The Vedic House
BY: LOUIE RENOU
Hand-colored Engravings by Balthazar Solvyns, c. 1799
Jun 28, 2012 CANADA (SUN)
When Joseph Rykwert and I sat down to discuss "hermits' huts" in India for Res almost a decade ago to accompany the publication of Ananda Coomaraswamy's important manuscript on "Early Indian Architecture: Huts and Related Temple Types," Joseph made a point that evidence from ancient India would have been quite useful to him in writing his book On Adam's House in Paradise: "It would have been invaluable, because there was no material on the pre-Gupta architecture of India then available to me." Basing his work on India's long tradition of ritual literature, however, the great French scholar of Vedic India, Louis Renou (1896-1966), had already published his article on "La maison védique" in the Journal Asiatique in 1939.
In that essay, Renou chose to cull the surviving religious literature of ancient India specifically to find practical information on the "process of building" and "techniques of construction" of shelters made for domestic and ritual purposes and not to submit them to a search for universal symbolism. Other scholars who have continued his work tend to focus less on the practical issues of construction than on meanings that can be attached by priests or commentators. H. Bodewitz, for example, writes
The Sadas hut is Prajapati's belly. The Udumbara
wood is strength (life-sap). When the Udumbara pillar is erected
in the middle of the Sadas hut, one thereby places food, life-sap,
in the middle.
The central pillar of a house or of a sacrificial Sadas is identical
with the axis mundi which is placed in the navel of the earth.
It is perhaps Renou's caution about such interpretative agendas that
makes his scholarship refreshing for architectural history today. He is
quite sensitive to the places his evidence has been stored in the Indic
tradition and to the various uses to which his texts were put over time,
but his objective is to reconstruct the pragmatic practice of architecture
in Vedic India, for which he must put his ritual texts through a non-universalizing
Much like Coomaraswamy, however, Renou's scholarship is encrusted by
his citations, written for a small group of Vedic scholars. In working with
my student, Carrie LaPorte, on a useable translation of Renou's article,
I have attempted to bring to the surface the practical information that
is at the core of Renou's narrative, but to retain the dense citation -
with its abbreviations - in notes for those who wish the references.
Renou looks first for "practical aspects of houses in the Vedic
period" in a layer of texts on ritual (Gr.yasûtras) that in passing
deal with "the rites that accompany house construction" (§
1). From these he learns about materials - bamboo, thatch, straw mats, rope
- ; orientation and organization; and process - post holes, binding, etc.
He then tests his understanding of constructional terms and procedures by
looking at a further set of texts that deal with the staging of sacrifice
and ritual (Shrautasûtras), where sheds and huts used in ritual performance
are described. "In spite of their special role, these shelters provide
valuable information concerning the process of building" (§ 9).
Some of these sheds shelter priests, the sacrificial platform, or chariots.
He finds in the descriptions given in these texts additional practical terminology
for roof systems, cross-beams, etc., and in the directions and timing of
ritual some confirmation of the processes of construction.
He finally turns back to a much looser body of oral chants (Mantras)
to see "if there is some trace ... of allusions to the house and its
organization, is this in accord with facts given in the ritual and exegetic
literature?" Here he finds technical terms that have been used as metaphors
in one passage of a funerary hymn ... the poet supplicates the Earth
to allow a thousand pillars to be raised in the cavity where the dead repose,
so that her weight will not crush those who take refuge in her breast.
Yet for him the goal is clear: "gradually the conditions for bringing
together these prescriptive texts become evident.... This is again an advance
... in determining a technical terminology" (§ 24).
Letting one type of literature illuminate the next, Renou manages to
establish an historian's sense of valid evidence, proper process, and actual
practice. He manages, for example, to interpret one controversial hymn that
describes the "untying" of the house, not in terms of "magical
symbolism" but as part of the process of attaching mat walls to the
house frame described in a different class of texts (§ 23).
It is Renou's pragmatism that makes his work vital now. That the processes
of construction he describes had validity can be attested even by practices
of hut building today. Amita Ray in her dissertation in 1957 criticized
Coomaraswamy for not giving
sufficient consideration to the humbler dwellings of the poorer folks
in the villages or the still humbler shelters of hermits and mendicants....
[One misses] any consideration of the aboriginal and indigenous prototype.
