Built to last: The devastation in Himachal has brought the focus back on traditional architecture : The Tribune India

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Built to last: The devastation in Himachal has brought the focus back on traditional architecture

Built to last: The devastation in Himachal has brought the focus back on traditional architecture

The 800-year-old Bhimakali temple in Sarahan (150 km from Shimla) has many levels. The approach to the uppermost level, where the twin towers are located, has steps with a pagoda-style portico indicating the influence of Chinese and Tibetan architecture. The lower levels have kath-kuni style walls while the top has lightweight wooden panels. The roofs are in slates. The resilience and light weight of the towers have made the complex withstand earthquakes in the past. iStock

Rajnish Wattas

THE consequences of the incessant abuse and overloading of the hills are being felt across Himachal Pradesh. Multi-storeyed buildings in concrete, denuded tree cover, blocked surface water runoff channels, destabilised slopes causing landslides, rivers in spate spreading beyond their historic flood-plain limits — the man-made follies are wreaking havoc.

A cluster of vernacular wooden houses at Sarahan. A central community space is used for drying of grain, keeping cattle/poultry, and social interaction. A typical house has two floors serving functional purposes. The lower one is mostly for cattle, the upper one for living, cooking, etc. The slate roofing protects against rain and snow. The wooden balcony railing has fine craftmanship. Photo by the writer

Incidentally, not one of Himachal’s iconic structures has suffered any damage. It’s not just the old palaces or temples that have remained unscathed in this dystopian nightmare, even simple pastoral dwellings are relatively undamaged. It is an opportune time to analyse why the age-old vernacular architecture of the hills — created out of local materials with simple, sustainable building techniques — endures. The purpose, of course, is not to romanticise the quaint and the organic as the only paradigm of development.

The Naggar Castle in Kullu was built more than five centuries ago in kath-kuni style, an ingenious system of construction in which walls are made by alternate layers of deodar wood sleepers and dressed stone pieces without any masonry to bind them. Their resilience imparts them structural stability against earthquakes. It enabled the castle to withstand the quake of 1905. iStock

Vernacular architecture is “spontaneous, uncultivated, anonymous, indigenous and popular”. It is a built environment that is based on local needs; defined by the availability of materials indigenous to the particular region; and it reflects local traditions and cultural practices.

Vernacular architecture grows organically from the terrain, and blends with the surroundings seamlessly. The mason’s knowledge of the terrain, natural resources and climate play a vital role in the longevity of these traditional structures.

There’s a lack of geo-technical information. One doesn’t know which area has what sub-strata formation and the soil-bearing capacity. This makes it difficult to work out the correct structural design. Nand Kishore Negi, Former Architect-in-Chief, HP

A village home is functionally and environmentally structured in a manner that serves its objectives successfully. Usually, there is a cattle shed at the lowest level. The middle level is used for storing grain and the uppermost for cooking and living spaces. It is topped with a sloping roof, and the projecting balconies have intricately carved wood crestings. The columns and beams are ornamented with elaborate decorative patterns.

The material used is mainly stone and wood. For constructing the walls, a wooden frame (dhajji) has an infill of a mix of stone pieces and earth. This makes the walls lightweight structures resting on a stone masonry plinth, imposing minimum load on the site. The timber roofs were traditionally clad in slate tiles, but are currently covered with corrugated galvanised iron (CGI) sheets.

For bigger buildings like palaces or temple complexes, an ingenious structural system called kath-kuni — that had an alternate layering of wood and stone — was employed. The iconic ancient structures like the Bhimakali temple complex in Sarahan are prime examples of the kath-kuni technique. It was constructed by the rulers of the Bushahr dynasty. Around 800 years old, the temple is dedicated to the great female power, Bhimakali, and has survived numerous earthquakes owing to its structural resilience.

Raja Sidh Singh got the Naggar Castle built near Kullu about five centuries ago in the same kath-kuni technique. It withstood the massive earthquake in 1905. The resilience lies in the flexibility of dry masonry and alternate layers of wood beams without any cementing material. This indigenous style of construction evolved in the western Himalayas. In the kath-kuni style, a mesh of interlocking horizontal deodar sleepers is created into which dressed or raw stones are packed without any mortar.

