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Aggala, avāpuraṇa, and other matters related to doors in the EBTs

I am glad to be able to present yet another exciting article on details from the monastic Vinaya. Perhaps you think I have achieved the impossible. Just joking, actually. I am not allowed to claim supernormal powers in public. Anyway, here we go.

The word aggaḷa is often ambiguous. Almost a year ago Bhante Sujāto asked on this very forum what exactly it refers to, and I promised to investigate it as part of my Vinaya translation. Only now have I reached a point where I feel confident of the answer.

Aggaḷa is often said to mean a “bolt,” and this is how Ven. Bodhi’s translates it in The Numerical Discourses. Yet on inspection it is far from clear that this is always the correct rendering. In a number of places, the Vinaya has a list of door appurtenances. This list includes a fairly detailed description of things that pertain to doors – a door (kavāṭa), a lintel (piṭṭha) and door posts (saṅghāṭa), a lower hinge (udukkhalika), an upper hinge (uttarapāsaka), a bolt post (aggaḷavaṭṭi), a bolt eye (kapisīsaka), a bolt (sūcika), a lockable bolt (ghaṭika), a keyhole (tāḷacchidda), a door-pulling hole (āviñchanacchidda), and a door-pulling rope (āviñchanarajju) – but aggaḷa is conspicuous by its absence. This makes it unlikely, to my mind, that aggaḷa should simply be equated with “bolt” or any other basic part of a door.

On the above list of door parts, there are in fact two words that mean precisely bolt: sūcika and ghaṭika. That this is their meaning emerges quite clearly from the following passages:

(1) Bhu-sg.2: Avāpuraṇaṃ ādāya ghaṭikaṃ ugghāṭetvā kavāṭaṃ paṇāmetvā vihāraṃ pāvisi.
“Having taken the latch-key, having unlocked the ghaṭika, having opened the door, he entered the dwelling.”

(2) AN 8.20: Atha kho āyasmā mahāmoggallāno taṃ puggalaṃ bāhāyaṃ gahetvā bahidvārakoṭṭhakā nikkhāmetvā sūcighaṭikaṃ datvā yena bhagavā tenupasaṅkami.
“Then Venerable Mahāmoggallāna grabbed that man (a corrupt monk) by both arms, took him outside the gate-room, applied the sūci and the ghaṭika, and approached the Master.”

The commentary explains the latter as follows: Sūcighaṭikaṃ datvāti aggaḷasūciñca uparighaṭikañca ādahitvā, suṭṭhutaraṃ kavāṭaṃ thaketvāti attho, “The meaning of ‘having applied the sūci and ghaṭika’ is: having fixed the aggaḷa-sūci and the upper ghaṭika, the door is more properly closed.”

(3) SN 41.4: Atha kho āyasmā mahako vihāraṃ pavisitvā sūcighaṭikaṃ datvā tathārūpaṃ iddhābhisaṅkhāraṃ abhisaṅkhari yathā tālacchiggaḷena ca aggaḷantarikāya ca acci nikkhamitvā tiṇāni jhāpesi, uttarāsaṅgaṃ na jhāpesi.
“Then Venerable Mahaka entered the dwelling, applied the sūci and the ghaṭika, and performed such a feat of supernormal power that a spark exited through the key-hole and the chink of the door, and burned the grass (outside) without burning the upper robe (on which the grass had been placed).”

But if aggaḷa may not mean “bolt,” at least in some contexts, we need to consider alternatives. The other established meaning of aggaḷa is “door.” Could it be that this is the most relevant meaning in the context of the EBTs? Let’s have a look at a few contexts.

(1) MN 119: Seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, puriso lahukaṃ suttaguḷaṃ sabbasāramaye aggaḷaphalake pakkhipeyya.
“Monks, imagine a light ball of thread placed on an aggaḷa-plank made entirely of heartwood.”

