Vastu-shastra (2): Town Planning

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

This page describes Towns or Cities in ancient Indian town-planning 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.

Towns or Cities in ancient Indian town-planning


As we have already taken its notice, Viśvakarma-Vāstuśāstra (vide chap. VI), describes as many as twenty types of cities. These may be tabulated as hereunder—vide also V. Lakṣaṇa.

  1. Padma,
  2. Sarvatobhadra,
  3. Viśveśabhadra,
  4. Kārmuka,
  5. Prastara,
  6. Svastika,
  7. Caturmukha,
  8. Śrīpratiṣṭhita,
  9. Balideva,
  10. Pura,
  11. Devanagra,
  12. Vaijayanta,
  13. Puṭabhedana,
  14. Jalanagara,
  15. Guhānagara,
  16. Aṣṭamukha,
  17. Nandyāvarta,
  18. Rājadhānī,
  19. Mānuṣanagara,
  20. Girinagara.

These names as is evident, include also those eight type-designs like Padma, Svastika etc. which were taken notice of in the previous section on villages. The other types are quite familiar. The Vaijayanta Nagara is said to be situated at the sea-coast, on the bank of a river or at the edge of the forest, Puṭabhedana in V.P. is described as having sites found naturally formed with the contour of a concha which are chosen for this city. The Girinagara as its name signifies, must be built on the top of a hill and similarly the Jalanagara is in the midst of a lake or in the midst of a big river. Guhā is constructed within a cave, leading upward, downward or horizontally or in intermediate directions. We cannot expect any large number of dwellings there except a king’s palace or an arsenal or a treasury or at the most a cantonment. The aṣṭamukha may be deemed a special variety because its shape is circular with eight entrance-gates As regards the last variety, the Rājadhānī town, it is a capital city where tributary princes, ministers and commanders have all their residences and the nucleus must be the Imperial Palace, with all its appretunances and vast paraphernalia of establishments.


After a brief survey of the site of a town, the text takes up the different varieties of the towns, and the scheme of the layout. The principal categories of a town arc three Pura, Kheṭa and Grāma (Ch. 10. 79-80). The other works like Manasāra and Mayamata speak of as many as eight varieties of towns and villages, but the difference is not in kind but in quality—the particular shape or form in which a village or a town is planned. But the general description of these given in the Mānasāra text is applicable more or less to all these classes of towns—Nagara, Pura, Kheṭa, Kharvāṭa, Kubjaka and Pattana etc. (M. Chapter 9 and 10). The position is that the Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra knows all the classes of towns but has adhered to the convenient classification of Pura, Kheṭa and Grāma.

The text lays down that the distinguishing criterion between these different varieties of towns is the relative measurement of the Viṣkambha and the Sīmā distances. Half the Viṣkambha of the town is Kheṭa and half of that of the Kheṭa is Grāma. Kheṭa can be laid out on a distance of one yojana from the town proper, the pura. Similar is the distance of Grāma from the Kheṭa, Between two villages there must be a distance of two krośas (gavyūti). We know that the first pre-requisite in any town planning is regional planning the planning of the region, the Viṣaya or Janapada (see its meaning ahead). Naturally, therefore, all the varieties of towns came under a viṣaya or janapada. Pura or Nagara, originally was the capital town and janapada, the rest of the viṣaya. It may be said that in the time of the S S. there were more than one Nagaras in several of the Janapadas. Hence the Sīmā-distance of viṣaya is two Krośas, half of it is of a town, half of that of the town is of a Kheṭa and half of that of the Kheṭa is of a Grāma.

Now Town (Pura) is of three classes, large, medium and small. The criterion of the classification is their relative size.

  1. The large one has a length of four thousand cāpas, (4000 sq. yds.)
  2. The medium one of two thousands chapas [cāpas]. (4000 sq yds,)
  3. The smaller town has only a length of one thousand cāpas, (2000 sq. yds)

As regards the breadth of a town the text says (ch. 10-3) that one-eighth, one-fourth or half of the length should be the breadth in practically all the categories of the towns.

The other categories of the town not well brought out but only hinted at in enumerative form in the chapter entitled ‘Nagarādi-Saṃjñā’ are as follows:—

1. Rājadhānī—The Capital of the king.

It is only a big town with the qualification that it is a seat of the government or more fittingly the abode of a king.

2. Śākhānagara.

All other categories of towns besides the Pura, the town proper and the capital according to the Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra are Śākhānagaras and their sub-varieties. Among them a brief enumeration of the following types are made.

