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Diagnosis of a City

After countless hours of tracing, re-tracing and matching satellite images with mind maps and land use plans procured from the Nagar Parishad, I started delving into Sirohi’s seemingly organic cluster organisations and hierarchical street networks. What had then looked like a fossilised settlement, one frozen in time and enveloped in nostalgia, had layers of meticulous urban planning to be deciphered and adapted for future growth. How does the documentation of a historical town dating back to the 1400s and a study of lifestyle patterns, house typologies and social exchanges trigger a discourse on health and the city?

ir spatial qualities is perhaps the first of the larger strokes that determine the wellbeing of its inhabitants. This can, of course, be argued with multiple attributes of a person’s health like personal choices, working conditions and genetics. However, here I wish to discuss aspects of the city that are beyond the sphere of influence of an individual and can only be a consequence of the collective, the community and the administration.

Negotiating Landforms

Clean air, fresh water and uncontaminated soil are the natural by-products of a balanced ecosystem. Our bodies, comprising of the same elements, are the direct beneficiaries of this delicate balance. City forms, unique to their combination of hills, mounds, marshes, rivers, trees, mangroves, sand and water, have sustained societies and their built environments with an evolving relationship with nature. Terrain and ecology have always been the primary deciding factors that govern the laying out of a city, its nucleus and axis. With the added pressure of global forces, migrant economies, exponential densities and social pluralities, have our cities expanded in desperate panic, replacing forest with farmland and farmland with brownfields? Has this, in turn, incrementally degraded the quality of life we lead in a city, which has other complex priorities to fulfil?

Sirohi’s inception at the foothills of the Aravalli Range, with the royal fort overlooking the gently undulating fertile fields, triggered settlements around three large catchments intercepted with numerous seasonal water channels. The scrub-forested hilly backdrop ensured that soil did not erode and fill up the lakes responsible for maintaining a sufficient level of groundwater, which was then tapped through decentralised sources like wells, stepwells and kunds. A natural course of stormwater drainage, unhindered by houses that rose up and down the contoured land, left the streets clear of unhealthy clogging. The growth of this town now seems to follow other trajectories, sprouting development along the highway and flattening peripheral land to accommodate factory set-ups and housing schemes. While these urban demands cannot be overlooked, they need not be thought of as a binary against ecological resilience. If our negotiations with landform allow cities to retain their capacity to soak and release, expand and contract, breathe and resist, absorb and spill, we will inhabit healthier environments to begin with.

Clean Cluster

Sirohi’s initial built form is seen as a dense core, rooted in time, spread beyond the thick lime-plastered walls of the fort. Its caste and/or trade-based organisation (one usually informed the other) was contained between two main city gates, while its fringes met tracts of green and yellow fields. Comprising numerous housing clusters, some with arched entrance gates of their own, one can imagine each being distinct in spatial character, architectural elements and colour schemes. Since the narrow lanes and nukkads (street corners) could only be familiarised on foot, my walks allowed me to note the standardised components of these planned clusters, the most critical being the community stepwell. The presence of multiple man-made outlets of drawing water meant that aquifers Sirohi’s initial built form is seen as a dense core, rooted in time, spread beyond the thick lime-plastered walls of the fort. Its caste and/or trade-based organisation (one usually informed the other) was contained between two main city gates, while its fringes met tracts of green and yellow fields. Comprising numerous housing clusters, some with arched entrance gates of their own, one can imagine each being distinct in spatial character, architectural elements and colour schemes. Since the narrow lanes and nukkads (street corners) could only be familiarised on foot, my walks allowed me to note the standardised components of these planned clusters, the most critical being the community stepwell. The presence of multiple man-made outlets of drawing water meant that aquifers under the ground were maintained to a certain level, which could be recharged with only a few showers of rain. The large lakes that held water almost throughout the year were never seen as a direct source of consumption.

Stepwells are the surviving specimens of a sophisticated understanding of hydrological engineering executed with structural precision. Many families in Sirohi who were involved in the actual construction of these architectural endeavours had specialist knowledge of building waterworks, like digging and positioning of wells and tanks. “Geomorphology, the water table and hydrological conditions of the soil determined the form, size, architectural plan and the various design components of these structures.”

The subterranean conical form of the stepwell engaged people, especially the womenfolk who were entrusted with the task of fetching water on a daily basis instead of storing a large amount in their homes for reasons that can be linked with hygiene, fair distribution and optimum usage per household. While it became a spot for social interaction in an otherwise conservative society, the community also assumed responsibility for the cleanliness and repairs of their stepwells. Its pairing with a temple or other sacred associations made monetary contributions by the wealthy a means of gaining religious merit. Others earned their share by performing laborious tasks of digging, stone cutting and carving figures of deities along the walls. For hundreds of years, till the British came along and introduced canals and pipelines, this humanised system of water management worked wonders by instilling a sense of ownership in every individual and thus preventing over-exploitation of a commodity both priceless and scarce in Rajasthan.

Soak and Release

Spread along the base of a steep hillside, Sirohi has a natural vegetative buffer that separates the dense forest from human settlements. This vital patch of land, used for seasonal farming, performing burial rites and situating chhatris (cenotaphs) to commemorate the dead, was owned by the ruling class and was hence kept free from encroachment. While the land immediately surrounding the fort still remains free from urban sprawl and acts as essential soaking ground, much of the buffer has thinned at places as we move further away from the old core. The annual percolation of rain water into the soil can be thought of as the sole reason for efficient functioning of the stepwells. The recharged ground allowed water to be released from the base and fill up to the brim, bottom up. In case of spillage, it was sent straight back into the soil through a network of open drainage channels along either side of the street, which emptied into large catchments or uncultivated land beyond the city boundary.

