Turning a Corner with Kath Kuni

Often regarded as decaying relics of fleeting intrigue, Himachal Pradesh's kath kuni structures deserve exploration, documentation and reinvention.

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The wooden pagoda-style Tripura Sundari Temple, said to be constructed in the kath kuni template. Photo by: Oscar Espinosa/Shutterstock

If you’ve ever gotten lost by the quaint villages of Himachal’s Kullu District, especially the former royal capital of Naggar, chances are you’re familiar with the charming traditional wooden houses and temples that speckle the landscape. Tower-like and identifiable from their stone plinths, layered locking of stone and wood, double-skinned walls, and elaborate carvings, these historical structures, also known as Kath Kuni style, date back to 600 A.D.

When in Himachal, the best places to spot Kath Kuni architecture (kath meaning wood and kuni meaning corner) is in the Kullu district, especially in the villages of Naggar, Old Manali, Chehni Kothi and Malana. From popular draws such as the two temples dedicated to goddesses Hidimba (Manali) and Bhimakali (Sarahan), and the exquisite Naggar Castle to houses dotting villages across Malana, Chehni Kothi, and Sainj Valley, Kath Kuni influences are seen in varying degrees across the region.

In addition to being easy on the eye, these structures have stood the test of time, surviving for centuries in regions that frequently experience seismic tremors and earthquakes. The Naggar Castle, which now operates as a heritage hotel, was built by Raja Sidh Singh about five centuries ago, following this architectural style. The structure stood unharmed even after a massive earthquake in 1905.

While Kangra and Spiti abound in houses made of mud and stone, Kath Kuni houses are native to this middle Himalayan belt that includes Kullu, Manali, Chamba, Shimla and some parts of Uttarakhand, where the style is also known as Koti Banal.

Turning A Corner With Kath Kuni

A structure for a local deity (top); stylistic and functional variations shine through, in spite of an overall sense of architectural uniformity, at Sarahan’s Bhimakali Temple (bottom).

 “Growing up in the mountains, I came across several building practices in the Himalayan belt, including Kath Kuni. A house, this is essentially wooden Legos put together along with stone, plastered with sublime mud and roofed with raw, shiny slate—a sustainable ecosystem with high-level seismic design that carries the cultural values of our region. This vast empirical knowledge has been stored in every corner of this indigenous craftsmanship and passed on from one generation to the next,” says Rahul Bhushan, a local entrepreneur and alumnus of CEPT University (Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology).

 These houses are also viable for the region owing to the high availability of both deodar wood and stone. The nature of both stone and wood are such that they absorb heat in the day and keep the cold out in the night. After their introduction centuries ago, Kath Kuni architecture was widely adopted in the region since farmers could rear their cattle in the lowermost floor and the heat generated would warm the upper stories of the house. The next level of the dwelling unit is used as a granary, where food is stocked for the winters. The last few floors are designed as residential spaces that are cantilevered from the main walls of the house to capture sunlight during the day.

 

With urbanisation and newer construction materials available in the market that deliver buildings in much less time, traditional techniques have gradually lost their relevance over time. Unavailability of materials, high cost and lack of experienced labour are the other reasons adding to the steady disappearance of the style, as confirmed by Hemraj Thakur, a Kath Kuni architect.

 “Kath Kuni is indigenous to the area. They aren’t merely houses or buildings—they are art. These houses are best for the region. But people are now interested in making concrete houses. A Kath Kuni house takes at least a year to build. The labour cost is high and material availability is less. As a result, people are going for automatic machines, which make houses within months,” says Thakur.

 Rahul runs an organisation in Naggar called NORTH, which promotes local craftsmanship and preserves the ancient building traditions of the state. 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 such as bamboo and hempcrete.

Turning A Corner With Kath Kuni

Manali’s Hidimba Temple.

With travellers seeking out meaningful, immersive experiences, trails and staycations around this architectural gem are slowly coming up. Rahul adds, “Tourism is the major stakeholder in the state’s economy and if tourists witness this architecture, they will get an authentic experience and the art will also be revived. Coming to Himachal and living in the concrete houses will give the exact same feel as any metro city. Tourists should come and stay in these houses for an out-of-the-world experience.”

The organisation has revived traditional-style houses across Naggar, particularly in the villages Chachogi, Jana and Rumsu, and turned them into homestays. “The areas are unexplored and living with the families of Himachal in a Kath Kuni house will be an experience in itself. Kath Kuni is not only a house, it is an experience altogether,” Rahul says.

 

This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India January-February 2022.

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

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