Heritage on the brink: Historic homes, temples are fighting climate change - Hindustan Times
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Heritage on the brink: Historic homes, temples are fighting climate change

ByRiddhi Doshi
Aug 03, 2023 11:38 PM IST

In India’s arid and semi-arid zones, climate change is wreaking havoc on architecture, threatening cultures and the ways of life associated with them.

Ancient homes in Ladakh that have stood for up to 300 years are under threat from a source no one anticipated: rain.

The grand mansions of Shekhawati bear unique frescoes (paintings on wet plaster) that still draw tourists. These paintings that showcase local art forms, and also tell of changing times are now flaking because of the new extremes of heat and cold. (Shutterstock)
The grand mansions of Shekhawati bear unique frescoes (paintings on wet plaster) that still draw tourists. These paintings that showcase local art forms, and also tell of changing times are now flaking because of the new extremes of heat and cold. (Shutterstock)

Homes, monasteries and heritage structures across India’s arid and semi-arid zones – Ladakh, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Shekhawati – are scrambling to deal with the impact of unusual weather phenomena. Amid the escalating climate crisis, they are encountering heavy rain, rising humidity, new extremes of heat and cold.

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The rains create standing pools on the roofs of houses built of mud or porous stone or, in the case of the semi-nomadic Changpa peoples, soak their yak-wool tents. The tents become unusable. “We are used to bitter cold, harsh winds and sun, but not the rains. Rain is a new phenomenon for us,” says Changpa shepherdess Sonam Yangdol, 45.

With the mud and stone homes, the damage is insidious. The water seeps from the roof into the walls and masonry. As the weather cools, it freezes and expands. Between the humidity and the cracks, the homes weaken, and the routine maintenance – expensive anyway, and rendered more so because traditional building practices have faded away – becomes a relentless battle against the elements.

So the homes and temples are either emptying out, or changing. “Now, in conserved buildings, we are making provisions for changing weather patterns with, for instance, more steeply sloped roofs so that rainwater can flow off rather than seep into the structures,” says conservation architect Yutaka Hirako of the Tibet Heritage Fund, which operates, among other regions, in Ladakh.

Not everyone has access to the kind of support the Fund offers. In Shekhawati, centuries-old mansions with elaborate frescoes on the outside – displays of pride in the region’s culture; art works tracing changes such as the invention of the hot-air balloon, telephone and steam locomotive – are seeing art-covered plaster flake off, damaged by unprecedented humidity and intensifying extremes of heat and cold.

In the blue city of Jodhpur, residents of sandstone and lime-plaster homes that have stood for centuries are struggling to deal with the damage from volumes of rain so great that the Army had to be called into the desert city last year, to help with the widespread flooding.

“I repaint my house every Diwali, but now the plaster is peeling so fast that once a year isn’t enough,” says Chandralekha Purohit, 55, whose three-storey, 400-year-old family home is a landmark in Old Jodhpur. Paint, of course, only covers up the cracks.

All along the coast of Maharashtra, meanwhile, a by-now-familiar phenomenon is causing an unfamiliar effect: rising sea levels are eating away at historic sea forts and causing spikes in groundwater levels that are spreading damp through their stone walls and floors.

“We’ve known for a while that, in India, the regions most vulnerable to climate change are the Himalayas, the coastal belt and the semi-arid zones, says Anjal Prakash, research director at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, and one of the authors of last year’s sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “The IPCC report made it very clear that climate has been changing more rapidly than was earlier estimated.”

“In Shekhawati last year, minimum temperatures dropped to -4.5 degrees Celsius, from the usual range of 0 to 1 degrees. These extremes have become a conservation concern,” says conservation architect Urvashi Srivastava.

In Maharashtra, the Archaeological Survey of India is working with a team of conservationists, biologists and geologists from Dronah (the Development and Research Organisation for Nature, Arts and Heritage) to assess the damage to coastal and sea forts and draw up a plan for what it will take to conserve them.

Meanwhile, along the coast of the same state and across others, all the way down to the eco-sensitive Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, massive development projects are underway. Projects large and small have long peppered the Himalayas, where towns such as Joshimath in Uttarakhand are now crumbling as the ground heaves and sinks.

“The current climate crisis is completely our doing,” says Prakash. “Unregulated construction, infrastructure projects, unchecked tourism growth in eco-sensitive zones, destruction of green lands… The more we pollute, the more problems we will face. We have to chart a plan for a green economy, one that doesn’t lead to pollution.”

