Saturday, 29 January 2011

Warli House and Habitat -1


 Vaghdev - Tiger god - of Warli Tribe, 
Dahanu, Maharashtra, India

 (The Paper presented at the Congress of Traditional Sciences and Technologies of India, at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Povai, Bombay, 28 Nov. - 3 Dec. 1993. Edited version of this paper (in part) was published by The Journal of Indian Institute of Architects, Vol. 60 | No 1| January 1995. Some of the forty illustrations used during the presentation of this paper are reproduced below.)

Gautama Buddha, when attained enlightenment, it is said, observed 'Mauna' – silence – for seven days. He did not speak to anyone about whatever happened to him, or whatever he did discover. He was considering whether to tell or not to tell. When Einstein, Pasteur, Newton made discoveries, they announced. It was departmental occupation. They, perhaps, had not realized the implications. What law would Newton have discovered When "Kanishka" plane fell into the sea? Who pays for the discoveries and disasters? For one whose rationale and vision do not go beyond his eyelid, his field of specialization or profession, the answer is too predictable. Whether Hiroshima-Nagasaki or Kanishka plane (hijack), the answer may be an insurance policy, perhaps an inquiry commission, perhaps one more law, perhaps the science of probability, another compartment of specialization.

Now we are slowly becoming aware of the after-effects of science and technology employed by the privileged few i.e. Industrial societies, has caused considerable degradation of environment and ecology, besides centralization of power and profiteering, military supremacy and warfare…

The Buddha observed silence for seven days. He belonged to a civilized society. Whatever he achieved by his telling his discovery to the humankind is not at all debatable. However, the tribal observed silence for more than seven thousand years.

So at last, the civilized society decided to observe the year 1993 as the "Year of the Indigenous People". Though the indigenous cultures have been mutilated over a long period of time, worst during last few centuries, it is not too late for us to understand and learn with humility their language of silence before we decide to teach them or force upon them, "…our degenerate and self-disgusted, materialist, power-drunk and sex-crazed civilization needs"(Nicholson, 1972).[1]

There are great many anthropologists with great credibility. Now, there are also, educated tribal in India. But we have not heard of a tribal-turned-anthropologist to have us know of authentic inner life of the tribal. Because by the time a tribal boy is educated through the prevailing system, he has lost his identity and perhaps culture too. We read tribal as we read ancient remains, scripts, frescoes, and carvings… This paper is a humble effort to look into tribal housing to have a glimpse, in our limited 'time'. A lot more could be done in this field.

The paper generally refers to the habitat of the tribal in Western India, Thane and Raigad districts of Maharashtra and part of south Gujarat and in particular the Warli tribe in Thane District close to Bombay. It may extend to the houses of non-tribe, where there is little variation in form and materials in the region. The term “tribal housing” used here refers to the habitat rather than merely to a “house”.

Karvi Hut

The Tribal's indigenous “Vastu” – house or habitat – grows out of the “Dharatari”– the mother earth. It is an expression of their culture with time-tested knowledge and wisdom of life acquired over thousands of years behind them. We call it “Karvi Hut” because one of the humble building materials used in the line of mud and thatch. The plant, “Karvi” (Strobilantes callosus Nees) , available in Western Ghats and part of Gujarat State is used in their houses.

The elements in housing, whether in urban, rural or forest areas, are common to all. It needs land to build upon, foundation, plinth, enclosure as walls and roof; openings, environment and resources. To have our perceptions clear we may have to compare the state of tribal housing with that of the contemporary urban situation.

Housing as Action

The urban perception of housing is that, it is a product, ready for occupation. It is built in a great mass, called ‘mass housing’ for the ‘mass type of society’; built by third party: builders, contractors, investors, architects, engineers, financiers, industrial or commercial establishments, Government Organizations (GOs) or NGOs. It may be so, perhaps, for the land, or even the house may not ‘belong’ to the occupants. Housing and land, therefore, to the urbanite are market commodities and assets for investment.

It is questionable how far the urban mass housing helps, or violets, or ignores the human potential to grow, and (cultural) values to foster. The urban mass housing rarely considers, or has no time to consider, the needs and demands of occupant of a unit, i.e. an individual or a family. It is also questionable if it helps to turn the ‘masses’ of people into a homogeneous ‘community’.

Contrary to the notion of housing as a ‘finished product’ of the urbanite, the tribal housing is ‘action’, a ‘process’. It goes through planning, construction, maintenance, expansion and reconstruction or dissolution. Because housing as an action is the sole jurisdiction of tribal left to their own decision, initiative, education, economy, needs and management of available resources. The resources come from the land, forest, water, education, tradition, animal-power and manpower, supported by the community participation. ‘Community participation’ or ‘public participation’ is a new concept for the urbanite and the developed societies. For a tribal it is an ancient tradition. It is school for the younger generation where the knowledge of the earth, materials, technology, management and values that are imparted at every stage of this action, from generation to generation.

Contrary to the urban situation, the housing action helps the growth of the ‘self’, linked to the house, as well culture and community. In the cities, it helps growth of ‘economy’ and ‘market’. It is in the nature of materials used in the house, which come from and go back to the earth, underlies the ethos of tribal housing. In the contemporary urban housing, the materials come from the ‘market’ and when obsolete cause environmental degradation and waste.

The government action to provide housing for the tribal by erecting prototype houses of 21 Sq. M per family, through GOs and NGOs, howsoever altruistic may be the intentions, has moved towards the destruction of right to decision, initiative, traditional skills of the so-called ‘beneficiaries’ and their culture because of imposition of urban methods and concepts, namely mass housing.

Prof. Patrick Geddes, while preparing plans for the city of Baroda (now Vadodara), way back in 1916, warned on the public housing, “while of course clearly recognizing good intentions and also superiority of new chawls to the old ones and of model villages to too many existing ones, we should be suppressing what we are convinced is truth ...we regard the whole collection [of 'standard plans'] as too little better than one of the model pig sties, women sties, and child kennels are what they far neatly amount to. In that way the progress does not lie, and these various neat and orderly designs ... or in ones of more pretension, we regard as probably the most serious mistake and evil yet imported from west to the detriment of Indian Civilization" (Geddes).[2] The warning has gone unheeded.

