Traditional building methods are not only a continuation of the architectural heritage but are sustainable, weather-resistant and, most importantly, suitable for the Kashmir valley because it lies in seismic zone.
The past is everywhere and it’s nowhere.
~ Mark Crinson
My first visit to Kashmir was in January, the month of Chillai Kalan, a few years ago. In the grey wintery skies of the valley, Srinagar was an architectural marvel. My subsequent visits to Srinagar have been a journey of fascinating architectural discovery and learning. On my first trip, I was fortunate to be accompanied by a friend from downtown, the Shehar-i-Khas, who walked me through the hidden lanes and alleyways, away from the popular tourist spots. My trips continue to discover the essence of this riverine city and the urban interplay between water, religion and trade.
Unique Urban Identity
In the confines of the Valley with its fertile karevas and the lofty Himalayan surrounds, centred around Hari Parbat (Koh-e-Maran) and bound by several lakes, the valley, especially the city of Srinagar, developed its own unique urban identity, not seen elsewhere in the sub-continent.
The architecture of Srinagar is the result of a layering of different periods and styles. It has also been an essential part of the building crafts of Kashmir, wherein the craftsmen played a prominent role. Saleem Beg, INTACH Convenor of J&K, explains that these craftsmen, carpenters, masons, papier mache artists and woodcarvers divided amongst themselves such works as external layout and interior decoration. The past builders of the valley excelled in a style that integrated various elements and materials that suited the local climate, landscape, lifestyle and social requirements. The result was an excellent canvas on which the city evolved along the topographical features and water bodies.
All the shrines and mosques like Khanqah-e-Moula, Naqshband Sahib, Dastgeer Sahib and the Jama Masjid symbolise the intricate and refined testimony of architectural styles. Not only prominent structures were testifying the traditions of time, but even common houses and palatial floating houses – the houseboats – vouch for the rich traditional past. The houseboats echo the detailed designs of Kashmiri architecture with double arcaded wooden cloisters with pinjra-kari (geometric wooden latticework) screens and khatamband ceilings (woodcraft in which wooden pieces are fitted into one another).
How Art and Architecture Evolved
The rulers of their respective periods maintained unprecedented influence over art and architecture.
Beginning from the Buddhist architecture in the form of monasteries and stupas in the 3rd Century AD, the Kashmir region witnessed different eras of architecture.
The architecture of the region, however, dates back to the Neolithic period as suggested by archaeological evidence from excavations at Burzahom and Gufkral. Burzahom, located 16 kms NE of Srinagar was discovered with pits where people lived. Archaeologists found ash (used for cooking), animal bones, stone and bone tools along with fragments of pottery.
The Buddhist rule which commenced in the 3rd century AD set its mark on the stone architecture in the form of monasteries and stupas, as seen at Harwan, though this period had a wooden style of its own, which could perhaps have been in existence, in some form, prior to the advent of Buddhism. From 4th to the 11th century, when the Hindu rule began, stone architecture was promoted mainly in the form of temples, such as the Sun Temple at Martand, temple complex at Awantipora, and the Sugandhesa Temple at Pattan, temples at Parihaspora, Tapar etc.
Later, Turkish rule (from the 14th to the 16th-century) left its impressions on brick and wooden architecture generally seen in shrines and mosques. GMD Sufi, in his book Kashir, writes that it was when Samarkand and Bukhara reached a glorious period and the arts and crafts of these places penetrated every corner of Central Asia that Kashmir received the most powerful impact by coming in contact with the stage of culture that Muslims had then evolved. It was Zain-ul-Abidin who gave a new life and form to the arts and crafts of the land. The art of naqashi (painted lacquer) and khatamband was initiated by Persian and Central Asian craftsmen in Kashmir.
The colonial impact was largely seen in the development of the British section of the town with private bungalows, religious buildings and spaces, commercial streets and public spaces. The public spaces were the government offices and parks. In Kashmir, writes Feisal Alkazi (author of the book Srinagar: an architectural legacy), the residential space was the houseboat, a unique institution that came in to being because the British could not own property. Around the houseboats developed the social and economic life of the Valley.
The colonial architecture began in Srinagar during the Dogra rule and can be seen in the buildings built for colleges, factories and hospitals, like the Amar Singh College, the Silk Factory and the Shergarhi Complex. The main characteristics of this period were their long linear porches, double storied bay windows, corner towers surmounted by octagonal or circular spires, series of gables and dormers projecting from a steep roof and tall narrow chimneys. Colonial designs were also seen in residential buildings of Samandar Bagh, Wazir Bagh etc, where few isolated cottages can still be seen.
