By Tashi Morup, Monday, June 30, 2014
Ladakh is dotted with ruins of old castles and forts across its vast mountainous terrains. Often you also find ruins of townships below such monuments. Ancestors chose hills or raised grounds to build these towns apparently for safety, not only from enemies but also from natural calamities such as floods. Water was scarce, so avoiding constructions on lower flat lands used for agriculture was another important reason.
In 1907 Leh town witnessed a massive flood that filled the present bazaar with debris, but the old town settlement on the southern slope of adjacent Tsemo hill remained unaffected. Most of the buildings here, including the historical Leh Palace, were built in the early 17th century. Old town was safest even during the 2010 flashflood in Leh that killed as many as 257 people and destroyed many houses and washed away trees, fields in other parts of Leh and neighbouring villages etc.
Modern concrete buildings including govt. offices built on dry streambeds were hit or washed away by the flashflood that year but hardly any historical house in the old town suffered major damage. This incident exposed the mess of urban Leh today, sprawled beyond the Old Town that once served as the hub of trade exchanges between Central Asia, Tibet and India. The city was an offshoot of the famous silk route trade, and centuries of commercial exchanges among different communities also led to Leh town emerging as multi-cultural pluralistic society. It also emphasized the ancient wisdom of planning and planners and how this had been lost over the years in the rush for “modernization”.
The royal family lived in the Leh Palace until the invasion of Dogra forces that took place in 1834, when they had to move out to their smaller palace at Stok village on the other side of the Indus River. Other inhabitants followed suite abandoning their ancestral houses to live permanently in houses built in their summer residential areas and where they had their fields. This led to the gradual decay of old town. In recent years, some individuals and non-governmental organizations intervened to save what remains of this heritage town, which has been added by World Monument Fund to its Watch List of the world’s 100 most endangered sites in 2008. Earlier, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) took up the restoration of Leh Palace.
Restoration of other residential houses below the Palace was soon taken up by Ladakh Old Town Initiative (LOTI) of Tibet Heritage Fund (THF) led by late André Alexander. Later, another historic building architect from England, John Harrison restored two of the most important buildings, which were residences of elite families Lonpo (Minister) and Munshi (Secretary).
The LAMO Centre
It was when John Harrison was working on Lonpo House in 2003, that Dr. P Angchuk Munshi who was looking for any possible support to restore his ancestral house approached him. Munshi house was the residence of Togoche family of Leh who were tax collectors during the reign of Ladakhi Kings. Their ancestors were residing as one of the principal authorities under the royal family, which can be witnessed from the paintings of Tsemo Lakhang during the reign of King Tashi Namgyal of 15th century. Same inscriptions can be found in the present Munshi chapel. Meanwhile, two scholars from Mumbai, Monisha Ahmed and Ravina Agarwal, who did their PhD thesis from Ladakh, had set up a public charitable trust called LAMO (Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation). They were contemplating setting up an office somewhere when a meeting with John, organized through another friend (PhD scholar) Martijn Van Beek, led them to Munshi house. A year into the restoration of Munshi house, Stanzin Gyaltsin, the owner of the neighbouring Gyaoo house asked LAMO if they would be interested in including his house as well since ‘the walls of the two houses touched’ and ‘his house was a garbage dump so how would it look once Munshi was restored and this mess lay beside it’ part of which predates even the Leh Palace. John Harrison and his team started working on the site in 2006, and it took about four years before the twin buildings – Munshi Wing and Gyaoo Wing – was ready to function as The LAMO Centre.
“If it wasn’t for John’s commitment it wouldn’t have been done,” Monisha Ahmed says adding that the owner Dr. Munshi had ‘vision’ and ‘trust’ in us when he agreed to give his house for restoration and on lease to LAMO, which should be commended.
LAMO’s vision reads as: “The Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation (LAMO) is a public charitable trust established to articulate an alternative vision for the arts and media in Ladakh. The organization set up the LAMO Centre in Leh, the main town of the region, to provide a space for the understanding and development of the arts. The complex on which the Centre is located comprises two historical houses below the 17th century Lechen Pelkhar (Leh Palace). The houses were restored by LAMO and converted to an arts space with galleries, offices, a library and reading room, screening room, conference room, and open-air performance site. The Centre is designed to conduct outreach programs, lectures, film screenings, research and documentation projects, workshops and exhibitions that showcase Ladakh’s material and visual culture, performing arts and literature.”