Land as Ancestral Right

Land is crucial factor in all housing in the urban, rural and forest areas. Land to a tribal is 'Dharatari' - mother earth. It is a much larger reality than the urban ideas as an area, a market commodity. The root of belief in mother earth is in the remote antiquity. The tribes live with it until this day. Only at the fag end of 20th Century, a handful of environmental scholars and philosophers from west, Sigmar Groenvela, Lee Hoinacky, Ivan Illich and others, issued "HEBENSHAUSEN: DECLARATION ON SOIL" [Oldenburg, Germany, 6 December 1990],[3] which the tribal believed in and lived accordingly for millennia. Besides Mother Earth there are other goddesses: 'Kansari' - grain goddess, 'Gavtari' – cow goddess, 'Palghat' – goddess of trees and fertility who are most revered by the Warli. We may recognize their 'Vaghdev' – as the keeper of the forest. If anything, the so-called 'development' is directly proportionate to the destruction of the forest.

Unlike industrial culture (We do not prefer to call it western culture any more), among tribal the land belongs to all: individual, community, and all other living beings. He does not accumulate. All the efforts of industrial culture, however, are directed towards how to pull the tribal and rural population, popularly known as 'untapped rural market' into the dragnet of consumer society and to encourage greater accumulation and, of course, greater waste.

Land is a crucial issue for a tribal community also in a different context. For example, in the northern part of Konkan region of western Maharashtra, the governments ignored the Adivasi's – aborigine’s – ownership of the forest, ever since the British made the forest laws. Whereas in south Konkan, where there is no tribal population, the forests are private non-tribe properties. Authorities consider the Tribal as "encroachers" in the forest. "[I]n 1962 India had ratified the International Labour Organization convention no. 107 of 1957 which ensures the collective and individual rights of the tribal over the lands which they traditionally occupy. ...In our country, these provisions have not been seriously implemented" [Jagnath Pathy, 1987] [4]. 

The dispossession, displacement and, eviction and marginalization of the tribal due to several reasons have caused ecological disaster to their community. On the other hand, the tree cover of their ancestral forest having been depleted their sustenance and skills too are affected. Ever since the inception of industrial culture in India, and with increased pace of 'development' since independence, the trees are vanishing, as argued by Dr. Chhatrapati Singh during the workshop on "Environment, People and the Law" held at New Delhi in October 1992.

It is necessary to recognize the Adivasi’s - aborigine's - right to their ancestral forest, land, water and other natural resources, traditionally occupied and used by them, in a special way, may it be necessary to abolish certain laws affecting their rights. It is not enough to pay them cash compensation or rehabilitate them by giving them a house in exchange of their habitat, their homestead. It is neither enough to give them assurance of jobs in the 'development projects' for which they are not equipped. Nor it will meet the demand in the situation of soaring unemployment in any case.

In the true spirit of democracy they should be paid royalty in proportion to the implementation and operative costs of the development project, whether public or private undertakings, besides compensation and rehabilitation. Without land and the resources of land, the rehabilitation of the affected tribal is not complete. In the present context without considering the issue of land any amount of deliberations on the tribal housing are not complete. The term ‘landless tribal’ is absurd in the context of history, tradition and culture. If so, then there is something seriously wrong with the land records or the laws of land.

It is necessary to understand that the forest, hill, river, ravine, animals… are all intrinsic parts of the tribe’s house, homestead, habitat and culture. The stream is a bathing place, the brushwood screens the toilet, streams – land – plants give food and medicine, farm – forest – river are work places, which give sustenance. The river, lake, forest and land by virtue of being workplace are an extended house of the tribal. In this context the urban perception of progress means to supply tap water and electricity for light, is an absurdity.

The Council asked us a pertinent question for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART), New Delhi, while working on a housing project for the Tribal under Rural Landless Employment Guarantee Programme (RLEGP) assistance: “what is the size of a plot for each beneficiary?” Traditionally and typically, there are no plots among the tribal; most of the land is a common property. It is amazing that after four decades of independence we should not be aware of ethos of the tribal culture in India!

Perhaps the policy-makers are not the people themselves. The standard solutions and the formulae rarely understand that each place, a village, and community have their features, character, problems, language… etc. That even the shades of local language vary at every ten miles; that there are also people’s unwritten-laws, which are existing for centuries; that there cannot be regimental application of alien laws adopted from the western countries; that the centralized power cannot deal with unique local situations with regimental solutions. For, it demands, not mechanical work, not imitation of alien models, but creative thinking, attitude and approach. Creativity in planning and implementation is only possible if people themselves are policymakers at a village level, community level and micro level. What is our legacy? Is it to create a monoculture

Tribal House

A typical tribal house consists of: ‘Angan’ – an open court – in front of the house, a ‘Mandapa’ – purgola of bamboo and bullies on wooden posts, and enclosed kitchen garden, a shed with lean-to-roof for firewood and a large room divided by partition which is a house itself. The inner part of the room is a kitchen and for confinement. Outer part of the room is a living room, and animals – goats, bullocks etc. share a part. During summer the ‘Mandapa’ is place for haystack, and during monsoon support for vegetable creepers.

The houses cluster or are at a distance from each other in the individual farms. At times, the distance is about a quarter kilometers. A lonely house in a farm or a forest does not cause agoraphobia to a tribal.

The areas of houses vary. Area of Warli houses is about 400 to 700 sq ft. The Katkari house is 200 to 400 sq ft. The Thakars, who keep animals, have houses that extend to 600 sq ft area. The Houses of Bhills are much larger, up to 1500 sq. ft. area. Occasionally one may find an abandoned house in a Katkari settlement, just as a bird abandons its nest, as one moves in search of work and food (forest)!

However humble a tribal hut may be, one cannot be equate it with the hutments in the urban slums. In the latter case, a city turns into a concrete jungle, with automobile beasts, which is an alienated phenomenon, unlike forest, for the displaced and migrated poor in the slums. The city cannot become an extended house of a slum dweller, as the relationship is that of hostility, besides lack of sense of community. This is particularly visible in a city like Bombay, which is evident from the cases of large-scale fires by the people with stakes in the land occupied by the slum dwellers, and demolitions by authorities consider slums are illegal settlements. We have observed that the tribal reach cities in search of work during off–seasons and lives on the pavement, only to return.

