Almora’s crumbling, century-old homes are still nurtured by loyal old residents

The Himalayan town’s architectural landscape includes both colonial bungalows and Kumaoni ancestral houses

Eighty-five-year-old Laxmi Pant lives alone in her 100-year-old house in Almora that’s nothing short of a mansion. The four-storey colonial bungalow has a large courtyard, and so many rooms, Pant has lost count. She begins counting them aloud from her sitting room. “Fifteen, if not more,” she says with a sigh. This number does not include stables, cowsheds and quarters for domestic help in the basement of the house.

Today, Pant, a retired teacher, uses just three rooms; the rest of the house is in ruins, locked and dark. Pant’s family does not live in Almora, but do come for vacations once in a while. “The younger generation wants to sell and get rid of the house for convenience,” she says. “The house stays as long as I do.”

The Himalayan town of Almora, a popular tourist destination with a population of 34,122, has a heritage that often goes unnoticed: its history can be mapped from its architectural legacy — its houses.

Almora was founded by the Chand dynasty, when their king Kalyan Chand shifted the capital of the Kumaon region from Champawat to this town in the 1560s. The Chands ruled the place until the 18th century before the Gorkhas captured it briefly. The latter were defeated by the British in the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-16).

Wealthy Kumaoni residents

So Almora’s architectural landscape includes both colonial bungalows and Kumaoni ancestral houses. The colonial houses were later bought by wealthy Kumaoni residents. The Kumaoni style houses, with their intricate woodwork, were primarily built by Kumaoni Brahmins and merchant classes, many of who served the Chand kings.

Children look out of a window of their house in Khazanchi Mohalla;

Children look out of a window of their house in Khazanchi Mohalla;  
| Photo Credit:
Jaimitra Singh Bisht

In Chinakhan, beneath the saddle-shaped ridge of Almora, are dozens of elaborate Kumaoni houses, perhaps the biggest being Naughar. Uma Joshi, a widowed octogenarian, decided to leave Delhi in the 80s with her husband to return to their roots. Naughar is a row of nine houses that have a single roof and open into a common courtyard. The building has a hundred rooms at least, and the woodwork on the windows and doors is distinctive.

Roof with skylights

Joshi lives with her son and daughter-in-law in one portion of the building. “Life today demands comfort; this house demands endurance,” she says sipping her tea in the drawing room that used to be a wide, open verandah. The roof has skylights that can be closed with slate tiles during the rainy season. The building also has little wooden openings for birds. The construction of the house began around 1810 and was completed by 1825. “Any modification of the house for comfort means destroying the heritage. But we give in to the demands,” Joshi’s son Ish tells me.

The Almora ridge is lined with ancestral houses of the Sahs, who were treasurers in the Chand dynasty. In Khajanjimohalla, their low-roofed houses are painted with organic colours, locally called aipan. The ground floor, which used to have the khazana and cowsheds, have now been taken over by shops. The mohalla is now part of Almora’s market.

Kshitij Agarwal, who runs a small architecture studio in Almora, says Kumaoni houses were built with locally sourced natural materials including wood, stone, cow dung and clay. The builders used ground urad dal as mortar. The walls, often two-feet-wide to make them stable and earthquake resistant, were plastered with mud. The sloping roof was made in four layers with logs of pine, mud and slate tiles, says Agarwal. The buildings stay warm in winter and cool in summers.

Warmth from cow sheds

“Kumaoni houses have cow sheds in the lowest floor. The sheds have low ceilings and small windows, so the heat rises up to warm the house. Without cattle, the efficiency of the entire structure breaks down,” says Agarwal.

As I visit the old houses of Chinakhan, I find I have company — a troop of monkeys. As I wait for them to pass, I overhear a resident say, “As people left Almora, the monkeys arrived.” Residents say that monkeys don’t just damage crops, they destroy old houses and remove roof tiles.

The facade of some ancient houses at Old Almora Bazaar

The facade of some ancient houses at Old Almora Bazaar  
| Photo Credit:
Jaimitra Singh Bisht

Although the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has a list of Almora’s ancestral houses, they are not considered ‘heritage’, and therefore not preserved well. “There was a discussion two years ago about declaring some residential properties heritage buildings, while allowing residents to live in them. But it didn’t materialise into any formal action for preservation,” says Neeraj Methani, conservation assistant at ASI, Almora.

In another part of Almora, another octogenarian, a retired teacher, Prem Prakash Joshi, has kept a promise he made to his late father, that he would look after their house. “The house was likely constructed in the 1860s when Henry Ramsay, a British general in the Indian Army, was the Commissioner for Kumaon and was based in Almora. My father bought this house when I was 19. I promised him I would take care of the house and nurture it,” says Joshi cuddling a month-old kitten that is sitting on a 100-year-old cane chair. “I have a flat in Delhi. But I still live here to keep my word.”

Joshi’s son Ashish is optimistic about Almora’s future. He left Delhi to come back to his childhood home and work in the tourism sector. “This is where I spent my vacations as a child. If we continue to live here, we could give the house a new lease of life,” he says.

A journalist based in Uttarakhand, the writer explores the lives of those who walk mountains.

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