Newari Architecture: A Newari House

Nepal has always stood as a sovereign country throughout history, and relished its diversity and tolerance. The architectural practice of this country reflects the same character from the earliest settlement patterns found in caves of Mustang to excavated sites of Lumbini and Handigaun to post-modernist contemporary architecture.Some of the prominent architectural styles prevalent in Nepal include Newari architecture, the styles of Sherpa and Thakalis influenced by Tibetan architecture.

Newari architecture, undoubtedly, represents the timelessness of Nepalese history and architecture. It has definite characteristics in practice that are often guided by religious and socio-cultural norms. Similarly the Brahmins, Kshetris, Gurungs, Magars and Tharus have also developed their own architectural style over the centuries. All these styles have, however, undergone certain changes due to influences from the western world; building technology innovations to meet the demands of present times, introduction of newer and better building materials, etc. In the present context, although influence from modern architecture is evident and migrants of different ethnic backgrounds are ever growing in Kathmandu valley, Newari architecture still bears the cultural richness whilst narrating its historical essence.

 

Traditional Newari Settlement around a hiti (water spouts) Photo by: Sarin Vaidya

Traditional Newari Settlement around a hiti (water spouts)
Photo by: Sarin Vaidya

 

Newari Architecture blossomed in the form of temples, palaces and squares during the Malla reign that lasted for 550 years (12th century- 18th century). However, only palaces and temple styles are well documented. As far as residential buildings are concerned, the architectural style was carried onto generations and practiced for centuries. In fact, there seemed less or no necessity to document this style. This belief may have developed to pay respect to the Kings who were considered as reincarnation of Gods and the worship of deity which made the private dwellings of less significance. Until the arrival of modern building materials along with modern building technology, there were only a few interjections to original practice.

It is safe to say that architecture cannot be isolated from history. In fact, history has always played a keen role in architectural practice of any country/place. In case of Nepal and specifically Newari architecture, the first evidence of residential architecture practice could be the introduction of caste system by the then king Jayasthiti Malla. The social reform first occurred with division of people into different castes depending upon their profession. This classification further led to differentiation in the type of their abode. Poorer families resided in 2 storey houses while richer ones resided in 3 or 4 storey houses. The nomenclature of these houses also depended on the adjacent street. The house aligned in a lane was called Galli, house aligned along a street was Galli Bhitar and the house in the center of the city was called Shahar. There was no significant variation in planning and façade of these buildings. Therefore, the old settlement still possess essence of typical layout of these types of houses although many of them have been replaced by newer buildings made of cement and concrete.



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 Streetscape of Newari Houses in Kathmandu & Lalitpur

 

Form & Function

 

The form of Newar houses is basically rectangular in shape, usually 6 metres deep while length depends on size and availability of materials. A number of houses line up in streets having slight variation in their aesthetics. Usually 3 or 4 storey in height, the facade of each house is symmetrical. One of the houses in the façade has a narrow passage in its ground floor which leads to a large courtyard surrounded by other multiple housing units. The building facilitating this passage has same layout as other units in the upper floors. These courtyards are multipurpose spaces that are used for household chores, playgrounds for children, weaving and pottery making, sun-drying grains, etc. The houses are built in this typical fashion to provide security as well as privacy to the occupants.

 

Plan : Typical layout of Newar dwellings with courtyards


Elevation: Typical Newari House from Bahal side

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The distinguishing feature of Newar Houses is the vertical planning. Irrespective of the number of storeys (3 or 4) these houses have functional segregation of spaces in each floor. The ground floors typically serve as shop-fronts or workshops. These areas are also used as storage due to dampness that makes it unsuitable for human occupancy. The first floor in 3 storied house and first and second floors in 4 storied houses are used as living spaces or bedrooms. The floor above these spaces houses the family shrine and cooking/eating area.

The internal planning allows division of spaces into different zones. The ground floor is public (shop-fronts and workshops) while first and second floors are private spaces (bedrooms). The living rooms in 3rd or 4th floor connect the residents to street through an intricately carved sanjhyas thus making this space semi-private (living rooms). An interesting feature in these houses, however, are the attic spaces or Buiga that opens through a trap door at the end of stairwell by two heavy wooden planks at floor level. The staircases (Swaané) in Newari house are narrow and steep (angle upto 75 degrees) and made of wood. In case of multiple units aligned around a chowk, these houses have multiple staircases leading to separate units.

