Patrick Geddes was a town-planner, sociologist, geographer, biographer and philanthropist.
Snapshot
  • Indian temple-city planning contains in it principles worth learning from.

    They considered not just the economic and political dimensions of humanity but its biological, psychological, ecological and spiritual dimensions.

    Geddes the marvelous town planner used the insights he got from south Indian temple towns planning in designing many global cities including Tel Aviv.

Fritjof Capra is known widely in India for his bestseller Tao of Physics which explored the parallels between science and mysticism. He developed an interconnected systems worldview that embraced the biological, psychological and social sciences, which, in turn, was based on the view of reality unveiled by new physics. In his quest, one of the historical personalities he discovered was Leonardo Da Vinci. In discussing how the renaissance painter and inventor approached science in a way different from Newton and Galileo, Capra points to the pervasive systems view which is embedded in almost all works of science by Leonardo.

Particularly of interest are the city planning ideas given by Leonardo. Though a military engineer Da Vinci never associated himself with any offensive operations but gave ideas on city planning for defense purposes. One of his pioneering contributions was his special focus on the organic view of buildings and their ‘metabolism’. The town planning which Leonardo proposed was far ahead of his time. Capra writes:

(Leonardo) suggested dividing the population into ten townships along the river, each with approximately thirty thousand inhabitants. In this way, he wrote, “you will disperse such great agglomeration of people, packed like a herd of goats, on each other’s backs, who fill every corner with their stench and sow the seeds of pestilence and death.”
Capra

Leonardo’s concept of town planning with its emphasis on the biological and human-ecological dimensions was not taken up by mainstream Europe. Interestingly, the person who envisioned such a town planning would come four centuries after and would be way ahead of his times.

And his inspiration would come from a much ancient part and from an entirely different culture.

Geddes - a heir to Leonardo?

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In her book The Web of Indian Life Sister Nivedita (Margaret E Nobles) thanks one Prof Patrick Geddes. Geddes (1854-1932) was a Scottish polymath, biologist, town planner, geographer and humanist all rolled into one. During his first visit to the United States he had met Sister Nivedita and subsequently during his second visit he met Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda, Nivedita and Geddes again met at a Paris exhibition. Again introduced by Sister Nivedita, he also met physicist-turned-physiologist J C Bose in this exhibition. Later Geddes would become the authoritative biographer of Bose. He visited India and took upon himself an extensive tour of Indian temple-cities, particularly South Indian temple-cities, whose planning fascinated him. Beyond mere fascination he was able to look into the systems science that went into the creation of these cities.

Systems view of Indian Temple Towns

Geddes marvelled at the wonder of Madurai with the temple at its heart. What Geddes witnessed was an already disintegrating scenario of the original construction. Yet it fascinated him no end:

What unexpected, what astounding of architecture! What a stupendous magnitude, intricacy, exuberance, variety of designs and of execution!....two cathedrals would go inside its (Madura’s) walls and far more....its extraordinary cloisters surpassing in magnitude and in richness of effect, in wonder of lighting all else in the world...the essential temple itself in dim and deeply shadow into which one can only peer -...Imagine again outside all this, yet led into by these cloisters, the Hall of a Thousand Columns (really 960 or so many actually survive!) with its changing perspectives, its curiously varied similarity, its crowded intricacy....Outside all these, the magnificent Tank - a great bathing reservoir with beautifully stepped walls and cloister walk again, painted with mythological splendour - the old fading out in quietest yet living tones, the new coming on, in fanfaronade of vermilion, blue and gold! Then garden-courts, old and neglected, and with minor temples falling into decay, but now and then the faint lamp and fading marigold flower of some last loyalty, Yet from such courts, what wonderful views! The plan, I should have said at the outset, is one of indefinite growth, yet with regularity, which solves the problem of such planning and this for temples and cities alike, in a way and to a degree both undreamed by other styles of architecture - and with a simplicity and unity, yet a variability and freedom as well, which put to shame all else in the world!  
Geddes

What Geddes saw should have been the pale ghost of the past. The city had already come under the British who were destroying the original planned town. Significantly Paripadal – belonging to ancient Tamil literature describes an organic view of the ancient Madurai:

The city resembles the lotus that blooms out of the navel of Vishnu

The streets of the city resemble the arrangement of petals in the lotus

The palace (or temple) is the receptacle of this lotus shaped city and

The people of the city form the very pollen

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If the lines were true then the city was modelled not on any lotus but the primordial lotus, symbolic of the material universe organically originating from the pure consciousness – Vishnu. Drawing a parallel between the basic organic design uniting the city and the people with that of the flower and the pollen city as pollen grains that may not be a poetic hyperbole, is borne by Patrick Geddes’s statement almost 1500 years later.

Between 1914 and 1925 Geddes worked both in India and Palestine where Jews through their extraordinarily strenuous efforts were building back their ancestral holy land. In India the colonial government was not very enthusiastic to implement Geddes ideas. They saw little worth in the civilisational wisdom of Indic city planning. Unrelenting Geddes batted lonely for an Indic development of cities. According to him it was “far wiser with its use of narrow lanes, opening into pleasant squares, each containing a shade-bearing tree. The narrowness of the lanes makes for shade and quietness, and leaves building sites large enough to enclose courtyards and gardens.

