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Understanding houseform
Debasish Borah, M.Arch
The three communities Lepcha have three different types of house forms
depending on the climate, availability of local building materials and their
lifestyle. The three type of houseforms are discussed below:

Lepcha Houseform
Lepcha houses in Dzongu area of North Sikkim District are one of the first
residential builtforms of Sikkim, earliest of them are built before the 10th
century in Dzongu, a moderately high tropical rainforest area and one of the
wettest places on earth. Summers are warm with high humidity. Living with
high rainfall and dense forest cover is a challenge for the community and
physical parameters of houseform responds to these natural challenges in
every sphere, from construction technology to construction details; material palate of the houses is directly derived from locally available materials
viz. Timber, stone, bamboo and mud. A typical Lepcha house is square in
planform with high plinth or lower level stone and upper level living areas.
In many cases the8-sided Rinchin-Surgay plan is used; originally developed
by the Bhutias, profusely used by Lepchas after they converted to Buddhism.
This plan form is derived from square base, by chamfering the corners. This
planform appeared in Gompas first and gradually adapted in houseforms.
The most probable reason for development of Rinchin-Surgay plans is its
advantage over square plans in roof covering. The Gompas were huge in size;
some of them measuring over 15m, building such huge roof over a square
plan were difficult; the span demanded long truss systems. To solve this
problem, a smaller square is created inside by chamfering the corners. In this
system, the truss still sits on a square plan and the roof is extended on four
sides, by wooden brackets.
The high stone plinth in Lepcha houses is a utilitarian idea and a response to
excessive water in ground level; at the same time it is also used as storage for
firewood, cattle and other domestic goods. The height of this plinth is comparatively high often reaching 150cms. Almost all of these houses are placed
on steep slopes and water tends to flow downhill, but surprisingly the lower
floors are always constructed over with stone and it does not allow water to
pass across it; the only opening is for a person to duck and get inside. This
is in strong contradiction to the houses of Arunachal Pradesh, a similar high
rainfall area; where houses are elevated on stilts so that water can flow from
beneath the house. This phenomenon in Lepcha house asserts the fact that
various physical or non-physical factors coming together to manifest the
behaviour of residents into a houseform.

Stages of evolution, RinchinSurgay 8-folded planform.

The main structural columns are in timber, thicker in the ground level and
thinner at the superstructure level. The columns are not dug in the ground,
but rested on huge stones. The upper level is reached by a flight of timber
stairs which generally has 3-4 rooms. The living area and the kitchen is combined which is the main epicentre of the house. This is a response to cold
weathers when heat of the kitchen is much required to keep oneself warm.
The internal sleeping chambers are of the same size as the Lakhang [puja
room]. 3-4 people sleep in the bedroom but the Lakhang is never inhabited;
except in extreme conditions when the family grows considerably, but is
a rare case. The Lakhang is an empty hall with statue of Buddha and Guru
Rimpoche at the end; the empty space is to accommodate visitors in case
of a puja. The bedroom is panelled by timber planks for double protection
from the cold wind. The roof in most cases is of Corrugated Iron sheets;
laid on wooden trusses. Historically, roofs were made of grasses sandwiched
between bamboo sheets, which are not in use anymore. A good example
an original house in Dzongu is Thelep House in Kabi, some 45km North of
Gangtok will help understand Lepcha dwellings in a comprehensive manner.
The house belongs to Mr. Ongdu Tsering Lepcha, according to whom his

Thelep House, Kabi. North Sikkim

Ground level storage area at a typical Lepcha house.

Detail at Foundation, the timber column is placed in

stone. The notches are for tying of cattle, primarily

grandfather built this house; in early 20th century. The house is designed in
a typical Rinchin-Surgay 8-sided planform, with raised stone plinth held together by mud mortar. A flight of wooden step leads to the living and kitchen
areas, which is built of wood and most probably a later extension. The walls
above the stone plinth are wattle and daube, with small window openings.
There are two internal rooms, one is Lakhang and the other is the sleeping
chamber. The toilet blocks, granary and cattle shelter are adjutant to the

1. House
2. Cattle shelter
3. Toilet
4. Granery
5. Farm Land

SITE PLAN, Thele House, Kabi.

