Vastu-shastra (2): Town Planning

by D. N. Shukla | 1960 | 29,408 words | ISBN-10: 8121506115 | ISBN-13: 9788121506113

This page describes Antiquity of Town Planning in India which is chapter 1a of the study on Vastu-Shastra (Indian architecture) second part (Town planning). It discusses the construction and planning of various types of villages, roads, forts and towns in ancient India. References to Vastu-shastra include the Samarangana-sutradhara.

Chapter 1a - Antiquity of Town Planning in India

We have already written something on the antiquity of the founders of the Vāstuśāstra which in its turn pre-supposes the antiquity of Town-Planning in ancient India, as Town-planning has invariably formed a principal topic of practically every important treatise of Vāstuśāstra. Moreover some of the most renowned excavations of ancient Indian sites like Harappa, Mohenjodaro etc., etc., have thrown a flood of light on this ancient Indian civic art and the most refined civic sense of our ancestors whether they were purely Aryan or purely non-Aryan or an admixture of both. Further again the earliest literary documents of the World,—our Vedas and especially the Ṛgveda also corroborates, as we presently see, this archaeological evidence. It is therefore not very difficult to surmize that the town-planning in ancient India is of a hoary antiquity. Our primordial architects like, Viśvakarman and Maya are alluded to in the earliest datable literature like Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, not as builders of houses but builders of towns. Town-planning presupposes the building of the houses no doubt, but the first pre-requisite of any planning in relation to the habitations of men must start with the planning of town, in its broadest sense rather than with that of the houses in its most haphazard fashion as we find today in most of the existing Indian towns.

Town-planning is a civic art and civil architecture, hence any mis-givings in relation to our secular architectural traditions and tendencies in our civilization must not stand. Rise of cities is synchronous with the rise of a civilization. Forest-hermitages and paves in the mountains so much made prominent in our ancient living inodes must not give an impression that we were a race of foresteers or caverns. It was love of nature and love of the spiritual realization or mote properly the self-denial that some of the greatest leaders, and of men thought, in ancient India, our Ṛṣis used to live in forests. The solitude, the perennial communion with nature, the purity and solemnity of the atmosphere were some of the considerations which must have weighed with our ancestors to Choose these so called unostensious sites, otherwise side by side there were, the rise and growth of some of the most well-planned and perfectly laid out cities, for the Nāgarikas to live and cultivate the arts and refinements as Vātsyāyana would have them. Thus our civilization clearly had recognised both the ways of life, the spiritual realization and the material cultivation. It is in this way that the perfection of culture was laid down. Here it must be frankly admitted that they never gave lift to materialism on the spirit, their non-attachment to the material pursuits, their detached out-look really helped them to keep the banner of the spirit aloft, otherwise we would have lost in oblivion as others have lost

Town-planning presupposes not only the regional planning but also site-planning, the latter of which is not only a partitioning of different plots of the towns but also a systemic graph, meticulously adhering to the correct orientation of the site.

This systematised and scientific knowledge of the earliest Indian Aryans is corroborated with their sacrificial symbolism and Vedi-construction.

‘The close connection of the geometrical system (denoted by the mystic figures Parama-śāyika, Svastika, Sarvatobhadra etc.) with the Vedic sacrificial lore, and the position of the master-builder as a high priest or sacrificial expert, are indirect proofs of the great antiquity of the Indian Science of town-planning; for geometry as a science was an Indo-Aryan invention and had its origin in the complicated system of Vedic sacrifices in which it became necessary to resolve geometrical problems such as constructing a circle equal in area to a square or vice versa.” The laying out of the Indo-Aryan village is treated in the Śilpa Śāstras as the preparation of Sacrificial ground’—Havell.

He further remarks confirming his foregoing observation:

“If it be true—as the Russian scholar, Sheftdovich, asserts—that the Kassites, who took Babylon in 1766 B.C. and established a dynasty there, which lasted for 600 years, were Aryans speaking Vedic Sanskrit whose chief god was Sūrya; Babylon must be regarded as a halfway house of the Aryan race in its march towards the Indus valley and some at least of the early Aryan tribes must have acquired, before they entered India, not only the high spiritual culture which is reached in the Ṛg Veda, but also a prolonged experience of the civic arts, including architecture.”