The roofs of Newari houses incorporate exemplary technology where tiles are laid one above the other. In fact, since the roofing material is same in all kinds of buildings, they can be identified as residence or temple or palace by the pattern of overhangs and corners, whether simple or ornate. Pitched roofs are usually of purloined construction. Wall plates rest on low sleeper walls and ridge piece rests on row of vertical posts.

 

Section of standard Newari House (The Traditional Architecture of Kathmandu Valley, pp 37)

Section of standard Newari House (The Traditional Architecture of Kathmandu Valley, pp 37)

 

Tiki Jhyas, Ga Jhyas and SanJhyas

The location of window openings in Newari house and their craftsmanship assist in nomenclature of these windows. In Newari house, different types of Tiki jhyas, Ga jhyas and Sanjhyas are seen.

Tiki jhyas are windows with latticework. These jhyas/windows usually accentuate the visual appearance of the building. These windows are usually placed in private rooms that restrict the visual permeability to outsiders.

Sanjhyas are large window openings at living rooms that open the view to street. Sanjhyas characterize these living spaces as semi private spaces.

Sanjhyas are large window openings at living rooms that open the view to street. Sanjhyas characterize these living spaces as semi private spaces.

Ga Jhyas are windows that project outwards where a small bench occupies the projection. The frames may or may not be intricately carved.

Ga Jhyas are windows that project outwards where a small bench occupies the projection. The frames may or may not be intricately carved.

 

These windows, however, are common elements in all kinds of Newari buildings whether temples, palaces or residences.

 

Materials & Craftsmanship

The chief building materials are wood, mud (bricks and mortar) and tiles. Bricks may be sundried rough and baked, burnt, smooth surfaces polished before firing. Wood is intricately carved in exposed surfaces. They are also bases for roof support. These materials not only bond with each other but also accentuate the energy requirements of building through passive solar technology.
Since the Newari house is built in load bearing system, a common feature is the central spine wall (Du Anga) which runs parallel to the façade and divides the ground floor interior, Chhidi, into two spaces. The wall is continued to first floor that divides the space into two large rooms for sleeping arrangements or more than two rooms using light partition. On the third or fourth floors, the wall is replaced by columns on either sides to make the living room bigger with better lighting and ventilation. The roof, sometimes, has dormer windows.

 

In Contemporary Practice

The essence is Newari houses are more eccentric in present practice. Newari style architecture has undergone more variation is last couple of decades than ever in mode of construction, use of building materials and craftsmanship. In fact, the houses that are built to resemble Newari architecture tend to do so only in the façade. Framed structures have replaced load bearing walls, metal shutter and glass panels are used in place of lattice woodwork and ornate windows, metal sections are used instead of wooden rafters and so on. This has resulted to creation of huge interior spaces instead of petite spaces reflecting Newari architecture.

 

The interior has open plans, exposed slabs, tiled floors and electrical wires running through metal baseplate. Metal frames and glass panels are used in the openings.

The interior has open plans, exposed slabs, tiled floors and electrical wires running through metal baseplate. Metal frames and glass panels are used in the openings.

The exterior of Ama Ghar exhibits the essence of local architecture using exposed bricks, pitched roof and wooden posts.

The exterior of Ama Ghar exhibits the essence of local architecture using exposed bricks, pitched roof and wooden posts.

 

Kathmandu has been a hub of trade and commerce in Nepal for centuries. So is for architecture. With different rulers belonging to different dynasties, Kathmandu has been a host to heterogeneity of architecture practice. Except for a few places in core cities, most of places are the mash-ups of all kinds of styles introduced by people belonging to different cultural backgrounds. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Kathmandu alone is a platform that bears almost every architecture style there is, in Nepal and abroad. From Newari architecture of the Malla era to introduction of neo classical style (of Britain) in mid-nineteenth century to the post-modernism modern day, Kathmandu is constantly serving as a base for experiment of architecture. Nonetheless, Newari architecture has retained its essence and expression in temples and dwellings.

 

 

References:

Korn, Wolfgang. The Traditional Architecture of the Kathmandu Valley, Kathmandu. 1976 (Reprinted as Volume 11 Series III of Bibliotheca Himalayica 2014)

HMG of Nepal. The Physical Development Plan for the Kathmandu Valley. Kathmandu. 1969

Maharjan, Pramila. Thesis of Bachelor in Architecture- Newari Museum, Kathmandu Engineering College. Kathmandu. 2010

Pujari, Swati. Renovation for Adaptive Reuse II- Yala Mandala, SPACES Vol 8/Issue 4. Kathmandu. 2012

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