Category Archives: Design and Construction

The Vastu Tradition in Hinduism

The vastu tradition is said to be the ancient science of designing and constructing buildings and houses with a corresponding plot of land. The root word vas in vastu means to dwell, live, stay, and reside (Gautum 17) (Kramrisch 82). The vastu-shastra is the manual used for the architecture on how sacred or domestic building must be constructed. The vastu-purusa-mandala is a metaphorical expression of the plan of the Universe and depicts the link between people, buildings and nature it is used to position a building on potential plots of land (Patra 2006:215-216). This mandala is so universal that it can be applied to an altar, a temple, a house, and a city.  Hindu temples are meant to bring humans and gods together.

The vastu shastra is found originating in the Vedas the most ancient of sacred Indian text, tracing back to at least 3,000 B.C.E., if not earlier. The knowledge of constructing and designing a building is found specifically in the Sthapatya Veda, which is a sub heading in the Artharva Veda which is the fourth Veda. Principles of vastu-shastra can be found in several other ancient texts such as Kasyapa Silpa Sastra, Brhat Samhita, Visvakarma Vastu Sastra, Samarangana Sutradhara, Visnu Dharmodhare, Purana Manjari, Mayamata, Aparajitaprccha, Silparatna Vastu Vidya (Patra 2006:215). Hindu literature also cites that the knowledge of sacred architectural construction of buildings was present in the oral traditions since before the Vedic Period. According to Indian experts the vastu is possibly the oldest sacred architectural construction in the world up to date (Osborn 85-86). The oldest master known for vastu is Maya Danava, acknowledged as the founder of this ancient sacred Indian architectural tradition (Osborn 87). It is said that “man can improve his conditions by properly designing and understanding the location, direction, and disposition of a building that have a direct bearing on a human being” (Patra 2014:44). Based on the experience of several generations it has proved that the building and arrangement of villages and capitals in ancient India gave health and peacefulness. The principles regarding the construction of buildings that are in the vastu-shastra are used to please the vastu-purusa; they are explained by the mandala vastu-purusa-shastra. 

There are five basic principles of the sacred science of sacred architecture, the first of which is the doctrine of orientation (diknirnaya), which related to the cardinal directions: north, east, south, west. Second is site planning which uses the vastu-purusa-mandala and is the examination of the soil through categories such as taste, color, etc. Third is the proportionate measurement of the building (mana, hastalakshana), which is divided into six sections: measurement of height, breadth, width or circumference, measurement along plumb lines, thickness, and measurement of inter-space. Fourth there are the six canons of Vedic architecture (ayadi, sadvarga), base (aadhistaana), column (paada or stambha), entablature (prastaara), ear or wings (karna), roof (shikara) and dome (stupi). Fifth is the aesthetics of the building (patakadi, sadschandas) which deals with the nature of beauty such as principles of texture, color, flow, the interaction of sunlight and shadows, these are some principles of aesthetics (Patra 2014:44). The most important requirement in the manual is that the site of a new building must be placed where the gods are at play (King 69). If the temple is unable to be built by a tirtha (a sacred ford or a crossing place that must be by sacred water) then another suitable site should be found. This can be a riverbank, a river junction, a lake, or a seashore. It can even be mountains, hilltops, or forests/gardens. It can also be placed in populated areas like towns, villages, and cities (King 69 and Osborn 87). Water was said to be a fundamental part of the gods’ play, therefore a sacred temple must be near water but if no water was present then man-made a water source. Directions also hold a particular significance (north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, and northwest) they help to clarify the principles of the vastu-shastra.

Once the land has been chosen with appropriate knowledge the ground is then prepared properly using the geometrical design known as vastu-purusa-mandala. Then before the mandala is placed a Priest must perform a number of mantras a sacred utterance that urges all living creatures in the plot to leave so that the new land for the building will not kill any living things (King 69). The soil in the desired area of land must undergo some tests to show whether it is suitable or not. One test that occurs is a pit is dug in the ground and then is filled with water, and the soils strength is then judged by how much water is remaining when the next day arrives. Of course with this in mind before these tests can be done the soil must be examined in the following categories: smell, taste (whether it is sweet, pungent, bitter, astringent), color (white for brahmanas, red for kshatriyas, yellow for vaisyas, black for sudras, the color of the soil and the caste correspond with each other), sound, shape or consistency. After all that is done and if the soil is suitable, then the fertility of the soil must also be tested by plowing the ground and planting seed and recording the growth at 3, 5, and 7 nights. Then according to the success of growth, it is decided whether the soil is fertile and helps decide if this is a good place to build using the mandala (Kramrisch 13-14).

