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Himalayan Traditional Architecture

Himalayan Traditional Architecture
Item Code: NAF648
Author: O.C. Handa
Publisher: Rupa Publication Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788129115317
Pages: 318 (Throughout Color and B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.5 inch X 7.5 inch
weight of the book: 1.150 kg
About The Book

The ancient monuments in the Himalayan interiors are already well-known to scholars the world over for their artistic grandeur. However, little is known about the equally interesting traditional secular architecture- the dwelling houses and other such structures. Made of local material, mostly wood, these buildings form an organic part of the Himalayan biosphere. These buildings, built in different environmental settings, have been cost-effective, congenial, functional and ecofriendly, blending harmoniously with their surroundings. The present work deals with the secular architecture of this region I a holistic manner. How the geo-physical, ethnic, socio-economic and religio-cultural mosaic in the Himalayan region, has been lucidly and methodically brought out. An exhaustive glossary of the local technical terms is added for further information. Traditional wisdom in planning and architecture, and functional structural aspects may prove valuable for modern house planning, especially as modern builders seek compatible and eco-friendly architecture in the Vastushastra. Thus, this pioneering work is not only useful and interesting for social scientists and professionals, but for the general reader as well.

Science and technology have always been an important part of India’s story, as the substratum of its civilization’s rationality and secular progress, the basis for pre-colonial India Ocean global trade, the foundation for building India’s future knowledge society, and a key element in projecting Brand India. This volume is part of a multi-volume series on the subject.


About the Author

Dr O.C. Handa, born in Mandi (Himachal Pradesh), is a known scholar of the history and archaeology of the Himalayan region, and has been working in these fields now, for almost half a century. He undertook several solo exploratory expeditions in the hazardous terrain of Himalayan interiors, and has acquired and imparted good quality firsthand authentic k knowledge about various aspects of the creative enterprise of the people. He did his postgraduates in History from Mysore University, Ph. D. from Meerut University and D. Lit. From Agra University. With a civil engineering background, he specialized in Archaeology and was in charge of the Department of Museum and Archaeology, Himachal Pradesh. Dr Handa has twenty-four books on the art, history, archaeology and culture of the Himalayan region to his credit. An editor of several books, he has also written many papers, more than 500 articles for various national and international journals and contributed to the Encyclopedia of Hindusim. He is an excellent photographer and artist too. Dr Handa has participated in several international and national seminars. He has served on several expert committees of the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Government of India. DR Hand a has been a Fellow of the Himachal Academy of Art, Language and Culture, Shimla, the Indian Institute of Advance study, and a senior Fellow of the India Council of Historical Research.



Shelter has been one of humankind’s basic necessities since time immemorial, besides food and clothing. While nothing has changed significantly in man’s food and clothing habits, he has been constantly improving upon his dwelling to make it more homely, protective and comfortable to suit his ever-changing lifestyle under various environmental conditions. In that quest, not only have the basic material of construction and their usage techniques changed radically, but the planning and design parameters, functional imperatives and everything else too have undergone almost complete transformation.

Living in a self-created microenvironment within the four walls of his dwelling, man has isolated himself from his surroundings. He has not only created yawning gulf between nature and himself, but today he even dares challenge it, and in that frenzy, occasionally falls into its inescapable traps. To harness nature in a sympathetic and symbiotic manner is one thing and to ‘manage’ it with anthropocentric psychology is another. Consequently, he finds himself at a loss where his moorings with nature and his inheritance are concerned.

In our age, the paradox of civilization is that the web of publicity has so completely strangled our objectives and rational thinking wisdom and the inherited value-system, which identified us with nature. In that benumbed state, we tend to fall into the quagmire created by the influential consumerist mafia. Today, everything sustainable is conveniently available ‘readymade’ in synthetic capsules. Thus, alienated from one’ roots and detached from the earth, humans are as helpless an desperate today as they never had been. We are today incapacitated to differentiate between the fallacies of ‘synthetic living’ and the subtleties of ‘natural living’.

Therefore, there arises a dire need to bring us out of that stupor and to make us conscious of our roots and surroundings before it is too late. A biblical dictum say’s ‘ Go unto the rocks whence you have sprung’, and it is high time for us to realise it and look for nuggets of traditional wisdom that lie scattered and neglected among rural folks, and find their relevance in the modern context. In our times, when fundamental studies related to the environment and the common people are being encouraged, it is imperative that the so far ignored and under-evaluated wealth of traditional wisdom be explored and redefined in the contemporary scenario for the betterment of the earth and humans.

