Culture

Kashmiri homes becoming unbearable in summers — why?

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Srinagar of yore had living roofs called Burza Pash made of birch bark with layer of earth over it. [Photo: Captain Knight.]

Before being brought down in a dramatic manner, drones would capture a corrugated cityscape which once had colourful flowerbeds blooming atop. Amid the waning vintage urban image, the mass vanishing of green roofs and their symbolic revival in the new-age passion projects calls for a major policy revamp.

After arctic winter, seething summer now makes octogenarian Abdul Samad scoff at Kashmir’s contemporary housing choices.

The elder recalls not-so-distant past when roofs in the valley would be green — mitigating urban heat-island effects.

“Façade ended this winter when the vintage snow made our houses fell like a pack of cards,” Samad, a master carpenter from old Srinagar, says.

“And now this unbearable summer heat is even rendering our cooling appliances ineffective. This is what happens when you resort to copy-cat housing model without taking the topography into consideration.”

Back in the day when the valley would be troubled by the searing sun, Burza Pash—a roof made of mud and birch bark—would come as a big relief to the people, the veteran carpenter recalls. “Those turf roofs were cool in summer and warm in winter.”

Samad spends his daytime in Bababemb’s carpentry avenue where native woodworkers have revived the obsolete ceiling called Khatamband. “At the end of the day,” he says, “it’s the market which determines the means.”

When Khatamband ceilings started vanishing during the concrete-boom era of late 1990s and early 2000s, the concerned citizenry ran a vocal campaign against it. It eventually made a comeback after 2010, when many new dwellings recreated that classic Kashmir ambiance.

“Problem with us Kashmiris is that,” carpenter Samad continues, “we need to make noise to strike some semblance. Just like last winter made much noise about the revival of the good old houses in the valley, I won’t be surprised if people now throw their weight behind Burza Pash.”

But whether or not this classic Kashmir roofing would trigger a noisy campaign, many in the valley today believe that reinstalling the region-specific architecture and symbolism is mandatory for the identity of the place.

“If people in Europe can maintain their unique or cultural housing façade and features, why can’t we,” says Asim Mirza, an architecture student from Pulwama.

Shrine of Madin Sahib, Hawal, Srinagar carries the traces of lost heritage.

 

Despite being part of modern Europe, Mirza says, some English villages have turned their heritage roofs into economic corridors. Based on this model, many architects and policy-makers have been backing the similar heritage—Burza Pash—at least, for posterity in Kashmir.

“But sadly, we’re losing our traditional touches to north-Indian style of housing and lifestyle,” Mirza says.

“Architecture is the prominent part of one’s cultural identity. Even our shrines and other places of worship had flowery birch roof in yore. The sight would charm and create a calming effect on natives. Our past, unlike our present, was full of aesthetics and rich concept of living.”

Like Mirza, many new-age Kashmiri experts are now making the cultural campaign quite vocal in vale. Many of these young Kashmiris have returned from different parts of the world, and started their own theme-based eateries in town.

But while the social spaces are now embellishing the vintage look, the housing models are still craving for Burza Pash which once made Walter Lawrence to write, “…when the seven wood bridges which knit the city into one almost touch the water, and the earth-roofs of the houses are covered with green herbage and flowers, Srinagar in spite of its internal squalor is one of the most picturesque places in the world.”

Sometimes in the village, Lawrence writes in his book Valley of Kashmir, one finds the roofs of the larger houses and of the shrines made of birch bark with a layer of earth above it. “This forms an excellent roof, and in the spring the housetops are covered with iris, purple, white, and yellow, with the red Turk’s head and the Crown Imperial lilies.”

Unlike now, when aerial snappers capture the characteristic-corrugated image of the city, Srinagar in Lawrence’s time had verdant roofing.

Aside from making landscape mesmerizing for foreigners—then sent to oppressed valley, as per some accounts, akin to present day parachute journalists, for highlighting ‘glory’ and hiding ‘gore’—those green rooftops studded with flowers would be layered outwardly with an insulation of fertile clay and turf.

For landless urban families, these roofs would act as a kitchen garden as well. Srinagarites would produce food by growing vegetables, apart from bulbs of tulips and lilies, atop their abodes.

“But the sweeping change started during British Raj itself, when those world-weary Englishmen would arrive for holidaying in the valley,” says Ibrahim Bhat, a history scholar from Srinagar.

“During their stay in Srinagar, they introduced cheap and corrugated sheeting. With this change, dream dwellings became ugly shelters overnight.”

Those non-green roofs soon created a rat race for ‘change’ in the region known for domino effect. Many discarded traditional green roofs for the fear of collapse during snow-laden winters.

But since these non-green roofs raise temperature during summers and fail to retain heat during winters, they troubled the inmates. “This explains why our summers are now becoming unbearable inside our homes,” says Sadia Naqash, a structural engineer from Srinagar.

“Unlike these corrugated sheets, green roofs like Burza Pash would provide extra insulation reducing the amount of heating and cooling needed inside the building.”

A rare example of a surviving turf roof, sans the flowering bulbs. [Photo Credit: Anuradha Chaturvedi.]

If ample urban surfaces are covered, Naqash says, green-roofs with its calming countenance and therapeutic touch will create a soothing effect on communities. Besides cutting down cooling or heating costs by 30 percent, she says, the vegetative roof can reduce noise pollution.

“This green-roofing has an important economic benefit as well,” says Naqash. “It protects roof layering and increases its longevity.

But in the name of modernity, the heritage link has been snapped prompting many youngsters to rally for Burza Pash today.

“Most of these youngsters are now returning home from US and Europe where green-roof system is being implemented for health and economic benefits,” says Naqash. “And since Kashmir had green roofs for centuries before CGI roof covers, many of these young Kashmiris are now becoming vocal for local.”

Despite this resolve, however, the fact remains that apart from nomad hutments, the green roof system is barely visible in Srinagar today — except in certain landmarks, like Madin Saheb shrine in Hawal.

Syed Ather Qayoom Rufai, an achitect based in Kashmir says that these traditional green roofs can help relieve city smog, reduce city temperature, and cut energy consumption.

The architects says that during the summer months, the temperature of a conventional CGI rooftop can soar up to a degree of level ‘which can even fry an egg’. The additional heat increases the load on the central cooling system which further increases the need for electricity, adding to air pollution.

“With enough green roofs, the temperature of an entire city can decrease. For a one-story structure with a green rooftop, cooling or heating costs can be cut by 20 percent to 30 percent. Green rooftops offer other environmental benefits,” he says.

“They capture and filter air pollutants and retain as much as 50 percent to 70 percent of the storm water that they capture. This reduces storm water contamination and the risk of flooding and helps to improve the overall water quality. Green roofs can absorb a portion of the sound that otherwise bounces off hard roofing surfaces,” he adds.

“It is unfortunate how we’ve obliterated such a marvelous piece of architecture,” says Farooq Mir, a veteran mason from the valley.

“Such roofing would be covered with a thick layer of mud acting as an insulating material. Kashmir’s traditional architecture is based on this natural system of insulation.”

But now, Mir rues, construction materials like cement and sand have created a delusional idea of lifestyle in the valley.

“This conflict has made us numb beyond belief,” the master mason reckons. “Otherwise which community in the world would endanger their lives by constructing these concrete structures despite living in the extreme-weather region, and a dangerous earthquake zone!”

 

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