The Altar as a Representation of the Cosmos
The Śatapatha Br. informs us that the altar is to represent the mystery of time. Its dimensions are to represent earth. “As large as the altar is, so large is the earth” (ŚB 18.104.22.168) indicates that it symbolically represents objective knowledge. In the Śatapatha Śāndilya says:
- Prajāpati is the year, and the bricks are the joints, the days and nights. The altar is the earth, the Agnicayana the air, and the mahad uktham the sky. The altar is the mind, the Agnicayana the air, and the mahad uktham the speech (ŚB 10.1.2.2-3).
- The Year, doubtless, is the same as Death. Prajapati said: “You do not lay down all my forms, making me either too small or too large. That is why you are not immortal… Lay down 360 enclosing stones, 360+36 yajusmati (special) bricks, and 10,800 lokamprnā (ordinary) bricks and you will be laying down all my forms, and you will become immortal.” (ŚB 10.4.3.8) The 10,800 count represents the number of muhurtas (48-minute interval) in a year.
The special yajusmati bricks are placed 98 in the first layer, 41 in the second, 71 in the third, 47 in the fourth, and 138 in the fifth layer. These add up to 395; the earth filling between the bricks is taken to be the 396th brick. The sum of the bricks in the fourth and fifth layers together with one space filling is 186 (half the tithes in the solar year), the number of bricks in the third and the fourth layers equals one third the number of days in the lunar year, and so on.
Clearly, the objective is to represent the fact of the 360 divisions of the year (the additional 36 days represent the intercalary month) as well as other astronomical facts. The bandhu- relationship of the outer with the inner cosmos of the individual required an accurate representation of the outer so that a correspondingly accurate measure of the inner would become possible.
To understand how 10,800 lokamprnā bricks can fit the Uttara-vedi altar when the total number of bricks in the construction of the five-layered altar of 7½ square purusa altar is only 1,000, note that the ritual concludes at the end of the 95-year progressive enlargements of the altar by one square purusa per year.
When we reach the altar of area 101½ square puru¬a at the end, the number of bricks it will require is:
1,000 × 2/15 × 203/2 = 13,533
Since not all the bricks are of the same size, it leaves room to place more than 3,000 smaller, suitably marked bricks on the fifth layer (ŚB 10.2.1.9-11). When the size of the altar was smaller, chanted meters could have substituted for the missing bricks.
Some of the ritual directly presents astronomical information as in the arrangement shown below which is described in the Śatapatha as representing the motion of the sun around the earth (the nākasads, ŚB 8.6.1). It is striking that this arrangement sees (accurately) the two halves of the year as being unequal by the use of 29 special bricks in the fifth layer of the altar.
In the Agnicayana ritual, the ritual was performed in a special area where first the three fires of the yajamāna are established in the west in an area called Prāchinavamsa, “Old Hall”, or Patnisālā, “Wife’s Hall”, whose dimensions are in the canonical ratio of 1:2.
The Prāchinavamsa (also called Prāgvamsa) has dimensions of 20×10 (Figure 4). Three steps (three purusa) from it to the east (ŚB 22.214.171.124) is the Mahāvedi, which is an isosceles trapezoid of spine 36 and the two sides of 30 and 24 units. The perimeter of the Mahāvedi is 126.25, whereas that of the Prāchinavamsa, taken separately is 60. But the Prāchinavamsa and the Mahāvedi are two components of the larger sacred ground and, therefore, they should be taken together. This unitary representation, in my view, is the plan of the prototype temple.
To see the significance of the plan, we now draw the Agniksetra within a rectangular area. It is appropriate here to be guided by the proportions that are clearly spelt out, such as that of 1:2 for the Prāchinavamsa, as also by numbers that are in terms of the metre numbers, which are used in a parallel representation of the altar. Amongst the metres, gāyatri (24) is the head, usnih (28) the neck, anustubh (32) the thighs, brhati (36) the ribs, pankti (40) the wings, tristubh (44) the chest, and jagati the hips; virāj (30) is invoked in the description of the
I think for accord with the measures which are multiples of 6, the left area was increased by an additional 1 purusas to the west to become 24×30 as in Figure 5, which is described as an appropriate proportion for a house in later texts such as Varāhamihira’s Brhat Samhitā (53.4) indicating that it is an old tradition . The Prāchinavamsa’s share to the perimeter is 24+30+24=78, which is the atmosphere number. This is also in accord with the notion that the Prāchinavamsa is tripled in size in the completion of the Mahāvedi, going from 10×20 to 30×60.
This is the basic temple plan, and it has the overall dimensions 60×30, with a perimeter of 180. The overall temple proportion of 1:2 is attested in later texts such as the Brhat Samhitā and Śilpa Prakāsa. 
In the Mahāvedi, first an area to make the six dhisnya hearths under the Sadas, the shed or the tent, is marked at six purusa from the left (ŚB 126.96.36.199). To further east is Havirdhāna, the cart shed, and still further east, the Uttara-vedi, the great altar, in a square shape. One is enjoined to make the altar with each side the size of the yoke (ŚB 188.8.131.52), which is 86 angulas (120 angulas = 1 purusa), or in a measure of ten feet.
Eggeling explains that there is disagreement regarding the location and size since there is another option “between four other measurements, viz. he may make it either one third of the area of the large altar, or of unlimited size, or of the size of the yoke or of tem of the sacrificer’s feet” (Eggeling, vol II, page 119) .
I believe this ambiguity is deliberate since the location of the Uttara-vedi would depend on its size, which is going to vary from 7½ square purusa to 101½ square purusa. In its basic placement, one would expect the determining factor to be the symmetry with the Sadas of 6 purusa width. This means that the Uttara-vedi will be built 54 purusas from the west, or 6 purusas from the east.
Thus the great square altar at the extreme east end of the Mahāvedi is marked off at a point which is 54 units away from the west end.
As the Agnicayana altars are made progressive larger by one square purusa each year in a 95-year sequence, symmetry requirements imply that the centre of the Uttara-vedi will come closer to the west. Therefore, in advanced constructions, the measure of 54 purusa separating the centre of the Uttara-vedi from the western edge will not hold. A few examples of the shapes of the Uttara-vedi are given in Figure 6.
Three of these represent time as turtle, eagle, and kite; in the Caturascit, the representation is square, in the shape of the Vāstupurusa mandala, and it is easy to see how that could be the prototype for the traditional temple plan. The Vāstupurusa is usually of 64 (or 81) squares in which the outer squares symbolize the 28 (or augmented 32) naksatras. The eight directions of space are presided over by 8 planets and 8 divinities of the naksatras; these squares, therefore, preside over the daily and the annual motions of the sun and the moon.
Within the Vāstupurusa mandala, twelve more assignments are made in the case of the 81-square plan for a total of 45 divinities. Utpala’s commentary on the Brhat Samhita 53.75 speaks of how the building should not face the corners of the square (of the cardinal directions) and how the direction chosen is related to the remainder when the perimeter is divided by 8, indicating the importance given to the perimeter.
-by SUBHASH KAK
(To be continued…)
 M.R. Bhat, 1995. Varāhamihira’s Brhat Samhitā. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
 R. Kaulacāra, 1966. Śilpa Prakāsa. Boner, A. and Rath Sarma, S. (eds.). Leiden: E.J. Brill.
 J. Eggeling (tr.), 1885. The Śatapatha Brāhmana. Clarendon Press. Reprinted Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988.
Research: The Axis and the Perimeter of the Temple
Author: Shri Subhash Kak
(Featured Image for representational purpose only. Source)
Did you find this article useful? We’re a non-profit.Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.