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City planning in ancient India

Town planning is a very old art in India, and was originally part of the Vasthu-vidya, the sacred codex of the architects.

The building of a town or city began with the exact determination of the cardinal points of the compass, and the streets were laid out to conform to these. The width varied according to their importance, from two to twenty-four cubits. All the main features of the city were prescribed in the ancient shastras, or laws, according to well-regulated principles. Its walls were of a height twice their thickness. Towers, fortifications, ditches and moats for defence, even the architectural structure of the sewers, all with their dimensions, were delineated. By-laws detailed the construction of the houses. Their doors, like the twelve gates of the city, conformed in their location and their dimensions to the Vasthu shastras. Various parts of the city were designated for people of different occupations and castes. The royal palaces also were built on a definite plan mentioned in the Artha shastra.

The excavated towns of Harrappa and Mohenjodaro are brilliant examples of the ancient art of town planning in India.

Every city was sanctified by the presence, in the centre, of a temple dedicated to one of the great gods or goddesses. These temples themselves were conceived as an inner town for the deity and were regulated with equal thoroughness. There were as many as seven walls around the inner sanctuary, and the various courtyards were filled with temples of the minor deities, the position of each one specifically determined according to established protocol.

According to Brahmanic conception the temple is not merely a place of devotion but is in itself an object of worship like the image of the deity or the invisible spirit. Hence the temple and the town are the visible form of the formless and each part is named from its counterpart in the human body.

Kasyapa describes how builders should choose a site for a town or a temple:
“A region of pools full of sweet and clear water, near the seashore, beside a river, or on a hill with a spring; a place thronged with birds, where woods and pleasure gardens are numerous, where trees always blossom, where swans and carandava birds abound and where peacocks dance – there the gods live in constant delight.”