In a beautiful and remote valley of the Himalayas, in Himachal Pradesh, you will find the tallest monument built in the entire Himalayan stretch , a 400 year-old fortress-turned-temple the Chaini Kothi. Built in a volatile tectonic zone, it has withstood ravaging earthquakes over the centuries.
Architects Shabbir Khambaty and Swapnil S. Bhole have spent over a decade travelling through the remote reaches of Himachal, studying the link between the people and their land and the hauntingly beautiful vistas there. They are today working towards saving the monument. Here is why.
Limited exposure and interaction with the outside world has ensured that the original customs, culture and lifestyles of the Himachal Pradesh region, with its beautiful mountains, architectural and environmental heritage, survive till this day. It is no surprise then, that for centuries, Himachal Pradesh has been called 'Dev Bhoomi' or the abode of Gods.
Situated around 70 km from the famous hill stations of Kullu-Manali, in the district of Mandi, lies the small village of Chaini, in the south-eastern part of the state. Beginning from the Shringi Rishi Temple, a well-defined trail leads you to the village, including a gradual climb through breath-taking vistas of the Tirthan Valley, peppered with apple orchards and apricot blossoms.
Perched high up in the mid-Himalayas at a height of around 2300 meters, surrounded by the eco-sensitive deodhar forests, Chaini has been a religious site for centuries.
The village, inhabited by the ruling Thakurs, is known for its stone and master masons, whose work is easily visible in its buildings and houses. A shining symbol of their unique style of architecture is the Chaini Kothi.
A Castle Temple
Ancient villages in the region had defense structures known as ‘kots’ or ‘kothis’ built within their limits to thwart any enemy attacks.
The most famous of them is the castle temple of the local goddess Jogini, known as Chaini Kothi or Chaini Fort. According to the locals, Chaini Kothi was built in the 17th century by little known King Dhadhu and is sometimes also referred to as ‘Dhadhiya Kothi.’
Chaini Kothi was originally built as a defense structure, before being turned into a temple
In the 17th and 18th century, it served as a defense structure guarding the Chaini village and the surrounding strategically significant Tirthan Valley. Later, it was converted into a temple dedicated to Jogini. At 35 meters in height, this is the tallest free-standing structure, built in the traditional local architectural style, in the entire Himalayan region. Sadly, it lost its two upper storeys during the Kangra earthquake of 1905.
Chaini Kothi has been constructed in the indigenous method of pahadi architecture, especially the kath-kunni style of architecture developed by the master masons, centuries ago. The word kath is a dialectal variation of the sanskrit word kashtth, which means wood and kunni is a variation of the sanskrit word kona, which is an angle or a corner i.e. wooden corners at right angles, a prominent feature of the style.
Chaini Kothi has been constructed in the indigenous kath-kunni style of architecture and its striking ladder is made of one huge deodhar log!
Chaini Kothi’s most striking feature is its ladder, which clings steeply to the structure. The ladder is made of one huge log of the deodhar tree. The ladder is very narrow in width and appears to be hanging at a great height, one needs to be careful about personal safety while climbing it.
The tower of Chaini is an icon of the local kath-kunni architecture style and over time has become the epicenter of the social and cultural life of the village.
So what makes this style so unique?
Understanding the Architectural Style
The kath- kunni style of architecture is unique to this region of Himachal Pradesh, with similar structures being seen only in Pakistan. The word kath is a dialectal variation of the Sanskrit word kashtth, which means wood and kunni is a variation of the Sanskrit word kona, which is an angle or a corner. Built out of deodhar wood and stone, it is the only form of earthquake-resistant architecture which has proven to be effective.
In the kath-kunni style, the walls of a structure are constructed at particular angles in a manner by which it vibrates in case of an earthquake, but never buckles!
Due to the earthquake-prone geographical terrain and constraints, the architecture one sees in Chaini is basically what is called ‘raw architecture.’ So instead of resisting the strong forces of an earthquake, the walls are constructed at particular angles in a manner by which it vibrates in case of an earthquake, never buckling under or collapsing into the mountainside, due to the force.
The same technique is used in construction of new local houses and temples even today. It is very much in use in Shimla, Kullu, and Kinnaur districts. In every village, one finds new houses constructed in similar fashion.
Kath-kunni is an inclusive, collaborative style of construction using locally available material
If the design is in keeping with the demands of the land, aesthetically this style of architecture also represents a perfect symphony with the ecosystem and culture of the people. Only locally available material like stone and wood are used and the entire community participates in the building process under the guidance of the chief master mason.
From the temple at Janog, Rudra Narayan Mandir at Rohru, Bijat Maharaj Mandir at Choupal to the temple at Kiyari and Chitkul, the last village on India-Tibet border, one can find many such temples in these regions.
The Bhandar and the Thakurwad Temple also stand as symbols of the south-eastern Himachal way of life, through their intriguing architectural design, much like Chaini Kothi.
The Bhandar is a community storage housing the temples’ wealth
Bhandar is the official storage space of the goddesses and it stands exactly opposite Chaini Kothi. The Bhandar is also a community storage for wealth of the Temple Goddess like utensils, silverware and musical instruments of the village; meant for only special festivities.
All these possessions are maintained by the care-taker who is the only person permitted in the Bhandar. The Bhandar faces the Jogini Mata temple and comes alive during the village festivals.
Thakurwad or the Krishna Temple
Another building, behind the Chaini Kothi and a 1-minute-walk away, constructed in a similar style to the Chaini Kothi, has now been converted to a Krishna temple, also known as Murlidhar Temple.
The Krishna Temple is a five-storey building believed to date from the same time as Chaini Kothi. This striking and grand structure is one among many architectural masterpieces in Chaini village. In earlier times, this was the imposing residence of the ruling Thakurs.
The timber required for the construction of all these structures was obtained from surrounding forests which locals believe belongs to the village goddess. The traditional construction science has been transferred through hereditary knowledge systems of the master masons, ancient systems still in practice.
One can learn more about the kath-kunni style of construction, craftsmanship from the masters, including the famous folklore about these fascinating structures and their spiritual inspiration in building these masterpieces.
This ancient village of Chaini, the majestic tower of Chaini Kothi and the temples in this mystical town are a window to the local culture, customs and religious beliefs today. Unfortunately, this heritage is currently in a delicate state. With the ravages of time and the grave threat of unsustainable development making fast inroads into the Himalayan regions, the village of Chaini is in need of urgent restoration.
Along with its environmental and architectural heritage, it is also Chaini's and the south-eastern Himachal's social fabric, that needs to be conserved.
‘The world keeps on changing, but there is always something, somewhere that remains the same’
Shabbir Khambaty and Swapnil S. Bhole are practising architects from Mumbai. They have been doing research in Himachal Pradesh since 2003, and till date have documented around 27 villages including temples, forts, palaces and residences.
They are also involved in teaching at architectural institutes in Mumbai, contributing with knowledge and ideas at the grassroots level, towards paths less chosen.
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