“Man is the measure of all things, of being things that they exist, and of non-entities that they do not exist.”

Protagoras (C.481-411 B.C.)

Yagna held in Kerala testifi to the continuity of tradition over hundreds of years. Note five layers of altar.
Yagna held in Kerala testifi to the continuity of tradition over hundreds of years. Note five layers of altar.

As far back as the 5th century B.C. in a culture remote from India, Protagoras echoes the seer of Vedic times (2500 B.C. to 1500 B.C.). In a most powerful hymn called the Purushasukta (literally the hymn of Man or of Cosmic Man), the universe and the cosmos is conceived of as Man with all parts of the human body, a bone structure, head, upper and lower limbs, as well as all systems – circulatory, digestive, nervous and so on. The Primordial Man of the Vedas is the creator of the world: “From his speech were born the divinities – earth and fire; and from his breath – space and air (antariksha and vayu); and from his eyes – heaven and the sun; from his ears – the quarters and the moon; and from his mind – the waters.”

Primordial Man (Purusha) stands always in relation to earth and sky. Innumerable references could be cited from Indian texts ranging from the earliest Rig Veda (2500 B.C.) to the later Upanishads (5th century B.C.) to prove that ‘Man as Measure’ is a critical term of reference in Indian speculative thought.

A perusal of this literature makes it abundantly clear that through the relationship between the image of Man and earth and sky, a series of correspondences are established between the limbs and organs of Cosmic Man and universal phenomena. In addition all societal structures, their inter- dependability and inter-relationships are explained through the metaphor of the Primordial Man, Purusha. “His face becomes the Brahman, his arms the Kshatriya, his thighs the Vaisya and his feet the Shudra.”

Visually Cosmic Man is in a standing erect posture with feet on earth and his arms outstretched, reaching the quarters or cardinal directions.Concurrently, a powerful correspondence is established between the standing man and the axis mundi, the central pillar (stambha or skambha) is located in the middle or navel or centre of the earth.

This mythical view gives rise to a geometrical form of a centre within a circumference with vertical and horizontal diameters. Further divisions into diameters and radii are equated with the five elements, and the directions or cardinal points of the compass.

Psychical equations are further established through overlayings to suggest the five mental states, the gross and subtle elements. A clear structure of sheathing and overlaying is evident.

The image of Man, then, becomes a fundamental paradigm for explaining all phenomena, macro and micro. It is used as a sustained term of reference in all disciplines.

Most important is the transference of the concept and the world view into the language of art, especially Indian architecture. However, there is an intermediary stage of great importance between the speculative and mythical and its concretisation into the formal value of art, both at the theoretical and the practical levels. It is through the metaphor of Primordial Man that the Vedic seer communicates all spatial and temporal relationships.

The Vedic ritual (yajna), limited to a period of 21 days, is the methodology by which a terrestrial space is consecrated so as to suggest or replicate cosmic space and time. Through it astronomical time is corrected and the cosmic order (rita) re-established.

The Vedic altars were the beginning of Indian architecture and it is therefore necessary to briefly describe them and the ritual space, in order to comprehend how the notions of Indian architecture developed directly out of the elaborate system of Vedic ritual, the enclosure of the altars and the three fires.

The image of Man was central to the conception. The entire ritual symbolised the dismemberment of Primordial Man (Prajapati), in other words, a disintegration of the universe and its subsequent integration into a whole.

Although no great Indian architecture has survived earlier than the 5th century B.C., concepts underlying this architecture can be traced back to the world view articulated in the Vedas and the metaphysics of the Upanishads and the methodology of the yajna.

The sacrificial enclosure (yajnashala) was built on consecrated earth which was ploughed, levelled and carefully measured. The unit of measure was the purusha-vyama (Measure of Man). And this purusha-vyama is literally ‘the measure of man’ with his arms up-stretched, a measure of 120 angulas (fingers). The smaller units of measurement are all multiples of the primary unit which is equivalent to the breadth of a finger. The Satapatha Brahmana, the primary text, is clear on the subject of the measure: “He measures it (the fire altar) by finger breadths: for the sacrifice (yajna) being a man (purusha), it is by means of him that everything is measured here. Now these fingers are his lowest measure.”

Using these and intermediate units of linear measurement, such as the artani (a cubit, equivalent to the distance from the tip of the middle finger to the elbow), the mahavedi (a plot marked out to the east of the sacrificial shed) is carefully measured out and demarcated with a cord or bamboo rod. The shape of the mahavedi is sometimes a trapezium and the vedi (sacrificial ground) is in the shape of a rectangle. The ground isnarrower in front and broader at the back, measuring in some yajna 24 cubits in front and 32 at the back.

On this ground are built the three altars. The first, the ahavaniya, is in the form of a square and represents celestial space; the second, the garhapatya, is in the form of a circle, symbolising the terrestrial world; and the third, the dakshinagni, is a semi-circle denoting the air world.