While there are a variety of indigenous house types scattered over the
Indian subcontinent, the type of structure described in Renou's Vedic sources
seems closest to the matted huts and shelters found in the tropical climate
of eastern India today (Fig. 8). In a remarkable set of hand-colored etchings
made in the 1790s, the Belgian artist Balthazar Solvyns documented many
of these in the context of illustrating Hindu castes and customs in Bengal
(Figs. 4-9, 11). Scattered among the lanes and byways of Calcutta's imperial
city, or in the fields or under trees in rural Bengal, these simple structures
mimicked and continued the constructional traditions of Renou's Vedic India.
(Solvyns comments on one caste of Brahmans that "they are less corrupted
than the other Brahmans and have preserved more of the purity of their primitive
This is not a naive continuity, however. These huts have also been validated
by imitation over centuries in eastern India, their form used as a conspicuous
sign for local identity and continuity both in mosque architecture of the
Sultanate period and the brick temples built by Hindu landlords in the sixteenth
and seventeenth centuries (Fig. 10). The system of counting roofs or roof
lines Renou finds in the Shrautasûtras (§ 17), for example, parallels
one modern form of classification still used for these later buildings.
Ethnography and ethnohistory must become self critical, of course, but Renou's
careful architectural graphing of texts can point the way.
by M.W. Meister
The Vedic House
by Louis Renou
§ 1. It is in the ritual literature, not the oral chants
(Mantra), that we may hope to find information concerning the practical
aspects of houses in the Vedic period. All of the Grhyasûtras, for
example, describe rites that accompany house construction. By means of these
descriptions, this ritual literature provides rare glimpses into the process
of building and even into the organization of the house interior.
Terms used to denote a house vary in these texts. The most common is
grha ; agara also is used, but the more specific term
is shala. For example, the Kaushikasûtra uses shala
when discussing a ritual act that is effective at a certain distance from
the house or is to be used upon entering a new house. The Shatapata Brahmana
uses shala to designate "profane" habitations
as distinct from cultic constructions.
Terms of a more general nature are also used, a typical habit of ritualists
to avoid a precise terminology. Thus we find veshman, "habitation";
sharana, meaning literally "refuge"; avasana,
literally "place where one removes the harness after a journey"
but also meaning "site of the house." The word that occurs most
frequently in this series, however, is vastu, designating both
the house and its site. One text uses the word vimita ("construction")
to refer to a ritual "hut" of the same type described in the Shrautasûtras
§ 2. The rituals (vidhi or karman) relating
to a house are generally called vastushamana (literally "appeasement
of the soil"). In the Vaikhanasiyas, the ritual of building
is integrated into the practices concerning birthing; elsewhere it stands
alone. We here restrict ourselves to facts that reveal techniques of construction,
leaving aside instructions given in several texts pertaining to the nature
of the soil, choosing of the date to begin construction, etc.
The ground is to be cleaned with an udûha, a type of broom.
Care is taken to lay out the surrounding wall (parilikhya). The shvalayana Shrautasûtra, always more detailed, directs that a thousand furrows
should be made. It seems that a preliminary sketch should be created by
digging and tilling the soil (uddhatya).
The shvalayana orders that the site should be of such a nature
as to allow water flowing from all directions toward the center to form
an ambulatory path (pradaksina) around the bedroom (shayaniya);
then the waters should drain without noise toward the east. According to
Narayana's commentary, this means that the soil should be raised
at the sides, depressed in the center, and slightly slanted to the east;
and that there should be a channel (syandanika) to the north
so that the water could drain off. The Baudayana Shrautasûtra
states only that the location of the bed (talpadesha) should be situated
to the northeast.
The shvalayana assigns the kitchen ((bhaktasharan.a) to
theplace where the water drains (samavasrava), i.e., on the
east side of the house, north of the bedroom. But the same expression, under
the variant samavasrava, is used to note that the general siting
of the house is to be chosen such that the draining of water should be the
same everywhere; similarly, Devapala explains that "no side should
be lower or higher than any other." From a shared earlier practice
no doubt these two divergent traditions arose.
