Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The way we live : Mud houses of Jaiselmer

A little away from the city enclosed within the honey coloured walls of the Jaiselmer fort, Rajasthan,  lie  tiny little villages lost in the desert wilderness. As opposed to the opulent havelis of the city- some of which are said to be among the most ostentatious in all of Rajasthan - these villages house the local peasant and pastoral communities. In a sharp contrast to most newly built, modern habitats  that scar  the landscape of urban India - ugly haphazard concretized neighbourhoods- these villages with their little mud houses offer   quality housing in resonance with the local climate and needs.

Painted in striking yellow and white lime wash, the mud houses of Jaiselmer take one back in time:  to the earliest forms of human habitation perhaps. Simple  and pertinent, these homes are mostly constructed using adobe and readily available mud mixed with straw and cow dung.
The womenfolk take particular pride in their houses, painting the exterior walls and adorning the interiors with elaborate patterns and designs drawn from local experience. The paint and pattern is renewed each year during the festive season, ensuring bright  and beautified neighbourhoods.

Mud –a resource plentiful in the  region, is malleable  when wet and strong when dry, particularly when mixed with straw and cow dung. It is an easy-to-use, strong, cheap, renewable resource.  The material  helps insulate the buildings against the extremes of summer heat  and winter cold making it a logical choice for the hot- arid local conditions.

With time however, the popularity of  adobe is waning. Each village comprises of a cluster of houses usually interspersed by  an odd flat roofed, concrete structure, called a pucca or permanent dwelling. In the recent years,  concrete- a material  neither suitable for the climate, less eco-friendly and sorely lacking in the aesthetic quality of mud- has gained favour with the local population that sees it as a  status symbol.
Even as  concrete cubes proliferate the rural landscape, it is interesting to note  that most of these  constructions mimic their mud counterparts in essential features (the square house with ample open to sky spaces around) and external adornment !

A cement- brick structure adorned to look like its mud counterparts in Sam village  40 kms from Jaiselmer.

Humble and  non-aspirational as they may be, the mud huts represent  an ancient way of life, living within the environment rather than challenge it. Built by the home owners themselves without  formal architectural inputs, using locally available materials, these lend a distinct character to the villages. A factor that attracts  tourists,  students of architecture, designers and artists  alike.

With the change over to modern sensibility, age old techniques  and traditional know how  are  fading from memory.  Its a tragedy. Compared to busy, bustling chaotic modern developments,  old  habitats such as  the mud houses of Jaiselmer exhibit a  shared aesthetic and  love for elegance and beauty. The visuality of such a neighbourhood is more in the form of a collective choice,  creativity and consciousness.  Is it these choices that  reflect in how clean most of these neighborhoods are..?

An interesting term coined by architect Charles Correa comes to mind.  Describing  rural habitats such as the mud houses,  he uses the words: ' Low energy-high visual'. That is succinct. Responding to the position that -an aesthetic  sense is something  the poor cannot afford- he says-

“Nothing could be further from the truth! Improving our habitats requires visual skills. The poor have always understood this.  With one stroke of a pink brush, a Mexican artist transforms a clay pot. It costs him nothing… And the Arab had only the simplest tools: mud and sky- so he had to be inventive! In the process producing the most glorious oasis towns ever seen. And it is not a coincidence that  the best  handicraft comes from the poorest countries of the world.”


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