Thailand is a place filled with temples and sacred spaces. You can’t take a walk of any length without passing a Wat (or four) on your journey. Many of them are very modern, and only a handful date further back than a few hundred years. Eastern Thailand, on the Khorat Plateau that makes up the geological boundary between Thailand and Cambodia, is the exception. You will find dozens of ancient Khmer and Khmer-influenced temples, rarely visited by tourists and sometimes very hard to get to. Chris and I spent some time exploring the Khorat Plateau and were not disappointed. It is within these temples, like the temples in Cambodia, that I began to realize a common theme in their construction. They were all aligned with the cardinal directions like Chinese cities. Like mandalas.
Chinese architectural norms may have been a big influence on Khmer city planning, but the drive to orient temples and villages according the four directions can be found in many ancient cultures, spanning both the New and the Old World. References to such city planning in literature go back 2500 years in India (hundreds of years before contact with Alexander’s troops), and examples of city-planning in the archaeological record go back another 1,000 years or more in South Asia and China. The Harappan City of Dholavira is a planned city with cardinal direction orientation that was started around 3,000 BC (!) and certainly encodes knowledge and observation that date back even further.
What is this drive to orient their cities according to the cardinal directions? In Buddhist & Hindu Asia, cities were often planned as mandalas, or sacred/esoteric geometric representation of the universe. By creating built mandalas-as-cities, the town mimicked the structure of the heavenly orientations that anyone could observe. In doing so, humans associated themselves more perfectly with the heavens and created a liminal zone, a sacred space where heaven and earth were more closely connected. Ancient temples were liminal zones; ancient tombs were often considered to be liminal zones; and some (but not all) ancient cities were built to be liminal zones. Many cultures went further, even, to encode other astronomical features into some of the buildings in these cities: solar risings/settings, lunar risings and settings, some planetary risings/settings, and certain stars seem to have been the focus, differing substantially in the particulars based upon each civilization’s cultural calendrics and mythology. In effect, architecture was yet another way that humans communicated with the sky and that the sky communicated with humans in return.
The construction of these cities, at first, required people to sit with the land and observe the sky over a period of time, the length of time depending on what astronomical observation was important. The land and the sky essentially indicated to these early builders what needed to be built and how. Cardinal directions were the easiest to ascertain, but the extreme rising/setting cycle of the moon, for example, took 18.6 years to observe correctly. It seems that the earliest planners used the unmitigated observation of phenomena to create the city plan, but soon the builders began to create new systems of measurement, such as geometry, to create alignments without necessitating long observation periods in one place. The Minoans were doing this for tomb construction (creating rudimentary geometry) in 2500 BC; this is what my Master’s Thesis was about. These are the early roots of measurement and geometry; a deeply aligned wish to build in relationship to the heavens, with an eye toward calculating rather than sitting in place and observing.
Eli and his grandparents will be visiting Chiang Mai, which is a gated and walled city, aligned to the four cardinal points. The remains of the moat and walls (and all four gates) still exist. It is highly influenced by the city-planning of Thailand’s powerful neighbor to the north: China.
These towns exist in China today as well; many are well-preserved, especially in the south where the Cultural Revolution did not destroy everything of great antiquity with such efficiency as was employed in the north. Towns like Dali still have a great deal of their sacred alignments and architecture intact, even if the town has expanded so far outside the ancient city walls it is hard to see the “sacred” alignment idea at work. But old maps and good surveys tell the true story. (See image below). Of course, the Forbidden City in Beijing is the most exquisite example of this type of architecture, although many of the buildings have been largely rebuilt. An image above of the Forbidden city should remind you of something…i.e. the image I posted of Angkor Wat yesterday in my blog post about Cambodia.
We don’t think much about alignment these days when we are building homes or other types of buildings, unless we are trying to maximize heating capacity in winter via permaculture principles of green construction. We build solely to fulfill requirements that maximize space and efficiency. (Like astronomical alignments, this concern with efficiency is a story that is being told in our architecture about our culture. Not a great story, in my opinion, but a story nonetheless.) Communicating with the land, the ancestors, the gods, or the Universe is not part of our world-view. Creating a liminal zone on earth, to make space for access to the gods and the natural world is so far out of our mindset that to suggest it as part of a building regime would render the speaker a little bit nuts in most people’s mind. But for the vast majority of human history, this kind of communication and architectural conversation with the natural world was a given. The norm. Understood to be paramount, in fact. Perhaps it might be good to return to the idea that the land has something to tell us, that liminal zones are possible, and that we are always, at each moment, in conversation with nature whether we understand her language or not.