General Introduction to Shilpa Vyavastha

It was the year 1982, that we were visiting Belur and Halebidu – the ancient temple sites of Belur Chennakeshava a Vaishnavaite temple and Halebidu Hoysaleshwara a Shaivite temple. I was marvelling at the architecture and the carvings. We didn’t have ‘Smartphones’ in those days and a camera was a little unaffordable for a person like me coming from a Middle-Class family.

For me, more than the actual temple and Garba Griha, the carvings on the outside walls were very attractive. I might have spent just about 3 – 4 minutes inside the temple, but I spent 3 – 4 hours outside marvelling at the carvings and the architecture. I was constantly wondering how those people created this kind of a marvel out of stone in those days without electricity, petrol, earth-movers etc. The construction of the Halabidu temple started in 1121 CE and the Belur temple construction was started in 1117 CE. These temples were almost built on a parallel timeline by the same Hoysala dynasty. This visit had inspired me and I later on made many more visits, enquired about and made notes about Bharathiya Shilpa especially temple construction.

As mentioned earlier, Bharathiya Shilpa was not a single topic or skill. It was distilled from the knowledge covered by a collection of several books on several different subjects and disciplines – much more than just Civil Engineering and Architecture. The body of knowledge under Shilpa Vyavastha is derived from various Shilpa Shastras written by numerous Rishis and Shilpis over thousands of years. These include books which cover a variety of subjects under Arts & Crafts, in addition to the subjects of Civil Engineering, Architecture and Structural Engineering.

Shilpa Shastras consist of two sections – the first is “Vaastu” pertaining to Civil Engineering, Architecture and Structural Engineering, which was handled usually by 5 to 6 Vishwakarma Jaathis who were also called Vasthukars and the second was “Shilpa” which contains the allied arts which are complementary to the Vasthukars and these communities were called Shilpakars who are mostly the Karigar community (Artisans).

  • Vaastu Shastra included Vaastu for residences, temples, forts, palaces, village planning, town planning, port cities and ports planning, roads and travel infrastructure, watershed projects like wells, canals, step wells, lakes etc…. Vaastu for grazing fields, forests, observatories and much more.

There are about 250 Shastras (Palm Leaf Manuscripts) in Sanskrit language only, which have been preserved in various parts of the country. Other than these, there are hundreds of manuscripts in local languages. If one were to account for all these there may be more than a thousand palm leaf manuscripts. They deal with either one or many of the above topics. Some of them like Manasara or Manasollasa which are in Sanskrit are a few hundreds of years old. Some of them have chapters on metallurgy, alloy making and metal casting and there are subjects like Choona/Gare and Ashtabandha Kala – which will be discussed later. One of the books, written by the great Rishi Agatsya, covers boat and ship building in detail. 

  • The ‘Shilpa’ part covered many Arts & Crafts like Black Smithy, Gold Smithy, Metallurgy, Metal Casting, Sculpting, Carpentry, Pottery, Terracotta, Bamboo Craft, Wood Craft, Ship and Boat Building, Vessel Making, Weaving, Dye Making & Dyeing, Paper Making and Printing. These arts and crafts were complementary to the Vasthukars and these Artisans were called Shilpakars.

These two – the Vasthukars and the Shiplakars can be compared to the modern-day Civil Engineers, Architects and the Interior Designers, furnishers. Though the jobs of these people had specific tasks attached, they would also know the whole picture. Hence, whatever these people created would blend with the bigger picture and wouldn’t stand out and seem out of place.

It is difficult to list all the scripture, but I have tried to list a cross section of them that I have heard of. Below are some of the texts on Bharathiya Shilpa which I have heard about.

  1. Mayashastra by Maya This Shaastra includes Image printing, wall decorations etc. along with architecture of houses and temples. This treatise is available both in Tamizh (Tamil) as well as Sanskrit. This Shaastra has many of the projects described with measurements and ratios. 
  2. Bimbamana includes making of dyes, paints and painting. This treatise includes cultivating, harvesting and production of all plant-based paints. Also, there are mentions of other natural dyes on how to produce them and use them. 
  3. Shukra Neethi includes making of Pratima (sculpture), Murti (Idols), Vigraha (Icons) – how to design and make these. This treatise includes iconography and symbolism of most of the Gods and Goddesses. It includes chapters introducing wood, stone and metal crafting and also alloy making and metal casting. 
  4. Vishnu Dharmottara Purana covers literature, music, theatre, dance, painting, sculpture, iconography, architecture. Like the encyclopaedic nature of any Purana, the Vishnu Dharmaottara Purana too contains apart from the main storyline many topics which have been documented properly.
  5. Ashta Agamas Shaastras (8 Agama Shaastras) have chapters on Shilpa Shaastra each according to the Icons. Shaiva Agama has Shilpa Shaastra according to the Icon/Idol of Shiva including the worship, temple civil engineering, architecture etc. Vaikhanasa Agama has Shilpa Shaastra according to the Icon/Idol of Vishnu including the worship, temple civil engineering, architecture etc. Ganapathya Agama according to the Icon/Idol of Ganapathi including the worship, temple civil engineering, architecture etc. Pancharatra Agama according to the Icon/Idol of Vishnu including the worship, temple civil engineering, architecture etc. Shakthaiya Agama according to the Icon/Idol of Devi including the worship, temple civil engineering, architecture etc. Shourya Agama according to the Icon/Idol of Surya including the worship, temple civil engineering, architecture etc. Koumara Agama according to the Icon/Idol of Muruga/Karthikeya including the worship, temple civil engineering, architecture etc. The eighth one is Veerashaiva Agama again according to the Icon/Idol of Shiva including the worship, temple civil engineering, architecture etc., but the Paddhathis are different.

To be continued…

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