Here it is hard to imagine that aggaḷa could have anything to do with a bolt. That it should refer to a door, however, makes good sense, and aggaḷaphalake would then mean something like a “door-panel.”

(2) At bhikkhu-pācittiya 19 aggaḷaṭṭhapanāya is glossed as dvāraṭṭhapanāya. Dvāra unambiguously means “gate” or “door”, and so that must be the meaning of aggaḷa too, at least in this context.

(3) Then we have the fairly common expression aggaḷaṃ ākoteti. It is found, for instance, at DN3:

Āḷindaṃ pavisitvā ukkāsitvā aggaḷaṃ ākoṭesi. Vivari bhagavā dvāraṃ.
“Having entered the porch, having coughed, he knocked the aggaḷa. The Master opened the door.”

To translate this as “knocking (on) the door-bolt,” as is sometimes done, seems strange. That it should mean “knocking on the door/door-panel”, however, is quite straightforward. (Note that it cannot mean “knocking with the door-bolt”, since this would require the instrumental case.)

The commentaries, in glossing aggaḷaṃ ākoṭesi, support the latter meaning: (i) DA.I.260: aggaḷanti dvārakavāṭaṃ, “the aggaḷa is the door in the doorway;” (ii) MA.I.273: aggaḷaṃ ākoṭesīti agganakhena kavāṭe saññaṃ adāsi, “knocking the aggaḷa means apply a sign on the door with the tip of the nails;” and (iii) AA.IX.4: aggaḷaṃ ākoṭesīti agganakhena dvārakavāṭaṃ ākoṭesi, “knocking the aggaḷa means knocking (on) the door-panel with the tip of the nails.”

(4) At MN21 we have the compound aggaḷasūci, translated by Ñāṇamoli as “rolling-pin,” which is certainly inventive, but hardly bears any relation to what the word could actually mean. We have already established that sūci, when used in conjunction with doors, means bolt. That we should here have two words in the same compound both meaning “bolt” does not make much sense. But the meaning “door” works well: an aggaḷasūci is then a “door-bolt.” This fits with the story in MN21 where “Mistress Vedehikā” hits her servant Kālī on the head and causes her to bleed.

(5) If we take aggaḷa to mean a door or a door-panel, this also makes sense of the use of aggaḷa as a patch of cloth, as found in the non-offense clause to pācittiya 58 and in the Cīvarakkhandhaka. A patch and a panel have much in common, which explains the shared name, whereas a patch and a bolt are irreconcilably different.

I conclude from the above that “door” or “door-panel” is an attested meaning of aggaḷa in the EBTs, in fact probably its dominant meaning. There are a few more references to aggaḷa that I have not mentioned, but they do not seem to add much to the above. The only exception is the compound aggaḷaguttivihāro, “a dwelling kept safe by an aggaḷa.” In this case the obvious meaning of aggaḷa is “bolt” or “lock.” But even here it could refer to a door, with the existence of a bolt/lock being implied.

It is this last usage of aggaḷa which perhaps gives us the final clue to its meaning. I would suggest the aggaḷa is a complete door, including all the parts that go into a door. This is why aggaḷa is not listed as a separate part in the list quoted at the beginning. This is also why there is no need to mention the lock when a hut is said to be guarded by an aggaḷa - the lock is implied. In contrast, kavāṭa refers to a door-panel, and as such it is included in the door-part list. A dvāra, on the other hand, is a door in the sense of a door-way, and includes grand “doors” such as gates and gateways found at the entry points to villages and towns.

So aggaḷa means “door.” If it ever means “bolt,” this is no more than an extended meaning. It makes sense that this fairly rare word should have only a single overarching meaning rather than two quite distinct ones.


