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Traditional Architecture and Planning Techniques in Himachal Pradesh

(Ms) M Jain, Non-member

I Singh, Non-member
Dr S C Sharma, Non-member

This paper highlights the evolution of traditional architecture and settlement pattern in the hill region of Himachal Pradesh. The paper
discusses the art and architecture which grew out of the man and natural interaction. It discusses the various Architectural Styles of temples
evolved over a period of time, their construction techniques and materials used by the people of Himachal Pradesh. The design and planning
consideration in the hills which require extra sensitivity and care because of the delicate nature of terrain and eco-system are described. The
paper suggests that the traditional architecture which is the outcome of man's interaction with nature should not be disturbed. The planning
techniques which have been scientifically proved successful due to difficult terrain and the scientific use of locally available material should be

Keywords: Traditional architecture; Settlement pattern; Eco system; Man-nature interaction; Planning techniques


The state of Himachal Pradesh has a treasure of traditional

architecture. This traditional architecture has stood the test of
time. This art and architecture have mostly grown out of age-old
cultural heritage and numerous religious beliefs. It commands deep
interest and respect as it represents and reveals the many faceted
realities of the people living there. The ancient art and architecture
of Himachal Pradesh have survived in the form of metal sculpture,
wood carvings, stone carvings, paintings, traditional residential
settlements and temple architecture.The most elementary form
of hill architecture is represented by the old temples, which are
scattered everywhere all along the mountain slopes and in the
valleys. They are of indigenous styles and peculiar to the hills.
Preparation of layout plans in hill area for the construction of
different types of buildings, such as housing clusters, commercial
Figure 1 Traditional settlements
complexes, institutional buildings is much more complicated as
compared to the preparation of such plans in the plains. Layout TRADITIONAL SETTLEMENTS
planning is complicated due to constraints of hilly terrain for
construction of buildings and roads beyond certain degree of
The construction of the house or the habitable places usually
slope. It is further complicated due to the following:
starts near the resources like agricultural land, water etc. Prior to
the commencement of construction, due consideration is given
n Difficulty of getting suitable orientation on the hill slopes.
to the terrain and the climate (Figure 1).
n Problems of soil erosion and land slides.
n Restrictions by the forest department.( ban on cutting of the
n The traditional house is in the form of a hut, and a hamlet
develops when there are more than one hut and a small temple,
n Existence of tall shoddy trees and dense forest area, which
dedicated to the local deity is gradually added. Thus from a
obstruct the winter sun required for the buildings.
singular structure of a hut, a small settlement is developed.
n Limitations on the height of the building due to earthquake

n The vernacular architecture of hamlets in Himachal Pradesh
n High cost involved in the site development due to the cutting
also varies from region to region, depending upon the climatic
and the filling process.
factors and the availability of local materials.
n Non-availability and transportation problems of construction

n It has been noticed that in the regions, comprising the Kullu
(Ms) M Jain and I Singh are with the Department of Architecture, National valley, Satluj valley and the Ravi valley, a great commonality of
Institute of Technology, Hamirpur, Himachal Pradesh; and Dr S C Sharma
is with Giani Zail Singh College of Engineering and Technology, Bathinda,
styles exists (Figure 2). In the Satluj valley region, the typical
Himachal Pradesh. house consists of stone and timber walls, constructed in what is
known as Kath-Kona style, an indigenous style of construction,
This paper was received on May 9, 2005. Written discussion on the paper will be in which the walls are made with alternate courses of dry stone
received till January, 31, 2006.
masonry and timber without any cementing mortar.

Vol 86,October 2005 35

Figure 3 Lakshana Devi temple at Brahmaur


The religious buildings in Himachal symbolize not only the

presence of various cultures in the region, but also signify the
intermingling of societies through a blend of art and architecture.
Together they produce a variety of styles in the built forms.

Numbering approximately more than 6000, the Himachal Pradesh

temples offer a variety of architecture and art. Thus the architectural
styles found in Himachal Pradesh have been identified as
(a) Pent-roof or Chalet style;
(b) Nagara style;
(c) Pagoda style;
(d) Tower style
Figure 2 Kath -Kona style of a house in Satluj valley (e) Flat roofed temples;
n In the hamlets located in the Ravi valley, the walls of the (f) Pyramidal style;
traditional houses are built mostly with the dried masonry, (g) Gompas.
without using any alternate layers of timber. These walls are
plastered with mud both from inside and the outside. Pent- roof or Chalet Style

