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Vaastu and ancient Indian Architecture
Vaastu Gives Enduring Life to Monuments
Vaastu is one of the many branches of ancient India’s wisdom that profoundly correlates man with nature, the elements and the universe in a coherent way. Man does not stand alone; he is made up of elements derived from nature around us that again is part of a cosmic whole. Vaastu specifically focuses on architecture, buildings and on unifying everything to be in harmony with cosmic energy fields as influenced by direction. Man attains harmony with the building that he is in that again is in harmony with the immediate surroundings, the Earth’s directions and the cosmic whole when there is perfect alignment and balance. The sages of ancient India knew about magnetic fields, cosmic rays, gravitation and energy and Vaastu embodies all these in the science of architecture as a means to design buildings that contributed to a man’s inner peace, harmony and progress in life.
One can trace the influence of Vaastu in Indian architecture right from the times of the Indus Valley Civilization to the rock cut temples in South India, the Temple of Srirangam, the exotic Sun temple at Khajuraho, the Buddhist Stupa, the Tirupati Temple, the Jaipur City Palace, Swaminarayan Mandir in Delhi and others are shining examples of Vaastu influenced architecture and construction. Monuments that conform to Vaastu principles have stood the test of time and endured for centuries.
The famous Tiripati temple located in Andhra Pradesh in South India is a case in point. It is a sprawling temple complex embodying the principles of Vaastu. The complex is square shaped and located in a way that its axis and that of the Earth are perpendicular to each other, adhering to norms of Vaastu. In the North East side of the complex is a lake and a pond, considered auspicious in Vaastu. The dining area is placed in the South East direction. Food is stored in the North West and North side of the complex. The main temple is in the South West direction of the complex. The entire complex placement and placement of elements within conform as near as possible to Vaastu principles, one reason why it has endured and is one of the most visited temples of Lord Balaji on Earth.
Fortuituously or otherwise, the original temple of Lord Krishna was built on a grandiose scale during the reign of the Vijayanagara Emperors and designed to conform to the then laid down principles of Vaastu in respect of temple construction. If one correlates the position of the temple, the placement of GarbaGriha and other elements, these will be found to be in line with the laid down laws according to the Puranas.
Interesting to note is the nearby places of interest that are directly or directly connected to the Tirupati Temple. To the North of the temple complex is the Akashganga waterfalls from water is drawn to bathe the Lord each day. The Papa Vinashanam is a lake North to the temple and is in the form of a deep bowl surrounded by hills. It is believed that bathing in this lake washes away one’s sins. Again, to the North can be found a rare thing: two different sets of rocks in the form of an arch, chained together and is the only one of its kind in India. External and internal elements give a strong, positive strength and reinforcement to its perennial popularity.
East or West, North or South, Vaastu is All about Direction and Alignment
Man is a manifestation of the cosmic universe. The Earth, the galaxy and the cosmic universe are made up of the same elements that man has within him and not surprisingly, life flow or energy flow and energy points in a man correspond to energy flows and points of the Earth. Ancient sages of India studied the entire cosmos and its effect on man and came up with definitive principles enshrined in what is now known as Vaastu. Their minute observations and studies helped them define guidelines for selection of land, design of dwellings, palaces and temples so as to promote a positive flow of energy in harmony with Nature. Alignment resulted in peace, joy, harmony and progress. Conflict results in constant difficulties. Vaastu principles were rigorously followed in construction of temples.
The Manasara Silpa Shastra, Viswakarma Vaastushastra, Samarangana Sutradhara, Aparajita Prachha, Mayamatam and Silparatna are treatises from ancient India that delineate in painstaking detail construction techniques. All the sages –Viswakarma, Manasara, Raja Bhoja, Aparajita, Kautilya and Sukracharya refined centuries old traditions and study into neatly defined canons for architecture. Today the world admires and shows increasing interest as a way to be in harmony with nature and with oneself.
The Sun temple at Konark, the Sun temple at Modhera in North Gujarat and the Sun Temple in Ranakpur, Rajasthan are prime examples of the Northern Nagara style of Vaastu temple architecture. The Sun temple at Modhera predates that at Konark by a good two centuries but the design, structure and build plans are almost identical, indicating a strong propensity in rulers of those times to strictly follow Vaastu principles of construction. The Ranakpur Sun Temple follows the same design principles but unlike the other two, it is made in marble with 134 exquisitely carved pillars, no two alike. Built by Jains, the design structure is slightly different although well within the definitions of Vaastu. The Konark Sun temple is aligned along the East-West axis on a sloping topography. Calculations are so precise that the rays of Sunlight on Equinox (20th March and 21st September) illuminate the idol of the Lord Sun located deep in the Garbagriha of the temple, something that never happens on any other day of the year. Vaastu is not just about vague directions, it is highly precise as can be seen in the construction design of the Sun temples. All the other Sun Temples—in Martand in Jammu and Kashmir, in Uttarakhand, in Gaya, in Bihar, the Bhramanya Dev Temple at Unao in Madhya Pradesh, the Sri Surya Pahar in Assam, the Surya Narayana Swamy Temple at Arasavalli in Andhra Pradesh, all embody the principles of Vaastu in their design and construction.
