Conversation with a Gyangon-da
(mud house builder & stone mason)
Demul is a remote high-altitude village in Spiti known for its beautiful meadows and pastures. The villagers are agro-pastoralists and still actively practice their traditional ways of agriculture, livestock rearing, and herding. This village is also home to many Spitian artisans skilled in building traditional mud houses, Dor-si (stone mason), Shingso-wa (carpenter), and Gyanghon-da (earthen wall builder). We spoke to Mr. Chhuldim Pempa from Demul who has been in the trade for decades and is a master craftsman skilled in stone masonry and rammed earth building.
HimKatha: Julley and Tashi Delek. Chhuldim ji, we heard you have spent many years building traditional mud houses in Spiti and are an expert Dor-si (stone mason). Can you tell us more about yourself and how you started?
Chhuldim Pempa: Yes. I have been working in traditional construction for over 30 years in Spiti and my primary work is building houses using mud and stones. I started in the early 90s when I was around 18-20 years old. I stumbled upon it quite unexpectedly - I grew up herding and working in my family field but once there was an opportunity to work as a construction helper to a house mistri (chief mason) in my village. The work seemed pretty doable, it included working under a master craftsman and helping him in manual works like carrying stones, digging works, making mud mixtures, and doing all the preparatory works before the chief mason started laying the stone foundation for a house. It was paying a minimal amount for the labor work, so I took it up along with a few friends. Back then, there wasn’t much to do, so I continued as a labor helper in traditional constructions for a few years before I began focusing exclusively on stone masonry and rammed earth-building techniques. Looking back, I realize, my apprenticeship days were difficult but it’s there amid the mud, stones, and under the guidance of a skilled mason that I learned the most and picked up the skills of the trade before I started practicing it independently in my village.
Glimpse of mud house construction in Spiti | Photo by Tanvi Dutta
Old abandoned mudhouse in Nako, Kinnaur| Photo by Deepshikha Sharma
HimKatha: What changes have you seen in natural building techniques over the years?
Chhuldim Pempa: In Spiti, rammed earth building has traditionally been practiced for centuries, it is used for building residential houses and monasteries - most of the old mud buildings in Spiti like Tabo Gonpa (built-in 10th C) and the old Tengyud Gonpa are built in that form. To a large extent, it is still preferred in higher Spitian villages like Demul, Komic, Chicham, and Kibber for its durability and inherent thermal capabilities. Architectural changes are definitely taking place in Spiti and with that, there is a stark shift in natural building techniques, resource usage, and general treatment of vernacular design systems. There’s an increased usage of industrial materials like cement, metals, ready-mix concretes, glass, plywood, plastics, and artificial stones which were not accessible in earlier times. Earlier houses were built with a lot of care and even the smallest details were incorporated with a lot of structural integrity. For eg, all mud houses have “Kyorma” on the upper roof which is a protective boundary made of wild shrubs, it looks aesthetic as well as does a great job of protecting the mud walls from sun and rain. The use of such designs is declining. Walls are built with Gyang-sa - a specific soil type carefully selected by the master mason, it is mixed with grass chaffs, straw, or small wood chips, and the mixture is then kneaded with water two days before building a wall. It is done to allow better water absorption in the mixture and adding grass chaffs provides warmth once it is built. Thick double walls of about 18 inches are built using a cross-joint technique where one wall is built from right to left and another from left to right. The structure is then plastered with the same mud mix or tied on the two sides with wooden planks (ghing-shing) on the two sides of the walls and the mud mix is filled in. Once filled, it is slowly pushed in by walking on it which makes the wall structures more cohesive. Such designs are crack resistant and have better resilience towards earthquakes as compared to straight cement pillars that are adopted in new houses these days. Thoughtful building methods like this are slowly fading and I am afraid soon people won’t require artisans like us.
Mudhouse construction in Kaza | Photo by Mr. Janhwij Sharma, Additional DG, ASI
HimKatha: What tools are used to build houses in the olden days?
Chhuldim Pempa: We used very minimal tools as there was no access to any resources. Most tools were handmade by Spitian blacksmith artisans from the Dzo community who were experts in making agricultural and field tools used for construction. We used only 2-3 tools like Tokse, Teo, and basal used for digging mud, pulling stones, handling mortar, and other wooden tools for building walls. Since houses were built communally among villagers, tools were also shared locally among people. For measurements, we relied heavily on the ancient technique of using the body as a tool - fingers, elbows, and arms were used liberally to measure walls and base construction. For eg: “Thu” is a measuring length from the middle finger to the elbow while “Dhompa” is the length from one’s right hand to the left once we spread it widely and apparently one Dhompa equals five feet. Such measurements are used for building smaller structures in the house like Chaksa (dry toilets) and Raah (Sheep house).
HimKatha: Are there any community practices and traditional rituals around building houses?
Chhuldim Pempa: Yes. In Spiti, building houses is a community activity. Everyone pools in the resources and volunteers to help during various phases of construction. It is quite common for 3-4 households to get together and help each other and it is colloquially called the “Bhey” system where the community forms an internal support structure and relies on each other for resources and labor. In a place like Spiti where resources are scarce and sustenance difficult, it proves more feasible and affordable. Many auspicious rituals are performed to bring good luck and prosperity to the host family. The one, in particular, I remember is called “Saney-Doney” where the host family consults Rinpoche (venerable lamas) and he places a pot containing soil and pebbles from Buddhist pilgrimage sites like Varanasi and Nepal in the four directions of the foundation
to ward off evil energies on the land and to bring prosperity for the host family. Another ritual is called Jinshak ceremony which is done on empty barren land to check the suitability of the land for construction. Apart from that, there are local belief systems that imbibe respect for human-nature relations and value natural surroundings. For e.g. stones are never excavated from Chumik - the spring water areas for construction as it causes ecological disturbance in the area.
HimKatha: Thank you for sharing your experience with us.
Chhuldim Pempa: Zang-song! (Thank you)
Traditional house contructed by Gyangon-da Pempa in Demul village.
About the Storyteller
Chhuldim Pempa is from Demul village in Spiti and he is a master artisan skilled in rammed earth building and stone masonry. He has been in traditional construction work for about 30 years and helped build many mud houses in different villages of Spiti. He devotes his time to farming, building traditional houses, and babysitting his granddaughter Tsomo. We are grateful to his entire family members for supporting us in telling his story.