Pearls of wisdom from a master artisan
Building with an earthen material is a craft, a philosophy where nature is at the center of the entire life cycle of a building. From its conception, sourcing, material usage, and construction till the inevitable end when the material returns to earth as compost, there’s a balance, harmonious unison with nature. The renewable nature of the natural material renders it environmentally more sensitive and less disruptive to the land and ecosystems around it. Lobzang Choephel also known as Lama Thamo ji the master artisan known throughout the Spiti valley for his expertise in rammed earth building and understanding of natural material feels that the journey of the natural building is rooted in the ethics of care. Being a skillful craftsman, he opines that care frames your relation with the land you are building on, the material used, the people/community you are building for, and their relation with nature.
Lama Thamo La in his younger days - an old photo from family album | Photo shared by Chhering Phuntsok
We rarely talk about intention and mindset when it comes to the trade of building but he thinks this is critical and is inevitably tied to the entire process of building. In Buddhism, there’s a huge emphasis on “kun-long sangpo”- having a righteous mind and kind motivation that dictates one's action. Reflecting on the same, he quietly utters “When it comes to natural building, at the most primal level it means creating a human habitat that reflects brilliant functionality of natural material, inherently sustainable design, and one where care for the nature is there from which we draw so much”. In the daily experience of building, this reflects on being mindful, being responsible in places you excavate stones, dig soil, paying attention to the character of the material whether it is harmful or good for nature, and the overall approach you take in construction. With all the heavy lifting of stones, digging the ground, and building with mud, construction is physically very strenuous, and while construction, a lot of microorganisms get killed in the process. Therefore in ancient Spitian tradition, much like a farmer would recite prayers before plowing, the local artisans offer prayers before construction and express their remorse, their guilt for engaging in what is considered a sinful activity that harms other sentient being including microorganisms which are barely visible through our naked eyes. Tashi Monlam - prayers for the auspicious building process and fewer obstacles for the artisans, the laborers, and the host family are also recited. Another prayer earnestly seeks the blessings of local deities for a productive building experience and appeals to them for strength and diligence to undertake construction works. It can be aptly summarized as “May give us the strength to build this house as if built by god himself, May construction work be easy and fruitful”.
Grand monastic architecture of Spiti | Photo by Kesang Chunnit
Many indigenous building approaches and such unique cultural practices are rapidly getting substituted with more modern, industrial building techniques which are devoid of ethical essence and are proving more unsustainable. The natural environment sustains the life of all living beings and it is crucial to acknowledge the basic inter-connectedness and relation between humans and nature. In an age where haphazard development and construction activities are surging up, it is all the more important to evoke traditional wisdom and reflect on the significance of traditional materials, techniques, their implementation, and their relevance in contemporary building practice. Being a skillful natural builder for over 55 years and having spent a lifetime devoted to this trade, mindfulness is the guiding philosophy, and his learnings in Buddhist scriptures and meditation often drive his groundwork as an artisan, a builder, and a seasoned mason.
Traditional sacred religious designs Chorten | Photo by Deepshikha Sharma
There are so many ways to handcraft with natural material but one thing common across different geographies and contexts is the use of soil - the earth beneath our feet. No two sites have the exact composition of soil and as a builder, it is important to immerse oneself in these materials to gain experience, understand how to work with available soil in a given site, and be aware of the particular qualities, and limitations of soil that gives us scope for experimentation. For instance, deep yellow, orange, and red soil found in villages like Kaza is good for construction, especially for foundations whereas black and clayey soil found in higher villages like Demul, Chicham, and Komic is not good for foundations as it can cause dampness in the foundation. Hence understanding material adaptation is important otherwise it will be risky to build a structure without sufficient attention to detail.
“When I began construction, I worked closely with elder Spitian artisans to build and renovate many monastic structures - especially Dha-shak (monk’s residence), there was hardly any material available apart from the ones you get in your village sites. Even wood materials like willow, poplar, and timber were scarce so it was used judiciously for roofing structures, and most roof structures were made of smaller woods of shorter length which was mostly gathered from the village pastures”.
With accessibility, the struggle has lessened a lot but it has changed the architectural integrity of a place. The use of natural materials, responsible building methods, and the shared ethos of love and care for natural surroundings is fast disappearing and the preservation of traditional wisdom has become an urgent responsibility.
Traditional mud house | Kesang Chunnit
About the Storytellers
Lobsang Choephel and Chhering Phunchok
Lobsang Choephel also lovingly known as Lama Thamo is a self-taught natural builder from Spiti’s Chicham village. He first started building when he was 15 years old and helped renovate and rebuild many structures of Kee monastery apart from helping build residential mud houses in Spiti. He devoted his life to working on traditional construction and worked till the age of 73. He is now retired and has ceased actively building but still engages with everyone who seeks his wisdom, and lifetime experience in traditional building and consults younger mud house artisans in Spiti. We are grateful to his son Mr. Chhering Phuntsok for helping us capture his story and experiences and to many others who contributed to the story.