A gaze encountering traditional architecture not only draws us into awe but inspires in us hundred thousand feelings of varied nature. An entire epoch unfolds before us, the symbolism of the architecture plays with all its fancy before our eyes and invokes in us a sense of strong historical and national identity. Architectural spaces and the spaces of traditional build-up are no mere molds of brick and mortar; they are cultural integrators, emblems of tradition and the icons of identity. These are the motifs one relates with on many levels and are capable of fostering the sense of togetherness and cultural unity in a group of people. But modern day intrusion into our lives and ideas has caused not only hegemony and homogeneity of our language & literature, dress and diet, but has also created an architectural monolith. The building in London is no different from a building in Lahore and the multiplex in Delhi doesn’t differ from the one in Dublin. This uniformity carried under the aegis of globalization has outlawed and abolished the traditional forms of architecture and eroded the aesthetic sense of people which so much characterized the world till a few decades ago.
In the trilogy of “Satyam-Shivam-Sundaram”, Indian civilization offered the supreme identity between truth and beauty and this beauty was made manifest in the mundane aspects of life from the habits of dining to the codes of construction. Same is true of other civilizations and cultures, which constructed their houses and other spaces in conformity with their underlying ideas, beliefs and mores. With the abandoning of traditional construction style, particularly in the Kashmiri context, we have not only lost an important aesthetic dimension of our construction and buildings, but have brought upon ourselves unforeseen structural ills and challenges. In the pursuit of universality, the locals have suffered not only ignorance, but outright abolition.
The construction codes and building practices do not evolve overnight. These practices, like the cuisine and custom, are the result of an evolutionary process spanning centuries, corroborated by scrupulous observations and careful advances. Traditional Kashmiri houses consisted of wooden framework and walls were made of mud and clay, insulating them from the cold and regulating the temperature inside the house. These were built with special care being paid to Kashmir’s harsh winters and they provided natural insulation against the jaw locking cold. Not only this, traditional Kashmiri construction practices which include the Taq and Dhajji-Dewari styles are seen in places like Srinagar. These have either masonry-bearing walls (Taq) fastened with timber or a rectangular timber framework filled with masonry (Dhajji-Dewari). An analysis appearing in Scientific American explicitly notes that “To restore architectural resilience in the region, we must turn back to traditional ways of building. Governments at all levels must both promote earthquake safety in construction and treat local earthquake science with the seriousness it deserves’ ‘. But what has been the fate of our traditional architecture and the vernacular buildings which had evolved over a course of centuries? Concrete jungles without any regard to the geological and ecological compatibility of the place have cropped up and with these haphazard, imported in a cyclostyle fashion, have brought with them aesthetic erasure and other vulnerabilities.
London is an apt example of blending traditional architecture with modern developments without either eroding the traditional aesthetic or losing the merits of modern developments. But so much so has some people abandoned their aesthetic nerve that in Islamic world, Mecca and Medina have undergone structural changes that are undesirable and one can add profane order. This change in buildings, which may look naive or inconsequential at first, hosts the roots of historical alienation, the loss of sense of belonging and the communal ties. One often ventured into the countryside and discovered peculiar and particular construction style, the walls and rooftops carrying with them the cultural legacy and aesthetic heritage. But all that has been eroded behind the veneer of progress and development and one can’t even plead that this development is coming at the cost of our identity and cultural uniqueness. But we, the moderns, have little time for these things, whose value we neither understand nor appreciate. And what about the city?
One can hardly improve upon Iqbal Ahmed’s pithy observation, “Till eighties tourists were seen moving in streets of Downtown Srinagar with their cameras in hand and engaged in taking market shots. The wonderful architectural buildings and historic lanes and by-lines were the splendour of the old city, which has now almost disappeared. Neither that historic grace is visible, nor those foreign tourists any more seen in the historic streets”.
The irony has spilled over limits and not only have the common houses in Kashmir undergone drastic architectural metamorphosis, but Mosques, which preserved the sense of sacred and transcendence and reverberated in their style of construction the otherworldly echoes have been secularized in their build up and hijacked by the modern day horizontal, profane architecture.
Shrines, constructed centuries ago and now perhaps the sole witnesses to our architectural legacy, whenever retrofitted, are given modern day touch, tarnishing the legacy and the historical continuity which they stand witness to. How long shall we mistake the progress with anti-traditionalism and how long shall the artificial glare of concrete keep us blind to the exquisiteness, the uniqueness and the brilliance of our traditional architecture, construction styles and the elegance of our mores.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
- The author is a Srinagar based columnist
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