The meaning of avāpuraṇa or apāpuraṇa is less controversial, although its exact meaning in context can sometimes be hard to pin down. It has been established, quite uncontroversially I believe, by the German academic Oskar von Hinuber that this word refers to an early type of universal key that was used to unlock the bolt of a door or gate. The bolt in question is the ghaṭika mentioned above. This bolt was found on the inside of doors, and was apparently shut from the outside using a string that came through a hole in the door. (All of these bits, as shown above, have specific names in the Vinaya.) To open the bolt from the outside a kind of proto-key was required; this is the avāpuraṇa. This word quite literally means “(door)-opener,” but Bhante Sujāto has suggested the translation “latchkey,” which seems acceptable to me.

Here are a couple of uses of this word in context:

(1) Mv.I.53.1: Avāpuraṇaṃ ādāya anupariveṇiyaṃ bhikkhūnaṃ ārocehi
“Having taken the latchkey, go from precincts to precincts and inform the monks …”

Here we first need to discuss the word anupariveṇi or pariveṇa. This word is found quite extensively in the Vinaya, but seems to be entirely absent from the four main Nikāyas. This could mean that it is relatively late. I.B. Horner translates it as “cell,” a rendering for which there is no real basis. The pariveṇa, rather, refers to the area around a building, and I have translated it as “precincts.” The word anupariveṇi, then, means something like “from precincts to precincts.”

In the Vinaya literature, buildings are regularly built with a wall, a pākāra, around them. Where there is a wall, a gate is required, and this gate would incorporate a room (or perhaps just a roof in the earliest period), known as a koṭṭhaka. In the quote above, the only way the monks would be able to go from precincts to precincts would be to use a key or gate-opener to enter this gate. That this access gate was locked with a bolt (and thus requiring an avāpuraṇa to open) is quite vividly described in the above quote where Ven. Mahāmoggallāna throws out a corrupt monk and then locks the gate (the dvāra).

(2) Here is a similar quote:

AN9.11: āyasmā ca mahāmoggallāno āyasmā ca ānando avāpuraṇaṃ ādāya vihāre āhiṇḍanti …
“Venerables Mahāmoggallāna and Ānanda, having taken a latchkey, went to the dwellings …”

In this case they seem to be locking themselves into actual dwellings, vihāras. At first sight this may seem strange, but vihāras were often quite large structures, as can be seen by comparing bhu-sg. 7 with bhu-sg. 6, and would often have included a number of rooms, especially in the later period. If a message were to be delivered to the inhabitants of a vihāra, it would make sense for the messenger to open the outer door of the building, at the very least.

So the purpose of the avāpuraṇa, as far as I can see, is not to knock with, as is commonly suggested, but actually to lock oneself in.

I have the impression, however, that most of the above describes quite a developed form of monasticism. Compared to the Vinaya, the descriptions of buildings and building details are much simpler in the four Nikāyas. The only references to koṭṭhakas, “gate-rooms,” seems to be in conjunction with the main gates to a town/village or whole monasteries, and precincts (pariveṇas), as I have already pointed out, are not mentioned at all. Walls around buildings are also unheard of in the four Nikāyas; the only walls (pākāras) mentioned are those around forts (nagaras). And so I suspect the situation with latchkeys quoted above also refers to a fairly developed period. In fact the word apāpuraṇa only occurs three times in the four Nikāyas, two of which are demonstrably late (MN 124 and SN 22.90).


Finally I wish to briefly discuss some of the implications of the passage quoted above, SN 41.4. I have translated aggaḷantarikā as “a chink of the door,” following CPD. This translation makes good sense of the passage, and looking at how antarikā is used at the end of compounds elsewhere, I think it is also likely to be accurate. This in turn has further implication. In SN 41.4 a monk enters his dwelling, closes the door, and then shoots a spark or flame through one of two openings in the door. One of these openings is a tālacchiggaḷa (“keyhole”), which makes good sense, since this would have been a fairly large hole for the insertion of the avāpuraṇa. The other opening is an aggaḷantarikā. For a spark to go through, this must refer to a direct opening from the inside to the outside, which is why “a chink” in the door works well. This in turn means that the door frames at that time would have been different from the ones we have now. With most current door frames, when you close the door, the door hits a protruding part of the frame so that it cannot swing beyond the closed position. Because of this protruding part, there is no direct access for light to come through between the door-frame and the door. My guess, from the description at SN 41.4, is that doors had a simpler frame at the time of the Buddha (and for quite a while afterwards), where light was directly visible between the door and the door-frame, the “chink” of the door.