Warli House

Warli house is stylized and well organized, and has reached to a technical excellence. However, originally a thatch roof house, because being stylized, it could easily adopt to Mangalore type roofing tiles in recent times. It is a frame structure, and has a core around with a curtain wall of ‘Karvi’ to enclose the house. The core typically measures 7 hands by 9 hands to 9 hands by 11 hands (one hand equals 1’– 6”). It consists of nine wooden posts having one –‘Dharan’ – in the centre. The central pillar that supports the ridge of size, which is usually 11/2 to 2 hands long. The house expands around the core to about 6 ft. distance whereby it accommodates a veranda, kitchen and areas for animals.

The height of the core is usually five hands (7’–6”), on the top is an attic used for storage. As the house expands on the sides of the core, adding a frame of wooden beams and short posts raises the height of the core. The two posts over a beam that spans across the central post of the core carry the ridge.

The house faces preferably east, west or north. People consider South is inauspicious direction for house to face or enter. It is interesting to note that north is inauspicious in Himachal Pradesh.

The house is sacred. They worship it at different times during the construction: at the time of foundation, the corner pillar of the kitchen; the ‘Chaukhat’ – the door-frame – at the entrance, and then the ridge when it is placed in position.
There is one door to the house, which is front door. If animals remain in the house, there is an additional door. Occasionally there is third door, called rear door.

Within this framework of structural system, a Warli exercises his freedom in planning the interior and exterior spaces with innumerable variations, which is spontaneous. Due to the building materials, the economic status of a household, however, is subdued.

Now due to various external forces: market, political, mass education, and the contact with the urbanite, the Warli disposition is slowly showing a change. They still follow organic farming, though hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and with these, the crop diseases are finding their way into their settlements. Aluminium utensils, synthetic clothes, nylon threads for fishing nets etc. are some of the other things. Say Shri. Lahanu Sutar, “Mangalore tiles imported from Morvi town in Gujarat, usually of substandard and third grade quality have penetrated even into interior areas. 70% houses have changed roofing to the tiles”. Warli people are politically aware. One has to acknowledge the awakening brought among them by Smt. Godawari Parulekar against the system of bonded labour.
The Warli are now afraid of new landlords who might take over their land with money power. Yet the Warli culture prevails.

Building Materials

All building materials are organic, which are either replenished by the, or are reusable, or recycled, or go back to earth as nutrients. They do not use non-renewable high fossil energy materials in the building. The major building materials are paddy straw, thatch grasses, fibres of Sisal or Ambadi (Hibicus canibinus Kenaf), bamboo, Karvi, wood, mud, cow dung, stones etc.

The recent experience, however, of various housing projects and programmes initiated by instruments such as, RLEGP, Jawahar Yojana, Indiara Awas Yojana, foreign aids etc. through GOs and NGOs show that the building materials are brought from the city markets which are forest products for example, wood and bamboo, as well as industrial products.. One wonders if there is hidden agenda to “plough back money” through these projects, meant for tribal and the rural poor. The laws, which entitle tribal to take timber from forest for, their houses usually remain on the paper.

The tribal use selected wood from matured trees. The preferred species are teak, Ain (Terminalia tomentosa), Khair (Acasia catechu), Hed (Adine cordofolia) etc. The cut wood and bamboo during waning period of moon in month of Bhadrapada, i.e. around September, and are kept in water for a few weeks. Some people add sea salt or rock salt to the water. The wood and bamboo thus seasoned could last for generations. Traditionally they use wood in a lump form, or log form, after naturally seasoning and drying. They take this action in advance for years for the future house. This planning for house is part of tribal culture. The married young couple separates from the parents and builds a new house.

The tribal do not use any chemical preservatives, paints or industrial process except treating wood naturally. Due to its log form the rings are least disturbed and hence its natural strength is preserved. The urbanite view of such wood is uneconomic use.

The modern methods of chemical treatment of wood, or wood preservatives, especially and typically pent–chloro-phenol or indene containing products can cause lever damage, bone marrow atrophy, skin diseases, and allergies.[5] While various wood-dust have range of toxic, immunological and carcinogenic properties, installed and in lump timber presents no problem to health.[6] The lead based paints are most important factor in severe lead poisoning in children. On external agricultural surroundings, flaking lead paint is also a hazard to the livestock.[7]

The urbanite that look for quick profits and the fast results that fall pray to the modern technologies, which advocate, for example, chemically treated small timbers from immature trees for mass housing for the poor. Such short-term gains are not only detrimental to the forestation programme but prove environmentally disastrous, if not checked in time.

It is not that the tribal are aware of the health hazards in the modern building materials and household equipment; even the urban elite may be equally ignorant. The major hazard the tribal should be aware of, however, comes from looking up to the urbanite for their urban life–style as a model or ideal to be imitated, particularly the do-gooder urbanite who bring their life-style to the tribal areas, and who exert their influence because of their goodwill for the people. One learns from example for the delight of do-gooders.


Mud is major material used for plinth, flooring, mortar, plaster, handmade country roofing tiles, bunds, hearth, built-in seats etc. They select soils carefully. It is usually yellow, red, clay or Murum. They avoid black soil. Depending upon the soil’s quality, particularly to increase its plasticity, a heap of soil, called Gara, is kept wet with water for about two to seven days. To improve its plasticity they sometimes add finely cut paddy straw. While using it for the plaster, addition of fine sand modifies soil plasticity.

Mud is the universal building material; its applications are unlimited in human life. Gandhiji used to apply it on the stomach as naturopathy treatment. Warli uses certain type of mud from underground to wash hair. They do not use shampoo.

In the country of 844 million people, a large majority continues to use mud as a major building material. Yet mud has not found its way to the curriculum of graduate studies of architecture. It may be worth a while to find ‘direct and indirect’ cost of architect’s education and its returns and benefits to the society beyond the privileged few. We are aware that the policies and programmes of planning, developments, and governance need periodical evaluation. The same is true of education.

Cow dung

Some time ago the Indian Petro-Chemicals Limited (IPCL), Baroda came out with a chemical for waterproofing treatment of mud walls. The offer came through CAPART, Delhi to use it on experimental basis, at 90% subsidy on its cost, on the first 50 houses built for the tribal, under RLEGP. Being skeptical about such industrial products about its cost, economy, and the after-effects etc. we declined. Instead, we suggested using traditional cow dung wash on the walls. The chemical was highly toxic. Thankfully, IPCL had a good sense of withdrawing entire stock from the market, perhaps in good time.

