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Studente: Ofer Kristal | Relatore: Ermes Invernizzi


The Vernacular Built Environment of Himachal Pradesh

Politecnico di Milano | Facoltà di Architettura e Società | Corso di Studi in Scienze dell’Architettura | 2010/11

Politecnico di Milano Facoltà di Architettura e Società Corso di studi in Scienze dell’Architettura

PLACE | CULTURE | ARCHITECTURE The Vernacular Built Environment of Himachal Pradesh

Studente: Ofer Kristal 734066 Relatore: Prof. Ermes Invernizzi

Anno Accademico 2010/2011


Introduction Defining Vernacular - Linguistics


- Cuisine

7 8 10 11 12 14

Defining Vernacular Architecture


A Framework of Rural Himachal Pradesh

22 25 26 27 28 31 33 35

- Economy - Religion - Music

- Topography & Physical Geography - Climate - Vegetation - Economy - Infrastructure - Demography - Ethnicity, Culture & Religion

Vernacular Architecture in Himachal Pradesh

- An Important Note

39 40 44 50 57 62 73 78

Conclusions & Resolutions


Bibliography Sources of Illustrations

83 87

- Initial Considerations, Layout Planning & Site Preparation - Typology, Spatial Organization & Functions - Construction Materials and Techniques - Architecture for the Deities - The Story of a House / Rashol - Characteristics of Place and Society and their Architectural Response

Introduction “Vernacular architecture is a subject that provides a window on the lives and traditions of the indigenous people of our world, and in so doing creates a mirror that reflects our own experiences. This, in turn, helps us to understand more clearly where the buildings of our contemporary world spring from, and more importantly, why such buildings so often fail to meet our fundamental human needs.”(1) The quote above was written by Anthony Reid as a foreword for the book ‘Buildings without Architects’. It can be seen as being composed of three parts - a description, a conclusion and a criticism. The first describes what a research on the vernacular (in any discipline - not only architecture) is. It is a research that through the field of architecture delineates the characteristics of societies and cultures. In vernacular societies there is a strict relation between the needs and behavioral patterns of a society and its environmental contest which forms the way it expresses itself culturally. Hence, through the study of the architecture of a society we can understand it (inside the limits that a certain field permits). The conclusion leads us to see that through the study of vernacular architecture and societies we can understand our architecture and society better. It is somewhat a brave affirmation because it is not necessarily true that we can deduce the structure of our society from the understand of another. On the other hand, sociological research, if focused on the fundamental relations between a society and it’s cultural expressions, provides us with basic (or sometimes advanced) tools for the reading and analyzing of the analogous concepts that exist in every society. A very wide argument lies in the criticism made in the last part of the quote, even though expressed in a slightly assertive way. Are the buildings of our society failing to meet our needs? And if yes, why do we create them that way? The last word of the sentence, needs, can be the key to the answers for these question. The needs of a vernacular society are well defined and clear, and the ways of satisfying them are efficient, laconic and sustainable. Are the needs of our society clear and well defined? Western societies nowadays are so abundant and provide so many options that a need is often confused with a will, a desire, or a convenience. In an average European house a washing 1. A. Reid, in John May, Buildings without Architects: A Global Guide to Everyday Architecture, Rizzoli, New York 2010, p.6


machine, a refrigerator, a telephone, an oven and sometimes even a TV are basic elements and can be considered as needs. Nevertheless it is easy to see how one can live a full life without the use of any of these objects. The dependency and the making of all these items a necessity in our lives may have cause us to forget our true needs, and consequently caused us to design buildings that so often fail to meet our fundamental human needs, as Anthony Reid argues. The study of vernacular forms of architecture shows architecture as a product or an expression of culture. And much more than just a product - it is what this product, this built object, creates and what it satisfies. Vernacular architecture is built and designed by the people and therefore concentrates on satisfying their needs, while eliminating distractions for the design and construction process. Back in the early 1980’s, Dieter Rams, a well-known German industrial designer, was becoming increasingly concerned by the state of the world around him – “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colors and noises.”(2) Aware that he was a significant contributor to that world, he asked himself an important question: is my design a good design? As good design cannot be measured in a finite way he set about expressing the ten most important principles for what he considered was good design. 1) Good design is innovative 2) ...Makes a product useful 3) ...Is aesthetic 4) ...Makes a product understandable 5) ...Is unobtrusive 6) ...Is honest 7) ...Is long-lasting 8) ...Is thorough down to the last detail 9) ...Is environmentally friendly 10) ...Is as little design as possible 2. D. Rams for Vitsoe, in Dwell, vol. 9, n. 9, September 2009, p.101


The examination of these principles in relation to any kind of design process can be very instructive and provide a measuring tool. Upon arriving at the conclusion part of this study, I will borrow Rams’s ideas and try to measure the vernacular forms of architecture in Himachal Pradesh in relation to these principles. My interest in vernacular societies and cultures always existed (without even knowing they are called vernacular), and came to a fruition in a series of voyages in places like Egypt, Central America and India. In India I had the opportunity to live in a remote village in the Western Himalayas, in the state of Himachal Pradesh. This research is rooted in this village named Rashol, in Kullu district, where I lived for several months and got to know in person this beautiful society and all of its cultural expressions. This research helped me to better understand something that was a part of my everyday life - the vernacular architecture of the place. In order to acquire tools for its analysis, I started by researching on the notion of vernacular in general. Those initial reflections and the attempts to define vernacular in various fields provided me with a scientific background for the research. I continued with more attempts at a definition - this time focusing on vernacular architecture. I have studied the ideas and thoughts of researches in the field and proceeded with a targeted study. A framework of Himachal Pradesh, the geographical place where these culture and architecture were born was the next step. I examined various aspects of life in Himachal Pradesh like economy, demography, topography, climate, religion and some in-between subjects. After that I was ready for the study of vernacular architecture in Himachal, in which I always tried to find a clear relationship of “cause and effect” - or in other words - architecture’s response to all examined aspects. This part comes to an end with a study case of the house where I lived in Rashol. Conclusions and resolutions will be presented at the end of the paper. Have an interesting and enjoyable reading!


In order to “move”, research and deepen the field of vernacular architecture in a specific context, reflecting and stabilizing a notion of the term “vernacular” is necessary. The following chapter takes different cultural elements and examines them in relation to the idea of vernacular.

Defining Vernacular


Defining Vernacular The term vernacular is used in many fields other than architecture and in order to get a wide and more complete perspective of its architectural meaning, an examination and analysis of some of the uses in various fields is necessary. The definition of the word itself applies to all fields, of course, but when the context changes the meaning is also altered, even if only in a subtle way. The term vernacular is derived from the Latin vernaculus, meaning “domestic, native, indigenous” or from verna, meaning “native slave” or “home-born slave”.

Linguistics Most of the times, when referring to the word vernacular or when trying to define it, the linguistics field provides a clear and net way of doing so. A lot of the dictionaries tend to describe vernacular (or to give an example of it) through its role or usage in linguistics. The main ideas presented here are valid also for the other applications. A vernacular language is: - “A language or a dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language”(3) - ”The standard native language of a country or locality”(4) - “The form of a language that a regional or other group of speakers use naturally, especially in informal situations”(5) A vernacular language is opposed to a lingua franca ("In 1953, UNESCO defined a lingua franca as 'a language which is used habitually by people whose mother tongues are different in order to facilitate communication between them"). For instance, in Western Europe until the 17th century, most scholarly works had been written in Latin, which was serving as a lingua franca. Works written in romance languages are said to be in the vernacular. The ‘Divina Commedia’ is a known example of an early vernacular literature in Italian. The first known grammar of a romance language was a book written by Leon Battista Alberti 3. Merriam-Webster online dictionary - 4. The free dictionary - 5. Cambridge Dictionaries online -


between 1437 and 1441 - entitled ‘Grammatica della lingua Toscana’, ‘Grammar of the Tuscan Language’, in which Alberti sought to demonstrate that the vernacular – in this case Tuscan, known today as modern Italian – was as structured as Latin; He did so by mapping vernacular structures onto Latin. More influential perhaps were the 1516 ‘Regole grammaticali della volgar lingua’ of Giovanni Francesco Fortunio and the 1525 ‘Prose della vulgar lingua’ of Pietro Bembo. In those works the authors tried to establish a dialect that would be suitable to become the Italian national language. The word volgar/vulgar doesn't appear in the title of those books by accident and even these days vernacular cultures are sometimes regarded with disrespect and are considered less developed. In some disciplines, such as linguistic anthropology, the term vernacular is less frequently used because of its offensive connotations. "Dialect" or "dialect variation" is more appropriate in context, as the term vernacular is intrinsically linked to colonialism. In Hindu culture, traditionally religious or scholarly works were written in Sanskrit (long after its use as a spoken language). With the rise of the Bhakti movement from the 12th century onwards, religious works were created in the other languages: Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and many others. The Ramayana, for example, one of Hinduism's sacred epics in Sanskrit, had vernacular versions such as Ranganadha Ramayanam composed in Telugu and Ramacharitamanasa, a Hindi version of the Ramayana. With time, and through various culturally related linguistic publications, vernacular languages acquired the status of official ones. In the 15th and 16th centuries the first grammars of Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German and English were written, though not always immediately published. The standardization of those and other languages preceded for several hundred years, and is still going on in some cases. There are two verbs that present the concept of vernacular in them, both pretty interesting and different from one another. The first is vernacularize - to make vernacular, to take something and give it a vernacular identity. The second one - vernaculate - means to express in a vernacular idiom; to give a local name to. This one implies the possibility of expressing an idea in two ways - a more learned or acquired one and a more natural, convenient and immediate one. The difference 9

between them is pretty clear and consists in the act itself. One implies the creation or changing of something that was different before the act of vernacularization and the second is only the expression or representation of the same idea. The concept of vernacular takes a particularly important role in the linguistics field mainly because a person feels confident, comfortable and understandable when expressing himself in the language he knows best - his vernacular one. Italy and India are two good examples of countries where a person often finds himself out of his vernacular contest because of the variety of languages and dialects. Hindi and Italian are the official languages of the countries but not necessarily the ones being spoken at most households. Other important contests and environments for a person are his landscape, cuisine, religion, music, economy, architecture (or the built environment) and in general his culture - all create confidence, comfort and well being for the person who grew up in them and knows them.

Economy A vernacular economy of a place - like a language - is the one native to it. Reindeer herding, for instance, is the vernacular economy of Northern Scandinavia and the Sami the native people of this geographical region.(fig.1) The vernacular economy of a place is strictly related to its climate, topography, animals, vegetation and of course to the people. It can be easily understood how the reindeer herding economy in Scandinavia can exist almost exclusively in that specific place.

1 - A reindeer herder Sami in the areas of present Norway

The world is going in an always less vernacular direction and one of the most perceptible aspects of this is economy. Almost all of the tertiary sector, where more and more people are being employed, is not related to and not based on the elements mentioned above.


In 2006 41.7% of the total world population worked in the tertiary sector and 21.5% in industry - a fact which shows that approximately half of the world economy is no longer vernacular, considering almost all agriculture and some industry and particular cases of services vernacular. An important factor of economy - self sufficiency - exists only in some economies, most of them found in less developed countries where vernacular societies and economies are not rare. In his book ‘The Way: An Ecological World-View’ Edward Goldsmith argues that the vernacular economy is localized and hence largely self-sufficient “...with the development of a vernacular community, self-sufficiency increases as dependency on outside sources decreases. Food and artefacts become largely distributed via procedures that observe the rules of reciprocity and redistribution and that are entirely under social control.”(6) Mahatma Gandhi also understood this well. One of the basic concepts of his philosophy was that of swadeshi, which he describes as that “spirit in us which restricts us to the use and service of our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the more remote”.(7) Sunderlal Bahuguna, the leader of the Chipko movement(8*) in the Himalayas, regards swadeshi as the most fundamental of Gandhi’s teachings. Economy takes an important part in every society, and as we know, has the power to enhance or decrease the social strength and sense of community or belong of the people. The vernacular economy, like any other vernacular aspect, reflects clearly the connection between nature, people and their culture.

