Vastu Shastra is the oldest traditional design practice in the world and has also influenced the other traditional design practice – Feng Shui. Scholars (Schmieke, 2012) have asserted that nearly 3000 years ago monks crossed over the Himalayan Mountains from India, through Tibet and into China, carrying with them this ancient Vedic knowledge. Adapting to the local climate, Vastu Shastra evolved into Feng Shui (Maestro and Maestro, 2006).
Vastu Shastra is the force that influenced other principles or science of design and construction throughout the globe. Monuments like the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, Taj Mahal, Greek Parthenon and Roman Coliseum have largely been influenced by the science of Vastu Shastra; with regards to shape, proportion, measurements and alignment to the cardinal points, says a team of researchers including C Koranteng, S.O. Afram and E. Ayeke. Contemporary theories that arrived later in the subsequent centuries have largely been influenced directly or indirectly by the principles of Vastu.
Active and passive design considerations of the environmental factors such as wind, sunlight direction, building orientation on a plot resulted from the long existence and influence of Vastu Shastra.
Vastu scholar and practitioner Sashikala Ananth speaks about Vastu’s journey outside India and its contemporary relevance. She and her husband Raghu Ananthanarayanan are founders of Ritambhara – a quiet yoga and meditation centre, tucked away in the hills of the Nilgiris.
How did the knowledge of Vastu travel outside Indian shores?
There is some data about this but it has not been recorded. It is well known that Hinduism as Sanatana dharma has travelled to various parts of the world over the centuries. From my discussions with Feng Shui practitioners I have understood that many of the principles are actually taken from Vastu shastra. There is also new evidence that the Central American and South American cultures were influenced by the sea faring travellers from India over time. It is well known that the Mahabharata war date was recorded in the Aztec calendar. In my opinion, the way we understand Vastu today has definitely been taken abroad by Shri Ganapati Sthapati.
A quick survey of the thousands of houses, monuments, temples and viharas, tanks, stepped wells, caves, and schools in the different parts of the Indian sub-continent, the Himalayas, Sri Lanka Far East countries where the Dharma traditions spread, will reveal the extraordinary skill and diversity of the builder community. The buildings have withstood the onslaught of nature, the violence of the conquerors and the wilful misuse of the vandals, and are a testimony to the brilliant skill, aesthetic sensibility and great artistry of our ancestors. Many civilisations boast of great monuments but none can trace a continuity of this knowledge and skill to the present date.
What are the highlights of this extraordinary skill? An innate understanding of the behaviour of materials, a brilliant ability to translate the design in the mind to the field without having to develop 3D models or even prepare detailed drawings, to create perfect elements of stone brick and timber and to join them so precisely that they need no mortar in stone, or plastering in brick, and nails in timber. There are temples where a paper can be inserted below the pillar because it stands on the attraction of magnetic rocks, sculptures can be made so perfectly that a ball can roll within the mouth of a lion and so on. The cave temple, the frescoes with vegetable dyes that are still perfect after hundreds of years, the monolith temples such as Mahabalipuram’s 5 Rathas and the Ellora Kailasanatha temple, the Brihadeswara temple in Tanjavur, are some of the examples of the pinnacles of this achievement.
Construction techniques were varied and evolved over time, absorbing methods from each other and also from other cultures. The craft guild contained the entire process of the building including the sourcing of material, transportation, building and maintenance. The craft groups travelled widely and trained many new groups, which is why we see similar techniques in Sri Lanka Indonesia Cambodia and other neighboring countries. The engineering skill is also staggering, as can be seen in some of the monuments in Rajasthan, Orissa and others. Such precision and skill in design and construction is possible only if the entire chain of the team is excellent and offering their best. In the language of current Management theory, the link task and role responsibilities are all in place!
Is Vastu as popular as other similar systems abroad?
In the recent past, there has been a great deal of interest in Vastu from various parts of the world. I have personally taught the subject for over 20 years to students from Europe, America, Australia and Russia.
Can Vastu be easily transposed in non-Indian built spaces?
There are 2 aspects of Vastu shastra, one is the principle base and this can be translated to any kind of building anywhere in the world, the other is the specific locality application and this needs to be reexamined for other applications because of climatic and geographic necessities. Vastu is a design principle and therefore applied to residences, temples, public buildings, village and town plans as well as interior design and vehicular design.
What does Vastu offer to modern building design?
Contemporary buildings are losing their connection to culture and to energetic connection with the environment. Vastu can definitely influence this in a very powerful manner.