W H Nicholls, in his book, Mohammadan Architecture of Kashmir, classified the Islamic architecture of Kashmir into three broad categories: the pre-Mughal masonry style, the wooden style and the pure Mughal style. Examples of the first category can be seen in Srinagar: the Budshah Tomb (Zainul Abidin’s mother’s tomb) and the tomb of Sayyid Muhammad Madani.
( The neglected Jhelum river edge is in dire need of regeneration. *Pic: Jaspreet Kaur *)
The wooden style is best represented in the architecture of Khanqah-e-Moula. Zain-ul-Abdidin’s palaces in Zainanagar (Nowshehra) and in the middle of Wular Lake, on Zaina Lank, are said to have been built entirely of wood, as described by Mirza Haidar in his Tarikh-i-Rashidi.
The Mughal architecture in Kashmir is more or less similar to that of Agra and Delhi, except for the use of marble and red sandstone, which would have been difficult to transport. Some examples of this style are the Pathar Masjid (Nau Masjid) built by Noor Jahan in 1622 CE, mosque of Akhund Mulla Shah and the large baradari in the Shalimar Bagh. These were built with the locally available grey limestone. The earliest Mughal structure, however, is the outer wall with the gates around Hari Parbat built by Akbar in 1596 CE.
After James Fergusson, it was Percy Brown, the architectural historian, who recognised the distinctive form of the wooden architecture of Kashmir, whereas Alexander Cunningham and Henry H. Cole had largely concentrated on the Hindu and Buddhist monuments. The architecture of the Valley, generally classified by the above British era historians and archaeologists, as Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic/ Muslim, perhaps needs to be revised as ancient and medieval architecture, as now considered essential for the study of architecture of the sub-continent, since each era had a precedent and influenced the subsequent buildings and the local craftsmen combined already known techniques with the newly introduced ones.
Percy Brown likened the wooden architecture of the valley to that of Scandinavia and regions of the Alps. In wooden churches of Norway of the 11th to 14th centuries, there are tiered sloping roofs forming a pyramid, very similar to the ziarats/astans—shrines—of Kashmir. He goes on to explain that these similarities are not due to some common origin, but have been brought about by each people having to cope with similar climatic conditions and availability of similar construction material. The final form is also the result of local traditions and craftsmanship. The roof of the ziarat also has influences of the Buddhist architecture and, to some extent, the Hindu temple in how it meets the sky.
About the distinctive wooden architecture, Sir John Marshall wrote: “The well finished timber work of the walls with its pleasing diaper of headers and stretchers, the magnificent pillars of deodar in the large halls and the delicate open work of traceries of window screens and balustrades, skillfully put together out of innumerable small pieces of wood, all help to enhance the charm and stylishness of this architecture…as a protection against the heavy rains and snow of Kashmir, the use of birch bark nailed in multiple layers above the roofs and overspread, in turn, with turf and flowers, could hardly have been improved upon. And the planting of irises and tulips on the roofs was a singularly happy inspiration, not only because of their own intrinsic beauty, but because their tenacious roots gave added strength to the fabric of the roof covering.”
The monuments of Srinagar, and elsewhere in the Valley, are mostly religious comprising of temples, mosques, shrines and khanqahs, built of stone and wood. The city of Srinagar is dotted with several such monuments. However, while the monuments gives Srinagar its unique architectural identity, it’s the vernacular, both residential and commercial, that has shaped the city with period variations and yet unified in overall urban character.
Vernacular architecture is defined as the various ways of building a house that uses locally available resources and material to address the needs of the people. The use of local material in construction will eventually reduce building costs, making traditional architecture an economical option.
The vernacular architecture of the region had its charm rooted in the traditional brick and lattice work, courtyards, multiple layers of birch barks on the roofs (burz pash), balconies (dabs) and colourful windows. Interiors comprised of the lattice screens (varusi) and handmade glazed and kiln baked, colourful Khanyar tiles. The bricks used were called Maharaji bricks (seer), similar to Nanakshahi bricks used in Punjab and the Lakhori bricks used in the Mughal empire. These are almost half the size of the standard bricks in use today. Usually these baked bricks made up the exterior veneer of wall masonry behind which mud brick masonry or rubble masonry stood. These can still be seen in a few structures in the city. The houses, especially near the river and canals have the lower level, almost a floor, constructed of stone with no windows. This is, at times, used for grain storage and keeping cattle or for the residents to move to the lower floor in winter to keep warm.
