Conversation with a Shing-zowa
(master wood crafter & carpenter)
Rinchen Tobge: Julley Angdui Phuntsok ji, When it comes to building houses and wood crafting, a lot of the people from Kibber village consult you and rely on you to undertake the work. Can you please tell us more about yourself?
Angdui Phuntsok: Julley, Namaste, and Tashi Delek to all HimKatha readers. My name is Angdui Phuntsok, I am from Spiti’s Kibber village and I am 46 years old. I grew up helping my family herd livestock (sheep, goat, cow, yak, Dzomo) in our village pastures and plough in our barely fields. I took up carpentry work when I was 20 years old and I learned to make windows, door frames, and Kawa (wooden pillars) for traditional mud houses. I worked closely with Spitian mud-house builders and artisans who were skilled in stone masonry. I eventually self-taught and picked up the skills and started implementing them in my work as a house mistri (chief artisan). I have been building traditional houses and doing carpentry work in Spiti for about 27 years now. I spend my summers building mud houses, consulting, and helping locals undertake various renovation works, and devote my time to carpentry during winters.
Photo by Tanvi Dutt
Rinchen Tobge: How do you undertake building works in Spiti and how is it different regionally?
Angdui Phuntsok: It mostly depends on the host family, and individuals commissioning the work. Earlier traditional mud houses are preferred but these days cement houses are becoming popular and people even go for mixed structures where the walls, the foundation, roof, and the internal structures of a house are of earthen material and mud while the outer plastering of the house is done with RCC. The choice of material is also dependent on local conditions and regional variations. In the Todh valley side (upper Spiti side), the raw materials are scarce whether it is wood, good quality soil, mud, stones, or iron, hence the design and structure of a house are mostly just mud based with minimal use of resources that isn’t available locally. As you move to the Sham valley side (lower Spiti villages) access and availability of raw materials becomes easier hence earth is used extensively from walls to roofs and stone is used widely in lower portions of a building for stability. When you reach the neighboring villages in Kinnaur like Nako, Malling, and Chango, stone-dominated structures and dry stone houses will be visible.
Rinchen Tobge: From your experience how have people’s livelihoods, and developmental changes in the region impacted local architecture in Spiti?
Angdui Phuntsok: There is a deep connection between people’s livelihood, their way of life, development changes that happen in the region, and how it shapes the local architecture. Spiti’s architectural changes have certainly undertaken an interesting trajectory and as a local artisan, I am still grappling to find balance and navigate the changes. Earlier Spitians are primarily dependent on agriculture and livestock rearing and the local houses, the architectural designs are built to accommodate the agro-pastoral needs of the household and the community/ suit agropastoral needs. Incorporating separate structures for cattle like corrals, livestock pens, and storage rooms for grains, tools, dry toilets, Dhangtsey (open courtyard), and flat-roofs are all an integral part of the local architecture and function beautifully to fulfill the unique needs of an agricultural family. With accessibility, better connectivity, tourism, and development changes, alternate livelihood opportunities are arising for locals and that utter dependency on agriculture-based livelihood is changing.
Construction in Kibber | Photo by Rinchen Tobgye
Many people are employed in government services, and tourism-based livelihoods are increasingly becoming easier options for people. This is all dynamically changing people’s relationship with their land, their resources, and the local architecture. Vernacular house designs, traditional structures, spaces used for agropastoral-based livelihood, and local materials are losing their relevance. Many households own a lesser number of cattle nowadays and rearing large-bodied livestock like yaks have also shrunk a lot. Only in Todh valley (upper Spiti) it is practiced and hence erstwhile spaces, and structures dedicated to these needs are falling out of use. Modern, cement-based hotels, guesthouses, and giant commercial buildings completely contrast with the local architecture are cropping up. The changes were more prominent in lower Spiti villages like Kaza, Rangrik, and Tabo earlier but in the past 3-4 years, such structures are also becoming more prominent in remote villages like Hansa, Hull, Pangmo too and many of these hotels remain nonfunctional during winters. Like many fragile places, development changes in Spiti are at the cost of the environment, and resource stress, and are slowly changing the architectural integrity of the place.
Photo by Deepshikha Sharma
Rinchen Tobge: How is it impacting local artisans and local knowledge around indigenous architecture in Spiti?
Angdui Phuntsok: The traditional building technique using natural materials found locally is an easy, affordable, locally suited, and eco-friendly way of building. People are familiar with the local resources, materials used for construction and leverage traditional knowledge, and intelligence to design houses. It doesn’t involve unnecessarily complex methods and tools to implement it. It’s very intuitive, immersive, and experiment-based and most people have a working knowledge of the same. The shift to non-traditional, industrial raw materials like cement, steel, glass, and other concrete materials has alienated locals from their own land, own resources, and indigenous knowledge about building systems as it requires specialized masons, and craftspeople to build cement structures.
The dependency on non-local craftsmanship is increasing which in turn triggers the migration of workers, artisans, and laborers from lower Himachal districts like Mandi, Kangra, Shimla and some even come from as far as Rajasthan, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and Maharashtra. More and more locals from lower Spitian villages like Kaza, Tabo, Rangrik, Losar, Khurik, Shego, Lara which are hot spots for tourism are outsourcing the construction works to migrant workers from other parts of the country who have no knowledge of the local context and are probably themselves struggling to work in such harsh climatic conditions. Earlier local artisans like Gyangon-da (rammed earth mud builder), Piti Dor-si (Stonemason), Piti Shingzo-wa (wood crafter/carpenters) play an integral role among community members, and their skills, their knowledge, their experiences about the landscape shapes the local architecture. The large-scale tourism and development-based constructions are creating a new social order which is posing multiple threats to the environment, local ecology, wildlife, and architectural heritage. Natural heritage.
Photos by Angdui Phuntsok
Rinchen Tobge: As a local mud house builder, and an artisan, what are some of the challenges you experience daily?
Angdui Phuntsok: Ghawo minang yokak! (... there are many challenges!) Construction is essentially labor intensive and physically strenuous work. As an artisan whether you are involved in stone masonry rammed earth building, or are undertaking other works like carrying stones, mud, bricks, breaking stones, or digging earth, it takes a heavy toll physically. Knee, back, and joint pains are very common, and injuries due to construction work is a common experience. But all that pain goes away if your host, and the individuals commissioning the work are kind and generous, and there’s a sense of solidarity, and camaraderie among workers, villagers, and community members. We all work together, help each other, eat meals together, enjoy the process of building, sing songs, drink copious amounts of tea, tell stories, and within no time, work gets done!
Rinchen Tobge: Thank you for patiently sharing your experiences with us.
Angdui Phuntsok: Thank you.
About the Storytellers
Angdui Phuntsok and Rinchen Tobge
Angdui Phuntsok is a self-taught wood crafter, carpenter and traditional mudhouse builder from Spiti’s Kibber village. He is passionate about wooden handicrafts and has spent close to three decades working on building traditional mudhouses in his village. Over the years, tremendous changes occurred in Spiti valley due to development and he is keen on preserving traditional architectural heritage and finding balanced approaches to it. Rinchen Tobge works with NCF’s high altitude programme and assists in various research and conservation initiatives.