n A common alternative is to make the lower storey of the The square or rectangular wood and stone temples with pent roof
house in dry stone masonry without any layer of timber beams are the most ancient in Himachal Pradesh. They are found all
and the upper floor exclusively in timber. The upper floor is over the hills. In size these structures differ considerably, while
projected on all the four sides supported by wooden posts and they all have only one common feature, that is the finely cut large
brackets. and excellent stones, that constitute their base. Most remarkable
among these temples are Lakshana Devi temple at Brahmaur,
n In some parts of Himachal Pradesh, there is a popular use of Shakti devi at Chhatrari in Chamba. The usual pattern is a square
the Dhajji wall construction. In this construction system, the resting on a raised platform of stone. The building itself may be
walls are made of timber frames with in-fills of light thin panels entirely of wood or of the wood and stone. It generally consists
made by close packaging of mud mortar, stone and ballast. The of a central cellar with an open verandah around it, and is covered
traditional Dhajji wall (framed wall) construction mode of the with a pent roof of wood, which either slopes on two sides from
region was subsequently improvised by the British for making the central ridge, or on four sides from the top (Figure 3).
their colonial edifices.
Nagara Style
n A typical mountain village comprises of a compact group of
houses arranged along the contours, of preferably south facing Himachal Pradesh is also rich in the Indo -Aryan temples or what
slope. is popularly known as Nagara style of temples. The Nagara temples
in Himachal Pradesh broadly follow the overall form and design
n The hill house usually consists of two rooms. One on top of of the typical Indo-Aryan stone temples, found in Orissa and
another and is built with mud, stone and timber. Usually the Khajurao areas. Some minor modifications were made in the form
ground floor is used for keeping cattle and storing grain and of these temples of the plains to adapt them to the climatic
fodder. The upper floor is the main living area. conditions of the hill areas. The series of monolithic temples of
36 IE(I) Journal--AR
Figure 4 Massur temple, Kangra
Figure 6 Dum devta temple, Bhanmol, Shimla

like multi-storey edifices. These temples are believed to have

Chinese or Tibetan influence in their architecture. The
arrangements in the interior of these temples, including the wood
carvings resemble those preserved in the Pentroof temples. These
wood carvings were frequently repaired, when decayed, by
replacing the old ones. Similarly the Pagoda roofs are also repaired,
partly replacing the decayed portions. The temples at Hidimba
Devi at Manali, Mahadev temple in Mandi district and Tripura
Sundri Devi temple, Kullu come under this category (Figure 5).

Tower Style

Another type of pent-roof style is seen in the tower temples or it

may be said that when the chalet type structure is raised to two to
three storeys height, so that the verandah all around extends beyond
the walls to form a cantilevered structure, as if a chalet placed on
the high pedestal, it looks like a tower. The excellent types of this
temple are Bhimkali temple at Sarahan and Dum Devta temple,
Bhanmol, Shimla (Figure 6).

Flat- roofed Temples

Figure 5 Tripura sundari devi temple, Kullu

Massur in Kangra district are the earliest specimen of the Nagara

design (Figure 4). There are a number of seventh century Nagara
type temples at Brahmaur, such as Manimahesh and Ganesha built
by Meru Verman ( 680-700 A.D). The famous Lakshmi Narayan
temple of Chamba is a group of temples with Nagara style.

Pagoda Type Temples

These are rectangular stone and wood structures with successive

roofs, placed one over the other making them in some cases look Figure 7 Dundi devi temple, Dabhas, Shimla

Vol 86,October 2005 37

These temples are made of ordinary walls of mud and lime plaster. construction techniques are used here, the rammed earth technique
But the remarkable point about them is the wall paintings in Pahari and adobe construction. In the former style, the mud is filled into
style. This architectural styles include temples of Narbadeshwar the wooden forms and rammed into the place slowly building up
(Sujanpur-Tihra) and Brajraj swami (Kangra valley) the wall. In the later style, sun dried mud blocks are used in the
construction of the wall. The roof is kept flat and comprises a
Pyramidal Style closely packed layer of sun twigs supported on wooden beams
and joists and resting on the wooden columns.
Considering style of roofs as a basis of distinction, such types of .
temples are built on square plinths. All the four lower eaves of Stability of the structures is a much desired quality, required for
the temple roof are of equal length and the roof goes on narrowing the hill regions.
towards centre forming pyramid like roof in the centre. One of
the examples of the pyramid style roof temple is Dundi Devi Lying in the seismic zone 4 and partly in the high intensity seismic
temple at Dabhas in Shimla district (Figure 7). zone 5, faced with extreme climatic conditions and steep hilly
. terrains, the available indigenous technology is an appropriate
Gompas response. To counter the seismic forces, the traditional structures
usually stand on a high solid plinth, made up of dry dressed stone
Except those at Rewalsar and Rampur, the Buddhist Gompas are masonry. The huge mass serves as a dampener pad to the
confined to Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti area. These are generally earthquake forces and the dry construction allows for vibration
flat-roofed complexes of many rooms. These monasteries or the and hence faster dissipation of the energy.
Gompas are the repositories of Buddhist art and culture. The
Gompa is the embodiment of the earthy seat of Buddha and Organic Building Character
other deities that make up the Buddhist Pantheon. Every village
or a hamlet has its own monastery, and it forms the centre of the Varying topography gives pockets of land for development which
culture and social life of the people. give rise to discontinuous organic mosaic of building with varying
sizes and spaces. No space is perceived in isolation. Buildings
BUILDING MATERIALS AND THE CONSTRUCTION appear visually integrated with each other, establishing continuity
TECHNIQUES in perception. It is the total composition, which becomes the most
Hostile weather conditions and limited supply of building materials
has resulted in the usage of mud, stone and wood in varying C