The present study on the traditional Himalayan domestic architecture (with special reference to the western Himalaya region) is a humble effort to that end. I have been studying the traditional Himalayan domestic architecture from various angles since the early sixties of the last century, to be precise. Having travelled extensively and intensively through the area several times, I collected enough field data- measurements, structural and architectural drawings and sketches notes and photographs. However, to make that data up-to-date, I visited these entire place several times again so that nothing was left incomplete. Many new buildings were studied, drawings were prepared anew and digital photographs taken (earlier I had only bromide photographs). Thus, I had to prepare afresh all the illustrative material for this work. Dr Madhu Jain also accompanied me to several places in the interiors. She prepared a fine oil painting of a village in Jaunsar area, in Dheradun, which I have reproduced in this work. This study, spread over eight chapters, strives to explore and bring forth the surviving nuggets of traditional wisdom in the Himalayan interiors, which have since ages provided people with cost-effective, congenial, functional and eco-friendly dwellings in this mountainous region.

To show the effects of geological and geographical factors on the regional architectural idioms and the ethnic diversity, geological and historical information has been provided. Some of the architectural features recur in different regional idioms. All such peculiarities have been described in detail, even at the risk of repetition. In this book, the convention of using to as individuals and groups, has been adhered to.

Although the ancient temples and monasteries of this region, especially the classical stone temples, have already attracted attention of scholars, archaeologists and architects for their antiquity and artistic grandeur, they have yet to take notice of the equally important traditional dwellings of the common people. The traditional wisdom that has gone into their planning, and the functional aspects of these houses may prove valuable if integrated with the modern house building technology. Because, what the modern engineers and architects have been looking for-eco-friendly and Vastushastra compatible architecture-may be already available in the traditional knowledge of domestic architecture.



India has had a long history of civilization going back several thousand years. In the global mind this civilization is largely associated with spiritualism, philosophy and religiosity. There is also an appreciation of great traditions that have continued till today: of performing arts in dance and music, of magnificent works in architecture, sculpture, painting, and of artisanal outpurt of quality relating to crafts. However, over the last couple of centuries the image has been significantly one of poverty: surprising when Johan Milton in Paradise Lost had referred to ‘the wealth of Ormuz and of Ind’. For many, it is a land of magicians and snake-charmers, of wild animals like tigers and elephants, of mendicants, and mystics. This image is changing today with India moving powerfully into the knowledge economy and becoming a power t reckon with. What is not known and appreciated is the extent to which a whole knowledge system, and particularly scientific thought, has been inextricably linked to the development of this ancient and continuing civilization.

There are many reasons for this. An important one is that there has been no major work on the history of science and technology in India. This is not to say that no work has been done in this field, there is a great deal available relating to specific areas, and involving specialized discussion, more so concerning technology. But there is nothing covering science and technology as a whole, dealing with the many diverse areas that it covered, and particularly, its very different conceptual foundations, and also the extent to which it has underpinned the development of Indian society and civilization. Because of this, in authoritative encyclopedias (such as Encyclopedia Britannica), Indian science and technology is dealt within a few hundred words. This must be contrasted with the situation in respect of China, following the great work of Dr Joseph Needham, who produced thirty odd volumes on the history of science and technology of that country. This made a monumental impact in the academic repositioning of China as a scientific, rational and progressive civilization. There s need for a similar effort with regard to India science and technology.

A further reason for the rather poor appreciation of the history of Indian science is that in the public eye, the development of science and technology is manifested through its innumerable technological artefacts that affect daily lives in society, and great scientific discoveries, both of which rapidly followed the developments that took place around a few hundred years ago in Europe with the birth of the modern, ongoing Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. As a result, the image of western science is so over whelming that it swamps all earlier history.

In the West, there is major reference to the Greek origins of western philosophy and scientific thought. There was a strong coupling of Arab and Greek science, particularly as manifested in the historical library of Alexandria. It must be remembered that India was an open country, and had significant interactions with the Arab world. Also; western scholars of the pre-Christian era had information on India through reports of Greek origin. It is thus, the ‘Zero’ has a deep philosophical meaning, that was characteristically India, denoting ‘nothing or emptiness’.

There are many who, without a deep appreciation of the character of indigenously developed knowledge structures in India, often propagate the idea that science (which was so intimately interwoven with these knowledge structures) came to India from the outsides through Islamic and Western conquests. The fact is that India absorbed all that came in from the outside (whether by invasion or otherwise) and gave freely of itself to the East and to the West.

