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Sustainable Materials and Construction
Techniques of Ancient India
A.S. Nene *
*Professor of Civil Engineering (Retd), V.N.I.T. Nagpur
Out of 125 heritage structures declared
16 heritage structures are
The secrets of endurance of these heritage
in their construction
materials and construction techniques.
Ancient Indian texts related to Engineering and
technology comprise of Veda, Purana,Upanishada,
Aranyaka, Sutra, Agama and Shilpa Samhitas.
The period of such texts could be between 5000 B.C.
to 1600 A.D.
Out of more than ten thousand texts only one
thousand texts are now available in digital libraries
It is a mis-concepection that these texts
mythological, non-scientific or irrelevant in
modern age. But these texts especially
Shilpasamhitas are directly related to engineering
The aim of this presentation is to introduce three
ancient Indian texts, namely
A- Shilparatna (16th Centaury A.D.)
This text was composed by Shri Kumar , a Sanskrit scholar
from Kerala. The text was subsequently edited and
published in two volumes consisting of 46 and 35 chapters
respectively. Few verses from Chapter 14 of volume 1 and
Chapters 18 & 19 of volume 2 are quoted below.
1.Herbal paints for stone softening: Apply any one
of the herbal paints for softening of stone before
•Mix powder atis root, Hiracus and red ochre in
milk. Apply this paint to the stone and keep it
•Grind Jatamasi,Koshta, Gayaratri, Hirkus and chor
in milk. Add coconut water. Apply the solution to the
•Grind and mix Jatamasi,Rog and Aswamari in rain
water. Apply the solution to the stone.
2a Bricks and Roofing tiles: Mix extracts of barks of trees
(Pipal and Agar) in wet clay . Knead the clay daily for 30 days
and the use this clay for bricks or roofing tiles.
2b Earthen pots: Mix flour of Satu, powder of Amaksh ,Tatwasi
and coconut water to clay in a proportion of 8 parts of clay and 1
part of admixtures.
2c. Glazing of ceramic pots: Prepare a mixture of
Swesha,Guggul and Kunda grass (one sixteenth of
clay) and curd (one eleventh of clay).
mixture to clay pot before baking in a furnace. Or
apply a mixture of Ghee, honey and Herb powder
(Kapittha, Bilwa and Niryas ) to clay pots. This process
imparts glazing to the clay pots.
2d. Coloring of Clay pots: Mix sesame powder and resins of
Kapittha and Beal trees. Add desired coloring agent (Kushta,
Red ochure, orpiment etc). Polish the pot with the mixture to
impart suitable color. Alternatively take equal parts of
Sandlewood, Karpur, Gorochan and Agaru . Add clay 6 parts to
the mixture in linseed oil. Apply this oil paint to earthen pots.
The same paint can be used for painting ivory or horns
3. Lime Mortar: Grind ripe bananas, fibers of cotton and
pulp of cactus and mix in slaked lime to make a good
quality lime mortar. Alternatively add decoction of barks
of trees( Pipal. Amla,Kadamb) and paste of black gram to
the slaked lime.
4a-Sunla: - Curd, milk, black gram paste, gud, ghee, ripe
bananas, coconut and mango pulp are added to slake lime.
Plaster made of these materials is non-shrinking and
4b-Waterproof lime mortar: Mix Ghee, coconut water, black
gram paste , extract of barks(Pipal), milk, curd, decoction of
Trifala, and Pichhit, in proportion of 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10 and 11
parts respectively to 100 parts of slaked lime.
4c: Leveling coat of lime plaster: Mix 3 parts of
slaked lime and 1 part of powder of dry unripe
banana. Add water to make butter like mixture.
Such leveling coat gives marble finish to the wall
Ingredient of Lime plasters: A table 1 below shows
additives for lime plasters.
Table 1- Herbal Ingredient for Lime plasters
Bark of Pakar
Flowers and seeds
of Silk cotton tree
(aegle'p 8 Black gram (Udad )
12 Resin of Sal tree
Juice of 1
Saaf flower oil
15 Half ripe Bananas
B.Brihat Samhita by Varahmihir (509-577 A.D.)
Varahmihir was one of the great astrologer of India and is
famous for his text Brihat Jataka. His another work, Brihat
Samhita comprises of 107 chapters covering various diverse
subjects Rain forecasting based on astrology, precursors of an
earthquake, water divinining ,adamantine glues and binders,
gemology, perfumes, horticulture etc. Few verse from
chapter 54 (Water divining) and chapter 57 (Adamantine
glues-Vajrabandha) are described below.