§ 3. The salon (sabha) in which Narayan.a
specifies the master of the house greets and receives his guests, is to
be "built" in the part of the house "that inclines toward
the south" according to the shvalayana (i.e. in the northern
part according to Narayana's commentary). Finally, the same
text implies that the best situation for this room is at the water's confluence,
that is to say at the center of the depression as Narayana
The shape of the site is either that of a brick (shada)
or of a "circle" (mandaladvipa), according to some
texts. The shvalayana uses less imagistic terms: the space is either
square (samacaturasra) or rectangular (ayatacaturasra).
§ 4. Construction of the house itself begins first by digging
a certain number of holes (garta). These post-holes are to have a
depth equal to the distance from the ankle to knee so that the water drains
well from them (dharayisnûdakatara). Jayarama,
in his commentary on the Paraskara Gr.hyasûtra, speaks of four
corner holes. The Kaushikasûtra mentions a middle post-hole (madhyama
The next step in the process is the installation of posts (sthûna)
of udumbara wood. Sometimes wood of an inferior quality is used,
but the Shankhayana Shrautasûtra recommends a ritual of
atonement (prayashcitta) to avoid potential problems. Nirukta
calls the pillar (sthûna) "that which rests in
the cavity (darashaya)." Some commentaries indicate that
if the house is "white" (dhavalagrha, which may mean "of
stone" in this context), stones replace the sthûna,
and one commentary adds that for houses a stone is placed at the bottom
of each hole to support the post placed on top of it; however, no text of
the Vedic period itself mentions stone as a building material.
Because the number of holes is not specified, we do not know the precise
number of posts. The Paraskara Grhyasûtra speaks of four, but
this may only refer to those at the corners. In reality a rather larger
number of pillars may have been used; nine are mentioned in the Shankhayana
Shrautasûtra (see § 5).
§ 5. A central pillar (madhyama sthûna)
is frequently named. (The compound form, madhyama-sthûn.a,
confirms that we are dealing with a technical term.) The Shankhayana
uses the more poetic phrase "king-post" (sthûnaraja).
Other texts speak of two such sthûnaraja, which
Matrdatta's commentary understands to be the "two long sthûna
to the north and south." The erection of a "king-post" (that
is, a central pillar capable of supporting the entire structure according
to Narayana's commentary) takes place last. More precisely,
the pastamba Grhyasûtra instructs that the pillar to the south side
of the door be first erected, then that to the north. These posts that support
the door on the north and south and their post-holes are referred to as
"of the portal" (dvarya).
§ 6. From this it seems that the door of the house, or at
least the principal door, was on the east façade, but, again, texts
differ. According to the Gobhila Grhyasûtra, the door can be to the
east, north, or south; a door to the west is expressly excluded. According
to the Manava Shrautasûtra, it is to the east or south; Laugaks.i
concurs. the Vaikhanasiya mentions two doors located to the
east or north and enumerates east, west, south, and north doors. One text
mentions a "door fastener" (dvarapidhana);
others mention paired dvarapaksas, which undoubtedly denote
either leaves or panels that comprise a door or the doors themselves.
Two texts say that there is an appended or rear door (anudvara)
"placed so that one cannot be seen" (yatha na samloki
syat). One commentary says that this might mean either a door
overlooking the court or one opposite the main door, and that this rule
is intended to prevent the master of the house from being seen by untouchables
(candalas, etc.). The Vaikanasiya gives the name
bhuvanga ("earth edge"), by which it seems to mean the
§ 7. Returning to the foundation posts, bamboo sleepers (vamsha)
are laid so as to connect posts to one another and to help support the roof,
but no details are furnished regarding the number and arrangement of these
transverse beams, apart from the central one (madhyama vamsha).
One begins by placing the east beam, then the northern one. Because these
two beams are "attached" to the pillars, they bear the name "sañjani"
in one source, and the two "paksas" of a secular hall
(= the door posts of § 6?) are connected to the central beam with the
aid of a cord according to another source. We learn that ritual dwellings
are characterized by the west to east direction of their sleepers (vam.shas)
while secular halls (shalas) have these oriented south
to north. The wood used for these beams (vamshas) is subject to
splintering according to one text.
Only one text in the Grhya tradition makes reference to the disposition
of rooms: the shvalayana advises that rooms (sharana) should
be arranged (karayet) in the spaces between the beams (vamshas;
vamshantara), which means, according to Narayana,
that divisions by means of partitions (kudya), etc., are customarily
fitted in between two vam.shas. This word kudya, however,
is attested in only one Vedic source, where it refers to an exterior wall.
