As the winter sets in, people in Kashmir spend longer hours indoors. Electric and gas heaters flood the market and more than one lakh quintals of wood is burnt for heating in mosques alone. Still, as the older generation of Kashmiris likes to point out, the Valley is not as cold as it used to be. How did they keep warm without heaters in the olden days?

The answer may lie in the traditional architecture of Kashmiri homes. The more affluent had hamams, stone-floored rooms with hollow bases that are heated by burning wood underneath. For the rest, the design and build of the houses helped with insulation.

Traditional Kashmiri houses faced south to absorb the maximum sunlight. They usually had a single entrance and rows of windows. The wooden window frames bore small glass panes and the thick brick walls were plastered with clay and straw on the inside, so the cold did not seep in. But as the Valley’s taste in architecture changed, homes became colder.

Cold modernity

In a 1992 paper on Kashmir’s architecture, the architectural historian Randolph Langenbach writes that “many people commented that in winter the newer houses were much colder even than those mud houses which lacked the hamam”.

In the 1970s, Kashmir adopted new construction material in an unplanned bid to modernise, at the expense of its vernacular architecture. Growing prosperity and exposure to metropolitan cities outside led to Kashmiris demanding marble-floored open lobbies and large windows, the architect Tariq Fazili explained. “It became fashionable to ignore insulation and comfort from the earlier concept of houses,” he said. In his over three decades as an architect, Fazili said, he has seen people in Kashmir spending huge sums of money on construction, but giving little thought to insulation.

A similar shift from vernacular architecture to concrete and glass has taken place in North Indian hill stations, particularly in Himachal Pradesh, where towns have expanded rapidly over the past few decades to cater to burgeoning tourist populations.

In Kashmir, where summers are brief and the summer-winter temperature difference is of about 35 degrees, the change in architectural style was deeply felt in the loss of insulation. Over time, simple tricks evolved to beat the cold: warm cloth flooring, sheets of plastic to seal windows and woolen blankets for curtains on doors and windows. All these, however, do not cut much ice in the middle of winter.

According to a study titled “Financial evaluation of different space heating options used in the Kashmir valley”, published in the International Journal of Ambient Energy, new buildings are not designed to meet heating requirements. The study found that modern houses in the Valley had “poor insulation levels and loose-fitting doors and windows, thereby contributing to huge heat losses”, in turn adding to the long-term costs of heating during the harsh winters.

The study found that, for a typical household, the kanger was the cheapest option. Kanger, an earthen pot with a wicker frame that is laden with coal and often carried under the traditional loose-fitting pheran, is used to keep an individual warm. For an average six-member household, they together cost Rs 7,536 annually. Electric heaters, which are more suitable for space heating, cost Rs 22,091.

Beating the cold

Modern construction methods using cement and steel, Fazili said, were a step in the right direction as they provided structural stability in a region prone to earthquakes.

But it is crucial to pay attention to insulation, he said, not least for reducing energy costs of heating. Generally, Fazili said, traditional wisdom should be combined with modern architecture to make houses warmer.

For one, the direction of a house is a natural heat regulator. “One must block the north [from where cold winds blow], and have windows to the south for maximum sunlight and heat,” he explained. But such is the lack of awareness about this, he noted, that many houses have “living rooms and active areas to the north while the south is blocked by bathrooms or store rooms”.

It is also ideal to limit the number of glass window panes that open and to use newer materials, such as unplasticised polyvinyl frames for large windows, he said. “And why use cement for plastering the interiors?Go for mud plastering or woodwork. Employing these insulation methods would reduce heating requirement by 80%.”

Warm traditions

Saleem Beg, convener of the Kashmir chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, said contemporary architecture in Kashmir imitates designs suitable for the warmer plains of North India, with the use of “unsuitable materials” in state buildings setting a poor example. It is thus imperative, he argued, that the government take the lead in popularising alternative ideas and techniques.

Beg lamented that even older structures have been modified. Referring to the reconstruction of the Chrar-i-Shareif shrine in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district, he said “inappropriate interventions” have introduced “perennial infirmities” to the structure. The shrine used to be cool in summers and warm in winters. “The new Chrar-e-Sharif is warm in summer and cold in winter,” he said. “Old wooden windows and mud plastering have been replaced with large glass windows on concrete.”

Kashmir’s vernacular architecture, Beg said, wasn’t merely about the scale of the structure. Buildings were moulded to suit the lifestyle. Take the daeb, the wooden balcony that jutted out from the front of traditional houses. They increased the area of the rooms, allowed for more light and air to flow in during summers and acted as an excellent decorative element.

A seven-storey house in South Kashmir’s Anantnag built in the 1930s, Beg said, has survived five earthquakes and two floods. Still structurally sound, the house was built to the requirement of its original owner, a businessman. It acted as a store, a guesthouse and the owner’s residence. “Every inch was utilised back then,” Beg said.

Bemoaning the loss of the Valley’s traditional architecture, Langenbach notes that modernisation came to Kashmir “from the wrong end first”. “Kashmir could have a lot to teach the world about life in balance with nature, but first it must rediscover the value of its own traditions,” he writes. “The place to begin is to rediscover the advantages of the timber and mud houses – not in order to return to the past but to bring this technology into the future as an essential step in the effort to return intrinsic wealth to the people in the form of affordability, comfort, family closeness, and social compatibility.”