In the vernacular architecture of the Himalayan region wood is

extensively used, as the forests of the deodar wood and other B
mixed forests were easily available. The vast number of hill temples,
are of deodar wood generally. Deodar wood has been used
traditionally to impart stability to tall structures. The walls of some
of these structures are raised on the horizontal wooden frame River
work called Cheols. In the well built structure, the wood is very 300
carefully arranged, the beams with thickness around 30 cms in A
depth extending over the whole length of wall - a beam on the
outside and another beam on the inside, the space in between is Figure 8 Safe angle of repose
filled with stones.

In certain regions the construction system constitutes the erection

of a timber frame work of uprights, beams and braces with dressed E
stone blocks as an in-fill material without any cementing material.
Over the walls, a frame of the timber rafters and purlins is laid
out for the pitched roof. The roofing on top is with slates as the D
material. The walls of the interior are usually finished with the
mud plaster. C

Another material used is mud, on account of its easy availability, A

Area of
good insulation and the good binding properties. In some parts 0
∆ ADC= ∆ CDE
of the western Himalayan region comprising Upper Kinnaur, B
Lahaul- Spiti and Ladakh, the architectural style is different. Stone
remains in use but its usage is restricted to the plinth. The locally
available mud is used for the super structure. Two types of Figure 9 Clearance on sides of buildings

38 IE(I) Journal--AR
DESIGNING AND PLANNING IN HILLS n Since the inner side of the cut slope may have higher bearing
capacity, building should be so oriented and planned so as to
Design considerations in hills require extra sensitivity and care enhance that higher load comes on inner side. Where the site
because of the delicate nature of terrain and ecosystem. Unlike seems to undergo unequal settlement, the site should be so
plains, here a new dimension or a height variation to the ground planned and designed that the higher load comes on harder
poses additional problem to the entire exercise. part of foundation and soil.

Physical Planning n Terrace in all around the building should have proper slope
for efficient drainage. During the site development, terrace may
n The planning on the hills is very restrictive as compared to be cut at 1:30 to 1:50 slope and may be trimmed at suitable
the plains. The major factors that govern the planning are slope after the completion of the building work.
topography, climatic conditions, orientation, traffic movement,
available usable spaces, sources of water supply, natural drains n In the steep hilly zones, the stepped terraces will be much
and paths. beneficial environmentally and economically, as they result in
the least hill cutting and disturbance to the hill stability.
n Gentle slopes are required so that the cost of site development
is lessened. The roads for traffic movement are of gradual n Minimum clearance of 1.0 m to 1.5 m should be given
gradient. Less excavation is required to be done to maintain the between the hill face and the building wall to avoid dampness
ecological balance. and also for proper light and ventilation.

n Slope of the ground should not be more than 30º as far as n Top hill surfaces near the buildings should be properly treated
possible even in rocky reaches to avoid instability problems, to make it impervious as far as possible, possibly by thick
especially during severe earthquakes. vegetation or stone pitching.

n Suitable clearance around buildings is necessary. Foundation Development of Critical Areas

of any part of building should not rest on filled up ground. On
hills there should be clearance of about 40º in case of soil, soil Physical development of a hill town is attributed to topography,
mixed boulder, fractured rock zone, soft rock zone having climate, accessibility, availability of developable land, hilly tracks
outward dip, so that any slip, if occurs may not hit the building. prohibiting large scale expansion of urban activities in ecologically
sensitive areas. Hill geomorphology does not allow concentrated
n Due to the cold climate, the southern slopes are preferred. development of settlements. Hence the dispersal of settlement
The orientation of the houses is to maximize the penetration has to be encouraged.
of the sun rays.

n The stress is also laid on the preservation of the green

cover. The site should be developed in such a way that felling
of trees is avoided as far as possible.
Military crest
gives views of the
n Site susceptible to high winds, storms, floods and landslides
valley. Buildings
should be avoided. located here blend
into the mass of
the hill as viewed
from great dis-
Retaining Figure 11 Ridge lines

Pile foundation
The larger the cone blocked
by landform, the greater the

Figure 10 Construction types on hills Figure 12 View shed

Vol 86,October 2005 39

Building Layout on Contours

The building should be placed along the contours to increase the

stability of the structure and to cut down the cost on the site
development. The existing form of the terrain welcomes some
building forms while rejects some. In hills building break the
continuity of landscape and hence appear rigid, this can be
controlled by giving horizontal and vertical devices like stilts, etc
(Figure 13).