1.Adamantine Glue: The subject of preparation of
adamantine glue is closely connected with construction of
temples, mansions etc. A bonding agent was very essential
for fixing idols, in wall construction, when cement and
other modern materials were unknown. Even now these
known as Astabandha, are prepared in temple
premises for fixing or re-fixing images of gods. Four such
glues are described below.
First formula: The ingredients are unripe fruits of
Tinduka (Diospyros paniculata) and Kapittaka
(Feronia elephantum), flowers of silk cotton (Morus
Acedosa) seeds of Sallaki (Boswellia serrata), barks
of Dhanavana and Vaca (Orris root).
All these ingredients are boiled 256 parts of water
till the decoction reduces to an eighth of its original
volume (i.e.32 Parts).
The sediments are mixed with substances, such as. Shrivasaka (a
secretion of tree used as incense, Turpentine), Raktabola (myrrh),
anacardium), Kunduruka (cunduru) extraction of Deodar tree resin Atasi
(Linum usikatissimum) and Bilva (Aegle marmelos) fruit.
The resulting paste is termed as adamantine glue. This glue is heated
and then used in construction of temple, mansions, windows, walls and
wells as well as fixing Siva’s emblems and idols of gods. It was expected
to last for a million years.
It is composed of Lac, Kunduru,
Guggulu, soot (lamp-black collected from house), woodapple (Feronia elephanpen), Bilva kernel, fruits of Naga
(Canthium parviflorum), Neem (azadirachta indica),
Tinduka, and Madana (Randia dumetorum), Madhuka
(Cynometra ramiflora), Manjiostha (Rubia Cordifolia)
resin, myrrh and Ambalaka (Emblica officinalis). The
method of preparation is same as mentioned above.
Third formula: This variety of glue known as Vajratala
which is constituted by the horns of cows, buffalo and
goats, hairs of donkey, buffalo hide, cow hide, Neem fruits,
wood-apples and myrrh. This mixture too should be boiled
and reduced as mentioned before. In this glue some
organic substances are also included.
Forth formula: A compound of eight parts lead,
two of Bell metal, and one of iron rust, and is
Table 2- Ingredients
Fruits of Diospyros paniculata
Flowers of silk cotton
Seeds of Boswellia serrata
Barks of walnut tree
Barks of Orris root
A tree resin used as incense
Deodar tree resin
Fruits of Aegle marmelos
2.Tempering or hardening of stone cutting tools
Specially prepared tools such as chisels, crow bars, pick axe etc are necessary
for breaking the stones. Brihat Samhita (Chapter 54,115-117) describes some
methods of tempering of iron tools. The three steps are as below,
•The first part of these methods is to heat the tool in fire till it becomes red
•The second part comprises of applications of paste of certain materials and /
or dipping the red hot tool in a specific solution.
•The third part is sharpening the tools.
The materials used in step two were excreta of pigeon and rat, powder of
horns of a buffalo and milk extract of a Mandar plant. In another method a
solution of butter milk and ash of banana plant was used for cooling the red
hot tool. The tool is kept immersed in the mixture overnight and then
sharpened. Such tool can cut steel also.
Extract of barks of milky trees (Vat,
Pipal, Umber, Beal and cedar trees) is mixed in
water. Mixture is boiled and sealing wax, Jatuling
and Hingul is added to the oil. Such varnish is
applied to wood for polishing and preservation.
4.Breaking of stone blocks: Brihatsamhita (Chapter 54,112115) contains information on procedure for breaking stone
blocks so that it can be used as building stones. The principle
involved in this process is "Heat and cool ". Rock is a bad
conductor of heat. When a preheated rock mass is cooled
quickly the rock breaks, along its cleavage planes due to
unequal expansion and contraction. Following methods are
mentioned. In these methods the procedure for heating rock
mass is same but the mass is cooled by three types of fluids.
2. Cooling: The fire is moved to adjacent area of rock
surface. The preheated surface is cooled down by pouring
certain types of liquids listed below.
•Solution of quick lime in cold water;
•Solution prepared by mixing butter milk with rice paste,
•Solution prepared by boiling Neem leaves and barks.
