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Architecture of North East India: VernacularT y p o l o g i e s

Nag Subhankar (
B-Arch) Architect, Pune
Gondane Amol
(B-Arch, M.U.R.P) Urban Planner, Jaipur

The North East India has always been a fascinating area for travelers and explorers. The rich
heritage thereinis exemplified throughout from the ethnicity, tradition, livelihood, and also by
the architectural typologies. Severaldistinct architectural features are seen in North East states,
which differ by climate and deep rooted traditions. They evolved in course of time and were
majorly built by the inhabitants themselves, without any formal training inconstruction. These
houses, built with locally available materials, were sensitive to the existing environment and
took intoconsideration the constraints imposed by the climate.This paper aims at the study of
the natural design principles of these houses. Although technical capabilities and
outlooktowards the modern culture hinders the construction community in North East from
following these principles but still ifused in practice, they can enrich sustainability and upheld
the tradition of North East.
Key words:
Traditional Architecture, Typology, North East India Architecture.
'Paradise Unexplored', that is what the North East India named as. With a rich
treasure of tradition, it is a delight fortourists and pride for the inhabitants. The North
East India has its own vernacular architecture which has developedthroughout the ages and
has been an integral part of its cultural background. Built by the inhabitants themselves
withlocally available materials, the traditional buildings are time tested,
sustainable and sensitive to the micro climaticconditions and natural calamities,
including earthquakes which the North East region is prone to.Many theorists and
distinguished architects like Hassan Fathy have promoted the underlying concepts on
traditionalarchitecture to form contemporary design (Steele, 1988). However, unlikely in the
North East Indian states, the traditional buildings have been replaced by fast growing
concrete jungles, which are not sustainable nor sensitive towards the
naturalcalamities and microclimatic conditions. The Governments of these states need to be
sensitive in drafting the local byelaws and planning guidelines
which promote or allow incentives
for usages of traditional architectural forms andconcepts so that this problem can be
tackled meticulously (GMDA, 2006). The first step towards this journey should be astudy of
the housing typologies of North East and the basic underlying design principles, so that they
can be effectivelytranslated into modern designs.The North East India comprises of seven
sister states- Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and
Tripura. Sikkim was integrated into North East in 2002, as the eighth
sister state. The North East regionlies between latitudes 21N to 30N and 8940' E to
9718'E longitudes (Wikipedia, 2013). Most of the Northeast stateshave a humid sub-tropical
climate with hot, humid summers, severe monsoons and mild winters. The states of
ArunachalPradesh and Sikkim however have a montane climate with cold, snowy winters
and mild summers.
Architectural typologies have developed in the North East as factors of tradition , climate
and functionality. Thematerials used are locally available materials like bamboo,
cane, cane leaves, mud, and lime. Of late, bricks. stone chips,rock slabs, surkhi etc.
are also being used. Sloping roofs are a common architectural feature in all the
architecturaltypologies because of high rainfall in the North East.According to the materials
used and the type of construction, thetraditional houses of North East India can be broadly
classified as:
2.1 Kutchha Houses
These houses are essentially made from organic renewable resources such as bamboo, mud,
grass, straw, cane leaves,cane etc. The plinth and the foundation consists of consolidated earth
with timber or bamboo posts, the walls consist of bamboo mats, split bamboo
framing, grass, earth, cane leaves etc., and the roof is thatched,
made of wheat or maizestraws, with split bamboo framing. The 'kutchha houses' have got
different forms in North East due to micro climaticdifferences and cultural beliefs.
2.1.1 Bamboo and wooden kutchha house
his type of traditional kutchha houses are seen in the plains of nearly all states of north-east
with very small changes
as per local climates. Materials used are mostly: bamboo posts driven into groun
ds, bamboo trusses for sloped roofs,thatches for roof covering, and bamboo matting for
flooring and walls. (Figure 1) Sometimes mud plaster is used overwalls mixed with cow
dung. In areas with cloudy and cold climates such as Arunachal pradesh, the walls are made
ofwood or stone masonry to retain inside heat.(Figure 2)

