Vastu-shastra (2): Town Planning

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

This page describes Road Planning in Ancient India which is chapter 4 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 4 - Road Planning in Ancient India

Streets and their planning form one of the most important canons of town-planning and our ancient sthapatis were wide awake to this vital principle. Roads have a threefold function: they are high ways for traffic; secondly they demarcate the plots for buildings and constitute a vital limb in the site-planning and thirdly they have sanitary value, providing arteries of free ventilation. Though as per the details of some of the Śilpa-texts it seems that the roads were not so spacious as we have today but some of the ancient works have compensated in regard to adjusting the width of streets to the volume of traffic. Thus we read in the Devī Purāṇa—ch. 72.78-9—“The royal street or high way should be made as wide as ten dhanuṣ i.e. forty cubits, so that men, horses, elephants, and vehicles can have free movement without interference and congestion.” Śukrācārya, prohibits construction of small lanes such as ‘vīthīs’ (small lanes) and ‘padyās’ (foot-ways) in the metropolis or large cities. In Kauṭilya’s Artha-śāstra (Book II ch. IV) we find mention of roads for chariots, roads for cattle, roads for elephants and roads for minor quadrupeds as well as for men, which tradition is also fully followed in the Harivaṃśa, Viṣṇuparva ch. 38—“Vehicular streets (rathyā), avenues (vīthī) and men’s roads (nṛṇām mārgāḥ) were constructed separately in the city.” Further in the Devī and Brahmāṇḍa Purāṇas, the deśa-mārga [mārgāḥ] or diśā-mārga i.e. country roads are stated to be as wide as 30 dhanuṣ, Grāma-mārgas 20 dhanuṣ and Sīmā-mārgas only 10 dhanus which clearly shows the grasp of the several roads of towns conforming to the different traffic circulations.

With this general introduction, let us concentrate on the evidence as furnished by the Samarāṅgaṇa-sūtradhāra, the principal text of our pursuit—vide my thesis on the subject.

Now before proceeding with the planning of the roads a relevant point for consideration crops up; namely, whether road-planning should come first or the Pada Vinyāsa is to be given priority. Street planning, as a matter of fact, is generally based upon the lines of the divisions of the plots under Pada Vinyāsa scheme. The wards so marked off by principal streets are exactly identical with the blocks lined off in the Pada Vinyāsa. According to all Śilpa-Śāstras including the Samarāṅgaṇa, distribution of professions and castes as well as allotment of sites are made entirely with reference to Pada Vinyāsa, a pada or a block being set apart for a particular caste or profession. I have already referred to the thirty-two such schemes of Pada Vinyāsa (vide Mānasāra). Thus the mode of division into Padas is drawing as many a rectilinear parallel lines as the scheme in question warrants, together with the similar number of the transverse parallel lines, viz., the sketch of the Caṇḍita, noted above and illustrated in the Appendix where there are equal number of rectilinear as well as transverse parallel lines.

Another notice, before the canons of the street-planning are taken into account, is that the preliminary procedure of the division of the whole area into the rough partitioning of the plot in order that the principal component parts of the town-plan namely, the fortification consisting of the surrounding walls and ditches, Aṭṭālakas, gates and Gopuras and the requirements of the principal currents of traffic circulation, may become of easy handling. This scheme as pointed out consists firstly of the measurements of towns, respective standards of measurements of length and breadth in the three varieties of the towns, namely superior, medium and the inferior are already noticed; secondly, the whole area is to be partitioned out in sixteen blocks, six highways and nine Catvaras; thirdly, the whole plot should have six artery lines (Vaṃśas) in two groups of three belonging to the fourfold pada and these should run from East to West. This rough partitioning is a common procedure in all the categories of towns—-superior, middle and inferior, according to Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra (10. l-5).

This, it seems to me, was the initial stage in the planning of a town. This is what we understand to be the layout of the whole area under planning. We can infer that the town-site was demarcated, to begin with, by three moats, rampart wall, towers and gateways. This marked the initial step in the planning of a city (Nagara-Māpana), The Pārikheyī-bhūmi determined the configuration of the site.

