Part of a quest for a culturally rooted practice of architecture is asking fundamental questions such as what did the act of building truly mean? ‘Architecture’, from the Greek architecton (‘prime builder’), is fundamentally articulated space. Or, as Aldo van Eyck evocatively called it, “outlined emptiness”, the outlining performed via the action of building, which encloses and contains space.
In Indic conceptions, however, right from the first millennium BCE, the word for space is akasha, which implies vastness, transcendence and a phenomenon as all-encompassing as the sky. Clearly then, space as akasha was the opposite of anything finite, bounded or enclosed. So in this understanding, architecture would be the paradoxical attempt to limit the limitless, enclose the unenclosable. Which begs the question: Is architecture a contradiction in terms?
And yet, humankind has been building and enclosing space for millennia. So what does this transition from the unlimited to the limited, from the transcendent to the contingent, do to space? In generating an interior and an exterior, does building not also generate an artificial divide and duality or splitting asunder of experience? In forcing a separation between the world within and without, and ushering within the built interiors the bulk of our activities, has civilisation and its prime force, architecture, contracted and narrowed down rather than expanded our lives and our sense of reality? This is a question of both physics and metaphysics. Ultimately, however, it is perhaps a question of ethics: What is the practice of architecture meant to effect in human terms? A separation or a continuum? A split or equipoise? Alienation or belonging?
These are questions that have agitated the minds of some thinker-architects in the West like van Eyck and Christopher Alexander, who perceived a growing crisis of mindlessness and disembeddedness in contemporary architecture, and went on to exhort a style of construction that felt like a built homecoming, “places where we can be what we really are”, or that tapped into the eternal truth in the ordinary and every day.
In doing so, these architects rightly apprehended the connection between the surrounding built environment and the psycho-social life of the individual. They believed in the transformative potential of architecture in facilitating the overcoming of contradictions that people and indeed societies felt within themselves, and their attainment of a relaxed equipoise instead. They emphasised the overcoming of dualities—the forced separation of interior from exterior—as the key to wholesome and harmonious buildings and communities.
These issues are as relevant to modern India where building appears to be a heedless, profiteering business. Indian urban architecture today displays an overwhelming functionalism and monotony, apart from a confused poverty of form—the predominant impression one gets from the mushrooming jungle of skyscraper-slums that the urban core and peripheries alike have become. While there is nothing wrong with function and it is a necessary and sufficient impetus for building, the question really is what is the nature of function that is aimed at. Is it that of mere utility or is it that of purpose, a “lasting human validity”; the two are vastly different in terms of their social and spiritual potential.
What may ancient history tell us in this regard? Scholars speak of two broad functions performed by public architecture: sacred and secular. To these the great temples and stupas of early India and the cities and palaces, respectively, can be assigned. However, this binary is itself a separation imposed by European modernity, which expects the sacred nowadays to have a minimal role and the secular, perhaps, minimal soul. This may not be quite how the ancients thought. They professed perhaps far more integrated life-goals.
In early India, form and consciousness were considered inseparable, regardless of the character of the building, and their union invested with cultural meaning and efficacy. Architecture was a self-consciously undertaken project which, like a yajna, was believed to be transformational, both for its practitioners and clientele. This two-part series draws on a couple of central concepts of space from early India, mandala and mandara, to explore how form and spirit fused synergistically with a view to transforming the individual partaker and ultimately the community.
Returning then to the concept of akasha, while retaining its essential qualities of infinitude and transcendence, it could be of three different kinds: in the middle, citakasha, mindspace that gave rise to all activity and perception; above it, paramakasha, the infinite space of nameless consciousness; and deep within, hrdayakasha, the space of the human heart. What’s more, appearing to confound all notions of scale and hierarchy, paramakasha was exactly replicated in hrdayakasha, or rather it reposed deep within the latter.
In the Taittiriya Upanishad (circa 1000 BCE) this was expressed as nihitam guhayam parame vyoman: “deep within the cave [-like heart] of man lies infinite consciousness”. Here was the microcosmic paradox: the secret of outermost space is to be found in the innermost! As the Chhandogya Upanishad described it: “within the city of brahman (infinite consciousness) is a small lotus flower. Within that is a still smaller space, the human heart (hrdayakasha). Within that space is the deepest truth.”
In metaphysical terms, the individual atman (soul) mirrored the universal brahman (pure consciousness), and true knowledge was the realisation of their unity, or the true nature of reality was their unity. Indeed moksha (liberation) was not some other-worldly pursuit but jivan mukti (liberation in one’s lifetime) or the realisation in the here and now of that state of bliss arisen from union with the infinite. Known as advaita (non-dualism), this trans-sectarian philosophy established itself as influential from very early, finding expression first in the Upanishads, then the syncretic Bhagavad Gita (2nd century BCE), down to Adi Shankara and Vedanta (9th century CE onwards) and the nirguna bhakti saints (14th–17th century).
Of course one does not have to be an advaitavadin to see that it is to make manifest a culturally validated idea of reality that most knowledge systems of early India strove in great epistemic unison. Architecture was no exception. Vastu texts from the first and second millennium CE, in the midst of the plethora of technical specifications they offer, were ultimately about architecture as a means to an end greater than itself—architecture as meditation on the true nature of reality. Thus whether it was building an altar, a temple or a city, architecture at its highest became an instrument of liberation.
(To be continued)
(The author is editor of Eloquent Spaces: Meaning and Community in Early Indian Architecture)
Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University