The design of heritage hotels tends to walk the tightrope between fidelity to tradition and modern demands. Ri Kynjai, (literally, ‘land of serenity’ in Khasi) is a boutique resort built on a ridge overlooking the Lake Umiam, 20 km from Shillong, a two-hour drive from Guwahati. Designed by Prabhat Dey Sawyan, its owner and an architect, Ri Kynjai is a tribute to the evocative beauty and climatic good sense of the traditional Khasi thatch roof, which resembles an upturned boat, as well as to the monumentality of the lake it faces. For Sawyan, who graduated from New Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture in 1975, the resort became a vehicle for an old passion—updating Khasi architecture with new materials, to give it a special place in the contemporary context.
The entrance exemplifies Sawyan’s creative deference to the spectacular landscape, particularly the large lake centre stage. The resort is invisible from the narrow rural road, and as you go up through the gate onto the ridge, the striking roofscape emerges into view only once you are well into the property. A short walk to the entrance door through a thatch-roofed passage, and you enter a space that falls dramatically down a storey to the reception below. Straight ahead beyond a “floating” lounge is the breathtaking Lake Umiam. It is not for nothing that they call it Barapani—big water. The rooms, too, celebrate the lake. The 1,000 sq. ft cottages are a connected row of suites held aloft by the columns in the stilted “gap” floor
Each one is an elegant, double height space (including a double bed and sitting space) with a mezzanine sleeping area above the bathroom. The indoor space opens out to a spacious wood-lined veranda overlooking the lake. After building one cottage in the traditional way, Sawyan chose to translate the Khasi roof form from its bamboo and grass construction into a metallic avatar for the rest of the villas and rooms.
The old-style roof, though appropriate for the rain in earlier times and also attractive today, comes with durability and maintenance concerns that are significant in a high-end resort. Sawyan cleverly deployed another tradition to make the transition to a permanent construction. He used a galvanized iron sheet roof, a staple of colonial architecture in hill stations such as Shillong, as the base upon which the metallic thatch (another intriguing and inspired innovation that has been submitted for patenting) was fixed.
The identity of the resort hinges on this innovative roof system—repeated for each cottage—creating a unique roofscape
The judicious use of local natural materials, especially on interior surfaces, clinches the composite ambience—rustic Khasi meets colonial meets international—of the resort. “The wood and stone you see inside is what you see outside,” says Sawyan, referring to the enveloping warmth of the wooden floors and underside of roofs, as well as the generous spread of local stone in the flooring and on the walls.
A large number of accessories, too, improvise on materials such as tree branches for lounge tables and light stands, bamboo mats and weaves (for upholstery) from the vibrant north-eastern textile traditions add a touch of sophistication and richness .
Typically, Sawyan is not above cladding masonry walls with bamboo panelling or even mimicking the wooden framework of the colonial “Assam type house” in cement plaster and colour. This is a resort, after all. And purism is not what it used to be. The subterfuge succeeds, mainly because there is a genuinely original vigour to the show.
Much of the 40,000 sq. ft building is invisibly tucked into the hillside facing the lake. “Ri Kynjai is primarily a balcony to look out from, not a building to be looked at,” says Sawyan.
Unfolding downwards, the resort is an experience in falling spaces. Its mildly vertiginous nature is apt for a hillside setting. The lake is everywhere. A bare “gap” floor at the road level allows visitors to see the lake through the building, as the rooms hover above. The lounge and restaurant, as well as the spa, open in different ways to the expanse of the water. The spa offers traditional Khasi systems of massage and herbal therapy, and opens into a veranda facing the lake through some vegetation.
Ri Kynjai, which won the Intach-Satte award (a joint venture between Intach and Satte (South-east Asian Trade Exposition) in 2007 for heritage tourism in South Asia, enacts a razor’s edge negotiation between sentiment and sense, scenography and reality. Its planning, material and construction choices, and its relationship with the environment, are all about these negotiations.
GAMBLING WITH DESIGN
Sawyan’s approach was always fraught with design danger, especially once he decided to translate the Khasi thatch roof (made of grass) into what he calls “metallic thatch”. Imitation of a form in a different material is usually the surest way to design disaster. And sentimentality often produces architecture that is unconvincing because it is disconnected from contemporary challenges and possibilities. Ri Kynjai’s design is built on a sentimental attachment to a traditional roof form. Yet, a pragmatic decision led to its refreshing lightness, as well as rooting it in reality.
Total built-up area: 40,000 sq. ft
Facilities: Rooms: 11 rooms and three cottages
Spa: Offers traditional Khasi massages and herbal therapy
Dining: Sao Aiom (four seasons) restaurant
Best season: April-May and October-December
Tariff: Room: Rs5,000; cottage: Rs8,000. Includes breakfast. Taxes extra
Packages: Rs8,000 (rooms) and Rs12,000(cottages) for two nights/three days; Rs22,000 (rooms) and Rs33,000 (cottages) for seven nights/eight days
Contact: Umniuh Khwan U.C.C Road Ri Bhoi, Meghalaya. Tel: 9862420300/20301; firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com