Dwelling on the Pasthttps://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/dwelling-on-the-past-5471205/

Dwelling on the Past

At this year’s Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation, several Indian projects came in for high praise. Here’s a look at what makes them special.

Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation, Unesco, Asia Pacific awards, cultural heritage conservation, indian express, indian express news
A thing of joy: The restored Munshi and Gyaoo houses in the old town of Leh. (Courtesy: Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation)

Nestled amid towering mountains, in the barren and lonely landscape of Ladakh, houses were built to keep the community together. The shared walls, sometimes, even a ceiling and a roof, nurtured a sense of kinship among the local populace. It was the same with the Munshi and Gyaoo Houses in the old town of Leh, which sat at the foothills of the 17th century Lechen Pelkhar (Leh Palace), once home to King Sengge Namgyal. When the Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation (LAMO) set up their centre in these restored houses, they also became custodians of the ancient traditions that sustained the hill town.

The LAMO centre won the Award of Distinction at this year’s Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. “Located to the eastern side of the palace, the Munshi House was the residence of King Namgyal’s minister, and at one time even contained the treasury. The whole area, in fact, was home to everyone who mattered to the king, from his tailor to his ministers,” says Monisha Ahmed, a researcher on material culture, and co-founder of LAMO. With author and anthropologist Ravina Aggarwal, they conceptualised the centre in 1996. However, the idea of an office didn’t develop until 2003.
While the centre today boasts of an arts space with galleries, a library, a reading room, a conference room and an open-air performance space, what they initially came to was dilapidated stone walls and collapsing wooden pillars. “In 2003, I met John Harrison, who was working on a nearby building, supported by INTACH (UK) Trust for a conservation programme in Leh. He told me that the Munshi House was marked as a historical building as part of Leh’s Development Plan in 1987. John introduced me to the owners, Dr Angchuk Munshi and his father Ishey Stoben, who had been looking to restore their ancestral house,” says Ahmed.
Harrison, who had arrived in Ladakh in 1985, joined the Tibet Heritage Fund three years later. His restoration and conservation projects led him to analyse the structural and cultural significance of buildings in the area. In his book, The LAMO Centre: Restoration and Adaptive Reuse in Leh Old Town (2017), he explains how both the Munshi and Gyaoo Houses have similar spaces, reflecting on their three-tiered division: The ground floor is where the stables and toilet pits are; the storerooms and shrine to appease the gods of the earth are above them; the main living area is built around a fire/ stove place and the rooftop with the prayer flags is the realm of the gods.
Ladhaki buildings take cues from Tibetan architecture in its structural column-beam design and externally, too, with slanting walls, small windows and projecting balconies (rabsal). Brick parapets, wooden frames or with wooden lattice work, echo its Kashmiri origins. “Many people have abandoned their homes in recent years and when they left, they took with them wooden ceilings and parts of the house that could be salvaged. It was the same with the Munshi house. We began work on its restoration in 2005. The owner of the house next door approached us to take over the restoration of Gyaoo House too, since the two houses shared a wall,” says Ahmed.
With help from locals, craftspeople and college students, Harrison and his team rebuilt the broken walls around the entrance to the Munshi house with stone and brick buttress. They added timbre support to rooms which possibly has 19th century beams.

Built to Wow

The two Mumbai projects that won Honourable Mention at the awards.
Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation, Unesco, Asia Pacific awards, cultural heritage conservation, indian express, indian express news
Somaya and Kalappa Consultants: The 85m-tall Victorian Rajabai Clock Tower (right) and the adjacent Mumbai University Library.

The centre’s restoration took nearly five years to complete. Harrison records in his book that “earth bricks used for restoration in Munshi House were made on site to match the old bricks, using earth from the site, with river sand, chopped straw and yak dung.” While slate for the roof and flooring was brought from Chilling, a two-hour drive away, wood from Kashmir was used for beams, pillars in the roof and floor joists. Harrison also introduced techniques that were both climatically efficient and structurally sound. From bituminous roofing and recycled glass and plastic bottles as base to improve thermal insulation in the roof to using wood shavings in the central cavity for new brick walls, the spaces had become conservatories of sorts for the seasons. Mumbai-based artist Baptist Coelho says, “A maze of leaning mud walls, organically entwined into each other, the building leaves me gobsmacked. Given the ruin it was, such intricate and rigorous restoration can only surface when there is a sincere affinity towards the arts and culture.”