North Side Elevation, Thelep House, Kabi

Photograph from east side

Bhutia Houseform

Ground level Plan, Thelep House, Kabi

The Bhutias brought with them the Rinchen-Sugyal planform; Lepchas

adopted it and modelled it in their own ways. The Bhutia houses of high
Himalayas are concentrated in areas like Lachen and Lachung. The Bhutia
house is typical 8 sided planform with raised stone plinth. Plinth height in
Bhutia houses is lower then that of Lepcha house. Extremely cold climate has
forced sharing of spaces, kitchen and living is always combined and it is the
most regularly used space. The walls are usually made of wood for insulation
and roofs are CGI sheets, placed on timber trusses. Traditional roofs were
constructed by Pine tree wood, but it is hardly seen anywhere now. The slope
of the roof is higher than Dzongu area; precipitation here is mainly snow and
steeper slope help to shed it faster. The case of Bhutia house in Namok village, 60 km North of Gangtok is an interesting case study. The house belongs
to Lama Norsam Bhutia, constructed in aristocratic Rinchin-Surgay 8-sided
plan with wattle and daube walls. The elevated plinth is made in stone
hold together by mud masonry. The roof is CGI sheet supported on timber

Photograph from west side

Upper level Plan

1. Storage
2. Kitchen cum Living
3. Masterbed
4. Lakhang

1. Storage
2. Verandah
3. Kitchen cum Living
4. Lakhang cum Bedroom
5. Bedroom

Photograph of the Kitchen

Lower Level Plan, Bhutia house.

Upper Level Plan, Bhutia house.

Ground Level Plan, Sherpa house, Diw,

Ravangla. South Sikkim


Bhutia house, Namok, North Sikkim


1. Storage
2. Kitchen cum Living
3. Bedroom
4. Verandah

Upper Level Plan, Sherpa house,

Diw, Ravangla. South Sikkim

Nepalese Houseform
The Nepali houses in south Sikkim district are not similar to its northern
Lepcha and Bhutia neighbours; Nepalese are the last migrants into Sikkim
and inhabited the foothills. The low mountains are considerably hot in summers and huge tropical rainforest makes it humid; hot and humid climate
grips the area from spring till autumn. Winters are comfortably cold and
dont require extensive heating. A Nepali house studied in South Sikkim
belongs to Ms. Doma Sherpa, who inherited the house from her husband,
whose grandfather built it in 1930s. The original house is completely built
in stone with mud masonry with a wooden verandah in the front. The lower
floor is not a high plinth like a Lepcha or Bhutia house, but its considerable height of about 5 feet shows its potential as habitable space. The floor
is laid on timber and upper floor is reached by a flight of wooden step from
inside the stone plinth. The upper floor has a shared kitchen and living with
an internal bedroom. The other side of this house is built around 1950, the
stone plinth is extended and timber planks are laid on top to build the walls.
A perpendicular truss is installed and GCI sheets are extended over this new
addition. The main kitchen of the house is not the one inside, but is built
separately. The interview done with the resident revealed that usage of firewood for cooking set up black smoke marks in the living areas and the best
way of avoiding it is to shift the kitchen outside. Climatic conditions also
doesnt support a shared kitchen; these two crucial factors decided the configuration of an important part of the house; kitchen. Similar to Lepcha and
Bhutia houses, toilets are always separated, usually on the back of the house.
Sherpa house, Diw, Ravangla. South Sikkim
One can observe the transformation on the left side, which is added later on along with the historic stone building.

The first kind is barrack type with a single building with multiple individual rooms and second is a 8-sided Rinchen-Surgay styled Bhutia house
where monks live together. The house type of Tasha developed later when
the monks became influential and the need of bigger residences emerged.
The tasha in Phensong Gompa and Lachung Gompa are excellent examples
of this style. The barrak style Tashas are rare; some of them still exist in
Labrang Gompa.

North Side elevation Sherpa house, Diw, Ravangla. South Sikkim

Photograph from the east side.

The lodge type Tashas are for junior monks; these are like a Sarai. One building has small individual rooms for the Lamas. These Tashas are placed in
the Gompa premises. The barrack type Tasha in Labrang is an interesting
example which is built entirely in stone and timberThe upper living spaces
can be reached by a flight of steps which leads to the corridor in front with
access to individual housing units. The individual unit is a small room with
shared kitchen and sleeping. Toilets are shared and generally placed outside.
The privately owned individual Tashas are like villas for senior lamas and are
placed around the main Gompa. Historically, these were built of stone and
timber; in recent times most of them are replaced with modern materials
like RCC and CGI sheets. The tasha house in Phensong Gompa and Lachung
Gompa are still standing and they are interesting case studies to understand
the houseform. These are like traditional Bhutia houses, built on 8 sided
Rinchen-Surgay planform; living chambers on upper floor and store on
ground floor. The upper floor has 2 rooms; one is shared kitchen and living,
whereas other is the Lakhang or Puja room. The roof is supported on king
post roof truss with CGI sheets.