The plans of towns and their denominations based on or identical with those of the geometrical figures of the Vedic altars, have survived through out our history of town-planning in ancient India as is corroborated by the Śilpaśāstras which to some extent are based on the Sūtra works (especially the Śulba). In ouṛ review of the antiquity of the Vāstu lore, as represented by the various literary compositions like Saṃhitās, Brāhmaṇas and Sūtras etc. etc, we have already seen so many words suggestive of our architectural knowledge in that distant past. Certainly the people, who could construct iron forts, plan colonade edifices, lay out large villages, can certainly be credited with sound knowledge of civic arts. The observations of Macdonnel and Keith (vide Vedic Index. Pur, pp. 538-39) on the Vedic towns: “On the whole it is hardly likely that in early Vedic towns city life was much developed.........” are really not only now untenable but are based on their pre-conceived view that early Indo-Aryan civilization was more a primitive than the advanced civilization. The contemporary Indus valley civilization and so many other notable archaeological evidences which have been established in the recent times, also prove the untenability of this proposition. Further, there are innumberable words (already referred to and taken notice of) in the Ṛgveda itself which suggest that the there were towns of different grades esp. pura, grāma, nagara and durga; they were spacious (cf. such epithets as Urvī and Pṛthvi [Pṛthvī?]) and they were fortified (cf. Āyasī etc.).

S. C. Sarkar (Some Aspects of the Earliest Social History of India p. 19) also supports this conclusion.

“The view of Zimmer and others after him (Vedic Index 1.538 to 540) that the Vedic India knew of nothing more solid and complex than the hamlet, like the early Germans and Slavs who had no castle structures and town-life, is an extreme one; for it now being realized more and more as a basic fact that the Vedic Indians, like the Iranians, Hellenes, and Italians, were superimposed upon an earlier civilization............... Thus it becomes quite reasonable to find in pṛthvī, urvī, śatabhujī, aśmamayī or ayasī purs, or the massive, extensive, hundred-walled stone-built, or iron-protected forts, the vivid descriptions of new and wonderful things the Vedic heroes actually saw; and rather forced explanations discovering in them mysteries of myths and fancies of metaphor become unneccessary”

—Sarkar (ibid). The archaelogical remains discovered at Harappa, Mohenjodaro, and other places in Sind fully corroborate this view.

The excavations at Harappa, and Mohenjodaro further prove the antiquity of ancient Indian Town planning—cf. Marshall.

It may be remarked that it would not be justified to view the antiquity of ancient Indian town-planning in regard to Indo-Aryan or the Vedic Indians alone. What about the bulk of the population of this great sub-continent, the aboriginals, who were definitely ṭhe founders of great cities and fortified towns as is fully evident from the excavations at Harappa, Mohenjodaro and at other ports in Sind. It may also be born in mind that according to our Śilpa-śāstras or Vāstuśāstras the planning of a village or town does not make much difference. The canons are identical, only the size may be varying. A town is a large village. Similar is the case with the forts. According to the Mānasāra as we have already seen, there is not much difference between a village, a town and a fort—all are fortified places intended for the residence of people. A town is the extension of a village. A fort is in many cases nothing more than a fortified town, with this difference, that a fort is principally meant for purpose of defence, while a village or town is mainly intended for habitation.

This canon of the earliest of the Vāstuśāstras is only a tradition of the earliest of the literature, the Vedas, and the deniers of the Vedic city-life (cf. Macdonell and Keith), themselves prove our proposition—vide Vedic Index under Pur pp. 338-39 and grāma pp. 241-5 as is evident from their own observations,

“Pur is a word of frequent occurrence in the Rig Veda and later, meaning ‘rampart,’ ‘fort’ or ‘stronghold’. Such fortifications must have been occasionally of considerable size, one is called broad (pṛthvī) and wide (urvvī [urvī?]). Elsewhere a fort made of stone (aśmamayī) is mentioned. Sometimes strongholds of iron (āyasī) are referred to, but these are probably only metaphorical. A fort ‘full of kine (gomatī) is mentioned showing that strongholds were used to hold cattle. ‘Autumnal’ forts (śāradī) are named, apparently as belonging to the Dāsas; this may refer to the forts in that season being occupied against Aryan attack or against inundations caused by overflowing rivers. Forts ‘with a hundred walls’ (śatabhujī) are spoken of. It would probably be a mistake to regard these forts as permanently occupied fortified places like the fortresses of the medieval barony. They were probably mere places of refuge against attack, ramparts of hardened earth with palisades and a dich (cf. dehi). Pischel and Geldner, however, think that they were towns with wooden walls and ditches like the Indian town of Pāṭaliputra known to Megasthenese and the Pali Texts”.

