Memories, Nostalgia, and a Forgotten Practice
Growing up in Spiti, a place so beautiful and serene was a heavenly experience with valleys and rivers that enchants anyone witnessing its beauty. It attracts visitors from all over the world, some first-timers, and some seasonal regulars, and leaves them with the same impressions. When one tries to capture its beauty - the mountain villages clustered with white-washed mud houses in the serrated landscape appear like a flock of sheep grazing on the fields.
Kibber Village, Spiti Photo by Nonie
The traditional architecture and the socio-cultural practices are the outcomes of the prevailing topography and climatic conditions giving Spiti its unique persona & originality. In the past couple of years, the wave of RCC-based structures has dominated several villages and have taken its malicious grip. It is due to the recent abrupt rise of tourism in the region and considering these changes, the place is likely to lose its essence and everything that’s worth treasuring. The massive plague of concrete structures has devastated the vernacular house designs with the built, form, size, and material totally devoid of its regional context.
The picturesque villages dotted with traditional mudhouses are slowly turning into a jungle of massive concrete structures. It’s mostly hotels, guesthouses, and other commercial buildings. One of the reasons for this shift is to accommodate the heavy-flowing tourists with modern facilities in a cold desert. Spiti being a rural area doesn’t have the preparation required to handle this heavy flux of tourism and the burden is too sudden and heavy for the locals to administer. The unregulated flow of heavy tourists can have many adverse effects on the local ecology and architecture. It will influence changes in the land use, will cause urbanization, large-scale construction of tourist facilities, illegal constructions, changes in the vernacular design orientation, increased waste pollution, and degradation of local aesthetics which are attuned to its natural surroundings. We need to realize collectively that it’s the architectural authenticity and unique cultural practices of the place that leaves mark on people visiting the place.
Many aspects of modernization are creeping up in the valley - some truly meaningful like building bridges that connect remote villages but others monstrous like encroachment of animal habitat and village pastureland. The abandonment of dry toilets (chaksa) to adopt
A mud house in middle of Kaza market, Spiti | Photo by Nonie
modern flush toilets in a water-scarce place like Spiti. The dry toilet not only saves water but also produces manure for the crops. Whereas the western toilet system is not the most conducive design intervention in the valley as it remains out of order for about 6 months, and the water pipes freeze during winter. In this wave of development, Spiti is losing its authenticity. The constructions are now spreading to agricultural lands as more families find it easier to earn a livelihood from tourism than farming. The old houses have thoughtful architectural designs like having low ceilings of about 100mm, which helps conserve heat. The ground floor and the first floor both have rooms for seasonal activities. The ground floor is specifically built keeping the freezing winters in mind. The floor is divided into spaces for both livestock and the family. There are additional rooms to store grains, fodders, and a Chingbuk - a celler for storing Chang and Aarak (barley based alcoholic beverages). There’s also a tiny opening for ventilation and heat obtained from the animals, and the grain and grass storing places work as insulators that keep the house warm and cozy during winters. During summer the first floor is preferable due to proper lighting and ventilation. This floor is breezier and has more room to attend to the summer guests. These rooms will be properly ventilated and have big wide windows, with the peripheral frames painted black, absorbing and allowing maximum sun.
New constructions in Kaza | Photo by Tanvi Dutt
A typical traditional mud house in Spiti has a basic stone foundation running all along with the boundary wall. The locals use wooden planks as mould which supports the foot and a mixture of hay and mud to make the walls. The process is continued and the wall is built layer by layer at a time, leaving voids as per the requirements. The insulated roof starts with placing the main girder mugdungh, which is often supported using a wooden column kaa, this column, in the center of the room, also serves as the aesthetic feature of the room. Then the secondary girder, phurdungh, is placed on top of which, tightly knitted willow sticks, dhilu, are laid. The flat roof is finished with laying a thick layer of mud. To protect the edges of the mud structure from rain and snow some houses have bundled-up bushes stacked at the periphery of the roof along thorny bushes, dhama. The natives used to build with what was available to them and best suited the regional climate. This is what shelter means, building something suitable for you according to the climate and availability of the resource, hence the vernacular architecture of a place merges with the context, the landscape.
A dilapidated building in Kaza | Photo by Tanvi Dutt
The traditional method of construction is not practiced these days therefore the skill is endangered. The thousand years old monasteries in the villages of Spiti were made of mud block-forming walls up to a meter thick. All these monasteries are still surviving and functional, they are likely to survive another 10-20 decades, even more, if maintained professionally. The maintenance of historical monuments like our monasteries for cultural preservation, further building a repository of local knowledge, and sustaining the innate quality of the historic buildings is necessary. The neglect in restoration work in these historic monasteries is washing down the structure. The walls are likely to survive the next few decades but might lose the other characteristic it holds now. The negligence may not feel like a massive part of this problem right now because it’s at a stage where it goes unnoticed, and is invisible but eventually, over years it will start showing up. We should evolve and use the modern facilities, resources, and knowledge we now have access to.
Iconic structure of Kee Gonpa, Spiti | Illustration by Nawang Tankhe
The state of development and accessibility has made us avail many new resources. The traditional houses in Spiti evolved from shutting the tiny window using a good-sized rock to wooden windows to big windows with glass which allows maximum sunlight to enter and keep the house warm. This is one example of how to use the resources available to enhance the traditional structure. But now we are evolving in the wrong direction. Adapting materials that do not comply with the context and then we spend time and energy to fix the problem we created. In a cold desert like Spiti during winter mud houses work as insulated buildings. For the piercing cold winters, people don’t need RCC houses which do not retain heat, freeze everything inside them, and cause a lot of health problems after prolonged usage. Humans have always started with natural resources and mud is the oldest of all the natural resources used in construction. It is found in abundance, and unlike cement, it goes back to nature without polluting the landscape. From the earth to the earth. It’s high time for Spitians to bring back its forgotten practice.
About the Storyteller
Nonie is born in Kaza - the main town in Spiti. She spent her early childhood and did her schooling in her hometown before moving out of town to pursue higher education elsewhere. She finished her further studies at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi. Upon completing her degree, she became a registered architect certified under the Council of Architecture (Government Agency, Delhi). Her work primarily focuses on areas around Manali and Spiti in Himachal Pradesh where she applies and hones her skills as an architect. With a keen interest in fashion and curiosity to understand aesthetic designs, she possesses natural design instincts that come in handy in her profession. Her interest and avid passion fuel her creative pursuits and her love for her profession.