What is a Hindu Temple Part 2: Their Symbolism and Vastu Shastra

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In the previous article after discussing What is a Hindu temple, the symbolisms and Vastu Shashtra, this article takes a look at the Vastu Shashtra as a directional science and the various gods associated with it and discusses the foundation rites and rituals followed while constructing a temple.

Wall of a Hindu temple with its various gods (photo by Priyank Gupta)

Vastu or Vaastushastra, the architectural science developed and complied in ancient India, is a part of Vedas, which were composed by various yogis who underwent penance and meditation to seek answers to their various philosophical questions. Hence the various scientific discourses within the Vedas are found coupled with their acquired divine knowledge. The science of Vastu is first seen in the Sthapatya Veda, a part of the Atharva Veda. It is a purely technical subject, and the knowledge remained confined to the ancient architects (Sthapatis), which was handed over to their heirs following oral traditions. The various principles of construction, architecture, sculpture, etc. on temple architecture, as seen in the two Epics and various other treatises (such as Matsya Purana, Skanda Purana, Agni Purana, Garuda Purana, and Vishnu Purana), have been incorporated and compiled together within the science of Vastu.

Other ancient shastras that have helped in compiling and subsequent passing of the knowledge of Vastushastra to the next generation, are texts like Vishvakarma Prakash, SamaranganSutradhar, Kashyap Shilpshastra, BrihadSamhita, and Praman Manjaree. The Mahabharata talks in great details of the houses built for the kings who were invited to Indraprastha for the Rajasuya Yagna of King Yuddhistira. Sage Vyasa says that these houses were as high as the peaks of Mt. Kailasa, an allegorical reference to show that the mansions stood tall and majestic. The houses were made as such that they were free from obstructions, had high walled compounds, and their doors were of uniform height that was inlaid with many metal ornaments. It is said that the site plan of Ayodhya was similar to the plan found in the great architectural text Manasara. Buddhist literature also has innumerable writings on building constructions based on Vastu.

Ancient city of Rajagriha. (photo from Wikipedia)

Vastu Shastra is a science of directions

The Vastu, which when translated means ‘dwelling’, and refers to the residing place for gods and man from Samathe study of vastu is based on the five natural elements or the Panchabhutas: Vayu (air), Agni (fire), Jal (water), Bhumi (earth) and Vyom/Aakash (space). Elements of Vastu Shastra is in totality a science of directions that combine the five elements of nature and cosmos, bringing a balance between man and the material and helping him to achieve prosperity, good health, and success.

Without knowing the correct directions it is not possible to find out the doshas in any building (as per Vastu). In older times, Sun movement was considered as the most important factor in Vastusashtra, as directions were understood by observing the shadows cast by the Sun.

The cardinal and sub cardinal / sub directions which are the most important aspects of Vastu. (Image from google for representational purposes only)

As per the Vastu sashtra (Atharva Veda), the five elements as associated with the four sub-directions and the center (brahmasthana) are:

1. North-East (Ishaan) – Water
2. South-East (Agneya) – Fire
3. South-West (Nirrti) – Earth
4. North-West (Vayaya) – Air
5. Centre – Space/ Vyom/Akash

Earth, which is also the third planet from the Sun, is the first and foremost element of nature that exerts energy, bringing in balance, and providing stability and patience. Water, another of the 5 natural elements, is present in the form of rain, lakes, rivers, seas, and oceans, and is the very essence of life, representing its flow and movements. It is associated with healing, clear vision, clarity of thoughts, and new ideas in a person’s life. For deriving maximum benefits, water sources in any building should be kept in the North-East direction of that particular structure.

Fire, which is an energy-giving source like the Sun, represents zeal, passion, and strength. All fire sources, like kitchen fire, should be placed in the South-East direction for beneficial effects; and while constructing any building it is essential to provide for a proper entry of sunlight, as it is the only natural source of light energy. Air is vital for human survival and is associated with a movement that brings in happiness. Vyom or Space pertains to the limitless and infinite, combining all-natural forces of heat, light, gravity, magnetic field, and electromagnetic waves. It is associated with the central region or the brahmasthana of a building and provides shelter to the other four natural elements.

