The Vastu Shastra is not simply a treatise on architecture like Vitruvius’ De Architectura, it is fundamentally a religious text for building temples according to a model of cosmogenesis and spatial emanation – the mandala. In common with many faiths, Hinduism unites geometry and geography with geomancy, a belief in the supernatural properties of topography, best known in the West in its Chinese form, feng shui. Mt. Meru, the mountain home of the Vedic deities, again provides a template; the gods and host of semi-divine guardian spirits rule or patrol different sectors of the sacred mountain; they are then projected across the terrestrial plane, including that of the temple. In Hinduism, the square is the ideal form because it can be subdivided into quadrants which are aedicules or replicas of itself and which can then be further subdivided into smaller aedicules or squares called padas; the four-way symmetry of the resulting grid models a totally ordered terrestrial plain and is symbolic of permanence,  good governance and adherence to dharma, divine writ. Orthogonal plans within concentric squares or enclosures characterize Hindu and Confucian urban plans and temple architecture – from Angkor Thom to the Forbidden City in Beijing to Heian-kyo (Kyoto,) to say nothing of many American cities and vast swathes of Mid-west cornfields.  The asymmetry of the Khmer temple is therefore a significant and deliberate exception, explored in section VIII,“Fearful Asymmetry; the Bakong” of the introduction to this site. 

In Hinduism, there are eight (ashta) lokapalas, dikpalas or dikpalakas, “directional guardians” or “kings” assigned to protect the slopes of Mt. Meru in each of the four cardinal and four intercardinal directions, plus the center and the zenith or vertical dimension, from pollution by lower life forms (demons, humans) who might try to ascend and usurp it. In Buddhism, they protect the sacred, mental space of sadhanas such as meditation and visualization from the samsaric defilements of Mara and his minions' blandishment of desirous thoughts and feelings. They include:


East: Indra, the chief Vedic deity, god of thunderstorms and rain, cf. Zeus; in theTrimurti, Brahma, the creator

North: Kubera, god of prosperity; in the Trimurti, Shiva, the destroyer or transformer 

West: Varuna, god of water; in the Trimurti, Vishnu, the preserver 

South: Yama, god of the 13 narakas or hells and judge of the dead

Northeast: Ishana, an avatar of Shiva; in Hinduism the most auspicious direction; in Mahayana Buddhism, the least

Northwest: Vayu, god of wind

Southeast: Agni, god of fire

Southwest: Nirrti, goddess of absence and death, related to Bhairava and Parvati, female avatars of Shiva

Center: Brahma, the creator*

ZenithBrahman, the Absolute* (This tenth direction, verticality, naturally, differs according to religious tradition: in Hinduism, unconditioned, nirguna, non-manifest, niskala, Brahman, spirit or pure consciousness; in Theravada Buddhism, the not-self, anatta; in Mahayana Buddhism, sunyata, emptiness, non-being, the absence of consciousness; in Vajrayana Buddhism, mahamudra, the "adamantine" lack of any “dependently-originated” illusions, hence invulnerable, "Buddha essence.”)

* Brahma, guardian of the center, as the Creator of the universe and Brahman, guardian of the zenith, as the uncreated, are conventionally not counted among the "guardian kings."] 

In Khmer architecture, the concept of "directional guardians" originally takes the form of pairs of shrines in the cardinal direction and single shrines at the intercadinal directions, for example, at Ak Yom (700-725) or on the fourth terrace of the Bakong (881.) It was still observed in the panchyatana of towers on the second and third terraces and their four axial gopuras at Angkor Wat. The obligatory dvarapalas or door guardians of Khmer prasats or shrines have a related function and dikpalas are often represented on their corners. 


Directions are also gendered in both Hinduism and Buddhism (and, it should go without saying, "sexist.") The east is associated with the “male principal,” purusha, form, idea, potential energy, orthogonal, phallocentric and impregnating as symbolized by the thunderbolt or vajra and the rising sun penetrating the unformed dark of night,  The west is associated with the “female principal,” prakriti, matter, substance, fertility, expended energy, water, the amorphous, including biomorphic, the setting sun, night, the moon, death and dissolution back into undifferentiated, primal chaos. Most temples are therefore oriented facing east, the auspicious direction, so the rising sun can penetrate into the dark recesses of the garbagriha or “womb chamber,” where it can wake the god so his (and rarely her) darshan or penetrating gaze can illuminate the beholder and infuse the new day, giving birth to form and life. The east was also associated with the "non-manifest," which, like Allah in Islam, "wants to know himself," beginning the "arc of descent" into emanation and the solar or clockwise rotation from east to west, where the "manifested" returns by the the "arc of ascent" to the non-manifest where it started. 

In western philosophy this distinction might be compared with the binary between form and substance which caused such mischief in early Christian disputes around the nature of the Trinity. The Councils of Nicene (431) and Chalcedon (451) declared heretical any doctrine which did not adhere to its formulation of the Trinity as  one ousia, being or essence, which self-manifested in three hypostases, substances or “substantiations,” known as prosopa orpersons,” Father, Son and Holy Ghost.