“War over the Buddha’s Relics”, Sanchi

“War over the Buddha’s Relics”, Sanchi


Division of the relics

Originally his ashes were to go only to the Shakya clan, to which Buddha belonged however, six clans and a king, demanded the body relics. To avoid fighting, a Brahmin Drona divided the relics into ten portions, eight from the body relics, one from the ashes of Buddha's cremation pyre and one from the pot used to divide the relics, which he kept for himself. [2] After The Buddha's Parinibbāna, his relics were enshrined and worshipped in stupas by the royals of eight countries: to Ajatasattu, king of Magadha to the Licchavis of Vaishali to the Sakyas of Kapilavastu to the Bulis of Allakappa to the Koliyas of Ramagrama to the brahmin of Vethadipa to the Mallas of Pava and to the Mallas of Kushinagar [3]

A stupa is a monument specifically to house such relics. Often they were enclosed in caskets (such as the Kanishka casket or the Bimaran casket).


Purpose of the Fort

Details of what soldiers’ arms and armour as well as soldiers themselves in action would have looked like in the 5th century BCE. In all probability, this is how the Magadhan soldiers looked. Details taken from the “War over the Buddha’s Relics” sculpture. Location: South Gate (rear bottom architrave), Stupa no.1, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India. / Photo by Dharma, Wikimedia Commons

Kautilya (c. 4th century BCE) in his Arthashastra treats forts highly. For him, the fort was one of the seven constituents (saptanga) of a king’s sovereignty, without which he could not call himself king – “the haven of the king and of his army is a strong fort” (Shamasastry, 426). The kingdom’s treasury was safe in a fort, and it was from a fort that a king could successfully carry out his reign and keep enemies in check while augmenting his own strength. Virtually every kingdom possessed forts, including:

  • the various dynasties ruling Magadha (6th-4th century BCE)
  • Mauryas (4th-2nd century BCE)
  • Pallavas (3rd-9th century CE)
  • Cholas (4th century BCE – 13th century CE)
  • Rashtrakutas (8th-10th century CE)
  • Chalukyas of Vatapi (6th-8th century CE)
  • Western Chalukyas of Kalyani (10th-12th century CE)
The Mallas defending the city of Kushinagara (detail from the “War over the Buddha’s Relics” image given below). Significance: It shows close details of a siege in progress, during the period of Ajatashatru, hence a visual aid to understanding the warfare of the period—siege warfare in particular. Location: South Gate (rear bottom architrave), Stupa no.1, Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India. / Photo by Dharma, Wikimedia Commons

The Magadhan king Ajatashatru (492 BCE – 460 BCE), while engaged in a war with Koshala, Vaishali, and their allies, anticipated an attack from them. The fortress of Pataligrama was built in defence, which within a generation developed into the city of Pataliputra, the capital of empires in India for centuries to come. Owing to the security they provided, forts were also treated as centres for administrative units. Kautilya mentions that a fortress called sthaniya should be erected at the centre of 800 villages. In the Sarnath Pillar Edict of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (268 BCE – 232 BCE), there is a reference to a kota-vishava (Sanskrit: kotta-vishaya) or a ‘district around a fort’.


ශුංග යුගය (ක්‍රි.පූ. 2වන සියවස) [ සංස්කරණය ]

On the basis of Ashokavadana, it is presumed that the stupa may have been vandalized at one point sometime in the 2nd century BCE, an event some have related to the rise of the Shunga emperor Pushyamitra Shunga who overtook the Mauryan Empire as an army general. It has been suggested that Pushyamitra may have destroyed the original stupa, and his son Agnimitra rebuilt it. ⎡] The original brick stupa was covered with stone during the Shunga period.

Given the rather decentralized and fragmentary nature of the Shunga state, with many cities actually issuing their own coinage, as well as the relative dislike of the Shungas for Buddhism, some authors argue that the constructions of that period in Sanchi cannot really be called "Shunga". They were not the result of royal sponsorship, in contrast with what happened during the Mauryas, and most of the dedications at Sanchi were private or collective, rather than the result of royal patronage. ⎢]

The style of the Shunga period decorations at Sanchi bear a close similarity to those of Bharhut, as well as the peripheral balustrades at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya.

Great Stupa (No 1) [ සංස්කරණය ]

During the later rule of the Shunga, the stupa was expanded with stone slabs to almost twice its original size. The dome was flattened near the top and crowned by three superimposed parasols within a square railing. With its many tiers it was a symbol of the dharma, the Wheel of the Law. The dome was set on a high circular drum meant for circumambulation, which could be accessed via a double staircase. A second stone pathway at ground level was enclosed by a stone balustrade. The railings around Stupa 1 do not have artistic reliefs. These are only slabs, with some dedicatory inscriptions. These elements are dated to circa 150 BCE, ⎣] or 175–125 BCE. ⎤] Although the railings are made up of stone, they are copied from a wooden prototype, and as John Marshall has observed the joints between the coping stones have been cut at a slant, as wood is naturally cut, and not vertically as stone should be cut. Besides the short records of the donors written on the railings in Brahmi script, there are two later inscriptions on the railings added during the time of the Gupta Period. ⎥] Some reliefs are visible on the stairway balustrade, but they are probably slightly later than those at Stupa No2, ⎦] and are dated to 125–100 BCE. ⎤] Some authors consider that these reliefs, rather crude and without obvious Buddhist connotations, are the oldest reliefs of all Sanchi, slightly older even than the reliefs of Sanchi Stupa No.2. ⎤]

Shunga balustrade and staircase.

Shunga vedika (railing) with inscriptions.

Summit railing and umbrellas.

Stairway balustrade reliefs

Stupa No. 2: the first Buddhist reliefs [ සංස්කරණය ]

The stupas which seem to have been commissioned during the rule of the Shungas are the Second and then the Third stupas (but not the highly decorated gateways, which are from the following Satavahana period, as known from inscriptions), following the ground balustrade and stone casing of the Great Stupa (Stupa No 1). The reliefs are dated to circa 115 BCE for the medallions, and 80 BCE for the pillar carvings, ⎨] slightly before the reliefs of Bharhut for the earliest, with some reworks down to the 1st century CE. ⎣] ⎨]

Stupa No. 2 was established later than the Great Stupa, but it is probably displaying the earliest architectural ornaments. ⎦] For the first time, clearly Buddhist themes are represented, particularly the four events in the life of the Buddha that are: the Nativity, the Enlightenment, the First Sermon and the Decease. ⎫]

The decorations of Stupa No. 2 have been called "the oldest extensive stupa decoration in existence", ⎩] and this Stupa is considered as the birthplace of Jataka illustrations. ⎪] The reliefs at Stupa No.2 bear mason marks in Kharoshthi, as opposed to the local Brahmi script. ⎧] This seems to imply that foreign workers from the north-west (from the region of Gandhara, where Kharoshthi was the current script) were responsible for the motifs and figures that can be found on the railings of the stupa. ⎧] Foreigners from Gandhara are otherwise known to have visited the region around the same time: in 115 BCE, the embassy of Heliodorus from Indo-Greek king Antialkidas to the court of the Sungas king Bhagabhadra in nearby Vidisha is recorded, in which Heliodorus established the Heliodorus pillar in a dedication to Vāsudeva. This would indicate that relations had improved at that time, and that people traveled between the two realms. ⎬]

Foreigner on a horse. The medallions are dated circa 115 BCE. ⎨]

Lakshmi with lotus and two child attendants, probably derived from similar images of Venus ⎭]

Stupa No. 3 [ සංස්කරණය ]

Stupa No. 3 was built during the time of the Shungas, who also built the railing around it as well as the staircase. The Relics of Sariputra and Mahamoggallana, the disciples of the Buddha are said to have been placed in Stupa No. 3, and relics boxes were excavated tending to confirm this. ⎮]

The reliefs on the railings are said to be slightly later than those of Stupa No. 2. ⎤]

The single torana gateway oriented to the south is not Shunga, and was built later under the Satavahanas, probably circa 50 BCE. ⎤]

Sunga Pillar [ සංස්කරණය ]

Pillar 25 at Sanchi is also attributed to the Sungas, in the 2nd–1st century BCE, and is considered as similar in design to the Heliodorus pillar, locally called Kham Baba pillar, dedicated by Heliodorus, the ambassador to the Indo-Greek king Antialkidas, in nearby Vidisha circa 100 BCE. ⎰] That it belongs to about the period of the Sunga, is clear alike from its design and from the character of the surface dressing.

