Friday, July 4, 2008


(divankhanu ceiling)

(a pol house)

(chowk with chabutaro)
(a pol house)
In the urban landscape of India, one of the most visually appealing spaces is the walled city of Ahmedabad, known for its intricately carved wooden architecture and the neighbourhood settlements of pols. Pols are enclosed residential clusters entered by gates, which used to be shut at nights. The essence of a pol is a network of small streets, side lanes, shrines and open community spaces with a cabutaro, a birdhouse raised on a pole to feed birds in the neighbourhood.
There are interesting historical accounts about the pol and the wooden pol houses.
1879 Ahmedabad Gazetteer – ‘some of them (i.e. houses in city were known as khadiya), especially those about fifty years old, are ornamented with much rich and finely cut woodwork. From their fondness for this part of the town and the want of open sites, the families, as they grew larger, added story on story to the old houses, the upper stories often jutting out so far that, when two opposite houses were enclosed their eves almost met across the roadway.’
French traveller Louis Rousselet in 1864 – ‘The houses of the rich inhabitants are built of brick and wood and all display that aspect of originally which a profusion of balconies and small sculptured columns given to the Goojerat houses. It is peculiar to Ahmedabad that these houses are never painted.’
The Origin of Pol Settlement Pattern:
The pol settlement pattern has a rural origin prevalent in the villages of North Gujarat. It is also called khadki type of settlement.
In the villages of North Gujarat each house is joined to the next by a common party wall and many such houses form a row opposite it and two rows thus enclose a space in front, which resembles a ‘street’ but which is, in fact, a common yard. No house has an enclosed courtyard of its own. In order to ensure privacy and security, the ends of the common yard are closed off by a wall on one side and a gateway on the other. The rear walls of all the houses which are exceptionally thick and have no windows, form a continuous line. Put together the settlement looks like a turf, whose enclosing wall is simultaneously the rear wall of a house. With the ends enclosed off, the settlement forms a closed unit guarded by a single gateway used by a large number of families. The gateway is known as khadki.
All the families of a khadki are not only of the same caste but are also of blood relations. Every village has a number of such khadkis belonging to different castes and occupations.
In cities, khadkis belonging to different castes may adjoin each other and may all open into a common street, closed at either end with gates. The city khadkis are called pols.
The Social Background:

In North Gujarat, good soil and adequate rainfall permitted agriculture to be the main occupation. Cattle wealth was much lesser compared to Saurashtra. The cattle kept were mainly for haulage, ploughing and milk. The need for common open space running in front of all the houses arrange to stable cattle.

Men used to be away from their homes and thereby the yard were used and watched by the women, children and the elderly. The absence of adult males for most of the time necessitated some kind of security for the family and its dwelling. Thus the yard not only protected the cattle but also served as a protection for the women.

In the Research Accounts:
D.F. Pocock: “Descendents of a common ancestor have built together in such a manner that the backs of their houses constitute a wall around the whole which is entered by a the past they were closed at night, thus creating a small fortress within the village. The whole village thus appears as a collection of such a few remaining khadkis...there still remain the little lodges on the right just inside the gates. There the head of the khadki used to sit and see who came and went, and there he could be visited by strangers who, without invitation, would not have been allowed to wander in the khadki lanes, especially when the men might be in the fields and the women alone at home.’

The first settlers of a North Gujarat village were a group of families linked by kinship or common ancestry. Apart from the khadki they also founded two other essential facilities: a well for drinking water and a pond (bhagol) for cattle and house building. The pond site marked a formal entrance to the village as well as a camping site for outsiders. In course of time, a small temple and platform for sitting were added. These were the only common spaces in the village.

Service castes like the barber, carpenter and blacksmith were always considered as ‘outsiders’ and lived next to the bhagol.

As the villages grew, the descendents built additional khadkis of varying sizes around the original one, yet in random orders. Gradually an irregular pattern emerged with narrow lanes winding between khadkis, but these remained closed to each other for the security. Each khadki was named after a senior member of the group. As all the members in the khadkis were related to each other, this imparted a tightly kint homogeneous character, but this had also disadvantages, especially with related to land. The kinship group dominated the village and owned all the land. The other groups could not settle in it. The insularity of the village prevented traders, manufacturers and artisans, other than those from rural areas, from inhabiting it. The villages lacked functional diversity as well and only domestic life was prevalent. The village in general remained monotonously uniform: a collection of dwellings in which all activities took place. And it was this particular aspect which later influenced the urban pattern of Ahmedabad.