For Hindus the Sun is important, not only as a giver of light, but also for being a source of sustenance, of energy and of direction and the temples dedicated to the Sun God sing an ode to the all important place He occupies in the scheme of life.
Enriched with the ancient arts of India
Architecture and planning were well advanced, even in ancient India. The ancient monuments of India that survive to this day are proof of this. One can only wonder at the careful planning of each little aspect, down to the last detail, that went into the making of these wonderful monuments. Not only were they designed to perfection but they followed Vaastu principles of direction and construction in order to be aligned with the cosmos. One such example is the collection of Stupas at Sanchi, constructed around the 3rd century by Emperor Ashoka Maurya as a pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Buddhism was then at its height in India. Neglected for centuries after the decline of Buddhism and vandalized, it has been restored and is a World Heritage Site.
The word stupa has interesting origins. In Sanskrit it is the topmost part of the head, the crest of the summit and in the construction context, it rightfully sits at the top of a hill. In general terms stupa is a simple mound of earth. Simplest stupas were round in shape and contained the ashes of a person. Earthen mounds gave way to elaborately designed and constructed masonry structure. Stupas were built in areas from Afghanistan to Nepal, to Borobudur and Sri Lanka. The Stupa structure at Borobudur in Java is truly magnificent, said to replicate the universe. The Mahabodhi Gaya Stupa is yet another fine depiction of Buddhist architecture.
Sanchi in Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh (in the heart of India) is where the famous Sanchi Stupa is located. The village and the Stupas are located about 46 km northeast of Bhopal and its map coordinates are 23°28'50" North and 77°44'11" East. Sanchi in Hindi means a mound of stones.
The Sanchi Stupa is a highly evolved, elaborate structure. It has the following elements:
- Four toranas or entrance gates at the North, East, South and West
- Stone Fence Railing
- Stone path around the central Stupa
- The upper level pradakshina or circumambulating path
- The Central Dome
- The square Harmika atop the dome
- A pole rising from the centre of the Harmika supporting the Chhatra
- The Staircase leading to the terrace
The dome is rounded on top of which sits a square platform known as the Harmika. In the centre atop the dome is a chhatra (umbrella) on a single pole. The pole represents the world axis and the chhattra or umbrella depicted royalty as well as the sacred Tree of Life or enlightenment. The Sanchi stupa chhatra represents the Buddha, the Law and the community of monks. The dome is placed on a raised platform with stairs going around it in a clockwise direction from the ground up. This enables a worshipper to circumambulate the dome. The entire structure sits surrounded by railing or balustrade and elaborately carved gateways opening out North, East, South and West. The entire Stupa complex is usually built on a hill. Symbolically, the dome is the universe and represents the Buddha and the gates carry carvings depicting his life story or from the Jataka tales.
The entire Sanchi Stupa complex is rectangular in shape with the longer sides in a North-South direction and the site sits atop a hill. The approach is a gentle incline up the hill leading to the main stupa. The main stupa is located in the centre and is closer to the west permiter. The Stupa has four gateways or “toranas”pointing in the four directions North, East, South and West. The four toranas symbolize trust, courage, love and peace. In front of the stupa to its south-east is the temple. The new temple is located at the northern border of the complex. At a distance from the northern border is a water tank. There is yet another stupa to the West of the complex, at a distance. Next to the main stupa towards the south is the Ashoka Pillar and a little bit to the East there is a smaller temple. The Vihara is at the Eastern border of the complex, facing the main stupa.
The form of the stupa symbolizes a man sitting in meditation. In another sense it symbolizes the five elements, colours and connection to the enlightened mind. The base of the stupa is square and is represented by yellow that stands for earth or equanimity or balance. The dome is a circle represented by white colour that stands for water that is indestructible and only changes its form. The spire is usually a triangle represented by the colour red symbolizing fire that is compassionate. The chhattra or umbrella is a half circle represented by green symbolized by the wind that accomplishes and stands for action. Finally there is the jewel or the dewdrop that in essence is formless representing space or awareness.
