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April 27, 2004 > Vastu Shastra: Ancient Indian Architecture

Vastu Shastra: Ancient Indian Architecture

by Praveena Raman

Until recently, the majority of Tri-City area residents (including myself) were blissfully unaware of Vastu Shastra and the architectural designs that are based on its principles. A month ago, there was a big hue and cry over a mansion that was being built in the Mission area of Fremont, which according to opponents would block their view of neighboring villas that surround it. The mansion, being built by a resident of East Indian descent, had to face a particular way because its design, according to its owner, incorporated the principles of Vastu Shastra. That peaked the curiosity of many, including yours truly and TCV publisher Bill Marshak. This article attempts to give some information on Vastu Shastra and also gives references at the end for those enquiring minds that might want to research it further.

Vastu Shastra is the traditional Indian architecture and design system. The word Vastu in Sanskrit means nature or environment or abode or house and the word Shastra means system or science or technology. Hence Vastu Shastra is the science of architecture and design, a system that relies in harmonizing any real estate development with the five elements of Indian Mythology, namely air, water, earth, fire and space. People in ancient India evolved various codes and systems for living that ensured peace, harmony and prosperity among people. Vastu emphasizes that everything vibrates and pulsates and is close to Quantum Physics. It also asserts through Vedic philosophy, everything is interconnected. Vastu believes that there are two types of forces, which are equal and opposite in nature. The interaction between these two forces, one subtle and fine which is positive in nature and the other dark and dense which is negative, produces a third force called the "bioforce" or Prana, essential for life to exist.

The ancient sacred literature of Hinduism called the Vedas, a collection of hymns, poems and ceremonial formulas, evolved during the Vedic period, an ancient time well before the birth of Christ. Initially the Vedas were considered so sacred that they were only transmitted orally from one generation of Brahmans to the next. Eventually, near the end of the Third century BC, the passages of the Vedas were written in Sanskrit. There were four collections, namely the Rig-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Yajur-Veda and the Atharva-Veda.

Historically this sacred architectural science in India developed orally even before the Vedic Period. From the oral tradition it was recorded in Sanskrit during the Vedic period and compiled under the title Vastu Shastra which, according to some historians, is the oldest known architectural treatise in the world today. Vastu Shastra is part of the Stapatya Veda, which in turn is part of the Atharva Veda. In the Vedic period people built homes, temples and hermitages with a view to ensure peaceful and harmonius living.

The principles of Vastu have been mentioned in the ancient epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Excavations at the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro have shown the influence of Vastu Shastra on the Indus Valley civilization. Sacred architecture in India is a well-developed science. From the Pagodas of Tamil Nadu to the Himalayan hill shrines, India is a treasure house of sacred architecture. The ancient temples in India built on the Vastu principle thousands of years back are a great example of the longevity of this architectural design.

According to the Vastu principles, while constructing a building it should be located in such a way that it receives the maximum benefit from solar and cosmic energies. Hence the orientation of the land and the house with respect to direction becomes vital. The various directions that are specified in the principles are North, South, East, West, NorthEast, NorthWest, SouthEast and SouthWest. Every corner is further divided into two sides. When a plot of land is being considered for purchase, the direction, shape and slope of the plot and the placement of roads with respect to the plot are of utmost importance.

For example, a natural slope of the land towards the East provides overall well being whereas a slope towards the North is supposed to be a wealth generator. Also a respectful distance from the neighbor's house is advocated. According to Vastu principles, four-sided plots like squares, rectangles and trapeziums are fine, but triangular and circular plots are generally avoided due to their association with fire and air.

Vastu Shastra has laid down rules for the exterior and interior of a house that balances a person's environment. Placement of boundary walls, garages and water reservoir follow particular directions which are preferred to achieve a balance. Also, the Shastra recommends specific vegetation that should be planted outside the house. Inside a Vastu home the bedroom is best placed in the Southwest corner of the house with the bed in the middle or southwest corner of the room. Beds should not touch Northern or Eastern walls. The best location for the kitchen is the southeast corner of the house.

