Vernacular architecture can best be defined as indigenous architecture of a people or locale, based on social and environmental needs and preferences, and made from locally available building material with available skills. It would include not only individual structures but collective areas like the pols of Ahmedabad and other areas of Gujarat or the mohallas of cities of northern India – complete facilities for the inhabitants, which could be group or caste specific. The concentric temple towns of the south are other such clusters. Within a repetitive format of a community template though, there was sufficient room for individual expression.

Environmental extremes in India also necessitate diverse vernacular forms to adapt to the climate and season excesses – from dry deserts to a long, humid, coastline, the lofty and heavily forested Himalayas and other lesser mountain ranges (Aravalli, Nilgiri, Sayadhari), and the Deccan plateau – with climates varying from temperate to tropical and with rainfall varying from almost nil to heavy. Diverse occupations also require corresponding local designs of houses according to professional needs. Local vernacular construction of a few decades ago was not an isolated development but a part of the craft-guilds’ output, which included other crafts in the village community which catered to all the needs of society.

Urban and village definitions of settlements became contiguous in cities like Delhi and even in the days of Aurangzeb the traveller Francois Bernier wrote of Shahjahanbad as a collection of many villages. There is also, thus, a close physical link between the two – the old and the new forms, both often existing next to each other.

Vernacular architecture is essentially ‘architecture without architects’, as there were no formal architects earlier but mainly artisan guilds and master masons. Not much is known of the master builders of vernacular as well as monumental architecture. Vernacular buildings had sutradhars who were not architects in the modern sense of the word but master masons. Some monuments, however, do record and even illustrate the builders of monuments, like the victory tower in Chittorgarh which includes a sculpture of the master designer and his family and assistants. Overall vernacular architecture was based on vastu and shilpa shastras. Unlike as in residential architecture, detailed plans were made for larger monuments, the likes of which can still be seen carved on stones near the Bhojpur temple, Madhya Pradesh.

It is only natural that builders in Bikaner and Jaisalmer would use stone since it is abundant there, while in Bengal, lacking stone, bamboo and bricks were used. The Gangetic plains had to use mud (at times combined with wattle), clay and rubble or bricks. Timber was the natural material for the Himalayas and coconut palms in southern India. Laterite is the preferred material in regions of the south where it is abundantly available. The more welloff would, naturally, try to bring in outside inputs to set them apart from the rest. Climatic requirements, too, would be different for different regions of India – desert and pasture-lands of Kachchh, tropical and temperate regions, the Himalayan and other ranges, the Deccan plateau and the southern states. In the extreme heat of northern India, inverted pots were put not only on roofs but even under intermediate floors, for heat insulation.

Changes in the environment and needs of the inhabitants would also provide impetus for structural change of residences. External influences would also modify the vernacular styles like the advent of colonial architecture by the British and their neglect of traditional building forms. Many years down colonial rule, the British did realize that they, perhaps, could and should have encouraged the use of vernacular skills and designs. A group was set up to explore what skills remained in the then Indian building industry and decorative methods that could still be used, but by then it was too late. (Sanderson, Gordon, Begg, J. and Marshall, J.H., Types of Modern Indian Buildings at Delhi, Agra, Allahabad, Lucknow, Ajmer, Bhopal, Bikaner, Gwalior, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, with notes on the craftsmen employed on their design and execution, A.S.I., Government Press, Allahabad, 1913.)

Vernacular architecture also evolves and adapts continuously. The term vernacular is relative and not absolute. Thus, the modern flats and apartments of today might be the vernacular a century from now. Similarly, in a metropolitan city cement might be more readily available locally than bamboo or earth. Unfortunately, the term vernacular is also associated with something primitive and backward.

