My very first sighting of a pahari (hilly) house in Bandarban introduced me to the notion of uniqueness and simplicity in a singular space used as a home.
Commonly, our traditional Bangali rural houses are built upon the concept of having a central courtyard surrounded by individual rooms and creating a complete living space for a family.
Even though we have shifted to an urban paradigm, we still adopt the general idea of living in a traditional house with a large common space connected to various rooms.
When I entered a house in Khyamchang Para, a Murang village near the Chimbuk range, after trekking for almost eight hours under the scorching sun, I was mesmerised with its uninterrupted flowing space with a cool interior.
These days, we are becoming more fond of the modern lifestyle in studio apartments. But have we ever thought of living in a studio apartment in a remote hilly area? Or adding a minimalistic approach to our lifestyle?
Well, believe me, every house in the Hill Tracts is a perfect example of modern studio apartments with the concept of minimalism.
Houses forming the village
Hill houses usually do not have a large village square at the centre, but a central wide undulating lane that flows through the village like a fat python connecting the houses, one after another. The houses stand on pyres or stilts; extended without support from the slopes of the spinal lane.
To hill people, it is unwise to build houses on the surface level for the possibility of extensive rain and wild animals invading their houses. It is quite tricky to remove uneven landscape without using heavy duty, carbon-producer machinery, in case you want a flat common building over the hills.
As the houses face the village's central lane, we usually have the view of solid back walls while entering the locality. Sometimes, a small sized window is cut on the bamboo mat wall - the main element of any hill house.
You may never see the household when heading towards the para, however, the residents are well aware of your presence long before you arrive.
Home for us that day
The house I entered just before sunset had a singular entry from a shaded open platform standing at a height of three to four feet at the front, facing the village lane.
Such a platform, tsar, is basically a front balcony with a roof. The railings are made with bamboo mats and the floor is made of bamboo slats bound together.
It is accessible by using a notched hardwood tree-ladder. The steps are manually curved from stout branches and they are perfectly sized .
Most of the time, you will find a narrow plank set right beside the ladder to keep your shoes. The residents are quite sensitive about stepping on to a clean balcony with your shoes on, though they will not utter a word to their guests.
Our accommodation was arranged in the village-head's house, who is typically known as the karbari of the para.
A welcoming smart studio apartment
Upon entering the house, the very first thing I saw was the graceful open kitchen at the right corner of the house just next to the main door.
It immediately drew my attention and I did not notice the door well, which was also hidden.
As I looked at the cooking area - a low earthen platform bounded with dark thick wooden planks - I was confused to see a heavy metal sheet placed on the floor. Surprisingly, it was made of the same material used on walls - bamboo mat.
The burner was made of metal rods shaped like a circle with three legs to stand on and walls around the burner are also protected from sudden occurrence of fire with a layer of mud.
A small machang was hanging with ropes above the burner. It served as the storage and also protected the roof from the smoke.
Some plates and machetes were kept in the gap between the wall and the wall supporting bamboo. The water containers were put on a low bench and there was a big basket full of cooking pots and pitchers.
It was a clustered service zone with a modest storage area - one of the important notions of having a minimalistically designed space.
I looked at the opposite side of the house, a huge open space without any partition or any interruption of furniture.
It was a simple rectangular, straight forward, compact room, called kim-tom, where all the household work is performed during the day time. I even found a loom placed at a corner where they weave their own dresses and blankets. Few benches were placed on the sides of the room beside the windows for the visitors.
The open middle zone acts as the family space, which is also used for dining and sleeping.
A small L-shaped partition near the kitchen served as a small sleeping area for young children while the infants slept in swings hanging from bamboo beams.
The beams are also used for hanging clothes and handmade bamboo baskets of different sizes used for jhum cultivation.
There was another tsar beside the kitchen area called kim-tom - the wet service zone of the house.
It was an open area surrounded by shoulder-length boundaries, with bamboo slats on the floor set with slight gaps between one another.
This also served as a huge verandah for drying and washing harvests, dishes, and food, hanging wet clothes and pots to dry, throwing food waste, and water that passed through the gaps under the platform.
A corner is even dedicated for late-night urination as it is unsafe to go outside in the dark.
The lower part of this area is kept for pig rearing and thus all the waste is consumed by the pigs who keep the area clean every day.
Even the floor materials naturally rot due to heavy use of water and get replaced regularly, leaving the tsar not so dirty for a long time.
Recently, I heard that the karbari has put a tap with a pvc pipeline that fetches the clean water directly from the nearest spring.
So, now, bathing and collecting drinking water can also be done at this part of the house; however, these people of nature still love to bathe under the natural falls.
Though I am referring to the house as a studio apartment, another smaller room was placed beside the front balcony but only accessible from kim-tom - the kimma - a private room for the married couple of the house and generally, visitors are not allowed to enter or peek inside.
However, being a woman, the mistress of the house allowed me to go there to change my clothes. I was awed to see the details of the door. But let me finish describing the exclusiveness of kimma.
No one can actually see the inside of this room from the common family zone, as a large basket of stored grain blocks the interior view from outside. It was placed right in front of the door, leaving a narrow passage to go around to reach the interior.
This room also has multipurpose use - food storage, as well as a place to store all other valuable goods, clothes, sharp spears etc of the family.
At times, this room is used for new mothers, with a small fireplace at one corner.
And the door, as expected, was built of the same material - bamboo mat placed in a bamboo frame.
However, the door did not have any hinge and it was hanging from the top from a strong bamboo rail; it operated like a modern sliding door. Later on, I found the windows were sliding too.
The triangular open space under the elevated house was the basement for the family. A part of it was used as a pigsty, whereas the other corner became the chicken coop and the rest of the area was the storage for firewood.
The only drawback I felt was not having a defined toilet area without interruption of pigs. They were assigned by nature to clean the place before you were done!
The building materials were all natural and local. The main posts are of huge and strong wooden trunks and branches, while secondary posts are of bamboo.
The pitched roof had bamboo truss with thick layers of thatch grass and bamboo leaves. Walls and floors are made of wide bamboo striped mat. The height of the intersection of walls and roofs are usually maintained to a minimum of 10 feet.
The walls allow light and air through the gaps of bamboo strips. The floor becomes a comfy bed at night where one can sleep only by laying a blanket on that cool mattress type bamboo-mat.
Every joint and intersection of walls, columns, and roof structures are secured by using strong bamboo fibres. It is very unlikely you will see the use of metal nails, screws, or wires in traditional hill houses.
Local materials used are renewable, and can be replaced every five to 10 years as required; an outstanding expression of sustainability in architecture.
Impact on the sustainable paradigm
Simple continuous materials in exterior façades, and minimal use of interior partitions, expressing the character and texture of materials with uniformity of neutral colour palette are the best features for a minimalistic house. So how can we deny the modernism of a traditional hill house?
Minimalism is living a simple life in a space that functions well, fulfills your basic needs, is easy to maintain with human effort, and offers an eco-friendly experience that really matters. The original homes of our hills are its perfect examples.