Architecture, death, & divination

Anyone who has grown up with American horror movies will be familiar with the Indian Burial Ground trope. Typically, a family will move in to a house or a hotel, and then eerie, inexplicable things will begin to happen. The plot thickens, until even the parents — who initially refuse to believe in the supernatural — can no longer deny that the place is haunted. Finally, the cause of the haunting is revealed: the building lies on the site of an Ancient Indian Burial Ground.



Roadside marker in New York State. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


In recent years, scholars reflecting on the culture of late 20th-century America have posited that the popularity of this trope was due to the growing awareness of the atrocities committed by American colonists in the New World; the vengeful spirits of horror films reflect the guilt of a nation built upon the deaths of the First Nations people it conquered. Certainly, more recent satires of this trope seem to bring this connection to the fore.

But the fear of building a house atop the resting places of the dead is perhaps much more fundamental and widespread than this relatively recent cultural meme suggests. At the BnF, a small collection of Sanskrit manuals on architecture, or vāstuśāstra, can give us some insight into how medieval architects and their clients reckoned with the shadow of death lingering in the places where they might choose to build.

An architect is not only responsible for the structure of a building, but also the site on which the building is situated: situated with respect to the earth — considering the quality of the soil, access to sunlight, the direction of the wind —, and situated with respect to the stars, the constellations, and the gods. Consequently, vāstuśāstra texts, in their chapters on site selection, always contain instructions on how to assess the suitability of the site by divinatory means.

Divinatory diagrams

In Sanscrit 988, a manuscript of the Viśvakarmaprakāśa, we find an interesting example of this practice, accompanied by a cryptic diagram.


Sanscrit 988 Viśvakarmaprakāśa, folio 61 verso & 62 recto. Courtesy of the BnF.


The Viśvakarmaprakāśa is one of the numerous architectural treatises attributed to Viśvakarman, the creator deity who is said to have been the first teacher of all craftsmen. Each section is often introduced with the formula ataḥ… pravakṣyāmi, “Now, I will explain…”, as if the instructions were the oral teaching of the god himself. The section pictured here is from the chapter dealing with site selection and śalyoddhāra, “the removal of thorns”. A śalya, “thorn,” is anything extraneous to the body that causes pain, such as a splinter. In this case, the site of the new house is the body, and the thorns are buried bones.

In order to find these bones, the architect is instructed to, firstly, divide the site into 9 sections:

tad asthi tatra jānīyāt1 kṣatau kṣaṇe na saṃśayaḥ || navakoṣṭhīkṛte bhūmibhāge prācyādito2 likhet || ca-kṛ-ca-t-e-sa-ha-pa-yān…

(folio 62 recto, lines 6-8)

1. jānīyāt] yānīyā MS. 2. prācyādito] prācyādyaṭito MS.

One should find out [whether] there are bones there; [let there be] immediately no doubt about a possible defect [in the site]. On the ground, divided into nine parts, one should write, starting from the east, [the syllables] “ca kṛ ca t e sa ha pa ya”…

The scribe has helpfully tried to diagram this process in the bottom left corner of the manuscript. Unfortunately, the diagram doesn’t seem to make sense. First of all, there are only eight boxes. The letters on the left and right, ī, , ā (a em.), vā, pa, & nai, probably refer to the (inter)cardinal directions and their presiding deities: īśāna, pūrva, agni — northeast, east, and southeast —, vāyavī, paścimā, nairṛtī — northwest, west, and southwest —, but their placement is erratic.

Sanscrit 988, folio 62 recto, bottom-left corner. Courtesy of the BnF.

To help clarify the situation, we can turn to another manuscript, from Cambridge University Library.


Folio 3, recto, from OR 102 Rājavallabha, University of Cambridge. Courtesy of Cambridge University Library.


This manuscript contains a different architecture text, the Rājavallabha of Sūtradhāramaṇḍana, who is said to have been employed by Rāṇā Kumbha, a 15th century ruler of Mewar. The first chapter of this treatise is devoted to site selection, and here, we find similar instructions, again accompanied by a diagram.

praśnatrayaṃ cāpi gṛhādhipena devasya vṛkṣasya phalasya vāpi | vācyaṃ hi koṣṭhā1kṣarasaṃsthitena śalyaṃ vilokyaṃ bhavaneṣu sṛṣṭyā || bā-kā-cā-ṭā-e-ha-sā-pāś ca varṇāḥ2 prācyādisthe koṣṭḥake3 śalyam uktaṃ ||

(folio 3 recto, lines 5-7)

1. koṣṭhā] koṣṭa MS. 2. varṇāḥ] varṇā MS. 3. koṣṭhake] koṣṭake MS.