Looked from a view of sustainability rather than just nostalgia and historical interest, vernacular design is evoking interest for sustainable habitats, as formally ratified by Agenda 21 of the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio De Janeiro. The international follow up body for this was the Commission on Sustainable Development, setup in 1992 by the UN. These concepts of sustainable settlements were further stressed by the UN conference on Human Settlements at the world summit on sustainable development that took place in Johannesburg in1996. With no need now for natural climate adjustment in summer with the use of airconditioners, climate has become less of an issue in house design and construction. It is a different matter that it puts a greater demand on non-renewable energy resources and pollution from coal-based thermal plants.

Though smaller in scale than the much larger monumental buildings, vernacular residential structures share some common building elements with them, influenced by inputs from conquering dynasties and colonial rulers. The decorative aspects also draw on the craft traditions of the area subject, of course, to the community – whether Hindu or Islamic, with the latter’s ban on depiction of anthropomorphic forms. On the other hand monumental architecture also borrowed elements from vernacular structures like the bamboo eaves of the humble bangla hut. The lifetime of the residential structures ranged from huts that served its purpose for a cycle of seasons only before they were flattened by the elements to more permanent structures like havelis and mansions.

It is not necessary to simply preserve and imitate vernacular buildings in toto – which might be impractical at present – but to understand the processes involved in their construction. Many architects and enthusiasts have successfully imported vernacular elements in their designs which are well suited for current sustainable practices. Many such examples have been illustrated in contemporary books and resources listed in the bibliography. Though all the styles of vernacular structures were eminent with features that make them attractive even today, not all vernacular forms are great or relevant now – like the Shekhawati murals in the courtyard houses on every square inch of houses, or the stepwells which, over a period of time, became sources of guineaworm and other diseases.

There has been a renewed interest in vernacular and traditional structures in the world and architects who have made a reputation in using vernacular forms and features include Hasan Fathy, Geoffery Bawa, Louis Kahn and many others, including Laurie Baker in India. Worldwide interest in vernacular building traditions has also resulted in research and resources relating to such structures, including the barn of North America and other notable vernacular residential architecture, some of which are UNESCO world heritage sites like those of the Asante of Ghana, those in the M’zab valley of Algeria and the Sukur cultural landscape, Nigeria. Old city centres like Naples, Shibem in Yemen certainly have a community feeling that modern buildings lack.

Not many ancient remains of complete houses have been found preserved in great detail like at Pompeii. Some structures have been identified in excavations of the Indus Valley civilization, which is the start of the period of the use sun-dried and fired bricks. Even in monumental architecture stone-work started in Ashoka’s period and prior to that both domestic and monumental architecture must have been mainly wood. This is proved by the depiction of wooded beams and rafters in some rock-cut caves in Ajanta, in stone itself. The Karli, Bhaja and Kondane caves still retain their original wooden ribs that were put there for no structural reason but possibly only because of the heavy influence of wood as a building material in those times in non-cave structures.

Like the last wave of modern palaces, architecture prospered when there were no wars and under the complete rule of the British, especially after the 1857 struggle for freedom from colonial rule and till the upheavals of Partition in 1947. Under British rule, though extraneous inputs started coming, the wealthy could build more lavish residences than they could under native rulers as now there was no problem about attracting undue attention from the ruler. The British even standardized the size of bricks as 9x4.5x3 inches. Prior to that thin nanak-shahi bricks were used in the country and locally made clay drain-pipes.

Mohenjodaro and Harappa used gypsum plaster and use of lime came later, and its use spread particularly after Muslims came to India. Later on, around the eighteenth century, lime stucco-work became popular amongst the wealthy wherein it was mixed with marble powder and given a smooth polish. Where available, timber and timber bonded structures were made, the wood usually being deodar in the hills and teak in the plains like Gujarat, or even coconut trees in Kerala. In between, in the foothills of northern India, saal or Shorea robusta was a good general purpose timber. In the north-east bamboo was ideal material to use for structures and when split its parts could be woven into a screen. Thatch roofing was generally used for huts. Relatively newer materials were glass for windows and corrugated iron. In the absence of availability of glass earlier, shells were put in a cluster in windows in the coastal areas and the buildings of Goa still retain them where they serve the purpose of present-day frosted glass in a natural manner.

