Cradled in the arms of the Himalayas, Chhitkul, the last habitable village on the Indo-Chinese border, lies in the Baspa valley of the Kinnaur district. Home to not more than 200 families, this small village manages to hold its ground and present some beautiful pieces of its rich vernacular architecture, despite having suffered the wrath of tourism. With the Himalayas rocking its cradle and the Baspa river singing it a lullaby, the village of Chitkul rests comfortably in its wooden houses, lush fields and its people. Where culture and community surpass all, the village is far to be defined by rural or urban. It is characterised by its people and the way the hamlet presents itself. Placed right in the heart of the Himalayas, it faces heavy snow for six months, every year. The weather conditions are so extreme that one is not able to get out of their houses or even farm, leading to them producing a surplus in their working months, for their time of pause. Despite their hardships and intrusions, the village of Chitkul is a must village, not just for those who want to be nestled by untouched nature, but even the architects who are interested in modular timber construction techniques.
The village started with the construction of the temple of their deity, Mathi Devi, built by the ten people basing themselves around it. This temple acted as a catalyst and led to multiple houses being built around it, sporadically. Hence, the planning of the village is exceptionally organic, with farms and houses popping wherever needed, with central chowks marking the meeting points. Despite the lack of defined streets and calculated lanes between places, the planning is very efficient, tending to the cattle-herding hours, morning rush, tourism etc. all together.
Home to the vernacular style of architecture, Kathkuni, a multitude of styles and techniques under this style can be observed in the village. In this technique, the houses are typically made of timber, with sharp and clean joinery. Housing cattle at the lower floor, the people build their residence right above this animal shelter. This is a technique to radiate heat from the lower to the upper floors, posing as a coping mechanism against the chilling climate of the village. Separate granaries are made for storing grains, wood and other materials.
Kathkuni style is an extremely engaging style of architecture as it relies, entirely, on its joinery and seldom indulges in binding materials like mortar. Furthermore, the edifices built using this technique are incredibly modular! They can be dismantled, changed, removed or even extended with extreme ease, owing to the slick joinery of the system. The usage of wood gives it an insulating effect while the style of architecture gives it the much-required flexibility. The roof is made out of timber piers and slate, for increased insulation. Instead of being typical, flat roofs, these are sloped roofs with a curve in the middle, to protect the structures against the snow. The authenticity of this
The style of architecture is what gives this village its charisma.
While the houses, the scenery and the overall planning of the village offer a wholesome experience together, the most awe-inspiring part of the village is its temple, the Mathi Devi temple. An exceptional showcase of the Kathkuni style of architecture, it shows exquisite woodwork. It is home to some of the most intricate and refined detailing, all of it depicting beautiful stories. What excites the most about this temple is its planning. The temple, having been divided into three parts, exudes an extraordinarily open and comfortable vibe, even for tourists. The free space of the temple is for the annual procession, one of the biggest and most important festivities of the village and can house the entire village at once. The temple is built with a plinth that is high enough to depict control and power, while still being accessible and at a comfortable eye level. Apart from the detailing, there are various, intricate installations and sculptures, built out of wood. These depict, both, the Hindu and Tibetan cultures; expressing the combined beliefs of the village.
With a culture so rich and architecture this different, it seems like the climate is the only hurdle for this village, one that it seems to have grown accustomed to. But things are not as simple for this village anymore. The booming tourism in India has found its way to this peaceful village, managing to leave a vast, black bolt on its life. The increasing need to house people, build hotels and construct homestays- topped with a cap on the availability of timber- has led to the adoption of R.C.C. as the main construction element. While the houses still follow the vernacular architecture, the concrete walls and tin roofs are slowly making their way through the residential part of the village as well. Not only is this hampering the values and the originality of the village, but it is also taking away the insulating power, and the planning techniques of the architecture of this village. The small hamlet of Chitkul has a lot to offer, especially for budding architects. But more importantly, currently, it needs their help more than their intrigue.