Another way of ensuring warmth during the cold season, besides the kangri (traditional earthen pot in a woven basket with embers), is hamam. Hamams, which began with the mosques and khanqahs, and now a part of almost every Kashmiri house, is a special room that has a hollowed-out floor. The hollow space beneath the floor has a small opening from the outside of the house and also a chimney. Floors are covered with limestone slabs. Firewood is burnt in the hollow space through the opening. This ensures that the hamam remains warm while the smoke leaves through a chimney. A copper water tank is placed above the spot where firewood is burnt. This ensures the availability of hot water while making the room warm in usually sub-zero climates.
A number of changes have to be made in the interiors of a house pre-winters. The floors are covered with warmer carpets or Kashmiri floorings called gabbe and namde. These are much thicker and warmer rugs that cover the floors during winters. At the same time, thicker curtains are put on. One such type of thick curtain is called Kriwal. Some even use a certain type of blanket to cover the windows.
Traditionally, buildings are divided into two categories while incorporating Kashmiri house design, depending on their floor plans. These are the square and linear plan houses, both of which include windows in all directions. Each dwelling is built with a zoon dab, which is an overhanging balcony intended for watching the moon (zoon). The staircases and eaves are decorated with exquisite pinjrakari craftsmanship. Architectural elements such as khatamband panels, interwoven wooden geometric forms originating from the Persian culture can be seen on the internal ceilings of a Kashmiri house design. These are made of walnut or deodar, as also the wall paneling.
(Jalali House in Srinagar with its intricate Pinjkari and Zoon Dab in Taq construction )
*Pic : Jaspreet Kaur*
The traditional Kashmiri house designs are further classified as either taq architecture or dhajji dewari based on the building style used. These have been the two most common vernacular construction systems of Kashmir, of which several examples still exist in Srinagar and elsewhere in the Valley.
Taq (single window with double shutters) construction is a composite system of building with a modular layout of load-bearing masonry piers and window bays tied together with ladder-like constructions of horizontal timbers embedded in the masonry walls at each floor level and window lintel level. This method of construction resists the propagation of cracks due to earthquakes. The masonry piers are usually 1-2 feet square and the window bay/ alcove (taqshe) 3-to 4 feet in width. The dimensions of the house would be defined by the taq, that is, a house could be 5 to 13 taq (window bays) in width. The inner face of the structure is of sun dried bricks (kham seer). A series of twin deodar wood tie beams (das) separates the high random rubble stone plinth (sometimes even the ground floor) from the burnt brick masonry.
Dhajji dewari is a timber frame into which one layer of masonry is tightly packed to form a wall, resulting in a continuous wall membrane of wood and masonry. The term is derived from a Persian word meaning ‘patchwork quilt wall. The frame of each wall consists not only of vertical studs, but also often of cross-members that subdivide the masonry infill into smaller panels, impart strength and prevent the masonry from collapsing out of the frame. As in the taq system, the floors are supported on wooden joists (veram). Usually this system of construction was limited to upper floors or the attics (kani).The most important characteristic of this type of construction is the use of lean mud mortar.
Dhajji dewari construction continues to provide an efficient and economical use of material. It has also shown a marked resistance to earthquakes when compared to conventional fired masonry or adobe structures. Variations of the brick-nogged type were historically common in many areas not affected by earthquakes, such as medieval England and Europe, and it extended even into North America. However, it has proved especially suitable in seismically active regions such as Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, and Kashmir.
Several traditional houses still exist in a relatively good condition. One of the best conserved is the Jalali house. Constructed by Agah Syed Safdar Jalali, in 1863, the Jalali house is a fine architectural treasure of the taq system. The structure exemplifies vernacular architecture of the region.
In 2009, an American architect and building conservationist, Randolph Langenbanch, while researching about the 2005 earthquake in India and Pakistan, came to the conclusion that there is a dire need to preserve the vernacular architecture of Kashmir, not only for its traditional character but also as being earthquake-resistant.
The book documented an oft-ignored architectural heritage and construction tradition that has demonstrated a level of earthquake resistance which led experts to introduce these attributes into the Pakistani and Indian building codes in order to improve earthquake resistance in modern structures.
The construction practices used for these Kashmiri buildings, which stand in contrast to today’s codes and commonly accepted practices, include (1) the use of mortar of negligible strength, (2) the lack of any bonding between the infill walls and the piers, (3)the weakness of the bond between the wythes of the masonry in the walls, and (4) the frequent (historical) use of heavy sod roofs.
