Uttarakhand Stories

Koti Banal architecture: How ingenuity of our ancestors conquered earthquakes

by Abhay Aswal
Jun 29, 2017

‘There is no new knowledge, all is ancient and infinite’

– Louise Hay

Knowledge can neither be created nor destroyed – it can only be lost and found. That seems to be the case in the Rajgarhi area of Uttarkashi district in Uttarakhand where centuries-old unique architectures have amazed researchers from country and abroad. Known as Koti Banal in local parlance, large number of these multi-storied traditional houses exhibit antiquity and distinct construction style. From the detailing and technique used in construction, one can easily infer that our ancestors –  who designed these structures some 900 years ago – had fairly good understanding of the forces acting upon the structure during an earthquake event; well before the evolution of the concept of force by Sir Isaac Newton (1643 –1727)!

The striking feature about these houses is their remarkable capability to resist earthquakes. While the science of seismology is still in infancy at present, just the thought of our ancestors possessing this knowledge and developing an architectural technique to resist earthquakes as early as 1100 AD – is mind boggling.

Entire Himalayan terrain is recognized as being highly vulnerable to earthquakes with entire Uttarakhand is categorized as falling in Zone IV and V of the Earthquake Risk Map of India. The region has witnessed some of the catastrophic earthquake in the past. Kumaon Earthquake of 1720 and Garhwal Earthquake of 1803 are termed as two of the Great Earthquakes (magnitude > 8 on Richter scale) that jolted the region. Investigations suggest that the Rajgarhi region had evolved a distinct, elaborate and magnificent earthquake safe construction style as early as 1,000 years before present. While other architectures collapsed and turned to rubble, these Koti Banal structures remained intact.

What makes Koti Banal structures earthquake-resistant?

Our ancestors, having lived so close to the nature, observed the earthquakes and realized ways to minimize the destruction caused. The resultant architectural style exhibits existence of elaborate procedure for site selection, preparing the platform for raising the multi-storied structure, as also for the detailing of the entire structure that was constructed on principles somewhat akin to that of framed structures of modern times.

The ingenuity of our ancestors lies in the fact that they used wood to create the frame of the structures. As a structural material, wood offers distinct advantage in earthquake performance over other materials – it is strong yet lightweight, and flexible enough to absorb the power of earthquake. While the Koti Banal structures are utilitarian than being spacious or comfortable according to today’s standards, still the far-sighted approach used it its construction only adds to our admiration for our ancestors.

The significant features of Koti Banal architecture are –

  • Simple rectangular plan,
  • Use of horizontal wooden beams
  • Low roof height
  • Shear walls
  • Small openings
  • Projected balcony on the upper stories (yes, they had balconies!)
  • Solid raised platform at the base

Stood for 900 years, will it finally fall due to negligence?

While these uniquely constructed structures have gained the attention of archaeologists, seismologists and mechanical engineers for their remarkable ingenuity, the neglect from the people and administration have led to the wear and tear of these architectural marvels. Few remaining Koti Banal structures are observed to be deteriorating due to the lack of patronage, resources and awareness among the masses regarding their significance.

The government should take responsibility for the preservation of these architectural marvels that are an integral part of our heritage. The preservation efforts would not only provide the coming generations with an opportunity to have a glimpse of the magnificent architectural tradition of the region but also offer chance to researchers to study this majestic architectural tradition of Uttarakhand.

The pretentious charm of city-lifestyle

As the wave of modernity sweeps over Uttarakhand, the cement-based construction is gaining popularity even though it is not suited to the climatic conditions of the region. More and more people are trying to emulate the pretentious city lifestyle – in the hills. The method of constructing houses and buildings which is used in plains (rest of India) may not work well in hill regions of Uttarakhand due to the vast dissimilarity in the topography. Lying in earthquake-prone zone, the region has already witnessed some of the catastrophic earthquake in the past.

The government should take the initiative for the revival of this architectural style. For example, if the government are planning to have a hospital (or clinic or dispensary) built somewhere in the hills, instead of building a generic cemented structure, why not build it using Koti Banal technique? Not only it will revive the technique that is near extinction, but will also provide employment and patronage for those contractors who are skilled in Koti Banal structures. Same approach could be used for government buildings and monuments.

Using the ancient technique with modern technology is the way forward, in my opinion. We should replicate our ancient structures and techniques with modern technology so that our identity as Uttarakhand remains intact and is not lost in the copy-paste approach.

Abhay Aswal

A cartoonist who enjoys doodling. Enjoys writing, movies and art. And football. And sarcasm. And travelling.

4 Responses

Ganga Says

Amazing article.. continue writing about the rich heritage of r country which is hidden or I can say that they r becoming endamic due to r negligence n the so called transformation in to Western world.

thomaselam Says

Incredible! I have to return to Uttarakhand and really look at these old buildings!

Abhay Aswal Says

They must have. The fact that the structures themselves have stood for a millennium testifies your statement.

rajendra Says

this kind of architecture used in Rawin ,Jonsar & Gangotri region have saved many life in earthquake