By Ar. Alisha Adhikari& Prof. Anne Feenstra, Sustainable Mountain Architecture team (Nepal)
The myriad mountain communities of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya range are unique in the world. The rich variety of natural and cultural landscapes seems to be infinite. Since my arrival in Afghanistan in 2004, I have been fortunate to be working side by side with the Hazaras and the Wakhis on the National Parks of Afghanistan. After this, I worked in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, Zanskar, Uttarakhand, Ladakh and Sikkim. But the climate and the times are changing. According to many experts, like Dr. Eklabya Sharma, we need to change the present course as the mountain people, their incredible cultures and mountainscapes are under severe pressure.
Search for vernacular Lepcha architecture
Five years ago, our exhibition called Sustainable Mountain Architecture opened in the Forest Department of Sikkim’s Secretariat, in Gangtok. During this visit, I had wanted to visit Dzongu. But everybody I talked to seemed to think there were hardly any vernacular architectural structures left. Moreover, entrance permits would be difficult to get. I did not go then, but I remained curious. When my next chance came in 2018, with a new invitation to come to Sikkim, I set five extra daysaside.
On October 17, Tom Tsering Lepcha received me at his Gangtok office. Thanks to photographer Dilip Banerjee and the Kolkata-based professor of biological anthropology, BarunMukhopadhyay, I was able to connect with this energetic man who had co-authored a book about Lepcha textiles. Barely 10 minutes after meeting Tom, we were on our way to Chawang, his ancestral Lepcha village!
Chawang’s organic stilts
The next morning we hiked some distance and managed to see five traditional Lepcha houses. These structures were roughly between 70 and 200 years old. While observing the houses, it was interesting to see that there is no absolute orientation of the buildings towards East or West; the Lepchas rather follow the meandering contours of the terrain.
Houses are traditionally built on nine stilts,at least. Natural stone footings lift the massive tree trunk stilts out of the moist earth. These stilts interlock with beams at the floor level. The shape of most of the stilts is completely organic, as it is literally the base of a large tree, stripped from its bark. The space under the floor is for the cattle and the chickens. It also serves as a place for storage. Almost all the houses have enclosed this space by raising stone walls on three sides. Only one house still had the traditional bamboo platformoutside. Attached to the house, it always faces South as its primary function is to dry agricultural produce in the sun.
After seeing the first traditional Lepcha houses we drove Northwest, towards the cradle of Lepcha culture; Dzongu. After completing the permission formalities, we crossed the bridge over the ice-cold Teesta. The moment you enter Dzongu, the already impressive natural setting of Sikkim intensifies: more ferns, taller trees, more birds, cleaner air and more waterfalls. Heaven on earth!
We drove up to Passingdong, where I stayed at ChodenLepcha’s homestay. Our delicious lunch included carefully prepared fern shoots and slowly cooked local flowers. Traditionally the two most important rooms in a Lepcha house are the puja room and the kitchen. Deep black in colour, the soot of the open fire from the kitchen protects the timber interiors against moisture and insects, but the smutty smoke also creates health issues in the lungs, eyes and skin. Over time, the Lepchas have realized this and most houses have moved the kitchen into a separate small building.
In Upper Lightem village, Choden showed me nine architectural gems. The puja rooms stand out as the only adorned and multi-coloured part of the houses. The sacred rooms have impressive wood carving, delicate paintings and sometimes wooden masks and well-crafted daggers. Walls to the outside are limited as there are low-ceiling storage spaces that form a buffer zone. These fine buildings are pure in their simplicity and robust enough to withstand two centuries of continuous use as well as rains and earthquakes.
An opportunity came to visit the hot spring in Lingdem. I had imagined a beautiful place, but the reality, however, was painful. A badly designed concrete building is standing in odd contrast tothe pristine and natural surroundings. Wrong choices for building design as well as material were in sharp contrast with the rest of the place. Moreover, the new building was already in desperate need of repair. Several national and international visitors have actually refused to go into the hot spring building because it is so appalling. This must be the opposite of what the Sikkim Tourism Department had in mind!
The project seemed to be in line with developments in Sikkim after the 2011 earthquake. Rebuilding programmes and homestay programmes seemed to focus on quantity rather than quality. Obviously, it is important to make earthquake resistant buildings, but there are better ways to do it. ICIMOD has already demonstrated this in their knowledge park in Godavari. The scale 1:1 Model House uses earthquake resistant technology, passive solar energy, up-cycled building material combined with local material and local skills.
The cultural heritage of the vernacular Lepcha architecture is still there, but under accumulative pressures. This is apparent inside Dzongu as well as outside it, where villages like Chawang, Ranka and Revindu, still have some meticulously crafted tangible heritage. We should be building with nature, not distancing ourselves from it. Positive experiences of visitors will be needed to truly achieve sustainable, community-based tourism. Tom Tsering Lepcha told me that his people would love that. In our minds, Gangtok will need to support this direction and overcome the low quality design and bad quality execution that is becoming the standard formula. I spoke to R.P. Gurung and P.D Raiabout ensuring all government funded projects follow the newly adopted Sikkim Tourism Policy. It states clearly in Chapter 4.3: Application of appropriate designs for tourism infrastructure that considers the landscape, disaster risks, local architecture and materials needs to be addressed.
On the last day, we had a very late lunch. With our two full bellies, on the balcony of the homestay, Choden and I looked in the direction of the Kanchenjunga. The third highest peak of the world was in the midst of clouds, but underneath thousand different colours of green, yellow, and brown were soaking in the late afternoon sun. Sheets of mountain mist continuously keep rolling on, slowly and gently. I realized we will need to find an alternative that will prevent concrete monstrosities from appearing and celebrate and revive the vernacular architecture of the Lepchas as living heritage.