India’s traditional practices on housing have always been implemented considering sustainability. Using local eco-friendly building material, adoption of energy-efficient processes and design that is appropriate to the local weather is how houses were made earlier.
The houses were envisioned and made in the form of communities living together ready to help each other in need. They always considered utilizing sunlight, heat, wind, and local materials before building houses. Traditionally, and especially in the rural context, the priority was not only to fulfill shelter needs but also to share space for other living forms like plants, medicinal herbs, and domestic animals.
This blog post has tried to cover many of India’s sustainable traditional practices for housing with the hope to motivate the readers to become sustainable citizens of the world.
Traditional housing and sustainability go hand-in-hand
Indian houses are constructed with local eco-building products
Community-based compounds allow for sustainable living practices
Architecture styles from around India are green in design
The Indian Science of Architecture – Vastu shastra
Vastu shastra is a traditional system of architecture originating in India which has scientific principles on design, layout, measurements, ground preparation, space arrangement, and spatial geometry which should be implemented in a certain way before and after building a house. It takes into account the five sacred elements – earth, wind, water, fire, and space.
Vastu shastra gives directions based on energy flow patterns – particularly of light and wind, utilization of shelter space for various activities like cooking, washrooms, living area, the position of water source, and overall people’s lifestyle and occupation patterns. Correspondingly the spaces in different directions were designed for specific purposes. Thankfully many modern architects do follow the basic direction principles and try to imbibe as many as possible in their urban designs.
Traditional Green Buildings
Constructions in the current times use concrete that is sourced from far distances. Concrete has become the major component of buildings giving rise to several factors that affect climate change. The cement industry causes severe pollution, sand mining affects rivers adversely, and the mining industry causes the destruction of vast areas of forest land – all these pollute and create health risks.
Traditional houses are known for their valuable contribution to the architectural vocabulary of India and the visual interest they create. These houses are also known for their great learning and for their contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the quality of the built environment as they showcase their sensitivity in planning, designing, and construction of the houses. Traditionally the Indian houses, no matter which state was constructed from locally available building materials – mud and stone – with animal dung as plaster. Some examples of sustainable traditional architecture are:
Dhajji Dewari from Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir
The Dhajji Dewari house is made by partially cutting the mountain slope. The earth walls are raised to enclose a rectangular space. The plinth is constructed as a platform and the stonework is coarse to create strong bonding. The roof is kept flat and it consists of a closely packed layer of twigs supported on wooden beams and joists and resting on the wooden columns. The Dhajji Dewari is derived from the Persian language meaning “patch quilt wall” due to its resemblance to the quilt patchwork of Persian weavers and is extremely ductile to control lateral displacement in case of earthquakes.
These traditional houses require very little electricity for light or heating. There is only a single opening in the form of a door to allow light and ventilation. Due to the material used, they even retain heat. The house is divided into three parts. The front is where there is light and all daytime activity takes place. This is a buffer that shields the inside from the outside. Cooking and sleeping are undertaken in the inner part. There is an exclusive part for the cattle. The doors to the two inner rooms are arranged in a way that the cold wind cannot enter. The heat from people, animals, and the cooking stove keep the living room warm.
Nalukettu from Kerala
Nalukettu translated as ‘four blocks’ is a typical Kerala house made for a large joint family. The house, designed in a rectangular shape, and features a courtyard that is open to the sky and houses medicinal plants such as tulsi.
The four blocks are built around the courtyard and each block houses several rooms for different purposes like cooking, dining, sleeping, studying, and storage of grain. Depending on the size of the family, the blocks could have two storeys instead of one. The sloping tiled roofs drain away from the rainwater as the state experiences heavy rainfall for 3-5 months in a year. The courtyard is used as a common area, by the family members, and also for religious purposes. Doors, windows, and granaries are made from the wood of teak which is abundant in the region.
The nalukettu is a self-contained unit with tanks for bathing, wells for drinking water and irrigation, granaries, cowshed and farm buildings, and often kitchen gardens. The compound houses several coconut trees since coconut is an important component of Kerala cooking. The fronds of the coconut leaves are used to make brooms. The fallen leaves are used as fuel in the chulha, thus saving on other sources of energy.
Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the two states in North-East India undergo flooding every year due to incessant rains. While many homes are washed away, the stilted Chang houses provide safe shelter to families. Chang houses are seen in areas where there is high moisture content both in the air and the soil. The stilted houses are designed to keep out the impact of heavy monsoon. The floor and wall inlays are usually made of woven bamboo. The sloping roof allows rainwater to run off and not soak through. A bamboo loft below the roof allows for the storage of goods in case of floods.
The Chang is generally rectangular in shape with linear planning. The houses are constructed over bamboo posts and bamboo diagonal bracings are tied to form the stilt areas. The stilt height is typically 1.50 to 2.00 meters above the ground level. The space below the stilt is often used to store a canoe for emergency usage during floods, which points to a longstanding tradition of disaster preparedness among the local people. Needless to say that such construction is highly energy-efficient, resource-efficient, and space-efficient.
There is a natural cooling system since bamboo is a bad conductor of heat and keeps the interiors cool. Adequate ventilation through the permeable floors and walls keeps the moisture content inside the houses low, making them comfortable in spite of the sultry and humid climate.
Havelis from Rajasthan
Modern buildings are antithesis to the principles followed in Havelis and are dependent largely on the use of active systems and mechanical means of energy to achieve thermal comfort within buildings. Havelis are the large traditional Indian houses having one or more courtyards. Most popular in the state of Rajasthan, they can be found in the states of Punjab and Delhi.
The Havelis were closely packed, shading the narrow lanes between them. Their surfaces were richly carved, which served a dual purpose: one, they created shadows that lessened heat absorption from sunlight; and two, the greater surface area allowed better dissipation of the absorbed heat after dark. Jaalis or perforated screens provided a second skin which acted as a thermal buffer between a building and its surroundings.
The Toda, a small pastoral community, live on an isolated Nilgiri plateau of Southern India. They traditionally live in hamlets called munds consisting of three to seven thatched houses These are constructed in the shape of half-barrel and are spread across the slopes of the pasture. Huts of the Toda tribe are in synchronization with their traditions and are made up of locally available material. Each hut is enclosed by a wall of loose stones which are mostly granite and has a small entrance (3 feet wide and 3 feet tall) that serves as a means of protection from the wild animals. To give the hut a basic tent shape, the arch is provided by thicker bamboo canes. Thinner bamboo frames are tied together and are laid over. Also, the dried grass stacks are laid over the thatches.
Co-existence Nature – Making Space for Animals/Birds
Tabela – a place for the livestock
Tabela is translated as a cattle shed. Traditionally the shed was part of the housing compound and shared the space with the human owners. This ensured that the owners were around in case of any emergency and could provide safety and warmth at their doorstep.
The cattle have so much importance that in many parts of India, there are festivals in their honor. Pola is a festival of the state of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh which is celebrated by the farmers by the worship of the bull. The farmers decorate their bulls and perform puja, as they are a crucial part of agriculture and farming activities. A similar festival is observed by Hindus in other parts of India and is called Mattu Pongal in South and Godhan in North and West India.
Chabutara – a Place to Feed Birds
Chabutara is translated as ‘Bird Feeder’, is commonly found in Gujarat and Rajasthan, and is a place where birds are fed and provided water. The bird-feeding table is kept in homes and gardens and reflects the sharing attitude of the people. Built from stone and bricks these are elevated platforms on 5-6 feet poles that provide refuge to a variety of birds. On the platform, a dish of water and some food is kept for the birds.
These sustainable traditional practices for housing are still prevalent in large parts of India which helps in using locally available materials thus saving on transportation costs and energy conservation.
Start a Discussion!
Go back through and think of ways you can incorporate some of these sustainable traditional practices from India in your home. Leave a comment with at least one idea below.
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Ketki is a content writer and sustainable travel blogger, who loves nature, wildlife and traditional architecture. While she is a professional environmental educator by day, her passion for travel has her jet-setting all over the world during her free time. Ketki enjoys bringing places to life through her informative writing style on her blog, Explore with Ecokats. She documents her journeys to inspire readers to travel sustainably and become responsible and ethical travellers. Her sustainable tips and suggestions help make travels immersing in the history, culture, and wildlife of a region. Readers can get in touch with her on Instagramor her website.