The height of the pillar, including the capital, is 15 ft, its diameter at the base 1 ft. 4 in. Up to a height of 4 ft. 6 in. the shaft is octagonal above that, sixteen-sided. In the octagonal portion all the facets are flat, but in the upper section the alternate facets are fluted, the eight other sides being produced by a concave chamfering of the arrises of the octagon. This method of finishing off the arris at the point of transition between the two sections are features characteristic of the second and first centuries BCE. The west side of the shaft is split off, but the tenon at the top, to which the capital was mortised, is still preserved. The capital is of the usual bell-shaped Persepolitan type, with lotus leaves falling over the shoulder of the bell. Above this is a circular cable necking, then a second circular necking relieved by a bead and lozenge pattern, and, finally, a deep square abacus adorned with a railing in relief. The crowning feature, probably a lion, has disappeared. ⎰]


Magadha & the First Empire (543 – 330 BCE)

Ajatashatru and his father Bimbisara are perhaps the earliest kings who step out of the mist of legend and tales, into reality. They were historic figures and they left behind parts of their large fort in the old Magadhan capital Rajgriha. Thanks to a proliferation of texts – chronicling the rise of two new faiths – Buddhism and Jainism that emerged during their reign ( 543-460 BCE), we have textual, archaeological and sculptural reference to the rulers of Magadha, who forged the first great Empire of the North – Magadha.

The first empire in India owes its beginnings to a humble chieftain’s son, who ascended the throne at the age of 15 in 543 BCE. His name was Bimbisara and he went on to found the Magadhan Empire, which created a core for all the great empires of Northern India that followed over the next 1,200 years.

Bimbisara founded the state of Magadha by bringing together a number of tribes and territories. Magadha, located in what is now south Bihar, was one of the 16 mahajanapadas, or local kingdoms that dominated Northern India between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE.

After consolidating his kingdom and strengthening its economy and armies, Bimbisara began to expand the state of Magadha by first invading the territories of his father’s enemies in the neighbouring state of Anga to the east. Bimbisara appointed his son and heir, Ajatashatru, as Governor of Anga and then turned his sights on all the other mahajanapadas in the vicinity. The annexation of Anga and its amalgamation with Magadha was the first step in a long march.

What he could not gain through war, he set about gaining through marriage. Bimbisara married Kosala Devi, the sister of Prasenjit, the king of Kosala, and she brought him as part of her dowry the city-state of Kashi, renowned for its yellow, cotton cloth, advantageous location (it was situated plumb in the middle of a great ford on the Ganges River), and renowned scholarship.

This marriage ensured peace between Magadha and Kosala and left Bimbisara free to prey on his neighbours. His second wife was Chellana, a princess of the great Lichchhavi oligarchy which ruled from Vaishali, and the daughter of its king Chetaka. His third wife was Kshema, daughter of the Madras of Punjab.

Bimbisara thus forged strong alliances to the north and the west with the Vijjians and Kosala. His eastern frontiers were already solidly buttressed by his conquest of Anga. His marriage to Kshema put him within striking distance of Gandhara in the north-west, while also keeping open his trade routes through the Indus headwaters.

The kingdoms of the central Ganga Valley were caught in a tweezer’s grip, thus ensuring that they would not ally with his greatest rival, King Chanda Pradyota Mahasena of Avanti. An astute leader, Bimbisara also made diplomatic overtures to Avanti and Gandhara, where he maintained an embassy.

Rajagriha: The Original Capital

We know a lot about Bimbisara as he is well represented in Buddhist and Jain texts. He is said to have been a personal acquaintance of the Buddha. He built his capital on the rocky outcrop of Rajagriha or Rajgir, which is still a place of great pilgrimage for the Jains. The cyclopean walls of Rajagriha are still standing and are among the oldest archaeological remains in the region and a testament to Bimbisara’s building skills. Vulture’s Peak, atop the hill overlooking Rajagriha, was a favourite haunt of the Buddha and he stayed here whenever he was in the city.

He also gave some of the most important sermons of his life here. According to the Mahayana Sutras, almost every one of the Buddha’s most important sermons was first recited here. These include his last great sermon, The Heart SutraPajnaparamita Sutra, in which he preaches that everything is shunyata (form is empty) The Lotus SutraSadharmapundrika Sutra, which is considered the final teaching of the Buddha and enough to attain salvation and the Surangama Samadhi Sutra, which contains the teachings of Yogacharya and Vajrayana. This makes it an extremely important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists.

The caves below the mountain and Vulture’s Peak are also very sacred to Jains, who believe that Mahavira spent varshavaas (the monsoon months when he ceased to wander as a mendicant) here. There is a small inscription in the Son-Bhandar Caves, stating very clearly that they were built for Jain monks by a Jain Muni. According to secular tradition, these were the treasure vaults (Son-Bhandar or Gold Storerooms) of Rajagriha.

Interestingly, both Buddhists and Jains claim that Bimbisara followed their respective faiths. As a smart statesman, he probably listened to and favoured both, without really committing to either. This shows us just how astute Bimbisara was.

The site of Rajagriha must have been truly impressive in its heyday, and even 2,500 years later, the ruins are still awe-inspiring. The massive ‘cyclopean’ stone fortifications are second to none. The city of Rajagriha is perhaps the most imposing set of ruins from the age of the mahajanapadas and the Magadhan Empire.

No other city was built using as much stone as did Rajagriha and its location with the hills as its backdrop makes it even more breathtaking. Equally remarkable are the lookout point known as Vulture’s Nest, the rock-cut caves and the ruins of the palace.

The places mentioned in ancient texts like Jivaka’s mango orchard and Bimbisara’s jail can be identified even today. Admittedly, in many cases, it is only oral tradition that refers to them but we cannot overlook the fact that these traditions have persisted for more than two millennia.

Bimbisara was perhaps also responsible for the first extended government in India and he had appointed administrators at various levels of administration, from village heads to the national level, ensuring a smooth flow of taxes.

After an eventful reign of 28 years, which was very long for that era, Bimbisara handed over his throne to his favourite son, Ajatashatru, and retired into private life. Some sources say Bimbisara met an untimely death at the hands of Ajatashatru, who was in too much of a hurry to be king, while other sources say that Ajatashatru imprisoned his father.

Jain sources are a little more charitable to Ajatashatru. They claim that Bimbisara committed suicide in captivity, whereas Buddhists say that Ajatashatru killed his father under the influence of the Buddha’s evil cousin, Devadutta. In early Buddhist texts, Devadutta is often portrayed as a sly and selfish person.