Religion Vernacular religion refers to “religion as it is lived: as human beings encounter, understand, interpret, and practice it.”(9) Vernacular religion implies a system of beliefs that shapes the everyday culture of groups and individual and is expressed in both verbal and non-verbal forms. This definition argues that vernacular religion differs from “official” religion by the fact that it’s the everyday expression of local believes, and not the sum of all religious components. It is related to the world of localized practice rather than that of authorized theology, and to less “supervised” and more spontaneous rituals. 6. E. Goldsmith, The way: An Ecological World-View, Rider, London 1992, p.386 7. M. K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, Phoenix Press, London 1949, p.350, Translated by M. Desai 8*. The Chipko movement is a social-ecological movement that practised the Gandhian methods of satyagraha and non-violent resistance 9. L. N. Primiano, Vernacular Religion and the Search for Method in Religious Folk life, in Western folklore vol. 54, Reflexivity and the Study of Belief, Western States Folklore Society, Jan.1995, p.37-56


The study of vernacular religion is often confined to the discussion of ‘folk religion’. Don Yoder defines folk religion as “the totality of all those views and practices of religion that exist among the people apart from and alongside the strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion.”(10) W. Graham Monteith argues in “The constructive use of vernacular religion” that this confinement of the this two “types” or expressions of religion is made in a derogatory and a sterile manner and makes an attempt to correct this by describing ideal-typical ways in which vernacular religion can be studied and defined.

2 - Roadside religious Signs, Osierfield, Georgia

Examples of vernacular religion vary from the crosses, billboards and bumper stickers with god related writings in south of the United States to the blessings in the name of Shiv a the Indian baba make regularly in different occasions of everyday life.

Music Vernacular music can give a fairly decent representation of a society’s cultural background and upbringing. One of the reasons for this is the production of music (and all that’s related to it; dance, instruments, customs, etc.) by the society itself, while with non-vernacular music it’s mainly a matter of consumption. In non vernacular societies music is made, shaped and sold as a product for consumption that doesn’t necessarily aim for the local market. The market pressures of capitalism shape all art into products. Those products that can be sold to the most buyers flood the marketplace. Like religion, economy, and languages, vernacular music can be understood better when compared with its opposite - formal music, taught in schools or by professional teachers and taken to a level of almost science - with precise rules and methods of teaching. Music is of course very connected to musical instruments, and created with them, and thus also connected to the materials the instruments are made of. Djembe drums, Bamboo flutes, or differ10. D. Yoder, Toward a definition of folk religion, in Western folklore vol. 33, Symposium on Folk Religion, Western States Folklore Society, Jan. 1974, p.2-15


ent string instruments can be made only with the appropriate materials, which can’t be found naturally in all parts of the world. Considering this the growth and use of specific types of instruments and music is almost obvious. Examples of vernacular music and musical instruments that are still practiced nowadays are very common, some well known even internationally: * Semba - a traditional type of music from Angola, comes from the singular Masemba, meaning ‘a touch of the bellies’, a move that characterizes the Semba dance. * Jhoori - a type of song that celebrates extramarital romance, can be accompanied by a female dance called jhoomar. popular in Himachal Pradesh in India. * Jazz - a musical style that originated at the beginning of the 20th century in African American communities in the Southern United States. * Didgeridoo - a wind instrument developed by Indigenous Australians of northern Australia around 1,500 years ago and still in widespread usage today both in Australia and around the world. * Castanets - a percussion instrument, used in Moorish, Ottoman, ancient Roman, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese cultures. The instrument consists of a pair of concave shells joined on one edge by a string. * Mandolin - (Italian: mandolino) a musical instrument in the lute family that originated in Italy.

3 - Didgeridoo, Castanets, Mandolin


Cuisine The cuisine is, even nowadays and even in less vernacular societies, one of the most geographically and culturally related aspects of a society. It is strongly based on the local agricultural products and livestock. Though agriculture and animals for food haven’t always been here - “ about 10,000 years ago human began to tame wild plants and animals.”(11)(fig.4) As we can see in the table different foods and animals were domesticated in different parts of the world, and afterwords were being transported and cultivated in other countries. So even though some foods were first domesticated in one place they became the vernacular foods of another when the climatic, topographical and geological conditions allowed it.


The Ancient Agricultural Revolution When - B.C. 10,000

Where Southwest Asia

What Wheat, barley, sheep, goats domesticated



Chiles and squash domesticated

8000 7000

Peru Southwest Asia

Lima beans domesticated Bread wheat developed; flax for fabric


Southwest Asia, New Guinea

Pigs domesticated


Northern China (First agriculture in China

Millet domesticated


Meadle East

Apples cultivated


Southwest Asia

Cattle, chickpeas, lentils domesticated

But many reasons besides climate condiSouthwest Asia Grapes cultivated for wine tions helped forming local / regional / 6000-4000 (Modern Armenia) national cuisines - food production, prepa- 5000 Yangtze River Delta, China; Rice domesticated Central India ration and consumption used to be ,and is Southwest Asia Olives domesticated still now in a large number of societies, the 4000 3000 Southwest Asia Cities, irrigation, wheel, plow, sail most demanding and time occupying 2686-2181 Egypt Pyramid building activities in humans lives and involved all 2500 China Water buffalo dometicated the people and layer in society and thus could be influenced by an infinite number of variables. Cuisines of Muslim countries, for instance, are influenced by religion and made to respect Halal, the ancient Aztec cuisine shows elements of “religious” cannibalism and the Japanese cuisine was largely shaped by foreign and internal politics. Today, when in many societies a wide variety of alimentary products is available, the culinary identity of a place can become less definite and firm and much more dynamic than in the past. Still, “food and drinks are signifiers of group culture and identity, wherein the items ingested say some11. L. Civitello, Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, John Wiley and Sons, New Jersey 2011, p. 7


thing meaningful about people, to themselves and others, in often open-ended processes of social identification, that are at the heart of ethnic, national, class, gender, sexual, local and other identities.”(12) Food and drinks consumption is also a very social act, usually done within the family unit, with friends, or with other close people. The “rituality” of food made possible the formation of many other cultural rituals and activities that wouldn’t have existed without it.

12. T. M. Wilson, Food, drink and identity in Europe, Rodopi, Amsterdam 2006, p. 12


After reflecting on the notion of vernacular in relation to several cultural aspects we can move towards the definition of vernacular architecture. This section attempts to provide different points of view of researchers in the field and to show how various (and congruent) types of architecture contextualize the vernacular.

Defining Vernacular Architecture


Defining Vernacular Architecture Vernacular architecture has many observable connections with all of the other aspects of the vernacular examined above. Like in economy, it is almost restricted to use the resources that its immediate surroundings provide and to exclude the more remote ones. It is spontaneous and not supervised or authorized like in religion. It focuses and concentrates on self production and not on consumption like vernacular music, and it defines and creates a cultural identity like with native cuisines. Yet still, architecture has something on addition to all these other aspects. Architecture can be defined as the built environment, which is the environment where all other aspects are usually being practiced, an environment created by man. Much of human kind’s ingenuity lies exactly there, in the will and ability to create new and to alter existing environments for itself. To create places for all of these activities to happen. To accommodate religion, education, recreation, work and living in their most adequate spaces, and most importantly - to protect and provide comfort for itself. “We humans have an amazing ability to innovate. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world’s diverse range of handmade or vernacular buildings.”(13) Amazing as it is, the study of vernacular architecture is at its very beginning. Until recent years the research and teaching of it was almost non-existent - the academic field of architecture (and the public knowledge) always concentrated on monumental, rich, formal architecture, one that reflects power or status. The more functional one, the one closer to the people was almost completely neglected and “before the late 19th century most writings on the subject were embedded in travellers and adventurers accounts...”(14) In 1997, a significant step towards the knowledge and understanding of this kind of architecture was made by Paul Oliver, an architectural historian from Oxford Brooks University. He published the ‘Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World’ - a three volume research work on the theories, principles, philosophy, cultures and habitats of vernacular architecture. This work provides a comprehensive reference work for other scholar and researchers of the subject. 13. A. Reid, in John May, Buildings Without Architects - Global Guide to Everyday Architecture, Rizzoli, New York 2010, p.6 14. P. Oliver, Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1997, p. xxxii


Even though research in this field is pretty new many definitions and opinions had already been conceived. One the most known and appreciated definitions for vernacular architecture is of Paul Oliver: “Vernacular architecture comprises the dwellings and all other buildings of the people. Related to their environmental context and available resources, they are customarily owner- or communitybuilt, utilizing traditional technologies. All forms of vernacular architecture are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and ways of living of the cultures that produce them.”(15) Oliver does not phrase his definition randomly; he first explains that vernacular architecture rises from its surroundings, then notes that it is built with native knowledge, and finishes by saying that it is strongly related to cultural purposes. In his book “Built to meet needs” Oliver is also untying the relation between a style, or type of vernacular architecture and a country, and tries to always link them to a culture. The Yurt, used by nomadic tribes in various Central Asian countries, like other nomadic architecture, is a good example of vernacular architecture that can only be linked to a culture and not to a country. Nezar AlSayyad, in his foreword for the book “Vernacular architecture in the 21st century” argues that “etymologically, for anything to be considered vernacular, it has always been assumed that it must be native or unique to a specific place, produced without the need of imported components and processes, and possibly built by the individuals who occupy it.”(16) This definition is somewhat contradicting the link between architecture to its culture, and links it first of all to a geographical place and its natural resources. Interesting (and fundamental), though, is the suggestion that the people who build the architecture are also those who will occupy it, a pretty uncommon situation in the western world and an idea that implies a strong connection between an individual and his home in vernacular societies. The combination of the two words - vernacular and architecture, can also represent an inherent contradiction. A clear explanation to that is given by Vicky Richardson in her book “New Vernacular Architecture”: 15. P. Oliver, Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1997, p. xxiii 16. N. AlSayyad, in Lindsay Asquith & Marcel Vellinga, Vernacular Architecture in the 21st century Theory, Education and Practice, Taylor & Francis, London 2006, p.17


