In the haste to develop rapidly, one thing that is taken for granted and invariably neglected was climate and environment. Nature’s gifts to humankind slowly started to deplete, and the result was climate change, global warming, and other natural calamities. As a chain reaction, the need for artificial cooling and heating is increasing each day. 

To break this cycle, the need of the hour is to find a viable solution that causes minimum damage to the environment. With millions of years of experience and knowledge at our disposal, the smartest course of action is to look at the past and analyse the efficiency of the ancient ideas, apply them to current needs. 

“Every district has its own traditions and, by trial and error, over thousands of years, people have learned how to use, and to cope with, all the many factors which are involved in Architecture.”- Laurie Baker

Construction of buildings has been happening hundreds of years before the fan was invented, and these buildings function very well even today. Vernacular buildings are good examples of climate-responsive, energy-efficient, and cost-effective architecture that reflects cultural and ethnic values. 

The materials used are locally available and help in regulating all the mentioned factors. Using these materials is the answer to our problems there is reluctance, and people are unsure about it. 

Here are 10 such Vernacular finishes that could aesthetically as well as functionally enhance our buildings but are fast vanishing:

1. Mud plaster

Mud is one of the most versatile and abundantly available natural materials. The use of mud plaster has been a common practice across the country. The plasticity, versatility, ecological, and sublime aesthetic properties are the reasons for the widespread usage during ancient times. 

Using mud plaster resulted in healthy, natural, and breathable surfaces, regulating and responding to the climate. The natural colour of the mud varies from place to place, giving each building a unique finish. The mud plaster had clay, sand, silt, and admixtures. Natural admixtures like jaggery, fenugreek, plant colours, starch from crops, etc., and animal additives such as animal hair, cow dung, etc. enhanced strength, durability, water resistance, and termite/insect resistant. 

Various admixtures like rice husk tree gums helped to reduce cracks and decrease dusting in plastered wall surfaces. Natural pigments aided in achieving the desired aesthetic. The walls were finished with neem or linseed oil to give it a smooth, glossy, watertight finish. Multiple mud plaster variants evolved in our country based on the locally available admixtures and culture. The warli houses in Maharashtra had traditional warli art painted on the mud-plastered wall, whereas in Kerala, the walls did not have adornments on the surface. 

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A traditional Warli house in Maharashtra. ©
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The traditional Ikra house of Assam has a bamboo framed structure and mud mixed with cow dung plastered over it. ©
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The traditional Kerala house had a simple mud plaster. ©

2. Lime plaster

Lime plaster was another popular wall plaster, especially in the Northern and North-eastern portions of the country. The main ingredients were: lime that functioned as a binder, Surkhi/burnt mud aggregate, natural and animal additives similar to mud plasters. The main advantage of using surkhi as an aggregate was it helped in the setting of the lime and made the surface highly water-resistant. 

Areas that received high rainfalls and flood-prone zones had buildings with lime plaster. Sometimes lime and mud were mixed together to achieve the combined qualities of both. 

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The queen’s bath at Hampi has a lime plaster. ©
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The Lotus Mahal, Hampi has dolomitic lime used in plaster work. ©
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Charminarat Hyderabad is extensively finished with lime plaster. ©

3. Lohi and Araish Plaster

Lohi and Araish plaster are traditional plasters used in Rajasthan that have lime as a binder. Thappi is the tool used to beat the surface in this plastering technique. Even though both the finishes are lime plasters, the method of application is unique, resulting in different aesthetic looks. The lime finish is very versatile and was used on walls, ceiling, and floor surfaces. The finish is smooth, reflective, giving a similar finish as the Moroccon native Tadelakt technique. 

After application of the base layer of lime plaster, thappi is used to beat and tap the surface repeatedly until a ringing sound is heard. Lohi is a simple finish, fast and easy to achieve, that has only lime and surkhi. Araish is an intricate technique that involves the addition of various admixtures. The admixtures used ranged from curd, milk, marble dust, etc. that were mixed and matured overtime to get the desired finish. 

Both Lohi and Araish was a work of art and was both labour and time-intensive. Multiple coats applied on the surface helps in making it watertight and durable in kitchen and bathroom areas.

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Lohi finishes in an ancient Rajasthan bathroom. ©
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Though expensive and labour intensive, the Araish finish has an artistic touch. ©

4. Chettinad Egg wash/Egg plaster

Chettinad egg plaster is also a lime-based plaster that has stone lime as the binder. Admixtures include whitestone powder, seashells, and conch powder as aggregate to enhance strength, and special ingredient egg white or Vajjaram gives a smooth, shiny, and reflective finish similar to glazed surfaces. 

Sometimes curd made from cow’s milk is added to the dry mix. The walls are finished by repeatedly rubbing stone on the surface until a soft mirror-like finish is acquired. The six-layer plaster gives a colder indoor environment and has a calming effect on people.

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All the traditional Chettinad houses had egg plaster walls.
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The glossy reflective walls coupled with the shiny flooring gave the spaces a regal look. ©
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The egg plastered wall has a glossy paint look thus cutting down the need for painting. ©

5. Lipan Kaam of Bhunga houses

Bhunga is the vernacular style of the Kutch region of Gujarat. The circular disaster-resistant houses in the salt desert region were designed with lime plastered walls and floors. The external mud-plastered walls were adorned with local art and painting, and the interior walls were artfully decorated with beautiful mirror work on mud plaster known as ‘Lipan Kaam’. 