Traditionally the tribal and villagers use cow dung for finishing the mud floors and mud walls. They also use it for the grain silos made of mud, or apply it on bamboo silos. People must have observed that pest does not affect the grain stored in such a condition. From the Vedic times, ‘Agnihotra’ – a ritual with fire – uses cow dung, which is believed to purify environment. Are these superstitions? Perhaps IITs and IPCLs could divert some of their resources to understand cow dung. We should not be surprised, though, with use of chemical fertilizes and pesticides even the cow dung may found to be ‘fouled’!

Karvi (Strobilantes callosus Ness)

Karvi belongs to the family of Adulasa (Adhatoda vasika Nees). It grows two to three meters height. It has a straight stalk of 25 to 35 mm thickness. It is fibrous and light in weight. It is a medicinal plant. Its leaves are medicine on malaria. It flowers once in five years, and gives plenty of honey – a favourite of honeybees. It could also be cultivated in the plains.[8] If contact with water is avoided it could last for more than 10 years. Internal and external walls use Karvi panels, and as battens in the lofts and roof. Karvi is protected from moisture by applying cow dung plaster.

It is a most used plant as building material in the Western Ghats and south Gujarat by the tribal and other villagers. It now finds market in the slums of north Bombay as the displaced and the jobless migrate to the city. There is also a major market in Nashik City from where Karvi goes to the vineyards. Now that it has reached a city, a time may not come when the tribal may have to buy it from ‘Dalal’ – commission agent – in the city market. Karvi is a bush and not a tree by definition like bamboo is not a tree but a ‘giant grass’. If a bright boy in the ‘department’ gets an idea to issue an ordinance, whereby the tribal may not forfeit his access to the plant, which may find its legal way to the market, as other forest–products: water, bamboo, timber, electricity etc.

After years of persuasion, the author failed to motivate some of the NGOs to propagate this plant on their own. Perhaps Karvi, being a bush, cannot be part of their forestation programme. Perhaps there is no funding for Karvi for not being a tree?


Bamboo – the most familiar plant – has known to be ‘poor man’s timber’, is now becoming scarce and expensive for housing. City people may recognize it as a decorative garden plant, but its major consumer is paper. Just imagine if remaining 65% illiterate out of 1000 million people become literate and educated! Then, perhaps, a strict rationing may have to come into force. Will it be in the interest of the elite class, which has been major obstacle in eradicating illiteracy in this country not to go beyond populist slogans? A five-year consistent programme of planting and growing bamboo will ease housing problem in rural and slum areas in the cities.

We have heard: A certain NGO in the rural area used bamboo for all of their buildings. In less than ten years, the dry rot affected entire bamboo. They therefore replaced bamboo with concrete. This is not a parable. It has many dimensions though. It is still economical to throw away or replace bamboo every ten years, as it is a fastest growing plant. The tribal do plant bamboo on their own without motivation from the GOs or NGOs, or without waiting for decades to collect bamboo seeds.

Natural Fibres

Adivasis – the tribal or aborigines – use organic fibres as building material extracted from Sisal and Ambadi (Hibiscus cannabinus kenaf) using their traditional technology, which is labour intensive. They also plant Ambadi for their consumption.

Gujarat government has happily carried out a large-scale plantation of Sisal and bamboo on the barren hills besides teak. Here again we notice ‘mass-mono-culture’ coming up. Contrary to this, whether farming or kitchen garden or hedges, the tribal go for mixed crop. It also helps wild life to sustain. Synthetic fibres are in use more and more in the cities, cause health hazards. Synthetic clothing, furnishings and especially rugs can cause high voltage electrostatic charging closer to our bodies. Detrimental effects of man–made fibres have been detected mainly on the nervous system, endocrine (ductless glands), cardio–vascular and haematological (blood building) systems and immune systems [9].


Thatch roof

They commonly use paddy straw for thatch roof. There is a layer of teak leaves over bamboo or Karvi battens, over which they spread and tie 6” to 9” thick thatch. The slope of the roof is at 30 degrees angle. At higher altitude, where wind velocity is high, the eaves are as low as 4ft. to 5 ft. above the plinth. They replace paddy straw every year. The old thatch goes to farm as manure.

The roof does not leak in spite of heavy monsoon. It gives good thermal insulation. As the roof ‘breaths’, the comfort value increases compared to other roofing materials. Though it is not fireproof, we have not heard of any disaster due to fire. Now the electricity – a symbol of progress and modernization – has reached to some of the tribal settlements. However, are not given to the houses with thatch roof are not provided with electricity for chances of fire by short circuits [10].

Would one call thatch roof, a sign of poverty? Its counterpart in Europe is found to be owned by the wealthy. The cost of thatch roof in England, for example, is two and a half times than that of reinforced cement concrete roof.[11] It may be because the West respects manual labour by monetary compensation.

During the cyclone on July 1989 in Raigad district of Maharashtra State, even at higher altitude, the houses of Katkari and Thakar tribes were safe. Central Building Research Institute (CBRI), Roorakee, has developed a technology of waterproofing a thatch roof by applying plaster of mud–tar–kerosene, and claimed to last for five years. We, however, do not see its application by people. Rural people do not get kerosene regularly even for cooking. Some of questions – affordability, recycling, and the effects on the environment after its destruction, etc., remain.

Gandhiji went to the extent of advising people to use vegetable oil for lighting instead of kerosene. Now the studies reveal that the use of electrical and electromagnetic appliances and gadgets creates ‘electro-smog’. “Evidence is beginning to emerge that high exposure to radar, radiation from television masts television sets, VDUs, Computers, and even the kitchen microwave is causing metabolic malfunctions, skin cancers and even miscarriages”.[12] The use of electricity produced even by benign wind energy is possible threat to health. Now the tribal sell grass to buy the Mangalore roofing tiles. The unseen tentacle of market economy spreads across the globe. It does not even spare half-naked tribal in the hills.