It does not matter whether the building is going to be a house, office, or a school the knowledge from the vastu-shastra must be taken into consideration in order for the execution to be successful. The walls that strengthen the temple are known as prakaras and they may vary in size and number in regards to the size of the temple. When building larger temples like the one in Srirangam they are occasionally surrounded by seven concrete walls that represent the seven layers of matter: earth, water, fire, air, either, mind, and intelligence.


The geometry and measurements of the vastu (blueprint) planned site is a very complex science. The shape must be a square that is a fundamental form of Indian architecture; its full name is vastu-purusa-mandala [the sacred diagram by which a temple is configured (Rodrigues 2006:568)] consisting of three parts vastu, purusa, and mandala. Purusa is a universal essence, a cosmic man representing pure energy, soul, and consciousness whose sacrifice by the gods was said to be the creation of all life. Purusa is the reason that buildings must be created using a mandala of him, which means a diagram relating to orientation. A mandala can also be referred to as a yantra (a cosmological diagram). The vastu-purusa-mandala adopts the shape of the land it is set on so it can fit suitably wherever it is placed. The mandala therefore accepts transformation into a triangle, hexagon, octagon, and circle if the area is consistent and it will maintain its symbolism. Even though the ideal shape is a square, its acceptance of transformation in shape shows the inherent flexibility of the vastu-purusa-mandala (Kramrisch 21 and Patra 2014:47). When configuring a temple they use this mandala of purusa to enable them to place the proper things in the proper directions and proper places (i.e. north, west, etc.) such as where the worship places or bedrooms must be and so forth. If the rooms in these buildings are appropriately placed this will keep the building healthy and keep the people in it happy (Patra 2014:47).

Another thing that the vastu-shastra states is that the layout for residences be placed based on caste; the brahmins (priestly class) are placed in the north, the kshatriyas (the warrior class) in the east, the vaishyas (the merchant class) in the south, and the sudras (the lower class) in the west.  When the land is purified and sanctified the vastu-purusa-mandala is drawn on the site with all the subdivisions helping to indicate the form of the building. The mandala is divided into 64 (8×8) squares and is meant for construction of shrines and for worship by brahmins, or 81 (9×9) squares and is meant for the construction of other buildings and for worship of kshastriyas (kings). These squares (nakshatras) are said to be the seats of 45 divinities that all surround a central open space that is ruled by Brahma (Chakrabarti 6-7 and Kramrisch 46). The square is occupied by the vastu-purusa his very shape of his body. His body with its parts, limbs, and apertures is interpreted as having the same boundaries or extent in space, time, or meaning and is therefore one with the 81 squares of the plan. The mandala is filled with magical effectiveness and meanwhile the body of man is the place of insight by the practice of the discipline of yoga (Kramrisch 49). The vastu-purusa-mandala is the vastu-purusa, his body is together with the presence and actions of the divinities located in the mandala, which is their yantra, the center is the brahmasthana and designates the center point of a building (it is a giant skylight) and its superstructure is the temple (Kramrisch 63).

The brahmasthana is the principle location in the temple because this is where the seat of the godhead will eventually be placed. A ritual is performed at this space in the vastu-purusa-mandala called garbhadhana, which invites the soul of the temple to enter the radius of the building. In this ritual a brahmin and a priest place a gold box in the earth during the ceremony of the first ground breaking. The interior of this box is an exact replica of the mandala squares and each square is filled with dirt. The priest then places the correct mantra in writing to call on the presence of the matching deity. When the base is complete the external features of the temple are brought to life through meticulously sculpted figures and paintings, these arts are generally conveyed as the forms of the divine entities (Osborn 90-91).     

