The decision to introduce vastu shastra as a part of the architecture curriculum at IIT-Kharagpur has polarised architects in the country. Nikita Puri reports.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Some time ago when an industrial plant in Mumbai wanted to look at ways to increase productivity, it called upon Vasanth K Bhat, a Bengaluru-based architect.
On the way to the factory, Bhat asked the manager for the master-plan of the plant.
"Do you have labour problems," Bhat asked him. It did.
"There were constant scuffles between the administration and the workers. The master-plan showed me this was because their entry gate for workers was in the south-east direction," says Bhat.
This was incongruous to the principles of vastu shastra, a set of building and construction guidelines believed to have been prescribed by learned men in ancient India. The south-east direction, believe practitioners of vastu, is the abode of Agni Dev, the fire element. The friction between workers and the administration was caused by placement of the gate in this part of the factory, Bhat insists.
Three months later, when the entrance was changed in line with Bhat's suggestions, things took a turn for the better.
For a whole lot of people, vastu is unscientific and a part of the broader Hindu revival, that also includes yoga and ayurveda.
For an equally vocal group, the construction of one's place of dwelling and work holds the keys to good health and prosperity, and vastu is the key to it.
As India's homegrown "science of architecture", the principles of vastu lay down guidelines of construction so as to balance the energies of nature, such as the placement of water bodies and gardens.
Vastu received official patronage last year when K Chandrasekhar Rao, the chief minister of Telangana, moved into his vastu-compliant bungalow built at a cost of Rs50 crore.
Following a grand "bhoomi pujan", one of the must-dos of vastu, the Bharatiya Janata Party also moved into its new vastu-compliant headquarters on Deen Dayal Marg in Delhi last year.
Now, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Kharagpur believes that one cannot be a "well-rounded architect" unless one knows the basics of vastu.
Come August, and India's oldest IIT will introduce the principles of vastu to first- and second-year students of architecture; research scholars and those pursuing post-graduation will be taught the subject in detail.
The announcement was made recently during a workshop on vastu. At the workshop, Joy Sen, head of the Ranbir and Chitra Gupta School of Infrastructure Design and Management at IIT-Kharagpur, addressed a hall full of entrepreneurs, academicians and others on 'Vastu in Global Perspective.'
According to Sen, there are two "loaded" approaches to the subject.
"The first is a flamboyant Western model where everyone looks down upon everything that is Indian as something backward and superstitious. The second is that of a conservative fanatic approach to misuse the ancient science (vastu) as cosmic jargon."
IIT-Kharagpur, says Sen, is determined to take the third path by weaving together science and heritage; he wants to "re-position the cosmic-solar-and-terrestrial cardinal principles of design and management".
The announcement has clearly polarised architects in the country.
There's nothing religious about vastu at all, says seasoned Kolkata architect Dulal Mukherjee.
"It may have risen from the Vedas, but vastu is a purely functional concept about how to live in particular environments and it should be treated that way."
"Vastu is part cultural, part science, part belief and part religious. The concept has become increasingly distorted over time, and I really don't know how IIT is dealing with such a complicated subject," says Vagish Naganur, from School of Architecture, R V College of Engineering, Bengaluru.
Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, believes the move is "just a promotion of quackery by a section of the population that wants to please the powers that be. It's shameful that an IIT is falling into this trap." The combination of one's personal belief system with science is a very, very dangerous thing, he adds.
In most architecture colleges and design studios, says Shubhrajit Das, a professor of architecture at JadavpurUniversity, students are taught aspects of place and climate. "Many of these ideas, fortunately or unfortunately, coincide with the texts from vastu, but we do it without necessarily naming it that," he says.
Sathya Prakash Varanasi of Bengaluru-based architecture firm Sathya Consultants says there are many such books within the Indian knowledge system.
For instance, the Manushyalaya Chandrika that deals with domestic architecture originated in Kerala in the 16th century, while the Manasara was written in the 6th century and focuses on town planning. Similarly, the Samarankana Sutradhara was written around the 11th century by a king in Madhya Pradesh and talks about sculptural arts as well as temple architecture.
Since different regions have different books, these vastu texts have always been reference books, not the primary study material.
When considering vastu, it's also imperative to consider the cultural practices of the region.
"In the past, entrances used to be in the east just because it was nice to have sunlight in the morning and the kitchen and utility spaces were almost always built towards the back of the house. This was because of socio-cultural reasons, and didn't really have anything to do with vastu," says Varanasi, also the convenor of INTACH in Bengaluru.
In his 10 years of practice, Chandigarh-based architect Amit Malhotra has realised that vastu can be extremely personal.
A south-facing property may be very good for someone, but it may not work at all for another person, he says. Over 95 per cent of Malhotra's clients first consult the architect's astrologer-cum-vastu consultant.
All of the clients who approach Bhat, of Vasthu Architects, ask him to design vastu-compliant houses. And he tells every one of them that no house can be 100 per cent vastu-compliant.
The popularity of vastu is hard to gauge, but it appears in the most subtle of ways. Builders often market their east-facing, vastu-compliant flats at premium rates: these are often the first to go.
Vastu is also tied closely with astrology. Many vastu consultants make astrological charts based on the birth days of the potential inhabitants of the house, and then alone are plans for a house drawn up.
"Having a vastu-compliant house definitely makes people happy," says Malhotra.
A lot equally revered and hated, astrologers would often double as vastu consultants in the absence of a system offering formal education on the subject. From Jaipur to the by-lines of Delhi or Mumbai, sign boards offering palm-reading and vastu advice are not hard to spot.
Architects would either hire these astrologers or learn the basic tenants themselves.
Among formal centres, the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan offers courses in vastu across its centres, as does the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Vedic University in Madhya Pradesh.
With vastu consultants also taking up Feng Shui, the Chinese counterpart of vastu shastra, short-term courses have also become popular. Many of these can be found online.
In one of his blogs, Isha Foundation's Jaggi Vasudev, or Sadhguru as he's fondly called, recalls the time he was a guest at someone's house.
At some point in the night, Vasudev went looking for his hosts to ask them about their landline phone, but he couldn't find them anywhere. Turns out both the husband and wife had started to sleep in the bathroom after a vastu consultant told them the losses they had suffered were because their bedroom was in a position of "bad luck".
"At least sleep with some dignity in your bedroom and die, instead of sleeping in the bathroom and living for a long time," Vasudev then told his hosts.
Fear of the unknown is so potent that one tries to find solace in conformity with ancient texts.
Ashwin of Ashwin Architects recalls the case of a client who spent over ₹4 lakh just because the slope of the house was raised towards the east: vastu dictates the south-west corner should be the highest.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, as the story goes, a Delhi five-star hotel was taking unusually long to complete: the lobby alone took seven years. A vastu consultant blamed it on one of the open pits on the property, saying it was pulling in "positive energy."
The pit was soon closed, and the construction of the hotel finished the following year.