The main vernacular form was the courtyard house, which was a remarkable form of residential architecture. The courtyard was this style’s quintessence and its relevance to the home was apparent as well subtle. It was the structure’s core. The courtyard ordered other spaces by context in an abode where space was not rigidly fixed but could be adaptable depending on the time of day, season and exigency. It obliquely controlled the environment inside and served the needs of its inhabitants. Its moods changed with varying degrees of light and shade, and with them the ambience of the abode. Centrally located, it imprinted the domain of the dwelling like a visual anchor. Around this courtyard space the rest of the structure seamlessly coalesced by the play of epistyles and gallery spaces. It was the spatial, social and environment control centre of the home.

This form of architecture met with the requirements of the traditional joint family system as well as the climate. The courtyard functioned as a convective thermostat and gave protection from extremes of weather. A dust storm could pass overhead with little effect on the inmates. The courtyard moderated the extreme effects of the hot summers and freezing winters of the Indian sub-continent, and averaged out the large diurnal temperature differences. It varied from being a narrow opening to a large peristyle one in the interior zone of the house, with perhaps another or more near the entrance and the rear section. The total number of courtyards in one residence could sometimes be five to six.

Visitors stopped at the outer courtyard where the baithak, sitting place, usually was. Beyond this was the sequestered zenana, women’s area, around the inner courtyard. In urban areas where space is limited and only one small courtyard could be constructed the female quarters were moved up vertically to the upper floor. The courtyards came alive during extended marriage celebrations and festivals like Holi and Diwali. In a courtyard’s time space there would also be the admixture of intrigue, flirtation and scandal. With the fading out of the institution of the joint family, pressure on land and mechanical means of temperature regulation, this form of residential architecture is naturally falling into disuse.

The courtyard house form in India was not based on blind conformity and there was tremendous innovation in the design of such homes, known variously in different regions – haveli in northern India where they were prominent, wada in Maharashtra, nalukettu in Kerala, rajbari in Bengal and deori in Hyderabad. All had regional variations in design and craft techniques, using stone, wood, bricks and mortar. The expression haveli is derived from the old Arabic word haola, meaning partition, and hence the earlier Mughal use of this word to denote a province. In modern Arabic the word havaleh means encircling, confirming the linkage. Even similar elements of design have the same nomenclature, like the mashrabiyya (cantilevered screened balcony) of the Arab courtyard house and the Gujarati haveli.

Over the world variations of the courtyard house range from those in the Arab areas, to the Mediterranean and Europe. In India, there occurred a sharing in their construction between Hindu and Muslim designs. Muslim havelis included in their designs the chajja and brackets and Hindus freely used the cusped arch. Double bangaldar eaves appeared as key architectural features in Rajasthan and other parts of India. On the whole the Rajput havelis borrowed the mysterious amorphousness of the earlier Rajput palaces while the Muslim ones abided by the Islamic distinctness of style, with gradations within these two extremes. The status of the owner was directly proportional to the residence’s proximity to the ruler’s palace, the number and size of courtyards enclosed and ornamentation. Rank was evident in their design and certain symbols were reserved, like that of the elephant in Rajasthan, for the diwan or court minister. The term haveli is also used for temples of certain sects in Gujarat and pleasure pavilions in the erstwhile state of Hyderabad.