Buildings with terraces allow sunlight penetration at all heights.
S Visual aspect does not allow more than a few stories, which helps
in maintaining a human scale, proportions and integration.
Figure 13 Building layout on contours

Construction on Hills and Its Types Orienting building along the north-south allows maximum
sunlight. The path of the sun, controls the height of building, as
For hard soil : Cantilever the sun is needed for each dwelling unit.
For moderate soil : Supporting members
To prevent landslide : Retaining wall ECOLOGY AND ARCHITECTURE
For aesthetics on gentle slopes : Terracing
Ecology is the relationship of plants and animals to their natural
Topography surroundings. It is sad to point out that during the course of
development, the contemporary architecture has played a negative
An essential difference between Hills and Plains is the presence role to disrupt this relationship and destroy the delicate and fragile
of undulating topography altering the line of vision at every point balance of hill eco system. This has led to the problems of
of ground. This makes the visual appearance of a building very landslides, forest fires etc. The sensitive approach towards
important from all distances. The changing terrain opens up architecture and planning techniques can save the ecology.
unlimited possibilities of viewing and utilizing land at various levels.
These offer views and the advantage of multilevel entry to the CONCLUSION
building. However, the topography also restricts the freedom in
the development and planning. Symmetry or order of plan is not In the hills, the elements of nature shape the spatial order and the
experienced in hills due to varying topography. The undulating man has to adapt himself to these forces, so he makes the shelters
topography opens up tremendous possibilities of panoramic vistas and the built environment in consonance with them and his cultural
of the landscape and the mountains. needs. The traditional architecture of Himachal Pradesh is the
outcome of the prevailing topography, extremes of the climate
Ridge Lines and other natural forces. Indigenous architectural solutions have
responded well to these natural forces. Moreover the vernacular
Ridge lines are quite expansive and are visually open zones. They architecture merges well with the hills at the backdrop.
offer long panoramic views and are themselves highly visible from
distant areas. They do not usually afford views into the valleys. The traditional architecture forms the back bone of social and
cultural set up of the place. These architectural splendours serve
as the living heritage and add to tourist attractions. Most of these
The Valley
structures are showing the sign of strain and abuse. The issues of
restoration and preservation are of paramount importance and
Valleys afford reduced view sheds (Figure 12). The views from
need to be addressed in relation to these buildings. It is essential
the surrounding slopes are focused downwards into the valleys.
for this architecture to retain its integrity. So the traditional
There is however a zone along the upper floors that is much less architecture should not be disturbed, rather the contemporary
visible from the distance and that affords views into the valleys. architecture should be integrated well with the traditional
This zone is known as military crest of the ridge. The zone offers architecture. The planning techniques, which have been
the unique opportunities as it affords nice valley views while scientifically proved successful, for the difficult terrain of the
enabling buildings to visually blend into the land form if viewed hills should be adopted keeping in mind the sustainability aspect.
from distant locations. Ordinances that prohibit ridgeline As a future strategy, the people should be made aware of the
development to minimize visual impact often allows building along scientific usage of the locally available materials to minimize the
the military crest. Spacing of ridges determine size of view sheds. fragility of the region.
40 IE(I) Journal--AR
REFERENCES 5. R Wattas. ‘Interventions in Vernacular Himachal Pradesh. Architecture+Design,
New Delhi, November - December, 2000.

1. J L Motloch. ‘Introduction to Landscape Design.’ John Wiley and Sons. 6. J O Simonds. ‘Landscape Architecture, A Manual of Site Planning and Design.’
McGraw Hill, New York, 1997.
2. R Chauhan. ‘Himachal Pradesh - a Perspective’. Menerva Book House, The Mall,
7. S Khambaty and S Bhole. ‘Exploring Himachal.’ Journal of the Indian Institute of
Shimla, 1998. Architects, July 2004.

3. M G Singh. ‘Wooden Temples of Himachal Pradesh.’ Indus Publishing Company, 8. Dr R Gopal. ‘Selection, Development and Stabilisation of Sites for Building on
New Delhi, 1999. Hills.’

9. ‘National Town and Country Planning Congress Development of Hill Capitals

4. J L Dvivedi. ‘Monastries of the Spiti Valley, Architecture Time Space and : Shimla-Vision 2025.’ Technical Papers of Institute of Town Planners, Peterhoff Shimla,
People.’ The Magazine of the Council of Architecture, New Delhi, February 2003. 2003.

Vol 86,October 2005 41