It is also a wall or a wall's junction with a post (sthûna),
seeing the Paraskara Grhyasûtra's use of the word "samdhi"
(juncture), but in conformity with the Yajus (sacrificial prayers), which
do not view this as a technical meaning.
§ 8. We are told, incidentally, that the house is covered
(channa) and that it includes roofs or awnings (chadis). We
know that the roof was thatched, but specifics are given only in the Shrauta.
The word stûpa (literally, it seems, a "tuft of hair"
in the form of an egret bun) is found in one Mantra. As point of fact, the
sacrificial yûpa post was assimilated into the symbolic stûpa,
but it seems rather that the word stûpa originally designated
the points of thatch that the Shrauta texts describe as being gathered back
toward the post at the center of the roof (§ 17). Elsewhere it is the
prastara ("bouquet of grasses placed on the vedi")
that is compared with the stûpa.
A point treated with great detail is that of a "water reservoir"
(manika) installed on four stones. The particulars given are not
concerned with construction, however: the question is of a portable utensil.
Allusions are also made to seats (asana) and to niches (upasthana)
in which images of the gods are placed. A "ritual foyer" (agninidhana)
is also mentioned.
We must recall that the act of constructing a house and particularly
of raising the pillars is designated by the root mi- , which in the
Mantras is generally a predicate. But the proper term to denote the erection
of sthûna is ucchri.
§9. Some of these indications become clearer if one compares
them with those given in the Shrautasûtras. These later texts describe
on several occasions - normally in the discussion of the Agnistoma ceremony
- a variety of small structures intended to accomodate those people who
oversee or assist in the sacrifices or in ritual functions. The commentaries
sometimes incorporate them under the classification "yajñagara."
These are slight temporary constructions, not used for habitation. In spite
of their special role, these shelters provide valuable information concerning
the process of building: that is to say they form a commentary on the description
of the dwelling in the Grhyasûtras, and the shared vocabulary is
At the beginning of the Agnistoma ceremony, a hall (shala)
used to shelter those assisting in the sacrifices is described. One text
calls this hall vimita, but vimita is distinct from shala
in that, as Sayana specifies, the former is square and the latter
rectangular. According to Baudayana's Shulbasûtra, a shala
forms a rectangle that is 16 or 12 feet in length, 12 or 10 feet wide.
§10. If we take Baudayana's description as a base,
we see that this shala consists of a system of vamsha
sleepers oriented west to east, from which the name pracinavamsha
for this edifice is derived. More precisely, according to Sayan.a,
two traverse beams are positioned on the corner pillars and serve as lintels
for the east and west doors; other beams are placed above (uparivam.sha),
perpendicular to the first two. The middle beam (prsthavamsha
or madhyavala) has its ends positioned at the center of the two
lintels. The Shrauta texts do not mention the uprights (sthûna),
but the Shatapatha Brahmana does speak of the "king-post of the
east side." The two series of texts complement one another.
The shala is slightly raised to the east, lowered
to the west, and enclosed on all sides (parishrita). On the nature
of this enclosure (bhittyadina), similar descriptions
provide us more information. Openings (atikasha) at the four
cardinal points form doors. The Grhyasûtras of pstamba and Hiranyakesin,
however, dissociate these openings from the doors, placing them at corners
(srakti) facing intermediary regions. There need not necessarily
be four doors, according to the pastamba Grhyasûtra; however, the
hall that has four doors promises the greatest boon to those making the
sacrifice. Some texts mention two doors, which are specified as dvishaya,
the meaning of which can be clarified if one compares a description that
says the opening of a tent for chariots is such that one can see three rooms
at the same time. This prescription contrasts with the non-visibility required
by the Grhya (§ 6).
§ 11. Baudayana again mentions a shelter (agara)
when discussing the cooking of ritual food (milk); a hut for the wife of
the sacrificer (patnishala); and possibly two other shelters
(parivrte) serving as some sort of bathing huts enclosed with mats.
Libation huts referred to in the Kaushikasûtra have east and west
doors. Finally, a structure used in the ritual of the dead (vimita
or agara) has a north and a south door.
Elsewhere, two small semi-detached sheds situated just outside of the
sacrificial area are mentioned: the agnidhriya
or agnidhra, which is the residence of the priest officiating
over the fire (agni), and the marjaliya
where purifications are made. Both are square, each five cubits per side.