In Kashmir, rigidity carries the potential for destruction. The more rigid a building is, the stronger it must be in order to avoid fracture. Because of the primitive material and means of construction in Kashmir, strength was not possible, so flexibility was necessary. Gosain and Arya, in ‘A Report of Anantnag Earthquake of February 20, 1967’, explain that during the 1967 Kashmir earthquake buildings of three to five stories survived relatively undamaged. Their explanation for this is that “there are many more planes of cracking in the Dhajji-Dewari compared to the modern masonry.” It now forms the basis for the current Indian Standard Building code #4326 for earthquake resistant design and construction of buildings.
It is not difficult to conclude after walking the streets of Srinagar that, while the monuments have retained their identity, the vernacular architecture is at the verge of extinction. This not only further disconnects with the tradition and culture of the place but has also brought in newer methods of construction which are not suitable for the seismic zone V region. This can largely be attributed to the generalised architectural and engineering education systems which are not sensitised to local construction techniques.
While natural calamities such as floods (exacerbated by extension of the city over wetlands), earthquakes, water logging due to heavy rainfall, snowstorms, and windstorms have accounted for obliterating the heritage of the valley, the maximum damage has been caused by modernization and technology. The transition from a mud and wood house to cement and brick has been at the expense of vernacular architecture, although these interventions were, seemingly, for structural stability. The traditional is now seen as obsolete and perhaps even a symbol of poverty. This view also being enhanced by market pressures and globalisation.
Even insulation and comfort have been ignored. According to the study titled ‘Financial evaluation of different space heating options used in the Kashmir valley’, published in the International Journal of Ambient Energy, modern houses in the Valley had “poor insulation levels and loose-fitting doors and windows, thereby contributing to huge heat losses,” and which, in turn, leads to the long-term costs of heating during the harsh winters.
Traditional construction methods using timber-laced masonry have been described in various studies conducted after the earthquakes of 1967 and 2005 as having ductile behaviour as timbers “impart ductility” and augment “energy absorbing capacity” or “energy dissipation capacity,” all of these being essential to construction in a seismic zone.
Also the traditional construction typologies, as explained by Langenbach, work best only if “one understands and maintains the integrity of each element.” Mixing of modern technologies and materials with traditional construction methods can destroy the “positive attributes” of the older technology.
The modern constructions have also disturbed the urban scale and dwelling to street relationship that contributed to the city’s “magnificent natural and cultural landscape.” An effort to restore or retrofit these can contribute to a restoration of shared community values in the present day.
In the current scenario, traditional architecture requires a high level of ethical commitment to (and by) the local people, their locations, cultures, and traditions. Combined with the fact that people have found, over the years, various ways to deal with extreme weather conditions, albeit with substantial higher costs and energy demands, the added need to build a globally acceptable construction style has led to a reduction in traditional building solutions. Overlooking the architectural heritage and wisdom of the past translates to neglecting the unavoidable challenge for higher energy efficiency required in this generation.
It has now become imperative to reduce energy needs drastically and hence the carbon footprint, already a matter of grave concern in most cities of the mainlandand beginning to make its mark in the Valley too.
Traditional buildings can form the basis of new designs or can be retrofitted. These can be designed and constructed using modern materials, innovative construction techniques, while keeping the structural integrity intact, and technology to increase the profitability and efficiency of traditional buildings. This is essential for maintaining the unique urban character seen along the Jhelum and inner precincts of Shehar-i-Khas, as is the norm to building the inner cities of Europe where even if a new building is constructed using modern materials, it has to follow stringent guidelines of the urban character of the street, or as in the UK, although the interior of the building can be entirely modified, the façade cannot be altered at all.
In order to achieve a coherent urban character, it is necessary to follow form-based codes. A form-based code offers a powerful alternative to conventional zoning regulation. Form-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks.
The building craft of Srinagar needs to get recognised as an integral part of the ‘City of Arts and Crafts’, since it is now one of the forty nine cities worldwide to join the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. This would also add to the tourism potential of the city by way of heritage walks and the Jhelum cruise, which is already in the pipeline. By reviving a respect for traditional construction on a technical level, a renewed respect for its cultural value can be reclaimed as well. When that happens, the craft of construction can take its rightful place alongside other indigenous arts and crafts that have long distinguished Kashmir.
The solution, perhaps, lies in the middle ground. With changing needs the space requirements change too. However, an understanding of traditional building methods of the Valley holds the key to bridging the gap for construction of new structures which not only help in continuity of the architectural heritage but are sustainable and most importantly built for the seismic zone.
Jaspreet Kaur is a New Delhi-based architect and urban designer.