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Reviving the style
For the past six months, weekends for Nirmal Kumar, an associate professor of history in Delhi University (DU), mean a trip to the hills. When the 55-yearold hops on a bus or taxi from Kathgodam to the remote village of Khoonth in Almora, he often faces a volley of questions by his inquisitive co-passengers, most of them wanting to know what business a professor has in a far-flung village emptied by migration.
In Khoonth — native village of freedom fighter and former UP CM Govind Ballabh Pant — Kumar is leading a Union environment ministry-funded project to renovate houses built in a centuries-old architectural style known as Bakholi. “My team, including four more DU professors, two architects and two students is combining modern technology and traditional wisdom to preserve houses indigenous to Kumaon region. The houses built in Bakholi style are known to withstand seismic shocks,” Kumar told TOI.
Bakholi architecture is believed to be over 800 years old and includes rows of identical houses meant for joint families to live together. A single roof made from stone ran through all the houses.
As a tourist to Uttarakhand, Kumar had often come across such abandoned or dilapidated houses — the state has over 1,700 ghost villages where people have moved out in search of job opportunities — and he knew he wanted to preserve this part of history. And so an idea was born. What if he could provide some means of employment to people here? Would they be willing to stay back? Khoonth has 121 houses of which only 20 are inhabited.
“I spoke to people and they said if they had some means of earning, they would not leave their birthplace. I decided to turn the houses into homestays to fulfill a dual purpose: halt migration and keep the architecture style alive.” He discussed the idea with other history professors in his college and four of them came on board. Two students also expressed willingness to be part of the team. Now all Kumar needed was funds.
The team pitched the idea to MoEF which approved the project and gave them an initial funding of Rs 50 lakh to renovate the houses. Then began the search for architects. By a stroke of luck, the team came in contact with Nikita Verma and Kshitij Agarwal, an architect couple from Delhi who had recently moved to Almora.
“The challenge was to introduce modern amenities like electricity and water supply that guests expect in a homestay while disturbing none of the original charm of the houses such as wooden carving on the doors or mudplastered walls,” Nikita told TOI. She added, “We hired local labourers to fix power cables in the house. We also introduced villagers to rainwater harvesting. Now, houses are able to store up to 3,000 litres of water.” They started work on their first house in June this year and finished it recently. Work is on in four more houses and they expect to finish by March.
The Bakholi architecture is not the only one getting a new lease of life. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach) is also working on preservation of another architectural style called Koti Banal which includes multi-storied wooden houses. Lokesh Ohri, coconvener of Intach, Uttarakhand, told TOI that the team had begun work on the restoration of a Koti Banal house in an Uttarkashi village last month.