Ladakh: The land of cold tested by rain

The Changpas live in rebos, hexagonal tents made from yak wool. They’re resistant to cold, but not to water, rendering them become unusable during the rains. “We are used to bitter cold, harsh winds and sun, but not the rains. Rain is a new phenomenon for us,” says Changpa shepherdess Sonam Yangdol, 45.
The Changpas live in rebos, hexagonal tents made from yak wool. They’re resistant to cold, but not to water, rendering them become unusable during the rains. “We are used to bitter cold, harsh winds and sun, but not the rains. Rain is a new phenomenon for us,” says Changpa shepherdess Sonam Yangdol, 45.

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Across the Himalayan desert region of Ladakh, old homes, temples and monasteries are struggling to keep pace with the damage caused by rising volumes of rain, amid the climate crisis. Some residents and conservationists are altering traditional architecture that stood for centuries, to cope with new phenomena such as standing water collecting on roofs.

In the cold, dry environment, traditional structures were built using locally available stone, mud, wood and dried grass. “Buildings were designed to trap heat during severely cold months, and breathe during the summers, with room for ventilation,” says conservation architect Yutaka Hirako who has worked with the Tibet Heritage Fund for 11 years.

The Fund, an international not-for-profit organisation founded in 1996, has restored 70 structures in Ladakh since its inception, most of these old houses in Leh.

“Now, in restored buildings, we are making provisions for the changing weather patterns with, for instance, more steeply sloped roofs so that rainwater can flow off rather than seep into the structures.”

There is living heritage at risk of being lost, as rain seepage and humidity also eat away at wall paintings inside temples and monasteries, says art conservationist Sreekumar Menon, who has been working to conserve 100- to 500-year old wall paintings on the interiors of Buddhist temples across the Himalayan desert region since 2006.

According to data from the India Meteorological Department, annual rainfall in Ladakh has risen from 28.9 mm in 2011 to 70.3 mm in 2019. “It hardly ever rained in Ladakh, but now we seem to be having a proper monsoon,” says 31-year-old Rigzin Lachic. She runs Dolkhar, a sustainable hotel in Leh built in traditional Ladakhi style, with stone and mud.

“Waterproofing is the biggest challenge,” she says. The flat, mud roofs accumulate rainwater, which percolates into masonry, dampening the plaster, causing cracks and damage.

“When snow melts and ingresses into a wall, the damage is slower and less. Rainwater percolates faster, damaging large areas,” says Menon. “As temples are surrounded by open drains, the rainwater also ingresses into the floor.”

There is living heritage at risk of being lost, as rain seepage and humidity also eat away at wall paintings inside temples and monasteries in Ladakh. (Shutterstock)
There is living heritage at risk of being lost, as rain seepage and humidity also eat away at wall paintings inside temples and monasteries in Ladakh. (Shutterstock)

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At higher altitudes, a whole different heritage is at risk, as rain threatens the semi-nomadic Changpas’ way of life. This is the community that herds the Changra, the goat that yields pashmina wool. The Changpas live in rebos, hexagonal tents made from yak wool. They’re resistant to cold, but not to water.

“Rain is a relatively new phenomenon for us,” says shepherdess Sonam Yangdol, 45. She has been spending the summers in the village of Kharnak, which is at an elevation of 14,921 ft above sea level, for almost three decades. “We are used to bitter cold, harsh winds and sun, but not the rains, which have become a lot more frequent and heavier, in July and August, sometimes even in September.”

The rebos have been leaking; the goats, sheep and yaks becoming sick in their pens. “The rains also make the sandy terrain mucky. It sticks to the goats’ coats, impacting the quality and quantity of pashmina wool,” Yangdol says.

The threat to their livelihood has forced many Changpas to discontinue their old way of life and move to the cities, where they usually end up working as drivers or construction labourers.

“Annual pashmina production has reduced by 40% since 2001,” says Dorjey Stanzin, chairman of the All Changthang Pashmina Growers Cooperative Marketing Society. “The mortality rate among the livestock has increased by 20% due to unprecedented rain, snowfall and heat. Youngsters are giving up this way of life. They move to the cities for an easier life. In Chantang, the youngest herders are largely in their 50s. Sometimes I think this might be the last generation of pashmina goat herders in some parts of Ladakh.”