”The vernacular is the unconscious work of craftsmen based on knowledge accumulated over generations - the very opposite of architecture, which involves a premeditated design process with a conscious appeal to the intellect.”(17) The book presents projects of various contemporary architects who intended to reflect by ‘analogous inspiration’ the characteristics of local buildings, and shows how the study of the vernacular architecture, an “unconscious work of craftsmen”, can be practically applied in many ways; if from a sustainability point of view, the use of local materials and local “working hands”, or from the most prominent aspect of the vernacular - the cultural one, which shows how living solutions, from the village scale to the single-unit derive directly from the society who invents them in order to solve specific and defined problems. And this, in turn, helps us to understand more clearly where the buildings of our contemporary world spring from. The notion of vernacular in modern and contemporary architecture, although contradictory and sometimes misleading, can produce architecture that takes in consideration a series of elements that can lead to more balanced or equilibrated design strategies. One of the first examples of integration of vernacular concepts in modern architecture was that of the Arts and Crafts movement in the end of the 19th century in the U.K., though they preferred talking of ‘local ways’ and not referring to their work as adopting a vernacular style. Their ideas were spread in other European countries and provided a basis for the Nazis, volkisch architecture, the Dutch attempts to return to the roots of its brick techniques or Scandinavian reinterpretations of their traditional styles. The Finnish architect Alvar Aaalto is regarded as one that knew how to adopt the vernacular spirit without the need to imitate its form, and his work was characterized as ‘new regionalism’ or ‘critical regionalism’. The word regionalism, used frequently in the studies of vernacular architecture to describe “an approach that attempted to understand buildings using the contextual forces that surround their production”(18), is primarily related to a geographical place (’region’) and to its sense and by that, possibly contradicts modernism: “The vernacular (regionalism) denotes particularism and, by extension, a specific attitude of sensitivity to place, whereas modernity denotes both a historical period and a general mental disposition. Thus, any attempt to provide a consistent definition of vernacular modernity runs into semantic 17. V. Richardson, New Vernacular Architecture, Laurence king Publishing, London 2001, p.6 18. N. AlSayyad, in Kingston Wm. Heath, Vernacular Architecture and Regional Design, Elsevier Architectural Press, Amsterdam 2009, p.xi


problems.”(19) The historical period that modernity denotes is, by definition, a post-traditional one, and therefore contradicts strongly the vernacular. But it is not only semantic problems that hold modernity back in its desire to get closer to the vernacular - modern interpretations of the vernacular, as fascinating and interesting as they can be, miss the most important feature of it - they are built by architects, by interpreters of a certain society or culture and not by society itself. They are inspired by IT, they are not IT. Another problematic type of vernacular architecture that modernity gave birth to is the ad hoc construction of urban spontaneous squatter settlements across the developing world, in continents like Africa, Asia and South America. If regarded as so - it presents by far the most numerous vernacular buildings. Those settlements are often illegal or unauthorized and inhabited by impoverished people who live in improvised dwellings made from scrap materials: often plywood, brick, concrete, corrugated metal and sheets of plastic, and usually built on the periphery of cities without proper sanitation, electricity, or telephone services. The problems raised with the consideration of these settlements as vernacular are several: the people living in them have no common background or history and thus can’t have common traditions; although the materials used for construction are found locally, they were brought there previously by other people and are not natural to the place; The buildings are not built following behavioral, cultural or religious patterns of their dwellers. An attempt to confirm or disprove spontaneous settlements as vernacular was made by Amos Rapoport, a traditional environmenst theorist, who suggests ‘product’ and ‘process’ characteristics comparison. For product he lists degree of cultural and place specificity, specific models, plan forms and morphologies, use of specific materials, textures and colors, effectiveness of response to climate, and effectiveness of environment as a setting for life-style and activity systems and for process he lists identity and intentions of the designers, the reliance on a model with variations, the extent of sharing of single models, and the congruence of the chosen model with the ideals of the users. His overall conclusion was “that for both process and product characteristics this exercise would place spontaneous settlements closer to traditional vernacular than to any other type of environment and farthest from professionally designed, or ‘high-style‘ environments.”(20) 19. B. Huppauf & M. Umbach, Vernacular modernism, Stanford University Press, California 2005, p.8 20. A. Rapoport, Spontaneous Settlements as Vernacular Design, in C.V Patton, Spontaneous shelter: international perspectives and prospects, Temple University Press, Philadelphia 1988, p.55


These attempts to define what vernacular architecture is through what is not and through borderline cases, through the understanding and analysis of different points of view and definitions, and through the comparison with various fields of human life are necessary and essential for the determination of the objectives and goals in a specific architectural research of this kind, and of course to the writing, and also reading and of it. A redirection or application of it’s necessity and essentiality to the entire field of architecture was made by one of the most influential architects of history: “The true basis for any serious study of the art of architecture is in those indigenous structures, more humble buildings everywhere...�(21)

21. F. L. Wright, Studies and Executed Buildings, Rizzoli, New York 1998, p.6


As seen in the first part, vernacular architecture is strictly related to a geographical place through its native societies. The following part is an examination of the background for the architecture of rural Himachal Pradesh. It tries to provide an outlook to a series of given conditions, which will later be followed by their analogue architectural solutions

A Framework of Rural Himachal Pradesh


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1- Location of Himachal Pradesh in India


2 - Map of Himachal Pradesh


Topography & Physical Geography Himachal Pradesh is a hilly and mountainous state. Its neighbors are Jammu and Kashmir to the north, Punjab to the west and southwest, Haryana and Uttaranchal to the south and Tibet to the east. The territory of the state is mountainous, except for a few pockets bordering Punjab and Haryana, which have a sub-mountainous topography. Altitude in different areas ranges from 350 to 7000 metres above the mean sea level. Wide differences 3 - Himachal Pradesh in geophysical features account for considerable topographic map variation in the climate and rainfall of different sub-regions of the state. Physiographically, the state is part of the Himalayan system. From south-west to north-east it can be topographically divided into four zones: (fig.3) 1) The Shivaliks or outer Himalayas 2) Inner Himalayas or mid-mountains 3) Alpine zone or the greater Himalayas 4) Trance Himalayas

6000-7500 elevations in metres

The lower hills of Kangra, Hamirpur, Una, Bilaspur and the lower parts of Mandi, Solan and Sirmaur districts are part of the Shivalik range. The altitude of this zone varies from 350 metres to 1500 metres above the mean sea level. The annual rainfall varies from 1500 mm. to 1800 mm. Since it is made up of consolidated deposits, which can erode easily, the zone experiences deforestation and a high rate of soil erosion. It is suitable for the cultivation of maize, wheat, ginger, sugarcane, paddy, table potatoes and citrus fruits.

4500-6000 3000-4500 1800-3000 1350-1800 900-1350 600-900 300-600

The altitude of the inner Himalayas or the mid mountains ranges between 1500 metres and 4500 metres above mean sea level. This zone includes areas such as the upper parts of Sirmaur district, Chachiot and Karsog tehsil of Mandi district, and upper parts of Chamba district. The quality of soil in these areas ranges from silty loam to clay loam to dark brown color and is useful for seed potatoes and temperate fruits. From the horticultural point of view, this area is suitable for stone and soft fruits. 25

The greater Himalayas or the Alpine zone has an altitude of 4500 metres above mean sea level. This area comprises Kinnaur district, Chamba district and some areas of Lahaul and Spiti. Rainfall is scanty in this zone. The soil has high texture with variable fertility. The climate is temperate and semi arctic in winter. The climate and the soil are best suited to the cultivation of dry fruits. From October to March-April, this zone remains cut off from the rest of the world.(22) The Trans-Himalayan zone lies to the north of the Greater Himalayas with an average elevation of 3000 meters and is marked by cold desert-like conditions. The Zanskar range is the most important range in the region. It separates Spiti and Kinnaur from Tibet. The Sutluj cuts a deep gorge across the range at Shipki Pass. Leo Parigial (6791m) is the highest peak. The zone is devoid of vegetation.

Climate The climate of Himachal Pradesh varies from semitropical to the semi-arctic depending on the altitude. It has three seasons, which have an impact on its economic development. (fig.4) The rainy season lasts from July to September, winter from October to March and summer from April to June. During summer, there is an influx of tourists to the state both from within the country and abroad.

Particulars and Characteristics

Sub Himalayan or Outer Shivalik

Lower Himalayan ranges or Mid-hill zone

Higher Himalayan ranges or High-hill zone

Cold Himalayan or Trance Himalayan zone


up to 800m

800m - 1600m

1600m - 2700m

1600m - 3600m

Type of Area

Valleys and foothills

Hilly and Mountain ranges

Alpine zone

Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur range

Climate conditions


Slight warm temperature

Cool temperature with humidity 1000 - 1500

Dry and cold temperature mostly snowy 500

Rainfall (in mm)


1500 - 3000

% of total geographical area



% of total cultivated area





Important crops

Wheat, paddy, maize, gram, sugarcane, mustard, vegetables, potato

Wheat, paddy, maize, barley, ginger, pulses, vegetables

Wheat, millets, buck, barley, quality seed, vegetables, potato

Wheat, amanthus, buck, barley, quality seed, potato

Guava, citrus, litchi, mango, etc.

Plum, apricot, peaches, walnut, pomegranate, pears

Chest nut, walnut, apple, cherry, etc.

Grapes, prune, raisin, chilgoza, apricot, etc.





Five perennial rivers — Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Yamuna — flow through the state. The river system in the Himalayas cannot be exploited for irrigation as fully as in the plains, but it is the source of water for the Indus river basin. The undulating terrain limits the utility of these rivers for irrigation. During the rains, the flow in the rivers is heavy and in winter, with snowfall and the water frozen at higher altitudes, they 22. India Planning Commission, Himachal Pradesh - development report, Academic Foundation, New Delhi 2005, p. 43-45


shrink into narrow streams. These rivers, however, provide ample scope for the generation of hydro-electric power. (23)

Vegetation The diversity of altitude and climate has given Himachal Pradesh a rich variety of flora. Covering nearly two-thirds of the total area of the state, forests form an important source of income, providing raw material for industries, fodder and nutritious grasses for livestock and resources to meet the needs of agriculturists and other people. They are also a source of herbs, drugs and construction material. The forests in Himachal cover 66.5% of the state’s area (fig.5) and can be divided into four forest zones: 1. Sub-tropical forests: Consist of foothills and valleys up to an elevation of about 915 meters. comprises dry deciduous, chir pine, sal and thorny forests.

5 - Forest coverage in Himachal Pradesh

2. Sub-temperate forests: Extend from 915 meters to about 1520 meters. Various species of pines, oaks and broad-leafed species grow in this zone that makes good pasture lands. 3. Wet-temperate forests: From 1520 to 2470 meters above sea level. These forests have been categorized as lower Western Himalayan temperate forests consisting of conifers (mostly Cedars which provide the typical construction timber), oaks and various deciduous trees and Western Himalayan temperate forests, which consist of firs, oaks and rhododendron species found in alpine zones. 4. Dry-temperate forests: Above 2470 meters. The area contains scattered trees and bushes such as chilgoza, willow, robinia, ailanthus, poplars and alpine pastures interspersed with bushes such as ephedra. 23. India Planning Commission, Himachal Pradesh - development report, Academic Foundation, New Delhi 2005, p. 60


Most of the villages in the state are situated on steep slopes and are either adjacent to or enclosed by forests, which are thus deeply integrated with the livelihood of the local people. They depend on the forests for timber for the construction of houses, firewood, agricultural implements, fodder and a variety of other products and services, including certain medicinal herbs. (fig.6) The government of Himachal Pradesh allows local people to harvest timber legally in forests near their place of habitation, for constructing their own houses.