The traditional mural craft of Kutch uses a mixture of camel dung or Bajri husk and sieved mud as the base plaster or Lipan. The motifs created in a bas-relief involve rolling Lipan with bare hands into cylinders and pasting it on the moist surface. Since the art form was initially inspired by the famous Kutch embroideries, the motifs have mirrors or ‘aabhla’ placed similarly. After the motif dries, white clay plaster made from indigenous clay was painted to finish the surface.

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A wall adorned with Lipan Kaam. ©
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Furniture was also adorned using this finish in the ancient days.
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Process of Lipan Kaam.©

6. Mud and cow dung plasters and floor finish

Cow dung has traditional importance and is relevant scientifically as its aroma has anti-depression properties and is known as a ‘happy drug.’ Cow dung is an incredible binder with fibrous particles that help in achieving a smooth finish. The insulating properties, coupled with the anti-shrinkage property of the natural material, was the reason for it being sought after during the olden times. 

The anti-germs, insecticide, and sealing properties were important for areas that had heavy rainfall. The plaster or floor finish uses cow dung and mud as binding material, and natural admixtures such as rice husk and milk or cow urine, are mixed to obtain strength. The technique was used across the country with variations based on local materials available and cultural aspects. 

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Cow dung layer applied to floors. ©
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Image showing a traditional house in Rajasthan finished with mud and cow dung plaster. ©

7. Chettinad attangudi tiles

Chettinad architecture is a very vibrant style that has intricate and exquisite details. The rich and innovative material selection acts as a source of knowledge and cultural identity today. The attangudi tile is a handmade cement tile similar to a mosaic, initially made by the indigenous people in the Attangudi village in the Chettinad region.  

The floral and geometric patterns painted a picture of grandeur and traditional values during that time. Locally sand and clay ground together was mixed with cement and water to form the base material. Natural, cement-based colours were prepared for the tiles by the masons. The 500 years old tile making process produces a glossy tile that is durable and easy to maintain. These beautiful tiles have proved over time that they retain their colour even after hundreds of years.

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The vibrant colours and patterns add an artistic touch to the traditional Chettinad house. ©
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Various designs and patterns of Attangudi tiles. ©
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Attangudi tiles finished with cement. ©

8. Oxide Flooring

One of the most common and indigenous floor-finishes in the South Indian region is oxide flooring. Generally referred to as red oxide flooring due to the red pigment, it is durable, cost-efficient, and easily maintained. This eco-friendly floor finish has been diminishing in usage through the years due to the extensive popularity of vitrified tiles. 

The cement floor can be customised to any colour by the addition of natural oxide colours. Since it requires skilled labour and is an intensive process, people started to ignore the material that made the spaces cooler and had a simple and elegant aesthetic. The shiny, tactile flooring can be customised into a design pattern to accentuate the space.

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Red oxide flooring bordered by black oxide. ©
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Patterned oxide flooring. ©
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Mason laying coloured oxide flooring. ©

9. Tiles of Palitana

Palitana, in Gujarat, is the most frequented pilgrimage location for the Jain community, and the temples have an indigenous type of marble tile that goes by the name of Palitana tiles. The smooth, shiny, tactile flooring, made with various geometric designs and patterns. 

The floral motif design gives a nostalgic feeling to the viewer. The vibrantly coloured tile has intricate details, attention to small elements carved out of the surface.  

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Floor pattern of Palitana tiles in a temple.©
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The tiles have a patterned as well as tactile finish. ©
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Palitana tile pattern. ©

10. Glazed tiles

Glazed tiles were used for ornamentation extensively during the Delhi sultanate period. Glazing has been part of the Islamic architectural style since the 11th century AD. Though the tile glazing technique was originally from Persia, glazing wasn’t a new concept in India. The exquisite tile was famous not just in the Mughal dominated cities but also in Rajput kingdoms like Jaipur and Jodhpur. 

The art of glazing got a lot of attention and spread rapidly during the Mughal era. But the fame of it diminished drastically during colonial rule. Colourful, geometrical, and floral patterned tiles accentuated the spaces. Two distinct types of glazed tile techniques are prevalent in India: square-style and tessellated.

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Glazed tile used in borders. ©
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Floral motif patterns of glazed tiles. ©
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Ceramic tile used for ornamentation in Shah Abdul Bhittai’s dargah, Bhit Shah. ©

Laurie Baker profoundly said: “I don’t think I have ever been inspired by what other architects have done but more by what ordinary craftsmen have created.” 

Truer words have never been spoken. We have a very long and profound history we can look up to for guidance. Buildings in the olden days were able to combat challenging climatic conditions without the aid of modern-day machines, so current needs can also be satisfied if the grass-root level techniques are applied correctly. 

Material selection constitutes a crucial part of the design process. Usage of indigenous materials adds an intangible value and sense of belonging to the building and ensures a lesser carbon footprint.



Srinidhi Sriraman is a climate responsive architect who believes in giving back to the environment. A travel enthusiast who strongly believes “what is life worth if there are no stories to tell.” She took to writing to share, learn and also grow in the process.

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