A Himalayan tragedy: The crisis of contemporary mountain dwellings

Traditional houses in the Old Manali neighborhood.

Traditional houses in the Old Manali neighborhood.

The passing of the revered architect Didi Contractor in early July, and the heavy devastation that flash floods wrought in her beloved Kangra Valley just a few days after, prompt a sombre reflection on the predicament of our built landscape. It was my good fortune to have had my one and only conversation with the architect published in this newspaper (strangely, exactly a year before her death on July 5). Being a non-architect with a huge passion for built spaces, I was delighted to receive first-hand insights from Didi (as she was fondly called) on her evolution within the fields of design and building. As a self-taught practitioner, Didi fluently transformed her prodigious learning into sensitively made earthly edifices. Hers was an energetic creativity that’s often associated with larger-than-life figures, even though her vision was staunchly rooted in the familiar rhythms of age-old Himalayan culture.

Forms new and old

It’s a paradox of our times that the architecture our ancestors recognised as intrinsic to their landscape has turned so alien for us. Consequently, when we today encounter indigenously built aesthetics, we are struck by their otherworldly and even “exotic” resonances. This is as true of Himachal Pradesh as elsewhere. I grew up there amid a rapidly urbanising streak that swiftly overshadowed the building templates of yore in a sheen of drabness and unsustainability. Witnessing the never-ending spread of haphazard development in the mountains, I have often recalled the words of the great Indian modernist and writer Mulk Raj Anand, who explicitly warned the new generation of Indian architects in 1947 against the “tendency of patriotic glorification.” Anand knew that simply constructing anything “modern” without a respect for the past would lead to a “vulgar display” through “sheer bombast”, and you only have to look around to realise how that counsel was summarily rejected.

Among the most well-known traditional Himalayan building techniques are the kath-kuni and koti banal styles (variations of the Cator-and-Cribbage template), as well as the dhajji-dewari type. In kath-kuni, alternate horizontal layers of stone and wooden beams are stacked together without any cementing materials to create long-lasting walls, which often support intricately carved overhanging balconies to let in sunshine. The koti-banal style is similar, except that you sometimes see a vertical timber passing through the horizontal wooden beams for added fortification. The dhajji-dewari, on the other hand, points to a wooden meshwork of evenly distributed squares with an infill of clay, stone and pine needles to form “patched quilt walls.”

While all these styles were born before the colonial era, they also underwent innovation over time. In the colonial period, for instance, the British recognised parallels between the dhajji-dewari’s timber-cage framework and their own Victorian Neo-Tudor prototypes, leading to the birth of hybrid designs. Sturdiness, elegance, seismic resistance, and a consistent regard for nature strongly characterise these techniques, and also influence their intimate, poetic appearances. Once you find yourself in their embrace, you instinctively feel a harmony of natural and human craftsmanship working on your mind and soul.

The Bhimakali Temple at Sarahan is built in the kath-kuni style.

The Bhimakali Temple at Sarahan is built in the kath-kuni style.

Preserving and losing the past

It’s not that contemporary Himachali practitioners have completely forgotten the art of working with such forms. Along with Didi’s output, I’ve come across several wonderful initiatives and thinkers who are truly committed to the study, preservation, and celebration of traditional Himalayan architecture. These include the meticulous research on Shimla’s heritage conservation and restoration by the architect-academic Saumya Sharma, Dhruv Chandra Sud’s Spidergrass Collective studio in Shimla, Rahul Bhushan’s “North” centre for Himalayan craftsmanship in Naggar (near Manali), and the Sunnymeade homestay helmed by Madhavi Sanghamitra Bhatia (again in Shimla).

However, ill-planned multi-storey constructions (indistinguishable from their plain-based counterparts) continue to cast an ever-widening lure, both through private and governmental practice, for a number of reasons. Many mountain folk recognise the need to adapt to modernity, given the change in the pace of life post-Independence. They highlight the high costs of maintaining old structures as well as the growing unavailability of natural ingredients, not to mention the swiftly vanishing skillsets that could easily be procured for repair and upkeep once upon a time.

On the other hand, while narrating how they adapted to new buildings, numerous people have reported illnesses during winters that stem from the enormous use of marble and tile flooring. Unlike the traditional elements of wood, stone and mud, such materials do not help in balancing the temperatures across the seasons. It’s also understood that traditional edifices have withstood earthquakes and weathered snow and hail for centuries. Yet, the majority are still inclined to straightforwardly adopt modern housing, which has been piercingly described by the writer-architect Gautam Bhatia as “inefficient, poorly constructed [and] thoughtlessly designed”.

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock

Photo: Getty Images/ iStock

As more such dwellings continue to suck the environment of its vitality, most obviously seen in the unremitting loosening of soil and drying of natural water sources, it becomes even more imperative to revive and integrate ancient learning into newer visions of development. Simultaneously, there’s a need to start studying landscape architecture and its concomitant disciplines not only as a higher-education specialty but as a fundamental subject from school-level onwards. As the most widely available form of art, architecture requires an attunement that has to be — and can be — inculcated early on in life. And in a tough, fragile terrain such as the Himalayas, such cultivation of sensitive perspectives is all the more essential.

The writer is from Shimla, and is the author of the forthcoming book Fossil .

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Printable version | Aug 10, 2022 12:30:59 am | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/a-himalayan-tragedy-the-crisis-of-contemporary-mountain-dwellings/article35624895.ece