Value and quantities of Forest Products in Himachal Pradesh (2000-01)

Name of Product Timber Firewood Charcoal Resin Bhabbar Grass Grazing Fodder Medicinal Plants Other minor products Khair Total

Unit of Measurement 1000 M3 Tons Tons Qtls. Qtls. Qtls. Qtls. Qtls. Qtls. —


Estimated Value (Rs. in 100,000)

341766 2696 60 73567 400 — 19719 2150 21630 —

21791.5 76.9 3.4 475.0 0.2 13.4 667.2 70.6 31.5 23129.7

Deodar (cedar) and kail (pine) are best suited for the construction of houses because of their durability. But the main focus of the government in the past has been on harvesting fir/spruce to meet the fruit growers’ demand for boxes. In 1999-2000, more than 45 per cent of the total wood extracted was deodar and about 25 per cent kail. Besides timber, the forests of Himachal are rich in fodder, grass and other grazing plants, organic manure and fibre, gum, resins, medicinal plants/herbs and other products including fruits. Some of these herbs are found only in Himachal Pradesh and many might still have remained undiscovered.(24)

Economy The physiography of the state also determines its economic potential. Agriculture in general is handicapped by the steep and hilly terrain, hazards of climate, small and scattered holdings, thin stony soil, limited irrigation and a limited cultivated area, only about 10 per cent. There is little scope for expanding the cultivated area. However, the state has overcome the absence of adequate land - by resorting to horticulture and optimal use of the cultivated area. Himachal Pradesh has 16,997 inhabited villages and over 90% of the state’s population lives in rural areas. Almost 74% of the rural population is employed in agriculture,(fig.7)most of them cultivat24. India Planning Commission, Himachal Pradesh - development report, Academic Foundation, New Delhi 2005, p. 73-84


ing their crops independently and for the fulfillment of their own household needs. The important crops and fruits cultivated are represented in (fig.4). Despite sufficient resources in particular areas, 7 Rural / Urban Population in Himachal (2001) Total Population in 100,00 % of Total Population Himachal’s industrial potential is one of the least in Total Rural Urban Rural Urban India. Only a small proportion of the population is 60.77 54.82 5.95 90.2 9.8 engaged in industry. Its remote location, geographic Distribution of Total Rural Workers in Himachal (2001) conditions, such as difficult terrain and severe winter, Cultivator Agricultural Worker in Other lack of transport facilities and other infrastructure, Labour Household Industry Workers have negatively affected industrial development. 70.43 3.29 1.71 24.57 However, industry is gradually picking up, even in these difficult conditions, although mainly in the urban parts.(fig.8) 8

(At 1993-94 Constant Prices)

Sectoral Distribution of SDP of Himachal Pradesh, 1970-71 to 2000-01 1970-71







A. Primary Agriculture and animal husbandry Forestry and logging Fishing Mining and quarrying Total (A)

39.02 17.13 0.06 0.09 56.29

41.68 13.28 0.07 0.15 55.19

34.95 12.11 0.27 0.76 48.09

34.97 6.90 0.30 1.38 43.54

31.77 6.62 0.36 1.49 40.24

24.37 6.54 0.30 0.94 32.14

19.52 4.67 0.21 1.10 25.50

B. Secondary Manufacturing Registered Unregistered Construction Electricity, gas and water supply Total (B)

5.30 2.36 2.95 13.58 0.06 18.95

4.17 1.48 2.69 14.16 0.16 18.49

2.26 1.05 1.21 18.23 -0.40 20.09

3.99 2.54 1.45 15.29 2.48 21.76

6.05 4.54 1.51 12.90 3.44 22.38

10.04 7.73 2.31 15.54 5.97 31.55

11.23 8.84 2.40 15.54 5.22 32.00

2.01 0.09 1.43 0.49 3.11 0.62

2.04 0.10 1.36 0.58 3.90 0.91

1.79 0.10 0.67 1.02 7.66 1.43

2.03 0.10 0.71 1.23 8.29 2.41

1.24 0.07 0.66 0.51 8.83 3.93

1.55 0.05 1.05 0.46 8.99 4.01

2.40 0.07 1.61 0.71 8.76 4.86

6.41 4.89 7.72 24.76

6.25 5.62 7.60 26.32

6.60 5.90 8.43 31.82

6.44 6.87 8.65 34.69

5.51 7.86 10.01 37.38

5.08 6.50 10.17 36.30

4.22 9.27 12.99 42.50

C. Tertiary Transport, storage and communication Railways Transport by other means and storage Communication Trade, hotel and restaurants Banking and insurance Real estate and ownership of dwellings and business services Public administration Other services Total (C)


There are some additional constraints, associated with the geographical features and climate of a hilly region. These are, for instance, shorter productive man years and lower physical productivity at high altitudes - and the difficulty in developing alternative means of transport and communication. Livestock keeping is very common in Himachal and a big part of the rural domestic economy is based on the dairy products, eggs, meat and wool. 19 out of every 20 households keep at least one of the species of livestock. This effects also the architecture - keeping the livestock and the grass necessary for its alimentation in winter time is taken in consideration when building a house. Animals are kept in a wide variety of husbandry systems and in different numbers - from a single cow kept for the family to large herds and flocks maintained in a range of systems.(25) Bovine is most common species. Of the total households in the state, 91.3% have bovine. Goat is the next most important livestock. Nearly one-fourth of the total households keep goat. Similarly, two out of every five households keep a sheep. Rearing of pigs is rare. However, households keeping poultry accounted for 5.54% of the total households in the state. In 1992, the state accounted for 1.1% of India’s livestock population while its human population was 0.6%.(26) Himachal is also a home for a variety of semi-nomadic (rather than nomadic because they combine the seasonal movement of livestock with seasonal cultivation) people Gaddis (fig.9), who practice long distance herding of sheep and goats from range to range and their flocks are migratory in nature through well defined routes in Himalayan pasture(27).These people also have permanent homes.

9 - A Gaddi with his sheep and seasonal home

Another sector of Himachal’s growing economy is tourism. For a place that has been relatively isolated and hard to reach until recent years, the growing numbers of domestic and foreign tourism (fig.10) can contribute not only financially, but also in many other ways. The knowledge and 25. K.P. Jithendran & T.K. Bhat, Epidemiology and Control of Parasitism in Nomadic Situations in Himachal Pradesh, in ENVIS Bulletin: Himalayan Ecology & Development, Volume 9, Almora 2001 26. India Planning Commission, Himachal Pradesh - development report, Academic Foundation, New Delhi 2005, p. 225-230 27. V. Bhasin & D. Singh, Migration of Sheep in Himachal Pradesh-constraints and solutions, International Journal of Animal Sciences, p.145-146


technologies people from outside the region bring, together with the need to accommodate them fuels the economy, the infrastructure and also the architecture of the region. In only 13 years the number of international tourists has increased in almost 2400%, a figure that implies the process of “internationalization” of the state, a process that is well perceived in almost all parts of Himachal.



Data on Tourist Arrivals in HP

(in 100,000)





1997 1998 1999 2000

38.30 41.20 43.52 45.70

0.63 0.75 0.91 1.11

38.93 41.95 44.43 46.81

2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010

58.5 77.5 95.5 113.0 121.5 128.0 135.0

1.5 2.5 4.5 7.0 9.5 12.0 15.0

60 80 100 120 130 140 150

“Access, communication and energy are key issues in sustainable development of mountain areas. Experience has shown that they are very powerful agents of change, not only, but especially in mountains. Access, communication and energy in mountain regions also involve vital linkages between these regions and adjacent lowlands, centres of population, and industrialized and urbanized areas .”(28) Infrastructures in Himachal, and in general, can be divided into several areas; this section will concentrate on the ones with higher effect on the region’s architecture: 1. Roads 2. Railways 3. Water supply 4. Energy Roads are an important component considering the geography of Himachal Pradesh. There are national highways, border roads, state highways, and other arterial and rural roads. At Independence, Himachal Pradesh started with nearly no roads, but has done well to build an estimated 27,737 km of motorable roads by 31 December 2002. And still there are 16997 inhabited villages in Himachal, at the end of 2002 less than 50% of them were connected by roads.(29) Moreover, the total road length mentioned is only a count of the total road formation in the state. Only 45% of this road formation is metalled and tarred, the remaining being bare road surface. Thus, less than 50% of the roads are all weather roads. This is startling data for a state that seeks to move quickly 28. T. Kohler from Thomas Kohler, Hans Hurni, Urs Wiesmann & Andreas Kläy, Mountain Infrastructure: Access, Communication, and Energy, UNEP/Bishkek Global Mountain Summit 2002, p.1 29. India Planning Commission, Himachal Pradesh - development report, Academic Foundation, New Delhi 2005, p. 306-311


on the tourism front. This is not restricted only to remote areas, but is seen all over the state. As seen clearly in the map (fig.11), Himachal is not accessible from the north, and from the east only from one point, leaving the greater Himalayan range 11 - Himachal Pradesh untouched. road map Considering the difficulty in building roads, railways are almost impossible to build under these conditions. Himachal Pradesh is home to two of India’s five heritage hill railway networks, the Kalka-Shimla line (96 km) and the Pathankot-Jogindernagar line (113 km), but other than that Himachal has given up on railway as a transport medium. (fig.12) Alternative means of transport, for people and merchandise, are also in use in Himachal. Ropeways (fig.13) present an economic choice and is highly adaptable and easy to build (compared to roads or railways) in terrains such those in Himachal. 12 - Himachal Pradesh railway map

13 - A ropeway in Kinnaur valley

Water, even though found naturally and abundantly in the region, can present another infrastructural debate point for the region. Because of high altitude terrain and undulating topography, drinking water is mainly obtained from streams or traditional resources. The pollution, lack of sanitation and open air defecation, leads to contamination of surface water. 32

Water pollutants create a wide variety of problems by entering into the food chain. Overexploitation of natural resources and dumping of hazardous wastes further aggravates the problem. Being unhygienic, it results in pollution and can spread diseases like hill dysentery. Since villages are sparsely populated and distantly located, the arrangement of drinking water leads to the problem of high costs. With the coming up of National Rural Drinking Water Supply guidelines in 2009, and after realignment/mapping of habitations, 53205 habitations (in 16997 villages) were found in the state. Out of these, 19473 habitations (37%) have inadequate drinking water. This data, at least in Himachal’s case, doesn’t necessarily mean inaccessibility for drinking water, but implies the necessity to walk further to the next traditional source to get it. Energy consumption in Himachal is pretty low and is satisfied through various sources. The region achieved 100% electricity connection of villages - and is now almost through with connecting all hamlets too. Even though the connection exists, it is not yet reliable and biofuels still dominate the household energy needs, with 93% households using fuel wood. While wood and kerosene are used for cooking and heating, electricity is the predominant source of lighting and provides almost 90% of domestic light consumption. Fuel wood collection takes its toll on human resources and shows that household members typically walk 30 Km and spend 41 hours collecting fuel wood a month.(30) The Himachali terrain presents an infrastuctural challenge to its habitants. The critical issue here is – accessibility. This is both in terms of the local citizens, and for societies outside the region. For residents, infrastructure brings in products and services like energy and raw materials, necessary for survival and economic sustainability. It also brings in the tourist, with possibilities of dramatic rise in societal incomes. For people outside the region, it opens up new markets.

Demography This demographic section tries to provide a statistical background for the understanding of the people found in Himachal Pradesh and addresses the issue from a more analytical point of view. The figures presented here will be followed by more descriptive and extended explanations on all people related topics like the culture, society and religion in the rural parts of Himachal. The population in Himachal grew from 1.9 million in 1901 to 6.1 million in 2001, much of this 30. J. Parikh, The Energy Poverty and Gender Nexus in Himachal Pradesh, India: The Impact of Clean Fuel Access Policy on Women’s Empowerment, New Delhi 2005


14 Decadal growth

Population 2011

Sex ratio (n. of females per 1000 males)

Population density (people per km2)

Life expectancy at birth






















Age structure

Infant Mortality rate

0 - 14

15 - 59





2001 59 (for 1000 births)

Literacy rate

rural population

Average size of households











expansion has been indigenous, as the contribution of immigration from other states in India and from countries outside India was insignificant. To quantify, the share of such international and interstate migrants in total population of the state in 1991 varied between 2.7-5.2%. According to the 2011 census of India, Himachal’s population counts 6.85 million, out of which 6.17 million is rural. The two tables (fig.14,15) outline the main human demographic characteristics of Himachal. Some figures vary drastically from district to district in the state. The population density in the district of Lahaul & Spiti, the only district in Himachal with 100% rural population, is 2 people per km2, while it reaches 406 people for km2 in the district of Hamirpur. Almost all of the figures vary according to the physiographic conditions; Density, life expectancy and literacy rates are lower when examining villages in higher altitudes, and the rural population and infant mortality rate are higher in those places. Hospitals and schools are rare in higher altitudes and the social and economic structures of the villages there suffer significantly less alteration than the villages closer to the plains. The scheduled castes population in Himachal is 24.72%, when some villages are composed completely of them. In some higher castes villages the scheduled ones are partially integrated - they are allowed to live there, though still only in destined parts of the village, and can take part in some of village activities. The scheduled tribes population in Himachal is concentrated in the districts of Lahaul & Spiti and Kinnaur and is equal to 4.02% of the total state population. An important statistic that wasn’t shown in the tables is the mean age of marriage, 16.5 years for 34

the scheduled castes and tribes and 17 years for the rest.(31) A comparison of these key parameters of development between Himachal and the rest of India determines the advance state of progress in the region, especially when considering that it is the least urbanized state in India. Himachal is ranked 11th out of 35 states in literacy rate, has an infant mortality rate lower than the Indian average in 12 deaths for 1000 children and the life expectancy of the population is 4 years higher than country’s average.(32) In general, when compared to world’s figures, the demography of Himachal is one of only a slightly less developed region. Life expectancy is only 2.7 years less than the world average, sex ratio is lower in 25 females for 1000 males than average, literacy and age structure are practically the same and infant mortality rate is slightly higher. Considering Himachal’s percentage of rural population, the region shows a surprisingly high development status.(33)

