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Rediscovering the Himalayan homes that resist quakes

Architects and researchers are trying to revive local quake-resistant architectural styles such as ‘kath khuni’ with contemporary interventions

Twin temples in Himachal Pradesh made in the kath khuni technique. All photographs courtesy: Jay Thakkar
Twin temples in Himachal Pradesh made in the kath khuni technique. All photographs courtesy: Jay Thakkar

In 2013, Jay Thakkar discovered a traditional wood and stone building with a slight tilt in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. When he asked a local villager about it, he responded, “Sahab dharti hil gayi is liye tedha ho gaya. Waapas hilegi tho seedha ho jaayega (Sir, the house tilted when the earth moved. It will move back once the earth shifts again).” Thakkar, an associate professor at the faculty of design and co-founder, Design Innovation and Craft Resource Centre, at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, has been researching Himachal Pradesh’s kath khuni architecture and other indigenous building practices of the Himalaya since 2005.

Stories of the earth shifting are common in the Himalayan belt—from Kashmir to Assam—which has been witness to massive earthquakes over the past two centuries. The most recent of these, in 2005 in Kashmir, killed 86,000 on both sides of the border. This year, as Himachal Pradesh witnesses unprecedented rainfall and flash floods, it continues to suffer lethal landslides. According to a 14 August Mint report, more than 200 roads in the region are inaccessible.

But even as the earth continues to shift in the Himalaya, the stories of houses adjusting themselves to this have become few and far between. For the local wood-and-stone architecture has given way to pukka cement and RCC.

Uttam Chand, a national-award winning weaver based in Choyal village, Bhunter tehsil, Kullu, recalls stories that have been passed down in his family of the 1905 Kangra earthquake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. “But at that time, an indigenous style of architecture calledkath kuni was prevalent, made with wood and stone in equal parts. During earthquakes, the channels didn’t budge. Even if the stones on one side of the structure shifted, the other side would fill them up,” says Chand, who was in the Capital recently as part of a National Handloom Day celebration organised by the Union Ministry of Textiles.

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Continuing calamities are now forcing locals and authorities to shift their perspective. In recent years, there has been an effort to document and research traditional styles as some architects, designers and local builders look to the past to build anew while incorporating modern design and amenities to offer viable alternatives. Although state governments are yet to show much interest, an individual-led effort exists to document and research these styles.

Yet, each disaster drives home the resilience of local architecture whose techniques evolved over centuries to withstand seismic tremors and small floods. Take, for instance, the dhajji dewari and taq styles in Kashmir, koti banal in Uttarakhand, Assam-style houses in Assam and kath khuni in mid and central Himalaya, particularly regions such as Kullu, Mandi and Naggar in Himachal Pradesh. Each of these was rooted in the local context, making use of material available in the vicinity and employing techniques that offered resilience against shifts of the earth.

The architecture in the western Himalaya, for instance, focused on wood and stone frameworks that didn’t use metal nails. It was economical, too, for the cost of rebuilding, in case of damage, was less than that of pukka houses. One could reuse the wood and stone to restore the original structure.

Starting a conversation

Himachal Pradesh, for one, has been seeing more discussion on kath khuni for well over a decade. O.C. Handa, a historian specialising in the western Himalaya, has explained the term. According to him, kath derives from the Sanskrit word kashtth, meaning wood, and kuni is a dialectical variation of the Sanskrit word kona, or angle. He notes that a kath khuni wall should have wood only on its corners or angles and stone as layers in between.

In an article published in 2018 by Sahapedia, an open online resource on art and culture,Thakkar, and Mansi Shah, also a faculty member at CEPT University, suggest that kath khuni showcases a profound understanding of building science which caters to the frequent seismic tremors that affect the landscape of Himachal. The technique has proven incredibly durable, with some buildings standing for decades or centuries against various environmental forces. The locally sourced materials used in this technique, such as stone, wood and slate, possess unique characteristics that make them superior choices for construction when considering sustainability and performance. In Naggar Kullu and southern Himachal Pradesh, kath khuni can be seen in granaries, temples, houses, even palaces, also known as darbargadhs.

Thakkar and Shah, together with Bharat Dave, a faculty member at the University of Melbourne, Australia, were so captivated by this indigenous architecture that they published a book, titled Prathaa: Kath khuni Architecture, in January 2013. This book, along with Thakkar’s previous publication, Matra: Ways Of Measuring Vernacular Built Forms Of Himachal Pradesh (2008, co-authored with Skye Morrison), is widely regarded as essential reading.

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According to Thakkar, the carbon footprint of building a kath khuni house is lower than that of brick and mortar structures. “The wood would come from the surrounding forests. For temples, they obtained wood from dedicated sites where trees had grown for many years. As per the locals, there was a tradition of investing in the environment. The families sowed seeds when a child was born, and by the time they grew up, the trees were mature enough for use in construction. This was a way of giving back to the environment,” he explains.

The interesting aspect of this kind of construction lay in its dry masonry and the zero use of mortar. In Prathaa, Shah and Thakkar explain that since no metal nails are used, the structure relies on strategically inserted wooden braces and joints.

“The stone is a compression material, while wood holds the building together. The higher the building goes, the more the use of wood and lesser the use of stone. The balconies spread out, providing a centre of gravity to the building,” says Thakkar.

