Wattle and daub

As we passed a village on our way to a gate of the Kaziranga national forest, The Family took photos of the huts and sent it to our extended family. One of my nieces, the one who’s studying to be an architect, responded immediately, “Wattle and daub”. I was unaware of the conversation that she had with The Family about the method and its problems. Instead I was trying to get information out of our driver, Hemant.

I found from him that the nice-looking tourist huts in the featured photo, need a change in thatching every couple of years. I suppose the window frames and glass panes also cost a bit, so these wonderful “eco huts” require capital and maintenance costs significantly more than what the villagers can bear. The plastic tank on a tower is good, because of the increased pressure it will impart to the water in your shower, but that comes at a cost in electricity. But the very fact that tourists are now willing to pay to stay in places like this is a welcome beginning of a change in our mindsets.

When I was younger than my niece, a thatched hut was the definition of how poor people live. In my lifetime our consciousness of human impact on our planet’s climate has reversed opinions, and we look at sustainable housing. The village was full of houses like the ones you see in these photos. The walls are made of bare bamboo mats fitted inside a sturdy wooden frame. A little river mud is daubed over these outer walls. Notice the lack of windows and the tin roof. Windows require wood, and cost more. While cost is a factor for these villagers, one must also remember that sturdy wood requires cutting slow-growing trees, and is therefore less sustainable. Bamboo grows fast, and using it is perhaps more sustainable. The tin roof does not require frequent change. Tin is cheap, and the environmental cost of extracting tin is passed on outside the forest.

In the photo above, you can see an element which surprised me: a brick outhouse pokes out of the line of the hut. Why brick? According to Hemant, the government is paying for toilets, and the design includes brick and a flush tank. One of my friends works on water management in a different part of the country, and says that this well-meaning gesture by the government is ill thought out, because the kind of water tank that is used is unsustainable in water-poor areas of India. Brick is the unsustainable element here. Centralized design which comes out of a single office will not be able to take into account the gradations of reality across the country.

Noticing the three kids, I took a closer look. I did mean “kid”, when I wrote that word; the primary dictionary meaning of the word is a young goat. You might want to remember that when you talk of them; also that the meaning of the word kid as a verb is to “(of a goat) give birth”. In any case these kids were sitting outside a lovely wooden door. And, on closer look, there were possibly four of them, not three. The design of the house seems elaborate, with at least two front doors.

I was still thinking of air circulation inside the house. We’d driven on, but Hemant stopped at the hut in the photo above, and told me to take a closer look at the side wall. Indeed this was wattle without daub. I also noticed an undaubed portion of the front wall, presumably for the same reason. He smiled at me when I walked back to the jeep. I remembered the freshman’s exercise my friends were given in their architecture course: to design mud huts. We’d laughed when we were teenagers, but this seems much more relevant today: use local materials to lighten our footprint on our planet. Maybe James Lovelock is right, and we need a sustainable retreat. But then why not to a technology which has been used since the ice-ages, made more efficient with today’s scientific knowledge?

Home, beautiful home

On visits to Odisha in the past we noticed the beautifully hand painted fronts of buildings. A lovely custom is that a marriage is announced by a painting on the front wall of a house with the names of the bride and groom. In the Cuttack-Puri-Bhubaneswar area these are often written in the Roman script and easy for travelers to read.

Poverty has declined by 24.61 percentage points from 57.20 percent in 2004-05 to 32.59 percent in 2011-12. The reduction of poverty by 25.11 percentage points was higher in rural Odisha than that of 20.31 percentage points in urban Odisha.

Economic Survey of Odisha 2014-15

We drove far outside this urbanized area on this visit to Odisha. A three hour drive took us to the east, into Kendrapara district. Odisha is one of the poorer states in India, although it has made tremendous progress in the last decade. Rural India has poverty twice as high as urban India, and Odisha is no exception. This was clear even from the windows of a speeding car when we moved out of the urbanized Bhubaneswar-Cuttack area.

Even in this region, the tradition of decorating a home with paintings can be seen. We passed many villages where there were only structures made of mud, but each of these was beautifully decorated with patterns in white. After about half an hour of driving I asked myself why I wasn’t stopping to take photos. So I did, and the result is the featured photo. The lady in the photo was working in a road development gang next to the thatched mud hut where you see her. The decoration is fairly typical.

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