Among all the buildings used by men, a temple especially needs careful consideration of the Vastu factors while it is being built. In that context, some of the important directional factors to be kept in mind while building a temple are (refer: Samaranganasutradhara, BrhatSamhita):

  1. The ideal location/site for the building of a temple. This is the most important part in temple construction, and a careful inspection of the plot, soil type, and land size and shape must be done before starting the construction, as the ground or Prithvi/Earth is an important element in Vastu and tends to have an impact on human lives associated with the temple. In fact our scriptures give in detail not only the correct directions for temples, but also the right locations (as for example, whether a temple should be located in the centre of the town, or just outside the town limits, or in a forested area, etc.) that are specific for each deity and their various aspects.
  2. The direction and placement of the main entry point to the temple, which is generally east facing.
  3. The direction and placement of the main deity, which is extremely important.
  4. The direction and placement of temple walls, pillars, doors, and windows (gavakshas/vatayanas).
  5. The direction and placement of the puja mandapa, and where other religious activities will take place.
A Temple in Telangana showing a vatayana or a window for entry of light and air (photo by author)

Sacred architecture of temples

The Vastupurushamandala, which represents the cosmos, and is based on a square symbolising the four cardinal directions of the earth, stands for the ordered world, knowledge, and human mind; unlike the circle which stands for eternity and divinity. The main square of a Vastupurushamandala is subdivided into multiple squares totalling 64 or 81.

The BrhatSamhita tells us of two types of diagrams, one with 64 squares (pada) and another with 81 squares; and it is generally believed that a Vastupurushamandala with 64 squares is used for temple constructions while a diagram of 81 squares is used for house construction. Some texts do however make space for a diagram with 81 squares to be used for temple constructions but only by the Kshtriyas. The central four (9, in case 81 squares are used) of the grid is Brahmapura or Brahmasthana, the place for the Brahman. It is here on the Brahmasthana that the garbagriha is placed.

Surrounding the Brahmasthana are arranged the 12 Adityas or the sun gods one for each month of the year, and arranged around the Adityas are the 32 celestial luminaries or pada devtas (also refer: Vishnudharmottora).

The plan of 64 squares is known as Manduka or Bhekapada or Ajira. Manduka means a frog referring to the motionless posture as in Manduka Yoga. Also one must remember the primeval frog, Maha Manduka, which is the Great energy that supports Sesha, the serpent on whom the world rests. The plan of 81 squares is known as Paramasayika. (image from Wikipedia for representational purposes only).
Here the NE corner is shown as Agni instead of Ishana- an aspect of Shiva. Please note: Ishana is one of Agni’s nine forms; Vahni or Agni is Hara or Shiva (refer: Samaranganasutradhara). Image from Kramrisch, vol I.

A Vastupurushamandala has eight directions each with their own specific gods governing that particular direction. There are in total eight directions: North, South, East, and West which are the cardinal directions; and the ordinal or intercardinal points (where any of the two directions meet) are NE, SE, SW, NW. These ordinal directions have great significances in Vastu Shastra as they provide the total benefits of two directions.

As per the sashtras, the worship of these eight directional gods brings forth divine blessings in the form of success, health, and prosperity. The gods of the directions are as follows (as explained in the BrhatSamhita, and also in the Vishnudharmottora, Pt. II. ch. XXXIX. 18-30):

East: This direction is governed by Indra, the king of gods. He bestows wealth and pleasures of life to his worshippers.

South East: This direction is governed by Agni, who blesses his worshippers with good health and prosperity.

South: This presiding deity of this direction is Yama, the god of death. He is representative of Dharma or righteousness, the remover of all evil, and bestows his worshippers with wealth, plenty of crops, and general happiness.

South West: This direction is governed by Pitru/Nirrti or ancestors, depicting the exit from life. It protects us from our enemies and bestows devotees with strength of character and longevity.

West: This direction is governed by Varuna, the god of the waters. He blesses his devotees in the form of rains, and gives them wealth and prosperity.

North West: This direction is ruled by Vayu, the god of winds. He brings in good health and long life.

North: This direction is governed by Kuber/Soma, the god of wealth.

North East: This place is a supervised by Ishana- an aspect of Shiva, and is a source of wealth, health, and success. He bestows wisdom, knowledge and removes all miseries and mishaps.

The eight directional gods each have an assigned planet and are also assigned to the leading star of the mansion of the moon, which are called the nakshastras. The nakshastras or constellations (lunar mansions), are a part of the course which the moon follows in its monthly rotation. It is from all these that the universe came into existence, ordered in extent and constant in its order, which is reflected in the fixed number of squares. In the centre is the dark source of all light, the super-luminous darkness, the central point that is beyond all darkness, and its radiance proceed outwards in the vastupurushmandala through all the regents of the sun, planets, and stars placed around the central Brahmasthana.