  1. Karvaṭa—smaller town.
  2. Nigama—smaller than Karvaṭa.
  3. Grāma—smaller than Nigama.

3. Special towns.

  1. Pattana—the second residence of the king.
  2. Puṭabhedana—it is a Pattana, in addition to being a commercial centre.

Apart from these, the land and the country being vast, there are so many other human habitations, some of these being in the forests or on the outskirts of villages and towns and they are Pallīs and Pallikās.

All the inhabited and uninhabited land may be classified into only two broad divisions, namely Janapada and Nagara.

The word Nagara should not be taken in its individual capacity, but of a group formation. Hence a particular country from the Stand-point of architectural planning (of course—political, economical, commercial and cultural and religious considerations do crop up and influence it) may be divided into Nagara and Janapada, and we have already taken due notice of the national policy of town-planning as enunciated by the gifted author of the most standard compendium of architecture, the Samarāṅgaṇa-Sūtradhāra, where village forms the unit of National Planning—the planning of the country as a whole.


The text has got some innovations. Like the it also describes the following twenty types of puras or towns or cities having their peculiar shapes.

  1. Mahendra,
  2. Sarvatobhadra,
  3. Siṃhāvaloka,
  4. Vāruṇa,
  5. Nandyāvarta,
  6. Nanda,
  7. Puṣpaka,
  8. Svastika,
  9. Pārśvadaṇḍa,
  10. Jayanta,
  11. Śrīpura,
  12. Rūpamardana,
  13. Snāha,
  14. Ditya,
  15. Uttara,
  16. Dharma,
  17. Kamalada,
  18. Śakrada,
  19. Mahājaya,
  20. Pauruṣa.

N.B. Their shapes vary with monifold shapes square etc. etc.


According to the Mānasāra, it appears that the dimensions of the smallest town-unit are 100x200 daṇḍas; the largest town-unit is 7,200x14,400 daṇḍas. A town may be situated from east to west or from north to south according to the position it occupies. There should be one to twelve large streets in a town. It should be built near a river or a mountain, and should have facilities for trade and commerce with the foreigners (dvīpāntara-vartin). Like a village, it should have walls, ditches and gates, drains, parks, commons, shops, exchanges, temples, guest-houses, colleges, etc.

For purposes of military defence, towns are generally well fortified.

“Towns are divided into eight classes: rājadhānī-nagara, kevala-nagara, pura, nagarī, kheṭa, karvaṭa, kubjaka, and pattana. The distinction between them is slight, the general description given above being applicable to all. But it may be noted that the city called pattana is a big commercial port. It is situated on the banks of the sea or a river and is always engaged in exchange and commerce with foreigners who deal specially in jewels, silk clothes, perfumes, etc., imported from other countries (dvīpāntara).”


As regards the classifications given in the Mayamata and Śilparatna, there is not much difference with what we have noticed in the one adduced from the Mānasāra. All these three texts belonging to the same school of Indian Architecture prescribe practically the same types. All these taken together (including Kāmikāgama and Īśānaśivagurudevapaddhati), may be tabulated as here under and a brief notice is also called for:

  1. Nagara,
  2. Rājadhānī,
  3. Pattana,
  4. Durga,
  5. Kheṭa,
  6. Kharvāṭa,
  7. Śibira (Senāmukha, Skandhāvāra),
  8. Sthānīya,
  9. Droṇamukha,
  10. Koṭya-kolaka,
  11. Nigama and
  12. Maṭha or Vihāra.

Nagara.—Pura and Nagara may be taken synonymous. Nagara is surely a fortified town as its etymology signifies—immovable, imp-lying permanence and strength with reference to stone walls etc. The Vedic puras were mere forts, while pura as in Tripura and Mahāpura was much bigger (Tait. Sam. VI 2, 3, 4,: Kāth. Sam. XXIV, 10; Sat. Bra. VI, 3, 3, 35; Ait. Bra., II, II; Mait Sam. III. 8, 1). Thus pura might have been the prototype of pura, the developed city, and Nagara the full-fledged capital city. The dimensions and other layouts in regard to gates, towers, buildings, markets, temples, military defence etc. etc. may be purviewed in the Vāstulakṣaṇa.

Rājadhānī.—Mayamata vide V. L. gives a glorious description of the royal capital with its imperial castle. It is a modern meterpolis. Śukrācarya’s description has something more to add. It must have the sabhā or Council Hall in the centre.

Pattana.—It is a large commercial port, situated on the bank of a river or sea. It is frequented by traders from distant lands (divīpāntarāgata, deśāntarāgata) coming on commercial mission. Vaiśyas predominate the population and it is replete with jewels, wealth, silk perfumery and other articles.

Durga.—It is a fortified town and we shall see its details in its proper place.

