Learning from our vernacular architecture

By Gerald Pde

I came across this quote the other day by Tadao Ando, a famous Japanese architect – “We borrow from nature the space upon which we build”. It got me thinking about a number of things including the current construction scenario in Shillong. If we borrow then we have to give back, but what exactly should we be giving back?

As a student, I once traveled to a village called Darrang (near Dawki) which was one of the sites that I chose to study the Khasi vernacular architecture in the area. The trek to the village was very interesting as it was through a narrow trail that detoured from the main Dawki road. We crossed exotic tropical forests, pristine clear streams and living root bridges. The village was nested so well on the sunny slope. There weren’t too many dwellings at that time, but I was mesmerized to see a few traditional Khasi houses which is a rare sighting these days. This village was so well preserved because of its inaccessibility that even the British architectural form or the “Assam Type” did not have any significant influence.

The term “vernacular architecture” is referred to many types of buildings which have not been professionally designed. All forms of vernacular architecture across the world are built to meet specific needs, accommodating the values, economies and the way of life of the cultures that produce them. The Khasi vernacular house is small but very beautiful. It touches the earth lightly and has a so many underlining principles, which has evolved over centuries. And while these principles are consistent in all dwellings, it takes various forms based on slight nuances in cultural and religious differences, availability of materials and to adapt to varied climate types. The original Khasi house is semi-oval in shape and according to some research papers it also symbolizes the form of the egg. In fact, the egg is the true primordial form of shelter to any living creature and incidentally plays an important factor in all Khasi rituals and ceremonies.

Keeping this form, dwellings in Sohra for example are built of thick, locally sourced Sohra stone and only one very small window called “Pongshai” to protect the interiors from the lashing rain and wind. The imposing roof that looks like an upturned boat has direct correlation with the ‘Knup’ still used by many as a mobile rain shelter or umbrella. The interior is always divided into three sections – the “Shyngkup” or entrance, “Nengpei” which houses the “ing-kyngdong” or sleeping area, and the “Rympei” or the hearth where the family gathers around. While all columns are structural, there is one non-structural column called the “Rishot-Blei” which does not serve any other purpose but being a metaphysical connection with our ancestors. While the oval-shaped plan has evolved over the ages to be more rectangular due to other forces such as changes in construction materials, the main interior division of spaces is still constant.

Traditional Khasi dwellings in other parts of the state take a slightly different form due to the changes in climate, availability of materials and cultural differences, but the underlining meaning is still the same. For example in Darrang, the spaces were still divided into the “Shyngkup”, “Nengpei” and “Rympei”, but the “Shyngkup” in this case is an external shaded space rather than an internal space and here the family gathers to be outside but protected from the sun. From here they can interact with other members of the village. The Darrang houses have more ventilation with the whole dwelling raised from the ground to avoid moisture seepage and two doors with are aligned East-West to facilitate cross-ventilation. In their local tradition, it seems these two doors evolved to expel diseases or “Khlam” and it makes perfect sense as cross-ventilation can provide healthier interior spaces. The houses are made with thin walls of bamboo and flooring with the bark of the “Kwai” tree. Both locally available, cheap and works best in the hot-humid conditions of the Dawki vicinity. The roof is still imposing with the same up-turned boat concept, but now made of straw or tin sheets.

Another very important factor that we have to learn from traditional dwellings is the fact that our ancestors have incorporated earthquake-safety measures in the ‘design’ of their houses. All traditional houses located all over the Khasi and Jaintia Hills have adopted the ‘post and beam’ construction which is the same concept in modern buildings as it is the most suitable form of construction in earthquake prone areas. You see the entire load of the roof of the traditional house is carried by the wooden beams or “shah tympang” and then transferred to wooden columns or “rishot” unto the ground below, very similar to the column and beams which we have nowadays. In order to respond to the wind and the rain, the roof extends lower to the ground with additional beams that sit on a double stone wall surrounding the house without affecting the structural system. Hence while the exterior wall might crumple in an earthquake event, the main roof might still be intact as their system is independent of the exterior wall. Hence an old grandmother’s saying that when caught in an earthquake, stand below the doorway as it is a structural system and with less likelihood to give way. Segregating a building’s structural system from the exterior envelope is best-practice construction in today’s modern buildings. Our ancestors have also realized the inherent strength of the angle-shaped section as opposed to a normal rectangular section and have adopted this sectional shape in their roofing rafters. A 6-inch square section has been carved to form an angle section to take on more load. This concept is still prevalent in the roofing rafters of the Iing Sad at Smit. Based on these two examples, we can see that our ancestors had ingenuous knowledge about building systems and they created architecture that responded to the forces around them. They were not professionally trained in design, yet they had the sense that those forces are important and should be respected. They responded to their profound Khasi belief systems and to their values and social system. They took into consideration physical factors such as climate, earthquake, thermal comfort, economy and the availability of resources. All these resulted with a house-form that is sensitive to their way of life and to the larger environment “touching the earth lightly”.

Today we live in a world that has just become more complex. Our children will live in a far more complex world than what we are living in today. The definition of space and interactivity has also changed dramatically. Change for us has come in so fast in the last hundred years that we are torn between two entities – on one hand it’s ourbelief and values, and on the other it’s this development frenzy and the accumulation of wealth. While change is inevitable, we should ask ourselves why have we become so adrift from those values that were originally so important to us – values that were sensitive to culture, resources, economics and the environment. Does it not have relevance anymore? Is this the reason why we are now so apathetic that we are replacing exquisite structures with concrete monstrosity, turning rivers to sewers, cutting down pristine forests and leaving our original landscape battered? “We borrow from nature the space upon which we build”, I think has great relevance in our context as there was a time where we gave back by respecting the natural order- our mythological and cosmic alignment, creating spaces in a way that left a positive impact on the environment. Isn’t this the underlining principle of sustainability where there is a balance between economics, culture and the environment – a balance to allow our future generations to also grow? We have always been a sustainable culture and what we need to give back is a positive environment to ensure our longevity as a meaningful culture, the essence of which we can see in our traditional houses. (The author is an architect and environmental designer) I thank architect Aiban Shngain Mawkhroh for providing me with valuable inputs for this article. His thesis titled “Meaning in Khasi House Forms” is an exhaustive architectural research on the traditional Khasi house.

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