Devadutta is infamous because he joined the Buddhist Sangha and then created its first schism when he walked away with 500 monks to create his own order. He was often at loggerheads with the Buddha and sought to counter-influence the Buddha’s friends and followers. According to Buddhist sources, Ajatashatru eventually came to his senses and was wracked by guilt and confessed his crime to the Buddha. The Buddha consoled him and told him that if his remorse was true, he would attain salvation in his next life.

The Kingdom Expands

The death of Bimbisara brought Ajatashatru into direct conflict with his uncle Prasenjit of Kosala. The wars between Kosala and Magadha flowed both ways. In one battle, Ajatashatru was captured but pardoned and he married one of Prasenjit’s daughters. We don’t know exactly when but at some point during Ajatashatru’s reign, Kosala ceased to be an independent kingdom and became a part of the Magadhan Empire.

After conquering the mighty Kosalan kingdom, Ajatashatru turned his sights northwards, towards the Lichchhavis. The Buddha had warned him that as long as the Vijjian confederacy was united, they would never be conquered. Ajatashatru was a cunning ruler and he devised an elaborate strategy to bring down the Vijjians. One of his key ministers, Vassakara, is said to have infiltrated the enemy ranks. He is then said to have patiently and insidiously created fissures within the ranks across 3 years. His strategy worked and, eventually, the once invincible Vijjians were at loggerheads with each other.

Ajatashatru built the fortified city of Pataliputra as a launch pad for his attacks on the confederacy Rajagriha, the earlier capital, was too far away. According to Jaina sources, Ajatashatru also added two weapons to his army’s repertoire – a catapult that shot large stone boulders and a chariot, probably with wheel blades that created havoc by wheeling around. The sources claim that these chariots had no horses. Noted Orientalist Rudolf Hoernle believes that they may have been propelled from within, perhaps like medieval devices akin to these.

The disunited Vijjian confederacy was unable to counter the invasion and Ajatashatru was triumphant. With the Vijjian capital Vaishali under his control, Ajatashatru’s kingdom now extended from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Ganges, and from the lower Ganga valley to the middle Ganga valley. The fortress erected by Ajatashatru at the village of Patali at the confluence of the Son and the Ganges rivers soon grew into a very important city.

The main ghat at Pataliputra was named Gotama Ghat after the Buddha. It is said that when the Buddha visited the new city, he prophesied that it would one day grow to be the chief city of the Aryans. It was Ajatashatru’s son Udayan who later shifted the capital of Magadha to Pataliputra.

According to Buddhist sources, Ajatashatru became a Buddhist in his search for solace on the death of his father. There is a famous panel at the Bahrut Stupa depicting Ajatashatru and his wives visiting the Buddha. When the Buddha died, Ajatashatru hastened to Kusinagara and claimed a lion’s share of the Buddha’s cremated remains from Mahakassapa, the Buddha’s chief disciple and the one who oversaw his last rites. He is then said to have built numerous stupas at Rajagriha and revived multiple Buddhist monasteries. He is seen as a great patron by Buddhists.

Ajatashatru’s death, according to Buddhist tradition, was truly karmic. He died at the hands of his son, Udayan, who yearned for the throne and couldn’t wait for his father to die. The Jaina traditions tell us that Udayan in turn was murdered at the behest of the ruler of Avanti.

With the death of Ajatashatru, the Magadhan Empire saw the end of its glory days. Udayan, who succeeded Ajatashatru, was a king of some renown but his two successors failed to leave a mark. Thus, the Empire of Bimbisara and Ajatashatru came to an end.

The Puranas have a different take on the story and say that Ajatashatru was succeeded by his son Darshaka, who after a short reign was succeeded in turn by his son Udayan, who was married to a princess of Avanti and was a great king. According to the Puranas too, the successors of Udayan were mere shadows of the great Magadhan kings and the empire was finally usurped by the son of a Sudra woman. Surprisingly, the Puranas say each of the kings ascended the throne by killing his predecessor.

After Bimbisara’s line came to an end, the people of Magadha are said to have elected a Prime Minister called Sisunaga to rule over the kingdom. Things become confusing here as the Puranas offer conflicting details, much of which cannot be verified.

Sisunaga is said to have destroyed the powers of Magadha’s great rival, the Pradyotas of Avanti, and incorporated Avanti into Magadha. His son, Kalasoka, succeeded him and it was during his reign that the Second Buddhist Council was held in 383 BCE. Bana, Harshavardhana’s court poet writing in the 7th century CE, tells us that Kalasoka met with a terrible end he was stabbed by a dagger in his throat. The deed was done by his barber, who had become the paramour of his queen!

Quintus Curtius Rufus, the 1st century CE Roman historian and writer of Histories of Alexander The Great, tells us that, ‘… the barber then killed all the sons of Kalasoka and made himself the first king of the Nanda dynasty.’ His name, according to some historians, was Mahapadma Nanda and he is reviled as a low-caste usurper by the Puranas, which call him the son of the last king, Mahanandin, by a Sudra woman.

Jaina sources call him the ‘slave of a barber’. The Puranas also refer to Mahapadma Nanda as the second Parsurama, who exterminated the Kshatriyas and brought all their territories into his own. According to Greek historians, the Nanda Empire stretched from Punjab to Bengal and from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Godavari River.

Puranic and other texts confusingly talk of nine sons who ruled after Sisunaga, the last of whom was referred to as Agrammes or Xandrames by the Greeks. It was Agrammes who was on the throne of Magadha at Pataliputra when Alexander arrived on the subcontinent in 326 BCE.

What we do know apart from the ‘base born nature’ of the Nanda dynasty is that Mahapadma Nanda went on to forge the Nanda Empire, which Chandragupta Maurya inherited. Chandragupta did not conquer most of the lands that made up his empire. With the exception of Gandhara, all the lands ruled by him had been conquered by the Nanda emperors. The Nandas were emperors with the largest standing army in the world at the time, a fact that has been corroborated by none other than Alexander’s own historians.

According to these records, the size and reputation of the Nanda army acted as a deterrent to Alexander and his tired forces. Quintus Curtius Rufus speaks of an army of 2,00,000 infantry, 20,000 cavalry, 2,000 four-horse chariots of war and 3,000 elephants.

The texts may revile the Nandas but what we cannot overlook is that the empire builders of this era – first Bimbisara and then Mahapadma Nanda – marched in, ushering in a new phase in the subcontinent’s history. Small kingdoms were seen as weak and this was proved as Alexander inched closer, and they fell.

Small was out. It was time for change !

This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

Find all the stories from this serieshere.


Relics in China [ edit ]

According to legend, the first Buddha relic in China appeared in a vase in 248 C.E. brought by Kang Senghui to show a local ruler. ⎪] The king of Wu Sun Quan would unsuccessfully attempt to destroy the tooth, by subjecting it to various tests. ⎫] In legends Daoxuan is attributed with the transmission of the Buddha relic Daoxuan's tooth, one of the four tooth relics enshrined in the capital Chang'an during the Tang dynasty. He is said to have received the relic during a night visit from a divinity associated with Indra. ⎬] The emperor Taizong tried to burn a tooth relic but was unable to do so. ⎭]

According to his biography upon his return in 645 C.E. Xuanzang returned from his seventeen-year-long pilgrimage to India with, "over six hundred Mahayana and Hinayana texts, seven statues of the Buddha and more than a hundred sarira relics." ⎪]

Emperor Wen and Empress Wu of the Sui dynasty both venerated Buddha relics. Daoxuan's Ji gujin fodao lunheng (Collection of [the Documents Related to] the Buddho-Daoist Controversies in the Past and the Present completed 661) recounts that shortly after being born, Emperor Wen was given to a Buddhist "divine nun" until the age of 13. After becoming emperor, Emperor Wen led three Buddha relic redistribution campaigns in 601, 602, and 604. The relics were enshrined across 107 pagodas along with pictures of the divine nun. ⎮]

