Old is Gold

This year’s monsoon on Uttarakhand caste such a spell that people are still struggling to come back to come back on their feet. Hundreds perished and thousands were rendered homeless by the massive landslides that covered the mountain state. Some of the roads were damaged and kilometers of roads were wiped off. Khairna Road, which is the road to Almora, is still not usable and the vehicles have to make a detour via Ranikhet. In Almora town there are rubble covered barren slopes where cottages used to exist.
How come that Himalayas have suddenly become revengeful and have tormented the residents? Actually the Himalayas have remained as they were; the monsoon too has been there since the Himalayas came up, hence nothing unusual about it. Then what must have happened? Answer is simple. Himalayas are more prone to natural hazards like the earthquakes, landslides and flash floods. Earlier the habitation was usually in safe areas and the indigenous building designs were earthquake resistant. Of late the population pressure has made the land scarce and there has been a trend of mimicking the designs used in the plains for aesthetic and economic reasons. But what people forgot was that plains are less prone to earthquakes.
Piyoosh Rautela of Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre, Dehradun, Uttarakhand has done an in depth study of the designs of houses which have withstood severe earthquakes in past 1000 years. Not only that he has also collected information on how people survived the ire of the nature in the past and escaped unscratched from the landslides and flash flood! 
Our ancestors lived closer to the nature and learnt from the nature by experience. Seismology or for that matter even scientific thought had not emerged in the good old days when the locals in the Himalayas had already developed earthquake resistant architecture (read ‘Lasting Architecture’, boloji.com September 29, 2008). There are houses in Kothi Banal, Dhakiyatgaon, Goth and Dharali in Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand which have stood the test of time for around 1000 years. One wonders if the modern RCC houses of Uttarakhand will be able to withstand an earthquake of the magnitudes which have rocked the Himalayan state in the eras’ bygone!
A portion of the Himalayas between the epicenter of Bihar-Nepal border earthquake of 1935 and the epicenter of Kangra earthquake of 1905 has not experienced any major tremor of Magnitude 8 on Richter scale in the past 200 years, says Rautela, quoting Roger Bilham an eminent seismologist. This makes the Central Kumaon region all the more vulnerable for severe jolts any time now. With such a probability, one shudders to think of the consequences. The old architecture used lot of wood and hand carved rocks in lieu of bricks. The structure was such that the shock waves were withstood by the structure without any damage. However, in the present times though the concept of such an earthquake resistant foundation is well realized by the structural engineers, yet the costs involved will be prohibitive. The Kothi or Sumer type of houses had an elaborate three meters deep and 70 cm vide foundation trench filled with flat dressed stones. This is raised above the ground level up to a height of 2.30m to form a rectangular platform, with the help of flat stones, clay and stone filling on which rested the main structure of Sumer, says Rautela.
The losses due to an earthquake are colossal. Only redeeming feature is that the frequency of ‘killer’ earthquakes is in terms of 100 years and more. Human memory being volatile, the damages suffered even a decade ago is not retained. Therefore most frequently even the agencies giving clearance for large construction activity also tend to ignore the past earthquakes. But the nature seldom forgets and earthquakes return with a vengeance. Therefore as a long term policy the government should undertake seismic microzonation of all densely populated areas so that anticipated shaking is known in advance and dwellings designed accordingly. All places like hospitals, schools and even religious places where large gatherings take place must be made earthquake resistant. This is so important and urgent that even if retrofitting is required to be done, it should be. All roads and their bridges leading to hospitals should also be made earthquake safe.
Ancient people of Uttarakhand were better environ-planners it seems! Landslides and floods have been a common occurrence since ages. The ancestors gaining experience from the mishaps developed indigenous ways to remain unscathed from landslides and floods. They always chose sites which were free from these hazards. In the recent years the sites which have been affected by landslides or floods are those which were developed in areas hitherto uninhabited.
The Himalayan valleys are well known for their agriculture. But those tilling the field preferred to stay at higher elevations, instead of staying on the river banks. In the past if they wished they could have also built ‘River View’ houses. But they applied discretion and lived at safer heights to avoid loss of lives due to flash floods. There are evidences at places of people migrating to higher grounds during monsoon to avoid loss of life and return after the rains were over to man their fields.
In the ancient days when ‘piped water’ supply was unthinkable people in the mountains had devised several methods of tapping sub-surface water in the form of ‘naula’, ‘dhara’ ‘bawari’ and even dug wells. In Almora a town on the ridge has a dug well in a temple located on the top of the ridge. It is also noteworthy that one of the criteria for the Chand Rajas to shift the capital of Kumaon from Champawat in early 14th century to Almora was availability water from more than 127 springs (‘dhara’ and naula”) all around the ridge.
Similarly they also knew the significance of pore pressure of water. During the rains a part of water percolates to subsurface regime. At times water is so much that the rocks get saturated and the pressure generated by water in the pores of the rocks is so much that they burst. This leads to massive landslides. This is what happened this year which devastated many a habitations. But surprisingly old houses and the new properly engineered structures remained unhurt. Because the possibility of water accumulation inside the rocks had been taken in to account and proper outlets had been provided.
The hill slopes are prone to landslides. During excessive rain, slopes tend to slide down due to various natural and anthropogenic reasons. After Nainital was established in 1840s, the British had constructed extensive stone-lined drains on the slopes to carry away excess rain-water. Despite such precautions the first slide swept off quite a bit of northern part of Nainital in 1868. The hill slopes in Nainital are made of Limestone. It has a property to dissolve in water and also large chunks of dislodged boulders get recemented and consolidate. Thus a large part of Nainital, such as Brooke Hills etc was established on the stabilized landslide debris. However, in order to avoid further damage a fresh network of drains was constructed. Fortunately these drains are still working and have so far kept that part of hill safe from landslide.
Nainital as a township developed later in Uttarakhand. Many areas much older already had this kind of drainage network. Reminiscent of these structures can still be observed in Madhyamaheshwar and Kaliganga river valleys above Ransi and Kalimath villages say Rautela. The amazing part is that these structures were conceived, designed, constructed and maintained by the community without any aid from the government. Such structures saved the community from the ire of the nature.
Today we construct a house without paying heed to possibilities of natural mishaps or hazards created by our own construction activity and seek compensation from the government.
The ancestors in the Uttarakhand region not only excelled in designing earthquake safe structures or selecting landslide/flood safe sites for habitation, they were experts in forest management too. They were aware that trees held the slopes intact and were careful in cutting the trees. There were certain forests which were declared as sacred groves and a fear instilled in the minds of people so that the trees remained intact. The practice continues.
The old wisdom was not merely restricted to the Hills, but all over people had indigenous ways to fight the vagaries of the nature and remain safe. It appears that with the development of science and technology, people have gradually distanced from the nature and have become dependent on the government for everything. It is time that old wisdom combined with modern technology is used to safeguard the lives and property in areas prone to natural hazards.   