Jodhpur: Stone homes battle storms, soaring temperatures

In the blue city of Jodhpur, residents of sandstone and lime-plaster homes that have stood for centuries are struggling to deal with the damage from volumes of rain the city has been experiencing. (Shutterstock)
In the blue city of Jodhpur, residents of sandstone and lime-plaster homes that have stood for centuries are struggling to deal with the damage from volumes of rain the city has been experiencing. (Shutterstock)

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Standing tall at 65 ft, the 400-year-old Purohit residence is a landmark in Old Jodhpur’s narrow, low-rise bylanes. The three-storey structure was built in the same traditional style as the rest of the blue city, using sandstone covered in indigo-lime plaster.

There’s only one resident left in this house, 55-year-old Chandralekha Purohit. She lost her husband three years ago. And she’s finding it harder and harder to keep up with the maintenance that her sandstone house requires.

Sandstone is soft and porous, and Jodhpur has been getting unprecedented amounts of something it rarely experienced: rain. “Water is seeping in through the roof, onto the walls, damaging the plaster,” Purohit says. “I repaint my house every Diwali, but now the plaster is peeling so fast that once a year isn’t enough.”

It’s the same across the old homes here. Govind Singh Bhati, an art and culture curator, has been conducting heritage walks in Jodhpur since 2010. He’s seen the escalating damage to the Purohit residence, a main attraction on his walks, and to other houses in the ancient city, founded in 1459 by Rao Jodha, chief of the Rathore clan.

The blue city received light rainfall even a few days ago. “Rainfall in February used to be unheard of in Jodhpur,” Bhati says. Jodhpur received 60% more rainfall in 2022 than its annual average, causing flooding in some parts that made national news. Unprepared for such volumes (73 mm in 24 hours at one point), the Army had to be called in to help with rescue efforts.

At the 400-year-old Purohit residence, a landmark in Old Jodhpur’s narrow, low-rise bylanes, water is seeping in through the roof, onto the walls, damaging the plaster. (Bluecity walks)
At the 400-year-old Purohit residence, a landmark in Old Jodhpur’s narrow, low-rise bylanes, water is seeping in through the roof, onto the walls, damaging the plaster. (Bluecity walks)

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Intensifying heat waves have caused further damage to structures, as humidity retained in the stone expands and contracts. The Ministry of Earth Sciences recorded a total of 203 heatwave days across India in 2022, five times more than in 2021. The worst-affected states were Uttarakhand, with 28 heatwave days, followed by Rajasthan, with 26.

Adding to the menace are the logistical challenges residents face in repairing their homes. The narrow lanes cannot accommodate trucks. Construction material must be offloaded outside the Old City and brought in mini-tempos, or by labourers. This doubles the cost of even simple repairs. Fail to make the repairs in time, and the damage escalates, says Shikha Jain, architect, heritage conservationist and founder-director of Gurugram-based Dronah (Development and Research Organisation for Nature, Arts and Heritage). “Maintenance is hard, and poor maintenance just accelerates the deterioration.”

Shekhawati: Havelis standing tall but fading away

In the desert state of dry winds, the mansions of Shekhawati had been built for wear and tear. Now, amid new extremes of weather, the art is flaking off the walls, the foundations are weakening. (HT Archives)
In the desert state of dry winds, the mansions of Shekhawati had been built for wear and tear. Now, amid new extremes of weather, the art is flaking off the walls, the foundations are weakening. (HT Archives)

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You can drive for 100 km in northern Rajasthan – across the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar and Churu in the Shekhawati region – and never run out of grand mansions to marvel at. Some are 200 years old, all bear the unique frescoes (paintings on wet plaster) that still draw tourists here.

The famous 18th- and 19th-century painted havelis of Shekhawati have withstood centuries of neglect. Some of these are relatively uncared-for since their owners, competing Marwari merchants looking to outdo each other (hence the escalating scale of the homes, and the art work on their exteriors), left the region as better opportunities presented themselves in the growing colonial-era cities of Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi.

The homes still stood tall. In the desert state of dry winds, they’d been built for wear and tear. Now, amid new extremes of heat and cold, the art is flaking off the walls, the foundations weakening.

These mansions were built using pressed-mud bricks and lime mortar. In addition to the famous frescoes, some have artwork hand-painted onto Burma teak. The frescoes are intriguing because they showcase local art forms, and also tell of changing times. The motifs range from mythological stories to then-new inventions such as the hot-air balloon, telephone and steam locomotive.

“The increasingly severe weather acts as a second level of vulnerability for these neglected structures,” says conservation architect Urvashi Srivastava, who has worked in Shekhawati for two decades.