In 2010 remains of Gautama Buddha's skull were enshrined at Qixia Temple in Nanjing. The partial bone had been held in the Pagoda of King Ashoka, constructed in 1011 under the former Changgan Temple of Nanjing. ⎯] ⎰] In 1987 a chamber was unearthed below Famen temple and a finger bone said to belong to Gautama Buddha was discovered. In 2003 the finger bone was one of 64 culturally significant artifacts officially prohibited from leaving China for exhibitions. ⎱] In 2009, the relic was enshrined in the world's tallest stupa recently built within the domains of Famen Temple. ⎲]

Two bone fragments believed to belong to Gautama Buddha are enshrined at Yunju temple. ⎳] According to Tang Dynasty records, China had 19 pagodas of King Ashoka holding Sakyamuni's relics. Seven of these pagodas are believed to have been found. ⎯] Currently the tooth relic is kept in Beijing while the knuckle of the middle finger is at Xi'an city Shaanxi province. ⎴]

In 1072 the Japanese pilgrim Jojin visited the Buddha's tooth in Kaifeng an imperial emissary had to open the door to the build that housed it in the hall of seven treasures. ⎵]

The Beijing tooth was discovered in 1900 when it was discovered in the ruins of Zhaoxian pagoda outside of Beijing. The monks of the nearby Lingguang monastery found a box in the rubble with the inscription "The Holy Tooth Relics of Sakyamuni Buddha", written by Shan-hui in 963 C.E. They kept the molar inside until at their monastery until 1955 when they gave it to the Buddhist Association of China. ⎶] The Burmese ambassador was asked whether Burma could have the relic to which the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who offered. When a delegation came to retrieve the tooth it was now housed in a golden jeweled casket instead of glass and would only be loaned to Burma for eight months. The Beijing tooth temple was reconstructed in 1966 in front of Buddhist delegations from 10 countries. ⎷]


The Ancient Indian Architectural texts

In the Indian context, the term architecture is included within the realms of Silpasastra a treatise, which thankfully has survived the ravages of time and tyrannical vandalism. The term Silpasastras, which when literally translated, means study of fine or mechanical arts, and there are 64 such arts that can be studied. Indian architecture, known as Vastu Sastra, is seen as a part or a subdivision of the Silpasastras, as it encompasses much more than what the term ‘architecture’ generally implies. Thus, Vastu-sastra would include, besides the basic architecture, all kinds of buildings being built (civil and military engineering) it would also cover laying of parks and gardens town planning marketplace designing digging drains, sewers, wells, and tanks building dams, bathing ghats, walls and embankments. Furthermore it would also be a part of designing furniture suitable for the houses built. Besides these, Vastu Sastra also includes designing of clothing and accessories, such as headgear and various ornaments. Carving of sculptures of deities and famous people are also a part of Vastu Sastra. Even basics, such as selecting a site, testing the soil of the site, and ascertaining the cardinal directions of the site are all part of this ancient science of architecture better known as Vastu Sastra. The treatise that brings together all the varied topics under Vastu Sastra is compiled into 70 chapters and titled as Manasare-vastu-sastra.

Vastu Vidya or Vastu Sastra is so comprehensive and broad in its discourses that it is almost co-extensive with the Silpasastras. As Manasara explains ” Vastu is where the gods and men reside (Sanskrit word vas = reside/sit).” This would include ground or dhara (the principle object as nothing can be built without it), buildings or harmya, conveyance or yana, and an object to rest like a couch or a bed or a paryanka. Town or city planning would primarily involve the planned use of ground and buildings.

Architecture in Vedic Literature

While the concept of town or city planning is undoubtedly a very ancient branch of Indian science, the technical details of building structures appear for the first time in the treatises that deal solely with architecture (Vastu-sastras), and are absent in the non architectural literature prior to the Vastu-sastras. While there is little about the structural details of a house in the Vedic literature, the early Vedas do carry casual references to this art. That people of this time did not live in caves and had proper houses as their residences is clearly evident from the various synonyms used for a house, and also in the naming of the various parts of a house such as doors, crossbeams, and pillars (Rig Veda I, 13-39). While details are sketchy, the hymns of the Atharva Veda do give some information on a simple house construction, where it is said four upamit (pillars) were set up on a chosen site, and beams were laid angular as props (pratimit), while the pillars were supported with cross beams (parimit). The roofs were made of rib like structures constructed of bamboos, walls had palada (grass bundles) and the entire structure was held together by bindings of various types (samdamsa, nahana, etc). These houses had many rooms and it could be securely locked up (Rig Veda VII, 85, 6). A closer look would show that that these houses bear similarities to the house of the Todas, and had a similar wagon headed roof in all probability. The Vedic descriptions also bear a striking similarity to the rock cut chaityas and assembly halls of the Buddhist caves in western India, where in some of the oldest ones the wooden ribs on the vaulted roofs still remain (Fergusson, History of Indian architecture).

Karla Buddhist cave showing ribs on the vaulted roof . Photo from Wikipedia (by Vatsalbhawsinka) A toda tribal house with its wagon vault shape. Photo from Wikipedia (Pratheep PS)

There are also stories in the Vedas of Vashistha wanting to live in a three storeyed house an able king “who sits in a substantial and elegant hall with thousand pillars” and there are mentions of large mansions of wealthy people that had many pillars and doors (Rig Veda I, II, IV). Varuna and Mitra are shown to be living in splendid palaces. From these writings it is pretty evident that while these descriptive verses tend to be exaggerations to a certain extent, but they are certainly based on real buildings that the writers had seen (Muir. 1868). Furthermore, R L Mitra in his Indo- Aryans opines that while mentions of pillars, doors, and windows may not be decisive indicators of masonry buildings, but bricks would not have originated unless they were to be used for specific reasons, and it would be absurd to suppose that bricks were invented but never used for building houses. In this context, if we read the Sulva sutras (supplement to Kalpa sutras), we find that while discussing the details of the vedis or fire-altars, it is mentioned that these altars were made of bricks. These altars for Soma sacrifices were made based on specific principles and precise measurements, and were likely the foundations of religious architecture in India. These fire altars, first mentioned in the Taittiriya Samhita, had different shapes and were constructed of 5 layers of bricks (sometimes even going up to 10-15 layers too), while each layer had 200 bricks. Precise measurements were given as to the sizes and area to be covered and that were to be followed carefully while constructing these fire-altars.

Fire altar- A modern version. (Photo from wikipedia by Madhu K). Some of the the Vedic altars were more elaborate. Vedic altars were of various shapes: falcon, tortoise, wheel, etc., and followed the prescribed measurements to the t. According to the Veda “He who desires heaven is to construct a fire altar in the form of a falcon. A fire altar in the form of a tortoise is to be constructed by one desiring to win the world of Brahman…” Fire altars found at Kalibangan (Harappan civilisation). Source

The Vedic literature also frequently mentions villages (Grama), and towns (Pur) , of which the Pur is frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda. The Pur also referred to forts, and finds frequent mentions with varied names, such as urvvi (wide), prithvi (broad), a stone built fort (asmamayi), of iron built ones (ayasi- though this is more likely to be metaphorical in nature), a fort full of cattle (gomati) denoting that forts were used as strongholds to keep cows, forts used during autumn (saradi– referring to being occupied by the dasyus), and forts having 100 walls or satabhuji. Instead of being permanently occupied like the medieval forts, these forts could have been used as places of refuge during times of need. Some historians (Pischel and Geldner) opine that these fortifications could be of the Pataliputra type as mentioned by Megasthenes. Thus, apart from the well developed urban centres in the Harappan sites, and the frequent Vedic references to forts and towns, it is for certain that flourishing cities/townships existed much prior to the setting in of the Common Era. Megasthenes mentions that the grand city of Pataliputra was more than 9 miles in length. As we learn from details of cities given in various texts and early reliefs (discussed further below), Mauryan era cities like Pataliputra were not any sudden developments, but a continuation of an already established and known urban culture (Coomarasway).