A typical khadki consists of a long open space or yard, lined on both sides by two storeyed dwellings. One end of the yard is closed off and the other is guarded by a two-storeyed gateway. The central yard functions as a circulation space for all the dwellings which open onto it, provides stabling area for milch cattle and is used by the women for some of their daily chorus during the day. The children use it as a play area and in the evenings it might be used by the men for socializing or sleeping out of doors. All important social functions such as marriages and religious festivals are performed here and all khadki members are expected to participate.

The khadki gateway overlooks both the internal yard and the street in front forming the threshold beyond which uninvited strangers may not enter. Some of these gates are so massive that they resemble entrance to forts. The actual doorway is large enough to permit carts to enter. Being the formal enclave to the enclave, the gateway has status – value and there has been always competition among the various khadkis to make the finest gateway in carved wood. Also there is a small wicket-gate set within one of the shutters to use at night when the gate is closed. Beyond the gate on either side there are two stone platforms meant for visitors to rest while their arrival is announced.

On the first floor of the gateway is a large hall with windows on two sides, and it was from here that a watch was kept on people passing in and out of the khadki. The older men of the khadki wo had retired from active life performed the function of guards. This area thus became a retiring place for the aged people and it also served as a place where the heads of the khadki families could gather to discuss problems and where visitors could stay overnight.
Apart from the yard, there were no other common facilities such as bathing places or latrines within the khadki.

The House:

Both security and the Hindu joint family structure determined the space utilization and planning of a khadki house in North Gujarat villages. The hearth occupied the back and to provide a semblance he added internal subdivisions, some measuring up to five feet in height, served as a space divider. Because of insecurity there were no windows or ventilators at the back, and kitchen smoke escaped through the chinks in the tiled roof. All light and air came in through the single entrance door. The interior of the house spatially partitioned into two parts: one at the back with the hearth and the other in the centre. Thus along with the veranda, there were three spaces together. These three spaces formed a fixed pattern for the house and are remained unchanged till date.

In a joint family system there are rules of avoidance between males and females – particularly between father-in-law and daughter-in-law, between elder brother and younger brother’s wife and between husband and wife. There are no strictly defined women’s areas and men’s areas but usually women occupy the rear and the men the front. Again the men are out of home the women are free to use the central place and even the khadki. Men and women can freely converse with each other across the ‘distance’ maintained, but when women serve the men during meals and other occasions, the distance is then broken.

Architecturally with the exception of the hearth no part of the dwelling has any permanent function. There are no clearly defined places for sleeping, working or sitting about and no family member is assigned a private space. Men and women sleep separately and eating is naturally around the hearth, with men and women eating separately. Bathing was usually done in the open at the well, pond or river.

Grain was stored in clay jars, cloths were hung on bamboo rods or on wall pegs and more valuable articles were kept in a large wooden chest on wheels (called patara). Gold and jewellery were hidden under the floor. The walls had small niches in which articles were kept, while a small similar niche served as a spot for the oil lamp.

Stages of development
A loft (mala) at the rear was the first addition to an enveloped like dwelling. The need for this arose because before the onset of monsoons, cooking fuel had to be stored and a loft meant saving ground space. To make the loft, a beam was introduced across the width of the dwelling, joists were placed over it in the other direction, and it was covered with battens of spilt bamboo and earth. The beam was placed just over the space dividers so a considerable area was covered by the loft. A removable ladder mainly used by the women provided access to the loft and its starting point was in the central place. In the urban house it is precisely at this spot that the stairs are placed.

The introduction of loft was an important spatial change as it transformed the house into a two storeyed arrangement at the back and a high, central single storeyed space in the centre. This was an important spatial change.

The next step was to replace the jar-space dividers by a wall which reached up to the loft-beam overhead. A door was provided in the middle of the wall. The rear part of the dwelling, containing the hearth, was now fully closed off into a room and was called ordo. The family now had an integral guarded space for all valuables, including the grain jars, the wooden chest, hidden chambers for gold and jewellery, vessels and finer cloths. Its usage changed, the central place was called parsal and the word is said to be derived from the Sanskrit pratisala meaning front hall. The remaining veranda was called otlo.