Kheṭa.—It is a small town situated on the plain near a river or in the forest by the side of hillocks and is girt with a mud-wall. Its main population consists of Śūdras or labouring class. According to the Śilparatna, if such a town is thrown out by local industries, such as mining, it is known as Śākhā-nagara.

Kharavāṭa.—It is exactly similar to a kheṭa and is also defended with a girdle of wall and is located in the country side. According to Kauṭilya it is situated in the centre of two hundred villages.

Śībira.—It is a military encampent—vide Bāṇabhaṭṭa’s description of Skandhāvāra of Harṣa Vardhana. It is also laid out when a king was out on an expendition of fresh conquest and annexation. It has two more sub-varieties Senāmukha and Skandhāvāra. The former is like a military base, rear station where the military staff carry on their duties away from the battle-field. According to Mayamata (V, Lakṣaṇa) it may also be suburban town a little away froṃ the main city guarding the latter at is main approach and this commands a strategic situation. It is like our contonments [cantonments?] in the modern times. The latter variety is of the same category with the difference that rivers, mountains and woods form its defence According to the Śilparatna it is nothing but a camp of the soldiers not very remote from the actual battle-field.

Sthānīya.—According to Kauṭilya, there shall be set up a sthāniya fortress in the centre of 800 villages. It is like commissionaries or muffasl towns and head-quarters of the districts or the divisional officers. Śilparatna’s definition supports this deduction.

Droṇamukha.—It is a market town frequented by traders, lying on river bank or sea-shore, generally at their confluence, known also as Droṇīmukha. It is a harbour. If it were populous place in the midst of villages it is termed as Viḍamba,

Katmakolaka.—It is a popular settlement in a hilly or wild tract.

Nigama.—It is a market mainly of artisans though other castes also live.

Maṭha or Vibāra.—The Śilparatna has a vivid description of this last but not least importance type of town. It is a university-town. called Vidyāsthāna, Maṭha or Vihāra. Literally it means students quarters or college. Hence it is a residential university where not only the learners board and lodge but religious intinerants (Parivrājakas) or monks also reside. Savants from foreign lands also repair to the place, where there is provision for (free?) supply of food and Water, It is defended against hostile attack.

The student celibates who preferred religious pursuits and philosophical lore to a worldly life used to put up at this university town, it may be, in the capacity of professors.

“And as the Brahmanas became the custodians of Aryan traditions and culture, the Āśrama or Brāhmaṇa village developed in to the university town to which Aryan youth of the twice-born classes went for instruction”—Havell.

Thus closes the catalogue of all principal types of towns as are more notable for their plans in the renowned Śilpa-texts like the Mānasāra and Mayamata. But some notice of the temple-cities already taken before may be prolonged. They are our proud glory and represent our national culture embodiment of the age-long heritage, both in the traditions of art and religion. Temple-cities are generally those which had their origin in and evolved out of holy shrines with the spread of their fame and influence.

Their peculiarities consist in the several successive rings of circumambulatory paths that writhe round and round their central plots whereupon the temples, their nuclii, are generally situated. These attest the successive stages of their growth and development. And other peculiar characteristic of the temple-cities lies in a good number of minor shrines set up in them. For many saints attached to the old temples set up their revered memory. It should also be noted that followers and preachers of creeds other than that represented by the original temple repair to the place either to measure their religious strength or from inconoclastic motives. A city like Benares offers the best forum for proselytization. Whatever may be the outcome of this trial of strength, the city in consequence, soon outgrows its temple and develops a distinct corporate life. The new immigrants also settle here and raise their own monasteries.”

Similarly some remarks on Garden-cities are also needed to complete this picture of our temples and towns. Garden-cities constituted a compromise between a city and a village and represented a harmonious combination of human art and soul-vivifying nature. In ancient India tanks and lakes used to be the nucleus of this development. The triple companionship—plants, animals and men is our very ancient tradition. The herd of cow, the temple orchards coupled with tanks overgrowth of shady trees and the mighty banyan or the sacerd Aśvatha and men and women sitting under their shed enjoying the cool breezes and tending their cattle what India had left to our memory in her most glorious days. No town is complete unless it is trimmed with sheds for drinking water, shrines and halls, tanks, gardens and the like—vide Yukti-Kalpataru of Bhoja—‘Prapā-maṇḍapa-kāsāra-kānanādyupśobhitam’. In these garden-cities there is symmetric distribution and allocation of parks, gardens and tanks; trees are reared in rows along both sides of the streets, sometimes in the middle, sometimes in two or three rows on the streets thus segregating the different currents of traffic. Again every house has its own garden in the front. Some longitudinal portion of the street is sometimes kept evergreen with grass and installation of factories in large number is prohibited or discouraged.

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