Classical traditions and contemporary applications

Vastu Purusha

In the past few decades, the idea of tradition has become fragmented from main stream lifestyles of people whether we speak of ayurveda and health, traditional food, vaastu shastra, yoga or the philosophies of Vedanta. There is a huge divide between the tradition, its application and the contemporary attitudes of the people. Most of these traditions are being sidelined because of negative information being pushed by market forces to sell synthetic products. This attitude of pharmaceuticals, fertilizer companies and building material manufacturers has resulted in forming a very powerful basis for public taste to get attracted to extremely poisonous and toxic materials that have become a part of everyday life. Not only are the market forces pushing this toxic/synthetic quotient but also convincing the people into purchasing such stuff, owning new phones, wearing designer clothes, eating fast food, popping poisonous pills, and holding older beliefs and ideas in contempt; this has also become the mark of progress and style.

Simultaneously, there are other forces that are operating as a counter balance. Many websites and articles keep informing the lay public about the synthetic elements in one’s life that are poisoning the environment; and bringing into the public eye the importance of mud building, hand woven material, vegetable dye, organic food, and simpler life styles using natural medicine. There are small fringe groups that authorise such departures with great deal of conviction. Unfortunately, mainstream media, as well as political power does not want to enter this area at all because there are no profits in being kind to the earth! Therefore, each of us end up feeling frustrated and angry about what is being done to the earth and to people by the greedy and cynical forces that are in control today.

In the wake of alternate concepts and ideas being pushed by many people in the various fields such as agriculture, medicine, clothing, food, housing, and lifestyle many market forces have also jumped on to this bandwagon and so you find contaminated materials that are being floated as alternative without adequate checks and balances. In the name of tradition, extremely suspect ideas also get pushed and this in turn creates a new kind of belief system as well as addiction. For many of us this new phenomenon of greedy consumerism in every aspect of our life is a source of enormous anguish.

In my quest towards understanding the tradition, in particular the Vaastu Shastra, I have been constantly bombarded by these market forces that have given the Vaastu Shastra such a bad name in society today. The so called ‘Vaastu experts’ have succeeded in creating great fear and anxiety towards the subject. They have manufactured a new set of rules or formulae that are the basis for every kind of building. Predictably, designers and architects are feeling very upset by these formulae because it gives no room for experimentation or creativity.

What can you do if every part of the country insists that Vaastu compliance means a north-east slope, a kitchen on the south-east, water tank on the south-west, and pooja on the north-east? It is as if any other way of building will cause ill-health and poverty. So, my task is to help the reader to understand that traditional wisdom looks at design and the built form in an organic and sensible way. The Vaastu Shastras have evolved out of thousands of years of field experimentation and are therefore, extremely appropriate for the climate, the geographical location, and the life style of the individual. 

What is Vaastu? Let me examine this question briefly for this article. It is too vast a subject to be thoroughly explained in a short article. Therefore, I take the liberty of offering the quintessence of this ancient wisdom to the reader.

The subject of Vaastu Shastra deals with the principles of design, aesthetics, form, shape, proportion, colour, texture, and climatic appropriateness. Merely reading the texts would not suffice to give one the expertise to apply the principles, since it is a subject of science and technology. It is not different from trying to read a medical text and understanding how to treat a patient! Unfortunately, most interpretation today has been made by language scholars and not by technical people. Field knowledge and application have to go hand in hand with the understanding of textual data.


Location and choosing the site:The methodology followed by the tradition has been to comprehend the site condition as well as the climatic conditions before designing buildings in a particular location. In this regard, the texts have talked about sensitivity to the natural environment, nature and colour of the soil, taste and the colour of the water, and the habits of the local flora and fauna. By studying all this the design was recommended by the designer. Slopes of the land and the nature of the soil were taken into consideration for the design. Natural terrain was always honoured and buildings built according to this.

The directions and their meanings have a strong impact on the placement of a building within a site as well as the facilities within the building. Isana or NE is the location of health and wellness, Surya or E is the location of knowledge and awakening, Agni or SE is the location of heat and inner awareness, Yama or S is the location of spiritual rebirth and Dharma, Pitru or SW is the location of the ancestral wisdom, Varuna or W is the location of adventure and commerce, Vayu or NW is the location of intelligence and creativity.

Climate and rainfall:The local climate as well as the nature of the monsoon was well understood in the building practice. Location of windows and slope of roof clearly indicates a very good understanding of both the climate and rainfall. In almost all parts of the country where the hot summer was an important element in the design, verandas were recommended on the western sides to cool the building during the summer months. In most traditional housing, in particular where earth walls and mud bricks were used, the overhang of the roof was greater in the south and west to protect the walls during the monsoon.

The location of the building on a site had its own meanings and benefits.

Many interesting theories abound in the Vaastu texts and locating the building within the site can also be looked at with care so that the impact on the user is maximised.

Construction:In most areas of the country, traditional construction took care of the stability of the land and the local materials that were available. In earthquake prone areas, local techniques were adopted to prevent damage to the walls during the earth tremors. All these techniques though not mentioned in the texts were developed in the field. Therefore, it’s only through the understanding of the oral knowledge and the practical experience of the crafts people and artisans that the technology as well as the science can be once again revived.

The Vaastu Purusha Mandala is a very popular image that can be seen in every book or article on the subject. It is a symbolic representation of earth energies that are potent and need to be respected by people whether in the open space or in the built space.

Understanding the energies: The impact of the built space on the occupant takes place at two levels. One is in the physical level, where the locations of facilities and the persons’ movement chart created by the form impact the user. The second is the shape, proportion; colour, texture and material have an energetic impact on the user that can lead to either wellness or ill health. All this has been well understood by the tradition and there is ample evidence that the energies of the earth, the environment and the built form have been very elegantly used to create both an aesthetic and a harmonious built environment. To this end, when one visits a traditional home in any village in the country one can feel the extraordinary inner delight that the form and its simple aesthetics have on the psyche of the individual.

Let us look at some specific areas to understand this subject of Vaastu Shastra and traditional building.

Many rituals have been talked about in connection with the environment as well as in the building. Most of these rituals pertain to the balance of universal energies with the earth. This is carried out at various stages of the building. The position of the Tulasi plant in the courtyard is an example of both healing and ritual. The plant is used in puja as well as in food and was placed in a fairly prominent position in the design.

In conclusion, I would like to focus on one important principle of Vaastu. It can be summarised as bhogadyam / utility, sukhadharshanam / aesthetic and ramya/ delight. Through the employment of good proportion and practical solutions, the needs of the user and the usefulness of the building can be achieved. Appropriate colours, shapes and textures add to the visual and sensory experience and touch the aesthetic sensibilities of the user. Understanding and respecting the unseen energies of the land helps in balancing the user with the environment. The materials used and the nature of the contained space of the building assist in harmonising the inner vibrations of both the user and the built form. It is said that when all these aspects are satisfied, the building becomes timeless in its impact.

Sashikala Ananth


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