The doors also did not have any handle or latch. Instead, as can be seen from the list of door-parts, the doors had a hole in them (for closing), or alternatively a pulling rope, and a key for unfastening the bolt. If there were no latch or protruding part of the door-frame against which the door would stop, then some other sort of mechanism would be required to stop the door from swinging too far and to keep it shut. This, of course, is the job of the bolts. This in turn means the bolts must have been integral to the doors: wherever there was a door, there would have been a bolt as well. This is why I think an aggaḷa is sufficient to protect a dwelling. There was no such thing as a door without a bolt or even without a key. This means that even in the compound aggaḷaguttivihāra the appropriate translation is probably “a dwelling safe-guarded by a door.” In this way, all EBT usage of aggaḷa reduces to “door.”

There are couple of minor things that still need to be sorted out, one of which is the relationship between the avāpuraṇa and the tāla. Both words seem to mean (proto-) key, and the question is why there are two words for this. I hope to answer this below. It is also a bit strange why there are two closely related words for keyhole: tāḷacchidda and tāḷacchiggaḷa. At present I do not have any clues as to why this is so.


An interesting passage that throws quite a bit of light on all these details about doors is the following from the beginning of the Senāsanakkhandhaka :

Cv.VI.2.1: Assosuṃ kho manussā— “bhagavatā kira vihārā anuññātā”ti sakkaccaṃ vihāre kārāpenti. Te vihārā akavāṭakā honti; ahīpi vicchikāpi satapadiyopi pavisanti. Bhagavato etamatthaṃ ārocesuṃ. “Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, kavāṭan”ti. Bhittichiddaṃ karitvā valliyāpi rajjuyāpi kavāṭaṃ bandhanti. Undūrehipi upacikāhipi khajjanti. Khayitabandhanāni kavāṭāni patanti. Bhagavato etamatthaṃ ārocesuṃ. “Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, piṭṭhasaṅghāṭaṃ udukkhalikaṃ uttarapāsakan”ti. Kavāṭā na phusīyanti. Bhagavato etamatthaṃ ārocesuṃ. “Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, āviñchanacchiddaṃ āviñchanarajjun”ti. Kavāṭā na thakiyanti. Bhagavato etamatthaṃ ārocesuṃ. “Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, aggaḷavaṭṭiṃ kapisīsakaṃ sūcikaṃ ghaṭikan”ti.

Tena kho pana samayena bhikkhū na sakkonti kavāṭaṃ apāpurituṃ. Bhagavato etamatthaṃ ārocesuṃ. “Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, tāḷacchiddaṃ. Tīṇi tāḷāni— lohatāḷaṃ, kaṭṭhatāḷaṃ, visāṇatāḷan”ti. Yehi te ugghāṭetvā pavisanti, vihārā aguttā honti. Bhagavato etamatthaṃ ārocesuṃ. “Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, yantakaṃ sūcikan”ti.

“People heard that the Master had allowed dwellings (for the monks), and they had dwellings constructed with care. Those dwelling were doorless, and snakes, scorpions, and centipedes entered inside. They told the Master and he said: ‘Monks, I allow doors.ʼ Having made a hole in the wall, they bound the door with creepers and ropes. Rats and termites ate the creepers and ropes, and the doors fell off. They told the Master and he said: ‘Monks, I allow a lintel and doorposts, and a lower and an upper hinge.ʼ The doors did not touch (the door-frame). They told the Master and he said: ‘Monks, I allow a hole in the door for pulling it, and a rope for shutting the bolt.ʼ They could not close the doors properly. They told the Master and he said: ‘Monks, I allow a door-post for bolts, a bolt-eye, bolts, and a bolt for locking.ʼ