It is said that the vastu-shastra is a very powerful ongoing tradition in India today and is in no threat of becoming extinct. The post secondary schools in India have classes to teach students about the variation of skills and techniques required in the science of sacred architecture. In these classes the literature is all written in Sanskrit, therefore in order for the students to learn the correct knowledge they must know how to read Sanskrit. They are taught everything required for vastu-shastra such as geometry, drafting, stone sculpture, bronze casting, woodcarving, painting, and so much more. When the students gain the correct knowledge and skills to be an architect in India they then graduate with a degree and then receive the title sthapati [(temple architect and builder) this title is named after Sri. M. Vaidyantha Sthapati a master architect, he was the designer and architect of some very popular temples and other Hindu buildings]. India has the most examples of sacred architecture that exist compared to all other countries in the world combined (Osborn 87). One of the more important requirements for vastu-shastra that is used today is the orientation of where parts of the buildings needs to be situated based on the points on the vastu-purusa-mandala. Hindu temples back in the nineteenth century were located at the heart of the city.  With that in mind today if one desires to go to a temple the most important temples are now all found in the suburbs, but they still have the same purpose, to bring human beings and gods closer together.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Boner, Alice (1966) Slipa Prakasa Medieval Orissan Sanskrit Text on Temple Architecture. Leiden: Brill Archive.

Chakrabarti, Vibhuti (2013) Indian Architectural Theory and Practice: Contemporary Uses of Vastu Vidya. New York: Routledge.

Gautum, Jagdish (2006) Latest Vastu Shastra (Some Secrets). New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

King, Anthony D. (ed.) (2003) Building and Society. New York: Routledge.

Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple, Vol 1. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Meister, Michael (1976) Mandala and Practice in Nagagra Architecture in North India.” Artibus Asiae, Vol.99, No.2: p.204-219.

Meister, Michael (1983) Geometry and Measure in Indian Temple Plans: Rectangular Temples. Artibus Asiae. Vol.44, No.4: p.266-296.

Michell, George (1977) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meanings and Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Osborn, David (2010) Science of the Sacred. Raleigh: Lulu Press Inc.

Patra, Reena (2006) Asian Philosophy: A Comparative Study on Vaastu Shastra and Heidegger’s Building, Dwelling and Thinking. New York: Routledge, Vol.16, No.3: p.199-218.

Patra, Reena (2014) Town Planning in Ancient India: In Moral Perspective. Chandigarh: The International Journal of Humanities and Social Studies, Vol.2,  No.6: p.44-51.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2006) Introducing Hinduism-The eBook. Pennsylvania: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, LTD.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (ed.) (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. New York: Routledge.

Trivedi, Kirti (1989) Hindu Temples: Models of a Fractal Universe. Bombay: Springer-Verlag.

Vasudev, Gayatri D. (Editor) (1998) Vastu, Astrology, and Architecture: Papers Presented at the First All India Symposium on Vastu, Bangalore. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.


Related Topics for Further Investigation


Vedic Period



Caste System





Vedic Gods (divinities)

Purusa Legend





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Brandon Simon (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Hindu Temple: Architecture and Construction

Temples are a central aspect of life in the Hindu community and are sacred places for worship. The Hindu temple is a revered structure where the boundaries between humans and the divine are dissolved, allowing one to release themselves from illusion, or maya, and move towards knowledge and truth (Michell 61). In order for a temple to function properly and achieve its intended symbolic representation, the architect must consider the shape and materials of the temple as well as many complex mathematical and astrological principles. The Vastu-sastras are the general manuals on Hindu architecture and they, along with many other manuals, are consulted to help properly create the sacred temple. According to Volwahsen, “each step which the architect takes is regarded from the angle of ritual purity and magic effect, only rarely from the angle of structural expediency” (173). The temple creator is responsible for properly constructing the structure so that it correctly functions as a link between a person and their God. This is important not only for an individual worshipper, but for the whole community, as “the welfare of the community and the happiness of its members depend upon the correctly proportioned temple” (Michell 73).

The Underlying Grid

All Hindu temples begin with a ground plan, a sacred geometric diagram called the mandala that is representative of the universe. The mandala is a grid, a large square that is divided into smaller squares by intersecting lines. It is considered to be “a symbolic pantheon of the gods” (Michell 71), with the smaller squares representing or housing a particular deity and the central and largest square representing Brahma. Volwahsen explains that the “important gods cover the innermost ring, and in the outer rings there follow the gods of lower rank in the celestial hierarchy” (44). The mandala may also contain the image of the cosmic man, who is arranged diagonally and “is identified with the processes of the creation of the universe and its underlying structure” (Michell 71). This arrangement is known as the vastu-purusha mandala (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Vastu-purusha mandala,

There are numerous and varying mandalas used in temples throughout the world. One that is typical in South India differs in that instead of the cosmic man, the architect draws a magic sign, and is referred to as the sthandila mandala. According to Volwahsen, this mandala “visualizes the cosmic order” (56) differently than those previously mentioned. The center is occupied by Brahma, surrounded by the world of gods, who are then encircled by human beings (the terrestrial phenomena), and finally at the bottom are the goblins and demons (Volwahsen 56).