Thus from the centre, which is beyond all time, what we find displayed is cyclical time in its sections, in units of days, months, and years; and in these cycles, the different courses of the sun and moon are adjusted (refer: Samaranganasutradhara).

Thus, the Vastupurushmandala is a representation of the recurring cycles of time in the ordered world.

Vastupurushamandala (image from google for representational purposes only)

The rites and rituals followed in building a temple

As discussed in the previous article, the best place to construct a temple would be at a sacred spot or teerth, located beside a water body, such as a river, lake, seaside, or mountain top. In his Brhatsamhita, Varahamihira describes the various processes necessary to analyse a site before selecting it for temple construction.

Examining the smell, taste, sound, fertility, colour, and consistency of the site soil is important, and in this context, Varahamihira lists a series of tests for finding out the quality of the soil of the land selected. Once the land passes all these tests and is deemed good for temple construction, ground purification process starts at a chosen auspicious timing.

After the purification is complete, the land must be perfectly levelled to enable the drawing of the Vastupurusuhamandala. With the placing of this metaphysical diagram, the site is now ready for temple construction, and the foundation rites and rituals.

Matsyapurana, which describes the possible forms of Hindu temple, tells us that they can be built of wood, or baked brick or stone. (Image by Priyank Gupta)

The first foundation rite or istaka nayasa (laying of the first brick) of a temple is conducted as such:

In extent the foundation pit is coterminous with the boundaries of the Prasada; in-depth it is equal to the height of man standing with raised arms, or it is dug to the rock-bottom or until gravel is reached or the water level according to the geographical conditions of the site. After the pit is dug, it should be filled with pure earth, eight finger widths (angula) high; on this layer another one is placed, one cubit in height and composed of layers of strong stones each embedded in wet earth and separated one from the other by sand and earth; when the foundation has been laid so far, it is moistened with water, trodden by elephants, and levelled with heavy wooden stampers. On top of this, it is firmly packed and when one fourth of the pit remains the first bricks are laid (the first brick laid is called Asadha, the invincible, referring to Earth), below the place where the right door jamb of the main entrance to the temple will be positioned (Tantrasamuccaya. I. ch. I. 89).

These bricks are laid evenly, and on one level, into the pit and the pit should be filled up. Then the rite of Garbhadhana is to be performed and the vessel which holds the Seed and the Germ of the temple is to be deposited on the ground on the lowermost moulding (upana) or the topmost moulding (prati) of the base, as per the varna status of the sacrificer /donor. Once the varna distinction is made in the base (for the purpose of a record of the seed deposited for the temple), the ascent is one and same for all”

(Refer: BrhatSamhita; Kramrisch 1946i:105-106).

The second foundation rite: silyanasa, the rite of Adharasila, the stone support

Once the bricks are laid as per the rituals, the next rites start with bhumi pujan where Bhu devi or Earth is offered prayers, asking for her blessings to make the site auspicious for temple construction. Simultaneously the instruments to be used for the construction are also worshipped. After this, a pit is dug at the spot where the sanctum will later stand (the squares that represent naval part of the vastupurusha). Then the pit is filled up to three-fourths of its height by alternate layers of soil and pebbles. Once it reaches this stage, a copper jar (Nidhikalasha) or sometimes a casket with compartments (known as Garbhapatra and made of copper, silver or gold) filled with nine precious stones, metal pieces, herbs, roots, earth, and grains are placed.

On the jar or the casket (representing Bhuvanesi or Sakti, who forms the seat of the foundation of the temple), a stone lotus is placed over which is placed a stone tortoise (representing Vishnu- the stability of the world), followed by a silver lotus and on it a silver tortoise, over which a gold lotus and then a gold tortoise are placed in series: thus, making Sakti and Vishnu a part of temple support. From there a funnel-shaped tube known as the Yoganala leads up to the plinth of the temple. This entire rite is known as Garbhadhana (ref: Rig Veda. X. 184. I), which is completed with the placing of a square stone slab/silyanasa (Adharashila) at the centre of the 64 squares (over the jar or casket); finally over the Adharashila, which forms the nabhi of the temple, the concrete temple structure will be built next (ref: Vishnudharmattora (Pt II. ch. XXIX. 78).

Seen here is the base of the temple that rises above the adharasila . Remaining base part of a completely destroyed temple during Islamic invasions, Lodruwa Patan near Jaisalmer. ASI monumnet (Image by Priyank Gupta)
Gopinath temple, Bhangarh fort. Photo by the author

(The next in this series (part III) will discuss the main architectural features of a Hindu temple).