To understand how the tradition of Vastu has looked at the whole process of transformation from energy and idea on to the three-dimensional plane is to look at sculpture and architecture of religious centres such as temples. It is only through the study of this devalaya tradition that we can comprehend the application in Manushyalaya and in the construction of public buildings. What must be remembered is that the separation between spiritual and secular did not exist in the Indian tradition. What is applicable for the gods is also applicable for human beings. It is only in the scale and the use of materials that the difference was shown.
What is the connection between Vastu and aesthetic?
One of the anchors of Vastu shastra is aesthetics the others are utility and spiritual delight. The built environment was designed in very creative ways based on the local terrain, climate, natural surroundings, temperature, water availability, bearing capacity of the soil, material availability, life style, and cultural traits. The designer had to sensitise himself in specific ways so that he could comprehend both the visible world and invisible energies. He had to study the natural habitat of birds and animals to understand the nature of the abode and its appropriateness.
There are 3 basic principle for design, Bhogadyam or utility, Sukha Darsham or aesthetics, Ramya or spiritual satisfaction/ inner delight. Bhogadyam includes the practical aspect of the design, be it a building or craft item; Sukha Darsham includes the aesthetic of the visual and the textural in the manifested form and the aural in melody and music and this includes acoustics in built spaces and the vibrations in a musical pillar; Ramya refers to spiritual wellbeing or inner delight and is a product of ratios, proportions, vibrations, frequency, sacred geometry and mandalas, and the connection to the astrological patterns of the users identity. The chief Sthapati and the Musician or Dancer had to experience these principles before he/she could translate them onto the field of manifestation. The other aspects of the 3 principles are- the unseen energies that inhabit the space of the built form, the possible healing energies that can be tapped to change the state of duhka in an occupant of a building or the movement into health of a person in Roga or illness. The presence of nature and the subtle ways in which it affects and heals the individual was well known to the Kalaignya/ builder and the Vaidya/healer. Plants, trees, herbs, birds, animals were recommended for wellness.
What are the sources of Prana in Vastu?
Energy is an element that is not being taken seriously by vAstu consultants. The entrance represents prAna vAyu and the rear exits denotes apAnavAyu. Therefore, all the energies that enter a built form which includes breeze, light, visitors and other people, the desires and needs of the occupants as well as the visitors and finally the success and failures experienced by the people who occupy the space.
Westerners are attracted to India because of yoga. What is the connection between yoga and Vastu?
Almost all traditional systems such as Vastu, shilpa, sangeeta and natya have insisted on the practitioner being a yogi. The connection between the body, the breath, the mind and creative activity in the world has been looked at in a very powerful manner by all the traditions. Today, I am trying to bring back the concept of inner space that is connected to the practice of yoga and outer form that is connected to the practice of Vastu. There is tremendous response to this amongst students and practitioners.
To comprehend the sheer brilliance of Sanatana Dharma one has to examine the links between the micro individual and the macro Intelligence “AnoraNeeyam Mahatormaheeyam”; the envelop and the space within; the journey of personal perfection and collective harmony; the alignment of the individual to the Cosmic purpose; and finally the relationship between theoretical rigour and personal practice or Sadhana. Each of the Parampara systems had their own personal and collective disciplines so that they achieved a certain balance and wellbeing in their life on earth as well as created a collective process or manifested art work for the rest of society to experience and feel deep inner evocation.
If they were priests and scholars they followed a Dvaita or an Advaita path of personal practice, followed the precepts of Vedic or Agamic knowledge and belief, sacred texts were learnt and followed in everyday life, they trained their body breath and voice to chant and to sing, they learnt to perform pujas and ceremonies, they trained their minds to learn huge amounts of textual knowledge known as Mananam. These are disciplines set out as part of Ashtanga Yoga.
For the grand dream of Yoga, Vedanta and Gandharva Kalaa to be realised we have to create new institutions where such exchanges can become possible again. The individual body, breath, mind and voice must once again be tuned to the larger yearnings and intelligence of a culture and a heritage that is capable of shaping the individual and transforming a society.
Dancers studied the texts as well as trained their bodies, their Indriyas or senses to express emotions known as navarasa, they understood music, they learnt poetry, and trained their body and breath to work in balance. This too is Yoga.
In Sangeeta they trained the body breath and voice, they learnt to stay with the central thread of awareness or Shruti, this too is a part of Yoga Sadhana. The sculptor and the temple architect learnt proportions, hand and eye skills, understood materials and felt the balance between the body and the manifested form. This too is a yoga sadhana.
In all the fields of Kalaa the alignment of body, senses, breath and the mind is the basic Sadhana. Hence practice of Yoga appropriate for each system was a must in the training process. Each practitioner had an awareness and basic understanding of the interconnected systems, and many meeting grounds were available where these ideas and understanding could be shared and honed.