Joint families have been an integral part of the Indian culture. Though today we find fewer families that manage to live all together under one roof, this was pretty much an understood way of life some five decades or more ago. Joint families have many cultural, social and traditional nuances that can be explored in detail some other time, however, what we would like to highlight in this series is the importance of the large family homes or traditional Indian houses.
For a number of urban, economic and social reasons, the joint families have broken up in our modern times, yet it is quite common for the entire clan to meet up for a vacation in an ancestral home. Ancestral or traditional homes are hence still seen, preserved and used in many parts of the country, bearing witness and standing as testimony to the culture of living and staying together.
Roughly dividing our discourse into two parts, let us forge ahead in this series to look at some of the traditional old homes of Northern India.
To be honest, northern India itself is a vast area especially considering it encompasses the architecturally rich states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, West Bengal, Assam and the north eastern states.
However, there are some traits of old homes that are more or less same across different regions. Large double or more storied mansions, pillars, columns and wooden cravings, a central courtyard, a large open terrace and arched doorways are some basic outlines of how an old traditional home looks. However, it is the intricate finer local differences and designs that give each village, town or city its distinct own style. Interestingly, the cement, stone and brick made homes are but just the exact medium to facilitate a larger cultural and social milieu, called family.
Traditional Homes of Punjab –
The new generation needs no introduction to Punjabi traditional homes, thanks to the countless Bollywood movies that have centered on the yellow poppy fields, tractors and a rustic yet vibrant manor. Made from mostly baked bricks and wooden timber for doors there is a cattle shed usually found in the main courtyard. The courtyard is marked with a centrally placed floral arrangement where all ceremonies and rituals are carried out.
The living room is characterized by the ‘charpais’ that are comfortably spread out, whereas the adjoining rooms are laterally placed to the main hall. The verandah runs all along the house, which is often the place for the women of the house to bond and work together. This entire complex lies within a baked boundary that leads to the main road or the house next door.
Traditional Homes of Gujarat –
The traditional homes of Gujarat have a lot of variety. The pols of Ahmedabad, the Bohri homes of Sidhpur, the bhungas of Kutch or the havelis of Ahmedabad, traditional homes of Gujarat are hard to stereotype into a single mold. The most iconic of these are the Bhungas of Kutch, found in the rural areas, typically identified by the conical thatched roof and circular walls. Built from locally available soil, bamboo and straw, the architecture and design is perfect to withstand the harsh climate as well as any tectonic or earthquake activity. The interiors are decorated with paintings and mirror works.
The pols of Ahmedabad, characterized by the narrow alleyways are a group of homes that belong to the same caste, religion or group of traders. Found mostly in Old Ahmedabad, the pols were gated communities where each family had its privacy but was yet a part of a larger cluster of the same kind.
The Bohra community of Gujarat has a special place in the architectural annals, and their influence is seen mostly in the regions of Kapadvanj and the town of Sidhpur. The three to four storied homes have an internal courtyard in the center of the home with rooms and floors radiating on all sides. The tall windows, usually a few street facing as well as the ‘otla’ a pedestal of sorts outside the entrance for evening chit chats is an important social ingredient added into the otherwise personal properties. However, the common trait that binds most of the traditional Gujarat homes is their colorfully coordinated interiors and their love for intricate carvings and paintings.
Traditional Homes of West Bengal –
Not many know this, but the bungalow originated from ‘Bengali’ and its architecture finds its roots in Bengal. Bungalows characterized by wide verandahs and one or two storeys have been adapted by the British for their summer retreats and many old Bengali homes are built on this style of architecture. Some features that are hard to miss in traditional Bengal homes are the hanging balcony, columns running along the balconies, a large central courtyard with the tulsi plant placed in its center and a special puja mandap with apses behind arches where the idols are kept. The various floors and rooms are well connected with stairways and winding corridors. The interiors include the four poster beds with curtain draping and sandalwood carved furniture. Gardens are usually large and well maintained.
Traditional Homes of Ladakh –
Traditional houses in Leh are built using stones, timber, mud and mud bricks, and the housing layout reflects their different needs. The cow pens are usually at the bottom and the Buddhist altar at the top of the house. The most used and important room, including the kitchen faces the sun and the houses look impressive with a proper roof parapet as well as the windows and doors have detail carvings. The roofs of the homes are flat, and there is usually a basement to store the food during winter months. Large spacious rooms more so on the second floor are other typical characteristics of an Old Leh home.
Every region has its own unique style of architecture and most of it is visible in the rural areas. The stilt bamboo homes of Assam characterized by the ikra reeds, the double pitched roof style of Nagalad, the Kathkuni architectural style of Himachal Pradesh or the jharokas, jaalis and stepwells of Rajasthan are just a few examples.
However, where ethnic homes integrate the physical landscape along with the cultural and social variations of each region, old traditional homes are seen in larger towns and cities as well. Traditional homes hence bring together the architectural relevance of the region at the same time showcase the important family traditions, which may be missing from individual traditional homes.
Hence, a layout of a traditional family home though incorporates and follows the general pattern and details of the architectural style of the region it also brings to it a sense of togetherness and living it large.