Image taken by author in 1952 of a building which is over 300 years old. The building still exists. 


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

Top | Environment

Views: 3602      Comments: 4

Comment O am glad that you liked it Parth. Wish you could go. Some of the areas are really worth it and they are beckoning you.

22-Dec-2010 11:30 AM

Comment Kamal ji you are absolutely right. The British when they established the hill station, the first thing they did was to develop a drainage system. One British civil engineer had surveyed the Road to Almora via Khairna and also made a trace cutting. But he never recommended that track to be used as a regular motor road. Instead all through the longer (safer) route via ranikhet was used. Much later in the late sixtiees the present road came up and the hunch of the Britisher was proved to be right this year, when several kilometers of the new road were washed away! Likewise there are several examples. The present governments of the hill states should take lessons from the teachings of the ancient people and use a mix of modern technology with those teachings/experiences. Outcome will be more practical. Just copying the way the mountain states have developed in Europe or other countries is not going to help-because ours are the youngest mountains and like a teenager they are bubbling with energy. We must take in to account the trembling Himalayas.

22-Dec-2010 11:29 AM


It is a very informative article. I agree with your assessment 100 percent. I remember as a child I used to fetch water from a spring-- and I always wondered how the water oozed out of the mountain with great pressure at that dhara nala. Little did I know that it was the mountain's way to prevent a landslide? Later I also lived in Dalhousie and Dharmshala in HP , while working for the Indian Army as an engineer. I noticed a lot of landslides , specially along the road from Pathankot-- the roads were paved and with modern drainage systems must have disabled the mountains way of avoiding devastating landslides.

As much as humans suffer -- the wild life and trees suffer even more. Modern ways are good , but are cosmetic the old ways were perhaps Indian looking and did not have a European look, but they worked and avoided the massive causalities the Hills of Almora suffered . I hope Indian engineers will start paying much more heed to what their forgotten ancestors did and not go for the foolish river side living recently inspired by the disastrous European modes.

Here in the US you must have seen the disasters of Katrina and many many floods that are the result of failing Engineering -- so called "Marvels". They still live in a hole in New Orleans --waiting for the next drowning of that city.

I shudder to think the damage that will ensue when one of the Dams in India will burst. We must go back to the basics -- and engineering and Architecture must conform to work with Nature, as our ancestors learned to do, rather than try to tame it -- 'The western mode" !! Mother nature will always win and with a disastrous grim grin.

Kamal (Kam) Joshi
17-Dec-2010 12:17 PM

Comment lovely article - feel like visiting the hills everytime you write about Kumaon.

15-Dec-2010 09:12 AM

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