The final stage of development of the rural dwelling was when the loft was extended towards the front of the dwelling to cover both parsal and otlo, thus producing a regular first floor. The first floor of the dwelling basically repeated the spaces of the ground floor. Since it had developed out of the loft, it retained its inferior status and was used mainly by the junior members of the family or the visitors.

The ridge of the dwelling was not placed at the centre of the pitched roof but more towards and over the ordo. This divided the roof into two unequal parts in the ration of 1/3 and 2/3. This arrangement had no practical purpose and the only reason was to enhance more status to the more important space – the ordo. The otlo was of the lowest height above the ground, the parsal higher and the ordo highest. A similar difference was maintained in the sills of the doorframes. The sill of the door to the ordo was about 30 cm high, making it very awkward to negotiate and necessitating bending the head while entering. The reason was: the head had to be bent as a mark of respect to the grain jars stored within the ordo and this would bring prosperity.

All doors were located exactly in the centre of their respective walls, so that the two doors of the dwelling were on the same axis. Every door of the house had some carving on it, mainly on the surrounding frames, and the centre of the lintel was often adorned with the figure of Ganesh flanked by floral scrolls. The original reason behind the carvings was related to magical ritual.

The last superstition concerning the plan of the house is that the structure is not strictly rectangular, i.e. the two long walls should not be absolutely parallel but slightly splayed so that the front width of the house is slightly narrower than the rear one. The house thus had a slight trapezium form, which was called gaumukha or cow-mouthed. This shape was considered auspicious.

The Urban Settlement Pattern of the Walled City of Ahmedabad:

In contrast to the rural settlements of North Gujarat, the urban centre of Ahmedabad was inhabited by various castes, all having equal rights of occupations. All these castes were engaged in non-agricultural occupations, mainly trade and manufacture. The city was deliberately founded, both by the political authority or the rich mercantile class and from the beginning various castes were invited to settle in special wards allotted to them. For example, in the business of handlooms, one caste made yarn, another dyed it, a third worked it into cloth, a fourth painted it, and a fifth financed the various stages of the work and ultimately sold the finished product.

The diverse castes were distributed according to a fixed pattern. The traders and financiers occupied the central part, the lowest caste of artisans stayed on the periphery and the others in-between. The political authority, the Muslims, occupied a corner of the town and Hindus and Jains, a small portion of the centre. The castes and religious communities built their settlements in their respective areas according to their own architectural tradition, and these inevitably resembled the rural pattern. Thus, the walled city of Ahmedabad was composed of wards in which there were large groupings of khadkis and pols resembling a village. The maze of narrow winding lanes which characterized a village was repeated in each enclave.

Although Ahmedabad was known for their extensive commercial activities, there was no provision for any centralized market place and commercial buildings, no place of adjunctions, no place for public assembly even of merchants and no town halls. All kinds of commercial and craft activities were confined to the house yard. The carpenter, blacksmith or shopkeeper simply modified the front portion of his dwelling and used as a work place. Artisans and storekeepers were itinerant – they went from house to house offering their services or wares. Even for textiles, for which the urban centres of Gujarat were so famous, the work was carried out by individual families in their homes.

Security was another reason for which the walled city of Ahmedabad discouraged establishment of fancy markets and town centres. Islamic accounts have numerous accounts of mobs plundering bazaars and wealthy residences. Under such precarious circumstances, people preferred to live within their defensive enclaves.

The Urban Khadki and Pol of Ahmedabad:

The urban khadki of Ahmedabad was identical to the rural one, both in layout and function except that it was generally larger in size and had number of cul – de – sacs leading off from the common entrance. The families inhabiting the khadki continued to be kinship groups who used it in an identical manner. Some of the khadkis often opened to a common yard which than was guarded at either ends with gates. Some pols were extremely large. While theoretically any number of castes could inhabit a pol, but practically only members of upper castes lived together. This was because each pol had certain common facilities – such as wells for drinking water and using those by the lower castes were considered taboos. Certain other facilities were also provided within and outside a pol, such as facilities for the caste of scavengers called bhangis. The bhangis also guarded the gateways and acted as messengers between the inhabitants and visitors. At pol festivals they played music and beat drums.