Daily Excelsior, a daily newspaper in J&K, covering the visit of Minister of Tourism and Culture Nawang Rigzin Jora on August 4, 2010 to the LAMO Centre wrote: “Appreciating the initiatives taken by LAMO the Minister recognized their efforts at restoring historical space for contemporary use, which should be a precedent for others to follow.”
Late Dr. Mark Braham, an inter-disciplinary researcher concerned with animal welfare, educational, environmental, and social affairs based in Leh, used to say that nine-storied Leh Palace could be a better option for LAHDC’s office than the present Hill Council complex. A traditional pastureland along a dry streambed was the chosen site to build the present LAHDC Mini-Secretariat complex, designed by a Delhi-based architect Sanjay Prakash. Apart from an excessive use of cement and concrete, even the design of this important building complex did not set a good example for future design perspectives in Ladakh.
In fact, the whole trend of diverting from indigenous materials and local architecture started in the 1970s when official buildings (on the edge of historic old town) including present District Commissioner’s office, law courts, … were built using cement and tin roof – two of the most unacceptable materials – in a dry and cold high altitude dessert region of Ladakh. Since then cement and tin roof culture threw local architecture and aesthetics to oblivion, and inherent strength lying in local solutions to building challenges are yet to be explored.
Restoration of Munshi house
Munshi house along with Gyaoo house was restored for a contemporary use by LAMO, a unique feature of this has been a kind of retrofitting introduced into this heritage building – a portion of which is probably much older than the 17th century Leh Palace. Dr. P Angchuk Munshi, an Ophthalmologist and proud owner of the house, was happy to offer his ancestral house for restoration by LAMO and lease it out to them in 2003. Dr. Munshi says, his great grandfather Munshi Spalgyes, who was a dynamic leader under British-Dogra rule and also wrote first comprehensive history on Ladakh, made later additions to the earlier building between 1880 and 1890. According to him, existing stables and Nyima-lagang (a room with exquisite paintings discovered recently) were probably the oldest parts of the building.
Perfectly south facing with large balconies for good sun in winter and courtyard with other rooms below were carefully restored by a team of expert local craftsmen, masons and labourers from Doda district, under the strict monitoring and supervision of the conservation architects John Harrison assisted by Deldan Angmo. John says, “A big advantage was that local craftsmen were still alive, and they still knew old techniques which are not yet superseded.” They were able to recycle all the roof earth and also earth from every broken brick to cast new bricks, which would not be possible in case of cement as ‘reinforcing’ cement or even breaking it means to go at it with a sledgehammer which is ‘hell of a lot more physical’.
Commenting on local building materials he has said in his Exhibition report on the restoration of Munshi house, “Traditional building construction makes use of the materials which are available locally – stone, earth and wood – and crafts them in ways which change only gradually, sometimes over centuries. The community as well as the craftsmen becomes involved in building, and building becomes an essential part of the cultural life of the community.”
John made minor alterations to these historical houses, such as a conservatory on the east and office entrance, were new elements were designed and developed from traditional detailing. Plastic and glass bottles were used in the roofs to improve insulation and reduce weight, which got rid of quite a mass of street garbage. This was an alternative method inspired from a practice in Rajasthan where they use earthen pots upside down in the roof. John also read about an idea of empty bottles for wall insulation from a student project by SECMOL (Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh). He tested the bottles for crushing to use in roof for weight reduction, instead before going ahead with using plastic for Library roof and glass bottles for other roof where more human traffic was likely; and then ‘Bituminous roofing felt was laid around roof edges and built into the brick parapet walls having weak point in the traditional flat earth roof.’
In the LAMO exhibition on ‘The Restoration of The Munshi House’ (2009), John Harrison has said, “Providing an adequate slope on “flat” earth roofs for rainwater to drain to the water spouts can result in thickness – and weight – of earth. Glass and plastic bottles have been recycled and set in the base layer of earth to reduce this weight, and also improve the thermal insulation of the roof.”
Using wood shavings from the carpentry workshop in cavities within thick walls, fitting double windows wherever possible, conservatories to trap heat from the sun in winter and Yamang (local slate stone from Chilling) floor paving stones inside, large windows to store heat in winter were other techniques introduced apart from traditional construction methods and materials.
