in the design process for several reasons. One is its' practical application. The other comprises of meanings and qualities that have been invested into the physical form of the earth which is synonymous with the human being.

An important axis that runs through the building is the central axis of the Brahma Sutram. This is usually the East-West axis. The North-South axis is known at the Soma Sutram. The central point where the axes cross is an extremely significant point since this is the place of the focussing of energies. All inter-sections of the padas or modular lines are treated as live energy rays. And as such, planning is carried out with great care so that the lines of energy are not cut or reduced in any way.

Ayadi Porutham

In the traditional world view the auspicious time is an important criterion. Be it the birth of a child, the tying of the sacred thread, the planting of seeds or the building of a house the right moment has to be calculated. Similarly, the right dimensions have to be arrived at for a particular individual before the house design may be completed. The auspicious measures that are usually adopted are either the width of the building, or the perimeter. Using this as the basic measures, the size of each pada or module I is determined. The calculation is based on the astrological chart of the owners or users.

The Natural Vegetarian

Before selecting a site for any kind of group housing (be it for a village or for a township) it is very important to study the profile of the natural vegetation of the site. The traditional designer checks the soil for its' bearing capacity and for its' homogeneity in various simple ways. Further, other tests are carried out by the traditional shilpi after the land profile has been found to be pleasing.

He checks the following aspects :

a. Shape of site
b. Colour of soil
c. Smell of soil
d. Natural features of the site
e. Soundness/hardness of the soil
f. Taste of soil
g. Composition and grains of the soil to be ascertained through tactile senses.

Thus, the land is tested in the following ways : By observing the shape of the site, by the smell of the soil as well as the smells existing in the environment, the features of the site, the hardness of the soil, the taste of the soil, the compactness and hardness of the grains.

As a result of these tests, a site may be chosen wherein the various positives outweigh the negatives. In such a site the houses may be built.

Let us take the examples of temple buildings.

Two theories have been propounded regarding the spaces within the temples. One is that the prakara bijam and the other of sakala nishkala tatvam.

Prakara Bijam

In the temple complex the position of the garbhagruha is considered the most important. This position is seen as the moolasthanam of the complex. Taking this as the basic unit the rest of the complex is laid out as multiples of the module. Hence, if the garbhagruha is taken as x then the prakaram will be 1 X on either side of the sanctum, and in front there is a projection of the module upto 3X which forms the mukhayamam of the temple. In this rectangular form the garbhagruha is like a seed that constantly expands outwards to form the 1,3,5,7 prakaras.

Sakala Nishkala Tatvam

In a grid or matrix of the site, there are two ways of creating patterns. One with even numbers of lines and the other with odd numbers(yugma and ayugma).

The yugma grid would create a point in the centre while the ayugma would create a space. The first is called nishkala and the second is sakala. Nishkala stands for the amorphous experience while sakala denotes the experience of a morphic form. In every part of the country, all Shiva temples have been set out on a Nishkala grid (either 8X8 or 10X10) while Vishnu, Muruga, Devi and other forms have been placed in a temple with Sakala grid (7X7, 9X9).

In fact, the deities have been allocated special positions in the sanctum, with only the lingam placed in the centre while all other forms get shifted behind the central axis. Against the wall devas and devis as well as avatara purushas are placed (including Buddha and Mahavira). In sculpture too the proportions are strictly followed for Divine Beings, Avatara, Bhutagana, non-worship images and so on.

Hence, it can be stated that the principles of Vaastu are anchored in the belief that the sacred numbers and sacred measures manifest themselves into a form. This form is capable of investing the enclosed space with a sanctity and benediction.

In a temple, the spatial alignment, and the proportion of the structure come together to create an experience outside of the limited self. To this is added the mystery of the glowing lamp, the dark shadows, the resonance of stone walls, the endless sound of Omkara mantram, the ringing of the bells, the smells of camphor, the feel of the flowers and the cool sweetness of the holy water. Simultaneously, all the senses are heightened and sensitised so that the individual may (if atleast for a moment) touch the timeless spirit within himself.

Even to a non-believer, or to a student of knowledge, the mysticism of the experience is easily discernible in many of the great temples. To this primary experience is added the sum total of collective faith over hundreds of years. This then becomes the beacon of the human quest for sublimation of the human self. Again and again, generations of people tap into this repository to replenish themselves.

For some of us, the quest has also become a journey into the past to unravel the wisdom of our forefathers. There is much that we can learn from dipping into the texts. But, unless we supplement this knowledge with personal experience, and attempt to apply it on the changing context the great principles would, in their turn, get fossilised and become the pastime of the elite. They too would end up adorning the tea tables of our rich, just as the Nataraja and the Kalamkari legends have ended up as objects to show off our Indian identity, to a foreign visitor.