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Vedi is the term for "yajnika altar" in the Vedas. Such altars were an elevated enclosure, generally strewed with Kusha grass, and having receptacles for the yajnika fire; it was of various shapes, but usually narrow in the middle.
- mahavedi, the great or entire altar
- uttaravedi, the northern altar made for the sacred fire (agnyayatana)
- dhishnya, a sort of subordinate or side-altar, generally a heap of earth covered with sand on which the fire is placed
- drona, an altar shaped like a trough (Shulbas. 3.216)
- adhvaradhishnya, a second altar at the Soma yajna
Vedic altars are described in the circum-Vedic texts dealing with Kalpa (the proper performance of yajna), notably the Satapatha Brahmana, and the Sulbasutras say that the Rigveda corresponds to an altar of mantras.
Fire altars are already mentioned in the Rigveda. According to Taittiriya Samhita 5.2.3., they are made of twenty-one bricks.
In ŚBM 10.4.3.14-20, the altar is made of 396 (360 + 36) yajusmati (special) bricks, and of 10,800 lokamprna (ordinary) bricks. 10,701 lokamprna bricks belong to the ahavaniya altar, 78 to the dhisnya hearths and 21 to the garhapatya. Around the altar are 360 parisrita stones (261 around ahavaniya, 78 around dhisnya, 21 around garhapatya).
ŚBM 10.3.1. describes that the altar is symbolically built with gayatri (24 syllables), usnih (breath, 28 syllables), pankti (mind, 40 syllables), tristubh (ear, 44 syllables), jagati (48 syllables) and generative breath. The gayatri altar's height is to the knees, the tristubh's to the navel and the jagati's to a man's height.
|Layer||Number of yajusmati bricks in SB|
In the Agnicayana ritual, the mahavedi (great altar) has a length of 24 prakrama in the east, 30 in the west and 36 in the north and south. Inside the mahavedi, an altar is placed. In the smaller ritual space to the west of the mahavedi (pracinavamsa, pragvamsa), three altars are placed: the garhapatya (earth, W), ahavaniya (sky, E) and daksinagni (or anvaharyapacana, SW). The round garhapatya and the square ahavaniya have the same area. The Squaring the circle problem was also investigated because of such ritualistic considerations. The ahavaniya altar has five layers (citi), representing earth, space and the sky.
At Kalibangan (at the Ghaggar river) the remains of what some writers claim to be fire altars have been unearthed. S.R. Rao found similar "fire altars" in Lothal which he thinks could have served no other purpose than a ritualistic one.
- Subhash Kak. Birth and Early Development of Indian Astronomy. In Astronomy across cultures: The History of Non-Western Astronomy, Helaine Selin (ed), Kluwer, 2000
- Subhash Kak, The Astronomical Code of the Rigveda, Delhi, Munshiram Manoharlal, 2000, ISBN 81-215-0986-6.
- Sen, S.N., and A.K. Bag. 1983. The Sulbasutras. New Delhi: Indian National Science Academy.
Ritual, Geometry and Astronomy
We have mentioned that the altars used in the ritual were based on astronomical numbers related to the reconciliation of the lunar and solar years. The �fire altars symbolized the universe and there were three types of altars representing the earth, the space and the sky. The altar for the earth was drawn as circular whereas the sky (or heaven) altar was drawn as square. The geometric problems of circulature of a square and that of squaring a circle are a result of equating the earth and the sky altars. As we know these problems are among the earliest considered in ancient geometry.
The �fire altars were surrounded by 360 enclosing stones, of these 21 were around the earth altar, 78 around the space altar and 261 around the sky altar. In other words, the earth, the space, and the sky are symbolically assigned the numbers 21, 78, and 261. Considering the earth/cosmos dichotomy, the two numbers are 21 and 339 since cosmos includes the space and the sky.
The main altar was built in fi�ve layers. The basic square shape was modifi�ed to several forms, such as falcon and turtle (Figure 2). These altars were built in �five layers, of a thousand bricks of specifi�ed shapes. The construction of these altars required the solution to several geometric and algebraic problems.
Two different kinds of bricks were used: the special and the ordinary. The total number of the special bricks used was 396, explained as 360 days of the year and the additional 36 days of the intercalary month. By layers (25), the fi�rst has 98, the second has 41, the third has 71, the fourth has 47 and the fi�fth has 138. The sum of the bricks in the fourth and the �fth layers equals 186 tithis of the half-year. The number of bricks in the third and the fourth layers equals the integer nearest to one third the number of days in the lunar year, and the number of bricks in the third layer equals the integer nearest to one fi�fth of the number of days in the lunar year, and so on.
The number of ordinary bricks equals 10,800 which equals the number of muhurtas in a year (1 day = 30 muhurtas), or equivalently the number of days in 30 years. Of these 21 go into the garhapatya, 78 into the eight dhishnya hearths, and the rest go into the ahavaniya altar.
Area of the Vedi and the concept of a year
The main altar was an area of 7 1/2 units. This area was taken to be equivalent to the nominal year of 360 days. Now, each subsequent year, the shape was to be reproduced with the area increased by one unit.
The ancient Indians spoke of two kinds of day counts: the solar day, and tithi, whose mean value is the lunar year divided into 360 parts. They also considered three different years:
- Nakshatra, or a year of 324 days (sometimes 324 tithis) obtained by considering 12 months of 27 days each, where this 27 is the ideal number of days in a lunar month;
- Lunar, which is a fraction more than 354 days (360 tithis); and
- Solar, which is in excess of 365 days (between 371 and 372 tithis).
A well-known altar ritual says that altars should be constructed in a sequence of 95, with progressively increasing areas. The increase in the area, by one unit yearly, in building progressively larger �fire altars is 48 tithis which is about equal to the intercalation required to make the nakshatra year in tithis equal to the solar year in tithis. But there is a residual excess which in 95 years adds up to 89 tithis; it appears that after this period such a correction was made. The 95 year cycle corresponds to the tropical year being equal to 365.24675 days. The cycles needed to harmonize various motions led to the concept of increasing periods and world ages.
- BSS 7, ASS 14.
- With 24+30+36=90.
- (one square vyama/purusa) SB 7. TS 5.
- Kak (2000)
- B.B. Lal. Frontiers of the Indus Civilization.1984:57-58
- S.R. Rao. The Aryans in Indus Civilization.1993:175
- Subhash Kak (2000), Astonomy and its Role in Vedic Culture, Chapter 23 in Science and Civilization in India, Vol.1, The Dawn of Indian Civilization, Part 1, edited by G. P. Pande, Delhi: ICPR/Munshiram Manoharlal, pp. 507-524.