Ancient Symbols in Architecture
by Balwant Saini

Symbols have always been an important part of an architect's design vocabulary. In recent years some architects in India have used ancient symbols such as Vedic mandalas as a basis for planning and design of buildings. Let us examine the significance of symbols in Hindu temple architecture and see how valid they are in a secular society.

Talking about a temple, or any place of worship for that matter, two questions come to mind. First, what is the purpose of a Hindu temple, a Moslem mosque or a Christian church? Second, what is it about a Hindu temple that makes it different from other places of worship? A temple, mosque, church or synagogue is a place for worship; a setting where rituals and ceremonies can be performed. It is a building that combines technology, or building technology to be precise, and religion.

Science or Spirituality

Here we should be clear as to what we mean by 'technology' and by 'religion'. Technology involves science and religion concerns spirituality. But both science and spirituality can be seen as two sides of the same coin. We can use science to objectively see order in the external world, while spirituality can help us to look subjectively for order in our inner world of consciousness. Science helps us to deal with what can be measured; spirituality with what is immeasurable. Both go hand in hand and are necessary to achieve balance between the body and the mind.

A question often asked is: How does technology fit into all this? In what way does it differs from science. Prof P. Krishna, who is the Rector of Rajghat Education Centre, Krishnamurti Foundation, Varanashi, has clearly explained why science should not be confused with technology. 1 According to Krishna, " Technology is simply a by-product of science, resulting often from a human desire for power, control and comfort, just as organised religions and sects with all their rituals and beliefs are the by-product of spirituality. They are not the source of essential truths". In fact spirituality has been defined by Diarmuid O'Murchu and others as the human search for meaning predating formal religion by thousands of years.2

The difference between a Hindu temple and other places of worship is that a Hindu temple is where gods live. Unlike a mosque or a church, it is not about an internal space; it is more like a sculpture to be looked at from the outside. The devotees go into the main structure and make their offerings, but they don't stay there. A Moslem mosque, a Christian church or a Hebrew synagogue, on the other hand is where people congregate and pray together as a group.

Ancient wisdom

The concept of a Hindu temple goes back thousands of years and the building information and the wisdom on which it is based has been orally passed on from generation to generation. As evident in vernacular buildings, much of this ancient knowledge has always been buried at a subconscious level, in the psyche of India's rural communities, as a kind of collective memory. As early as the 3rd and 4th centuries BC, Buddhist missionaries carried this wisdom to the neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka, Tibet, Burma, Thailand and even China and Japan where it provided the basis for the art of Feng Shui. During the Gupta period in the 6th century AD, a period widely known as the golden age of Indian art and architecture, this knowledge was formally documented in a manual called vaastu shastra, meaning the 'science of building'. Although widely used as a source book for all types of construction, it was essentially aimed at buildings for gods and kings. It teaches practitioners how to balance and harmonise the powerful and subtle energies of people, buildings and the universe.

Symbols and the Hindu temple

We can best explain the role of symbols in Hindu temple architecture if we realise that the significance of and key to the way we relate to symbols, lies in our minds. Our thoughts are very powerful. You can see this in the way we use symbols to give meaning to the world around us. We have seen meaning in dreams, in flames of a fire, in patterns of stones or the ripples in a stream. Human cultures have also seen meaning in many geometric shapes often associated with religious and spiritual concepts. The effect of such symbols is usually subconscious. Therefore it can be very powerful and instinctive. It is based on deep memories and in our perception of the spiritual world.

What is Thought?

According to ancient Indian wisdom, our physical body and indeed the entire physical universe is simply the outer manifestation of, or reflection, of consciousness. In other words, each one of us is a creator of the universe. Whatever happens outside is simply the reflection of what already exists inside each of us in patterns of thought, words and emotions. Ancient seers believed that thoughts, emotions and the spoken word are all patterns of energy unified as a field of intelligence or consciousness.