Ethnicity, Culture & Religion This section was originally meant to be divided in two - social structure and religion. After examining the two parts, a decision to unite them was made. Social structure, ethnicity and religion in the rural parts of Himachal are impossible to separate - the caste system and position in the society, the marriages and births, the everyday life activities and festivals are all interwoven into a unique and inimitable way of life. The description of society and culture is made through what we may confuse with religion because of words like god (or deity) and rituals, but they understand and live as a whole. Himachal Pradesh can be classified into two distinctive zones on cultural grounds. The first one is inhabited by tribes or semi-nomadic, semi-agricultural and semi pastoral people living in the great Himalayas. The districts of Lahaul and Spiti, Kinnaur, Upper Shimla, Upper Kullu, remote areas of Sirmaur, Chamba and Kangra districts fall in this zone. The people of these areas are an admixture of the Indo-Aryan or Mongolian stock. These are Kinnaures, Lahules, Gaddis, Gujjars and more. The other zone consists of the Outer Himalaya or the Shivalik and mid-Himalaya. The people of this zone have much in common with the people of the plains of Punjab and Haryana. The caste patterns, value systems and traditions are also similar to 31. R. N. Pati & Lalitendu Jagatdeb, Tribal Demography in India, APH Publishing, New Delhi 1991 32. Census of India 2011, 33. CIA World FactBook,


those of Punjab and Haryana. The main caste groups in Himachal Pradesh are Rajputs and Brahmins, which still lay particular stress on the purity of race, caste, gotra and family. The tribes can be categorized as Gaddis, Gujjars and Bhots. These castes are further classified as general castes, the Scheduled Castes, Other Backward Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. All of these ethnicities live under a certain and very felt guidance, the next quotation decided to call religion: “The religion in tribal areas, centres entirely around the principal village deity who commanded the God’s position. The principal village deity is a divinity, doctor, magistrate, judge, the chief executive, an astrologer, the village hero, the cynosure of all eyes etc. rolled into one.�(34) The region of Himachal Pradesh has a strong religious identity and in fact was called 'Deva Bhoomi' (the land of the gods). Most of the population of Himachal Pradesh are Hindus, 95.77% of the total population, and the quote above refers particularly to them. The Muslims occupy the second position with 1.63% and have some concentration in Chamba, Kangra and Sirmur. The Buddhists constitute a little more than 1% of the population and live in the Trans-Himalayan areas of Lahaul and Spiti, Kinnaur and Kullu while the Sikhs (1.2%) are found here and there with some concentration in Kangra, Shimla, Mandi and Sirmur districts. The Christian population is 0.1%. The people of Himachal Pradesh are bound by the ties of common religion, though religious observances differ. By and large, they have maintained their original form of worship. The large majority of people are Hindu by faith, devoted to traditional gods. Every village, whether it consists of twenty hamlets or a few hundreds of them, has a village deity and the people have a firm, almost a blind belief in them, whether the deity is a divinity, a hero, a rishi or otherwise. He (or she in some cases) is a protector and a source of inspiration for all the village.(35) Almost every village has a temple where the habitants congregate for common worship. Those temples are found abundantly in Himachal (approximately 2000, 16 - Celebrating a local holiday outside the village temple, Rashol, Kullu 34. R. Pathania & P. Pathani, Religious Beliefs among Tribal of Himachal Pradesh, Palampur 2008 35. K. S. Gulia, Mountains of the God, Isha books, New Delhi 2007


offering a variety of architectural styles that have been identified and will be discussed later on) and provide a place for several functions and events like an everyday meeting place, a place for solitude, a passing point for the processions or where the villagers throw festivals (fig.16) and fairs. During processions (fig.17) devtas go on tour in their deitydom, carried by representatives of the village. Sometimes they travel to distant places and such travels are called yatra in general.

17 - A procession in Kullu valley

The deities are propitiated to obtain timely rain, good harvest or other favours. People believe that their gods are generally well disposed towards the worshippers, and confer their blessings on them. If, however, they are not appeased in proper form, they become angry and, in their wrath, allow the evil spirits to pray on the people in the form of epidemic diseases and other calamities, but also in the form of everyday life signs. For instance, In dangerous corners of the hilly foot-path there may be a mound of stones and some flags (fig.18) or pieces of cloth tied to some of them or to a nearby tree. This is considered to be the abode of the spirit of the hill-side who has to be appeased if a slip is to be avoided and every passer-by is expected to throw a stone on the mound. If there be some large trees of particular species they may also be home to the forest-deity. Also if there is a piece of wood stuck near patches of cultivation it may be the symbol showing the spirit of the soil who has been worshipped. 18- Everyday symbol of faith Animals sacrifice is also a major religious rite and is performed at weddings, funerals, festivals, harvest time, or when asking forgiveness for a sin from the deity. These are examples of practicing religion in a vernacular way. These devtas not only influence social and cultural life of the people but also have impact on their economic activities. There are certain norms that have to be respected. Defaulters at the same time are penalized, and those who keep up their morals and conduct truthful and straight are blessed 37

with prosperity. It has been a custom that a part of the produce from land is presented to the deity. The grains so collected are used in the functions of the deity and the money received by way of offerings and donations is utilized for the purchase of utensils, bands and for other community purposes. Even the money collected by imposing penalty by the devta on the defaulters is also a part of his income.(36) Other religions and ways of living are found in Himachal, but are significantly less present and have almost no architectural expressions in the region. Lamaistic Buddhism is practiced in the Trans-Himalayan areas. It assimilates the mysticism of the northern school of Buddhism. The priest or the Lama is the friend, philosopher and guide of the Buddhists. He guides them in spiritual matters, foretells events, determines lucky and unlucky days, practices medicine, exorcises evil spirits, performs magic and regulates the destiny of the living and the dead.(37) As seen, religion - if to call it that way - plays an important role in shaping the culture, traditions and habitats and thus the architecture of Himachal and will be examined more deeply in the next chapter.

36. M. G. Singh, Wooden Temples of Himachal Pradesh, Indus Publishing, New Delhi 1999 37. J. F. Fisher, Himalayan Anthropology: the Indo-Tibetan Interface, Mouton, The Hague 1978


The framework of Himachal presented before was made for a certain scope. After examining and reflecting on vernacular architecture and the importance of its generative environment, it is clear why examining the environmental, cultural, economic, etc... conditions of a place is necessary to understand why the architecture was shaped in a certain way. This part of the thesis tries to find the ways in which the vernacular architecture of Himachal reflects the conditions examined before, and will be done through the analysis of Kath-Khuni, the local architectural style.

Vernacular Architecture in Himachal Pradesh


Initial Considerations, Layout Planning & Site Preparation The construction of a hamlet or village usually starts near resources like agricultural land, water, etc. Prior to the start of construction, due consideration is given to a large number of factors. A hamlet or a village develop when there is more than one hut and a small temple, dedicated to the local deity, is gradually added. Thus from 1 - Building a singular structure of a hut, a small settlement is developed. A typical along contours mountain village comprises of a compact group of houses arranged along the contours (fig.1), of preferably south facing slope. In a typical village, one sees a community courtyard, village temple (which doesn’t necessarily have a pre-determined position within the village context), family courtyards, individual houses and a community or individual granaries, when their positions vary from village to village. (fig.2,3) The construction in most of the Himachali villages is not supervised by the means western society knows. There is no urban planning or an authority that makes rules or gives directions, or even standardize the building of new houses and the relation between them. Public spaces, except the temple and its adjacent community court yard, are being formed almost in a complete random way from the western point of view. The use of public space (fig.4,5,6) is determined randomly and constantly changing - one day it can host a village meal cooked and dined at the spot and the next one it can serve as a cricket field or just as a point in which people stop, talk and rest for a while.

4 - Use of public spaces - meal

5 - Use of public spaces - playground

6 - Use of public spaces - meeting point


2 - A typical village cluster, Dhagoli, Shimla district Village temple Family courtyard Granary Community courtyard

3 - A typical village cluster, Rashol, Kullu Granary

Family courtyard

Village temple Community courtyard


The open balconies and stone plinths are the penetration of the houses into the common spaces and vice-versa. These elements create a filter space which brings out the inhabitants of the house and takes in the people passing by. All these transitional spaces, right outside the balconies and plinths are primarily occupied by the people living in the house - but not necessarily - they can be considered as common spaces. In some villages the social structure is the most important factor when deciding on the position of the houses. The village of Malana in Kullu district represents a particular case, not only from the village cluster organization point of view. It is inhabited exclusively by Rajputs, aside from two Lower caste families. The Rajputs have four hierarchical sub-divisions. This particular social structure created a situation where the village is divided in two - upper and lower Malana - the hierarchically higher sub-divisions reside in the upper village, the rest of the Rajputs in the lower one and the lower castes who are not Rajputs stay in the lowest place in a little bit outside the village. Topographical constraints are also a very important matter. Preparation of layout plans in hill area for the construction of different types of buildings and housing clusters is much more complicated in comparison to the preparation in the plains. Layout planning is complicated due to constraints of hilly terrain for construction of buildings and roads beyond certain degree of slope. The major factors that govern the planning are topography, climatic conditions, orientation, traffic movement, available usable spaces, sources of water supply, natural drains and paths, but also factors regarding local culture and traditions. Gentle slopes are required to lessen the cost and time of site preparation and development, and less excavation is preferable. Suitable clearance around the buildings is necessary. Foundation of any part of the building should not rest on filled up ground. Due to the cold climate, the southern slopes are preferred. The orientation of the houses is set to maximize the penetration of the sun rays. Site susceptible to high winds, storms, floods and landslides should be avoided.(38) Since the inner side of the cut slope may have higher bearing capacity, cutting buildings should be oriented and planned so as to enhance that higher load comes on inner side. Where the site seems to filling undergo unequal settlement, the site should be stilts planned and designed in a way that the stacking higher load comes on harder part of 7 - Different methods of site preparation 38. M. Jain, I Singh & S.C. Sharma, Traditional Architecture and Planning Techniques in Himachal Pradesh, 2005


foundation and soil. Terrace in and around the building should have proper slope for efficient drainage.(39) The diagram (fig.7) above shows 4 different ways of the site preparation in hilly terrain - stacking units in a certain angle, using stilts, filling a “missing� part with stones and earth, cutting the earth to make place for the house. Tradition also dictates certain rituals, beliefs and ceremonies in the construction of houses. The Indian calendar months of Baisakh, Poh, Magh and Phalgun are regarded as auspicious for the start of construction. Ideally, the main aspect of the house should face east and the rising sun. Given the topography of most of the state, this is not always possible and a northern or western orientation is acceptable. The house must never face south as that is considered to impoverish the family. The medium ('Goor', 'Chela' or 'Mali') of the local deity plays a major role in site selection and in placing the foundations of the house. He prays either at the site itself or over a stone brought from the place where the house is to be built. He then divines an auspicious time for the start of construction. Along with the master builder the person who is building the house goes to the site well before dawn. Certain auspicious items are carried along and prayers are offered. The corner stone is then placed and the endeavour is to set the first line of stones before light, so that the keystone remains secret. Elaborate rituals are also observed when the main door frame and the roof-beam are placed.