Last winter, Fatehpur village in Churu recorded a new low of -4.5 degrees Celsius, far colder than its usual range of 0 to 1 degrees in winter. “In sub-zero temperature, water that has seeped into the masonry also freezes and expands, leading to more severe cracks,” Srivastava says.

As the homes are still privately owned, restoration and conservation is ad-hoc. Many havelis have been sold, torn down and replaced by malls and residential buildings. But thousands survive (including a few well cared for ones). In a 2007 survey, the Rajasthan State Museum and Monument Management and Development Society, which operates under the state’s Department of Archaeology and Museums, mapped and inventoried 3,000 structures across 13 towns in the region. “All were found to be in need of urgent conservation,” Srivastava says.

The struggle to conserve them begins with securing permission from distant owners, and mobilising funding. It extends to a lack of manpower (traditional craftsmen have moved on to other construction methods) and lately, a lack of lime. “Cement is widespread, so there is hardly any demand for lime. Few people still make it. This also drives up the price,” Srivastava says.

In an attempt to promote and organise conservation in the region, Srivastava founded the NGO CATTS (the Centre for Advancement of Traditional Building Technology and Skills) in 2001. “If we have skilled people, the owners might want to consider restoring these mansions,” she says.

In 2019, CATTS had its first big win in this regard. It spearheaded the restoration of the Dangayach Haveli, built in 1892, in Nawalgarh town, Jhunjhunu. The bat-infested structure was restored by local masons using lime mortar. Damaged doors, windows and lime lattices were repaired. The structure is now used as a cultural centre, with a share of the proceeds from ticket sales going towards its ongoing maintenance.

A permanent exhibit features panels, photographs and a short film about the history and culture of Shekhawati and its conservation challenges. “But a piecemeal approach to conservation won’t work,” says Srivastava.

For now, the win has brought some joy. “I am glad that I could conserve my family’s haveli and put it to good use,” says Govind Dangayach, 72, who is a carpet manufacturer in Nawalgarh, and custodian of the Dangayach Haveli.

Maharashtra: Monuments of war threatened by the sea

Te 15th-century Murud-Janjira fort built by Raja Ram Rao Patil, the Koli ruler of Janjira, is suffering escalating damage from the impact of rising sea levels and the subsequent rise of groundwater levels. (Shutterstock)
Te 15th-century Murud-Janjira fort built by Raja Ram Rao Patil, the Koli ruler of Janjira, is suffering escalating damage from the impact of rising sea levels and the subsequent rise of groundwater levels. (Shutterstock)

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They’ve stood for hundreds of years (almost 900 in one case). Through wars and colonisation, the fall of the Maratha empire, the struggle for Independence and Partition.

They are some of the country’s most telling monuments to the might of Indian kings.

Now, amid the climate crisis, the ocean is nibbling away at them, and the government of Maharashtra is assembling task forces to try and figure out how to protect its iconic sea forts.

At the invitation of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), conservation architect Shikha Jain has spent the last three months studying 26 of Maharashtra’s sea forts, including the 15th-century Murud-Janjira fort built by Raja Ram Rao Patil, the Koli ruler of Janjira; the Vijaydurg fort built in 1205 by Raja Bhoja II of the Shilahara dynasty of Kolhapur; the Sindhudurg fort built by the warrior-king Shivaji in 1667 (all of which sit on islands or in some cases strips of rock off the coast); and one of Maharashtra’s oldest forts, in Bassein aka Vasai on the outskirts of Mumbai, built right by the sea in 1184 by the Yadavas of Devagiri.

Based on her initial observations, Jain says they are suffering escalating damage from the impact of rising sea levels and the subsequent rise of groundwater levels. “The sea water is flowing deeper inside the forts than a few years ago,” Jain says. “This leaves more salt deposits on and in the structures, eroding the stones, weakening the mortar and impacting the construction masonry.”

Jain is founder-director of Dronah (Development and Research Organisation for Nature, Arts and Heritage), and is working on the sea-forts research project along with a team of experts that includes a biologist and a geologist. They’ve been tasked with drawing up a site management map for the conservation of these historic structures.

A worrying sign, Jain says, is that damp patches can be seen at ground level and on the inside walls of some forts. “Conserving these forts will be a challenge,” she adds. “Some of them are made from harder basalt stone, others from softer laterite. They’re exhibiting different level of deterioration, in different environs. Each will need a different plan and strategy.”

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