There are specific rules regarding the laying out of the temple mandala. Michell discusses the influence of astronomy and astrology and states that they “provide the basis for determining the appropriate moments when all important activities are undertaken” (72). Observing the cosmos and the heavenly bodies influences the temple building process, determines when the temple plan is to be laid out, and through astronomical calculations, also regulates the mandala. Within texts such as the Brhatsamhita, the Sastras and the Agamas, astrological information is given in reference to temple layout and construction. The importance of astrology expressed in these texts shows “a conscious desire to identify the physical forms of the temple with the laws that govern the movements of heavenly bodies” (Michell 73).

Temple Materials

As important as the layout and grid of a Hindu temple are the materials used to build it. There are many Sastras and ancient texts on temple building such as the Mayamata, that discuss and recommend what materials should or should not be used when constructing a temple. Some of these writings suggest that “the materials of the temple are directly related to the classes of Hindu society” (Michell 78). White materials indicate the first, or Brahmin class, red represents the Kshatriya, or warrior class, yellow indicates the Vaishya, or merchant class, and finally black is said to indicate the fourth class, the Sudras (Volwahsen 173). Volwahsen states that “materials are not only co-ordinated with caste but also with sex” (174). A temple that is constructed of stone and brick signifies the male, one built out of brick and wood is deemed female, and if a temple was to be constructed of all three materials would be considered neutral (Volwahsen 174).

Much like the grid choice and layout, astrology and astronomy play a role regarding the materials and construction. For example, Volwahsen states that “the manufacture of bricks was carried out only under certain astrological conditions, which varied according to the purpose for which the bricks were to be used” (174). Rituals were also performed at many stages throughout the construction of the temple to ensure purity and sanctity. By ensuring specific actions are taken at specific auspicious times, the architect is creating a properly functioning and sacred temple.


Michell, George (1977) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meanings and Forms.

New York: Harper & Row.

Volwahsen, Andreas (1969) Living Architecture: Indian. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Astronomy & Astrology and Hindu cosmic principles





Symbolism in Hindu Architecture


Temple Site Preparation

Temple Deities

Related Readings

Kollar, L. Peter (2001) Symbolism in Hindu Architecture as Revealed in the Shri

Minakshi Sundareswar. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple, 2 vols. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Ramachandra Rao, S. K. (2005) The Agama Encyclopedia, Vol. 9. Delhi: Sri Satguru.

Related Websites

Article written by Laura Anstey (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Temple Site Preparations

The Preparation of the Temple Site

In both ancient and modern times the temple has been a sacred and important place of Hindu worship. It is within the holy sanctuary of the temple that communion between the realm of the worshiper and the realm of the gods occurs. Here “the gods appear to man” (Michell 61). The temple is referred to as: “a seat or platform of god, a house of god, a residence of god or a waiting or abiding place” (Michell 61-62). With the importance and significance of the temple, it is interesting to study the work and effort that goes into preparing a site for the potential shrine. There are several stipulations as to potential building sites as well as a wide range of rituals and tests that are conducted on the site to ensure that the site is suitable for the link between the gods and men.

Site Selection Based on Geographical Formations

Selection of the temple site follows strict guidelines. For example, temples are to be build near water, in forests and gardens, on mountaintops and in valleys, and especially in caves (Kramrisch 5). The Brhat Samhitā outlines:

The gods always play where lakes are, where the sun’s rays are warded off by umbrellas of lotus leaf clusters, and where clear waterpaths are made by swans whose breasts toss the white lotuses hither and thither; where swans, ducks, curleys and paddy-birds are heard and animals rest in the shade of Nicula trees on the river bank.

The gods always play where groves are near, rivers, mountains, and springs, and in towns with pleasure gardens (Kramrisch 4).

“Play” is clarified for us by stating, “Play is the modality in which the Supreme Spirit displays his presence in the world” (Kramrisch 5). By situating temples near locations and geographical landforms that are already associated with the gods, these structures become a residence for the gods.

Water is required for the temple rituals and is also seen as a symbol for cleansing, renewal and enlightenment (Michell 68). The Visnudharmattara teaches that when temples are located on islands they are considered to be auspicious because they are surrounded by water. It also suggests that temples should be built with “…a pond on the left, or in front, not otherwise” (Kramrisch 5). If a potential temple site is not located near any natural water, then a tank or cistern could be used to store the water needed for ceremonies (Michell 68).