The first shed has a door to the south, the second a door to the north.
The agnidhriya has its traverse beams oriented
west-east and has four pillars; is bound on all sides with woven mats (parishrita);
and its entrance is to the south. The south side of the marjaliya
is to be left open for circulation (sam.cara) according to one source;
another instead places circulation to the north in the agnidhriya.
(This is a slight divergence that does not necessarily indicate an authentic
§ 12. The most explicit instructions regarding the "house"
for ritual are those which are given to us for the construction of a chariot
shed (havirdhanamandapa) and a "seat" [or shed
for the sacrificial assembly] (sadas). These two descriptions are
closely related and are meant to be complimentary.
The chariot "pavilion" (the word mandapa only figures
in commentaries ) is a small building designed to house two chariots for
the soma; it obviously is coordinated to the dimensions of the chariots,
which not expressly given elsewhere.
According to the Baudayana Shrautasûtra, six holes (garta;
elsewhere also avata) are dug on the north-south axis in front of
the two chariots, which are placed side-by-side; six holes are then dug
behind along a parallel line. Into these holes are driven twelve posts (sthûna),
the brackets of which (literally "ears"; karna) are oriented
west-east. The Manava Shrautasûtra discusses four sthûna
on each side, those in front of shoulder height and those in the rear shorter.
The pastamba Grhyasûtra speaks of pillars erected on all sides while
Bhattanarayana's commentary only mentions two pillars
on the front and instructs that the mandapa be slightly higher
in the front than in the back, which agrees with the Manava Shrautasûtra.
Similarly, the pastamba Grhyasûtra says the mandapa should
be slightly raisedin front, slightly lowered in back.
§ 13. According to Baudayana, there are two cross-beams
(vamsha), one south-north, the other east-west. Pastamba also mentions
two north-oriented cross-beams, placed respectively on front and back pillars.
Placement of a roof (chadis) comes next; the term designates a "covering"
of thatch (kata) laid over the transverse beams. The central roof
(madhyamam chadis) is laid on first, then the lateral roofs to the
north and south of the central roof. This middle roof is three cubits in
width, nine in length. The interstices of the roofs (antavarta) are
crammed with thatch matting (kata) and reeds (tejani).
Some texts also refer to two doors.
§ 14. Above the east entrance, in the space between the two
middle pillars, is an ornamental fronton called the "forehead"
(rarati). This rarati is a strap-work
of finely knotted reeds (aisiki), inclined toward the
east and attached to the front cross-beam by a thread. The Manava
Shrautasûtra says this rarati is a pad to prevent
drafts (varasa) made of grasses that one places at the center of
a strap-work of reeds; it seems that the grasses are gathered together by
encircling them several times with thread, the two ends joined together,
and the strap-work suspended from the front cross-beam.
§ 15. The enclosure (parishrayana) consists of two
mats that are hung to surround the hall (mandapa). These are called
ucchrayi. One of these is attached to the post on the
right side of the front door (dvarbahu ) and unrolled
towards the right in order to cover the south face and half of the east
face up to the rear post on the right side; the other is reversed and arranged
symmetrically with the first.
These mats are attached to the pillars by the following process: the
Adhvaryu priest takes a handful of kusha grass, grasps the front
right pillar, ties the grass where a needle is driven in, and passes a cord
through the eye of the needle. He makes a knot (granthi); at the
hanging end of the knot he secures the smaller end of the rope, then undoes
the knot. Assistants cover the post from bottom to top, securing the grass
by winding the cord but without making knots, and undoubtedly attaching
the matted wall covering at the same time (according to Caland). The same
procedure occurs for the front left pillar and both of the rear pillars.
According to some authorities, the knots are only undone when all this work
is complete. All the other knots referred to should also be removed.
§ 16. Most of the preceeding description of the construction
of a chariot shed also applies for the "seat" (sadas) placed
in front of the chariot shed in the sacrificial area: specifically the roof
joints (antarvarta; § 13), cladding (parishrayana; §
15), instructions dealing with visibility (samkashina;
§ 10) and the two doors.
