Traditional Indian Houses

Traditionally Indians lived in the joint family system. Many occupants of the house and their interpersonal relationships demanded clearly distinguished spaces for different activities. There were private and public zones in the house with the courtyard as its nucleus. These houses were very high on the sustainable quotient. They were designed to suit the climate, the anthropometry, the Vaastu Shashtra and used local building materials and techniques for construction.

Many theorists and distinguished architects like Hassan Fathy have promoted the underlying concepts on traditional architecture to form contemporary design. However, in the present scenario, the traditional building has been replaced by fast-growing concrete jungles, which are not sustainable or sensitive towards the natural calamities and microclimatic conditions.

When I taught History of Architecture for the first time, I was trying to explore and understand deeper meanings of concepts and stories which lead to the built Architecture. History, as it suggests, is the story which insights what happened in the past. There is a lot to acknowledge and interpret from our history and heritage, especially architecture, as history has the best design guidelines which respond aptly to the vernacular character of that place, the lifestyle of the users and building traditions of that time.

This article focuses on two such prototypes of traditional dwellings – The Havelis of Rajasthan and The Bhungas of Kutch. Both of these are from very close regions in India, having similar climatic and topographic conditions, yet dissimilar in expression and design.

The Havelis of Rajasthan

Rajasthan is a vibrant and culturally rich state of India. The Rajput school of architecture mainly comprising a blend of Mughal and Hindu features, showcases grand havelis, astonishing forts and exquisitely carved temples. The artists of Rajasthan established major architectural styles and elements like the Jharokhas, Chhattris, Baodis (step wells), Johad and Jaalis.

© Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Between 1830 and 1930, a prominent building type, the haveli or mansion of well-to-do Marwaris came into being. Haveli in Persia is ‘hawli’ which means ‘an enclosed place’. The nucleus of these havelis was the courtyard, some havelis had two such courtyards – the outer one for the males and the inner secluded one for the females of the family. The courtyard served as a light well and was very effective for ventilation in such hot and dry climates. The commonly used building materials included baked bricks, sandstone, marble, wood, plaster and granite. No external surface of the haveli was left unarticulated. Such exquisite carving led to self-shading of the facade hence reducing overall heat gain of the building. Projections and recessions of jharokhas and jaalis not only induced an aesthetically pleasing building elevation but also, added to the climate responsiveness of the design. The plan of havelis was generally linear with shorter side along the road and longer side as its depth. The street section shows very closely spaced houses, again adding to the shading of streets, encouraging interaction and bonding among residents. The number of floors was developed as per the family size. Trabeate, as well as the arcuate system of construction, was used and in a few examples, a basement is also seen.

The famous havelis of Rajasthan are Samode Haveli, Patwon ki Haveli, Nathmalji ki Haveli, Shekhavati Haveli, Mandawa Haveli, Salim Singh ki Haveli and many others.

The Bhungas of Kutch

Bhunga © Nevil Zaveri

Kutch region of western Gujrat literally means something which intermittently becomes wet and dry. The famous Rann of Kutch is a shallow wetland that submerges in water during the rainy season and becomes dry for the rest of the year. The same word is also used in Sanskrit origin for a tortoise. The climate is extreme with summer temperature soaring till 48ºC while winters are as cold as less than 0ºC. It falls in zone 5 of the earthquake zones of India.

The traditional architecture of Kutch is an outcome of prevailing topography, extreme climate and other natural constraints. To withstand all of these, a vernacular architectural expression called the Bhunga has developed in the Kutch region. The houses are circular in plan with a thatched roof. They are known for their structural stability in earthquakes and for being climate responsive. This assembly of circular walls and conical roof also protects against sandstorms and cyclonic winds.

Locally available soft stone is chiselled to form rectangular blocks, locally available soil is used as mud mortar, locally available bamboo and straw is used for roofs and locally available labour needs about a months’ time to construct one such Bhunga. They do not share walls with adjacent buildings. Inner diameter is 3 to 6 m with only 3 openings (one door and two windows). Windows are set at a lower level for cross ventilation. The low hanging roofs cover the walls against direct sunlight and add to the insulation from the environment. The thatched roof is built on top of the walls resting on a spiral frame forming a cone.

Due to circular walls, the inertial forces are balanced out by shell action, hence balancing the lateral forces. Additionally, the thick walls not only provide thermal comfort but also act as a strong base against sandstorms and earthquakes. The roof is constructed of ductile materials like bamboo and thatch, hence making it lightweight and flexible. In some examples, the roof is not directly supported on the walls, but it projects out to rest on two strong posts. This increases the Bhungas resistance to seismic activity furthermore.

Interiors of the Bhunga is interestingly decorated with rural life imagery using hand-painted motifs and lots of mirror work. As openings are minimal, the mirrors actually help reflect sunlight in the interiors. The artistic community of the ‘Bhunga dwellers’ is fascinated with the use of vibrant colours and ornamentation. Inbuilt shelves minimize wastage of floor space for furniture.

All in all, I can say that there’s a lot to be learned from the traditional ways of construction that exist in India.

Ketaki PatwardhanAbout the author:

Ketaki Patwardhan, Director at Green Hat Studio, has over 10 years of working experience in Design Management and execution. Her interest in teaching has also led her to take many workshops about Design Thinking & Basic design for students as well as professionals.

5 thoughts on “Traditional Indian Houses

  1. Nicely written and very informative. I am not a architect but I enjoying reading it. It gives us pride of rich heritage of Indian culture.
    Prof. Reeta Sonawat

  2. Good sharing of knowledge ketaki…. need more similar write ups with widespread circulation to create awareness among people other than Architects regarding use of traditional Indian design, construction materials and construction techniques. On the same hand, also see how those traditional methods of designing and constructing cater to ever growing demand of homes in urban areas where we have shortage of land areas.
    Hope you at ‘Green Hat’ come up with some exceptional idea of use of extensive traditional Indian Architecture in steadfast metropolises.
    keep going…

  3. Very Informative. I have an interest in the traditional ways of house building in India.
    I’d love to read more such articles.
    I’m curious though, that are we(from the govt. and industries) making any efforts to incorporate the techniques or learning from these styles of architecture into modern ways of construction?


  4. Thank you for your post. This is excellent information. It is amazing and wonderful to visit your site.

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