Courtyard house architecture reflected the style and culture of its time. It was indicative of the owner’s self-image and aspirations, with a distillation of historical influences. It manifested itself in degrees, varying from solidity to extreme ornamentation. In Punjab, where safety had to be ensured against marauders, robustness of construction was the order. Even the rooms inside would be filled with photographs of ancestors armed to the teeth. However, in the relative security of a city like Ahmedabad, the traders could indulge in elaborate carved wood ornamentation in constructing their courtyard houses. The Chettiar merchants adorned their courtyard houses with solid pillars of Burmese teak procured through their trading links. The trading community of Shekhawati embarked on a spree of painting frescoes on their havelis that still stand out. The havelis on the banks of the Ganges were made more for contemplation and religious sojourns. In places where both wood and stone were used there would be healthy rivalry between the craftsmen in carving, with motifs of floral scroll-work and human symbols, birds and animals. Individual complexes would be very evident, as a trader in Shekhawati would have frescoes splashed on the walls outside while a Rajput would be more restrained.

In urban areas earlier, when social stratification was even more rigid, the layout of a colony was such that a number of courtyard houses formed a residential cluster, enclosed by a perimeter wall, having limited entrances. Such enclosures were self-sufficient and would be barred at night. They had community facilities, wells and places for worship for the residents, with only the cremation ground outside. All these were maintained by an internal levy. These clusters are called variously – a peth in Pune, pol in Ahmedabad and a mohalla in north India. A strong sense of identity prevailed amongst the homogeneous residents of these areas and sale of property to outsiders was restricted.

The features of the best courtyard houses are similar to the palaces of India, the architecture of which passed through two phases. The first was during the Mughal period from the late sixteenth century to the early eighteenth century and the second from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. During the first stage the Islamic arch was introduced in the architecture of India. It ended in a great synthesis with Akbar using the Hindu traebate style at Fatehpur Sikri and the Diwan-e-am at the Rajput palace of Jaipur resembling a Mughal building. There were also cross-region influences, like the import in northern India of the bangaldar roof, derived from the Bengali vernacular hut. In the second stage of palace architecture, Indian rulers tried to out-do each other in building palaces to their magnificence, ironically only when the British subjugation provided comparative peace for such building activity, as well as European models. While the first period saw the rise of monolithic, asymmetrical, structures with a profusion of canopies, connected by gloomy corridors, like at Udaipur, in the later period came the livelier palaces like those at Jaipur and Alwar. Arches and beams were used profusely with corbelling techniques, brackets and balconies. Soon the style became a riot of blends, generally known as Indo-Saracenic, and other French and Italian imitations.

Unlike palaces, the courtyard house remained an indigenous form though some admixture of styles did take place, either consciously or because of artisans belonging to different communities. The anonymous artisans were also the architects, though no paper plans were made before the construction. The architectural tenets were passed from one generation to the next and skills sharpened by practical experience from a very young age. The site aspects and needs of the owner were considered and incorporated in the design and construction. While the palace stood aloof and dominated its environment, the haveli stood in complete harmony with its surroundings and fused with the street, there even being a platform or sitting space next to the entrance. The house activities spilled out on to the streets through the courtyard. There was the daily interaction with peddlers, weavers, dyers and traveling artisans. The zamindar, cultivator, was the patron and supporter of the rural craftsmen and menials. Village musicians and religious mendicants stood at the threshold and sang at the top of their voices. Genealogists and sycophant bards entered the courtyard to extol the virtues of the occupant’s ancestors. Barbers carried on their work inside, also carrying gossip from one ear to another. Nat acrobats were admitted into the courtyard to perform, along with jugglers, magicians and snake charmers.

In the exterior façade of a courtyard house the base plane is generally above street level to mark the transition. A depressed plane threshold is rare, as it would let in dust and rainwater. However, there is no edge definition with adjoining structures and this gives a cluster of courtyard houses a certain symmetry and rhythm. The threshold is a significant element in its design and on special occasions rituals and ceremonies are held there. The entrance is broader in villages, as compared to cities, so that bullock-carts and tractors can enter easily. The degree of enclosure is ancillary to the local climate and requirements of minimum light and circulation of air, and the size and location of openings correspondingly designed. The extent of visual interaction that could be allowed between the interior of the home with the street depended on social norms.