“The primitive use of this word ‘grāma’ which occurs frequently from the Rig Veda onwards, appears to have been ‘village’. The Vedic Indians must have dwelt in villages which were scattered over the country, some close together, some far apart, and were connected by roads. The village is regularly contrasted with the forest (araṇya) and its animals and plants with those that lived or grew wild in the woods. The villages contained cattle, horses and other domestic animals as well as men. Grain was also stored in them. In the evening the cattle regularly returned thither from the forest, The villages were probably open, though perhaps a fort (pur) might on occasions be built inside. Presumably they consisted of detached houses with enclosures, but no details are to be found in Vedic literature. Large villages (Mahāgrāmas) were known. The grāma may be regarded as an aggregate of several families, not necessarily forming a clan but only part of a clan (viś), as is often the case at the present day.”

Dr. Bhattacharya—Vide ‘A study on Vāstu-Vidyā or Canons of Indan Architecture’ p. 15-16, had very profoundly adduced, the existence of planned towns and laid out cities in the Ṛg vedic times. Indra is said to have destroyed 99 cities of Asura Śambara One single reference to the hundred cities made of stone (Aśmāyasā) occurs in Ṛg. VI 3.20 Similarly cities with hundred enclosures or fortifications (śatabhujī) are also referred to—I. 166.8.

The common, element of fortification in practically all the principle habitations of men, the grāma, the nagara and the durga in that early epoch of Aryan life is further supported from such early words as ‘gotra’ (where cows where protected in an enclosure) or gopura (the grāmadvāras).

Later Saṃhitās, Brāhmaṇas and Sūtras have ample evidence to our theory of an early civic sense and civic planning there of, among the early Aryans in this kind. The Epics, the Rārnāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata contain abundant references and glorious descriptions thereof, from which it is safely said that the town-planning in ancient India had attained a stereotyped canon lasting for full thousand years as is evident from the description of any town or city, Nagara or Nagarī, in practically all the representative writers of the classical age, Kālidāsa, Aśvaghoṣa, Kumāradāsa, Māgha, Bāṇa Śrīharṣa as well as the archaeological remains, from the earliest period to later medieval Indian history, when the Mughal forts and palaces were built on the same stereotyped canon—the palaces having several courts and towns fortified. In regard to the planning of the former (the palaces) we shall see, afterwards vide—Pt. IV palace-architecture. Hare let us dwell a little more on the towns.

In the Rāmāyaṇa, towns and forts and even antaḥpuras were protected by strong walls and ramparts. Ditches were dug around to afford additional protection.

“Four elaborate gate-ways (gopuras) were erected for entrance into the city and each was approached by crossing a bridge erected over a ditch and supported by many pillars and platforms. The entrance was protected by strong doors and bolts. Watch towers (aṭṭālaka) from which the movements of the enemies outside the city walls were watched, were also raised. These were the usual essential features of a town. This is apparent from the fact that they were not confined to Ayodhya alone but are also noticcale [noticable?] in the description of Sugrīva’s capital in Kiṣkindhā and of Rāvaṇa’s at Laṅkā

The references to many-storeyed buildings, as we have seen and the fortification referred to above, and the well-planned high road (suvibhaktamahāpatha) of the town hold before us a vivid picture of the very advanced town-planning in ancient India and it just be said to that high sense of civic sense and citizenship which must have developed at that time. In consonance with the great attention devoted to the science and its diffusion among the people, the ancient Hindus developed a high tone of civic consciousness.

Every poet seems to take pride in his beloved city and in glorifying it. Sister Nivedita says (vide ‘Civic and National Ideals’ p. 6-7).