Country Roofing Tiles

Besides thatch, the tribal use half-round-country roofing tiles. These are universally used. The Chinese practice is to fix country-roofing tiles over a layer of mud over the roof scantlings.[13] Among the tribal in Gujarat State it is a homemade product. The entire household knows how to make it as much as they know how to farm, cook, make a flute, bow and arrow, and build house… They use simple hand tools; bamboo strips, a string, a wooden plank and a mould; a simple method of firing: a trench in the ground and grass leaves, brushwood; and work of eight person-days shared by the entire household – men, women and children. Just as the thatch roof, the country tile roof also ‘breaths’. (For more see: Tribal Skill)

Government intervention

To have a roof over the head is vital. The government authorities consider the thatch or country tile roof ‘Kachcha’ or temporary. Governments may be are concerned about such temporary roofing systems, and about the waste of ‘time’ and ‘labour’ after their maintenance by the poor and jobless householders in the forests and villages. We find that in some places ‘Mangalore type roofing tiles’ manufactured by industry initially were supplied free, then at subsidized price to the tribal. No efforts, however, made to give them the skills, or to set up the tile making industry on cooperative basis. We have witnessed in Gujarat, Jesuit Missionary the late Fr. Samada S.J. trained the tribal in diamond polishing trade, on cooperative basis.

However, while supplying the tiles to replace thatch roof and country tile roofing, the authorities did not pay attention to various relevant aspects. Among them are: the need to replace the scantling, the relative cost of the product, the people’s self-sufficiency and self-reliance, and sustainability, traditional skills and education, consumption of energy in manufacture and transport, besides the tribe’s management of time and resources… to say the least. Above all, they ignored the tribal’s concept of ‘time’, which is linked to their culture.

It is interesting to note, now, ‘the financial budget of 1992’ of the Government of India wants to dump ‘Asbestos Cement Roofing Sheets’ and other asbestos products for cheap housing and give boost to the industry. Asbestos products stand atop the list of most hazardous building materials. People of many western countries have discarded this material. However, they have not stopped the production. It may continue, perhaps, until the mineral is fully excavated and exhausted; such is the wisdom of Industrial Culture!


The house has a frame structure of wooden posts firmly placed in the ground, and wooden beams, and curtain walls of Karvi panels. The wooden frame supports the roof, attic, and wall panels.

Panel walls are made of Karvi, bamboo mat or stalks of wild Jovar - millet. Mud–cow dung plaster covers the panel walls. The curtain walls are made of bamboo mats where it is available in plenty. When Karvi is not available, they use stalks of Jovar. It grows to 2.0 to 2.5 m. height. True to the saying, ‘house is man’s third skin’, the roof and walls here breathe just as our skin breaths.

The modern building technology progressively tends to produce and supply harder materials, and encourages sealing interior spaces in building designs. To study the effects of modern materials and technology on the physical, mental and social levels of an individual and the society are in itself a huge task, and remains to be investigated. The people, however, have started slowly realizing effects, after-effects and side effects of modern medicine, processed foods, mechanized farming, and now the "sick building syndrome" (SBS) and New Town Neurosis. Architecture and planning, as always, is last to wake up.


As mentioned earlier, the Warli house has one, two or three doors. There are no windows in urban sense. There are fenestration in the walls in the cooking area: a slit of 2” x 12” or 12” x 12”, by removing alternative stalks from the wall, and the area is without plaster. At top level of the wall, a clear space 6” to 10” near the eaves is without plaster. It brings in the filtered and reflected light from the tropical sun. It provide cross ventilation even while wind direction changes during the day and night, and during different seasons. It also prevents direct drought of cold or hot winds at a body level. In the area for the animals, a hole in the wall at floor level for the disposal urine and washed out dung that drains either to kitchen garden or to a compost pit. The door shutters are made of wood and bamboo with wooden pivots made out of styles of the shutter.

Floor, Plinth and Foundation

The mud floor is a labour intensive product, executed by self-help. It is made of selected soil from fields, screened, added with water, pulverized, spread on the stone bed, compacted and smoothed with simple wooden implements called ‘chopane’. A cow dung wash either by hand or by broom covers the finished floor. It leaves grey-green pattern of curvilinear lines on the floor. It absorbs spilled water without leaving the floor soggy. The hard core of stones below the mud floor prevents from dampness during monsoon.
In the area for the animals, the floor has a slope of 1:7 for drainage.

The raised plinth a height of 12” to 18” above the ground, and is projected beyond the Karvi wall panel by about a foot as an apron. It protects the Karvi from dampness rising from the ground as well as from the splashing water that falls from the roof.

The house has no foundation trenches except the pits for the posts. The foundation of the posts is about 5ft. deep. While repairing or rebuilding the house, they reuse the posts by removing their rotten part that was lying in the ground.

On the slopes of the hill, they raise the plinths to a required height by stepping, rather than leveling by digging the ground. The high plinths have dry rubble masonry retaining wall, which allow drainage of ground / subsoil water during monsoon.

Indeed, they use very little soil in the entire production of the house. Rarely there is any effort to change the elevation of the ground; it is minimum required. In the hilly area, the earth is scarce and precious. Earth is sacred.


As one enters the house, the interior is dark. After some time one adjusts to the light inside and the interior becomes visible. Paintings and objects on the walls, pillars and beams emerge as in the ancient caves. The interior seems darker, particularly to the urbanite that continuously live and work during the day and night in bright light.

The Adivasi – aborigine – spends the day in the scorching heat and glaring tropical sun. The house is not merely a shelter to him. It is sacred too. It is where one grows, gets educated. I wonder if in the dark interior of his abode, the Warli has a sense of returning to womb. Does the outer world and the inner world symbolize day and night, light and darkness, “and the door in between as symbol of death and final desolation into the source of being… but also the exit into life”?[14] Among the Warli tribe there is worship of Fertility goddess. They carve the sun and the moon on the statue of Vaghdev – tiger god –, which reminds day and night, of cyclic nature of time, and of regeneration.

Perhaps there is another dimension besides such metaphysical concepts. We have not seen a Warli wearing eyeglasses. The so-called dark interior facilitates exercise of the iris. The brightly lit interiors of the modern houses hardly think of this part of the health. They are more oriented to aesthetic of visuals than health of vision, whether architecture or urban design.

How could a Warli walk in the dark of a night in the wilderness! Dr. Deepak Chopra prescribes certain exercises to recover eyesight: sunlight exercises and long and short distance reading are some of them. The tribal prescribe the same with little difference: to look at early morning sun through a fine sieve used for flour.