Common pol functions were managed by a pol organisation headed by a senior member. The management of urban khadki was almost identical to that of a rural khadki. The tradition of imposing fines, the attendance at common ceremonies, the attempt to control membership, all these customs derive from caste practices and reveal how a rural system was superimposed upon an urban set – up. The urban seth corresponded to village patel became pol seths. The office of nagar seth or city mayer evolved from that of the pol seths.
Urban Houses:
In an urban house of the walled city of Ahmedabad the three basic subdivisions of spaces (otlo, parsal and ordo) were retained. However, certain additions and modifications were now made because of new functions, such as trade and business activities. As a consequence of trade, manufacture and artisanship, clients who were strangers would visit the residence to do business, which was not a case with rural residences. The stranger had to be given access and at the same time privacy of the family members had to be maintained. This new circumstance necessitated a change in the house plan. In addition to these basic units, a new unit was introduced. This consisted of a single room with its own front. Veranda or otlo faced the common space of the khadki which now assumed the function of a lane. The new layout had six parts in all: the three part basic unit at the back, the central courtyard, the chowk, and the new two-part front unit. The new unit was also called khadki, because it functioned like village gateway – as a barrier to halt strangers and to maintain distances them from the women.
The internal courtyard now appears for the first time mainly due to the architectural need from commercialisation. The courtyard was introduced within two distinct and separate units emphasizing the separateness between strangers and family members. The khadki room became a shop by the petty trader, as a workplace by artisans, and as a place for negotiating business. Its otlo was very narrow, because unlike in the village it is no longer served as a place for causal visitors or cattle. The height of the plinth was also raised substantially to give the house more distinguished frontage.
In the next stage of development, additions were made to the chowk in order to link the two part front and the three parts rear. Since crossing the space between them in the monsoon was inconvenient, it became necessary to connect the two parts by a covered passage. Two or three additional rooms were used as a kitchen (rasodu) and for water storage (paniyaru). By shifting the kitchen to a room adjoining the open chowk, smoke could escape via ventilators into the chowk. The entrance to the kitchen was remained from within the parsal so that privacy was maintained.
With these important functional changes, the urban house reached its second stage of spatial development, having eight parts altogether. On the first floor of the spaces of three and two part ground plan were repeated except for the veranda.
The ground floor ordo was now reduced to a storeroom and partial women’s sleeping area. When not needed for lying in – it was locked up. The portion of the parsal now became dining area.
In the first floor of the house, a few functional changes now occurred as a consequence of more complex urban life. The upper part of the house became a vantage point from which to observe events on the streets and for which larger windows were needed. In the first floor of khadki room thus large windows stretching down to the floor level and in some cases balconies were added. These additions gave an urban house an elegant look. The exterior side of these windows and balconies were richly carved with patterns and motifs similar to the ones in Hindu temples of North India.
As the pressure of population increased within a family, the normal two-storyed houses were often expanded to three or four storeys, but the ground floor continued to be the main floor of the houses.
The khadki room which had become the traditional place for business was open to the gaze of every passerby was not suitable for certain kinds of businesses like jewellery, expensive textiles and wholesale trade where negotiations needed more privacy. Therefore business began being transacted in the first floor of the khadki block. It also resulted in re-arranging the stairs – so that they were directly accessible from the otlo through a door. The client could now go straight up to the business premises without entering the house at all. The ground floor now became partly private. The first floor of the khadki block on the other hand was gradually transformed into superior business premises which were furnished in luxurious manner. The windows were now made even more decorative with carved balconies and coloured glass panes above the wooden shutters and the walls were given painted patterns. The floor was made of polished lime plaster tinted a light red or yellow, the ceiling was covered with a layer of panelling carved with intricate geometrical designs and from it glass chandeliers imported from Europe were hung. At times, wall niches were multiplied and given the sweeping arched shape typical of Islamic architecture. The upper khadki room, now called divankhanu, had become aristocratic and symbolized the high status and wealth of the merchant.
Divankhanu was used to sleep in at night, especially by the elders of the family.