The monks were not able to open the doors. They told the Master and he said: ‘Monks, I allow a keyhole and three kinds of key: a metal key, a wooden key, and a key made of horn.ʼ Having unlocked (the doors) with those (keys), they entered, but the dwellings were unprotected. They told the Master and he said: ‘Monks, I allow bolts (for the inside).ʼ”

(This is just a provisional translation, since I have barely started translating this chapter. But the Pali is pretty straightforward.)

This evolution in allowances for door-parts (whether the passage has been artificial created or not) draws together the previous discussion quite nicely. It starts off with an allowance for doors (kavāṭa) for dwellings. In this case it is clear that this must refer to a plain door without any attachments, that is, just a plain door panel. Next comes the basic allowance for holding the door in place, that is, the door frame (piṭṭhasaṅghāṭa, lit. “lintel and posts”) and the (proto-) hinges (udukkhalika and uttarapāsaka). Then for the monks to be able to close the door, the Buddha allowed a hole in the door (āviñchanacchidda) or rope fitted through a hole in the door and used to close it (āviñchanarajju).

Next comes the need for the doors to close properly. This is when the Buddha allows a special door posts that can receive bolts in them (aggaḷavaṭṭi), as well as bolts (sūcika and ghaṭika) and bolt-eyes (kapisīsaka) to receive those bolts. These bolts where either on the outside or accessible from the outside. We have seen before that the ghaṭika was a bolt that could be shut from the outside, rendering the dwelling inaccessible to others. So how did the occupant get access? This is exactly what the monks ask the Buddha next, and he then allows keyholes (tāḷacchidda) and keys (tāḷa). In the quote above from bhu-sg. 2, it was an avāpuraṇa that was used for the purpose of unlocking such doors. Presumably we must conclude from this that the tāḷa and the avāpuraṇa are simply different words for the same thing, a proto-key or latchkey. Finally, when the monks have unlocked the bolt and entered the dwelling, they tell the Buddha the dwelling is unprotected. The Buddha then allows bolts (yantaka and sūcika). Presumably this then refers to bolts accessible from the inside, rather than the outside. (Why the ghaṭika could not be used for this purpose, I have no idea.) From this is it again clear that the ghaṭika and the sūcika served slightly different purposes.

Apart from a few minor details, that should be a fairly complete description of the doors used by monastics at the Buddha’s time or shortly afterwards.

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It is because of articles like this that I tell everyone I am a fan of yours bhante! :anjal:

To some this may be boring but to me reading and thinking about all this only serves to reinforce the Buddha was a real person, dealing not only with people who would bother him complex philosophical questions but as well with a growing and lively community of contemplatives requiring definition and guidance on how to deal with mundane issues such as having doors built in the dwellings to them offered by the laity.

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I couldn’t agree more! The study of Vinaya is very grounding. It’s one thing to espouse lofty principles, quite another to systematically implement them in every aspect of life.

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Thank you! I really agree with you that studying the Vinaya has lots of benefits. One of them, as you say, is to see the Buddha in natural interaction with the monks. There is the beautiful story of the Buddha and Ven. Ānanda cleaning up and caring for a monk who has dysentery in the Cīvarakkhandhaka. Here it is:

At one time a certain monk had dysentery. He was lying in his own feces and urine. Just then, as the Master was touring the dwellings with Venerable Ānanda as his attendant, he came to this monk. When he saw his condition, he approached him and said, “What is your illness, monk?”

“I have dysentery, Master.”

“But don’t you have a nurse?”

“No.”

“Why don’t the monks nurse you?”

“Because I don’t do anything for them.”

The Master said to Ānanda, “Go and get some water, Ānanda; let’s wash this monk.”