During an earthquake, the dry masonry holds its place and the cracks don’t travel up. In contrast, cement buildings, monolith structures, see cracks travelling up during tremors. “If stones from a kath khuni house fall out, they can be replaced without machinery or technology. The building relies on simple empirical knowledge,” says Thakkar.

In north-western Uttarakhand, the merits of koti banal, a quake-resistant form of architecture, too have been figuring in discussions among academics and disaster management experts for well over a decade. In 2008, Piyoosh Rautela of the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre, Uttarakhand, co-authored a research article, titled Earthquake Safe Koti Banal Architecture Of Uttarakhand, that was published in the Current Science journal. The author lists the significant components of koti banal: simple layout, construction on an elaborate, solid and raised platform, judicious use of locally available material such as wooden logs, stones and slate, incorporation of wooden beams all through the height of the building at regular intervals, small openings...

“The massive solid platform at the base of the structure helps in keeping the centre of gravity and centre of mass in close proximity and near to the ground. This minimises the overturning effect of the particularly tall structure during seismic loading,” writes Rautela.

The dhajji dewari style that used to be prevalent in Kashmir and parts of Himachal is like a quilted patchwork of stone and wood. A 2022 article on the website of The Himalayan Architect—a platform for those interested in architecture, planning and environment—states: “As per ENVIS Center on Human Settlements (hosted by the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi), Dhajji Dewari has been in practice for more than 200 years…. Dhajji Dewari emerged surprisingly earthquake resistant in the disastrous earthquake in Kashmir region in 2005.”

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The challenges

The move towards cement structures happened during the 1960s-70s, when the Himachal Pradesh government invited cement industries to the state. Pukka makaan schemes came up and local architecture was relegated to the kuccha style.

“Wood also became hard to come by. British-era forest laws had made it difficult for locals to access forests. Ever since the ban on taking wood from the forests without state permission, the black market for timber has started and resulted in wood prices soaring,” says Rahul Bhushan, founder of NORTH, a Naggar-based architecture and design collective, who has been researching kath khuni and other architecture styles of the Himalaya.

Bhushan, who was born in Shimla and has lived across Himachal Pradesh, studied kath khuni for his design thesis at the National Institute of Technology, Hamirpur. He then enrolled for a master’s in design at CEPT, specifically because he wanted to be mentored by Thakkar, whose books formed a major reference point and inspiration for his work.

While at CEPT, Bhushan went on an exchange programme to Germany; it helped him understand what was missing in the understanding of local architecture in Himachal. “There was a need for a dedicated centre to document and revive architectural craftsmanship,” says Bhushan, who started NORTH in 2017 after completing his master’s degree.

“Earlier, this architectural style was community-driven. Today, there is no one to guide the local karigars (workmen). The masons, who specialised in stones, have moved to brick work to keep up with the demands of the times and rampant urbanisation. The ones who worked with wood have moved on as well. They haven’t lost touch with the kath khuni style, though, as they are required to restore the doors or windows of temples from time to time,” adds Bhushan. Fortunately, then, the expertise hasn’t been lost.

Today, if you travel through Naggar and Kullu, you will find versions of ‘kath khuni’ in granaries, houses, palaces and temples such as the Devidhar in the  village of Gavas, the Pujarli village temple, and the Dhagoli Tower Temple in Chauhara ‘tehsil’ in Shimla district
Today, if you travel through Naggar and Kullu, you will find versions of ‘kath khuni’ in granaries, houses, palaces and temples such as the Devidhar in the village of Gavas, the Pujarli village temple, and the Dhagoli Tower Temple in Chauhara ‘tehsil’ in Shimla district

The contemporary touch

People like Thakkar and Bhushan are trying to usher kath khuni and dhajji dewari into the modern era by adding contemporary touches to traditional elements. For instance, Thakkar and Shah are currently engrossed in a study of hybridisation in kath khuni architecture. They are exploring new material interventions and innovative forms; their research promises to shed new light on vernacular architecture’s intricacies. To them, it’s exciting to see how young builders near Naggar are preserving the local architecture while incorporating modern amenities and services into their home-stays.

Bhushan himself has envisioned NORTH as an educational and design campus with a fluid, free-flowing process. Over the past six years, it has become a space for architects, planners and karigars to collaborate. “We have a design studio which follows a problem-solving approach and is in sync with the current times. We train the karigars in making kath khuni contemporary and they have started getting work,” he says.

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Kishan Chand is one karigar who has started working on kath khuni again. The 27-year-old from Raison village used to work as a carpenter on RCC structures. “I gained knowledge of kath khuni while working on temples. Rahul Sir has changed the way of working with this architectural style. He has reduced the, size and optimised the use of wood in new projects,” says Chand, whose family is into farming. Today, he is working on home-stays and homes that seek to incorporate kath khuni into the design. Wood is sourced from licensed sellers.

Bhushan is also using the dhajji dewari technique in newer projects. According to him, creating a dhajji structure takes less time as the cross sections of wood are smaller compared to kath khuni . This makes the construction more time and cost effective, and still imbibes the fundamentals of wood and stone in making resilient structures. “We design 100% natural homes and cottage cabin-scale projects using wood and stone in Naggar, Raison and Bhuntar. One such structure is being designed for the government of Himachal as well, which will be used as a haat by local women to showcase their products,” he says. He has established a dhajji cabin at the NORTH centre for other architects and karigars to study. “These forms of architecture will only prevail if there is mentorship available to local craftspersons and designers,” says Bhushan. That is what he is aiming for.

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