Iqbal Ahmad

Forgotten villages and the architecture!

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The Kashmiri village architecture was once no less impressive and interesting given its beautiful locals, traditions life styles, wonderful, social, cultural and architectural heritage that remains well documented in the most acknowledged catalogues across the globe. It was quite distinctive and indigenous in nature and presented the finer nuances in the construction patterns as well as composition of buildings. Unfortunately we could not preserve any such village sight which could have depicted the classical social and cultural image of our traditional lifestyle.

It is easy to create model villages and in the near future  we can have more and more  model villages not because the government is sponsoring  such ventures but because of the rural development  where  horticulture, agriculture and other fields  are advancing rapidly and are seemingly achieving a  process of rebirth. The developments in these fields has been changing the scenario not only of the villages but of inhabits also.

Those days are gone when villages were looked down upon by the urban population. Till recent times, the village people were economically and socially backward than their urban brethren. However, the advanced horticulture and government services which were adopted by village people have changed their living standards to a large extent and as a result, today’s villages have changed their socio-cultural makeup and are advancing to match with the urban trends and sometimes superseding them.

In its very literal meaning, a village refers to a hamlet which in Kashmiri means is termed as ‘Gaem’. A small hamlet within a village is called Pur which occasionally may also mean a full village as well.  However, a complete village would be one that is inhabited by the people of almost every caste and trade. The following castes and craftsmen make a complete village:

Peer (A Muslim spiritual guide), Pandith (A Hindu spiritual guide), Gor (Hindu priest who attends funerals), Malla or Moulvi (A Muslim Imam who leads the prayers), Grucce (A former who attendants the lands), Gur (Milkman),Puohul (shepherd), Khar (Blacksmith), Chhan (Carpenter), Telwani (oil merchant), Naid (Hair Cutter), Galvan (Horsemen) Konil (Makes Kangaries and Baskets), Waza (chefs),  Woover (weaver of blanket).

The people of these different trades live in different mohalls of a village which are denoted by their respective trade names.  Almost every village in Kashmir valley has a fine location and are situated amidst trees including chinar, walnut, apricot, popular and willow- these varieties of flora are very commonly found in nearly all villages. A Sufi saints tomb, Mosque and Temple are few religious shrines seen in a village. The natural water facilities include the fresh water streams besides springs, ponds and lakes.

The most important feature of a village is its glorious architecture consisting of village houses and village storages. The noteworthy feature of an olden village, besides other things, are its mud and thatch houses sometimes covered over by wooden singles and earthen tops.

Sir Walter Lawrence, who has extensively toured Kashmiri villages during Maharaja Pratab Singh’s period, has given an interesting picture of village houses. He writes, “The houses are made of unburnt bricks set in wooden frames, and timber of cedar, pine and fir, the roofs being pointed to through of snow. In the loft formed by the roof wooden and grass are stored, and the ends are left open to allow these to be thrown out when fire occurs. The thatch is usually of straw. Rice straw is considered to be the best material, but in the vicinity of the lakes reeds are used. Near the forests the roofs are made of wooden shingles, and the houses are real log huts, the walls being formed of whole logs laid one upon another, like the cottage of the Russian peasantry. Further away from the forests the walls are of axe-cut planks fitted into grooved beams. Outside the first floor of the house is a balcony approached by a ladder, where the Kashmiri delights to set in the summer weather. Later the balcony and the loft are festooned with roofs of dry turnips, apples, maize-cobs for seeds vegetable marrows and chilies, for winter use. Sometimes in the villages one finds the roofs of the larger houses and of the shrines (Ziarats) made of birch bark with a layer of earth above it. This forms an  excellent roofs and in the spring the housetops are covered with iris, purple, white and yellow, with the red turk’s head and the crown imperial lilies.”

He further adds that, “In some of the larger and better houses there are pretty windows of lattice-work, open in the summer and closed by paper in the winter. As spring approaches the paper is torn down and the windows look ragged and untidy. On the ground floor the sheep and cattle are penned, and sometimes the sheep are crowded into a wooden locker known as the dangij, where the children sit in the winter and where the guest is made to sleep, for it is the warmest place in the house. One might imagine that the Kashmiri houses are neither comfortable nor healthy, but as a matter of fact they are warm enough. In the summer weather the houses are airy, and as winter comes on the chinks are stopped by thatch and grass and the dwelling is kept at a hot-house heat by the warm breath of the cattle and sheep, which comes up through openings from the ground floor to the first floor where the family lives. Some houses have fire places, but as a rule the villagers depend for warmth in winter on their sheep. For lighting purposes they use, oil and in the higher villages torches made of pine wood are employed”.

He further adds that, “In fact the thatched roofed houses were most common in villages, the birch bark roofs were seen only on religious shrines. Almost all the ancient village houses are rectangular in plan facing commonly to south and rarely to east, but never to north or west. Their shrines, excluding mosques and temples also face south. The site plan of the houses was measured in Asta’s (a local measuring unit equivalent to 2 fts) the plinth was formed of local stones called Kashir Ken (a bolder stone) usually extracted from nallah beds. Over the plinth was placed a row of wooden logs, called locally as Das. It served as a DPC which locked the plinth. The Das was followed by brick pillars. The plinth was kept wide so was made the brick pillars, the minimum width of the walls measured one gaz (about one meter).The gaps in between the brick pillars  were covered by Inderdus (earthern wall)”.

Like towns and cities the villagers also preferred to have their houses double and triple storeyed. The ground was usually occupied by cattle wealth while the other two storeys by the inmates. The upper floor which was called Kani was being used in summer while the first storey was useful for winters. There were various rooms of the house named by their Kashmiri terms as: Tanab – Common room, Dankuth – Kitchen, Bankuth – Store room, Gan – Cattle room, Mandow – A big room, Pacehh Kuth – Guest room, Mud – Pen.

Nowadays, things have changed, the villages have not only lost the glorious sites but its traditional architecture as well.  Steps  are required to be taken to explore few ancient villages which may be existing in any corner of this valley  and bring them under the purview of heritage preservation net so that next generations can also have the glimpses of their ancient village sites and its architecture.

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