Jim Corbett’s Kumaon with its pea green lushness and horticulture has a remarkable feature that remains unrecognised, that of its art and architecture. Beautiful homes with ornate wood carvings unique to this region are an important aspect of its cultural landscape.
The vernacular architecture is a subtle example of distinct influences from the surrounding regions. These elevated stone masonry houses typically have their lower rooms dedicated to storing agricultural implements and cattle. The imposing door in the centre is generally flanked on either side by perfectly symmetrical windows. The stark interiors offset the heavily ornamented doors and windows.
The walls and floors are plastered with a mixture of mud and cow dung to keep it cool during the summer, the roof with slate tiles are low to conserve heat during winters. The houses are decorated with traditional paintings on the floors, beautiful shrines dedicated to local deities adorn corners.
According to various oral histories most houses were built more than 150 years ago by wealthy villagers with large land holdings. The skills to build these houses are entirely local and were the speciality of a community of craftsmen called Jhonsaris.
These master craftsmen spread throughout the region drew their influences from the massive temple complexes found in Uttarakhand and the surrounding areas built during the late Gupta period. The styles in turn reflected influences from Gujarat, the homeland of the stone craftsmen who built them. Influences are also seen from Nepal as the region was under the rule of a Nepalese Kingdom.
Woodcarving was popular because of the abundant availability of soft wood and timber that lent itself well to the intricate carvings.
At that time, the residents of the villages could avail permits from the forest department to use these trees for building houses free of cost. After overuse exhausted supply of suitable, carvers turned to Red Sal from the lower hills which was more expensive and difficult to carve.
Families became less prosperous over time as their landholdings became fragmented agricultural earnings declined. With expensive material and less income, fewer and fewer families were able to afford hiring these skilled craftsmen who would take months to do their work.
Soon cheap and functional concrete replaced the vernacular architecture. The skill that was once a source of pride has disappeared altogether leaving only these houses which are under various states of disrepair.
Sadly the little attempt has made to document, preserve and showcase the craft. Many of these doors and windows are beginning to adorn the walls of private homes in cities like Delhi. The inherent value of traditional art and practice went unrecognized.
Kumaon may stand still in time and memories through yellowing pages of Corbett’s memoirs but the inevitable reality has devoured the idyll and made way for a different kind of ‘Man-eater’ called joblessness.
Ongoing economic and environmental challenges continue to assail the region and rob it of its opportunities. Lack of opportunity has led to a mass migration from the villages, mostly of men.
In this crisis lies an opportunity. Families of the master craftsmen can still be found in the region working in carpentry. New products that employ the craft Kumaon-style woodcarving, such as in furniture and other artefacts can be developed in partnership with designers.
With the infusion of capital and support, it may be possible to revive the craft and bring new jobs and opportunities into the region.
Markets for these products will need to be found and distribution coordinated. Any endeavour like this would need huge governmental support in the form of infrastructure, training and long term programmes to cultivate a sufficient number of trees.
The houses in this region are a reflection of past relationships between the people and their environment. Art and culture can act as a bond that connects people to their surroundings and develop an appreciation for beauty and excellence. The revival of these crafts can create sustainable jobs in the region while preserving a tradition and fostering cultural ownership.