The following reasoning may provide an indication whit has been difficult to compile a meaningful land reasonably comprehensive history of science and technology in India.

A great deal of knowledge transmittal in India has been through the oral tradition, having been conveyed through chants, hymns, poems and the like, this has been true even in mathematics. These do not remain in the written record, and much of it has probably been lost with the cataclysmic changes in Indian society.

What has been written has invariably been on palm leaf and such other materials, followed by paper recordings, this is particularly the case for the earlier period in history prior to the advent of printing. A great deal of the source material on which writing has taken place, has been subject to ravages of weather and insects, since, India is located in the tropics characterized by high temperatures and humidity. After printed books came into existence, which ensured the availability of many copies of a text, India has not had a great history in science and technology, except in the last century.

Even when written, this was in the language then prevailing, namely Sanskrit, particularly of the archaic variety, and other related languages, there was also the problem of scripts. In recent years, one finds that those who know these scripts and languages, particularly their older forms, have little knowledge or interested in matters that are scientific. Their interests largely lie in areas of literature, philosophy, religion and like. In contrast, those who know science, and could contribute to a meaningful analysis of recorded history, have scant knowledge of the language of the language and the scripts of the past and often little interest.

Finally, what was transmitted, even on matters that were scientific, was mixed up with a great deal of philosophy, religion and mysticism often practitioners of science of those days were philosophers or those high up in the socio-religious hierarchy. Knowledge I ancient India was much less compartmentalized; it was characterized by a holistic approach. To extract that which would be regarded as science from this totality is not an easy task.

For all these reasons, the overall effort relating to writing of the history of science and technology in India has been a limited and scattered effort.

From what we know already, it is clear that there was a significant development of science and technology, covering a wide range of areas, with high creativity and originality, and over a long time-span. It is important to record and understand this. The purpose would not be to go back to the past from the view point of claiming how great India was. Whilst there were many great discoveries made in India, which predate the same ones later made in the West, and now named after western scientists, the purpose would also not be to claim priorities or demand changes in attributions. What is important is to carry out proper historical work to understand the developments that had taken place and to record them appropriately.

There are two important reasons why this should be done. The first is from the viewpoint of understanding the nature of society in which science can flourish. Ultimately it is thinking –questioning society that can give rise to science. It is from this angle that Jawaharlal Nehru constantly spoke about the need for society to be imbued with a scientific temper, namely, society functioning on a rational objective basis, which can give rise to the development of science-with innovation, originality, and creativity. These qualities cannot arise in a society which is hierarchical and authoritarian. On this aspect Gautama, the Buddha had remarked.

Believe nothing
Merely because you have been told it
Or because it is traditional
Or because you yourself have imagined it<
Do not believe what your teacher tell you,
Merely out of respect for the teacher
But whatever after due examination and analysis
You find to be conducive to the good, the benefit,
The welfare of all beings,
That doctrine believe and cling to,
And take it as your guide.

It is important to understand why, with so much creativity and originality that had characterized Indian science and technology of the post, those developments did not last or take off on a self-sustaining basis.

The second reason why one need to look at the history of science and technology in India is that, to a great extent, the conceptual approach in it has been different from that which has characterized western development. It has tried to examine problems on a holistic basis. It has dealt with complexity. Thus the fundamental basis of the Indian system of medicine, referred to as Ayurveda, is very different from that which characterizes the allopathic system. Ayurveda is a holistic system, which attempts to ensure harmony among the different components of the human body, and aspects of its functioning, including relationships with the outside world and inputs received. The approach is to ensure that the mind-body system remains in health, rather than in the treatment of disease. This involves a complex many-body synergy (including the treatment with medication, body discipline of yoga, meditation and the like) rather than the deductive, reductionist ‘active principles’ approach of allopath; the latter has certainly yielded a plethora of miraculous results.

One is also amazed at the dimensions with which the ancients grappled with, and their many speculations on issues such as origins of the universe of the universe and cosmology that are still with us. There is a great deal that one can learn from these excursions into their thoughts.

It is , therefore, important that any such history deals not only with technological issues that are related to societal needs but to science as a whole.