Stormwater drainage is considered crucial for city planning. Historically also, those with the most efficient systems were recognised as progressive and successful. However, this seems to have taken a backseat as peripheries stretch beyond what the parent city’s infrastructure can cater to. As land prices ridicule our imagination, plots are sliced into neat rectangles only to be plugged into services that may come along later when our administrations can afford to address the need; usually as an afterthought. Perhaps, we are caught in a vicious cycle where our economy only lends itself for the essentials after building an active market, a client base, or a source of generating hard cash. The result? A gamble with the quality of life we lead. With the lack of pre-planning, makeshift arrangements lead to parasitic growth and unhygienic conditions.

A Piece of Sky

The idea of health in the context of the city is often bracketed into hospital architecture, healthcare infrastructure and other medical facilities. While that is certainly important, it needs to be preceded by aspects of breathability, greenery, walkability etc., when planning new settlements and expansions. The current pandemic has gotten us to feel truly safe only in the isolation of our homes. I wonder how, then, did closely-knit neighbourhoods like those in Sirohi ensure good ventilation and sufficient sunlight?

The answer lies in thoughtfully designed architectural elements that find relevance at various scales of study, right from the size of a courtyard to the jaali (net) window. Jharokhas, or screened projections, perform the dual function of compressing hot air through tiny holes to let in a cooler breeze as well as allowing a safe, private view into the street below, which helps avoid unnecessary contact. The spatial articulation is such that the central courtyard not only brings warming sunshine into the house on a cold winter day, but also becomes the primary workspace flooded with light. Wrapped around is the kitchen, toilet and workshop from where

activity can spill over and retract with ease. This free-flowing intermingling between the inside and outside can also be observed in the interface of these houses with the abutting streets.

The concept of compounding land is nearly non-existent in old Sirohi. Most houses open directly into pedestrian lanes, with a gesture of pause offered by the stepped plinth or chabutra (platform). During my evening strolls, this struck me as merely an element that facilitates social interaction, just within the limits of what would be regarded as being out in public. Women huddle together resting their backs against the open door, exchanging gossip and amusing themselves with visuals of the ‘market’.

However, during active hours of the day, it becomes a platform for conducting small business discussions, buying vegetables at the doorstep, debating politics and more. In its ordinariness, the chabutra succeeds in holding people at bay and avoiding unwarranted entries all the way in. Many day-to-day engagements are taken care of at this unenclosed spot that provides both comfortable shade and adequate privacy.

Sirohi’s intricate web of roads makes the core highly walkable, presenting multiple routes of getting from point A to B, and opportunities to pause. Almost every collection of dense mass is pierced with a chowk, or open space around a large tree for the neighbourhood to assemble. While this makes transit more interesting and less stressful, it also gives a fair bit of exposure to the sun and greenery. Recreational possibilities at the street nukkad or around the banyan tree plinth are naturally woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Reimagined Adaptations

In spite of the fact that most regions receive sufficient sunlight, we are a population highly deficient in Vitamin D, lowering our collective immunity and stamina. While this is a direct consequence of the lifestyle we lead, it is choreographed by the cities we inhabit and the spaces we dwell and work in. Our cities, eager to compete with their global contemporaries, are often found employing schemes and techniques of planning that may or may not have worked in foreign lands. It is essential that we coherently differentiate between climate conditions, terrain and soil alongside culture, social tendencies and population density before imitating anything from anywhere. India, with its ancient legacy of sophisticated civilisations, does not need to stray very far in order to best understand the context we must design for. We can simply borrow ideas from our own past and adapt them to suit our present living.

Our cities were once designed prioritising the health of the environment and thereby, the health of its people, applying logic and sensibility that best suited the given ecological conditions. While there is constant research being conducted by academicians and theorists on the functioning of cities in the past, social and environmental concerns recognised by activists and students and money flows directed for development by administrations, there is a visible communication gap. When our trajectories do not converge and participate in the loop of implementation, efforts can be lost in vain. Our cities are conglomerations of the country’s talent, laboratories of building expertise and canvases that offer hybrid cultural experiences. It is essential, therefore, that we execute model standards of hygiene and infrastructure to support healthy lifestyles. City dwellers should be able to identify breather spaces, by the lake or inside a patch of forest, to connect with nature and stimulate their mental and physical wellbeing. Public nodes, that punctuate mundane routes of commute, like the bus stop or subway, can become interesting pauses for social interaction and reflection. Our

A. Vegetative Buffer/B. Chabutra or Stepped Plinth

There are many legends that associate waterbodies with women and assume them to be feminine spaces. In Sirohi, like other parts of the country, stepwells were commissioned by queens as an act of social philanthropy or for commemoration of the dead, and hence were named after them.

• Gangaur, a festival in Rajasthan traditionally celebrated by women for the wellbeing of their husbands who were often away fighting wars, includes rituals of bathing at the stepped ghat or well and lighting lamps in the water after praying to Goddess Parvati.

streets must be designed better to encourage walking and cycling as alternatives. However, as a broader stance, the geographical realities of these places have to be grasped and recorded to become the basis of any future planning. This requires changes at the policy-level where non-negotiable constituents, like rivers, estuaries, lakes etc., are identified and preserved as top-most priority. Prototypes for housing can then be developed based on guidelines that take into account the natural course of drainage, water seepage into the soil during the monsoon, local rain harvesting techniques and native vegetation. Our public spaces should be designed such that we can sensitively engage with the identified ecological features and recognise them as a significant part of the urbanscape. Not only will this add to reinforcing the identity that sets our cities apart from one another, they will imbibe a sense of pride and responsibility in those who benefit from its presence.