Preservation of Architectural Heritage in the Hills

Sarbjit Singh Bahga

Abstract

Hills have and will remain one of the most attractive tourist destinations worldwide. Be it the serene landscape, pleasant weather or the beautiful architecture that hills are an abode to, the excitement to capture their view will never drop. Year on year people throng the hills in search of peace, adventure, fun and knowledge. All this while what has been deteriorating are our Mother Nature and the man-made beauty – our Hill Architecture. We need to protect them both, for a sustainable future and a memorable past. However, the current focus of this article is on the heritage we built hundreds of years back. The unique design, structure and variety of architecture in the form of Dhajji walls, Kath-kona walls, wooden temples, Dzongs ghats, British architecture, etc. can be found in the hills of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Bhutan, etc. It speaks volumes about the effort, intelligence and meticulousness of the olden times. This article explains these various forms of architectural designs vividly. The urgent need to preserve and maintain this heritage has been stressed upon. This article suggests various ways and means, which if adhered to, can be the building blocks for a change which our heritage lying in the hills is longing for. 

Architecture is a social art. It represents living styles of people, their resources, material and techniques of construction relevant to the physical, topographical and climatological needs of any particular region in a particular time-span. Ruins of historical buildings not only link our past with the present but also make us knowledgeable to maintain harmonious continuity in our culture. What our fore-fathers have built is a source of inspiration today and what we built today will inspire future generations. Our culture has an uninterrupted continuity from pre-historic times to the present. If we want to ensure this continuity in future we must preserve “anything which can be looked on as artistic, picturesque, historical, antique or substantial, any work, in short over which educated artistic people would think it worthwhile to argue at all; as William Morris father of conservation movement in England said it. On preservation, Indian Constitution under the fundamental duties states,” it shall be the duty of every citizens of India to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.”

The traditional hill-Architecture with its vitality in crafts and skills is a valuable cultural resource. Any neglect of this resource will not only reduce the potential diversity of material artifacts but also make us poorer in the confidence with which they could continue to create knowledge. To create awareness for its preservation we must, understand its essence, rationality and appropriateness. When we talk of Hill-Architecture the first impression which comes to our mind is its vernacular style with organic character – the use of local building materials like mud, stone and timber without any artificial covering. The indigenous construction techniques like, Dhajji walls, in which mud and stone pieces are packed into wooden frames and the surface finished with coat of mud and lime plaster, or the kath-kona system of wall construction with alternative layers of wooden beams and courses of locally available stone without any mortar.

Then came the high pitched-slanting roofs made in timber and covered with stone slates or wooden shingles forming an interesting skyline in harmony with the mountain peaks in the background. This most dominating and stimulating feature of Hill-Architecture is the outcome of centuries old solution to the acute problem of controlling high rain/snow falls in the mountainous regions. All these features, coupled with high quality of craftsmanship and traditional skills to use the local building materials not only for functional purposes but also for fulfilling the artistic urges of the people in accordance with their rituals, beliefs and customs, make the Hill-Architecture perfect.

As testimony to this blend of function and beauty, there are still numerous pieces of architecture which have survived over a long period of time and unlimited forces of decay. Prominent among these are some wooden shrines in Himachal Pradesh which must have been built since early time e.g. Lakshana Devi Temple in Bharmour, Shakti Devi Temple in Chhatrari both in Chamba District and Markula Devi Temple in Udaipur in Lahoul-Spiti District. Though all of them were renovated to lesser or greater degree in subsequent periods of history yet these are worthwhile examples still available for study to research scholars. Towards the East in Bhutan there are some old architecture wonders called Dzongs, which are perfect examples of site-structure and surrounding unity. Prominent among them is Paro Dzong in Paro Valley in inner Himalayan Mountains of west-central Bhutan. This composite administrative and monastic centre having court of justice, revenue offices, monastery of the prevalent Vijraina Buddhist sect now dominant in Bhutan and royal palace for visiting royalty is a legacy of great architectural tradition of this mountainous region. The structure though a dominant one with massive white washed mud walls, yet blends well with dark hill slopes and snow clad mountains in the background. Its massiveness is well punctuated by decorative touches like carvings on the wooden windows and balconies painted dull red, the balustrades carved and painted in other primary colours.

lakshana-devi-temple-in-bharmourLakshana Devi Temple in Bharmour

shakti-devi-temple-in-chhatrariShakti Devi Temple in Chhatrari

Markula Devi templeMarkula Devi Temple in Udaipur in Lahaul-Spiti District

In Darjeeling the Ghoom Buddhist Monastery situated 6 kilometres away from town and Bhutia Basti Monastery situated below Chowrasta are some of those Buddhist shrines in the region which can be considered as landmarks in the traditional hill-architecture.

ghoom-buddhist-monastery-darjeelingGhoom Buddhist Monastery, Darjeeling

One of the beautiful examples of the community architecture and urban planning in the northern part of Himalayan region is the densely built-up portion of the city of Srinagar along the river Jhelum. Though developed in a long time-span of more than six hundred years, yet the cohesiveness and proportional harmony are the unique features of this built urban form. The river and parallel streets running behind the buildings abutting the river edge, on both its banks act as main circulation arteries. Cross bridges at regular intervals interconnect these streets. Narrow cross lanes emerge from these streets and descend in flight of steps (ghats) down to the level of water in the river, which are the major areas of community activities. Delicately built in timber frames and brick masonry, the three to four storied houses along the river front have endless variations in the treatment of façade and steeply sloping roofs. The other typical feature of these houses is a cantilevered bay window forming three or five sided seating alcoves inside these river-front houses.

