Houses of Rameswaram

Whenever I travel soutwards into the Indian peninsula past where it narrows to about 600 kilometers or so, I spend a lot of time in admiring the change in colour sensibilities. Southwards the colour schemes on houses are similar to those on the wonderful south Indian silk sarees that you see. When I was younger and less exposed to differences between people, I would find some of these combinations jarring. Now, I can’t stop photographing them.

The Family is quite as much into this hobby as I am. Between the two of us we got a range of houses in Rameswaram: from multi-story family houses to little huts. They all have bright colours and interesting gates or doors. Many of them have the traditional kollam outside the door: a new one every day. As always, you could click on any one of the photos in the panel above to go through a slide show.

Mountain mules

I leave cities now and then, but it seems the city never leaves me. I’d taken a mountain path from Gushaini towards Ropa village, which is the starting point of the Great Himalayan National Park. The path follows the valley of the river Tirthan for a while, so I kept looking over to the other hillside, which was full of wonderful slate-roofed traditional wooden houses. You can see one of these in the featured photo. I kept wondering about how they would bring the building materials to the construction site. I assumed that it would be easier to bring the wood and mud to the site than to bring bricks. I completely forgot two things.

The first was that no motorized vehicles come over these narrow mountain roads. The second is that slate tiles are the heaviest part of the material. These two forgotten points passed me on the path in the form of a train of mules carrying slate tiles. My aha moment was prolonged. By the time pulled out my camera, the mules had gone past. I still managed to catch the picture which you can see above. In the mountains everything has to be hauled up. Most of these narrow tracks are too narrow for trucks, so there are no alternatives to carrying them up yourself, with the help of porters and mules. Bricks and concrete are options only when there are roads.

After the mule train had passed I recalled having seen it earlier on the path. I’d failed to get a good shot of slaty-headed parakeets and taken out my frustration by clicking a photo of this mule grazing. A car had been parked nearby, and I’d missed a shot of the birds because it started up, startling the parakeets. So I guess a truck must have brought the stone up to that point, and then transferred the load to the mules. One of our companions on the walk volunteered the information that someone was building a large house near Ropa. That was probably where these mules were going. Every bit of construction on the hills is labour intensive, until a road is built.

Countryside and small town

One of the nice things about rummaging through old photos are the memories they evoke. Six months ago, (to the day!) we met with old friends in Westphalia and drove out of town for dinner. The sun was setting on the rolling countryside in this part of Germany. The Valorous pulled up to the verge and we got out to look at the wonderful green fields. My oldest memories of Germany are of this green and gold.

But my overall impression of Germany is of an expanse of small houses, neat gardens at the back, a car or two in each garage. Petit bourgeoisie should have been a German phrase. But these natives are friendly, if occasionally a little lost about the best way to deal with foreigners. Although they live in streets which have quaint names like Kaiserstrasse and Wilhelmsgasse, they are perfectly aware that garlic can be used in food. I love going back to places like this, although it looks a little grey.

God’s own bungalows

A hyperbolic tag-line that Kerala’s tourism department used through the 90s was “God’s own country”. This makes sense for someone in love with small towns. When I travel through Kerala I’m surprised by how densely populated it is. You can drive a hundred kilometers and see one small town lapping up against another. Coastal Kerala seems to be a single Malabari Malgudi, only arbitrarily divided into municipalities. I did not see the apartment buildings which dot the north of India. Instead there are single family homes: each a neat bungalow with some surrounding gardens. The rain-forests and their immense bio-wealth which should have earned the place the tag-line of “God’s own workshop” have fragmented and retreated into little reserves.

Traditional architecture has evolved with the times. The wooden houses with their massive teak beams are no longer affordable, so brick and concrete have replaced them. It seems to me that this is a good thing to happen, because the decreased demand for wood is a force for conservation. At the same time, a well-maintained concrete house can have a very long lifetime, so slowing the demand for new construction. The walls are topped by the traditional style of overhanging sloped roofs which offer protection against the furious monsoon that still beats down on Kerala. The front verandah also seems like a cosy place in all weathers. I could imagine myself sitting on one of those, sipping a cup of coffee, staring into the rain which obscures the tame greenery around me.

Himalayan houses

Wood frame, mat and mud house

When we started travelling in the Himalayas most houses we saw were lovely wood-frame structures such as the one shown above. It was fascinating to see one being built. A wooden frame would be erected over a mud or concrete base. Then bamboo mats would be nailed on to the frame. These would get a thick coating of clay. The clay took some time to dry, but then it would hold colours beautifully. The example in the photo above, which was taken outside Pelling, is true in all respects but one: it is built on the level of the road. Traditional houses would leap out over the valley. If you passed by on the road you would only see the top level; on the slope below there could be more levels not visible from the road.

Wooden cabin overhanging a valley

Another traditional method of construction was the wooden cabin. This was less common. I believe the cost was what prevented this style from proliferating. The wood-frame and mat construction was clearly cheaper. I don’t know which is warmer.Heating was usually provided by the a wood-stove burning away in the house; the belly of the stove and the chimney act as radiators. We had stayed in such a house in northern Bhutan in early spring once, and through the night the wind blew through cracks between planks. So my guess is that the mat-and-mud houses would be warmer. The wooden cabin in the photo above is part of a tea house near Tashiding monastery, which is suspended above a valley. The view out of the windows is spectacular.

House with concrete slabs overhanging a valley

These traditional houses are slowly being replaced by concrete and brick constructions. The photo above was taken outside Ravangla. The location and plan of this building is very classic. From the road you see only the roof, which now serves as a garage. The house itself is in several storeys below the level of the road. Each floor is set into the hillside, and has spectacular views. The change in construction materials is due to two reasons. One reason we heard several times is that after the earthquakes in the last decade, people feel safer in concrete houses. The second is that with increasing prosperity families are able to afford the materials which are trucked up from the plains.

Plains style pucca house

Then there are the controversial houses which would not look out of place on the plains, but seem very ostentatious in the mountains. They perch on land next to the road. Just the situation on premium land tells you of the money that has gone into the house. Then you notice the multiple doors and windows and wonder how the house will be heated in winter. The answer is electrical heating. In this part of Sikkim power is plentiful, so this works. Interestingly, the house shown above is a mixture of styles. It has two stories above the level of the road and two more below it, spilling down the slope in the old style. It is a really big house.