Warli House and Art

“The concept of social art culminated in due course in the ugly Bauhaus movement, than in demonic Soviet realism and nearer home the Brutalist school of architecture in Europe, the United States and elsewhere, the omnipresent monument to the machine age at the service of ever-efficient capitalist economy”[15].

Due to their wall paintings, the attention of the urban elite has recently turned to the Warli recently. There is some documentation also. All these remain currently at information level in fashion. Some have started selling their art in the city market to boost Warli tribe’s economy. Some lament on the imitation of Warli paintings by art graduates. One finds their art imitated and reproduced in stationary, greeting cards, calendars, textile, packaging papers in the name of ethnic designs, or as a crude imitation on the tourist buses, or in the ugly display organised by the ruling class on the floats to entertain the crowds, during Republic Day [26th January] display parade of arms and armed forces on the boulevards of power.

Warli painting is the domain of women. The urbanite, however, have brought in, initiated, and encouraged the males to make so-called Warli paintings for the urban market. This is eventually going to develop male chauvinism of the civilized world, which is out to destroy the tribal culture in India.

Art, to a Warli alike other tribes is not for the sake of art, for trade, investment, auction, connoisseurship… as treated by the urban elite. Art is intrinsic part of life of individual, community, habitat, and as ritual in culture. In different regions different mediums flourished such as, bamboo, terracotta, metalwork, painting, dance, singing, music, archery, farming, house building etc. For every child house – home – is a school of art. Every household emerges as an entity in unity of the collective with character or ethics, yet unique.

A painting on a wall, ‘Rangoli – Alpana – Kolam’[16] on the floor fade away in time. The house too goes back to earth. In Holi festival people burn a tree. This concept is also there in their ‘Vaghdev’ – tiger god. As generations pass away, they remove the older statue of the pair and throw out of its place, and a new one takes the place. The last one takes the place of the discarded statue. It is the cycle of death and birth.

Painting, Rangoli, house, tree, Vaghdev’s statue… will regenerate in the cycles of death and birth. In the destruction, there is beginning of new life – regeneration. The mud then is the potentiality of being lotus [Acharya Rajanish].

The art is the part of their religion, culture and person. The tribal lives the religion not by preaching, institutionalizing and scriptures, neither by any following. S/he has assimilated them in his person, that in her/his being s/he is part of the cosmos…Truth – ‘Sat’. S/he does not need to collect and accumulate [wealth]. S/he has awakened conscience, which s/he has achieved through living in harmony with nature. By living in communion with nature, s/he has reached heightened consciousness – ‘Cit’. Their painting, Rangoli, dance, singing, music, house, is prayer, thanksgiving, and celebration – Joy (Invulnerable Happiness) – ‘Anand’. Her/his religion is not merely a ritual or magic, as is popularly interpreted by the scholars.

Warli’s ‘poverty’- by popular definition – is [was?] not a residue of industrialization. Her/his community is not that of communism, nor is it a by-product of industrial revolution. We do not find gurus, prophets, scriptures, gospels, and temples, or even prostitution, among them. Their ‘Vaghdev’ stands in the open landscape under the canopy of the sky. The tribal is in the state of Bliss. His first and the last guru is nature.

Why Warli is Warli?

Warli is so close to mega-city of Bombay [now Mumbai], yet why so remote?
This will always be beyond the perception of the ‘Post-historic man’, unless he changes his way of life.
In Warli house, as in her painting there is no permanence like the advance societies. Civilization struggled to create monuments of permanent nature. Someone has truly said, “Wherever civilization walked, it left a desert behind.” This situation has reached to a peak during the epoch of industrial civilization in the 20th century to leave behind monuments greater than pyramids, to leave behind permanent debris of secular architecture. In contrast, the Warli’s ‘Vaghdev’ stands in the open awaiting regeneration.

The civilizations have created great religions, great libraries, great wars, and population in great numbers. However, we have also seen two of the human species – the rulers and the tribal have not grown in numbers, because the rulers kill each other, and the tribal live in the state of Bliss. Basic needs of the civilized have grown to limitless numbers of items of consumption, where matters of soul – spirituality – is another item of consumption, through books, films, audio-video cassettes of discourse by the gurus.

There are no criteria to measure the spiritual attainment of any person; nor spirituality be institutionalized. We have known that in spiritual attainment the arts – poetry, music, dance, sculpture, architecture etc. too are elevated; that even hunger attains higher level by fasting. However, ‘silence’ is supreme among all spiritual expressions (!) or attainment that is where Warli is.

The Warli’s house and art, which present a whole range of metaphor of their silent culture, is comparable with Buddha-hood. Adivasi has been living in the Present – NOW – for millennia in union with Nature. The Karvi hut of the Warli has that quality of timelessness, which we find in the poetry of saint-poets Kabir and Tukaram.

Housing and Culture

“Nothing of artistic importance has been recovered for a period lasting for more than thousand years, between the end of Indus Civilization around 1750 B.C. and the beginning of Mauryan Empire in the third century B.C. In this crucial gap occurred Aryan conquest, composition of Vedas, Upanishads, the Epics, the teaching Buddha and Indo-Aryan culture (Lennoy).[17] This of course is a western view of art as aesthetic artefact. Besides Harrapan culture, there were indigenous people. As is understood by scholars, the conquerors, the Aryans, were influenced by the tribal culture and it is said that they adopted tribal customs. “Hindu mythology, the Krishna cult, Yoga, and Tantra are replete with magical lore and symbolism of tribal origin.”[18] Anand Coomarswamy asserts in his ‘Essays in Early Indian Architecture’ that the cult of Tree Worship is of tribal origin.

Whatever de-tribalisation may have taken place by way of ‘Verna’ – caste system – during the period mentioned, the polarization of tribal and non-tribal also took place, which has lasted for thousands of years, until now. The tribal were pushed by the militarily powerful civilized people, or perhaps they retreated to the forest.

