There are 16 tribes in Nagaland, each with different architectural traditions. Each has responded efficiently to climatic challenges, dovetailed with cultural needs and providing a nurturing matrix for ordinary life. That each produced uniquely beautiful buildings is not a bonus but a natural outcome.
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As a result of intense missionary activity in the 19th century, at least 90% of Nagaland’s population is Christian, and traditional belief systems are weak. Galvanized iron (wrongly called ‘tin’) roofs, another mark of modernity, cover Kohima’s many hills like a quilt. Yet traditional architectural skills haven’t died out completely.
Origins and influences
Like all traditional architecture, the Naga way of building has evolved over centuries through trial and error. Out of necessity, it engages with the local environment directly. Local forest and earth provide a large part of building materials. And houses are shaped to offer resistance to the cold and rain. The lightweight architecture that results fits well in the earthquake-prone north-eastern region (the sixth most seismically active zone in the world, it is categorized in India as Zone V, the same as Bhuj, Gujarat). The bamboo and thatch can be framed and braced well to resist earthquakes and reduce damage.
Photographs copyright Aditya Arya, first published in The Land of the Nagas (Mapin 2004)
The tribal houses are built predominantly of wood, bamboo and thatch. These materials are bad conductors of heat, and are therefore good insulators that help keep the interiors warm. The houses have a low surface area per unit volume. This ensures internal heat is not lost too quickly.
In addition, the cooking fire is placed centrally enough to become the heat source around which the family spends time on cold evenings. A bamboo grid holds meats over it for smoking, as well as cooking and other implements.
Vernacular architecture is thus closely tied to culturally specific values. The different tribes occupy different parts of Nagaland, also spreading into Assam and the northern part of Myanmar. Though the broad climatic conditions may be similar across tribal territories, each tribe has a distinctly different tradition of forms.
A good part of this difference could be explained by differences in the attitude of each tribe and its social structure. For instance, though life is organized communally in each tribe, there are differences in the intensity of hierarchical organization. Hence the Konyak—who have a much stronger hierarchical social structure—also have larger houses than the Sema.
The sloping roofs in thick layers of thatch, elegantly secured at the ridge with a decorative weave of bamboo and grass, unique to each tribe, wash away the rain quickly.
The roofs are very low at the eaves, so the rain never hits the low brick or mud walls, or the bamboo-mat panels above them that form the walls. Since there are no windows traditionally, the houses of the Konyak tribe, for instance, often have a small rear veranda and a raised platform called the machang, from which one can enjoy the outdoors during the rain.
House entrances are usually pushed deeper in from the roof to prevent the rain from coming in. Sometimes, a separate low roof peeps out of the shadow of the main roof to protect the entrance, as in the houses of the Sema. In the case of other tribes, the gable (or sloping edge) is often angled out so that a veranda comes about without any additional roof at the gable end. This yields the typically projecting roof profile of Naga architecture, which resembles the tribal architecture of South-East Asia. Different Naga tribes have developed this projecting profile in their own ways. Some project just the ridge piece while others create a stepped profile along the gable end, up to the free end of the projecting ridge beam.
Naga tribes were once known for their warlike temperament. Headhunting (of animals and people of other tribes) was a highly regarded occasional activity. For ease of defence, then, most tribal settlements are located either along ridges of hills or on eminences. Houses are known to have been so close that their projecting roofs almost covered the street running between them. This kind of covering—for a more comfortable environment—is a common feature in much vernacular architecture.
Photograph: Himanshu Burte
A planet-friendly tradition
Naga architecture, like many other vernacular traditions, is inherently more sustainable than much of contemporary architecture that needs a technological fix to become sustainable. It uses small amounts of energy since most of its materials are produced by the energy of the sun. Since they are locally found, non-renewable fuels are not spent on transporting them from source to site. Construction is manual (and communal), so no electricity is involved in building. Naga architecture forces us to consider which is the more progressive culture of building: the planet-consuming current culture of concrete and glass or the so-called primitive culture of building with bamboo and thatch that handed a healthy planet to the generations that came after.
In the first week of December every year, the government-sponsored Hornbill festival is staged at the Naga Heritage Village, Kisama (12km from Kohima, Nagaland’s capital). The event showcases typical Naga houses from the different tribes. The tribes also perform traditional dances and rituals next to their ‘homes’. There is Naga food, a crafts market with exquisite textiles and wood artefacts, and traditional performances in the large amphitheatre. For more information, visit www.hornbillfestival.com. Himanshu Burte
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