The courtyard of existing structures is invariably square or rectangular. The circulation space is well ordered by corridors and galleries, and subtly controls the privacy of the dwelling. The entry to a courtyard might be through a right-angled entrance, thus preventing direct view except through a small, screened, aperture. The size of the courtyard, orientation and height of the surrounding structures are important considerations for its climate control features. Thus it is narrow to maintain a shaded area in summer and yet wide enough to receive the winter sun. It might have eaves and screens along its sides to protect the verandah, besides the auspicious tulsi shrub and climbers. In arid areas the courtyard was also used for collecting and storing scarce rain-water. There could also be, though rarely, a first floor level gallery connecting the opposite long sides of the courtyard.

Convective circuits from the courtyard regulated the climate in the entire house. These were aided by wind scoops on the roof that caught the breeze and propelled it down a shaft, at the end of which was a layer of khas. The scoops on the roof were at a considerable height, thus decreasing the entry of dust. Water pots were kept in their air circuit for cooling. Often the windows in the rooms opened into the scoop shaft for ventilating, though at different heights for maintaining privacy amongst the rooms. At night cool air came down the courtyard and flushed the stale air in the rooms. The high ceilings of the rooms aided in keeping them cool in summer as the angle subtended by the roof to the floor is less from a high ceiling than that by a lower ceiling. Also, high ceiling rooms have a greater volume of air which remains fresh for a longer time as compared to smaller volumes of air in smaller rooms, and thus manage with less aeration when outside temperatures are in the extremes. In towns the narrow streets with parallel multi-storeyed structures and common adjoining partitions further prevent the vertical walls from heating up and winding streets make the wind offload its sand.

The usual height of a courtyard house ranges from two to five floors. Window openings can be from the inside quarters into the courtyards, or from the inside to the street outside, though at ground floor levels such openings to the street are few. These openings are like one-way mirrors, to see outside without being seen with the help of screens and chik (reed) curtains, and are in the form of plain or bay windows and cradle balconies, called jharokha or mashrabiyya in western India. In particular, the jharokha is one of the most interesting elements of the Indian haveli. It provides a private sitting area above the street, catching the summer breeze as well as the winter sun. It lets in indirect light into the nooks and corners of the rooms and ventilates the building more effectively than a simple window. Often a series of jharokhas cantilever out progressively, above each other, adding to the floor area as well as shading the street below.

The use of space in a haveli is generally variable and overlaps, unlike the fixed demarcations in modern houses. The functions of the rooms are loosely defined and interchangeable. In hot summers the cool roof could be the sleeping area while in winter it could be one of the snug rooms. Even though modern levels of privacy were not there, an informal code existed like demarcating different level terraces to give some privacy for a newly wed pair. The terraces also have an open shelter at one end and if it started raining at night the light wooden cots can be quickly dragged under it. The sunny courtyard could be the sitting area on cold winter days and, on summer afternoons, the cool rooms. Only a few areas are rigidly defined, like the kitchen or the prayer room.

Means permitting, an enclosure of space as a courtyard was the ambition of every dwelling and this form exists in some variation or another all over the sub-continent. However, the typically planned courtyard structure, whose physical design and existence complemented the society of its times and the climate, was essentially a feature of the plains, starting from the foothills of the Himalayas. In undivided India this region was mainly Punjab, the United Provinces, Bihar, parts of Bengal and then down to Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and parts of southern India. The promoters and inhabitants of such structures were the local chieftains, court ministers, aristocrats, rich merchants, landlords and traders. The northern belt of this haveli region included the great cities of Amritsar, Lahore, Delhi, Varanasi and Lucknow. In such pre-eminent cities, unfortunately, not much remains of the grandness of such residences and they are dilapidated, carved up by heirs and even a few pristine examples are difficult to come by. The semi-urban and rural regions of the north still have courtyard homes in use. In the eastern parts of India and the former state of Hyderabad such residential structures do not survive in as great a density as in the northern and western parts of India 🟥