From the Vedic texts it is quite clear that the writers of these verses were well aware of fortifications, villages, towns, forts, carved stones, stone built houses, and brick structures. The basics of architecture were already in, which were handed over from generation to generation most likely through oral traditions of memorizing knowledge and facts. The varna-guild form of social structure saved the knowledge from going extinct, and it was only much later that these were compiled into treatises for the better preservation of traditional knowledge. This is evident from the fact that while the extant Silpasastras are placed at around 5th c. CE, we find from different accounts the presence of an advanced and well developed Pataliputra city in the 3rd c. BCE. Since such large cities cannot be built with a sudden overnight knowledge, it can be safely said that the knowledge and science of architecture was already well present by then however, compilation in form of books/treatises happened at a later period.

Architecture in Buddhist texts, the Epics, and the Puranas

In Buddhist literature (Mahavagga, Chullavagga, Vinaya texts, Dhammapada Atthakatha, MilindaPañha, etc) there are plenty of references to high walls, ramparts and buttresses, gates, watch towers and moats alluding to fortification of towns and cities. Mentions are made of houses opening directly to the streets, thus hinting at a lack of enclosed spaces like gardens in front. These mostly talk of a large group of houses clumped together around narrow lanes, of sacred groves, and vast expanses of rice fields beyond. The Jataka talks of individual houses that remain separate from villages and towns. In some places Buddha is found sermonizing on architecture, and in one instance he tells his disciples, ” I allow you O bhikkhus, abodes of five kinds : Vihara (monasteries), Arddhayoga (special Bengal buildings that served both religious and residential purposes), Prasada (storeyed residential houses), Harmya (storeyed mansions or palatial homes), and Guha (small houses)” (ref: Vinaya texts, Mahavagga). There are detailed descriptions of arama griha (rest houses) for people who liked to lead a quiet life and stay a little away from the hustle bustle of the towns. As per the books, such houses should be located not too far or too close to the towns, the compounds are to be surrounded by three types of walls (stone, brick, and wooden fencing), and further surrounded by bamboo fences, thorn hedges, and moat like ditches. Houses should have living rooms, resting rooms, store rooms, halls for services, halls attached to bathrooms, closet rooms, cloisters, open faced mandapas, and ponds (Chullavagga, VI). The inner chambers are to be divided into three parts: square halls (Sivika garbha), rectangular halls (Nalika garbha) and dining halls (Harmya garbha). Verandas or alindas were essential for these house, and were also present in prasada or storeyed houses, which were referred to as a veranda supported on pillars with elephant heads (Chullavagga, VI). Details of doors, windows (3 types ), stairs (3 types), gateways with rooms and jaalis on them, and seven storeyed buildings (satta-bhumika-prasada) are frequently mentioned in various Buddhist texts. There is another very interesting structure mentioned in the Vinaya texts. These are the hot air baths, which are described in great details structures similar to the later period Turkish baths. Built on raised platforms, with a facade of stones or bricks, these buildings had stone stairs leading up to a veranda with railings. Roofs and walls were made of wood, with a layer of skin on it, and then a layer plaster over it all. The lower part of the walls were made of bricks. There were ante chambers, a hot room, and a bathing pool. Seating arrangements were made in a circle around a fireplace in the hot room, and bathers had water poured over them. Digha Niyaka also speaks of ornamented open air bathing tanks. Such ancient baths have been found in fairly preserved conditions among the Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka) ruins. The Buddhist texts are also pretty elaborate in giving details of accessories such as carpets, rugs, pillows, etc. that were to be used inside houses.

Megasthenes visiting the court of Chandragupta Maurya, painting by Asit Kumar Haldar, early 20.th c. CE

The Epics abound in the descriptions of cities (nagara), large palatial mansions, storeyed buildings, verandas, porches, victory arches, tanks with masonry stairs, prakara or walls, and various other structures which are all indicative of a well developed and flourishing architecture. The city plan of Ayodhya as given in the Ramayana, is found to be similar to the town-plan guidelines as laid down in the Manasara, which included beautiful devayatana (temples), gardens, alms-houses , assembly halls, and mansions. Ramayana also gives a detailed description of the beautiful city of Lanka in its Lanka-kanda. Mahabharata provides us with short but vivid descriptions of the cities of Mithila, Indraprastha, Dwaraka, among many others. Sabha-parvan provides us with detailed description of different assembly halls, using examples of Indra sabha, and halls of Varuna, Kubera, Yama, and the Pandavas. In both the epics there are details of lofty buildings (mostly painted in white) and large balconies windows with lattices comfortable rooms king’s palaces separate mansions for princes, ministers, army officers, and chief priests smaller houses for common people assembly halls courts and shops.

A vision of ancient Indian court life, using motifs from Sanchi (wood engraving, 1878) Source

The Puranas deal with the topic of architecture in a more serious manner than the casual descriptions as found in the epics. All the 19 Puranas have dealt with the subject, however 9 of them have dealt with the topic in a more systematic manner, which in turn provided material support to the Silpa-sastras compiled later. Matsyapurana has 8 chapters with detailed discussion on architecture and sculptures. Skanda purana has three extensive chapters that discusses the planning of laying of a large city. Besides these, the other Puranas that extensively talk on architectural science are the GarudaPurana, Agnipurana, NaradaPaurna, VayuPurana, and BhavisyaPurana (a late Purana). Brihat-samhita composed by Varahamihira, also devotes 5 chapters to architecture and sculpture, and gives the subject a thorough and masterly treatment. From a definition of the science of architecture, to choosing sites, soil testing, plan of buildings, to elaborate and comparative measurements of storeys and doors, carvings. etc., all are dealt with great details in this treatise. Kautilya Artha-sastra has 7 chapters on the science of architecture, with a focus on structural details. Interestingly, this book gives detailed descriptions of forts and fortified cities, military and residential buildings within the scope of town planning.

A depiction of an Indian palace from a Mahabodhi railing medallion, which shows vaulted underground chambers called ”suranga,” as described in Kautiliya Arthashastra. (Shunga period, 2nd-1st BCE). Photo by Sir Alexander Cunningham, Mahâbodhi, or the great Buddhist temple under the Bodhi tree at Buddha-Gaya. Published 1892

A closer look at the ancient Indian cities

“It’s impossible for one to obtain salvation, who lives in a town covered with dust”

As we look at the various books that deal with architecture in ancient India, we find that the cities were chiefly built by nagara-vardhaka or city planners/architects, who had help from assistants like itthaka-vardhaki (brick layers), and vaddhaki (carpenters). These workers lived in their own community based gramas or villages (example a grama where only carpenters lived), and came to cities only for their work. As per some records there were 18 guilds (seni) that controlled the craftsmen, such as, the vardhakis, cittakara (painters), kammara (smiths), etc., that worked as per the norms laid down in their traditional crafts work.