8 -View of the lower dense part of Rashol, Kullu 39 -M. Jain, I Singh & S.C. Sharma, Traditional Architecture and Planning Techniques in Himachal Pradesh, 2005


Typology, Spatial Organization & Functions Kath-khuni houses follow a specific modular system in their spatial organization as well as in their construction. The modular unit is a cuboid. (fig.9) The smallest houses are single cuboids stacked in two or three layers (ground level, first level, second level). The size of the house increases by placing cuboids side-by-side and then extending the larger rectangular units up by one or two levels. The largest house is three side-by-side stacked cuboids extending up three levels. Closer examination of the interior spaces of these houses reveals half levels and intermediate spaces not obvious from the external viewpoint. The complexity of each house, its position in the village, the decoration and the delineation of space is a representation of the size of the family, their socioeconomic status and their adaptation to the changes occurring in their work and livelihoods.(40) There is a distinct pattern in the spatial organization followed throughout the residential built forms in Himachal Pradesh. The gaushala (animal shed) is on the ground floor, storage rooms on the middle floor and kitchen / living spaces on the topmost floors. In the case of two story houses the living / kitchen is on the first floor and thus there is less inside room for storage that occupies the veranda. When the house is large, there are often extra spaces inserted in the greater volume that are not visible from the outside. These spaces within the house are connected on the outside of the house through transitional spaces like plinths, balconies / verandas (open, semi-enclosed or closed), and stairs. On the inside these spaces can be accessed through series of trapdoors in the floor and wooden ladders. Each level of the house adjusts to the changing seasons of the extreme climate. It is a cohesive and coherent unit. (fig.10a, 10b) Climate plays an important role in defining the use of space. In the warm sunny days the activities take place outside the house on balconies and plinths, while during the colder times, during winter and night, the daily activities are performed within the warmth of the wood-and-stone walls. Spatial features and construction details make kath-khuni houses appropriate for their environment. The doors and the windows are small allowing only one person or one cow to enter at a time. Frequently, the interior surface of the structural walls in the living space is made from the wooden planks. Small openings and wooden finishing are factors that prevent the heat loss during the cold winter and keep the interiors cool during the hot summer. The structural walls made with stone and wood layering have an infill of rubble that behaves as an 40. J. Thakkar & S. Morrison, Matra : ways of measuring vernacular built forms of Himachal Pradesh, SID Research Cell, School of Interior Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad 2008


9 - The smallest houses are single cuboids stacked in two or three layers (ground, first and second floor). The size of the house increases by placing cuboids side-by-side and then extending the larger rectangular units up by one or two levels. The largest house is three horizontally aggregated cuboids extending up three levels

Smallest residential unit - two stacked layers

Basic module

Horizontal aggregation of units / 2 floors houses

Horizontal aggregation of units / 3 floors houses


Cooking, eating, sleeping, hosting, private family activities, studying, small craftsmanship

Storage - fire-wood, fodder for cattle, laundry drying

winter 10a

Gaushala (cattle shed)

Smallest residential unit - two stacked layers

Fire-wood collected in advance has its place on the balconies

summer 10b

Cooking, eating, sleeping, hosting, private family activities


Social activities, household activities, laundry drying

Seasonal fruits/vegetables sun-drying

gaushala (cattle shed) / storage / social activities

Social activities with a public character

During summer the open balconies bring out social and economic activities


insulation zone. In winter time the balconies act also as storage for fire-wood and grass for the cattle, which provides another layer of wind protection and insulation. The heat from the animals bodies in the gaushala rises up to keep the living spaces warm - the ceilings of the rooms are usually very low (circa 2.10m), which means the spaces heat up fast. The most common and almost only way to create heat is the stove, which is used also for cooking. The stove can be rammed earth with a pipe for the smoke, or a prismatic metal box with a small door on its side for the infill of the wood and several round holes with metal caps on the top for pots and pans, also with a pipe that carries out the smoke. Stoves are mostly found in the center of the rooms. That way the heat is equally distributed, and there is more place for people to sit around it. (fig.11a, 11b) A series of trap doors and vents in roof allow the air circulation to take place keeping the interior environment fresh. The curvilinear gable or pent-and-gable roof allows some amount of snow to settle on the roof acting as the insulation during harsh winters. When you gather all of these components together you have a tight, sound and flexible living space that is adapted to changing conditions in a remote zone.(41) The houses represent the local behavioral patterns and habits in a very distinct way. The living rooms play also the role of a guest room, a kitchen, a sleeping room and are very dynamic spaces. A single household contains practically all of its members, including the cattle, and provides space for all necessary activities. Privacy within the family unit is almost non existent - all family members sleep together in one space, that was minutes before the living room or dining room that hosted the family and their casual guests from the village. It is very common to encounter situations in which houses are being visited with people that come and go regularly. Community life shows itself clearly everyday and in every house. The social arrangement within a family and the sense of community are important factors that justify the linear organization of spaces with large semi-covered veranda. The same building could have 2 to 3 families living together, having separate kitchen and living area. This family structure is neither that of joint family nor nuclear, however certain spaces like veranda, open yard and grain store are shared. This arrangement of families living together with each having an ownership of a vertical slice of enclosed space along with certain shared spaces is reflected in a plan which is linear thereby ensuring equal climatic advantages to all the families.(fig.12)(42) 41. J. Thakkar & S. Morrison, Matra : ways of measuring vernacular built forms of Himachal Pradesh, SID Research Cell, School of Interior Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad 2008 42. P. Shankar, Understanding Change in Himalayan Vernacular Houses, School Architecture, CEPT University, Ahmedabad 2006


winter 11a Smallest residential unit - two stacked layers

During winter economy concentrates on small craftsmanship which take place indoor The stove has a prominent role during winter; heating, cooking, eating, socializing and even washing are all based on its presence

summer 11b

During summer village life finds itself outside



family 1 family 2

Four units - two families

shared/connecting spaces

longitudinal section

Each family owns a vertical slice of the building when the cohabitation is enabled by the balconies.

first floor

ground floor


Construction Materials & Techniques Kath-Khuni is the most common construction technique (fig.13) in Himachal and can be technically termed as ‘Cator and Cribbage’. Richard Hughes, who examined vernacular techniques (in relation to earthquake hazards and preparation) in Pakistan, described it as the most elaborate of these timber earthquake techniques. It dates back some 1000 years but still to be seen being built in some remote areas.(43) center line of internal wall or roof/floor beam

Kath-khuni houses have been made for generations by a cooperative effort of local people with the help of specialist traditional builders, craftsmen and masons. Kath-khuni building is, at this time, the dominant form in the built ber environment of the villages in Himachal r tim o t ca Pradesh. The performance of kath-khuni crib building houses is enacted entirely by bag ner cor e co l a n lum members of a local community who n exter 13 - Kath-Khuni wood structure, gaps to be filled with stone / rubble know the script (spatial organization), the audience (the users themselves), the props (local materials) and the tools (traditional construction techniques). It has been a continuous performance over generations, wherein, as and when required, new vernacular built forms are constructed, and repairs, additions, alterations and improvements are carried out on the existing ones. The houses are constructed with two local materials: Himalayan slate, a dark grey-layered stone that absorbs heat and is impermeable to moisture, and Deodar timber, a type of mountain cedar which is moisture resistant and climatic and seismic changes adjustable. The wood functions as a floating frame for the building. This wood is milled into beams and frequently is elaborately carved as part of the meaning of the building. The slate stone is the infill for the frame and creates the walls and often the exterior steps of the structure. Slate is rough cut and placed in layers without any mortar. 43. R. Hughes, Cator and Cribbage Construction of Northern Pakistan, ICOMOS, unknown


The configuration of kath-khuni modular units in a house has four primary components: stone plinth, which creates the base of the house (fig.14), wood-and-stone structural walls (fig.15) forming the core of the house with floors as an insert, wooden balconies (fig.16) acting as the second skin of the house and finally the overhanging slate tile roof (curvilinear gable or pent-and-gable) fixed to the wooden framework, which caps the entire structure. (fig.17)


Starting to build the stone plinth - base of the house

A complete stone base



Wood & stone structural walls - a finished wall

Wood & stone structural walls - making the frame Bringing construction wood from the forests - already milled into beams



Wooden balconies - second skin of the house



A variety of roof styles in Malana (kullu district). in recent years metal sheets are replacing the slate tiles, but structure remains the same

A pent-and-gable roof tiles are simply laid on the wooden structure

Carrying a slate tile for the roof


Kath-khuni construction displays a repetitive system of using local materials tolerant of size and scale. The plinth of a kath-khuni house is constructed entirely of stone. The base of the structural wall is two parallel layers of stones installed flat. Depending on the size of the stone, the gap in middle is filled with random rubble. Larger stones are stacked up on the outer edge and the corners of the wall to provide stability. A greater use of stone at the base of the building creates a heavier and more stabile foundations. Starting from the stone base, the wall is constructed by layering both wood and stone. Side-by-side timber beams between layers of stone form a square or rectangular frame. The gap between the timber beams is completed with an infill of rubble to give mass and support to the frames. Wood frames the stone and anchors the structure to gravitational forces. Framing results in higher damping and allows dissipation of the energy of the earthquake quickly and evenly. The timber frame is repeated upward in construction with a stone layer in between. As the construction proceeds vertically, the height of the stone layer decreases and ultimately it is only the wood frame stacked on another wood frame that completes the structural wall. Slate shingles, which rest on the wooden framework, cap the building as the roof tiles. Though heavy, the slate shingles are made flexible by fixing them to the wooden framework with metal nails at a single pivot-point. This allows them to adjust to rain and snow and shed the load of moisture, preventing it from coming into the building. Pivot-point fixing also helps to dissipate energy during earthquakes. The overhang of the roof creates a stabilizing pressure on the walls. As the roof sheds its load during an earthquake, pivoting pegged stone tiles fall outside the perimeter of the main structure rather than collapsing inwards. After construction is finished, houses are commonly covered with cow dung mixed with mud and water to prevent wind or cold air from coming in. In the harsh mountainous terrain, kath-khuni construction is quick and efficient, employing stone that is close at hand and rubble as an alternative to slow setting mortar. Vernacular built forms employing kath-khuni construction are time-tested examples of living and breathing sustainable buildings. Construction does not require highly skilled carpenters or stonemasons or even specialized tools. In fact - the construction of a house involves the whole community - if only in carrying the stone and wood from the mountains and forest, a task done by men and women together, sometimes in specific days the villagers decide on, and in the bringing water and food to the construction site or carrying smaller objects, which is done by the children. It also includes eating


together after a day of work, or by exchanging local goods for the help in the building process. Construction can take place in stages, whenever materials and labor are available. The local raw materials are not adversely affected by seasonal changes. Walls of considerably thinner section can be made, getting maximum height with minimum material. There is rarely any wastage of materials and the means of construction are energy efficient. These buildings leave a lasting yet small footprint on the environment. These buildings are a living proof that vernacular built forms respond to the needs of their local users. (44) m

18 - Detail of a wooden balcony - the three levels horizontal joinery is supported by the side pillar and the diagonal beam connected to the wood and stone walls

side pillar

diagonal bea

44. J. Thakkar & S. Morrison, Matra : ways of measuring vernacular built forms of Himachal Pradesh, SID Research Cell, School of Interior Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad 2008