In some sources this covered platform (sadas) measures nine cubits
in width, east-west, and 27 cubits in length north-south. Other sources
give measures of 10 by 27 or 28; 9, 10.5, or 12 by 18, 21, or 24; some suggest
that the dimensions can be left indeterminate or be well enough estimated
by the officiants and servants, as is done for the mound of earth that serves
as an altar (dhisnya).
Three rows of holes are made. A central pillar of udumbara wood
(from which it derives the name audumbari sthûna)
is raised the height of the sacrificer. Its brackets are oriented east-west.
The outer pillars (paryantiya) are of navel-height, as are
all the seats (sadas) (or they are improvised). The brackets of the
outer pillars are also oriented east-west.
§ 17. As noted earlier, the three principal cross-beams are
arranged in a south-north direction; this orientation is characteristic
of the sadas in contrast to the east orientation of the chariot shed
(havirdhana). But other cross-pieces are oriented east-west.
The roofing system consists of nine roofs (navacchadi). The central
roof, which rests on the audumbari post, is secured first;
then the two side roofs to the east and west; then three units to the south;
and finally three to the north. The edges of the roofs to the north are
inserted under those at the center so that the front edges of the southern
roofs would be slightly above the others. The Manava Shrautasûtra
mentions 15, 17, 21, or 11 roofs; pastamba mentions 15, 16, 17, or 21 in
conformance with the ceremonies. An awning (bhitti; perhaps made
of woven bamboo) may substitute for the roof (chadis) when the latter
is lacking. The pitch of the roof is towards the north in some sources;
or towards the central post (audumbari) in others.
§ 18. We have followed the systematic descriptions given
by the Shrauta texts. Most refer back to the Brahmanas or to the prose
of the Samhitas, but only the directions for ritual permit us to
follow events in detail and in progression.
Can one go still further? If there is some trace in the Mantras of allusions
to the house and its organization, is this in accord with facts given in
the ritual and exegetic literature?
The Rkasamhita has only very meager and predictable evidence.
It is noteworthy, however, in that it does contain references to the principal
elements of construction. In one section the term for beam (vamsha)
appears in a passage where it is said that the priests raised Agni [the
fire-god] like a beam (vamsha). Indra [the lord of heaven] is likened
to the raised sky that does not need beams (avamshe). The Rg Veda
also refers to pillars (sthûna) in comparisons such
as "you carry men, O Agni, like a support pillar." One finds the
roots stabh-/skabh-, with the derivatives skambha and skambhana
closely connected in figurative uses, which may be the more ancient name
for pillars (sthûna). This root crops up again in that
sense in the form stambha in the prose of the Brahmanas and
in the Shrauta and Grhyasûtras.
The root sri is used in a similar sense in one passage of a funerary
hymn in which the poet supplicates the Earth to allow a thousand columns
to be raised in the cavity where the dead repose, so that her weight [that
of the Earth] will not crush those who take refuge in her breast.
§ 19. The house itself is called grha, a term corresponding
to the archaic words dama and durona. This last is probably
composed of dur "door" and oni "arm,"
equivalent to "dvarbulu" in ritual texts, thus confirming
the importance of the door towards which many prescriptive comments are
directed. The plural (both masculine and feminine) durya, which is
also a word for house, similarly encompasses an ancient sense of stambha
or sthûna as "the pillar of the portal," a
meaning also preserved in ritual (§ 5). In brief, there is only slight
discrepancy of expression between the Mantras and the prose sources, not
major rethinking or changes.
The term for door itself (dvar, etc.) is seen only in allegorical
uses, but its frequency is significant. The term ata
is also, it would seem, a name for a "door pillar or jamb."
Harmya, a word with a very broad meaning ("house and its
dependencies" or "large house; castle") is a poetic term
not found often in the Mahabharata, from which it passed
into the common language. Other words are less clear, such as veshman
or okas; sadas does not seem to designate a particular type
of construction. Finally, there is pastya, "residence."
The word chadis is used to designate the roof of a vehicle (anas),
analogous to an awning that in some of the Shrauta covers chariots (havirdhana),
which are known as chadis. As for stûpa, the word has
been used to describe the high pinnacle of a tree, as a figure of celestial
space, and also the plumes that form the flames of Agni. For its technical
use, see § 8.