The most important aspects of a city appears to have been the moat or parikha, walls (prakara), gates (gopura), defense towers (dvara attalaka), gatehouses (dwara-kotthaka), king’s palace (raja-nivesana, prasada), temples (devasthana), and monasteries (panna-sala). Besides these were smaller houses (gaha), other mansions (nivesana), granaries (kotthaka), alms houses (dana-sala), markets (antarapana), shops (apana), saloons, taverns, and slaughterhouses. Other essential components of cities were parks, gardens, lakes and ponds, tanks, sacred trees and groves, a central square (singhataka), main streets (maha-patha, raj-magga), ordinary streets (vithi), crossings (catumahapatha), and alleys (patatthi). There were streets occupied by particular varnas, such as a street for traders/ Vaishyas, a common sight in many parts of India until recently. Outside the cities stood the suburbs (nigama) and villages (grama).

Ancient city of Kapilavastu, Sanchi. (Photo from wikipedia). Seen here is a royal chariot coming out of gate with high towers, the dvara-attalaka, which were towers of defense, as apparent from the number of soldiers seen there. City of Kosala or Sravasti (Sanchi – north torana). A horse ride is seen coming out from the gate. Beyond the gate towers and walls (prakara) are seen the stoyered city buildings. (photo from wikipedia) Ancient city of Rajagriha. (photo from Wikipedia) King of the Mallas of Kushinagara under siege. A double storey building is seen on the left side (photo from wikipedia) City of Kusinagara in the War over the Buddha’s Relics, South Gate, Stupa no. 1, Sanchi. (photo from wikipedia by Photo Dharma). The brick walls of the city, defense towers, soldiers, lofty city buildings beyond are all seen clearly in this relief. Sketch by Coomaraswamy, Indian architecture, 6 Sketch by Coomaraswamy, Indian architecture,15

The fortified cities that are seen in Sanchi and on other early Buddhist reliefs are as per the textual definitions that we read in various old treatises that deal with ancient Indian architectural science. These reliefs when studied closely for architectural features will be found to bear similarities with the later period, medieval, and even modern era architectural forms, in the context that many of the ancient characteristic features are found preserved in these later structures. While the ancient fortified cities have long disappeared, the reliefs remain behind depicting how they once stood tall, and a walk through any of the medieval city gates such as the Gwalior fort, Bijapur fort gate, or the Gujarat and Jaipur city gates will show the how close the architectural connections are between the ancient, the medieval, and the present.

How an ancient Indian city looked: Reconstruction of Kushinagara city gates and the city beyond at 500 BCE, from a Sanchi relief

From: Percy Brown, Indian Architecture, Buddhist and Hindu, published in 1956 Bombay, India.

Ananda Coomaraswamy, Early Indian architecture.

Binode Behari Dutta, Town Planning in Ancient India.

John Muir, Original Sanskrit texts on the origin and history of the people of India, their religion and institutions.

Prasanna Kumar Acharya, Architecture of Manasara.

The cover photo is a reconstructed image of the Lothal port, from the ASI archives.

(all photos used in this post are strictly for representational purposes only, and has no commercial use)


The Ancient Indian Architectural texts

In the Indian context, the term architecture is included within the realms of Silpasastra a treatise, which thankfully has survived the ravages of time and tyrannical vandalism. The term Silpasastras, which when literally translated, means the study of fine or mechanical arts, and there are 64 such arts that can be studied. Indian architecture, known as Vastu Sastra, is seen as a part of a subdivision of the Silpasastras, as it encompasses much more than what the term ‘architecture’ generally implies.

Thus, Vastu-sastra would include, besides the basic architecture, all kinds of buildings being built (civil and military engineering) it would also cover laying of parks and gardens town planning marketplace designing digging drains, sewers, wells, and tanks building dams, bathing ghats, walls and embankments.

Furthermore, it would also be a part of designing furniture suitable for the houses built. Besides these, Vastu Sastra also includes designing of clothing and accessories, such as headgear and various ornaments. Carving of sculptures of deities and famous people are also a part of Vastu Sastra. Even basics, such as selecting a site, testing the soil of the site, and ascertaining the cardinal directions of the site are all part of this ancient science of architecture better known as Vastu Sastra. The treatise that brings together all the varied topics under Vastu Sastra is compiled into 70 chapters and titled as Manasare-vastu-sastra.

Vastu Vidya or Vastu Sastra is so comprehensive and broad in its discourses that it is almost co-extensive with the Silpasastras. As Manasara explains ” Vastu is where the gods and men reside (Sanskrit word vas = reside/sit).” This would include ground or dhara (the principle object as nothing can be built without it), buildings or harmya, conveyance or yana, and an object to rest like a couch or a bed or a paryanka. Town or city planning would primarily involve the planned use of ground and buildings.

Architecture in Vedic Literature

While the concept of town or city planning is undoubtedly a very ancient branch of Indian science, the technical details of building structures appear for the first time in the treatises that deal solely with architecture (Vastu-sastras), and are absent in the non-architectural literature prior to the Vastu-sastras. While there is little about the structural details of a house in the Vedic literature, the early Vedas do carry casual references to this art. That people of this time did not live in caves and had proper houses as their residences are clearly evident from the various synonyms used for a house, and also in the naming of the various parts of a house such as doors, crossbeams, and pillars (Rig Veda I, 13-39).

While details are sketchy, the hymns of the Atharva Veda do give information on the simple house construction, where it is said four upamit (pillars) were set up on a chosen site, and beams were laid angular as props (pratimit), while the pillars were supported with cross beams (parimit). The roofs were made of rib-like structures constructed of bamboos, walls had palada (grass bundles) and the entire structure was held together by bindings of various types (samdamsa, nahana, etc).

These houses had many rooms and it could be securely locked up (Rig Veda VII, 85, 6). A closer look would show that these houses bear similarities to the house of the Todas, and had a similar wagon headed roof in all probability. The Vedic descriptions also bear a striking similarity to the rock cut chaityas and assembly halls of the Buddhist caves in western India, wherein some of the oldest ones the wooden ribs on the vaulted roofs still remain (Fergusson, History of Indian architecture).

There are also stories in the Vedas of Vashistha wanting to live in a three-storeyed house an able king “who sits in a substantial and elegant hall with thousand pillars” and there are mentions of large mansions of wealthy people that had many pillars and doors (Rig Veda I, II, IV). Varuna and Mitra are shown to be living in splendid palaces. From these writings, it is pretty evident that while these descriptive verses tend to exaggerate in an attempt to glorify the deities, but they are certainly based on real buildings that the writers had seen (Muir. 1868).

Furthermore, R L Mitra in his Indo- Aryans opines that while mentions of pillars, doors, and windows may or may not be decisive indicators of masonry buildings, but bricks would not have originated unless they were to be used for specific reasons, and it would be absurd to suppose that bricks were invented but never used for building houses. In this context, if we read the Sulva sutras (supplement to Kalpa sutras), we find that while discussing the details of the vedis or fire-altars, it is mentioned that these altars were made of bricks. These altars for Soma sacrifices were made based on specific principles and precise measurements, and were likely the foundations of religious architecture in India.

The fire altars, first mentioned in the Taittiriya Samhita, had different shapes and were constructed of 5 layers of bricks (sometimes even going up to 10-15 layers too), while each layer had 200 bricks. Precise measurements were given as to the sizes and area to be covered and that were to be followed carefully while constructing these fire-altars.

The Vedic literature also frequently mentions villages (Grama), and towns (Pur), of which the Pur is frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda. The Pur also referred to forts and finds frequent mentions with varied names, such as urvvi (wide), prithvi (broad), a stone built fort (asmamayi), of iron built ones (ayasi- though this is more likely to be metaphorical in nature), a fort full of cattle (gomati) denoting that forts were used as strongholds to keep cows, forts used during autumn (saradi– referring to being occupied by the dasyus), and forts having 100 walls or satabhuji.