They reasoned that the best way to explain the nature of thoughts is to link them with the primordial sound, since 'sound' is the manifestation of consciousness and the basis of all creation. A word is sound in consciousness. It has two components. It is a sound which is heard and it is also a sound which is remembered. For instance, if we say rose, bicycle or horse, we first hear these three words as sounds and then register the meaning (memory) of the sound.

Sound is energy and memory is information. This means that consciousness is manifested through two components, namely: energy and memory. Memory leads to desire which in turn leads to action. These three, plus experience, add up to one and the same thing, since without action there is no memory, without memory there is no desire and without desire there is no action. All memories are the basis of interpretation and all desires are the basis of choice. Memory and desire jointly activate the mind and generate what is called thought.

Most symbols, especially religious symbols, are considered positive as long as people associated with them believe in them and are in sympathy with their origins and traditions. One can of course make up one's own symbols with positive energies depending upon one's own beliefs and values. The choice is unlimited.

On the other hand, a symbol is considered to have a negative effect, if the intentions are dishonest. For instance, let us assume you have decided to wear around your neck a Christian symbol such as a Cross or a Hindu symbol of Om or a Jewish star. This symbol, according to ancient Indian wisdom, will have a negative effect if you are only wearing it as a piece of decorative jewellery rather than as an object that reflects your faith or belief.

Human body, Buildings and the Universe

So, how do symbols relate to temple architecture. In India, this relationship is very clearly spelt out in vaastu shastra, which explains how the human body relates to buildings and the universe . A building, especially a temple, is seen holistically like the human body, and is considered to be alive and sacred. The various parts of the temple relate to the corresponding parts of the body.

In her two volume definitive study of the Hindu temple, Stella Kramrisch, the curator of Calcutta Museum during the 1920s and 30s, has stated this link in clear terms.3 According to Kramrisch, "the door of this temple is the mouth, the dome is the head. The front pavilion or meeting room the stomach, the surrounding walls signifying the circumambulatory path are the legs, the gopuram the tower over the entrance is the feet, and the main image in the Gharbhagriha or Sanctum Sanctorum concealed in the darkness of the cave is the jiva, the life force or prana in the body. Each component of a building is viewed as a specific limb of god and is, therefore, sacred". The link between the human body, the temple and the universe implies that worship can be outward and visible. But it can also be celebrated inwardly and invisibly.

Traditionally the height of the temple is not important. It is seen in relation to the most important part of the temple, the altar or hearth, which even if walled or fenced, remain open to the sky, as the sun is considered the gateway of liberation. Temple architects or priests often helped this process by making a hole in the spire, with the sky ultimately as the roof.

Tools of Communication

Symbols also formed the key element in a graphic communication to the builders on the site of construction. The ancients used graphic diagrams to explain theoretical concepts of the origin and nature of the universe. They were called the mandalas.

mandala is not a plan, but an abstract design with meaning at multiple levels; it also represents an energy field. Visual arts such as painting use mandalas with three basic elements, namely, a dot, a square and a circle. The dot represents the dead centre of the energy vortex. It is nothing yet it is everything. In Vedic Tantrik language, it is called shunya meaning absolute void, and Bindu , the seed, the source of all energy . Square means the earth while circle denotes the universe.

mandalas show variations of circle and square with a dot, the centre, as constant. You can see these variations in many traditional mandala paintings found in India, Nepal and Tibet.

Vaastu Purusha Mandala

Of all these mandalas, the vaastu purusha mandala is the clearest model of the Universe and provides the basis for architectural design. It's a metaphorical expression of the plan of the Universe and depicts the link between people, buildings and nature. Vaastu means environment, matter or a building. As a concept, it extends to include a village, town, a country or indeed the whole earth in all its manifestations. When a building is in a perfect state or order, it is viewed as a purusha, the 'man' of the universe, representing pure energy, soul or consciousness; a kind of creative intelligence in the universe. Mandala means an astrological chart or a diagram. It relates to orientation because the earth is essentially demarcated by sunrise and sunset, by east and west, north and south.