Each item in the stupa itself has associated symbolism. The steps at the base represent the three refuges of Buddha. The steps below the dome represent the legs of the Buddha made up of kindness, joy, balance and joy. The dome is the Buddha’s chest made up of the seven elements of enlightenment. The Harmika represent the eyes of the Buddha. The spire represent the levels or stages of the path. The chhatra or umbrella shelters and represents compassion. The jewel or space represents enlightenment.
Ancient Vaastu principles embody the same principle where a plot of land, a building is akin to the structure of a human body, with energy fields and flow and needs cosmic alignment that is visible in the Sanchi Stupa structure.
Apart from containing relics of the Buddha and venerated, Stupas, in general, promote harmony and peace—positive energies and at the same time reduce negative influences like strife, discord and famine. Stupas are conceived and built to prevent ill health and maintain a balance in the forces of nature. In a way the structure and placements of elements represent a human body with placement of chakras.
As a magnificent monument, the Sanchi Stupa keeps you entranced for hours. For those who seek deeper meanings, there are hidden symbolisms to discover and interpret at various levels.
The Hindu Temples
1. The Modhera Sun Temple
Other Sun temples in Konark, Gaya, Assam and the oldest one in Multan predate it. The Sun Temple at Modhera is a legacy of King Bhimdev of the Solanki dynasty, constructed in 1026 AD. It is located on the banks of the Pushpavati River, 25km from Mehsana and about 100 km from Ahmedabad in Gujarat.
2. Kedarnath Temple
Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Kedarnath temple is located in Kedarnath in Uttarakhand, India. Since it is located high in the GarhwalHimalayas at about 12000 feet, it is not accessible throughout the year and the ancient idol of Lord Shiva is brought down t o the Ukhimath temple. Pilgrims must trek about 14 km upholl from Gaurikund. It is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas in India and the holiest, one of the four holy pilgrimage places for Hindus. It is about 150 miles from Hardwar and 132 miles north of Hrishikesh.
3. Badrinath Temple
Description and Location
One of the holiest of Hindu Temples, the Badrinath Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is located in a town of the same name in Chamoli in Uttarakhand and forms part of the four holiest places of pilgrimage. The Alaknanda river flows close by. Like Kedarnath, it is only open for four months starting April. The temple has a one metre high statue of Lord Vishnu in a meditating posture. It is said to be one of the eight self-manifested forms of the Lord and is held extremely sacred by Vaishnavites. This temple is said to predate the Vedic period according to some experts. A little below the temple one finds hot sulphur springs. It is said Adi Shankaracharya founded this temple when he found a statue of Lord Vishnu in the near Alaknanda River.
4. Dwarkadheesh Temple
This famous temple dedicated to Lord Krishna is located in Jamnagar in Gujarat and is one of the four holiest pilgrimage places. Dwarka is said to be one of the seven most ancient cities in India. Lord Krishna, said to be the 8th incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is worshipped as the King of Dwarka. The temple is located at the confluence of the River Gomti and the Arabian Sea, a majestic five storey structure supported on seventy two pillars with an imposing spire height of 78.3 metres.
5. Jagannath Temple, Puri
Description and Location
The Jagannath Temple is one of the four holy pilgrimage places for Hindus. It is located in Puri, a coastal town in Orissa, about 60 km from Bhubhaneshwar, on the East coast of India. Parts of the temple were constructed a roundthe 11th century by King Anantavarman Chodaganga Deva of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty and Ananga Bhima Deva rebuilt it around the 11th century. The annual Rath Yatra, or procession of temple cars or chariots, is a mega event in which thousands of devotees participate in an atmosphere of religious fervour. Unlike other temples where idols are usually carved from stone, the idols of Jagannath, Subhadra and Balabhadra are carved from Neem wood. Along with the holy trinity, idols of Sridevi, Vishwadhatri , Madanmohan and the Sudarshan Chakra also occupy the divine platform in the sanctum.
6. Shri Krishna Temple at Guruvayoor
The temple is in Guruvayoor town in Kerala and hence the name. Dedicated to Lord Krishna, the temple is accessible from Thrissur and is known as the Dwarka of the South. In the sanctum is the resplendent idol of Lord Krishna with four arms, carrying in each a Sudarshan Chakra, a Mace, a Lotus with a garland of tulsi (basil) and a Conch.
There are conflicting claims on how old the deity is, some stating it is about 5000 years old, some place it around the 14th or 17th century. The temple was ravaged by Haider Ali and later, in 1970 it was devastated by a fire and was rebuilt.