Samarāṅgaṇa prescribes as many as thirty four roads in a model town running both from East to West as well from South to North. These roads are so planned as to cover both the interior and exterior planning in the most healthy orientation giving not only the benefit of the sun-shine and ventilation but also comfortable residences.

The first priority is given to the central path called Rāja-mārga to be located on the central or the middle vaṃśa. Its dimension of breadth varies with the three varieties of the towns—Jyeṣṭha, Madhya and Kaniṣṭha as 24, 20 & 16 hastas (i.e. 36, 30, 24 ft.) respectively. It should be wide enough for free traffic circulation more especially for the four-fold army (Caturaṅga-Bala), the king i.e. princely procession, and also the townsmen (the mass of humanity). It should be made firm with gravel (Kāśmaśarkara). This is the principal path.

Again two highways technically called Mahārathyā, the large chariot or vehicular roads should be placed on the Upāntastha Vaṃśa, the dimensions being 12, 10 and 8 (18, 15, 12 ft.) in the three varieties.

In addition to these paths, a set of four ways called Yāna-mārga—vehicle-streets are to be laid and their dimension of four hastas (i.e. 6 feet) is fixed in all the sizes of the towns. Their location however, is enjoined in the middle of the Pada. Again it is directed that all these four Yāna-mārgas should each have two Jaṅghā-pathas—the foot-paths and these are to be located on both sides of the Yānamārga, and their respective dimensions being 3, 2½ and 2 hastas, 3¾ and 3 ft.).

Besides these fifteen roads, so far enumerated to be laid out in a town, there still remain two more roads called Ghaṇtā-mārgas. They should run along the boundary wall and have all the qualities and specifications of the Rāja-mārga. The laying out of all these seventeen roads, as already hinted at, is concerned only with two directions, namely from the East to West. Similarly, the same number of these different categories of roads and streets and foot-paths having the identical dimensions, etc. are to be so laid out as running from the South to the North. This reaches the number thirty-four. It does not end here. The text further enjoins that in order to provide space, ventilation and passage circulation, a number of lanes and byelanes should also be provided in any scheme of road-planning. This is more necessitated as per the site-planning, the folk-planning, the demarcation of the respective blocks done with the help of these lanes and byelanes. It is the fundamental constituent of an Indian town plan.

This is only a rough statement of the road plans. There are certain statements which need elaboration and critical examination. Firstly the main streets, namely the Rāja-mārga, Mahārathyā and Yāna-mārgas (chariot roads)—all run from East to West or from the orth to South in a rectangular chess-board system. That is, they are laid out in parallel rows cutting one another at fight angles. This is the recognised method even in the present times. A remarkable extant illustration of the ancient system is Jayapore, the city founded by Mahārāja Jai Singh, the great astronomer. We know that principle of orientation was meticulously adhered to by the Indian Town Planners. All the manuals of Vāstu-Śastras are emphatic against any structure or Vāstu pointing towards the diagonal corners of the heavens. It is in keeping with this that the city was laid out axially to the cardinal directions, and all its streets ran straight from East to West and North to South. In ancient Vāstu terminology (cf. Mānasāra Ch. IX), this plan is known technically as Prastara, It is similar to what we understand by the chess-board plan these days.

Secondly, what are the Vāṃśas on which all these roads are said to be laid out? We are all familiar with the settling down and forming thereof (though only diagramatically and mystically) the body of the Vāstu-Puruṣa, the Presiding Lord of the whole plot of land in such a manner that the whole piece of the plot is covered by the different limbs of his body. He is described as hump-backed and of crooked shape. Therefore, it is made possible for Him to cover the entire land. The Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra in its 12th Chapter describes the Mahāvaṃśas together with Śiras, Vaṃśas, Sandhis, Anusandhis and Marmas in relation to the formation of the mystic body of the Vāstu-Puruṣa. Their architectural concommittants in the site-plans would be the Śiras or Nāḍis taking for their convergence the sixteenth part of the Pada, the Mahāvaṃśas are two in number, located in the centre running both from East to West as well as from South to North and take for their convergence the fifth part of the Pada; similarly, Vaṃśas, Anuvaṃśas, Sampātas, Marmas all running in the middle take the eighth, the tenth, the twelfth and the sixteenth part of the Pada respectively for their respective convergences. Thus, leaving aside all other technicalities the Mahāvaṃśas are the central arteries in the body of the town commonly so drawn as to serve as the prototype of the rectangular roads converging in all the directions in a town.

