The Absolute Style
Like true folk architecture all over the world, Himachal's indigenous architecture once seemed quite immutable. It had grown out of the land, fulfilled local needs, used local materials, drew on local culture and within its own frame, was highly evolved and functional. Over the centuries, building methods had successfully discharged domestic, temporal and religious requirements. Today, changes are there, but the tradition and skills remain as strong as ever.
Over a significant portion of the state, the presence of cedar forests has played a major role in the evolution and development of various architectural forms. Its strength has enabled the construction of wooden structures that are several storeys high. This wood is insect and termite resistant and even when untreated, can withstand long periods of weather corrosion. Its properties were understood early and its texture and scent have been prized for ages.
Kathkuni Or Kathkundi Style
The 'Kathkuni' or 'Kathkundi' style of building is something unique to this part of the world. A mesh of interlocking horizontal cedar (locally, deodar) sleepers is created - and in this dressed or raw stone is packed. A singular characteristic is the absence of vertical members. With inherent elasticity, the design has an enormous seismic response - there have been instances when tremors have dislodged the stones from the frame, and later, have been hammered back into the intact mesh of wood houses and temples in the style are present in the districts of Shimla , Kinnaur and Kullu .
Walls of rammed earth are popular all over Himachal and in the treeless tracts of the Trans Himalaya, some stunning architecture has been created on seemingly insurmountable sites. The quality of dressed or carved stone has created remarkable temples, forts and residences. Fine slate, or slabs of quartzite have provided roofing material.
Influenced By Himachali Cultural Heritage
Tradition has also dictated certain rituals, beliefs and ceremonies in the construction of houses. The Indian calendar months of Baisakh, Poh, Magh and Phalgun are regarded as auspicious for the start of construction. Ideally, the main aspect of the house should face east and the rising sun.
Given the topography of most of the state, this is not always possible and a northern or western orientation is acceptable. The house must never face south as that is considered to impoverish the family. The medium ('Goor', 'Chela' or 'Mali') of the local deity plays a major role in site selection and in placing the foundations of the house. He prays either at the site itself or over a 'Sod' or stone brought from the place where the house is to be built. He then divines an auspicious time for the start of construction.
Along with the master builder the person who is building the house goes to the site well before dawn. Certain auspicious items are carried along and prayers are offered. The corner stone is then placed and the endeavour is to set the first line of stones before light, so that the keystone remains secret. Elaborate rituals are also observed when the main doorframe and the roof-beam are placed.
With the coming of the Europeans, Himachal added another dimension to its rich architectural heritage. Shimla, the state capital has some of the world's finest examples of British colonial architecture. Inspired by the Renaissance in England, is the greystone former Viceregal Lodge (now the Indian Institute of Advanced Study), the neo Gothic structures of the gaiety theatre and the former imperial Civil Secretariat (now the Accountant General's Office). There are the Tudor framed Barnes Court (now the Raj Bhawan), and the distinctive Vidhan Sabha and the secretariat of the government of Himachal Pradesh.
While these were monuments of imperial might, the houses that drew on the western experience for both inspiration and design, had a composition that was European while the structural elements were quite indigenous. In many cases, local workers using local materials on local principles have created cottages straight out of surrey and chalets from the Swiss Bavarian Alps. Apart from Shimla , colonial structures can be found all over the state, especially in the hill stations of Kasauli and Dalhousie.
And of course, there are forts, palaces, temples and monasteries that follow a much older tradition throughout Himachal. With its well-preserved architecture and cobbled streets, Pragpur in Kangra has been declared a 'Heritage Village', while the thousand-year-old monastery of Tabo in Spiti with its fine wall paintings and stucco statues has been declared a 'World Heritage Site' by UNESCO.
Set high where they Lord over the surrounding countryside, or tucked in wooded nooks, or placed by elegant promenades, Himachal has an enormous range of ' heritage ' properties. These range from ancient forts that breathe a tumultuous past, to colonial mansions that speak of an age of leisure and graciousness. There are palaces that belong to a time when opulence marked the lifestyles of India's princes and there are century old hotels that are maintained in a pristine glory, or that have been painstakingly restored.
This spectrum offers a range of décor and ambience and a richly varied experience. From timeworn battlements, where the very stones speak of glory and courage, one can move to lush countryside and savour the traditions of 'Haveli' life. And just as easily, one can slip into distinctive mansions where time seems to have stood still for decades and where an easy elegance wafts under the watchful weave of priceless tapestries. Then there are hotels that justly pride themselves for years of tradition and service and whose guest list reads like an international who's who.
With nostalgia and comfort skillfully interlaced, here is a window that invites one to share a bygone era and hold its enduring charms.
Properties that welcome guests to share their inimitable qualities are:
Shimla Region - Alpine Heritage Inn, Chapslee, The Cecil, The Clarkes, Hotels Springfield, Woodville Palace Hotel (Shimla); Palace Hotel, Chail; Arki Fort, Arki; Fort Resort, Nalagarh; Hotel Ros Common Kasauli; Hotel Alasia, Kasauli. more...
Mandi And Naggar - Raj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mandi; Nagar Castle, Naggar.
Dalhousie - Silverton Estate, Hotel Aroma 'N' Claire, Hotel Grand View, Hotel Mountview, Hotel Geetanjali. more...
Kangra Region - Taragarh Palace Hotel, Taragarh; The Judge's Court, Pragpur; Cloud's End Villa, Dharamsala; Hotel Kashmir House, Dharmasala. more...
The ITC chain Welcomeheritage is now promoting the Himachal heritage circuit whose members are The Fort, Nalagarh, The Judge's Court, Pragpur and The Woodville Palace, Shimla .
Many traditional farmhouses all over the state are also making accommodation available on their premises. This will provide visitors an insight into local lifestyles, cuisine and culture.