7. Sri Thyagaraja Temple, Tiruvarur
Sri Thyagaraja Temple is located in Tiruvarur in Tamil Nadu in South India. Constructed during the reign of the Chola king Anukkiyar Paravai Nangaiyar around the 10th century, the temple is dedicated to Lord Thyagaraja and is considered a shakti peeth by devout Hindus.
The temple stands in a sprawling complex of 20 acres with the Kamalalayam tank taking up another 25 acres. In the temple complex one can find a number of shrines and halls bound within three large halls. The Lord Vanmikinathar shrine is the oldest of Shiva temples. The Thyagarajar or Somaskanda shrine dedicated to Shiva, Uma and their son Skanda, represent fertility. These two stand resplendently, overshadowing the others in the vast complex.
8. Tirumala Venkateswara Temple - Tirupati
The famous Tirumala Venkateswara Temple is located in Tirumala, close to Tirupati in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh in South Iindia. It is about 140 km from Chennai and 600 km from Hyderabad. The Tirumala Hills have seven peaks, said to represent the seven heads of Adisesha. The main temple is located on Venkatadri peak or Venkata Hill. Venkateswara, the presiding deity, worshipped here by millions, is one of the forms of Lord Vishnu. The Temple is located on the southern bank of Sri Swami Pushkarini tank. About one lakh pilgrims visit this temple each day. The Venkateswara temple, Tirupati, is one of the 108 sacred shrines to Lord Vishnu and one of the richest in India.
Kings of the Vijayanagara, the Chola, the Pallava and even Marathas worshipped at Shri Venkateswara temple. Throughout history, kings visited this temple and endowed it with wealth, status and power. Even the Rig Veda and Puranas mention Venkateshwara, the granter of boons. Devotees pray to have their wishes granted and visit the temple and pay homage by tonsuring their heads or cutting off long tresses.
9. Ramanathaswamy (Rameshwaram) Temple
Ramanathaswamy temple is located in Rameshwaram town in Tamil Nadu in South India. The temple is actually located on Pamban Island, connected to India by a bridge across the Gulf of Mannar and it is the southernmost tip of the Indian Peninsula. It is one of the holiest of holy pilgrimage places for Hindus and is one of the four holiest pilgrimage places. The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and has its roots in antiquity. Rama is said to have built a bridge with his Vanarsena in his attempt to rescue Sita, held captive by Ravana in Lanka. While returning after his victorious battle, he stopped at this island and wished to seek forgiveness from Shiva for having killed a Brahmin, Ravana. He sent Hanuman to Kailasha mountains to bring back an idol of the Lord. Sita got tired of waiting and made a lingam for Rama and Laxman to worship and that is the one in the temple to this day. Hanuman returned later with a linga and that too resides in the temple.
Besides there are about 30 “teerthams” or holy tanks located outside the temple premises, some in a state of disrepair. Inside the complex there are 22 such tanks, each with a legend.
10. Rajarajeshwar Temple
The Rajarajeshwar (King of Kings) temple is located in Taliparamba in Kannur district of Kerala in South India. Of the numerous Shiva temples in Kerala, it is held in high esteem and is visited by devotees praying to Shiva to grant favours through a unique method of asking questions. The temple was built around the eleventh century but has ancient roots. Parshurama is said to have rebuilt a temple at this very place centuries ago. Its tall spire, once the tallest in the region, has been destroyed. However, its present shikhar weighs 90 tons. It is one of the ancient “Shaktipeethams”.
11. Somnath Temple
Location and Description
The Somnath Temple enshrines one of the Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva. It is located near Veraval in Saurashtra, about 465 km from Ahmedabad and is accessible by road, rail and air. The temple was razed 17 times by invaders and was rebuilt each time, emerging like the Sphinx from the rubble. Since its destruction by Aurangzeb it was in partial ruins until Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel started reconstruction in 1947.
12. Omkareshwar Temple, Mandhata, Indore
Location & Description
The famed Omkareshwar temple, said to be one of the repositories of the twelve jyotirlingas, lies about 77 km from Indore, on the Ratlam-Indore-Khandwa line, with Omkareshwar the nearest railhead. It is located on Mandhata island at the confluence of the holy Narmada and Kaveri rivers. The island itself resembles the shape of the word “Om” when viewed from the air. It is a picturesque location, with hills on the north and south with the Narmada flowing into a deep pool that is about 270 feet below a cantilever bridge.
13. Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati
Location and description
One of the revered Shakti Peeths in India, the famed Kamakhya temple is located on the Nilachal Hill in western Guwahati in Assam. The temple complex has shrines dedicated to Bhuvaneshwari, Chinnamasta, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Sitala, Lalita Kanta, Jay Durga, Vana Durga, Tripura, Sundari, Tara and Bagalamukhi, various manifestations of Shakti. In addition there are five shrines to Lord Shiva in his various forms. Then there are three shrines devoted to Lord Vishnu in and around the complex. The complex is a pilgrimage centre and is important for Tantrics.
14. Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi
Location and Description
The most famous of temples to Lord Shiva is located in the holy city of Varanasi and is a place of pilgrimage for devout hindus. The Kashi Vishwanath temple stands majestically on the western bank of the Ganges, enshrining one of the twelve Jyotirlingas. Vishveshwara or Vishwanath, a manifestation of Lord Shiva, is the presiding deity.
15. Konark Sun Temple
Location & Description
This magnificent Sun Temple is located in Konark. It was built in the 13th century by King Narasimhadeva and is the finest example of Orissan architecture in the Aryan style. Konark Sun Temple has been declared a World Heritage Site. Konark is about 65 km from Bhubhaneshwar and about 35 km from Puri.
16. Anantha Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Tiruvananthapuram
Location and Description
Possibly the richest temple the world with assets valued at a conservative USD 1.2 trillion, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, is one of the 108 Divya Desams or holy abodes of Vishnu. The city derives its name from the temple. Vishnu, in the form of Padmanabhaswamy, is shown in the posture of eternal sleep on Anantha, the serpent. That the temple is ancient can be seen from the fact that mention is made in the Bhagvata Gita and the seven Puranas. Some claim the Padmanabhaswamy temple was established on the first day of Kaliyug, about 5000 years ago.
17. Varadharaja Perumal Temple, Kanchipuram
Location and Description
The famous Varadharaja Perumal temple, also known as Attiyuran and Hastagiri, is located in Kanchipuram in Tamilnadu. It is one of the 108 Divya Desams of Vishnu. Along with the Kamakshi Amman temple and the Ekambareshwarar temple it forms the abode of the revered trio. Attiyuran takes its name from the fact that the original image of Varadharaja was made from Attimaram wood. Hastagiri came about since it is believed that Airavat, Indra’s elephant, in the form of a hill, carries the image of Lord Vishnu. The presiding deity is Lord Vishnu in the form of Varadharaja Perumal in a standing posture. There are other shrines in the temple complex. Two sacred lizards covered in gold and silver foil are sculpted on the ceiling outside the inner sanctum that sits atop a hillock.
18. Ucchi Pillayar Temple, Rockfort, Tiruchirapalli
Location & Description
The Ucchi Pillayar Koil or Temple is unique and one of its kind in that it is located on top of a hill and is the most prominent landmark in Tiruchirapalli. The temple complex and a fort sit on top of the hill and that is one reason why it is also known as the Rockfort temple. The Ucchi Pillayar temple straddles the hill majestically while the Manikka Vinayakar temple is at the foot of the hill while the equally famous Sri Thayumanavar temple is halfway up the hillside. One has to climb about 400 steps to reach the Ucchi Pillayar Temple to be rewarded with a breathtaking view. There is an airport and railway station in the city and there are buses from all major towns in Tamil Nadu.
19. Lord Sree Sita Ramachandra Swamy Temple in Badrachalamor the Bhadrachalam Temple, Bhadrachalam
Location and Description
The Lord Shadrachalam Temple is dedicated to Lord Rama and is an important pilgrimage centre for Hindus. The temple is located on the left bank of the River Godavari in Bhadrachalam in Khammam district in North Andhra Pradesh. Interestingly, Bhadrachalam owes its name to Bhadragiri, or the mountain of Bhadra, a boon child of Menaka and Meru. After Ayodhya, this temple occupies a special place of importance in the hearts of devotees of Lord Sri Rama. Kancharla Gopanna or Bhakta Ramadas is credited with having constructed this temple in the 17th century.
20. Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram
Location and Description
No mention of Shiva temples in India is complete without talking of the Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram. Lord Shiva is shown here in the form of Lord Nataraja, Lord of Dance, one of the panch bhuta or five elements of the Lord. It is located in Chidambaram in East-Central Tamil Nadu. The temple is about 235 km from Chennai and about 80 km from Pondicherry. Unique to this temple is that the presiding deities are Lord Nataraja, a form of Lord Shiva and Lord Govindraja Perumal, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. An interpretation of “Chidambaram” means sky and consciousness or stage in another sense, referring to performing arts, acknowledging Lord Shiva as Lord Nataraja the Supreme exponent of Bharatanatyam.