There have been a number of efforts to cover the history of science and technology in India. The Indian National Science Academy publishes a journal entitled India Journal of History and Science under the guidance of the Indian National Civilisation for History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilisation’ of which the general editor is Prof D. P. chattopadhyaya. The series is projected to cover approximately seventy-five volumes, of which twelve have already been published. There are also many individual efforts such as the Sandeepani science Gallery in Porbunder and innumerable publications that cover specific topics in science and technology such as copper and its alloys in ancient India; works on Indian medicine and medicinal plants; works on logic, where India was particularly strong, and so on.

I am glad that the Infinity Foundation has considered it appropriate to produce a series on the History of Indian Science and Technology (HIST). It is important that this effort covers not only areas if technology but also of science. It will have to bring together for this, scientists and historians of science, along with those concerned with philosophy, anthropology, religion, ancient Indian languages and many such other disciplines, who will have to interact strongly among themselves on the basis of available textual ad other material. It has to be a holistic, interdisciplinary approach. This is a major task but well worth doing.




  Introduction to the series by M.G. K. Menon ix
  Note on Infinity Foundation xv
  Editor’s Note xxi
  Preface xxv
  Acknowledgements xxix
  List of Figures xxxi
1 The Geo-ethnic mosaic the mountain system 1
  The siwalik range 1
  The outer Himalayan range of sub-Himalayan range 5
  The mid-Himalayan range 6
  The great Himalayan range 77
  Biophysical regions 9
  The siwalik Region 10
  The sub-Himalayan region 13
  The Gujjar 15
  The Gaddi 18
  The khasha 26
  The Mid-Himalayan Region 31
  The Vale of Kashmir 32
  The Chnadrabhaga Gorge 36
  The Lahul valley 38
  The lower kinnaur 39
  The trans-himalayan region 42
2 Domestic architecture of the sub-mountainous himalayan region 45
  Housing pattern in the jammu-kangra region 46
  Highland chalet-type houses in a Temperate setting 46
  Lowland house in a temperate setting 54
  Highland double storey house in a temperate setting 56
  The linear house 58
  The 'L'-and 'U'-shaped houses 58
  The chowki-type house 60
  Materials and method of construction 62
  Housing pattern in the subtropical arid environment 64
  Housing pattern in the Doon highlands 70
  Housing Pattern in the Giri-apr Area 76
  The Jaunsari Housing pattern' 83
  The housing pattern in kyarda Doon 90
  Mud-built thatched Dwelling 93
  Masonry structure with thatched roofing 99
  Masonry structure with corrugated galvanized iron sheet roofing 102
  The Gujjar housing pattern 103
  A Muslim gujjar house 104
  A Hindu gujjar house 108
3 Mid-Himalayan domestic architecture 113
  Osan village in kullu valley 115
  The Domestic Gaddi Architecture of Chamba Region 119
  The Pangwal Domestic Architecture 133
  The churahi domestic architecture 139
  The khasha domestic architecture 144
  Pattern of khash houses at village shathla 149
  The tradition khasha house in Chuhara valley 152
  A traditional Houses at purag 156
  The Kinnar Domestic Architecture 159
4 Domestic Architecture of The Trans-Himalayan Region 166
  A Typical House at Kaum in upper kinnaur 170
  A typical lahul house in Tandi, chandrabhaga valley 176
  A typical house in spiti valley 182
  A typical house in ladahk 190
  A typical house at zanskar 194
5 The mediaeval kothi, kathyar, Bhandar and castles 199
  The kothi, kathyar and Bhandar 199
  The kothi, 200
  The kathyar 204
  The Bhandar 205
  The Bhandar of Baoindara Devta at Bachhoonch 210
  The Bhandar of Thainag Devta at Harwani 212
  The Castles 214
  The Chainin Castle in kullu 216
  The Gondhala Castle in Lahul 219
  The Kamaru castle at Mone 221
  The Castle-palace of Guge Rani at Sapani 223
6 Layout And Planning 229
7 The Methods of Construction 237
  The foundation 238
  The Walls 242
  The in situ Mud Walls 243
  Sundried mud-brikc walls 246
  Brick walls and stone walls 247
  Composite Wood-and-stone walls 249
  The katth-kuni walls 250
  The Dhol-maide Walls 251
  The Faraque 252
  Wooden Walls 254
  Roof Laying Techniques 255
  The Thatched Roofs 256
  The Wooden Roofs 257
  The Slate Roofs 259
  The Mud Roofs 260
  Finishing 262
8 Conclusions 269
  Bibliography 275
  Appendix 281
  Glossary of Local Terms 287
  Index 301

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