Tel Aviv and Kanchi

He marvelled at Kanchipuram – the ancient capital of the Pallava Empire and exclaimed:

Kalyana varadharaja perumal temple, Kanchipuram/Getty Images Kalyana varadharaja perumal temple, Kanchipuram/Getty Images

Here is not simply a city made monumental by great temples and rich and varied innumerable minor ones; what rejoices one is to find the realisation of an exceptionally well grouped and comprehensive town plan and this upon a scale of spacious dignity combined with individual and artistic freedom to which I cannot name any equally surviving parallel whether in India or elsewhere.
Geddes

He was particularly impressed by the drainage system and the sewage management linking them as nutrient inputs to local gardens. His sketch of Kanchipuram is considered as one of “the best illustrations of the importance of the metaphysical city center.” His planned extension of the Kanchipuram in the north for the ever growing population is an important one. Geddes realized that Kanchi was made up of small communities, almost fractal cities in themselves, each centering a temple which in turn provided a sacred geography. Later he would use the same insight he got from Kanchipuram into his designing of Tel Aviv. Only in Tel Aviv the houses of the spirit were replaced by secular gardens.

Geddes also visited Srirangam where he was able to decipher the basic archetypal philosophical basis underlying the constructions centering the temple as well as the paddy fields, “life at its simplest runs parallel to life at its highest.”

The strong persistent plea which Geddes made also had an impact on the Indian intelligentsia. To preserve the fast disappearing science of Indic architecture one Mr A. V. Ramachandra Ayyar, took an initiative. He worked to organize an All-India Sthapathya Vedic conference to study the problems of Indian architecture and town planning. The conference materialized in 1918 and then precious little happened. Geddes wanted to integrate with the Indian nationalist movement his vision of reviving and updating traditional Indian architecture and town planning with modernity. But he found himself out of sync with the dominant Congress leaders. For example, as Helen Meller biographer of Geddes points out, in Allahabad, the Nehru family and their relatives and cousins were all building themselves new bungalows outside the old town. Only Gandhi was somewhat receptive to ideas of Geddes.

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Sacred Festivals for Secular Town Planning

Geddes saw the way the spiritual and cultural events in India were linked to town planning and administration. Particularly interesting are his insights into the car festival from the perspective of city planning and administration. Geddes knew that the car festival of Hindus was considered “unfavourably” by the “Protestant Britain and perhaps America as well” with “gruesome stories”.

But he pointed out that he “cannot but defend this ceremonial of car as a civic institution, and a festival essentially beneficent.” He saw it as the best way to keep the broad streets free of encroachment and maintaining them in the pre-motor age. The car festival was to Geddes “a superior way” of carrying public opinion against encroachments than “perpetually serving magistrate’s notices.” Geddes wrote that for a city improvement nothing could be more helpful than the re-establishment of car-routes by a conjunction of Temple authorities and municipal planning offices. In a passage that would send horrible shivers down the spine of today’s Nehruvian breed of secularists, he stated the car should be used to inaugurate the streets and the street should be made worthy of the car.

At Indore, where he was able to put some of his ideas to work, he made the Deepavali victory procession of Ram into a fight against filth and pollution by burning along with Ravana, a huge effigy of the Rat symbolizing the dirt causing Plague. He also took the opportunity to honour the usually marginalized and despised sanitary workers.

A Lineage

Later Radhakamal Mukherjee, a pioneer of human ecology, continued the tradition of Geddes. Prof Mukherjee pointed out the wisdom of Indic town planning which was pragmatically permeated by the sense of the sacred as every Indian house “has an orchard, which receives the sewage of the house that is the main stay of a profitable vegetable garden” and every street being “lined with shady trees and its width guaranteed by the periodical car procession.” The temple defined the sacred geography of the village:

Every village has its central park, tank and temple. The tanks are sacred, the trees are sacred, and the temple; it is covered by dense rich foliage, which perhaps gives the name and sacred distinction to the village. It is from the temple that there radiates the impulse which uplifts every house so that each may become itself the temple of God.
Geddes

Geddes himself was influenced in his town planning not only by the science of ancient Indian town planning but also by the work of Bose in plant communication. According to anthropologist Naveeda Khan, Geddes in his work on Indore town development should have “incorporated the plant point of view, or the perception of the plant as a sentient and communicating presence, to effect town planning towards evolution.”

Democratizing the Sacred Space

Though well aware of the grandeur and civilizational intelligence embedded in the traditional town planning of Indian temple-cities, Geddes was also for democratizing the spaces in harmony with ancient design. Thus in the context of Srirangam he observed that the old city should consciously enter a new phase of development which should be “in continuity and in keeping with the plan of its admirable historic development.” Thus he envisioned the temple-towers to become the seats of learning of ancient languages - Tamil, Sanskrit and Pali and also physical and social sciences. At the same time the harmonious development should “also let the poor, the humble castes and even the casteless be provided for well.” He considered that the development of cities in harmony with their original historic plans would halt “the worst of all India’s modern plagues - that of slumdom.”

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As India moves towards building futuristic cities it becomes important that we remember the works of Patrick Geddes on ancient Indian town planning and their relevance to today’s human socio-cultural ecology. The Indian temple-city planning contains in it principles that can be used in building sustainable futuristic cities which take into consideration not just the economic and political dimensions of humanity but its biological, psychological, ecological and spiritual dimensions.

Resources:

  • Volker M. Welter, Biopolis Patrick Geddes and the City of Life, MIT Press, 2002
  • Helen Meller, Patrick Geddes Social Evolutionist and City Planner, Routledge, 2003
  • Fritjof Capra, The Science of Leonardo, Doubleday, 2007

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