Kath-Kuni: A young architect brings back the glory of his homeland's traditional architecture

Rahul Bhushan, a 29-year-old Himachali local and alumnus of CEPT is trying to bring back the glory of Kath-Kuni structures

‘Kath-Kuni’ is a popular type of natural building which uses locally available wood and stone as prime materials for construction. These humble-looking abodes made of stone, mud and wood were popular in Himachal Pradesh.

It is environmentally friendly, keeps the cold out and can survive earthquakes due to its high tensile strength. ‘Kath-Kuni’ is made of two words — ‘Kath’ meaning ‘wood’ and ‘Kuni’ meaning ‘corner’.

While Kangra and Spiti regions abound in houses made of mud and stone, Kath-Kuni houses are native to this middle Himalayan belt which includes Kullu, Manali, Chamba, Shimla and some parts of Uttarakhand.

Kath-Kuni is  structurally different from conventional building methods. Instead of vertical columns, it is built on horizontal beams. Through ‘criss cross’ bracings, an entire wooden structure is constructed. 

Even the joineries are made of wood. The weight of tightly packed stones provides stability to the structure while the wooden beams provide flexibility. Slate tiles are used to lay the roof, their weight presses the entire structure downwards and adds further to its stability.

At the time of an earthquake, a Kath-Kuni structure might shake, but is less likely to collapse. Winters in Himachal are harsh and unforgiving. During this time, concrete houses become extremely cold and need expensive heating arrangements.

But Kath-Kuni houses provide excellent heat insulation. Their thick double walls help to retain heat and mud plaster allows free movement of air.

Kath-Kuni structures are slowly vanishing in Himachal Pradesh. This is due to the rapid urbanisation of the Himalayan region and easy availability of cheap alternative materials like concrete. 

Rahul Bhushan, a 29-year-old  Himachali local and alumnus of CEPT is trying to bring back the glory of Kath-Kuni structures. He runs an organisation called NORTH in Naggar, a small town in the Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh.

NORTH promotes local craftsmanship and preserves the ancient building traditions of the state. Kath-Kuni structures are largely made by hand by the local residents with the help of other villagers.

An experienced artisan known as Tavu leads the construction process. These artisans have immense knowledge of Kath-Kuni construction which is passed from generation to generation. 

People at NORTH assist clients in building new structures by reusing wood and stone from abandoned Kath-Kuni houses. Most of these refurbished Kath-Kuni structures are functioning as resorts and homestays in the region.

Himachalis have almost stopped building Kath-Kuni houses today. Unavailability of materials, high cost and lack experienced mistiris are the main reasons for their decline.

But according to NORTH, the cost and time required for constructing Kath-Kuni houses can be reduced by replacing wood with other sustainable and cheap materials like bamboo and hempcrete, that are eco-friendly stones made from hemp plants.

Kath-Kuni architecture should be preserved and revived for an environmentally sustainable Himachal. 

If Kath-Kuni architecture and its artisans fade away into history, a deep knowledge of the mountains and how to live in them will also vanish.

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