Addition of fruits of Tinduk and cow's urine to cold
•The heating is continued till the color of wooden logs
becomes bright red or orange. 1. Heating: The stone block
is heated by make a pyre of wooden logs of Palash or
C. Vishnudharmottara Purana
The ancient Indian text Vishnudharmottara Purana is a supplement or an
appendix to the Vishnu-purana. It is generally believed to be a later
insertion into Vishnu Purana. The part three of the Vishnudharmottara
gives an account of the theories, methods, practices and ideals of Indian
The main purpose of colors and paints is to enhance the aesthetics of any
structure. It also improves the durability by protecting from natural
weathering agents and insects etc.
Chitrasutra is that part of the Vishnudharmottara which deals with the art
of painting including preparation of pure and composite colors and
preparation of brushes for painting.
Basic Colors - White, yellow, red, black and blue are five basic
(pure) colors. All other composite colors are made from these
colors. Colors are described with examples i.e. white as snow,
yellow as ripe leaves, red as fire, blue as sky and black as lamp
White color - White color is prepared from lime made of shells
or mother of pearls or from white clay (pottery clay-Kaolin).
White color is prepared by mixing resins of Neem or wood
apple tree with white soil or lime. The mixture is pulverized
and dissolved in hot water.
Yellow color - Yellow color is prepared from pounding yellow wood trees
(Haridra) and yellow soil (from hills or river banks) together. The mixture is
poured in clear water for two hours. The top yellow solution is stored in earth
pot till it dries. The dry powder is used for preparing yellow color.
Red color - Red color is prepared from Sindur (Vermilion), Gaierik (Red ochre),
Hingul (Cinnabar) or Laksharus (Shellac) to get light, medium, dark and very
dark shades respectively. Red ochre is finely pulverized and sieved through a
muslin cloth. The powder is cleaned by mixing with water. Vermillion is mixed in
water and stirred for 12 hours. Manashil is dry pulverized by pounding in mortar
with pestle. All these colors are mixed with resin of Neem.
Black color -Oil lamp is ignited in a mud pot. Inner surface
of another mud pot is smeared with powder of dry cow
dung. This pot is place on the first pot such that lamp black
is coated inside the top pot. The lamp black is cleaned with
water before application.
Blue color - Blue color is prepared by drying a mixture of
blue minerals or indigo and resin of wood apple.
Golden color - Golden color is prepared from gold foil
pulverized with fine sand. The mixture is poured in water
and top suspension is separated and mixed with
adamantine glue. The painted surface is polished with
horn (of an ox or swine)
Brushes (Kunchali) used for painting are of three types,
broad, medium and fine. These three types of brushes are
made from hairs of ears of calf, stomach part of sheep or
tail of squirrel respectively. A set of three brushes are
required for each color.
Composite colors were made by mixing two or more basic
(pure) colors. Table 3 below shows how composite colors
were made in ancient time.
Table 3 – Composite colors
Basic colors to be mixed
White + Red
Gour -light Pink
White + Black +Yellow
White + Black
Bakul flower color
2 parts Red+1 part Yellow
2 parts Yellow +1 part white gray color
2 parts Yellow +1 part black aqua blue color
parrot green color
1. It can be concluded that artisans of ancient India were
well acquainted with the basic principles of engineering
and developed eco-friendly building materials lasting for
2. Many of these techniques may be impracticable or
irrelevant due modern products and processes, but one
must appreciate the ancient Indian wisdom.
3. Scientific laboratory investigations are necessary to study
the secret of endurance of ancient building materials.
•Brihat Samhita of Varah Mihir (6th Centuary) Ed by Pub. by
Motilal Banarasidas. New Delhi.
•Shilparatna of Shri Kumar (16th Centaury AD)). Part 1 Ed. by
T.Ganapati Shashtri, Pub. by Anantshayangranthavali,No. 92,
•Shilparatna of Shri Kumar (16th Centaury AD)). Part 2 Ed. by
K.Sambshivshashtri, Pub. by Anantshayangranthavali, No.
•Vaze,K.V. (1924),“ Prachin Hindi Shilpasar” (Essence of
ancient Indian Engineering Philosophy) ,a Marathi Book,
Pub. ,Varada Publications Pune.
•Vishnu Dharmottar Purana (2000-5000 B.C.), Published by
Khemraj Shrikrishanadas, Mumbai
•Nene, A.S. (2009),” Geotechnical engineering of
ancient India”, Pub. Pune Vidyarthi Gruha, Pune
and Web edition , Pub. Book Ganga.com.
Construction Techniques of Ancient India, Pub.