Architecture for the Deities In Himchal Pradesh - called Deva Bhoomi (land of the gods) - every village has its own temple dedicated to the local deity. These temples connect houses and granaries to the gods and protect those who come within the sight of the holy ground. These temples give essence to the village and create a strong sense of community - they are the living and dynamic institutions of these societies.(45) Temples are built with the same materials (wood and stone) and same construction techniques as the houses. The woodwork of these temples is richly carved with angular figurative folk pictures, where carving is the primary visual narrative form in these temples and is found on doors, beams, columns and ceilings. The temples is a pilgrimage point, a place of worship on the highest and most revered ground. The temple is where the past intersects with the present through beliefs, history, religious rituals and the importance of kings and patrons. It is a workshop of the greatest craftsmen and artist as well as the sincere efforts of the ordinary local people. The more remote the location, the greater the desire to be close to the gods and the more intense the forms of worship are expressed in temple buildings.(46) In other words - geographical isolation, and thus absence of knowledge and information, causes a different and more intense relationship with the deity. The temples also express a main characteristic of the social structures of the villages. In villages where the majority of the population is high caste, the lower castes (or even tourists for that matter) can’t enter the temple and a part of the community court yard, if adjacent. If a low caste Indian or a tourist touches the temple a fine is imposed on them in the form of sacrifice a sheep.(47) Typology of temples is classified mainly by the form of the roof, although some roof typologies are identical to those of the vernacular houses. They are divided into 7 main classifications: 1) Flat roof (fig.19) 2) Gable roof (fig.20) 3) Pent roof (fig.21a) 4) Pent and Gable roof (fig.21b)

5) Composite roof (fig.22) 6) Tower temples (fig.23) 7) Multi tiered pyramidal roof (fig.23)

45. J. Thakkar & S. Morrison, Matra : ways of measuring vernacular built forms of Himachal Pradesh, SID Research Cell, School of Interior Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad 2008 46. I. Cooper & B. Dawson, Traditional Buildings of India, Thames and Hudson, London 1998, p.56 47. M. G. Singh, Wooden temples of Himachal Pradesh, Indus Publishing, New Delhi 1999


19 - The flat roof temple of Malana, Kullu, before the fire incident of 2008. The richly carved full-length balconies are only on the entrance side. A small balcony is on one of the side walls while all three of them are decorated with small metal crafts and horns of wild mountain animals (a characteristic of remote villages temples) as a sacrifice to the local deity - Jamblu. An exceptional element in this temple is the semi closed veranda on the ground floor where villagers gather.


20 - A gable roof temple of the deity Renuka, Rashol, Kullu - the temple has no doors and thus symbolically more inviting, and in fact it is the focal point of all village activities. Also this temple presents a single veranda on the entrance side and numerous animal horns collected while hunting. Gable roof temples are very similar to the houses, when most prominent difference is the location of the door - here under the top of the triangle and in the houses on the perpendicular side to it.



21a - Pent roof. “The equal four sides of the roof rise to a single point, and appear as a mountaintop, the pick of the worship space for the gods.� (48)

21b - The complex of the temple in Mateura, Kullu, which construction ended in 2006, presents four temples in different sized and different typologies. The biggest structure shows a pent and gable roof and a front veranda uplifted on a high podium. All other three sides are naked, like in the majority of temples in kullu. The second structure is a pent roof temple, nowadays a pretty rare sight in Himachal. The wood carvings are still made by local specialized craftsmen

48. J. Thakkar & S. Morrison, Matra : ways of measuring vernacular built forms of Himachal Pradesh, SID Research Cell, School of Interior Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad 2008, p.231


24 - Hadimba temple in Manali with a multi tiered pyramidal roof. Noticeable is the corrugated iron roof which make the construction easier, but takes away an important aspect of the temple - vernacular aesthetics. This temple also represents the variety in materials and styles when location changes.

22 - A composite roof in Kalpa, Kinnaur. The Hindu temple decorations in the upper valleys of Kinnaur and Spiti are not only carved into the temple existing elements, but are created in the form of statues with nature and animals motifs.

23 - A tower temple in Dhagoli village.


However the temples in the majority of Himachal Pradesh villages are much more than only a place of prayer, or a “once in a while� visit. They are usually accompanied by the community court yard and regularly frequented more than any other place in the village. They provide a place for kids to play, for adults to meet and talk about everyday issues or to make important decisions, for the women to prepare the wool and knit, or just to relax and enjoy in the sun. The Himachali temples are created by the community and for the community. (fig.25)

25 - Preparing wool, playing with friends (kids or adults) and just relaxing at the yard outside the temple in Rashol, Kullu


The story of a House / Rashol The village of Rashol is located above the Parvati valley (Kullu district), where a road passes, and is reachable after circa 3 hours of walking and scaling. Its mountain slope is facing south-east. The analyzed house corresponds to the slope and is facing south. Its only entrance door is facing east (the rising sun), according to local beliefs. The house is located slightly outside the village center (where the temple and community courtyard are). (fig.28) The house is composed of two stacked modules (fig.26) and was built according to the traditional Kath-Khuni technique. It was built by a villager who had only 3 daughters, and since according local tradition the girls move in with their husband when they get married (they are girls - not women, as the average age of marriage is 15-16), the house was left unfinished and unoccupied. After several years it was given by the father to the eldest daughter and her husband, whose oldest son was only 4-5 years old, and the house was expected to be left empty for some long years. Finally it passed, for a limited period of time, to the custody of a friend of the husband, who was allowed to do with the house as he wished.

26 - Two stacked modules - smallest residential unit

27 - Isometric view of the house with functions and orientation


st ea N

28 - The village of Rashol is located above the Parvati valley, where a road passes (orange line), and is reachable after circa 3 hours of walking (red line). Its mountain slope is facing south-east. The analyzed house is facing south and its only entrance is facing east (the rising sun), according to local beliefs. The house is located slightly outside the village center (where the temple and community courtyard are).


When I arrived to the village I became friends with the temporary owner and was offered accomodation in the house and to help take care of its finishing and maintenance. The village is inhabited by only Rajputs (high caste), except for a family of low-castes who live slightly outside the village on the lower side of it, and were allowed to live there because of their profession - drummers. Since the village is found in a remote, inaccessible place, the way they perceived and practiced the caste system (and a large variety of other issues) had never changed over the years. The villagers don’t eat, drink or stay at the house of a lower caste, or a tourist, who is considered automatically as a low-caste. I couldn’t enter their houses and according to local tradition, if a local had been in contact with me he would have cow dung thrown at him before entering his house to “purify” him. If I were to touch the temple I would have to pay a fine to allow the sacrificing of a sheep. If a wooden beam, for example, were to be touched by a low-caste it was not be used as a construction material. An old lady from the village avoided walking on the same path when with a low caste so she wouldn’t be “touched” by his shadow. Because, and not despite these setting I embraced this once in a lifetime opportunity to live and integrate in a unique society like this. During my time in Rashol I got to know their culture and architecture deeply, and was fascinated by it. The following descriptions are written from a temporary insider’s point of view. I tried to make them as objective and unemotional as possible.

29 - Pencil drawing of south elevation


The village and therefore the house are located on a steep terrain at about 2/3 of the mountain height. The village is enclosed by mountains on three of its sides, which hide the sun pretty early in the day. (fig.27) The house was inserted to the terrain using two methods - cutting the upper contour on the north to an angle of 90 degrees and filling with stones the lower southern side of the slope to create a plain piece of terrain. Therefore, the house is open to three directions - east, south and west, and is blocked on its northern side by the mountain’s earth. The house sits right under a footpath that is found beneath a four-modules house. A part from that, all other adjacent plots are used for seasonal crops. The unique private/public relation that is found throughout the village shows an even more particular case here. There is no physical connection between close footpaths and balconies or plinths, but a wide line of sight connects the balcony and stone base of the house to people coming from down the village. (fig.28. 30, 32)

30 - Insertion of the house in the mountain, adjacent houses & plots, foot-paths

31 - Village enclosed by the mountain on 2/3 of its height


To enter the house one needs to go down from the “public” footpath, cross a small plain piece of terrain where fire-wood is chopped, cattle stops for a second, or random people sit on sunny days. Right after, there are three stone steps to climb to enter the balcony. The way down to the cattle shed isn’t enabled by a built vertical connection and the natural slope is used. The only vertical circulation on the inside is a narrow flat-cut wooden ladder between the first floor and the attic. The roof is accessible from the field in the north.

32 - Isometric accessibility diagram of the house in it’s context. Orange rectangles indicate the spot of a photo.

33 - The stone steps, balcony and the entrance door. Cattle shed is down on the left.


34 - Chopping fire-wood in the small plain patch in front of the entrance. It is used mainly for household necessities but also as a stopping point for people from the village.



35 - Isometric circulation diagram of the house


The cattle shed (or gaushala) sits on the stone plinth, offsetted some 50cm from the balcony’s perimeter. Its door faces south and has two small wooden frame opening on its sides. Two bigger opening, always with wooden frames, are found on the two remaining walls and are covered by cloth of residual bags. During winter the cattle shed is inhabited by 2 cows and its surrounding stone base is full of fodder and fire-wood. The body heat of the cows goes up through the thin wooden floor and heats up the upper level. During summer the cows stay outside on the stone plinth or go to graze higher in the mountains. The space transform itself into storage - for fodder, wood or just random belongings of the householder.



36 - Section with view of cattle shed door. Visible are the two openings for ventilation. 37 - Plan of ground floor. Earth reaches the northern wall and is used also for support. The stone base is wider than the perimeter of the balcony and allows enough space for cattle and people 38 - Uncovered opening on south wall shows the use of the cattle shed during summer - storage.


39 - A cow enjoying a sunny winter day on the stone base and an opening covered with random cloth.




The first floor has three openings- the entrance door on the east wall, another door, smaller and only for in-house circulation on the opposite wall, and a glass window on the southern wall - to maximize the heat gain from the sun. On the northern wall there's a niche some 35cm deep with three long wooden shelves, normally used to store food. The focus of the space is the center where the hearth is. This is a tandoori - a prismatic metal box with a metal tube that goes up and to the outside through the attic and roof, not before it warms the upper spaces on its way.

43 Section showing niche in rear wall and disjointed part of the balcony behind it. The only means of internal vertical connection is the ladder shown on left side.

40 Section showing the two doors, tandoori and continuos balcony. Centrality of the house is evident


42 - View of window, service door and relation with balcony



The tandoori is the only way to warm up the house in the winter, but is used also for cooking, warming water for a wash, or making chai several times a day. Its position in the center allows accessibility to it and a maximum number of people to sit around it. This is the focal point of the room with infinite functions and uses - sleeping, getting dressed, making chai, drinking it, getting ready for school or for a day in the fields or with the cattle, cooking and eating lunch, playing, hosting friends of all family members, doing homework, cooking and eating dinner and drinking a glass of chai, smoking with friends late night and sleeping again - these are only some of the activities that take place in one room. This space is the woman’s domain. In Rashol, and in numerous other villages, the woman’s job is to take care of all house relating issues while the man’s job is undefined, or as the villagers say - go to work and get money. Since in the village there are no jobs with money involved, except for cash-crops like charas, the man remains unoccupied a big part of the time. The woman on the other hand takes care of the children and the cows, of cooking and cleaning, knitting and making other clothes, bringing water from the river, wood from the forest and fodder from all-around. She knows the house and the life and people in it best. The first room is where she is the master. Some even say that the woman prefer doing all the hard work so they can have the control. In Rashol it looks like they are succeeding. All the functions mentioned above are taking place on the inside during winter (fig.44) when the balcony is filled with fire-wood and other belongings of the householders. During summer or on warm sunny days a big part of the activities is moved to the balcony and to the ground floor plinth. In summer, and on any other nice-weather occasion, this balcony is vibrant with life and guests who see it from other parts of the village and come to visit, share a chai and a smoke. (fig.45, 46)

44 - Winter; Playing chess and waiting for a soup


46 - The balcony gives space to social life


Above these dynamic spaces there’s an attic with a low pent-and-gable roof. This place is used practically only for storage, and has two wooden frame openings covered by wooden boards. The attic acts as a large cavity wall or an inter space for insulation. Still above it lies the slate tiles roof. Even here the seasonal-functional metamorphosis present itself clearly. The roof’s slope holds exactly the amount of snow to create good insulation but to let it slide when there's too much. In summer the roof is a place where vine plants and vegetables grow, where corn, beans and others get sun-dried and even where kids play. The roof also helps connecting cables to the main power line of the village, which works about half the time due to harsh weather or bad maintenance. Every time the cables fall one needs to climb on the roof to re-connect them.

