Houses to show off and not to live in – this sums up the essence of ‘modern’ Kashmiri architecture. Houses for others, for puffing up our social egos, are against divine logic and invite disasters. It is inconceivable to claim nationhood, a regional identity, a religion, a culture and forget indigenous architecture. What constitutes traditional architecture, Islamic architecture, Kashmiri architecture is almost unknown to modern Kashmiris. And we build houses and other buildings – the State builds – in total ignorance of time-honoured cultural and technical considerations.
If for no other sin, we deserved drowning for this sin of ignoring or rejecting Divine Principles that architecture needs to embody. It is a moment to wake up, to hold collective repentance, and turn to timeless wisdom in designing our living space, our houses, our government establishments. The spiritual, psychological and health costs of the architecture we employ today are enormous and we are too callous even to notice them. And we keep suffering for these sins of cultural murder of which we are collectively guilty.
Traditionally houses are built not just to shield us from cold and heat, or to provide us rest, but to glorify God or serve the needs of the spirit as well. They are ideally moulded on the patterns revealed to prophets and saints and designers capable of contemplating essences or archetypes. Beauty is there to transport us to heaven, to create an ambience that helps us contemplate God. Traditionally, a house is a replica of the heavenly model that is also embodied in mosques or temples. It is built with a cosmology in mind that reflects Divine Principles. There are traditional sciences that help determine its best design or construction at almost every point. A house houses souls that need heavenly manna for right orientation and fulfillment and that is why beauty and art objects are important in this regard.
In Islamic culture, houses ideally had a free space inside them as is the case in certain mosques like the historical Jamia Masjid of Srinagar. It was in this space that privacy was enjoyed by women and not through the current trend of large walls between houses that only help to divide neighours and complicate flood situations and suffocate minds and souls. Privacy as a value has almost been forgotten in an age of mass media and market. Traditionally, all houses are in a way houses of God as well. Isn’t prayer offered in houses? Aren’t they required to keep in consideration the qibla? Aren’t they used to conduct all kinds of religious ceremonies?
Traditionally, houses are designed for comfort and in keeping with climatic conditions. In Kashmir flood resistant houses were in vogue till recently. From the design of braer keni to the use of elastic wood-crosses in walls, and thick walls, and a number of measures including medium or low height as compared to the current large-heighted rooms or walls, all helped fight extreme weather, resist certain disasters better, and reduce costs. We also used to have mostly indigenous materials for houses. It meant local employment was taken care of. Today hardly anything used in house construction is indigenous.
The shift to concrete houses comes at huge costs in comfort and environment, and in many cases, in the ability to resist earthquakes. From labour to craftsmenship to roof material we were almost independent of outside resources. And older the houses we today see, the more beautiful they are. We have a great number of refined craftsmen who would pour their soul into decorating them. And in fact, from the design of traditional carpets to wood carving we could decipher underlying metaphysics that has descended from the Heaven. Nothing was arbitrary, nothing unconnected to deeper principles of traditional or religious architectural principles.
As floods have exposed our posh colony-wisdom that promotes big concrete houses, using costly paneling in all rooms, advertizing one’s wealth or status through houses rather than keeping simplicity, comfort and symbolism in view, houses that hardly use anything local in them, houses that seem to be designed to honour the devil rather than God, houses that take almost a life-time to build and “decorate” with all kinds of vanities and that are so ill equipped to fight not only occasional disasters but also routine cold and heat despite huge investment, houses that beggars and friends or relatives find impenetrable not only because of huge walls and iron gates but also because so few people now live in them (nuclearization and abandoning parents to their fate), I suggest we muster the will to design new colonies or reconstruct damaged houses keeping traditional religious symbolism and principles in mind in addition to local climatic conditions.
Houses built in defiance of the Divine Order are without foundations and cursed, and perhaps invite disasters.