Instead of being permanently occupied like the medieval forts, these forts could have been used as places of refuge during times of need. Some historians (Pischel and Geldner) opine that these fortifications could be of the Pataliputra type as mentioned by Megasthenes.

Thus, apart from the well developed urban centres in the Harappan sites, and the frequent Vedic references to forts and towns, it is for certain that flourishing cities/townships existed much prior to the start of the Common Era. Megasthenes mentions that the grand city of Pataliputra was more than 9 miles in length. As we learn from details of cities given in various texts and early reliefs (discussed further below), Mauryan era cities like Pataliputra were not any sudden developments, but a continuation of an already established and known urban culture (Coomarasway).

From the Vedic texts, it is quite clear that the writers of these verses were well aware of fortifications, villages, towns, forts, carved stones, stone-built houses, and brick structures. The basics of architecture were already in, which were handed over from generation to generation most likely through oral traditions of memorizing knowledge and facts.

The varna-guild form of social structure saved the knowledge from going extinct, and it was only much later that these were compiled into treatises for the better preservation of traditional knowledge. This is evident from the fact that while the extant Silpasastras are placed at around 5th c. CE, we find from different accounts the presence of an advanced and well developed Pataliputra city in the 3rd c. BCE. Since such large cities cannot be built with a sudden overnight knowledge, it can be safely said that the knowledge and science of architecture were already well present by then however, compilation in form of books/treatises happened at a later period.

Architecture in Buddhist texts, the Epics, and the Puranas

In Buddhist literature (Mahavagga, Chullavagga, Vinaya texts, Dhammapada Atthakatha, MilindaPañha, etc) there are plenty of references to high walls, ramparts and buttresses, gates, watchtowers and moats alluding to the fortification of towns and cities. Mentions are made of houses opening directly to the streets, thus hinting at a lack of enclosed spaces like gardens in front. These mostly talk of a large group of houses clumped together around narrow lanes, of sacred groves, and vast expanses of rice fields beyond. The Jataka talks of individual houses that remain separate from villages and towns.

In some places, Buddha is found sermonizing on architecture, and in one instance he tells his disciples, ” I allow you O bhikkhus, abodes of five kinds: Vihara (monasteries), Arddhayoga (special Bengal buildings that served both religious and residential purposes), Prasada (storeyed residential houses), Harmya (storeyed mansions or palatial homes), and Guha (small houses)” (ref: Vinaya texts, Mahavagga).

There are detailed descriptions of arama griha (rest houses) for people who liked to lead a quiet life and stay a little away from the hustle-bustle of the towns. As per the books, such houses should be located not too far or too close to the towns, the compounds are to be surrounded by three types of walls (stone, brick, and wooden fencing), and further surrounded by bamboo fences, thorn hedges, and moat-like ditches.

Houses should have living rooms, resting rooms, storerooms, halls for services, halls attached to bathrooms, closet rooms, cloisters, open-faced mandapas, and ponds (Chullavagga, VI). The inner chambers are to be divided into three parts: square halls (Sivika garbha), rectangular halls (Nalika garbha) and dining halls (Harmya garbha). Verandas or alindas were essential for these houses, and were also present in prasada or storeyed houses, which were referred to as a veranda supported on pillars with elephant heads (Chullavagga, VI). Details of doors, windows, stairs, rooms and jaalis on them, and seven storeyed buildings (satta-bhumika-prasada) are frequently found in various Buddhist texts. There is another very interesting structure mentioned in the Vinaya texts.

These are the hot-air baths, which are described in great details structures similar to the later period Turkish baths. Built on raised platforms, with a facade of stones or bricks, these buildings had stone stairs leading up to a veranda with railings. Roofs and walls were made of wood, with a layer of skin on it, and then a layer plaster over it all. The lower part of the walls was made of bricks. There were antechambers, a hot room, and a bathing pool. Seating arrangements were made in a circle around a fireplace in the hot room, and bathers had water poured over them. Digha Niyaka also speaks of ornamented open-air bathing tanks. Such ancient baths have been found in fairly preserved conditions among the Anuradhapura (Sri Lanka) ruins.

The Epics abound in the descriptions of cities (nagara), large palatial mansions, storeyed buildings, verandas, porches, victory arches, tanks with masonry stairs, prakara or walls, and various other structures which are all indicative of a well developed and flourishing architecture. The city plan of Ayodhya as given in the Ramayana, is found to be similar to the town-plan guidelines as laid down in the Manasara, which included beautiful devayatana (temples), gardens, alms-houses, assembly halls, and mansions.

Ramayana also gives a detailed description of the beautiful city of Lanka in its Lanka-kanda. Mahabharata provides us with short but vivid descriptions of the cities of Mithila, Indraprastha, Dwaraka, among many others. Sabha-parvan provides us with a detailed description of different assembly halls, using examples of Indra sabha, and halls of Varuna, Kubera, Yama, and the Pandavas. In both the epics there are details of lofty buildings (mostly painted in white) and large balconies windows with lattices comfortable rooms king’s palaces separate mansions for princes, ministers, army officers, and chief priests smaller houses for common people assembly halls courts and shops.

The Puranas deal with the topic of architecture in a more serious manner than the casual descriptions as found in the epics. All the 19 Puranas have dealt with the subject, however, 9 of them have dealt with the topic in a more systematic manner, which in turn provided material support to the Silpa-sastras compiled later. Matsyapurana has 8 chapters with detailed discussion on architecture and sculptures. Skanda purana has three extensive chapters that discuss the planning of laying of a large city.

Besides these, the other Puranas that extensively talk on architectural science are the GarudaPurana, Agnipurana, NaradaPaurna, VayuPurana, and BhavisyaPurana (a late Purana). Brihat-samhita composed by Varahamihira also devotes 5 chapters to architecture and sculpture and gives the subject a thorough and masterly treatment. From a definition of the science of architecture to choosing sites, soil testing, plan of buildings, to elaborate and comparative measurements of storeys and doors, carvings. etc., all are dealt with great details in this treatise.

Kautilya Artha-sastra has 7 chapters on the science of architecture, with a focus on structural details. Interestingly, this book gives detailed descriptions of forts and fortified cities, palaces with underground tunnels or surang, military and residential buildings within the scope of town planning.

A closer look at the ancient Indian cities

As we look at the various books that deal with architecture in ancient India, we find that the cities were chiefly built by nagara-vardhaka or city planners/architects, who had help from assistants like itthaka-vardhaki (brick layers), and vaddhaki (carpenters). These workers lived in their own community-based gramas or villages (example a grama where only carpenters lived), and came to cities only for their work. As per some records, there were 18 guilds (seni) that controlled the craftsmen, such as, the vardhakis, cittakara (painters), kammara (smiths), etc., that worked as per the norms laid down in their traditional crafts work.

The most important aspects of a city appears to have been the moat or parikha, walls (prakara), gates (gopura), defense towers (dvara attalaka), gatehouses (dwara-kotthaka), king’s palace (raja-nivesana, prasada), temples (devasthana), and monasteries (panna-sala). Besides these were smaller houses (gaha), other mansions (nivesana), granaries (kotthaka), alms houses (dana-sala), markets (antarapana), shops (apana), saloons, taverns, and slaughterhouses. Other essential components of cities were parks, gardens, lakes and ponds, tanks, sacred trees and groves, a central square (singhataka), main streets (maha-patha, raj-magga), ordinary streets (vithi), crossings (catumahapatha), and alleys (patatthi). There were streets occupied by particular varnas, such as a street for traders/ Vaishyas, a common sight in many parts of India until recently. Outside the cities stood the suburbs (nigama) and villages (grama).

