The myriad mountain communities of the Hindu Kush-Himalayas range are unique in the world. The awe-inspiring rich variety of natural and cultural landscapes seems to be infinite. Every year, on an average, 35 new species are discovered in its flora and fauna and a thousand languages are spoken. Each human settlement is different, but the natural perseverance combined with their accumulated wisdom seems to have been the formula that worked for centuries for the mountain people. The rich tangible and intangible heritage of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Ladakh is simply overwhelming.
Since I changed my European professional work to focus on South Asia in 2004, I have had the fortune to work with Afghans, Indians and Nepali. Working side by side with the Hazaras and the Wakhis in an extensive collaborative team effort, we created the buildings for the first National Parks of Afghanistan (2006-10).
Five years ago, we made an exhibition called Sustainable Mountain Architecture. It was on shown in several places, including the Forest Department’s Secretariat in Gangtok, capital of Sikkim state in northeastern India bordering the Tibetan region of China. I had been curious to see vernacular architecture of the heartland of the original inhabitants of Sikkim, the Lepchas. They came over a millennium ago to settle down at the south-eastern feet of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. Everybody I talked to seemed to think there was hardly anything left of the authentic structures in Dzongu, the mythical Mayal Country that is reserved for the Lepchas.
At the end of 2018, I got an invitation to come to Sikkim for the design of a self-sustainable landscape project. Sensing an opportunity, I successfully planned, with the help of Tom Tsering Lepcha, to enter Dzongu with the required permissions needed by any foreigner. Once the bridge over the dramatic gorge of the ice-cold Teesta river was crossed, the already impressive natural setting of Sikkim intensifies - more ferns, more trees, more birds, cleaner air and more waterfalls.
The village of Upper Lightem offered the most impressive vernacular Lepcha architecture. My guide Choden Lepcha was able to identify nine meticulously crafted houses. These structures were all on massive timber stilts and between 70 and 250 years old. They all carefully follow the meandering contours of the terrain. Under the floor, a natural stone footing lifts the massive tree trunk stilts out of the moist earth. Houses typically have minimal nine of these impressive stilts. At the floor level, they interlock with beams. The stilt continues further up as a column. Stilts are organically shaped, as it is literally the base of a large tree, stripped from its bark. Some houses still have the traditional bamboo platform jutting out from the house. It always faces south as its primary function is to dry vegetables and herbs in the sun.
In the untamed natural land, thousands of feral colors of green, yellow, brown are mixed with mountain mist. These mystic white sheets continuously keep on rolling on, slowly and gently. But there is a massive development challenge looming. While the state government started a program of re-construction after the devastating 2011 earthquake, local materials, local skills and crafts, all got brushed aside. Cement bags, corrugated steel sheets and bathroom tiles for outside facades find their way into Dzongu. In a more recent initiative, 700 homestays were erected all over Sikkim. A blatant intrusions of a stunningly beautiful environment is the new hot-spring building in Lingdem. A non-designed, badly built one-storey concrete building is already in desperate need of maintenance work. Several national and international visitors were so appalled that they refused to use the famous hot-spring. This is obviously not a careful and sustainable road map for Dzongu.
The Government of Sikkim realized something needs to be done and the newly-adopted Sikkim Tourism Policy is crystal clear about this. It states in Chapter 4: Application of appropriate designs for tourism infrastructure that considers the landscape, disaster risks, local architecture and materials needs to be addressed.
An important reference for starting to think about designs that blend with nature. Government-funded buildings will be able to make greater efforts to use local building materials and skills that are still available today. I believe this would lead to truly inspiring and user-friendly interventions. After seeing the inspiring existing heritage of the vernacular Lepcha architecture, I realized a lot of work is pending and studies should be undertaken. Not for the sake of nostalgia, but to ensure we understand the accumulated wisdom of the Lepchas and combine this with contemporary creativity and innovation. If Sikkim wants to lead the rest of India towards an organic and self-sustainable future it would be logical to include the built environment.
But the climate and the times are changing. According to Indian mountain development expert, Dr. Eklabya Sharma, we need to change the present course as the mountain people, their incredible cultures and mountain-scapes are under severe strain and are in desperate need of protection and preservation.
(The author is a Dutch architect and Laureate of the Global Award of Sustainable Architecture 2012 (Paris) who has worked extensively across South Asia. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)