Vaastu the building, purusha the energy and mandala the diagram, comprise the term vaastu purusha mandala meaning Building-Energy - Diagram. Everything within this mandala has unity and order.

In Indian mythology this diagram signifies the union of vaastu , the site fit for habitation, and purusha , the energy within a building. As the story goes Purusha was a sort of giant spirit created by the gods to help them to overcome the devils. When this spirit became successful, so the story goes, it became quite unmanageable. Eight gods, representing the eight cardinal directions, then intervened and subjugated this spirit so that he would not rise to create disharmony in the world. This is the main reason why, before the start of construction, especially the construction of a temple, priests perform rituals to calm down this spirit, the purusha, and various gods in the square. The chief purpose here is to anchor the energy (or the human body as solidified form of energy) to the earth. This is somewhat different from the Chinese concept of Feng Shui where the energy which flows through buildings is continuously changing and requires frequent adjustments to the building and its components. Perhaps it has something to do with its source in the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence or anicca, as it was called in the ancient language of Pali.

The mandala is oriented with the Sun God occupying an important position towards the east; the God of Winds towards the west; the God of Wealth towards the north; and the God of Death towards the south. The rest of the squares are assigned to minor Gods according to their specific attributes, which in turn are related to various day-to-day activities. It's like a graph; these unit squares give us the means to design a building according to the right proportions. In this way, vaastu purusha mandala shows principles which are the basis of a harmonious building that is sympathetic to the people who use it, and to the environment in which it sits.

To sum up, use of symbols as a basis for planning and design is perfectly valid and must be accepted as an important part of an architect's design vocabulary. However use of ancient symbols such as Vedic mandalas in modern architecture poses some problems. One has to question their validity in a secular society where for many users they may have little or no spiritual significance. The bottom line surely has to be the architect's personal beliefs and genuine commitment to the faith associated with those symbols. If this commitment is absent then using such symbols is no more than clever design ploy, a gimmick which is perhaps better left alone.

Balwant Saini is Emeritus Professor of Architecture in the University of Queensland. This article was first published in Architecture + Design Vol XVII No.4, July-Aug 2000 .New Delhi


1. P. Krishna, (1998). 'We Shall Be Whole' in Resurgence No. 190, Sept/October 1998. UK. pp.19-21.

2. Diarmuid O'Murchu (1998) Reclaiming Spirituality: A New Spiritual Framework for Today's World. Crossroad Pub.Co. O'Murchu who is a Catholic priest, offers penetrating and original insights into the changing spiritual awareness of our time. He believes that there are many indications that we are, once more , evolving spiritually into a non-religious ambience. "As a human being", says O'Murchu, "we are outgrowing our need for formal religion".

3. Stella Kramrisch. (1976) The Hindu Temple. Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi. pp.129-175.

Fig 1:

The effect of symbols is subconscious and therefore can be very powerful based on deep memories and our perception of the spiritual world. Most symbols, especially religious symbols, are positive as long as a person associated with them believes in them and is in sympathy with their origin and traditions.


Fig 2:

The significance and key to the way we relate to symbols lies in our heads or minds.


Fig 3:

Meenakshi Temple, South India


Fig 4:

Each component of a building is viewed as a specific limb of God and is, therefore, considered alive and sacred.

(Sketched by Janakiramana Sthapti during discussions with Australian architect Philip Thompson Feb. 1992)


Fig 5:

Visual arts such as painting found in India, Nepal and Tibet use Mandalas with three basic elements, namely, a dot, a square and a circle. The dot is constant and represents the dead centre of the energy vortex. Square means the earth while circle denotes the Universe.


Fig 6:

Chinese Mandala of the round Heaven and square Earth.

(Tao-tsang 217-24:24b)


Fig 7:

Vastu Purusha Mandala the Vedic Building-Energy-Diagram.


Fig 8:

This Chinese symbol of a circle is most evocative. It signifies emptiness with fullness, visible with invisible and the linear with cyclical manifestations of Change and Movement.

(11th c. Sung period. Tao-tsang 1210-55b)