Kath Kuni Architecture: Heritage Of Himachal Pradesh

Heritage, as defined in the dictionary means “an inherited property such as historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generation and are worthy of preservation”. The intangible heritage includes the traditional knowledge and practices relating to the natural surroundings that have been handed down by preceding generation.

On a recent trip to Manali and Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, I was disappointed to see concrete jungle covering the entire hill-side and traditional construction techniques losing ground. What seemed like little twinkling stars at night had turned into hideous houses so closely placed that it looked more like a hill made from houses stacked atop each other.

Though the village still had a few traditional houses but there too, brick mortar seemed to replace vernacular architecture. Town had hardly any typical houses, built from local materials that respond to the local topography and climate of the region. Some of the structures that reflected the traditional Kath-Kuni architectural style of Himachal Pradesh were mostly temples and the historical Naggar Castle.

What is Kath Kuni Architecture?

The traditional architecture makes use of locally available wood of Deodhar and Kail trees with the stone. The Kath Kuni construction technique allows the structure to rise up to as high as seven floors but a typical house rises up to two or three floors. Typical features:

  1. A sloping pent and gable roof made of slate stone shingles. Stone shingles prevent strong winds from dislodging the roof.
    Slate tiles for roof
    Slate tiles for roof
  2. Stone and wood walls without any cementing material. Alternate layers of wooden beams and stones are stacked to create strong long-lasting strong easily constructed walls. 
    Alternating layers of wood and stone in walls
    Alternating layers of wood and stone in walls
  3. Overhanging projecting wooden balcony with large openings to allow most sunlight and warmth to penetrate the structure.
    Overhanging wooden balconies supported by wood rafters
    Overhanging wooden balconies supported by wood rafters

 Why this Intangible Heritage needs to be preserved?

The traditional knowledge is always perfect for the region it originates in. This  unique construction technique has its advantages which needs to be preserved and taught to next generation because:

  1. The absence of cementing material makes the structure non-rigid which dissipates stresses developed in the structure during earthquakes thus preventing large-scale destruction and loss of life.
  2. The thick walls have air trapped in the spaces between stones and wood which acts as insulation layer and keeps the interiors warm during colder temperatures of the region. This also results in easy and cheaper maintenance.
  3. All materials are easily available and do not deteriorate for long time thus saving on wastage and resources.
  4. Construction is faster than slow setting mortar and the locals can construct their own house without external help.
  5. The materials being biodegradable, there is no harmful synthetic trash accumulation. 

The best examples of this architecture are the old temples of Tripura Sundari, Hadimba temple and the Naggar Castle.

Tripura Sundari Temple

While driving towards Shimla from Manali I happened to see this structure on a sloping side road that led to a village somewhere. A perfect example of traditional architecture it had all the elements of Kath Kuni construction technique:

  1. Slate shingles for roof,
  2. Stone and wood walls and
  3. Projecting wood balcony.
  4. The wood beams and rafters were decorated intricately and showed off the artistic skills of the Himachali people.
Trikuta temple by the road side
Tripura Sundari  temple by the road side

Constructed by Raja Yashodhapala, the uniqueness of this pagoda style temple is in the offering made by the devotees to the Goddess. During the festival of Birsu, on the first day of month of Vaishakh according to Hindu calendar, the devotees offer shrouds of dead bodies as clothes to the Goddess.

Hidimba Temple

Set amidst Deodhar trees is this ancient pagoda style temple constructed in 1553 in kath-kuni architectural pattern. This single story structure built atop a small cave has stone and wood layered walls that has stood the test of time.

Hidimba temple
Hidimba temple

Dedicated to Hidimba, wife of Pandava prince Bhima, Hidimba belonged to rakshasa clan and had sworn to marry the man who would defeat her brothers. Bhima, while the Pandavas were in exile, had a tussle with the rakshasas and defeated them, thus winning Hidimba’s hand in marriage. Hidimba’s sacrifice earned her the respect of ‘devi’. Devotees flock to this temple during the annual fair.

The temple with intricately carved wooden doors and a 24 meters tall wooden “shikhar” or tower above the sanctuary is a fine example of traditional architecture. Skulls of deer and buffaloes adorn the exterior walls of this temple.

Naggar Castle

This ancient castle was built by Raja Sidh Singh of Kullu in 1460. Converted to state-run rest house, the castle with its intricately carved interiors still survives in its original grandeur. A fine example of traditional construction style it has a temple inside the complex with beautiful wood-art.

Inner courtyard of naggar castle with jagatipatt temple on left
Inner courtyard of Naggar Castle with Jagatipatt temple on left

Yet again the entire structure with extensive intricately carved woodwork has all the elements of the Kath-Kuni architecture and is much larger in size than the two other structures and has survived the natural forces over a period of almost six centuries.

The survival of such ancient structures is proof enough that for a region that has much seismic activity and a whole range of weather conditions, the traditional construction is the best practice.

India is a treasure trove of tangible and intangible heritage….all that is needed is a passion and zeal to preserve it and hand it down to the future generation.

Tit-Bits:

Manali, a hill station set in Kullu valley of Beas River, Himachal Pradesh, is a popular tourist destination. It was once the beginning of ancient trade route to Ladakh.

Reaching There:
  • Nearest Airport is Bhuntar Airport which is about 50 km from Manali.
  • Chandigarh Airport is also another option. Bus services and taxis ply on NH21 from Chandigarh to Manali, a distance of approximate 310 kilometers.
  • There is however no railway till Manali. Chandigarh and Pathankot are nearest railway stops.
Stay:

Being a popular tourist destination, there are umpteen big and small hotels. I was invited by Club Mahindra as one of the winners of Dream Journeys along with BlogAdda. A few good accommodation options are:

  • Khushboo Resorts
  • Snow Valley Resorts
  • Holiday Heights
Food:

The traditional thali of Manali is sumptuous and fulfilling affair. I loved the ‘Siddu’ a kind of dimsum and the mutton curry. Some dishes are spicy but the sweet rice preparation with a hint of ‘saunf’ makes it even.

Things to do:
  • Besides all touristy spots that include temples of Hidimba, Ghatotkach, art galleries, museums and castle, do also take out time for para-sailing.
  • Buy the traditional in-house colorful footwear made of hemp and woollen threads called ‘Pullas’ and the shawls.
  • Walnuts are cheaper and good quality. Buy a bagful.
  • Green apples are must too. I haven’t eaten such sweet sour green apples in metros as in Manali.
  • Stroll down the main road bazaar and enjoy the quaint little old town.

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