Another feature of the river front is the low-income housing in boats-moored along the river edge near ghats. Locally known as doongas, these house boats have linear arrangement of multi-functional rooms with kitchen at the end. Walls of the doongas are of wooden panels inserted between frames and roofs are gabled and covered with wooden shingles with ridge running along the length of the boat. For ventilation purposes either some panels in the walls can be slid out or some hinged sections along the ridge of the roof can be lifted up. These doongas and river front houses are great assets of our traditional craftsmanship.

doongas-or-house-boats-in-srinagarDoongas or house boats in Srinagar

Later in the history, from end of 18th Century till the beginning of 20th century, the hill architecture underwent as enormous change in its form and character under the British Rule. During this period, the Britishers developed more than six dozen hill stations all over India. Out of these Mussorrie, Dalhousie, Nainital and Shimla are some prominent stations in North India. Shimla, the jewel among all of them have numerous buildings built in the Elizabethan style of Architecture. Viceregal Lodge, Rothney Castle, Barnes Court, Auckland House, Wildflower Hall, Gorton Castle, Legislative Assembly Chamber, Christ Church, Kennedy House and Gaiety Theatre are some of the majestic and enchanting buildings having architectural, historical and archaeological importance. Among these the Viceregal Lodge is most magnificent and fascinating piece of hill-architecture. Built by Lord Dufferin in 1888, this stone house continues to occupy a privileged position. Presently, it houses the prestigious Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. Situated amidst the dense forests and lush green lawns on a hill top, it commands a panoramic view of the picturesque summer hill. The masonry of the walling is light blue limestone and wrought stone work is all of sandstone of a very fine grain having a beautiful light grey tint. It is famous for its décor and amazingly beautiful woodwork in teak and walnut.

viceregal-lodge-shimlaViceregal Lodge, Shimla

The Gaiety Theatre which was built in 1887, served as cultural centre for the English residing in Shimla. It is the finest example of the 19th Century theatre- architecture. The small stage stands on the end of dome-ceilinged hall. The acoustics are so fine that the smallest whisper is clearly carried to the audience as far back as last bench of the 250 capacity hall. It was built when public address system was unheard of and voice culture was needed to convey the exact emotions.

The Kennedy House, named after its owner Captain Charles Pratt Kennedy is the first permanent house built in European style in Shimla in 1924. Subsequently, it acted as a trend-setter in the hill architecture that developed during the British Rule. This substantial Villa presently houses several Government/Semi-Government offices.

In short, we have countless such examples of built forms having historical, architectural and archaeological importance. All of them have their own significance and contribution to our rich cultural resource and strongly need to be protected against the forces of modernization. The migration of population, from the villages to the cities for better employment opportunities, the advent of new inorganic building materials and technological advancements, rising land prices and commercial exploitation of space, more frequent contacts with international influences and rapidly changing land uses are some of the factors posing serious threat to our traditional hill-architecture, and immediate efforts should be made for its preservation.

Fortunately, we have many government, semi-Government and voluntary organizations working in the field of preservation of our built cultural heritage in India. Prominent among those are Archaeological Survey of India (A.S.I.), Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property (NRLCCP) at Lucknow, Indian Heritage Society, Conservation Society of Delhi, The Golconda Society and Save Bombay Group. Besides, there are several academic institutions and voluntary action groups engaged in the field of conservation. Though the emergence of these Organizations, evidence a healthy professionalism taking root in India, yet a lot needs to be done to make the conservation/preservation a broad based public movement in the spirit of the fundamental duties laid down in the Constitution of India.

We should assert and use our influences and resources to create awareness in the society to value and preserve historical-built-environments of which hill-architecture is a part. The electronic and print media should come forward in making the preservation of our rich cultural heritage a peoples’ movement. Ours is, still largely a traditional society and the conservation of tradition or its elimination is an important issue in defining the nature of our future development. Any laxity on our part will result in break with the tradition, raising questions about the appropriateness of change.

To make conservation and preservation more effective and a peoples’ movement there is a need to thoroughly consider and implement the following points:

  • There should be special heritage cells in the Central/ State Government’s Town Planning Departments, Architecture Departments, Urban Development Authorities, Municipal Corporations etc. These cells should be entrusted with the job of identification of heritage zones and buildings of archaeological, historical and architectural importance required to be preserved and work out the necessary strategy plans.
  • To involve the people, Advisory Committees should be formed at City/Town levels. These Committees should comprise of prominent citizens from the concerned fields like History, Geography, Archaeology, Town Planning, Architecture, Engineering, Economics and Law etc. These Committees will keep an eye on the new urban development taking place in their respective areas and inform the authorities of any victimisation of any historical-built-environment.
  • Technical Universities, Art and Architecture colleges and similar Institutions should introduce special subjects on conservation/preservation in their curriculum so as to give greater emphasis to the study of the history of Architecture.

These measures will help a great deal in creating mass awareness not only to protect and preserve our historical-built-environments but also to plan our future in harmony with our past. Only then we can ensure an uninterrupted continuity in our culture.

ConclusionWe can summarize that hills are home to a plethora of architectural designs and techniques. Therefore, we need to strive for continuous improvement in maintaining the Hill Architecture treasure and develop innovative ways of doing so. A collaboration from all fronts of life – academia, government, private entities, individuals, is required to create a future where our children can have a wholesome view of the past with a lot more to learn and remember!

 

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