Thus this is the picture of street planning as described in the Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra For its fuller presentation, the appended sketch of the road-plan, would be more helpful. Here, in this sketch, are drawn not only the principal thirty four streets, but also a number of lanes, byelanes and and side streets connecting the central road and going through the different localities to give full space to the different localities and providing them with necessary light, air and good and healthy orientation as well as allocating places to the necessary articles of daily use. It may be pointed out here that the subject of street planning in works like Mānasāra, Mayamata, Artha-Śāstra of Kauṭilya, Nītisāra of Śukra, Purāṇas like Devī and Brahmāṇḍa is exhaustively treated and their elaborate notice is taken by Sri B. B. Dutta in his ‘Town Planning in Ancient India’. But for the sake of completeness, the broad principles of the street planning which are found in them may be noticed. Firstly, it was according to the number and directions of the streets and the arrangement of houses along them that most of the classifications of towns like Daṇḍaka and its further categories were denominated (Mayamata, the 9th Chapter). Similarly, Mānasāra classified the towns, according to street planning and site-planning under eight heads, like Daṇḍaka and Nandyāvarta etc. (Chapters IX & X). Secondly, diagonal streets (very common these days) were not advocated by these Śilpa-śāstras of old. The two principal roads of every town continued upto the main National Highways and thus serving the main purpose. There was however, an exception. The diagonal streets were inevitable when exigencies of the situation such as hilly tracts, were the natural factors for laying out such streets. Thirdly, it can not be said that in ancient India or in the early Medieval India the roads of the towns did not have the foot-paths lined parallel to them, (Sri Datta is doubtful in this respect, ibid. 133 page). The Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra, as we have already noticed, does provide for Jaṅghāpathas (space for pedestrians) on both sides of the vehicular streets—the Yāna-Mārgas (Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra X. 12). Fourthly, special attention in the ancient system of the street planning was devoted to the trimming of the outer-sections of roads. It served manifold purposes such as beautifying the intervals of the long roads with some architectural objects, like temples, towers or tall trees and also serving the cultural life, the socio-political not excluded, by allotting these central projections on the cross roads to some public building like the Sabhā, the Assembly hall (cf. the modern town hall) or a shrine or monastery. Thus these junctions of the roads were so planned and finished as also to satisfy a psychological need—the monotony of the hazy vacuity of long straight streets wearing the eye sight if there is nothing in front to fix the eyes upon. Again we have noticed that the centres of the town (the junctions of the roads included) were reserved for imperial palaces with their picturesque plants and the flower gardens presenting a delightful panorama to the pedestrians winding their way along the streets. Again it was with this broad aesthetic principle that buildings constructed on the roads were not done so in an irregular fashion. There was cooperation in alignment and structure (vide description of Ayodhya in Ramayana). Lastly, the streets were elevated in the middle looking like the back of a tortoise and they were made firm with gravels and the like i.e. Kāśma-śarkara (vide Samarāṅgaṇasūtradhāra X. 8). There were drains also on both sides of the roads (vide ‘Fortification’ of this Part).

All this amply justifies that principles of advanced street planning were not unknown to this work.

N.B.—As regards the details of other books like the Mayamata and Mānasāra, I take the liberty to reproduce them as Sri B.B, Dutta has done.


“That town is called Daṇḍaka which has only one easterly street resembling a phalanx or a staff (daṇḍa) with houses arranged along it. If the town possesses, also, only one northerly street intersecting the other at the centre it is called Kartarī-daṇḍaka [daṇḍakam]. If it further contains two building alleys running east to west (prācinav kuṭṭimau) at the extremities of the northerly street, then the town is known Vāhudāṇḍaka [vāhudāṇḍakam] having four gates in the four cardinal directions. If there are several sets of houses along the two sides of northerly street with many houselanes intervening between, it is called kuṭikā-mukhadaṇḍaka [mukhadaṇḍakam]. If the town is planned with three east-to-west streets and three other north-to-south streets, it is termed Kalakābandha-daṇḍaka [daṇḍakam].”

