Thursday, April 8, 2010

Rural Architecture

Indigenous architecture in rural Bengal was largely built without formally trained professionals. Buildings were built by local construction workers, typically consisting of mistris (carpenters, roof builders), rajmistris (masons) and kamlas/mita (helpers), together with household or community members. Construction skills were learnt through experience. Inter-generational transmission and design decisions were communicated verbally. Despite not being the designed product of a professional architect, such buildings continued to accommodate and serve the needs of the great majority of the population. In that sense, and being such a significant part of the built environment, such buildings represented a fundamental form of architecture that had evolved according to context-specific characteristics and resources.
There is an overall hierarchical pattern within rural settlements in Bengal. It begins with a gram (village) usually established on raised land, composed of a number of padas (settlements or neighbourhoods). Each pada consists of a number of badis (homesteads), which in turn are comprised of several ghars (dwelling units of individual households within an extended family) and ancillary buildings.
Settlement Most rural settlements in Bengal can be characterised as 'natural', in contrast to 'planned' settlements; they have developed without any formal professional planning input. This implies that in most cases settlements have evolved here largely according to possibilities offered and constraints imposed by regional topography, climate, natural features, and availability of local resources. This predominantly deltaic land has changed in shape and character over time. Because of increased human impact and intervention on the environment, settlement patterns are also subject to change. Nonetheless, there is continuity and some typical characteristics have evolved in response to local natural characteristics. Broadly classified, there are two main types of settlement: amorphous and elongated-linear. The amorphous type, consisting of clustered or scattered settlements on high land, is often dispersed throughout the terrain.

In many places, settlements established on raised mounds are scattered throughout the low-lying terrain, and during the rainy season virtually become islands. The dispersion allows privacy and security for individual homesteads, as in general, households related by kins settle on each mound and form homesteads.

In some other areas, such as the Delta areas in the south, nucleation is also evident to a lesser extent; that is, there is semi-nucleation, and the settlements are scattered, but with large clusters of homesteads within them. In relatively dry areas, settlements tend to be less dispersed and denser.

Homestead and house The typical unit within settlements in predominantly agricultural rural communities is the homestead, consisting of a group of buildings belonging to an extended family. A typical feature is that of the arrangement of buildings around a rectangular open courtyard. The introverted courtyard arrangement reflects the need to accommodate the local culture of seclusion of women (purdah) in this predominantly Muslim society. Circulation into buildings is through the courtyard and they face it and open into it while presenting a closed surface to the outside. In large homesteads, a separate building at the front of the homestead is built as a men's meeting house (baithak ghar).

In Hindu and tribal communities, this gender-specific use of space is less common, although the pattern is not entirely dissimilar to that of the Muslims. The prevalence of the courtyard can be attributed to its being a regional typology and a multi-purpose space, relating well to local patterns of outdoor activity. In Hindu homesteads, symbols of religious ritual, such as the holy tulsi tree in a planter or an altar with ceremonial statues of deities, are placed in the courtyard. Here the courtyard is maintained well by daily sweeping, usually in the morning, and plastered frequently every few days with a mixture of mud and cow dung. This Hindu traditional practice of courtyard maintenance is also seen among Muslims.

Each homestead begins with a main dwelling unit and ancillary structures, such as kitchens, granaries and cowsheds. The main dwelling, which is the sleeping unit, is of primary importance. The ancillary structures tend to be semi-permanent and are constructed of perishable materials. As the family grows, these are moved to peripheral locations and more dwelling units are added around the courtyard. Thus, a rural homestead usually consists of several small buildings constructed consecutively. There are other features as well. A backyard pond is a characteristic of many large homesteads. Trees are planted along the outer boundary of the homestead site to provide shade and to serve as a source of fruit and timber.

Each building within the homestead is generally rectangular in shape and customarily single-storied, though occasionally double-storied structures are seen. Dwellings usually consist of a single room, but may go up to three. Often in agricultural communities, the additional purpose of grain storage is combined with dwellings. Since much time is spent outdoors, the dwellings serve mainly as a shelter in rainy weather and for sleeping. The main dwelling unit, usually the first to be constructed, is generally orientated to face south to take advantage of the prevailing wind direction to relieve humidity. But the pattern of arrangement around the rectangular courtyard necessitates compromise in the orientation of the other buildings added subsequently.

