Vernacular architecture of Assam

by Nabajit Deka | 2018 | 96,996 words

This study deals with the architecture of Assam (Northeastern India, Easter Himalayas), with special reference to Brahmaputra Valley. The Vernacular Architecture of Assam enjoys a variety of richness in tradition, made possible by the numerous communities and traditional cultures....

Conservationism, Sustainable Development, and Vernacular Architecture

Among the prominent merits of the vernacular architecture, it is appreciated for the capability of dealing with the contemporary challenges like environmental crisis, including issues of resource depletion, global warming, and energy crises, the crisis the humanity is facing in contemporary period. Thus, the architectural strength, eco-friendliness, and sustainability of the vernacular architecture are major qualities that drawn the attention of the scholars. The vernacular architecture uses traditional knowledge, technology, layout, and natural material in construction, which ultimately contribute for such contemporary significance. VAs “sets an example of harmony between dwellings, dwellers and physical environment” and “show a greater respect to the existing environment and also take into account the constrains imposed by the climate” (Singh, Mahapatra, & Atreya:2009). Thus, “the strength of vernacular architecture is that it makes buildings that are in neutral harmony with climate, built form and people. Vernacular architecture have evolved through ages where among other factors, the climate has also played a very important role” (Dili, Naseer, & Varghese:2010).

The energy efficient nature of vernacular architecture is regarded as a major virtue as studies have shown that a major share of energy is consumed globally for maintaining the indoor temperature of the residential architectures (Zhai & Previtali:2010). Similar is the case of India concerning the domestic electricity consumption. The Central Electricity Authority report said, “the residential sector consumes 21% of the total energy generated in India, which is about three times more than that of the commercial buildings” (BEEP:2015). Similarly, it is said that about 48% of the energy consumed in Indian residential building is used for providing thermal comfort indoors (Dili, Naseer, & Varghese:2011).

The following remarks of Dili are very noteworthy:

The vernacular architecture gives solutions that are in perfect harmony with nature. Control of the indoor environment is always an important aspect of vernacular architecture. Now, the researchers in the field of energy efficient and sustainable design in various parts of the world are extracting the tested passive control techniques embedded in the vernacular architecture. (Dili, Naseer, & Varghese:2010:926)


“vernacular technologies have been devised uniquely to the region where people lived to cope with the severe climate by inventing various devices without resorting to fossil fuels, thus the form of vernacular architecture representing regionalism of their own” (Kimura:1994:900).

Though constructed of impermanent natural materials, the vernacular architectures are often possess great structural strength. Particularly the traditional architectures of the region possess great structural strength that even endured the major earthquake and floods that occurred in the state. Thus, the houses of the Khamti village in the Chowkham area of Arunachal Pradesh and Namphake village of Assam, on the Burhidihing river, did not suffer any damage during the 1950 earthquake of 8.5 Richter scale or in the high flood water of 1946 (Gohain:2015). Similarly, when constructed on plain areas, the “performance of Assam-type houses has been extremely good in several past earthquake shakings in the region” (Kaushik & Babu:2009).

The growth in the infrastructure and construction industry along the growing population is increasingly using non-renewable materials, causing environmental degradation and imbalance. Therefore, the demand for sustainable development and sustainable architecture is growing globally. The Sustainable architecture “is a category of architecture based on localized requirement and building materials, and reflecting the local traditions. Sustainable architecture behaviours evolve over time to reflect the environmental, cultural, technological, and historical context in which it exists” (Niroumand, Zain, & Jamil:2013:248). The search for sustainable architecture is gradually accentuating the necessity of climate responsive building and “green building”. Green building refers “to both a structure and the application of processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s lifecycle” (Wikipedia) while the climate responsive building designs take advantage of natural energy sources like sun and wind (Sharma &Sharma:2013).

Thus, there is scope and possibilities of using both traditional materials and techniques for cost-effective and sustainable contemporary architecture. However, for this, the materials and technique of traditional architecture need to be appropriated to fit the need, demand, and terms of modern and contemporary architecture -both technically and sustainably. And some practical experimentation in such direction have brought encouraging ray of optimism. Thus, an architect of Guwahati, Bipul Kumar Das has shown precedence of successfully constructing a single story house in 1973 using bamboo as core material for walls and roof (Das, B.K:2001). Contemporaneously, Manoj Kumar Das, a civil engineer of Hajo locality, has developed tradition-based technology to construct even a two-storied building. He too, using bamboo split as core material developed two technologies i.e. Concreting Over Bamboo Split (COBS) and Bamboo Reinforced Cement Concrete (BRCC) for which he has applied for patent. These technologies, where bamboo is used successfully as prime component of construction that not only lowered the construction cost but opened up new avenues of hope for contemporary use of vernacular architecture tradition for the construction of economic, earthquake resistant and sustainable modern architecture. In another instance, use of bamboo and cane mat in the false ceiling of modern apartment is seen, highlighting the possibilities of contemporary use of traditional material, technique, and expertise.

In contemporary scholarship and discourse, the relevance and validity of vernacular architecture is manifold. The structural, technical, or the aesthetic values of these “simple” architectures are looming large gradually. Thus, the vernacular architecture is proving inspiration for the modern architecture in many ways. Supic has rightly pointed out, “The simplicity in which the vernacular architecture expresses its contents, has led important architects of the 19th and 20th century to pay it homage and consider it as the genesis of new architectural theories” (Supic:1982:43).

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