Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Engineering in our Ancient Literature


Our literature in Sanskrit as well as Telugu has an extensive reference to Engineering and Technology.  In fact, in Sanskrit, there are text books in Engineering known as ‘Vaastusastras’ by ‘Maya’ and ‘Viswakarma’.  The word ‘Vaastu’ was used in a broader sense to cover also Engineering and Town planning.  The practice of writing books on subjects other than ‘Sahitya’ was not uncommon. We have treatises in Telugu like ‘Sasyaanandam’, ‘Saarasamgraha Ganitham’ and ‘Rettamata Sastram’ on subjects like Weather forecast, Mathematics and Agriculture.

Let us now see how the texts and the Classics dealt with Engineering.


The smallest unit of length used by Viswakarma is a ‘Vriha’ which is 1/4 of an inch of present day, where as that given by ‘Maya’ is an inconceivable figure of 8 to the power of minus 7 of an inch and it was named as ‘Paramaanu’. If ‘Maya’ could have practically obtained such measurements there is no wonder that he had created ‘mayasabha’ with all its optical illusions.


Towns were classified into four kinds, by their locations.  They are 1. Pattana (A coastal town-we can even see even today that all towns whose names end with a suffix ‘Pattana’ are Coastal towns) 2. Kheta (Tribal village) 3. Kharvata (village on a river bank) and 4. Palli (Village located at the foot of the hill).

The Ramayana described Ayodhya city as “Chitram ashtapadaakaram’ meaning that it looked like a dice board (Perhaps a board of ‘Pachchees’, favourite game of rural housewives, some years ).

Ayodhya was also described as follows:-
1. ‘Padma swastika samsthithai’— In ‘Padma’ and Saswtika’ shapes in plan
2. ‘Suvibhakta Mahaapathaam’—-(With) well organised main roads
3. ‘Saptabhoumaashtabhoumaascha’—-(Having) Buildings with 7 or 8 storeys
4. ‘Manikuttima bhooshithai —-Floors paved with diamonds (perhaps poetic excess)
5. ‘TaptaHataka Niryoohai’ —-With Golden Pillar - Capitals
6. ‘Kaananai Krutrimaschaiva’—With artificial vegetation (Lawns / parks)
All this description goes to show that there was well developed Town-Planning institution at the time of Ramayana. The following description is still more interesting.
Taam ratna  vasanopeta
Dhanyagaara vatamsakaa
Yamtraagara Sthaneemruddham—

The grannaries are compared to flowers in the braid coiled at the top of the head (Sigabanthi) and the machine rooms to female breasts. We may infer from this that the grannaries were tall, whereas the machine rooms were conical in shape i.e like hutments.
Well, then what are Machine Rooms?
They may be rooms where machines operating the collapsible bridges over the ‘Moat’ protecting the fort are housed. Reference to such collapsible bridges are ample in Ramayana.  (A collapsible bridge is one, which can be lowered to permit normal traffic and which can be hoisted up to prevent access to the enemy — Remember Bridge on River Thames, London).

Srinatha in his ‘Sringara naishatha’ has described, in a very pompous style, (Ghana ghanaaghana ghataa kathora ghargharadhwaana godhooma gharattambulu) the existence of Grinding Machines.  The Machine Rooms described in Ramayana could be such grinder Running Sheds.

Or they could have been structures housing water pumping arrangements.

At any rate, it can be said with certainity that knowledge of Civil Engineering with advanced technology, and knowledge of some mechanical Engineering were available then.


Buildings were divided as ‘Chatussaala, Trisaala, Dwisaala and Ekasaala according to ‘Plan’ and as Sarvatobhadram, Vardhamanam, Swastikam and Ruchiram according to ‘Elevation’.


The depth of foundation depends on a property called the ‘Safe Bearing Capacity’ of a soil.  It is said that ‘Sathapatha Brahmana’ has references to it.

Viswakarma has called ‘Foundation Laying as ‘Bhoomi lambana karyam’.  The foundations should be laid in Brick-Jelly, Broken stone and sand chikkanaischa silaakhandai vaalukaadaischa poorayet).  It should be consolidated by Elephant - feet, hammers and sticks (gajapadai rmudgaraischa kasshtakhandai rghaneekrutam).


Viswakarma specified the height of basement as 1’6'’ to 4’6'’ (Ekahastam, Dwihastamcha.  Trihastamcha viseshathah).  It is necessary for magnificence, security, beauty and strength (Ounnatyaarthamcha rakshaartham, sobhaarthamcha, balaarthakam).


Viswakarma gave a vivid description of ‘Bonding’ in brickwork.  In the words of the English translator of ‘vastusaastra’, joineries should be built in the following way : - “Joineries in brickwork should be made by alternate projections and depressions and filled with mortor ground to softness  mixed in jaggery and dicoctions of Astringent bars.   In Forts and Bridges red lead and granite powder have to be mixed and well hammered.  Such hammered joint is called “Vajrabandha”.


Normally Lintels were avoided those days by covering the openings with “Arches”. However, here and there “Lintels” were also resorted to.  Lintel was called ‘Tiryak Daru’ and ‘Beams’ were called ‘Sthoolas’ (The Telugu word for Beam viz. ‘Doolam’ might have been derived from this word).