Finally, the word sabha, translated uniformly from the Mantras
as a "(place of) public gathering, assembly," can rather be either
a "meeting room of a private residence" (notably where one plays)
or a house itself. One passage declares that a sacrifice confers a reward
consisting of sabha and praja: i.e., "house"
§ 20. Some notable details appear also in the Atharvaveda.
The word shala appears to be its proper term for "house."
The specification of this word does not hinder the survival elsewhere of
terms such as grha, vastu, avasatha, etc.
One notes also the expression manasysa patni, "mistress
of the establishment," which permits one to infer that a shala
is only one part of an ensemble.
The importance of the house is one of the characteristic ideas of Atharvavedic
literature. It is not by chance that most of the Mantras that accompany
construction, according to the evidence of the Grhyasûtras, are borrowed
from the Atharvaveda, most notably the chant to "climb on the column
of bamboo that serves as the traverse beam," which stresses the essential
The Atharvaveda maintains the productivity of verbal groups uc-chri-
and ni-mi. Besides the term upamit of the Rg Veda, it uses
pratimit and parimit to designate pillars (sthûna)
that determine the site, rather than "buttresses," for which the
justification is not clear. The use of sam-car recalls the idea
of ambulatory space (samcara) of the Shrautasûtras (§
§ 21. Hymn IX.3 contains several more precise details that
are not in agreement with the facts gleaned from ritual texts. That the
house is called trnair avrta immediately recalls the
thatched walls of the ritual shala; and the term chadis
[roof] is found with the epithet catuspaksa, making a comparison
to a quadruped, i.e. "a roof that rests on four corner posts."
The mention of havirdhana, agnishala, and sadas
tends to show that the shelter described is less a private dwelling than
a ritual residence comprising all the auxiliary structures necessary for
In verse 21, the poet plays with numbering 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 paksa.
This does not appear to be a question of wings of the residence, but simply
pillars or, if one wants, compartments that determine the placement and
number of pillars. This translation of paksa best agrees with the
attribution of catus.paks.a above and of dvarapaksa
and paksas in § 6 & § 7.
As for kosa and kulaya in verse 20, it is too much
of a stretch to translate these as "plaiting and braiding, mortise
and tenon" as does Henry; kosa, at least, could be a "recess"
corresponding to the niches (upasthana) in the Paraskara
Grhyasûtra (§ 8).
§ 22. Other features are less easily identifiable. We ignore
the role of samdamsha ("tenons"?; Henry) in verse 5.
The "cord" (shikya) of verse 6 has many usages in ritual.
None seems indispensable here. The translators prefer to see this as an
ornamental device, but it is perhaps better to recognize this as the cords
that secure the pillars (sthûna) to the beams (vamsha).
The palada [bundles of straw] that clad the house are undoubtedly
identical to trna, which one has seen above, while parisvañjalya
must indicate the enclosure of mats that "embraces" the residence.
The most difficult term is aksu from verse 8: it is said that this
aksu has a thousand eyes (sahasraksa), resembling
a "diadem" in that it is spread out (vitata) and tied (naddha)
to the line of division (visûvati). Geldner thinks another
name for prsthavamsha might be "master-beam." It is
more likely a poetic term for the thatch that covers the hall (shala)
or the peak (stûpa) that surmounts the roof: variants clearly
direct us towards reading this as an element of "covering."
§ 23. Finally, the hymn in question lays stress on a point
that has given rise to a variety of modern interpretations. It is not contested
that prayer is intended to accompany the erection of a house, and the Kaushiksûtra
confirms that the person for whom the prayer is made receives the structure
(shala) by right of a ritual fee. But we read expressions
such as these: "we release what of you, oh house, is tied (naddha);
we undo your bonds (pasha) and your knots (granthi)."
Bonds (nahana) are untied, as, are, figuratively, the structural
members and joints of the house, and the covering (apinaddha) made
of ita reed is unravelled.
One wonders with what fuss the poet so insistently describes unbinding
member by member the abode whose construction he celebrates elsewhere. Zimmer
sought to identify in this some magical symbolism; others argue that the
hymn describes demolition, not construction at all. Henry sees in these
untied pieces some sort of "scaffolding" rendered unnecessary
once the house is complete; Bloomfield stresses the information given by
the Kaushikasûtra above; and finally Oldenberg guesses that it has
to do with the demolition of a house and its transfer to a location where
it would be rebuilt.