Geographical landforms such as groves, forests, mountains and caves also have significant symbolism and importance. “…every village and town has its sacred tree or grove,” and groves have often been considered as places of meditation (Michell 68). George Michell continues by saying, “The gods of Hinduism have always been attracted to mountains and caves” (Michell 69). This idea that mountains can be holy or sacred may not be limited to Hinduism. In the Old Testament, which is believed to be true by Christianity, Judaism and Islam, God conversed with Moses on Mount Sinai, an account of which is found in Exodus 19:16-25. In addition to Moses, the prophet Isaiah said in Isaish 2:3 that “…the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains and shall be exalted above all the hills.”

Hinduism also views caves as a place of refuge and a location in which the gods may live (Michell 69). With the sanctity of these landforms, it would be most auspicious to build a temple near mountains or caves. However, the temple is also symbolic of both mountains and caves through its unique architectural structure (Michell 69). As one walks farther into a Hindu temple it is as if one is walking into a cave. At the point in which the individual is confronted with the image of the deity, the individual is also directly below the highest point or the tallest point of the temple. Thus, the temple represents both a cave and a mountain through its architecture (Michell 70).

Testing and Preparing the Site

Once a suitable geographical location is selected and the land is purchased, the site must go through a series of tests and rituals to ensure its purity. In the first test, as the Brhat-Samhita indicates, a pit is dug and the excavated soil is then returned to the pit. “In descending degree of quality, it then either exceeds the pit in quantity, is level with it or lower” (Kramrisch 14). Instead of filling the pit back up with the excavated soil, the pit could be filled with water and left overnight. The soil quality would then be judged according to how much water was remaining in the morning; “or a flame put into the pit burns, or else is extinguished….” (Kramrisch 14). If the quality of the soil is found unsuitable the land may be abandoned (Kramrisch 14). Following these tests for soil quality are procedures to test the sound, the consistency, the taste, and the colour of the soils. “The Matsyapurana prescribes stipulations regarding the colour of the soil, white earth for Brahmanas, red for Ksatriyas, yellow for Vaisyas, black for Sudras” (Kramrisch 14). The soil is also judged and ranked against the caste system based on tastes, “…sweet, pungent, bitter, and astringent,” each representing a different caste (Kramrisch 14). Once suitable ground is found, it is ploughed and seeds are planted in its furrows (Kramrisch 14). Germination tests are conducted on the seeds allowing them “3, 5 or 7 nights” to sprout (Kramrisch 14). The plot of land must also be cleared of any “extraneous” elements such as weeds (Kramrisch 14). Once the land is free of weeds, it must be ploughed repeatedly, with seeds being sown, plants growing to maturity and the grain flowering and ripening (Kramrisch 15). The ground is considered pure and clean once all these ritual tests, ploughing and planting are complete.

Even with the ground being purified, there are still a few rituals that remain before the building of the Hindu temple can even start. Kramrisch claims, “When a house is about to be built, an oblation is poured into the pit to the ‘steady one’, Vastospati” (Kramrisch 12). This is done to make the earth firm. Firm is not a reference to solid or concrete but has more of a reliable or unchanging meaning in this ritual. The earth is traditionally “the ever wandering” and this ritual, once performed, binds the earth so it can no longer wander, but must be firm (Kramrisch 12). Following the ritual the gods and spirits that may be currently abiding on the temple site are asked to vacate and are given offerings for doing so. Now the site is pure, and the divinity for whom the temple is being constructed can now take possession of the site. The last step of the site preparation is to level the ground and prepare the temple floor plan so that the “forecast of the temple will be laid out on the ground” (Kramrisch 14).


Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple. Volume 1. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass,

Michell, George (1977) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to is Meanings and Forms. New York. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

Related Readings

Gellner, David N. (2001) The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian

Themes. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kollar, L. Peter (2001) Symbolism in Hindu architecture as revealed in the Shri

Minakshi Sundareswar. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Sivaraman, Krishna, editor (1995-2003) Hindu Spirituality. Delhi: Motilal Banarsdiass


Related Topics for Further Investigation

1) Lila, or “play” of the Gods.

2) Temple Deities and their worship.

3) Sacred geometry of temple construction – mandala.

4) Symbolism in temple architecture.

Related Websites

Article written by Jordan Mulholland (March 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.