The height of each step called ‘Rise’ is prescribed as 9" to 12".  Now we limit it to only 6".  This shows that people of those days were well built, perhaps with long legs.


There were three types of roofings those days.
1. NIMNAM: - Sloped Roof
2. SOUDHAM: - Flat Terraced Roof; now called ‘Kurnool Terraced Roof’
3. KARANDAKAM: - Mixture of Bricks with Mortor inter-spaces, now called ‘Madras Terrace Roof’.

Thus we have all the types of Roofs of present day except RCC Roofs.  There is a description of another kind of Roof in ‘Aamuktamalyada’ by Srikrishandevaraya.  It is called ‘Mattimidde’ or Mud Roof.

People living in this type of houses were disturbed in their sleep during rainy season, because the roofs leaked.

In this type of construction, unsized timber was laid criss-cross over the walls. Split Bamboos were spread over them and they were covered with neem leaves and finally with earth.  Ants burrow holes into the earth which spread and leaked when it rained.

This was a common sight till recently in upland areas like Prakasam Dist.


The ‘Manucharitra’ describes White-washing.  It is mingled with excellent poetic imagination.  The Moon (Sudhakarudu = Moon, Lime-Washer) painted white the entire world with his Moonlight.  for water, he used the melting Moon-stone; for sand, he used the Pollens of fragrant flowers; for Jaggery water, he used the Nectar of Flowers; and for sheen, he used the cream on the Mythological Milk-Sea.  With the help of these accessories he extended his hands (Karamulu = Hands, Rays) and with the lime of moonlight he white-washed the world.

The above poem throws some light on the material used for white-washing in those days.

Thus we can find a splendid account of construction practices of ancient India in our literature.


The concept of building dams/tanks was prevalant even in Vedic literature.  It was well conceived that any obstruction caused to flowing water impounds it. This is evident from the Indra-Vritaasura battle in Rigveda.

Even in ‘Loukika vaagmaya’ we can see evidences of this. In ‘Vasucharitra’ a mountain called ‘Kolaahala’ obstructs a River.

In ‘Navacholacharitra’ written by Posetti Linganna around 14th century (The time of the story was B.C.), the king ‘Karikaalachola’ builds an earthen Dam.  He gets it constructed by people indenting one able-bodied person from every house. Stone Revetment was also provided to earthen bunds.

Earthen dams were extensively constructed. Kautilya in his ‘Arthasaastra’ has given an account of types of Dams. 

There was a system to measure the rainfall.  It was measured in a unit called ‘Aratni’. An Aratni is 64kgs (litres) of water.  Rain gauges were made in circular as well as square sections.  The base areas were so designed that a depth of 4cms. In a circular container or a depth of 3.04 cms in a square container constituted one ‘Aratni’ of rainfall.

Tank Irrigation through Minor Irrigation tanks was a very common phenomenon and we have evidences of it in Telugu literature of as early as 14th century as seen above.  The importance given to Minor Irrigation by the ruling polity can be seen in ‘Amuktamaalyada’ written by the King-Poet Sreekrishnadevaraaya’ of 16th century.

“If people live in plenty and prosperity, it makes it easier for the King to collect Taxes.  The King has to, therefore, provide tanks and canals for irrigating even small holdings.”  That Sreekrishnadevaraya had put what he wrote into practice, is evident from what Sir Thomas Munroe has written hundred years .

“In this area (Rayalaseema), it is fertile to try to construct any Minor Irrigation tanks.  They (the old rulers) have exploited every feasible site.  In a Taluq in Cuddapah district, they built 4194 tanks in an area of 3874 Sq.Miles”- a compliment every Telugu man should feel proud of.


There was not much accent on Roads since there were no mechanised vehicles then.  Still, some parameters were prescribed for Road construction also, by Viswakarma
1. It was said that ‘Camber’ should be provided for Roads (Madhyonnati paarsvanimnam)
2. Avenue trees should be planted on either side of the Road
3. Mile stones and Stones showing the names of villages should be fixed on the Road.
4. Here and there ‘Kamtalam’s (Elevated platforms for weight-bearers to shift shoulders) should be provided.

Bridges laid on ‘piers’ do not seem to be prevalent. Perhaps, the anicuts built across the rivers themselves served as bridges for passage of traffic as well. The description in Ramayana of the Bridge built by ‘Vaanaraa’s also matches with the technique of Bund-formations only.

All this makes one to conclude, that the reputation Indian Civil Engineers enjoy throughout the world today, is equal to a long, glorious heritage.

1. ‘Vaastusastram’ by ‘Viswakarma’ with English commentary
2. ‘Andhrula saanghika charitra’ by Late Sri Suravaram Pratapa Reddy
3. ‘Aamuktamalyada’ by Srikrishnadevaraya
4. ‘Manucharitra’ by Allasaani Peddana
5. ‘Sringaaranaishadha’ by Srinatha
6. ‘Navacholocharitra’ by Posetti Linganna
7. ‘Engineering and technology in Kautilya’s Arthasaastra - Institution of Engrs.

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