The last four rural towns—these rather resemble the sub-divisional town in modern India—are clearly the four varieties of the daṇḍaka towns.

“Noted among other towns is Vedībhadraka [vedībhadrakam]. It has three streets directed north and south and three vithīs or streets running to the east. These streets are separated by many residential lanes (kuṭṭimamārga), one lane intervening between every two streets. The Svastika town does not differ in plan from a Svastika village. The Svastika is also a town which has six streets facing north and six others facing east, all encircled by another road and these dividing the city into residential plots (vīthīpada [vīthīpadam]). The townplan is known as Bhadraka [bhadrakam], if it consists of four streets running eastwise. In it there are one street going round the quarters of Brahmā and three lanes to the east intervening between the rows of houses If the number of similarly directed streets be five and five and there be many building plots, the name of the town is Bhadramukha [bhadramukham]. Another type is Bhadrakalyāṇa [bhadrakalyāṇam]; the number of streets in it facing north is six, dividing it into many building plots. The plan is known as Mahābhadra [mahābhadram], if the number of such streets be seven and the rest as before. The town plan of Subhadra has eight streets facing the east and eight more transverse to them. The lanes which divide the building plots of this town-plan are furnished with gates and crossbars. The Jayāṅga is the name of the town containing the imperial head-quarters. This town has a net-work of nine streets lying east to west with nine others transverse to them. It has four main gates in the four cardinal directions and four other subsidiary gates in the four corners. The lanes between ṭhe building plots are provided with portals which open out on the main streets. The experts designate the town as Vijaya in case it is divided into many building-plots by lanes fitted up with gates and cross-bars to bolt them with. The number of main streets in it is ten versus ten. The imperial castle is installed in the town. Another town called Sarvatobhadra has eleven streets crossed by another set of eleven. The royal mansions are situated on any site barring the central quarters dedicated to Brahmā. In the front of the royal castle is a vast courtyard where is situated the harem. The rest should be planted according to necessity and exigencies of the situation. Its street running towards the east (tatprāg-diggata-mārga) is called Rājavīthī. The buildings of the rich range on both sides of it. Adjoining them are the quarters of the merchants. To their south are settled the weavers and to their north are established the wheel-wrights (cakriṇaḥ, carriage-drivers?). In their neighbourhood are quartered kindred professions.”

The prescriptions of the Mānasāra are almost identical.

On the evidence as deduced by Ramraz’s ‘Essay on Hindu Architecture’ and that furnished by the celebrated Mayamata [mayamatam], denominations of the various kinds of streets in a town have been elaborated by Datta as follows:

“A street that goes round the village or town is called Maṅgala-vīthī which should be one to five daṇḍas wide. That which runs from east to west is called Rājapatha; that which had gates at both extremities is termed Rājavīthī; that which has ‘sandhis’ (literally junction) is Sandhivīthī; and that which lies in a southerly direction, is named Mahākāla or Vāmana”.

According to Mayamuni,

“The streets that run straight like a staff from east to west are called Mahāpathas (broad highways). Of them the street passing through the centre (that is, the plot presided over by Brahmā) is called Brahmavīthī and this forms the navel of the network of streets. On both sides of this street and comparatively smaller than it are those streets (rest of the Mahāpathas?) called Rājavīthīs and these are fitted with gates (at the extremites). The Maṅgalavīthī and the Rathamārgas (car-streets) all are kuṭṭimakas (because they seem to have been paved with slabs of stone). These roads if furnished with transverse doors go by the name of Nārāca-pathas. The comparatively narrower streets facing towards the north and equipped with gates and bolts are called Vāmanapathas. The street that goes round the village is called Maṅgalavīthikā and the corresponding street in a capital is called Janavīthikā. But in ancient authorities and in other towns, this street is technically termed as rathyā or the road along which the processional chariot (ratha) is dragged. The streets are one to five dhanus [dhanuṣ] wide”

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