“Yes, Venerable Sir,” and he did so. Then the Master poured the water, while Ānanda cleaned him up. Afterwards the Master lifted him by the head and Ānanda by the feet, and they put him on a bed.

Soon afterwards the Master had the Order of monks assembled and questioned them, “Is there a sick monk in that dwelling?”

“Yes, Master.”

“What is his illness?”

“He has dysentery.”

“Does he have a nurse?”

“No.”

“But why don’t you nurse him?”

“Because he doesn’t do anything for us.”

“Monks, you have no mother or father to nurse you. If you don’t nurse each other, who will? Whoever would nurse me should nurse those who are sick.”

In a number of cases the Buddha is seen walking around inspecting the dwellings and seeing what the monks are up to. In one case he sees a monk patching his robe and he praises him for that. It may not seem like much, but it is these kinds of down-to-earth interactions that humanises the Buddha.

What is also very useful about the Vinaya - and this is something I learnt from Ajahn Brahm long ago - is that it refers to ordinary lived experience. This means that the vocabulary used is relatively straightforward and easy to understand. This is very useful for understanding the suttas, where we are often dealing with lofty and less tangible matters. By starting with the Vinaya, we gain an access to Pali that helps us with interpreting the suttas.

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Just a side note. May not be relevant to this discussion.
In Sri Lanka we say Aggla to hand held stone. Which is “Ath” “Gala” Ath mean hand and Gala means stone.
It is a oval shape stone. We make an oval shaped sweet called Aggala.

I suppose the Buddha would have approved of self-closing fire doors for bigger buildings, if he was around now. Eye-holes and letter boxes (slots) might be out for sake of simplicity and seclusion!

With metta

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@brahmali, I just came across an interesting detail. Looking to answer a question elsewhere on esika, I checked the Sanskrit dictionaries, only to discover, to my surprise, that they don’t seem to have any equivalent under “pillar” or “post”.

Now, PTS Dict suggests esika is from isīka, “reed”. And under iṣīkā in Sanskrit we find:

‘a stalk of reed grass,’ occurs frequently from the Atharvaveda onwards, often as an emblem of fragility. In the śāñkhāyana Áranyaka it seems to denote the pin fixed in the bar of a pen to keep cattle in (argalesīke, bolt and pin’). A basket (śūrpa) of Isīkā is referred to in the Satapatha Brāhmana.

Following the explanation above, this more likely should be translated “door-bolt”.

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Both CPD and DOP have “pillar” for esikā.

At DN 17 we have:

Ekekasmiṃ dvāre satta satta esikā nikhātā ahesuṃ tiporisaṅgā tiporisanikhātā dvādasaporisā ubbedhena.

At each gate there were seven esikās implanted/dug in (nikhātā, related to khaṇati, “to dig”), going to the height of three men (tiporisaṅgā, “three-men-length-going”? Or is it “three-men-length-characteristic”?), implanted to the depth of three men, having the height of twelve men. (This is just a rough translation, as I am not entirely clear how to read tiporisaṅgā.)

At AN 7.67:

Idha, bhikkhave, rañño paccantime nagare esikā hoti gambhīranemā sunikhātā acalā asampavedhī.

In this case, monks, a king’s border fortress has an esikā, deeply buried, well dug in, unshakeable, sturdy.

Then we have the compound esikaṭṭhāyiṭṭhitā, “standing like an esikā.” The context is usually that of wrong views (“the self stands like a pillar,” “the seven bodies stand like pillars”), and it makes better sense with “pillar” than “bolt,” I think.

Looks like a pillar to me! And if it is equivalent to the indakhīla, which it seems to be, it probably refers to a gate pillar, as in DN 17. Perhaps Sanskrit uses another word for pillar.

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Oh, in the Pali, for sure. But it seems unlikely in that Sanskrit context. And yes, there are a bunch of other words for pillar in Sanskrit:

http://sanskritdictionary.com/?iencoding=iast&q=pillar&lang=sans&action=Search