There is a definite difference in the way of life, beyond economic system, in the polarization. “The most important difference between tribe and castes is non-specialization of the former,” Richard Lennoy quotes, “Geza Rohen once described primitive man as ‘free, untrammeled and truly self-reliant’ in comparison with the member of more organized societies. ‘The outstanding characteristic of primitive economies is the absence of a true differentiation of labour… This means that every individual is technically a master of the whole culture, or where culture, or where certain modest qualifications are necessary, of almost the whole culture. In other words, each individual is really self-reliant and grown up”[19]. The tribal of course are not living in a proto-historic or primitive state. He has accumulated knowledge and wisdom of life of thousands of years passed over from generation to generation, in practice, just as people preserved Vedas mnemonic method. It is not easy however, for the intellectual – scientific mind to understand the tribal, because the scientific mind dissects, divides, deducts, classifies, analyzes, resulting in abstraction, and thinks in a linear way. He analyzes a flower, but in his laboratory there is no taste tube carrying a label – ‘beauty’, ‘soul’, ‘self’, ‘life’ [Rajanish]. Essentially the tribal is holistic, synthesizer; paradoxical… he worships the tree and burns it too in the fire of Holi!

While looking at his house in terms of science and technology, the theme of this congress, we cannot afford to separate it as an element from his culture and person who has attained spirituality. That would be too dangerous. Says John C. Eccles, “I maintain that human mystery incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventuality for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This must be classed as superstition”  (Evolution Of The Brain : Creation Of The Self 1989).[20]

When an urbanite through day and night lives life divorced from physical presence of nature, in all four aspects of life: Work, Leisure, Education and Health, all the time in the world of artefacts created by human, the spirituality remains only a verbal acrobatic, and Nature as aesthetics of hedonism by visual experience. 

Yet, now the recent genetic studies reveal that while the non-tribal Indian are mixture of all those invading races in the history, the tribal have remained isolated genetically from the mainstream, not only culturally. “It is believed that all the similar tribes of Western India are subdivisions of the Bhills who are one of the largest tribe in India. A clear dichotomy of tribal and non-tribal population of Gujarat was observed. It has been also known that three tribes of Maharashtra namely, Bhill, Pawara and Katkari cluster separately from caste Hindus of the same state. All these results indicate that the tribes in general segregate from non-tribes. The main factor responsible for genetic differentiation of tribes from non-tribes is isolation”[21].

In the independent India, the cultural subjugation of the tribal has reached to heights unparalleled in the past through various means: education, religion, development projects, and displacement from their homestead, deforestation, laws, state violence, and housing imposed through aid programmes etc. forcing them to be part of the mainstream, without understanding the significance of their being tribal.

Relevance of Indigenous Tribal Housing Today

We have coined many words and phrases: public participation, environmental awareness, ecological balance, decentralization of power, sustainable development etc. while we continue to live in a way, which violates these concepts. While we speak of democracy, our policies continue to strengthen cities, the very symbol of centralized power.

While the world is facing the environmental, ecological and energy crisis, it is building mass form of society with unceasing craze for accumulation of wealth and creation of waste. Modern technology progressively continues to produce built environment, which is in the grip of sick-building syndrome (SBS) with cocktail effect on health caused by their health- hazardous building materials, synthetic furnishings, electric/electromagnetic equipments and appliances resulting in number of deceases, unexplainable allergies, and organic disorders due to chemical effects on environment, electromagnetic and electrostatic impairments and environmental degradation. This is only one of many issues in the business of living, where society has no power to think and decide what it wants.

While tropical monsoon forest is vanishing, some are spending millions of dollars to study biosphere under the artificial conditions in a glass cage. To rectify ozone layer some think of remedies, which are ecologically disastrous. In the name of appropriate technology to produce mud blocks, they bring automation, which would consume more energy. It is evident that modern society follows double standards.
Yet we pretend to look for model of sustainable development, as if it is a goal to achieve, rather than a process, a way of living.

The tribes present such a model even today, just as thousands of years ago the Aryans – the conquerors were conquered by the culture of the aborigines – the conquered. But the tribal have neither double standards nor the split personality of the advanced societies. Tribal’s way is not that of ‘sustainable development’ but that of ‘sustainable habitat’. Their way is not that of human numbers but human persons. Their way is not of the ‘curative’ remedies, but that of ‘preventive’ measures. Their way also is not of accumulation of wealth and creation of waste but to lead sustainable life, life of poverty, not the poverty which is now imposed upon them by the militarily (economically) superior societies, not the poverty as a residue, a by-product of industrialization, modern science and technology.

The difference must be understood. Tribe’s housing is a way of life, and not a model for mass production through legislation, policy papers, or a specialized university course.

The tribal culture has survived through millennia, while empires and civilizations (not the people) have passed away. Modern man claims progress and development in Industrial Civilization – the last one on the earth. However, the future is merely matter of speculation. Nature is transient.

While we progress and speak of democratic values, we must be careful and be responsible not to push the tribes to be ‘Shudras’(untouchable castes) in the modern industrial society, as did Aryans do, and those followed them. Tribal culture is a living world heritage too precious to be lost. Tribal habitat embodies deep principle of how to live in balance and in harmony with biotic and abiotic nature for the guidance of the future human habitat.

Karvi hut – the tribe’s habitat in its indigenous state – is an expression of culture of tribal who is deeply spiritual person and environmentalist: the two are not separate; without one, there is not the other.

The end piece: Cleansing

Tribal do not treat the house as merely a shelter. They personify house and village, just as earth and river are mothers. Warli and Katkari tribes have a tradition of observing a day in a year: On that day, all the members of village community go out of the village across it s border. That day on one cooks at home neither remains at home. They carry their utensils, foodstuff, water, and firewood for cooking meals. They perform a religious rite and sacrifice a goat at the place where there are sacred masts erected by the tribal. It is the sacred site on the border of the village. A woman heads and conducts the ceremony. She stands in trance for nearly two hours, and then conducts the ritual. Outside the border of the village, the families cook their own meals, eat and return home in the evening. Prakash Sutar, a teenage Warli, explains the custom without mincing the words, “Brother, it is not a picnic. It is like fasting”.

One can imagine this act with elaborate preparations to patch the holes in the sky caused by depletion of ozone by modern science and technology. Hand in hand, science and technology have turned everything on earth to economics and matter, and human into commodity. And the United Nations celebrates an international ritual of ‘The Year of Shelter for the Homeless’.?