47, 48 - A view of the beautiful wood&stone roof support with diagonal beams and the connection to the power line.


The house was built using Kath-Khuni technique and features the same elements and materials as all houses in the village. It doesn’t show any particularity from this point of view. The two details below show the wall construction - the wood and stone alternate layering, and a details of the wooden balcony, with three horizontal levels of beams, two act as the balcony’s perimeter and are supported by the perimetral pilars. The third and middle layer is the diagonal beam coming out from the load bearing walls and act also as a support for the balcony. 49 - Isometric detail of wood and stone layering. The mud and cow dung mix that covers the walls increases thermal insulation and prevents wind from penetrating to the house. 50 - A friend on my completely wood-made balcony. visible are the wooden planks nailed to the inferior beams, the balustrade and the low wooden table. 51 - Detail of corner joinery on first floor level. The safety balustrade is used mainly for sitting. 52 - Isometric detail of corner from stone base to slate roof through wooden joinery.

52 51




These next five pages come as a complementary graphic representation for some of the concepts discussed before, and try to illustrate them in a diagrammatic and conclusive way.

Characteristic of Society

Social structure - subdivisions and caste system

Religion as a part of everyday life

Architectural Response

Position of house in the village

Use of temple for social activities


Energy / Heating - Fire-wood

Economy type - animal husbandry

Animal husbandry - fodder for winter

Versatile storage places in balconies and plinths

Planned space in the house

Versatile storage places in balconies and plinths


Hot summer

Wet monsoon

Cold and snowy winter

Harsh climate - big seasonal difference

Hot summer

Wet monsoon

Orientation maximizes heat in winter, avoid storms

Cold and snowy winter

Harsh climate - big seasonal difference

Dynamic spaces, different seasonal functioning

Cold and snowy winter

Harsh climate - big seasonal difference

People / cattle inside, storage protecting from the outside



Ordinary local workers, absence of machinery

Strong presence of religious believes

Mountains, Trees & Stones

Community effort, mutual help, simple techniques

Entrance door faces east, specific months to start building

Construction materials


4= Strong relations within the family

Need to interact in a shared house

Strong sense of community

Modular system enables expansion

Balconies and plinths enhance circulation and connections

Balconies promote interaction with the village


An Important Note As mentioned before, the study of vernacular forms of architecture is still at its beginning. The case of vernacular architecture in Himachal is not any different. Researches about it were conducted in the past but were not detailed enough and concentrated on the religious buildings and very less on the houses. In 2005 a meaningful step towards the analysis and understanding of the vernacular built forms in Himachal was made by Jay Thakkar and Skye Morrison from CEPT (Center for Environmental Planning and Technology) University in Ahmedabad, India. The two professors, along with the students from the Faculty of Design, have conducted field research projects to measure draw houses and granaries as well as temples. The Research Cell of SID (School of Interior Design) has digitalized and documented two field studies in the book ‘Matra: Ways of Measuring Vernacular Built Forms of Himachal Pradesh’ (published in 2008). The research is very thorough and meticulous. It analyzes the local architecture from a wholistic point of view; the students of 2005 and 2006 went on field trips to Himachal, met and conversed with the local people, got to know their culture, measured the houses and analyzed them with the help of modern digital tools. The research includes a cultural, social, typological, infrastructural, environmental, functional and formal analysis. In the process of writing this thesis I was deeply inspired and motivated by their work, and decided to include extensive parts of it, mainly in the sections of ‘typology and spatial organization’ and ‘construction materials and techniques’.

Cover of the book Matra


Conclusions and Resolutions Conclusions are the last step of the learning process and the one that can create new ideas and ways of handling with an issue. It is the evidence and confirmation of the knowledge acquired. After engaging myself in a very distinct and particular research, I am required to give some conclusions, to express them with my own words what I have learned from it. As an architecture student when I'm required to conclude something my instinct, or maybe the way I was taught, Is to try and look for solutions. The first question (though maybe not always the right one) that comes to mind is - how can I make things better? How I, through the use of methodological thinking and with architectural solutions, can make people’s lives better? What is the right way to overcome existing problems and to encourage development? However in order to find a solution - one needs to know the scope. To know what is better, what is development, what to strive for. At this point another question comes to mind - am I able to decide on what to strive for? How can a person with a different cultural, economic and geographical background interfere with the vernacular architecture of people who develop and live it for centuries? How can I decide what is right for them? How can I provide them with solutions? The first and most prominent aspect of the vernacular is its relation to a specific culture that grew up and developed in a specific geographical place. With that in mind - another question is to be asked - is it right (morally, culturally, etc.) to try and provide them with solutions? Wouldn't that destroy in a second long years of culturally and geographically related architecture? An interference with the process of growing up can cause the subject to take a path not inherent to it. When one tries and experiments by himself he takes responsibility for his actions, he has the opportunity to make mistakes, to learn from them and to comprehend them. We find a similar case in the question of finding solutions for vernacular societies. They are based on the ability to make their own decisions and to be responsible for them and for that they are sustainable societies. Their architecture is deeply inherent to them or in other words - vernacular to them. Wouldn’t a solution that comes from an external source endanger their being vernacular? Wouldn’t that interrupt the strong connection between place, culture and architecture?


The reflections on the process of making vernacular architecture raises up questions about the quality of the vernacular product. Let’s return to the ten principles of Dieter Rams and evaluate this product according to them. I will try to do that by comparing Rams’s definitions and ideas to the ones of the vernacular architecture of Himachal Pradesh examined earlier. 1) Good design is innovative. Rams says that the possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself. The vernacular architecture in Himachal Pradesh has used the same technology for generations. But a slow pace doesn’t necessarily mean no advance or no innovation. It is difficult to analyze innovation in this context and the research conducted doesn’t allow measuring it in a definite way. 2) Good design makes a product useful. A product is made to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it. We examined the uses of buildings in Himachal Pradesh and saw how they all satisfy these criteria. The village temple, for instance, provides people with a psychological protection, it is decorated and ornamented in various native ways, and thus its aesthetic, and its functionality is not in doubt. 3) Good design is aesthetic. The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. The aesthetics of vernacular buildings in Himachal can be long discussed. It uses materials with natural grace and applies them in simple methods and with clean, clear lines. Symmetry is widely applied too, and its integration with context is undoubtedly aesthetic and not invasive. 4) Good design makes a product understandable. It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory. The interaction between vernacular societies in Himachal and their architecture has been demonstrated and we have found a very strong connection between them. The same people design, build and live in this architecture, which is a part of them and therefore instinctively understandable and operable. 5) Good design is unobtrusive. Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decora-


tive objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression. The people of Himachal Pradesh create and build out of a specific need and with a well defined purpose. We saw how, for instance, each balcony meets those needs but leave room for the dweller interpretation of it and how exactly to use it. 6) Good design is honest. It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept. Honesty in architecture can be almost seen as an inherent quality of it and needs no explanation. 7) Good design is long-lasting. It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society. Fashion is not a part of the design of the Kath-Khuni houses. They are built to last and to serve their inhabitants for a long time. The materials and techniques used are time tested and proven. 8) Good design is thorough down to the last detail. Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer. Since in Himachal’s case the designer, producer and consumer are likely to be the same person, the maximum care and accuracy are shown. Nothing is left to the choice of someone else and all is self-supervised. 9) Good design is environmentally friendly. Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the life cycle of the product. This affirmation is almost by definition a part of the KathKhuni houses. They use only local, natural materials with zero embodied energy and carbon footprint. They are sustainable since they don’t take more than nature produces and thus don’t exhaust resources. The visual pollution is minimized and can be even seen as a contribution. No extraneous materials are being used and thus the landscape is minimally altered. 10) Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better, because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Comparing to other architecture, Kath-Khuni houses are almost not designed - they are built. They don’t strive to demonstrate creative design, they are made to meet the specific needs of the user. This comparison, which was an evaluation of Himachal’s vernacular architecture through western 49. Retrieved from


/ academic eyes, demonstrated the validity of this architectural product and not only the process that leads to its realization. Nevertheless, the future of Kath-khuni houses is not clear and the present is already showing reasons for that. Extraneous construction materials like corrugated iron and cement are penetrating even remote villages. Tourism also brings with it a sort of admiration and the desire to be like western societies. This admiration, of course, is based on very little information and can’t comprehend the full picture. These society unconsciously abandon their age old heritage. During the process of working on this research paper it has come to my attention that neither tenacious preservation of the current situation nor following blindly extraneous ways of building are very useful. But through the reflection on these cultural and architectural qualities developed in these societies we can cause them (these societies) to see a more complete picture of the situation. This research will be brought and presented to the Village of Rashol and will try to achieve continuity and further study of the subject.


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Sources of Illustrations Defining Vernacular Cover - Source: Self-made fig.1 - Source: fig. 2 - Source:, photo by Brian Brown fig. 3 - Sources: Various fig. 4 - Source: L. Civitello, Cuisine and Culture: A History of Food and People, John Wiley and Sons, 2011 p. 8 Defining Vernacular Architecture Cover - Source: Self-made Framework of Rural Himachal Pradesh Cover - Source: Self-made fig. 1 - Source: fig. 2 - Source: fig. 3 - Source: fig. 4 - Source: fig. 5 - Source:


fig. 6 - Source: Himachal Forests, 2002, Forest Department, Himachal Pradesh fig. 7 - Source: Census of India, Himachal Pradesh, 2011, fig. 8 - Source: Different volumes of State Domestic Product, Departmentof Economics and Statistics, Himachal Pradesh fig. 9 - Source: Self-made fig.10 - Source: HP Tourist Economic Survey 2002 fig.11 - Source: fig.12 - Source: fig.13 - Source: Self-made fig. 14, 15 - Source: Himachal Pradesh Development Report - India Planning Commission and Census of India 2011 fig. 16, 17, 18 - Sources: Self-made Vernacular Architecture in Himachal Pradesh Cover - Self-made fig. 1 - Sources: Self-made fig. 2 - Source: J.Thakkar & S. Morrison, Matra : ways of measuring vernacular built forms of Himachal Pradesh, SID Research Cell, School of Interior Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad 2008, p.37 fig. 3_12 - Sources: Self-made


fig. 13 - Source: Hughes, Richard, Cator and Cribbage Construction of Northern Pakistan, ICOMOS, p. 1, unknown fig. 14_22 - Sources: Self-made Fig. 23 - Source: J. Thakkar & S. Morrison, Matra : ways of measuring vernacular built forms of Himachal Pradesh, SID Research Cell, School of Interior Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad 2008, p.218 fig. 24_52 - Sources: Self-made An Important Note Source: J. Thakkar & S. Morrison, Matra : ways of measuring vernacular built forms of Himachal Pradesh, SID Research Cell, School of Interior Design, CEPT University, Ahmedabad 2008, cover


Place | Culture | Architecture - The Vernacular Built Environment of Himachal Pradesh  

Bachelor's thesis in Architecture from Politecnico di Milano. Research and documentation of the vernacular architecture of Himachal Pradesh,...