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Pandit Homes of past

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A visit to Tao Art Gallery turned out to be an emotional journey down memory lane for architect Alfaz Miller – who makes a passionate plea for preserving our heritage homes.

When I first visited Kashmir as a tourist with my family in the early ’70s, I thought it was a ‘heaven on earth’. As a student of architecture, I was enthralled as much by its rich architectural tradition as I was by its natural beauty.  I returned to Kashmir almost every year for the next ten years to enjoy the beauty of the Valley in various seasons throughout the year.

This land of sparkling rivers and sleepy lakes has such an abundance of natural beauty that it has rightly been hailed as the “Switzerland of the East”. It’s mesmerizing how this everlasting beauty never fails to charm visitors with its changing seasons and picturesque scenes – from the dazzling white snow of winter to the blooming fragrances of spring.

I made friends with people from different communities and all walks of life. This gave me an opportunity to visit the villages, where I experienced the traditional Kashmiri hospitality, marvelled at the unique character of its people, and enjoyed its architectural and design diversity.

Most of all, I was fascinated by the unique architectural idiom of the Pandit Houses located in Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Srinagar. Composite load-bearing structures constructed with either stone or brick walls, these houses were either plastered or left exposed. The walls were thick to fulfill the need for insulation during the snow-bound winters. The floors and roof trusses were made of timber with timber floorboards to match. 

The older houses had timber shingles on the roof, while the more modern ones used galvanized iron roof sheeting. The design of the roof trusses is amazing in the way a variety of roof forms are integrated.  Steeply-pitched roof dormer, clerestory windows and fan-lights are combined to create functional yet aesthetic forms.

The architecture of these old houses is symbolic of cross-cultural influences in the Valley. The plastered motifs, the carved arched windows and decorative cantilevered balconies have a distinct Islamic character. The balconies and “mashrabias” (arabesque latticework) also display an Islamic influence.  The Persian influence was just as much evident in the woodwork as it is in the carpet designs.

As a youngster, I admired the proportions and meticulous detailing of the houses, both old and new. Built in the traditional way, as they were hundreds of years ago, the variety of roof trusses, how they were designed to take the load of snow and to withstand strong winds, were all intriguing aspects for me. Such designs were missing from my construction books!

Sadly, once I got busy with building my architectural practice, I did not visit Kashmir until about a year ago for a brief professional assignment.

When I arrived at Srinagar airport, two things struck me: the numerous security check-posts and the fact that Srinagar was almost the same as I had left it – except for the pall of gloom that has evidently descended upon the Valley.  It seemed that time stood still, but was it just waiting for me to come back and witness the destruction of a beautiful part of our heritage?

In artist Veer Munshi’s painstaking photographs shown at Tao Art Gallery in Mumbai recently, I could see clearly how the Valley has been ravaged and the Pandit houses systematically destroyed. In some cases, only remnants of roofs, wooden balconies and trelliswork could still be seen.

Initially, the photographs came as a rude shock to me.

Yet somewhere in these ruins of a lost legacy, I saw a glimmer of hope. I want to go back again and again in the hope of finding more remnants of a bygone era.

There’s a lot we can learn about our history, culture and way of life from architecture… and it’s not always to be found in our books. 

Alfaz Miller is architect and managing director of ABM Architects, based in Mumbai.
alfaz@abmdesigns.com
www.abmdesigns.com

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