What is a house?
Is it just a living space?
A space made of wood and stones, concrete filled with furniture, molded to serve our needs of shelter. But then people put effort building these structures, furnishing with hope of the future and their insurance for their coming generations. We shape memories on each broken chair, scraped woods and dent on the walls which will be covered up but the recollections lingers. Lines of childhood drawn on the pillars no matter how many times you paint over it, the stories still remain engraved in our conscious. All these emotions give the sense of warmth in a house that then becomes a home.
Different communities have different housing structures based on their cultural understanding of their milieu. As the populations moved from nomadic lifestyle into structured settlements their residences evolved to cope with the environment around them. The Lepchas being an indigenous community residing on mountainous terrain, at the foothills of the Himalayas in Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts in West Bengal, Parts of Bhutan and Nepal have their own traditional houses. To better understand these architectural structures one must also keep in mind the landscapes around it. The mountains that the Lepchas adore dearly not only offer them protection geographically and spiritually, it also comes with other repercussions. The young fold mountain range stops the monsoon winds from passing through, which gives the region some of the highest rainfalls in the subcontinent. Rain accompanied by landslides and flash floods sweeps away lives and slop failures, etc.
Facing the unpredictable weather and unstable landscape, the Lepcha houses also evolved keeping in mind the environment around them. A traditional Lepcha house is known as Dokemoo Lee, doke meaning ‘sit on top’ and lee means a ‘house’. The Lepcha house is built using huge flat stones on which pillars are erected and then the house is built atop. The whole structure is built usually only using an axe to cut the trees and shape the wood. No nails are used to join the wooden panels and pillars rather all the pieces are put together like a puzzle. It is said that in the bygone days, people would look for a place with lots of huge stones and trees. When an ideal spot was identified dokemoo lee would be built as per the availability of resources. When an appropriate area is identified, it would then be cleared for building the house and the materials already available around them would be utilized. The stones are molded into desired shape and size and then laid down as foundation known as Kaden long, on top of which the kaodampu, wooden pillars are placed. This helps raise the main structure above the ground. It acts as a defense mechanism to avoid encounters with wild animals. Also this helped them house their domestic animals close by. Mostly, the number of wooden pillars varies from eight to thirteen to the maximum of eighteen. But this may differ from house to house.
The skeleton of the house is prepared using whole trees placed horizontally known as salen joined with each other and with the kaodampu which is placed vertically in the middle. Next the huge wooden panels are prepared and used for cutting out rooms or bo and the flooring. Rough at first but with time it gets its sheen with years of usage. The wooden panels often used to have a strategic gap between some in the past, as it acted as an opening and used as a functioning lavatory. The walls are later built with either a mixture of grass, mud and bamboo or just wooden panels in the earlier days known as damchyok. With the domestication of animals, cow dung mixed with red soil later came into use. The bamboos are cut in desirable lengths and size and interwoven between the pillars. This is layered with mud mixture until
a thick wall is formed. In other case, just wooden panels are used for the walls.
A dokemoo lee also consists of a balcony known as aayo, in-front of the main door often extending to other two sides of the house, laid with wood or bamboo. Safety measures are taken by securing the balcony by a slightly elevated bamboo wall. The roof is initially structured with bamboos giving the basic shape of the roof then, nyong or thatch grass is laid over them. This grass is used in places with moderately high temperature and lower altitude, like Kalimpong and lower parts of Darjeeling. Places with high altitude and colder temperature use smaller species of bamboo for the roof, found in Sikkim.
The Lepchas use huge flat stones known as kaden long to lay the foundation of a Dokemoo Lee on top of which kaodampu (huge wooden pillars) are raised and then the house built. And because of the kaden long the house has oftentimes come to be called as Kadenmoo Lee- because of which there is still an ongoing debate among the community as to which name should be applied to call the traditional house. The wooden pillars can be of any number depending on the size of the house. It can range from eight to sixteen, and up to eighteen pillars (mixture of both bigger and smaller posts) or sometimes also in odd numbers. The Kaden long ensures the kaodampu does not get rotten easily because the moisture from the ground is not absorbed.
It is of the popular belief that these pillars make a Dokemoo Lee resistant to natural calamities like earthquake and landslide. It is believed that when an earthquake occurs, the house would just tumble on top of the foundational stones and not collapse. The other theory is that if there is a landslide the impact would be minimal and would not directly hit the house as the impact is broken within the empty space below the house from where the mud can escape. The other purpose for which the space between the ground and the main house is used as mentioned previously is for housing cattle. Now with the application of health reforms, the domesticated animals are kept at a distance from the house and the space is used as storage for firewood, hay and other materials.
The kitchen is an important part of a dokemoo lee as it is where most of the activities take place. It is also a place where family gathers, shares food, and converses. It is here where the generation gaps are layered with sentiments, stories are shared, emotions spilled, opinions put up and knowledge passed down. It is a place where family decisions are made. Small baskets are kept on top of the Panthop, just above the hearth. It holds the seeds of tomorrow which will feed the family and sometimes the whole villages. Sometimes these seeds are exchanged among households and among villages. These in turn forge alliances and relations among clans and villages.