2.2.2 Assam type houses

These types of houses came into existence in Assam and a few neighboring states during the
British rule and wereactually devised by the Britishers themselves. The performance of
Assam type houses have been proven to be extremelygood in several past earthquakes in the
region, owing to the usage of light weight construction materials, flexibleconnections and
good framing. However, due to untreated wood based materials, these houses are vulnerable
to fire.Assam type houses are found in both rural and urban areas, and are used for both
residential and commercial buildings.Mostly these houses are one storeyed with elevated
plinths to keep off flood water and stray animals. (Figure 20) Twostoreyed versions of these
houses too are found in some areas.For residences, this type of houses have a rectangular plan
form for single family units and typical 'L' or 'C' plan form formulti family units. A continuous
verandah generally runs along the full length of the front facade. If constructed in hills,the
verandah is placed to face the slope. The materials used for this type of construction are: Sal
wood for posts, woodentrusses for sloped roof, and elevated floor. The walls are made of
bamboo with infills of
a weed, which grows inriver plains and lakes, and is plastered over with a mixture of mud and
cow dung. The wooden trusess are mounted with
reeds or corrugated GI sheets to form the roof.
Figure 20:
An Assam type school building
Figure 21:
An Assam type office building
In a typical modern Assam type house construction, the timber posts either embedded or
bolted into RCC base, and thehouse is framed with either timber or bamboo. The wall infill is
Ikra shoots and a mixture of cow-dung and mud plasterover them. In some urban houses,
brick walls are taken upto the sill level upto 600 mm from the plinth level and theupper
portions are framed with wood with Ikra infill with mud plaster. Ikra is widely
used as it is less susceptible to insectattacks as compared to bamboo due to presence of
starch and cellulose. Moreover, it bonds very well with mud, cement orlime mortar. Ikra reeds
are generally placed in vertical orientation between bamboo splits of 15 to 40mm width.
(Figure23) The mud plaster is then filled in within the gaps of the Ikra reeds and then an
overall plaster is done.The connections between the wooden posts and intermediate wooden
scants at floor, sill and lintel level is done by meansof nuts and bolts or with coir ropes in some
cases. The roof is pitched with a high gable, of about one third to one fifth ofthe roof span,
in order to cater to heavy rainfall in Assam.. The roof consists of either thatch of
Ikra or GI sheets fixed
over wooden purlins with nails or J-bolts. Wooden planks or Ikra reeds are kept over beams as
a false ceiling to avoid theroof trusses and rafters from being seen from bottom (Figure 22).
The attic thus formed is also used for storage.A typical small family unit house has a
eaves height of 4 metres and a pitch of the sloped roof of about 2 metres.
Whenthatch roofs are used, the roofs are kept steeper to prevent ingress of water. .The door
and windows are panelled andglazed, made of locally available Sal wood. Flooring is
generally mud plaster or wooden batten flooring in this type ofhouses. The mud plaster over
the flooring and walls has to be repeated frequently because it cracks during summer
andwashes out during rainy season.A much modified Assam type house has thin concrete
columns in place of timber posts and half brick thick walls in placeof wall infills of Ikra and
mud plaster, with roof trusses of wood and GI sheets over them.
Figure 22:
View of Ikra reed false ceiling in an Assam type house
Figure 23:
Detail of Ikra application in timber frame work for typical Assam type
The architecture of North East India relates to the socio-economic setup, the
cultural identities and a good climaticresponsiveness. A good number of climate
responsive design features are revealed during the study of the housing formsincluding
temperature control, enhancing natural ventilation, protection from natural calamities
such as flood,earthquakes etc. However certain features that lack in the traditional housing are
mostly: fire proneness and termiteinfestation due to usage of non-treated bamboo and wood;
lack of damp proofing and use of non stabilized soil forconstruction too pose problems like
dampness of walls and washouts during rainfall.Once the construction and design community
of North East are aware of the pros and cons of the traditional typologies,the advanced
construction techniques can be meticulously clubbed alongside to nullify the problems and
enhance theadvantages, a modern yet sustainable architecture for the North East region can be
effectively created. Currently, the local byelaws of North- East states do not
have special provisions for the traditional housing in the respective states,
neitherthey have special byelaws for the hilly regions and the restrictions of construction
therein (GMDA, 2006). In view of thevaried advantages of the Traditional Housing in the
various North Eastern states, the Governments need to frame local bye-laws that support
the traditional houses of North East, and promote incentives to the inhabitants
of these houses. The byelaws additionally need to incorporate the special
treatments for locally available materials such as bamboo, timber etc. before
usage in construction to make them effective for long run and also slate
restrictions in built forms and typologies inthe hilly terrain and flood prone
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