Cross section, Sherpa house, Diw, Ravangla. South Sikkim

A typical Gompa owned Serai style Tasha house.

Tasha House
A houseform type attached with Gompas are the ones which are commonly
found in Lepcha dominated Dzongu area or Bhutia settlements.Ta literally means Lama or Buddhist monk. The place where monk lives is Tasha;
lodge of the monks. Traditionally Tashas can be broadly classified into two
a. Gompa owned Sarai type lodges.
b. Privately owned individual houses.
A barrak style Lama house in Labrang Compa complex.

An individual Tasha house in Ralong, South Sikkim

b.3. understanding settlements

Sikkim has witnessed migration since last 1000 years which has influenced
both built and unbuilt heritage of the state. Migration of people has also
brought people from faraway places like Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan etc.

Map of Sikkim, showing the three zones

of settlements. The topmost is inhabited by Bhutias, middle Dzongu area by
Lepchas and bottom area by Nepalese.

The Lepchas are believed to be the first inhabitants of Sikkim who according to
legends, migrated from lower Brahmaputra valley before 10th century; they are
concentrated in the moderately high tropical rainforests of Dzongu. Dzongu
area spreads over modern geographical districts of North, South and East and
Lepcha community has settled in villages of Heegyathang, Lingthem, Lingdem,
Tingbong, Passingdhang etc; evenly distributed in upper and lower Dzongu.
Dzongu has ample cultivable land owning to its moderate altitude, sufficient
rain and reasonable temperature. Dzongu has scattered type of settlement pattern and the opportunity to live in separate areas and make use of the ground
condition is very well harnessed. . Such scattered settlement patterns can be
hhattributed to the availability of large cultivable land in Dzongu; the land
itself offered opportunity to the people to live in individual groups to avoid
inter-community disputes by living close by. People settled in smaller groups of
12-15 houses in each village scattered all over the forest. Each small village unit
cultivates together in a singular agricultural field, sharing same source of water
and channelizing it towards a single place; this helps the community to sustain
and prosper in agriculture. The village is generally approached by a motorable
road, in this case is North Sikkim highway, which passes by it and then one either has to climb up or climb down to reach the village. It is approached by the
agriculture field first, which lies in the lowest elevation. Agriculture in Dzongu
is varied and people grow rice, barley, cardamom and vegetables aswell. On
arrival to the village one is welcomed by a chroten-mendang which literally
means ghost repeller. This group of chorten mendang is made of stone and
mendang is a rectangular builtform with mane [prayer wheels] on both sides.
It is believed that chorten-mendang do not allow evil spirits to enter the village. The Mani-Lakhang or small Gompa is the epicentre of the village. Mani
Lakhang is a small religious building which is used by the villagers for everyday
prayers and other social functions like harvest festivals, birth of a child etc. The
Mani Lakhang has an open ground on its front where majority of the rituals
happen. Houses normally are placed around the Mani Lakhang on slopes; this
settlement pattern shows the deep religious sentiment which runs across the
Similar group of 3-5 villages come ogether under a Gompa or monastery which
is normally placed at a higher ground than the settlements. The bigger Gompa
is the head of all Mani Lakhangs placed in each village. The bigger Gompa is
used in special occasions, like Buddha Purnima, Rimpoches birthday, visits
of HH the Dalai Lama and weekly ceremony. On these special occasions the
locals along with village level Lama would go the main monastery.

Image: Settlements near Majithar, South Sikkim

Hee-Gyathang Gompa

Mani Lakhang



Satellite Image of Lower Dzongu settlement marking Gompa, village and Mani Lakhangs in hierarchal pattern.
Source: Google Earth Imagery







Typical Settlement in Dzongu area, inhabited by Lepcha people.

A typical layout of a Lepcha village,

The entrance is marked by ChortenMendang, followed by agricultural
field, settlements then the Mani
Lakhang leading up to the principal
Gompa at the top.

View of Dzongu forest with river Teesta.

altitude mountains. In spite of having a house in lower land, the Bhutias

would return to cold mountains to live with their families. The comparatively low lying agricultural settlement remains empty till next season. The
town village of Lachung and nearby agricultural settlements of Bitchu and
Lame are some examples of the above phenomenon. Lachung village sits at
a height of 9000 feet and has scarce cultivable land. Earlier, for agricultural
purposes they would come down to Bitchu and return back after the season
is over. Within last 8-10 years the excessive growth of tourism has provided
the locals with an alternative livelihood other than agriculture and hence
today, Bitchu is converted to a permanent village like Lachung and it had lost
its character as a seasonal agricultural settlement. Now, a place further south
and lower in altitude to Bitchu called Lame is used as a seasonal agricultural
village. This Lame village sits near the river across from the approach road
and one can see huts spread in the agricultural field at regular intervals. This
shifting of seasonal agricultural land is an alarming situation; the indigenous
people Bhutias and Lepchas are separated by Dzongu Mountains and each
has its own identity.