Illustration 1: Major Tribal Settlements in India 
Katkari Tribe, Western Maharashtra, India 
Illustration 2: Location of the Study Area 
Warli Tribe Study Area, Thane Dist. Maharashtra
Illustration 3: Typical Warli Settlement
Layout of Warli Settlement, Thane District, Maharashtra
Illustration 4: Stylized Structural System of Warli House
Stylized Structural System Warli House, Thane Dist. Maharashtra
Illustration 5: Warli House
 Cow dung wash is applied to walls and floor at regular intervals.

Illustration 6: Warli House and Wall Painting
Warli Wall Painting with the artist and her family
Illustration 7:  Warli House
Warli Tribe like all other Adivasi tribes and other villagers periodically wash bamboo bins, baskets, 
silos and other bamboo implements with cow dung for maintenance.

Illustration 8: Warli is singing in tune with his single string instrument.

Warli singing with his string instrument
Illustration 9: Warli is dancing while playing his wind-instrument - Tarapa.

Warli playing Tarapa, a wind instrument.
Remigius de Souza
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[1] Nicholson, Max. ‘Environmental Revolution’ (Penguin 1972)
[2] Geddes, Patrick. ‘A Report on Development and Expansion of City of Baroda’ (Baroda State, 1916.
[3] Fourth World Review, UK.
[4] Pathy Jagnath. ‘Land Problems of Tribals’, The Times of India 10-9-1987.
[5] Mackey, Anthony. ‘Organic Building’, Fourth World Review No. 40/41, 1990.
[6] Curwell S. R. March C. G. ‘Hazardous Building Materials’ 1989
[7] Ibid
[8] Dr. Apte V. M. ‘Vanashrisishti part II’, Maharashtra State 1972.
[9] Mackey Anthony, ‘Organic Building’, Fourth World Review No. 40-41 UK, 1990.
[10] Pereira, Winin. ‘The King of the Jungle’, Mumba, 1989/90, Private paper.
[11] Harrison, Dex. ‘Specifications’, 1974, UK.
[12] Holdsworth, Bill and Sealey, Anthony. ‘Healthy Buildings’, Longman 1992.
[13] Foyle, Arthur M. ‘A Report of Conference on Tropical Architecture’, University College, London, 1953.
[14] Sahi, Jyoti. ‘The Child and the Serpent’.
[15] Papworth, Marcelle. ‘Book Review of ‘Against Art and Artists’ by Jean Gimpel, Fourth World Review,
No. 50, 1992, UK.
[16] Rangoli: A line drawing/painting with pumis stone powder or rice powder, drawn in front the entrance.
The stone powder is sometimes mixed with colour. Rangoli is also known as Alpana in Bengal, and
Kolam in Tamilnadu.
[17] Lennoy, Richard. ‘Speaking Tree’, OUP, 1971, p. 10.
[18] Ibid. p. 189.
[19] Ibid p. 180-181
[20] Eccles, John C. ‘Development of Brain: Creation of Self’ 1989, Routledge.
[21] Roychoudhary, A. K. “Diff’rent Stocks” 2001 and Science Today, March 1989.

Note: My students Mahesh Shelke, Trupti Jadhav, Sonali Joshi, Mahendra Panaganty, Prasanjit Debashis and Sagar Shipurkar, from Academy of Architecture, Bombay, assisted in the documentation of a Warli tribal settlement at Sutarpada, Dahanu Taluka of Thane district, Maharashtra State(1993)..

© Remigius de Souza, all rights reserved.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Slums, cities and the web of development - 4 The basis for rehabilitation

My address: At Mumbai, Post India 
Slums, cities and the web of development: 
4- The basis for rehabilitation

(A word of caution:  During 1950s and 1960s, it was alleged; thousands of acres of land were purchased by people in high places – politicians, business people, executives, etc. in various (bogus) names in rural areas. The recent Special Economic Zones (SEZs), if executed, could spell hell to the peasants, tribal and forest dwellers, which are treated as second class citizens. The social, economic, political, educational... disparities have pushed a large majority to the brink, which stinks of hidden agenda of annihilation.)

Rehabilitation should provide land for farming, housing, local institutions such as schools, colleges, training institutions for alternative agro-technology, banking, public transport, and health care faculties.

Squatters' water woes in Mumbai (2011)
Just as minimum shelter of 21 sq. m. is recommended / given to a slum dweller in cities, so also a landless labourer in rural areas should be rehabilitated with one acre of land.

All the land needed for rehabilitation of the displaced should be taken from reconstitution of the entire land holdings of the region. This formula demands corrective measures in the existing structure of laws and applications. But it also demands courage, integrity and transparency on the part of the society and Administration.

If such an application is brought into force, with effect from, say, 25-1-1952, there shall be massive exodus from the cities to rural areas. People who are rotting in the slums shall return to their homestead.

The culture and tradition of the country is essentially agrarian. The resources required for industrialization shall not last forever; neither the borrowed know-how, nor imported clever ideas of development that may work forever.

Customarily the compensation and rehabilitation is decided in proportion to, on the basis of degree of consumption and access and power to devour the resources in comparison with urban elite and not on the basis of sustenance. The direct benefit due to the acquisition for development must reach to the people on equitable basis. As is, it is questionable whether the benefits of direct taxes reach them.

Does science, or applied sciences, have answers to these problems? Perhaps partially. When ‘science’ loses its dimension of ‘people’ it becomes a ‘ghetto of information’ and eventually gets buried. Technology does not build the pyramids anymore in imitation of the past; its form, however, has changed but the context continues. When centralized power inflates and loses its vision of eternity, it disintegrates.

What memories of Mumbai these children will carry if they survive?
Incarnations and prophets born in different times spoke the language of people rather than the monopolized language of the elite. But now the times have changed. But peoples’ language is lost in the anonymity.

To look for the answers to the contemporary problems the real place is the people and not the polytechnics or parliaments or planning agencies, or theories and discourses by pundits that are not responsible.  Perhaps it is now time for billion incarnations.

The first task is to restore human dignity: Dignity to all living beings; Dignity to Life.

Author: Remigius de Souza
[Published in the Journal of Indian Institute of Architects, Vol. 61, No. 9,  Dec.1996, p23-25. This is edited version.]
(Revised on: 23-05-2010)

Links to previous posts: 
  1. Slums are on rise in India
  2. The slums increase in direct proportion to the development.  
  3. Ghettos of Development
Note: Photographs illustrated are by Remigius de Souza. 
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©Remigius de Souza, all rights reserved.