Temples in pyramidal style like that of Hadimba Devi in Manali are influenced by the pagodas of Buddhist monasteries, with layers of sloping roofs. These too remained safe in the deluge that washed away many structures recently. In contrast, the brick masonry and concrete columns of the contemporary constructions are rigid and prone to hazards like earthquakes — critical in Himachal as it is graded high on seismic risk.

Colonial architecture

The British developed many hill stations to escape the oppressing summer heat of the Indian plains but ensured that the construction was primarily done with local materials, putting as little stress as possible on the sites. There was minimal tinkering with the established ecosystems of the hills.

Their timber-framed wall construction was similar to the vernacular dhajji-wall construction, and was employed for English-style cottages. For public buildings, stone structures were built. There was plenty of stone available locally or from nearby places. Shimla’s Ridge and the Mall are dotted with such beautiful edifices. The library building, with its timber-framed wall patterns resting above a stone base, and the Gothic-style Christ Church form the most conspicuous landmarks of the city.

Magnificent structures like the erstwhile Town Hall, now the Municipal Corporation office, are built in dressed stone with access from both the levels of the Mall and the Ridge. The most majestic and ‘jewel of the Raj’ is, of course, the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (erstwhile Viceregal Lodge), built in 1888 as the summer retreat of the Viceroy. Constructed atop the Observatory Hill on the outskirts on the vantage point, it enabled viewing the entire summer capital from its windows. It was made by cutting a hill to create a level plane. It is said that the debris was conveniently spread out along its slopes. As a result, the slopes never fully stabilised. That, perhaps, accounts for the recent scare.

Limits to growth

The hills are not nature’s sink where garbage and debris can be strewn, choking the water runoff. The denuded hills are an invitation to landslides and cutting/filling them for roads and buildings is a precarious task, where all laid-down protocols must be adhered to. On paper, most town planning rules are in place in Himachal. On ground, it’s just the reverse. The time for such criminal negligence is over. Heed the message from the mountains or perish.

“Buildings have been constructed either on unstable slopes or on filled-up soil base. Some of the structures are too close to the water bodies and in case of excessive rain or cloudbursts, these are highly unsafe. These are man-made environmental and ecological blunders. Hardly any weightage is given to stable structure designs,” says Abhay Uppal, a Himachal-based structural engineer.

Former Architect-in-Chief of the state Nand Kishore points to the faulty bylaws that require a ‘setback’ of a mere 2 metres around a deodar tree. “Such tall trees would have roots much beyond 10 metres, so these would be strangulated if the construction is too close.” He says the drainage system has not been channelised properly to the catchment lines.

We need to go back to the basic principles of imposing lightweight structures on the mountains with flexible frames, resilient enough to withstand earthquakes, squalls or torrential rains. While it’s no one’s case to revert to making buildings in only timber and stone, hybrid technologies based on the timeless principles of hill construction will need to be evolved.

The pioneering work done by the late Didi Contractor was a trendsetter in this direction. An American, she was self-taught in architecture and was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. She specialised in “buildings that fit into, rather than contrast with, the landscape, and are made of natural local materials: mainly mud, bamboo, and stone, with small amounts of wood”. Most of her work is around Dharamsala such as the Sambhaavna Institute in Palampur and Dharmalaya Institute in Bir. Her own house was a fusion of mud, brick, timber, stone and slates.

Interestingly, the state’s Department of Architecture built the Circuit House at Kaza completely with sun-dried mud bricks, timber and stone way back in 1998. It has cavity walls at the external facades for insulation and plastered mud walls in the interiors. This ingenious building is not only well insulated but also truly sustainable. The pioneering project was done under the guidance of Vijay Uppal, the then Architect-in-Chief of Himachal.

A number of small and scattered projects in sustainable technologies are being done and the momentum is picking up, as tourists and individuals prefer value-based architecture than living in incongruous designs of the plains.

Shimla-based Tanyum Designs is one of the few architectural firms blending the old traditions with modern amenities. “We feel there is a strong need to revive some of the features of the kath-kuni style of the old structures and alter them according to the new modern building techniques and design solutions available,” say the owners.

Ideally, the focus of tourism should shift from luxury resorts to encouraging smaller, cosy homestays for a more authentic experience, and load the mountains less. More of such innovative initiatives will need to be evolved urgently. The Supreme Court’s order to assess the Himalayan region’s carrying capacity comes not a day too late.

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