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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. 

Trikuta Mata 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; the slate shingles for roof, stone and wood walls and projecting wood balcony. The wood beams and rafters were decorated intricately and showed off the artistic skills of the Himachali people.

Trikuta temple by the road side
Trikuta temple by the road side

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

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

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.

Shoma Abhyankar View All

I believe "Life is short and the world is wide"and travel is best possible solution to make the best of this life.

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