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Hand-colored Engravings by Balthazar Solvyns, c. 1799

Hand-colored Engravings by Balthazar Solvyns, c. 1799

House building is an expression of civilization. They are more than shelters since  culture and civilization are intrinsically linked. The word implies sanctuary.

Unfortunately, when reflecting of India, many think of a wandering ascetic, naked save for a loin cloth.

While, it is true that saints in many countries and traditions have chosen a simple life without a home, In ancient India, as now, home is where the heart is, with deep spiritual significance.  Our home environment reflects our interior world.

 Each decoration tells a story

The Veda’s reveal  that the ancient Indian home was far more than the product  of primitive shepherds.

 “We lay the strong foundation of a house which is well ventilated, beautiful, with parts symmetrically corresponding  to each other and measured or enclosed all round.” Atharveda IX-3.1.7

“It’s main four parts are store houses, kitchen, harem and drawing room.”

Commonly the Indian Hindu home has a home altar with fore and incense to keep the sacred energy alive.

Westerners include more practical altars: a well stocked kitchen a television to worship with hours of trance like devotion, or a workbench in a man cave as a shrine to masculinity, or dressing room as a shrine of adoration to feminine transformation.

In the ancient Hindu texts, the home is most sacred.

“The house may be two-sided, four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided or even ten-sided. The house is peace giver to mind. I take shelter in as fire in its womb.”

“From humble to mansion the home is compared to a beautiful bride, and  a place where you find happiness.” Atharveda IX.3.24

The most sacred inner shrine of a Hindu temple is also called a womb.

The book of rituals, Paraskara, calls the house the centre of the world, Bhivanasya nabhih. It is the centre of his life and universe the pivot of his ideas.

Rather than built with  rudimentary workmanship, three classes of masons are mentioned.

But to know the feeling of the ancient Vedic home we can consult the Rig Veda book 7 hymns 1-3:

“O  great house builder! Impart this satisfaction to us that thou art a giver of an abode free from diseases to us. Kindly do as I request you. Let thee bring happiness to our bipeds, and quadrapeds.”

“O delight giving builder, add to our wealth by being helpful to our cows and horses. Through thy kindness, let us live in hygenic conditions to a good old age. Be kind to us as a father to his son.”
” O builder, make us such a house that we may live in all sorts of comforts and enrich ourselves. Let happiness come to us. Let us ever be blessed with auspicious things.”

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The structure of Vedic home

The structure of a home is less poetic and more practical.

In 1939 French scholar Louis Renou (1896-1966), began the process of culling the Vedic literature about the “process of building” and “techniques of construction” of shelters for home and ritual (“La maison védique” in the Journal Asiatique).

Profane homes were called shala  distinct from cultic shelter. He found imprecise ritual use of the terms veshman, “habitation”; sharana, “refuge”; avasana, “place where one removes the harness after a journey” but also meaning “site of the house.” The word frequent word is vastu, designating both the house and its site. vimita (“construction”) to refer to a ritual “hut” described in the Shrautasûtras ).

From “the rites that accompany house construction” he discovered the materials of bamboo, thatch, straw mats, rope, as ell as their arrangement and orientation.

Rituals for the home (vidhi or karman) are called vastushamana (literally “appeasement of the soil”). The Vaikhanasiyas, it links to birthing practice; other times it stands alone.

A broom, or udûha, clears the ground. The surrounding wall (parilikhya) is laid carefully. According to the shvalayana Shrautasûtra, a thousand furrows are dug. Possibly a preliminary tilled into the soil (uddhatya). From all directions water flows toward the center, creating an ambulatory path (pradaksina) around the bedroom (shayaniya), claims the shvalayana orders. The water then drains noiselessly eastward.

The soil was raised at the sides, forming a drain slanted slightly eastward, claims Narayana’s commentary, with a north channel (syandanika) to drain off water, near the kitchen (bhaktasharan.a), north of the bedroom. The bed should be northeast claims the Baudayana Shrautasûtra.

However a variant tradition uses the variant samavasrava, to explain a house site should allow for draining the same everywhere. Devapala explains”no side should be lower or higher than any other.”

Renou’s goes into the specific rooms including a chariot house. A salon (sabha), where the master of the house receives his guests, says Narayana, is in the part of the house “that inclines toward the south” according to (i.e. in the northern part according to Narayana.  Its best location is at the water’s confluence, says the shvalayana.

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Construction began by digging a number of holes (garta) of equal depth to the distance from the ankle to knee, so that water drains well from them (dharayisnûdakatara). They are called four corner holes in Jayarama’s commentary on the Paraskara Gr.hyasûtra. The Kaushikasûtra mentions a middle post-hole (madhyama garta).

Posts (sthûna), called “that which rests in the cavity (darashaya)” by Nirukta, were then installed of udumbara wood. If wood of an inferior quality is used, the Shankhayana Shrautasûtra recommends a ritual of atonement (prayashcitta).

If a house is “white” (dhavalagrha, which may mean they were made of stone), stones replace the sthûna. , A stone is placed at the bottom of each hole to support it, but no Vedic text describes stone buildings. We do not know the number of posts or holes, but the Paraskara Grhyasûtra speaks of four but this may be only referring to the corner posts. Nine are mentioned in the Shankhayana Shrautasûtra.

These homes were not rude.

“Above the east entrance, in the space between the two middle pillars, is an ornamental fronton called the “forehead” (rarati). The  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” explains Renuo

For the home is itself sacred.

In the Rkasamhita the term for beam (vamsha) is used to describe the priests raising  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 Rig Veda also refers to pillars (sthûna) in comparisons such as “you carry men, O Agni, like a support pillar.

In the Atharvaveda we see the respect offered to cows.

“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).” One prose source refers to a cowshed called a gostha and in another a goshala is alluded too.

I prefer a home as poetry.

Or as H. Bodewitz, wrote

The Sadas hut is Prajapati’s belly. The Udumbara wood is strength (life-sap). When theUdumbara pillar is erected in the middle of the Sadas hut, one thereby places food, life-sap, in the middle.

and

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.

For a home is a palace of chants.

In 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.

Or Architect Anthony Lawlor once said,

“You enter the temple of home by discovering a new way of seeing, one that reconnects the needs of your soul with the buildings and landscapes that shelter you.”

It was also true of the ancient Indian home.

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