The fortified cities that are seen in Sanchi and on other early reliefs are as per the textual definitions that we read in various old treatises that deal with ancient Indian architectural science. These reliefs when studied closely for architectural features will be found to bear similarities with the later period, medieval, and even modern era architectural forms, in the context that many of the ancient characteristic features are found preserved in these later structures.

While the ancient fortified cities have long disappeared, the reliefs remain behind depicting how they once stood tall, and a walk through any of the medieval city gates such as the Gwalior fort, Bijapur fort gate, or the Gujarat and Jaipur city gates will show the how close the architectural connections are between the ancient, the medieval, and the present.

How an ancient Indian city looked: Reconstruction of Kushinagara city gates and the city beyond at 500 BCE, from a Sanchi relief

Photos from the ASI archives in public domain.

Ananda Coomaraswamy, Early Indian architecture.

Binode Behari Dutta, Town Planning in Ancient India.

John Muir, Original Sanskrit texts on the origin and history of the people of India, their religion and institutions.

Prasanna Kumar Acharya, Architecture of Manasara.

The cover photo is a reconstructed image of the Lothal port, from the ASI archives.


“War over the Buddha’s Relics”, Sanchi - History

The earliest known example in India, the Pataliputra capital (3rd century BCE) is decorated with rows of repeating rosettes, ovolos and bead and reel mouldings, wave-like scrolls and side volutes with central rosettes, around a prominent central flame palmette, which is the main motif. These are quite similar to Classical Greek designs, and the capital has been described as quasi-Ionic. Greek influence, as well as Persian Achaemenid influence have been suggested.

The earliest known example in India, the Pataliputra capital (3rd century BCE) is decorated with rows of repeating rosettes, ovolos and bead and reel mouldings, wave-like scrolls and side volutes with central rosettes, around a prominent central flame palmette, which is the main motif. These are quite similar to Classical Greek designs, and the capital has been described as quasi-Ionic. Greek influence, as well as Persian Achaemenid influence have been suggested.

These authors stress that they are no known precedents in India (baring the hypothetical possibility of now-lost wooden structures), and that therefore the formative influence must have come from the neighbouring Achaemenid Empire.

The Germania Bank changed its name to the Commonwealth Bank in early 1918, probably as a result of rising anti-German sentiment during World War I. In the mid-1920s, the Bowery was the location of several banks, the Commonwealth Bank being one of five between Division and Houston Streets. Starting in 1923 with the opening of a branch on Lexington Avenue, Commonwealth expanded to other parts of Manhattan and to the Bronx and Brooklyn. It was then acquired in 1927 by the Manufacturers Trust Company, which became the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company following a 1961 merger.

When planing against the grain, the wood fibers are lifted by the plane iron, resulting in a jagged finish, called tearout.

Planing wood along its side grain should result in thin shavings rising above the surface of the wood as the edge of the plane iron is pushed forward, leaving a smooth surface, but sometimes splintering occurs. This is largely a matter of cutting with the grain or against the grain respectively, referring to the side grain of the piece of wood being worked.

On these stone carvings the Buddha was never depicted as a human figure, due to aniconism in Buddhism. Instead the artists chose to represent him by certain attributes, such as the horse on which he left his father's home, his footprints, or a canopy under the bodhi tree at the point of his enlightenment. The human body was thought to be too confining for the Buddha.

The Southern Gateway of Stupa No1 is thought to be oldest and main entrance to the stupa. The narrative friezes of this gateway put great emphasis on the relics of the Buddha, and on the role of Ashoka in spreading the Buddhist faith. This gateway is one of the two which were reconstructed by Major Cole in 1882–83. The whole of the right jamb and half of the left are new and blank, as well as the west end of the lowest architrave, the east end of the middle architrave, and the six vertical uprights between the architraves.

Other versions of the relief depicting the temple for the Bodhi Tree are visible at Sanchi, such as the

The reliefs on the railings are said to be slightly later than those of Stupa No. 2.

The pillar capital in Bharhut, dated to the 2nd century BCE during the Sunga Empire period, also incorporates many of these characteristics, with a central anta capital with many rosettes, beads-and-reels, as well as a central palmette design. Importantly, recumbent animals (lions, symbols of Buddhism) were added, in the style of the Pillars of Ashoka.

Although made of stone, the torana gateways were carved and constructed in the manner of wood and the gateways were covered with narrative sculptures. It has also been suggested that the stone reliefs were made by ivory carvers from nearby Vidisha, and an inscription on the Southern Gateway of the Great Stupa ("") was dedicated by the Guild of Ivory Carvers of Vidisha.

An actual Bharhut capital, used to support the main Bharhut gateway, and presently in the Kolkota Indian Museum, uses a similar, if more complex arrangement, with four joined pillars instead of one, and incumbent lions on the top, sitting around a central crowning capital which has much similarity in design to the Pataliputra capital, complete with central palmette design, rosettes, and bead and reel motifs.

Another capitals in India has been identified as having the same compositional structure as the Pataliputra capital, the Sarnath capital. It is from Sarnath, at a distance of 250 km from Pataliputra. This other capital is also said to be from the Mauryan period. It is, together with the Pataliputra capital, considered as "stone brackets or capitals suggestive of the Ionic order".

The reliefs of Sanchi, especially those depicting Indian cities, have been important in trying to imagine what ancient Indian cities look like. Many modern simulations are based on the urban illustrations of Sanchi.

Another structure which has been dated, at least partially, to the 3rd century BCE, is the so-called Temple 40, one of the first instances of free-standing temples in India. Temple 40 has remains of three different periods, the earliest period dating to the Maurya age, which probably makes it contemporary to the creation of the Great Stupa. An inscription even suggests it might have been established by Bindusara, the father of Ashoka. The original 3rd century BCE temple was built on a high rectangular stone platform, 26.52×14×3.35 metres, with two flights of stairs to the east and the west. It was an apsidal hall, probably made of timber. It was burnt down sometime in the 2nd century BCE.

The style of the Shunga period decorations at Sanchi bear a close similarity to those of Bharhut, as well as the peripheral balustrades at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya.

After the death of the Buddha, the Mallas of Kushinagar wanted to keep his ashes, but the other kingdoms also wanting their part went to war and besieged the city of Kushinagar. Finally, an agreement was reached, and the Buddha's cremation relics were divided among 8 royal families and his disciples. This famous view shows warfare techniques at the time of the Satavahanas, as well as a view of the city of Kushinagar of the Mallas, which has been relied on for the understanding of ancient Indian cities.

The St. Philip Martyrium stands on top of the hill outside the northeastern section of the city walls. It dates from the 5th century. It was said that Philip was buried in the center of the building and, though his tomb has recently been unearthed, the exact location has not yet been verified. The Martyrium burned down at the end of the 5th or early 6th century, as attested by fire marks on the columns. Philip is said to have been martyred in Hierapolis by being crucified upside-down or by being hung upside down by his ankles from a tree.

Septimius Severus is portrayed in a relief together with his wife Julia Domna, his two sons Caracalla and Geta, and the god Jupiter. In AD 352, the orchestra was probably transformed into an arena for aquatic shows, which had become fashionable. The stage, which is 12 ft high, had 5 doors and 6 niches. In front of these there were 10 marble columns, decorated with alternate rectilinear and curved segments. The wall behind the scene was decorated with three rows of columns one behind another. The columns on the front row do not have grooves and stood on octagonal bases.