In Assam’s Majkuri village, 30km from Jorhat, a young art conservator, Avinibesh Sharma, has been restoring his ancestral house, Mukta Bhawan. It’s currently home to five people, four of them aged 80 and above, the oldest being his father’s 94-year-old aunt. This is no ordinary structure, it’s an example of an Assamese architectural style that came into focus after the great North-East earthquake of June 1897. Measuring 8.15-8.35 on the Richter scale, the quake caused dramatic geomorphological changes, besides damaging infrastructure .
Masonry structures that used limestone and bricks, popularised by the British, were reduced to rubble; most of the structures left standing were those that had been built in the traditional style. This triggered the interest of the British government. Parthasarathi Barua, a doctor in Nagaon who has been researching what are known as Assam-type houses, writes in his articles that a Geological Survey of India team, led by renowned seismologist Richard Dixon Oldham, arrived in Shillong after the quake to study these houses. In an 1899 report, he writes, Oldham suggested sticking to Assam-type houses in the region.
Today, there is renewed interest in this culturally rich style that uses local material, is energy-efficient and can withstand quakes. Of course, the style has evolved with time. Assam-type homes used to follow the C-or L-type plan, with thatched roofs, mud plaster and walls of wood, reed and bamboo. Oldham suggested some modifications, lightweight houses with elaborate timber frameworks. “Although he recommended these for government houses, clubs and schools, the middle class at that time in Assam—comprising planters, lawyers and clerks—started building Assam-type houses as well,” says 28-year-old Sharma, who works in Kolkata. The houses generally had a granary, or Bhoral Ghar, a portico, or Soura Ghar, a drawing room, or Buloni Kutha, and a kitchen at some distance from the main residential quarters.
Post-quake buildings started to combine elements of the traditional and Tudor styles, introducing decorative pillars, staircases and lounges. With high ceilings, these houses were well ventilated. “Between the 1940s and 1950s, one saw a proliferation of such houses in Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Tezpur, Guwahati and Nagaon,” says Sharma.
Over the years, these evolved further, with additions such as the radio room. Sharma explains this, saying this came about because there used to be one radio in a village, or two-three in a town, at most. “Everyone would go to that house to listen to the news or the war commentary. But they would not be allowed access to the inner rooms.” The radio would be kept in the lounge; this became the radio room.
Buildings based on traditional architecture withstood the even stronger 1950 earthquake (Mw 8.6)—but the style made way for cement structures. In a 2015 article in The Indian Express, Sanjoy Hazarika, author and director, Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, wrote of its importance: “In the last 30 years, this style of building has been demolished in urban areas by two factors: cement and quick money…. Traditional architecture is also being strongly challenged by new money and visible ‘permanent structures’ in rural areas, constructed as prestige markers by prominent figures.”
Today, conservators are creating a new discourse around this architectural style. Ancestral Houses of Assam, a Facebook group started by architect Arijit Choudhury, is documenting memories of such structures. Restoration work has begun on some. Team Avesana, with principal architect Ziaul Hussain and conservation architect Smita Datta Makhija, has restored the century-old Kamrup deputy commissioner’s bungalow on the Sukreswar hillock in Guwahati. It is today the Brahmaputra Heritage Centre. It’s an unusual one, says Hussain, with a squarish plan and high sloping roof.
Hospitals and public schools, like the Jorhat Government Boys High School, have distinctive features. “These have long corridors and a field in front. The low-density building occupies 10-20% of the plot and the rest is kept open. Proper planning and use of eco-friendly, indigenous material makes the building energy-efficient, climate-resistant and comfortable,” says Hussain.
Restoration work isn’t easy, as Sharma has discovered. For one, ikora, an indigenous reed, as well as some other original building material, is not readily available, so he has had to use bamboo and other traditional material. The first phase of refurbishment has been completed, but the second phase has been slowed down by the pandemic. “My brother and I grew up in main Jorhat and would visit our ancestral village over the weekends. We had decided very early on that whenever we start working, we would want to do something for the house,” he says. It took time to convince the residents of Mukta Bhawan that the house needed restoration. “There used to be a Moina Parijat in the house, a space where children’s get-togethers would happen. One of the biggest reasons why we refurbished the house was to give a concrete shape to all the stories that we had heard as children about Mukta Bhawan. And also to highlight the relevance of these houses today,” says Sharma.