The description of the ahavaniya is pertinent: “Thereupon he raised a square altar south of the dakshinagni. He makes the corners point towards the intermediate quarters; this is one fathom (vyama) square and represents the celestial world.” The garhapatya’s description is equally graphic. “The garhapatya hearth measures a fathom (in diameter) for man (purusha) is a fathom high, and man is Prajapati and Prajapati is Agni; he thus makes the womb ofequal size to his (Agni’s) body.” It is parimandala (circular) for the womb is circular and moreover the garhapatya is the terrestrial world and this world doubtless is circular.

The ground plan of the sacrificial area (shala) could be further discussed to show how each area of the earth is carefully demarcated and measured for specific purposes. The laying of the bricks and their construction follows the basic measure of a square. In all there are 396 (395 + 1) yajumati bricks (360 + 36 bricks corresponding to 360 days of the year and the intercalary month of 36 days). They are put downin five layers signifying the five elements and the five mental states. Of these 21 are around the garhapatya, 78 round the dakshinagni and 260 surround the ahavaniya. Finally, there are the 10,800 lokamprna (space-filling) bricks corresponding to the muhurtas (or hours). Each brick, each layer and each altar shape represents an aspect of the cosmos. The five layers and different categories of stones and bricks represent the forms of Prajapati.

It is significant that after laying down all these details the Satapatha mentions that it is not through the body that immortality is achieved. Death must have its share, as can be seen from its capacity to destroy the body. In short, the concretisation, however important, must ultimately be annihilated into the formless and that beyond form. Prajapati is all this and yet beyond it. First, the cosmos takes concrete shape in the body of man and finally it is brought home that the body of man, though important and significant, is not the utimate. The circle of concepts is complete.

The Vastu-Purusha Mandala is an extended concretisation of the concepts and designs of the mahavedi, uttaravedi (the square high altar) and the three hearths. The organistion of the temple, its ground plan and its elevation, rests on this.

Indian architecture re-states these principles in both sacred and secular buildings. As in the case of the sacrificial enclosure (yajnashala) so also the earth on which the temple is built must be consecrated, the water tested, and the consistency of the soil examined. The soil is further tested by being ploughed and sown with seeds, and by watching their germination for 3,5 and 7 nights. The practical considerations are obvious but in the scheme of sacred Indian architecture they assume greater significance as a correspondence is established between these functional acts of consecration and the body of the building. The earth thus cleaned, tested and purified is ready for the erection of a model of the cosmos.

On this smooth, purified surface – like water or the face of a mirror – the temple diagram of a Vastu-Purusha Mandala is drawn. The Vastu-Purusha Mandala is a square diagram (yantra) divided further into smaller squares, most often 81 (9 x 9) or 64 (8 x 8) squares in the case of temple architecture. The nucleus of 4 or 9 divisions is reserved for Brahma, the principal deity. Architecturally, this unit translates into the sanctum (garbhagriha), the womb chamber of the temple. Around the central square in the Vastu-Purusha Mandala are placed the 12 Adityas and on the borders are 32 Padadevatas, the deities representing celestial bodies.

The physical orientations of the temple are invariably established in relation to the motion of the planets. The four sides of the square lie towards the cardinal points and the corners towards the intermediate points of the compass. The temple is correctly located in both space and time. The Vastu-Purusha Mandala represents both these aspects in the same manner as the vedi and the duration of the sacrifice. In the sacrifice ‘cosmic order’ was, so to say, restored through the sacrifice, and the unequal courses of the sun, moon and planets were readjusted. The Vastu-Purusha Mandala incorporates into a single synthesis this course of the sun and the moon and the planets and in doing so it symbolises recurrent time cycles.

According to texts, especially the Brhat Samhita, the Vastu-Purusha Mandala of 81 squares (9 x 9) and 64 squares (8 x 8) is further divided into smaller units. An elaborate correspondence is established between each of these squares and the planet deities. While Brahma occupies the central square and is always the presiding deity coinciding with the nave, the central axis mundi, the sanctum, the garbhagriha, other deities occupy adjoining squares. In the outer series, there are deities like Indra, Jayant, etc., and in the outermost are the various minor deities including also the asuras (demons).

The diagram can also be read from the point of view of astronomy and the movement of the planets. In short the Vastu-Purusha Mandala is an abstract design with meaning at multiple levels. It is both a statement of enclosed space as well as of time which moves from the centre to the periphery in a serpentine coil. Each of these squares also has a lotus design. While four in the corners of the Vastu-Purusha Mandala have four petals, the others have eight. The central square represents a cosmic form of Vishnu, i.e, Vishvarupa. Each of the inner enclosures also possesses a syllable, a matrika, in addition to the presiding deity. The allocation of the syllables or letters of the Sanskrit alphabet commences with the north-east corner of the second inner enclosure of 24 squares and ends with the central square. Thus all 49 syllables are contained if the diagram is read in clockwise fashion.

This diagram of the Vastu-Purusha Mandala is the symbol of the macrocosm. The architectural edifice is made after this mandala and is the abode of the world, the beings of the three planes – nether, terrestrial and celestial. In its totality the Vastu-Purusha Mandala is the example of Man in a sitting posture with his head in one cardinal direction and his feet in the other. He is Sakala omnipresent, containing all deities in their congregation. The same mandala can give rise to manifold forms but in its element it is the multiplicity of forms only to suggest the beyond form.