But these inverse transactions are presented with a sort of simultaneity
[in the text]: it is at the same moment when the residence is raised that
its bonds are taken off one after the other. A single event fits this description:
that is the final event in the making of the ritual mandapa (§
15) in which one unties the knots that serve to attach the frame of the
two mats to the enclosure.
§ 24. The Mantras other than those of the Rg Veda and Atharvaveda
stress certain facts that are known from the ritual prose: gradually the
conditions for bringing together these prescriptive texts become evident.
The Vajasaneyi Samhita enumerates sacrificial "shelters":
havirdhana, agnidhra, sadas, patnishala.
This is again an advance in understanding from the Atharvaveda in determining
a technical vocabulary.
Other Mantras speak of sadas and of sadasas pati. A perhaps
ironic expression is sabhasthanu, referring to a persistent
gambler as a "pillar of the games room." The word geha
appears. One Mantra deals with a residence of eight pillars and ten paksa;
one variant of this latter term apparently designates pillars of the portal.
Other terms that appear in Mantras are apidhana, dvaraphalaka,
and durya. The verse that accompanies the hanging of the rarati
(door's fronton) conforms with ritual processes: the peak is called syû
and the word rarati itself is evoked by the initial
expression visno raratam asi. Another Mantra mentions talpya,
which is undoubtedly equivalent to the beds (talpadesha) cited in
§ 25. A common fact in a group of Mantras which does not
contradict any prescription is that cattle are lodged in the house. Actually,
there is no decisive passage on this matter in the Rg Veda, but the Atharvaveda
is more conclusive: in the course of two hymns that describe the house (shala),
it is said "may the calf, may the child, may the dairy cows come to
you (oh, shala), when they return in the evening";
also "hommage to bulls, to horses, all of which are born in the house";
and "you cover (chadayasi) in your breast, Agni, servants
as well as cattle (oh shala)." Other verses seem
more clearly to confirm this situation than do prose citations: in one the
cowshed is called gostha and in another an allusion is made to a
Besides several terms that extend the notion of a "living room"
or "refuge" among the names of the house given in the Naighan.t.uka,
we find chaya, which is observably derived from the Vajasaneyi
Sam.hita where it is juxtaposed with chadis.
If we rely on Vedic texts, we are in the presence of a type of house
that is extremely rudimentary, composed of an armature of posts, connected
at the summit by transverse beams onto which a thatched covering is attached.
The walls are woven mats. Neither stone nor brick are used.
Brick, however, is well known in the tradition of the Yajurveda, but
its use there is limited to the "stacking" of the fire altar (agnicayana)
and of accessory annexes (dhisnya). A series of five rows of bricks
are laid in a certain order and are separated by beds of earth. Some of
these - the "naturally perforated" svayamatrnna
- seem undoubtedly some sort of porous stone. Others are called "clay
bricks" (logestaka). The circumference of this construction
is marked by twenty-one stones called parishrit, some of which are
of a large size.
Nothing obliges us to consider that the shelters described above were
the normal type of private residence; a significant amount of the details
that assist us in their reconstruction are provided by descriptions of ritual
"huts," the intended use of which is entirely different. And yet
no other process of construction is mentioned in these sources. This appears
particularly singular today, when we are able to measure [through recently
discovered archaeological sources] the degree to which architectural technologies
were known to certain prehistoric civilizations in the northwest of India.
Figure 1. Reed hut from a relief carving from Mathura, U.P., ca.
second century A.D. (after Percy Brown).
Figure 2. Leaf-thatched dome-and-cornice hut from a relief carving from
Gandhara, Pakistan (after Percy Brown).
Figure 3. Three "scented" huts in the Jetavana garden occupied
by Siddhartha from a relief carving on the Buddhist stûpa at
Sanchi, ca. early first century A.D.
Figures 4-9. Etchings showing Hindu castes and thatched huts with bamboo
posts, mat walls and awnings, Bengal, made by Balthazar Solvyns in the 1790s [pictured above]
Figure 10. Modern bamboo and thatch hut, Bangladesh.
Figure 11. Balthazar Solvyns, etching showing ritual hut among other
forms of urban and temple architecture, Bengal, 1799.
Figure 12. Keshta Raya temple built in brick, Bishnupur, Bengal, ca.
A. D. 1655, mimicking paired vernacular hut forms.
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