“It is more than likely, indeed, that Vālmīki’s poem sprang out of a deliberate wish to glorify the beloved city of Ayodhya by painting the mythic history of its earliest sovereigns. The city, and every thing in it, fill the poet with delight. He spends himself in descriptions of its beauty on great festivals. He loses himself in the thought of its palaces, its arches, and its towers. But it is when he comes to paint Laṅkā, that we reap the finest fruit of that civic sense which Ayodhya has developed in him. There is noting in all Indian literature, of greater significance for the modern Indian mind than the scene in which Hanūmān contends in the darkness with the woman who gaurds the gates saying in muffled tones: “I am the city of Laṅkā”:

“ahaṃ hi nagarī laṅkā svayameva plavaṅgama

As regards the Greater Epic, the Śānti Parva contains several chapters dealing with fortification of the cities at the time of danger (XII-62). The Classification of forts into six varieties found in the Mahābhārata (XII. 5), (XII. 86) is akin to those of the Śilpaśāstras. This classification of six-fold Durga is similar to those we find in Manu and Purāṇas. Other elaborations in regard to the forts may be seen in Bhattacharyas book p. 45—46. The Mahābhārata refers to a city having six walls, (ṣaṭpada [ṣaṭpadam]) forming as it were, concentric circles round it (XV. 5; 16).

Mention of Gopuras of the town is a usual description. ‘Mahārathyā’, ‘Mahāpatha’ and ‘Rājamārgas’ indicate how the towns were divided and planned out on a sound scheme.

“The streets ran in various directions and crossed one another, the place of junction being an object of worship by the people (V. 194. 58). The epithet “Devatāvādha-varjita [varjitam]” applied to streets, reminds one of the injunction found in the Silpaśāstras. On two sides of the Mahāpathas were the shops (III.206. 8) and sheds for supplying drinking water (Prapā). The Prāsādas, Toraṇas, Yūpas, Caityas and gardens further beautified the cities. All these details of a town enable us to form an idea of the town-planning of the time. Besides the town, mention is also made of Grāma, Ghośa [Ghoṣa?], Śākhānagara, Janapada and so on.”

After the Epic Age, comes the Budhhist Age which also gives fullest of details in regard to the Town-planning in ancient India. For the Buddhists the two most important sources are Jātakas and Pali canons.

Rhys Devids (Buddhist India pp. 64-65) writes:

“We are told of lofty Walls, ramparts with buttresses and watch towers and great gates, the whole surrounded by a moat or even a double moat one of water and one of mud.”

This is corroborated by a story no. 518, where we find a description of a city with ditches and moats around. The streets were lined with houses and shops. Such descriptions of towns in the Jatakas arc very similar of those found in the Epics cf. the original quotations appended in the end.

It is also said that the hill fortress girivraja four and a half miles in circumference, is said to have been built by Maha Govind, architect. The stone walls of Girivajra are the oldest extant stone building in India.

Percy Brown however keeping in view the early character of Indian architecture says:

“Cities largely of wooden construction, therefore, began to appear in various parts of the country, and according to Dhammapāla, the great Buddhist commentator, they were planned by an architect of the name of Maha-Govinda who is stated to have been responsible for the lay-out of several of the capitals of Northern India in the fifth centruy B.C. This is the first mention of an architect in the annals of the country. In principle, these cities were rectangular in plan and divided into four quarters by two main thoroughfares intersecting at right angles, each leading to a city gate. One of these quarters contained the citadel and royal apartments another resolved itself into the residences of the upper classes, a third was for the less pretentous buildings of the middle class, and the fourth was for accommodation of traders with their workshops open to view as in the modern bazaar.”

This perhaps is based on Digha-Nikāya XIX, 36—vide tabulations in the Appendix. Mention is also made of Ayodhyā, Varānasī, Kampillā, Kosāmbī, Mathurā, Mithilā, Sāgala, Sāketa, Sāvatthi. Ujjeni, Vesāli and other cities of which, however, few architectural details are given (Vimāna-Vatthu, Commentary, p. 82).

After the Buddhist period of our history, it no more remains the antiquity of Town-planning in ancient India After this period it be-comes a stereotyped canon in Indian Civic life, a most scientific picture is the gift of the great Kauṭilya (cf. his Arthaśāstra) and the later works belonging to the classical Sanskrit literature including some of the later Purāṇas and Āgamas which abound in town-planning-technique in its fullest of details. The poetical campositions like those of Kālidāsa and Aśvoghoṣa, Daṇḍī and Bāṇa, Kalhaṇa and Śrīharṣa and a host of others also accord to this heritage and a tabulation of these glorious descriptions are appended in the end. Hence this little introduction to this subject of the antiquity of town-planning in ancient India may do for our purpose. Now let us take up the other complementary topic of this chapter—the origin and growth of Indian Towns also.

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