The Brahmastan or the central courtyard occupies pride of place in any Vastu house. It is the energy center of the house and is best left open to the sky if possible. This allows the energetic space surrounding the Earth into the house. Some other tips that are offered by Vastu Shastra and followed even now in Indian households are: sleeping with the head placed towards the East or South; facing the East while cooking and viewing the sun in the morning which is considered very beneficial.

Vastu Shastra is currently enjoying a revival both in India as well as in the Western part of the world. Many houses are being built on this design as it also takes into consideration the reduction of pollution and keeping the environment clean and healthy.

Relationship to Feng Shui and Mayan Architecture:
There are many similarities between the Chinese architectural science Feng Shui and Indian Vastu Shastra. Feng Shui is believed to be about 4000 years old and is supposed to have developed in 600 A.D. Some historians believe that Feng Shui is based on Vastu Shastra. Both Vastu and Feng Shui techniques involve balancing the cosmic elements. Where Vastu is based on the five elements, Feng Shui is based on two of the elements, water and wind. Location and design of rooms in both Feng Shui and Vastu Shastra are based on a grid of nine squares.
However, the meaning of some directions in Feng Shui and Vastu Shastra are entirely opposite. For example, in Feng Shui, North is considered as Evil and a Southern direction is preferred for windows whereas in Vastu Shastra, windows can be placed only in the North East direction. Vastu Shastra and Feng Shui share the concept of three forces that play a part in the universe. Feng Shui labels these Yin, Yang and Chi. The Yin is the male force, the Yang the female force and the Chi is the result of the interaction of the Yin and Yang. According to both ancient sciences, an impressive door adds to the prestige of the resident. However, doors that squeak, groan or get stuck are considered harbingers of bad luck. Either school of thought does not recommend sitting with your back towards the door. Both systems advocate a housewarming or groundbreaking ceremony to commence construction or before moving in.
Recently conducted research has shown that there are similarities between the Indian and the Mayan/Incan sacred structures and architecture. The Master architect from India, Sri V. Ganapathi Sthapati, confirmed, after measuring the structures at Machu Picchu, that the location of doors and windows, the slopes of roofs and wall thickness all conform to the guidelines in the Vastu Shastra. He also found that the residential layout at Machu Picchu was identical to the layout at Mohenjadaro and the temples were identical to the temples he is currently building in India.
According to Sri Sthapathi's theory, Mayan, the creator of Indian architecture originated from the Mayan people of Central America. It has also been mentioned that in Indian history, Mayan's name appears several times especially as the author of Mayamatam "Concept of Mayan" a Vastu Shastra. Mayan is also mentioned in the ancient Tamil scripture Silappathikaram, and is the author of Surya Siddhanta, an ancient Hindu treatise on astronomy. Sthapathi also found many parallels in the architectural designs of buildings and deities and some similarities of Mayan words and words in Tamil and Sanskrit.

In conclusion, quoting from the Vastu Shastra -

Because of VASTU SHASTRA, the whole universe gets good health, happiness and all around prosperity. Human beings attain divinity with this knowledge. Followers of VASTU SHASTRA get not only worldly pleasure, but also experience heavenly bliss.

The above text makes it is very clear that VASTU SHASTRA is universal and not confined to any particular group of people, irrespective of any caste, creed or religion.

References for Further Reading:
The following books are available through the Alameda County Library.

  • The Penguin guide to vaastu : the classical Indian science of architecture and design by Sashikala Ananth, 1999.
  • Vaastu : the Indian art of placement : design and decorate homes to reflect eternal spiritual principles by Rohit Arya, 2000
  • Vastu : in 10 simple lessons by Bilkis Whelan, 2002
  • Vastu living : creating a home for the soul by Kathleen Cox ; illustrations by Allison Eden Karn, 2000
  • V_stu-__stra / by D.N. Shukla, 1995
  • The Vastu Vidya handbook : the Indian feng shui by Juliet Pegrum, 2000.

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