The main hearth is elevated from the ground where three stones are erected in a triangle making space for the firewood to go in and also to support the pots and vessels. Usually the hearth is at one corner of the kitchen making room for the people to assemble and settle in the room. The kitchen also has a small granary where seeds are stored. This is a much later addition to the traditional structure of the architecture as settled agriculture gained more popularity. The granary usually is made out of wood. Other times, a thop consists of an attic known as palhong which is used both as a granary and as storage for seeds and food. The palhong is connected to the thop with bamboos and wood. It can be accessed with a tungrung or ladder. All special rituals take place in this room and is also the venue of many ceremonies. During a marriage ceremony, the bride is supposed to carry a couple of firewood and light the fire at the hearth symbolizing the start of a new household and entering a new phase of life. These are not just structures but Lungten (traditions)
that are molded and remolded as they passed down from one generation to the other.
The thop is traditionally made of thop long consisting of three stones erected in the form of a triangle in a platform elevated a few inches from the floor made of mud and stones. But the design has changed, borrowed and evolved overtime. Panthop is the upper part of the main hearth. It is where the firewood is dried which is later used to cook and to stay warm. It is also a spot where food especially meat is smoked dried and which can be reserved for times when there is scarcity of food. The seeds to be planted the following year are dried here. As the Lepchas usually practice subsistence agriculture they keep indigenous crops which are reliable and climate resistant, like kamdak zo, Kodo, mong, kuchung, beans, some vegetables etc. it is a place which ensures the sustainability of the family and the continuation of the culture.
Other rooms consist of Aang-bo commonly known as the drawing room, Aada-bo or bedroom and later Kingkhur (Tibetan word for alter or here used to describe the whole room) or a prayer room. The addition of the prayer room changed the structure of the house and the status of the most important room in the house transferred from the thop to the Kingkhur room. Today the traditional structure of the thop has had many additions and renovations depending on the necessity of the individuals using it. While some still follow traditional structures, many thops are built at a height making it easier to stand and cook. Some are being replaced by LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) stoves and gas. Along with the thop, the existing dokemoo lee have been subjected to transformation and have changed over the years. Old wooden pillars have been replaced by concrete pillars and the thatched roof with steel or an entirely new house. People no more engage in making a dokemoo lee, as it is more time consuming and tiresome. The availability of materials are also a great challenge even if one desires to build a dokemoo lee.
Though people are still trying to revive traditional houses, it requires a lot of time, energy and investment. This is many times not rewarded back and the house returns to its original state of limbo and no one knows what to do with it. But the recent trend of home-stays have been a blessing for these houses to come alive and be operative a few times in a year. This trend has ensured a steady flow of income as well as the use of the traditional heritage. More dokemoo lees are being built in the recent years supported by community associations also confirming the continuity of heritage and technology among the community.
The architectural design change with the change in altitude as a mode of coping with the environment. The Dokemoo Lees of Sikkim use a bamboo roof since it is cold, sometimes to endure snowfalls, in contrast to the Kalimpong dokemoo lee, which is made of thatch grass as the climate is moderately warmer. The grass acts as a perfect insulator, which ventilates smoke and air in and out of the house. Though these houses have more or less a similar design, it varies based on the personality of the owner which could be seen in the design of the house made according to their needs and convenience. The other change came about with time as it progressed and so grass roof and bamboo roofs have been replaced by more durable steel roofs.
With time and modern materials, more concrete houses started becoming a popularity and many changes were made to the traditional houses. The Kao dampu has been replaced by concrete pillars, floors replaced with cemented flooring and later by more polished and marbled floorings. The roof replaced by tin sheets which had to be renovated once in a vey long period of time. The thop and hearth replaced by stoves run on LPG cylinderd gas and electricity. Thus, the architectural structures have changed and evolved gradually and are in a menial state. Those that remain are an amalgamation of both tradition and modernity, which can be neither categorised as a modern house nor a traditional one. But we can surely put them under a different evolving category, since they are still under a process of change. Some are stuck frozen in time forever, abandoned- just a reminiscent of the past, used only for storage and by researchers like myself to understand the past and the state of transition in between. Though these spaces may lose their durability, the flavours they brewed inside will forever be seen as a rich part of the Lepcha culture and traditions.
Rongnyoo Lepcha -
A doctoral student, from Bong Busty, Kalimpong at the Department of Anthropology, Sikkim University. She completed her M.Phil in 2016 from Department of Anthropology Sikkim University. She also worked as a weekly content writer for the ‘Field work Reflections’ on Summit Times from 2017-2019.
Her research interests includes Material culture, Visual Anthropology, Folktales, Food Culture, Indigeneity, Identity, Art and Anthropology and Museum. She is also an artist and freelance illustrator.
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