Buildings are constructed on a raised plinth, commonly made of compacted earth, and the floor is left bare. The raised earth plinth is ubiquitous throughout Bengal and is a characteristic feature of indigenous architecture. The plinth varies from a height of 15 cms in higher areas to 120 cms in low-lying areas. In hilly or waterlogged areas, instead of the earth plinth, the building is raised on bamboo or timber stilts; these materials also serve as posts in most houses. Walls in indigenous houses are generally of two types: the more common screen type is constructed of various types of organic material, often thin and porous to allow ventilation, while in some regions, earth walls are prevalent. To reduce glare as well as to prevent rainwater from entering the room, openings are usually minimal and small.

The roof is usually the most difficult to construct and most expensive part of a rural house. Pitched roofs are usual, and of the gable (dochala) or hipped (chauchala) varieties; the mono-pitched (ekchala) roof is less common, and often used only in ancillary buildings, as are curved bamboo canopy type mantles. Roof types vary, but one most common characteristic of the southern floodplains is the thatched roof with a ridge of curved bamboo poles. This intuitive pre-tensioning of the roof ensures that it does not sag due to weight.

Thermal comfort is of principal value and is reflected in the choice of light, natural colours, lightweight building materials and extensive shaded areas within the dwelling compound. There is a preference for natural textures and very little surface decoration. Trees, water, and topographical features are of specific significance, as are the seasons and weather. Concepts of nature and divinity are expressed through symmetry in building form and layout. An inherent reverence for nature is manifested in the urge to synthesise the built environment with that of the natural.

Building materials One of the main features of indigenous architecture is the use of locally available natural resources as building materials. Regional and context-specific building typologies and house types have evolved according to the use of locally available materials. However, recent expansion of the cash economy have entailed the availability of imported and industrially produced building materials, such as corrugated iron (CI) sheet and brick, which although not affecting homestead pattern or house form very much, has altered the surface appearance of rural architecture substantially. It is now common to see buildings throughout the countryside which, although remaining largely similar to traditional form and shape, are built of a combination of natural and manufactured materials.
Indigenous building materials are widely used in Bengal. Thatching materials in roofs vary according to regional availability. Non-traditional materials such as CI sheet, concrete pillars and brick are now increasingly being used and are fast replacing the use of natural materials in rural areas. Most organic building materials in Bengal are diminishing in supply.

In general terms, bamboo is available in two varieties: thick-walled and thin-walled. Thick-walled bamboo is used for structural members such as posts, roof rafters and purlins. Thin-walled bamboo is split into laths and woven by hand into a variety of stiff mats and screens used as walls and sometimes as roof cladding, as well as wall screens, panels and partitions. These porous, screen-type walls permit necessary ventilation and thermal relief. Besides bamboo, a variety of other organic materials are also utilised, such as jute sticks, reeds, timber or palm leaves.

In spite of Bengal's generally wet climate, annual floods, high rainfall and humidity, there are earth buildings in areas with relatively drier micro-climatic conditions and a higher elevation than the floodplains. Earth is utilised for making walls. Remarkable two-story earth buildings can be seen in many places. Most of these earth buildings are constructed using a layering technique, with the 'puddling' and hand-placed walling method. In some areas, walls are built with large earth blocks. Examples of wattle-and-daub also exist, though mostly in the deltaic plains.

Here the common method is to plaster the lower portion of bamboo panel walls with mud for protection against floods, and to leave the upper portion unplastered to allow ventilation. The combination of bamboo and earth has created a local vernacular architectural idiom. The availability of alluvial soils also allows the production of high-quality fired brick, which are used extensively in urban buildings.

A variety of thatches are utilised to cover the roof. The most common are wild grasses, palm leaves, and rice straw. The distinction between naturally grown fibrous materials and agricultural residues used for thatching is important. In the past, varieties of long grass and reeds were widely available and the wet terrain allowed abundant growth of these marshy and riverside fibrous materials.

As an alternative, rice straw is used as a thatching material since it is an agricultural by-product and thus more widely available, rice being one of the main crops of Bengal. Although rice straw is less durable than other thatching materials, the scarcity of natural fibrous materials has prompted its use.
Its main use is as fodder and fuel, and in areas where there is a greater demand for such uses, it can be more expensive than other more durable, and less available, thatching materials. CI sheet is becoming common as a roofing and also walling material, since if offers obvious advantages of durability compared to thatch. It is a status symbol and most rural households aspire to it.
The use of corrogated iron (CI) sheets and other manufactured materials is not entirely new, but is a phenomenon that has gained prominence in the past few decades, hand in hand with the diminishing supply of natural building materials. This adoption of non-traditional materials has caused the face of indigenous architecture to change, in tandem with wider changes in the rural context. It may now not be possible to experience indigenous architecture in an idyllic form. Nonetheless, some traditional qualities reflected in homestead layout, house form, and space arrangements continue to endure.
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