And three queries [are to be answered] by the owner of the house, [three each] for a god, a tree, and a fruit. A thorn, indicated based on the syllable [marking] the division [of the ground], will be found when it comes out (sṛṣṭyā) in one of the places [marked]. And the syllables “bā kā cā ṭā e ha sā pā” [are to be written] starting from the east; the thorn mentioned [will be] in the [corresponding] division.

The instructions are not so easy to understand, but fortunately, this time, the accompanying diagram is labelled well. The four sides are labelled with the four cardinal directions: starting from the top and moving clockwise, pūrva, east, dakṣịna, south, paścima, west, and uttara, north. Then, again starting from the top and moving clockwise, the letters are written in sequence: ba ka ca ṭa e ha sa pa. Notably, a ninth syllable, for the middle square, has been left out of the verse, perhaps for metrical reasons, but in the diagram it has been labelled ya. We can find this ninth syllable in another manuscript of the Rājavallabha, from the BnF.


Sanscrit 1009 Rājavallabha, folio 4 recto. Courtesy of the BnF.

Sanscrit 1009 Rājavallabha, folio 4 recto. Courtesy of the BnF.


This version reads:


(folio 4 recto, line 6)

which gives us nine syllables, without any metrical difficulties. Although, naturally, all manuscripts seem to disagree as to exactly which nine syllables, and in what order, are to be used.

So, to sum up, the first step in finding out if the site is haunted is to divide the ground into a three-by-three grid, and then write a certain set of syllables in each square, starting from the east and spiraling inwards to the middle. The diagram from the BnF Viśvakarmaprakāśa manuscript seems to be a mangled version of what we find in the Cambridge manuscript. The top and bottom rows are very close, but the middle row is missing entirely.

On the left, BnF MS Sanscrit 988. On the right, Cambridge MS OR 102.

But once the syllables have been written, how should the architect proceed? According to the Rājavallabha passage above, the architect asks the owner of the house for nine words — 3 words each for a god, a tree, and a fruit. Then, in that order, they should check if the syllable on the ground corresponds to those words — presumably, to the first syllable of the word. If there is a match, bones will be found in that spot. There are dire consequences if those bones are not removed; a thorn in any of the nine squares portends a cruel fate for the occupants of the new house. According to the Viśvakarmaprakāśa, If a bone is found in the east, it speaks of death; in the southeast, punishment; in the south, the death of the master of the house…

Other thorns

The construction of a new house is often associated with new life — moving in with a new partner, making space for children, or simply starting over in a new place. It seems natural, then, that one would wish to avoid death and its signs when building the foundations. These architectural treatises reify the fear of death as buried bones, giving it a shape and heft so that it can be confronted physically. The architect is then able to remove the portent of future death by simply removing the bones.

Unfortunately, all portents of death eventually, inevitably, come true. Moreover, every new house is, inevitably, built atop the remains of past lives; every house is a haunted house. This encounter between death and architecture is reminiscent of the story of Kisāgotamī from the Theravāda Buddhist canon. Kisāgotamī, bearing her dead infant son in her arms, approaches the Buddha for medicine. The Buddha promises medicine, in return for a mustard seed from a house in which there has never been a death. Kisāgotamī eagerly goes to the city, asking at each house, one by one, until, at last, she understands. This is how, for her, the thorn (Pāli salla) is finally cut out.

Suggested citation

Li, Charles. 2021. “Architecture, death, & divination.” Texts Surrounding Texts: Satellite Stanzas, Prefaces and Colophons in South-Indian Manuscripts (Paris BnF and Hamburg Stabi collections). 8 January.

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

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OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Charles Li (January 8, 2021). Architecture, death, & divination. Texts Surrounding Texts. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from

Charles Li

Charles is the resident postdoctoral researcher at the TST project in Paris.

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