Kuang-Han Li, in her MA research work on ‘Conservation of Vernacular Ladakhi Architecture: The Munshi House in Old Town Leh, Ladakh’, University of Pennsylvania (2004), has said, “Typical of vernacular Ladakhi houses, the lower levels of the Munshi house are constructed out of rubble masonry and in certain areas, rammed earth foundation. The upper levels are mainly of mud brick with timber structural members for vertical support and working framing.”
She has further stated that the Munshi house is built on a rocky sloping site where the rubble stone foundations were carefully fitted to the rock formation to create a solid base for the upper living floors.
In her report Han Li has quoted from Anne Chayet, Corneille Jest and John Sanday ‘Earth used for building in the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and Central Asia – recent research and future trends’ saying: “Ladakh has a rich tradition in the use of different kinds of clay for construction and the lack of other suitable building materials has led to the use of earth as the main building material for many centuries. Rammed-earth is regarded as the oldest, cheapest and simplest construction technique in Tibetan culture.”
Traces of the Tibetan arga technique, where the clay mineral is stamped and oiled to produce a dense polished waterproof surface, have been found on the floor and roof constructions of older buildings of Ladakh. Harrison said that parts of the floor surface found at the back altar space in the Munshi house chapel suggests the possible use of the arga technique, but this skill has largely been lost in Ladakh now. Dr. Munshi remembers that the Rabsal room too had arga flooring initially. He says, the best living example of Arga flooring is the assembly hall of Chemre monastery.
Kuang-Han Li has carefully surveyed and documented the four major construction phases of the historical Munshi house. Accordingly, the earliest pre-existing structure is assumed to be the rammed earth foundation that forms the eastern boundary of the property.
Describing the local architecture she says, “Traditionally, Ladakhi houses are usually constructed on slopes to leave the precious irrigable flat land for agriculture. So is the case of the Munshi house where it sits on the slope of the Namgyal Tsemo hill, which forms the northern boundary of the town, with a strong recognition of a front façade on the south elevation. Instead of using a formal axis as a rigid organizational tool, there is more of a general recognition of a proper orientation, i.e. a realization of a front in Ladakhi architecture. This front wall usually opens to the south, to have maximum exposure of the southern sun and is the most decorated elevation. The south façade of the Munshi House has most notably, two large wooden balconies, known as the Rabsals, on the top level, and these rabsals are the most intact amongst those that have survived in the old town areas.”
Although no figures have been recorded to check for building efficiency in terms of room temperature during cold winter days, but thick walls and roof provide good insulation as compared to the concrete slab (about 6 inches thick) buildings are adopting nowadays. LAMO organize workshop, exhibitions, film screenings in its different spaces even during peak winter months virtually without any room heating. One of the lower rooms that have much smaller windows are ideal for musical jam sessions LAMO does, while workshops and open-air performances in its open stables-turned-amphitheatre are held during festivals.
According to Han Li, the Munshi House has four main levels and one mezzanine level. In order from the lowest to the top, the levels are namely: ground, mezzanine, first, second and roof. Usually the ground floor of a Ladakhi house is used for subsidiary rooms and large stalls, winter stable for animals, storage of grains and food. By using lowest level as a winter stable, not only will the heat of the animals be kept inside for their own survival, but the warm air will rise and heat the upper floor. The first floor of the Munshi house, as typical of a Ladakhi house, consists of the main winter kitchen, and grain storerooms. Their main winter kitchen is the most important meeting area on the occasion of socio-religious nature of Ladakhi family. It is also a multi-functional space cooking, eating, sleeping due to severe winters outdoor activities are limited and kitchen stove constantly burning makes the main kitchen the warmest space in the entire house.
Instead of recognizing and bringing into practice Ladakh’s own inherent strengths, looking for solutions outside this storehouse of knowledge and frantically importing non-local materials such as cement and steel to create a concrete jungle and utter chaos, as exists today next to the ambit of ancestral town of Leh pose a biggest question before the key people directly responsible for it. It is not an uncommon concern though, yet a multi-crore housing project under Rajiv Awaz Yojna (RAY) scheme of Govt. of India are underway to create more concrete structures in and around the Leh town. It is still not too late to look for solutions in Ladakh’s own inherent strengths, which can be done by: Learning from examples
Working with available sources
Training a local workforce
Training in local materials and techniques and methods
Reviving lost skills
Reuse of existing resources
(Published under the aegis of CSE Media Fellowship)