The next community to migrate to Sikkim as home are the Bhutias. These
highland people settled in high alpine mountains with an altitude ranging
from 8000-17000 feet. The Bhutias are people of Tibetan ancestry originally
from the south Tibet plateau and followers of red hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. By 14th century, Yellow hat sect rose in Tibet and followers of red
looked for new settlements; they moved south and occupied the Northern
areas of Sikkim; which has similar topology as Tibet with alpine climatic
conditions. The small Lepcha population in north Sikkim got influenced by
the Bhutias and over a period of time, the Lepchas of Dzongu also converted
to Buddhism. The high altitude mountains of North Sikkim offered very
little cultivable land and sub-zero temperature makes agriculture even more
challenging. In order to sustain in such extreme conditions Bhutias lived together like a family with interdependence and the entire population tend to
live in a single village. In agriculture season, the Bhutias would come down
to a lower altitude to cultivate and stay there for the whole season. So, Bhutia
people end up in having two houses, one in the highlands and other in the
community agricultural fields; the latter being smaller in size. This seasonal
migration and returning to higher mountains in winters is perplexing; but at
the same time is also shows the adaptability of the people at high

Lame Village 2006

Google satellite imagery

Lame village near Lachung

Lame Village 2013

Google satellite imagery

b.4. challenges: lost heritage

The Sikkim cultural mapping project of 2003 documented and listed more
than 300 cultural properties across the four districts of Sikkim. The listed properties are both built and natural and numerous hold high architectural, social
or natural values.

Thanggu Village, North Sikkim

As already stated, Bhutia villages are a closed community. Gompa is the

main centre of the village along with the Mani Lakhang. In this case, Mani
Lakhangs are for widowers. Thus, same built form is used for two different
purposes in case of Lepachas and Bhutias.
Nepalese are the last migrants to enter the land of Snow lion and they settled
in the lowest plains; now called South Sikkim district with elevations ranging
from 800-6000 feet above sea level. The migration started in late 18th century and it can be attributed to the rise of Gorkhas in Nepal. Limboos are one
of the first Nepalese to enter Sikkim. The hot tropical climate, low altitude
and ample rain make this area highly fertile; the famous Temi tea grows in
this region. The Nepalese are predominantly Hindus and settlement differs
from both. The socially structured system of Gompas and Mani Lakhangs
ceases to exist and Hindu temples emerges in the shallow landscape. The
abundantly available cultivable land, comfortable climatic conditions and
proximity to the Bengal plains offered Nepalese the luxury to live in a open
and not a close knit society. In areas of South Sikkim like Namchi, Melli or
Majithar, one can see the entire mountain is cultivated by one family, who
resides in the house at the top. Occasionally, the cultivated mountains are
so large, that they had to build another small shelter at the bottom for daily
usage. This is different than the seasonal Bhutia migration seen in the North
Sikkim area, because in this case, the migration is on a daily basis, for taking
care of the agriculture. This second shelter is a small shed primarily used for
taking rest or eating in middle of the day.
The three communities of Sikkim have different ways of life, social structures
and rituals; which play a huge role in defining the house form and the entire
settlements as well.

The earthquake measuring 6.9 in the Richter scale hit Sikkim in the September
of 2011. The epicentre of the earthquake is in Kanchenjunga national park and
heavy damages occurred in North Sikkim district. North district has two subdivisions- Mangan with dense forest cover and Chungthang which is primarily alpine, reaching up to a height of 17000 feet above sea level. Tremors and
damages are felt in both districts centring on upper North Sikkim and Upper
Dzongu. One of the holiest monastery, Tholung Gompa is heavily damaged
with the entire lower floor is broken beyond repair. The Hee-Gyathang Gompa
in Lower Dzongu and Ringyem Gompa in Mangan are heavily damaged and
both are currently under construction with modern materials. Numerous Mani
Lakhangs, Chortens and Mendangs were destroyed in Chungthang

Hee-Gyathang Gompa under renovation, Lower Dzongu

Hee-Gyathang Gompa under renovation, Lower Dzongu

Earthquake damaged Tholung Gompa, Upper Dzongu

New Hee-Gyathang Gompa under construction, build in

RCC, Lower Dzongu