Anyone, who has been to the hills of South-asia during a damp monsoon walking on the unbroken contours of the rice terraces must have thought that there is a low cost and sustainable reality to the urban chaos. In many parts of Nepal, most people do their farming in Phant (foothills) and the terraces because they are generally fertile, humid and have enough supply of water. In the evenings the farmers walk up hills as they are coolers, safer from mosquitoes and floods, scenic, less productive; an ideal place for shelter. Phants are considered only good for farming; the people who live there are compared to toads since they only live in a damp and warm condition!
Most of the houses are built on top of a heavy rock known locally as known as pahara. If available, they chose sites that resembled plateaus or flatter areas, because there is always the danger of landslides. They have built up to five stories using locally available materials like adobe, stone, bamboo and wood. People usually farm in two areas, in order to diversify their work to minimize risks. One part of their farm is usually on the phants, and the others are on the slighter higher terraced plane; if there is flood the terraced area would be protected, where as phants are safer during landslide.
The slopes in the terraces are intentionally kept outwards in order to avoid accumulation of water, as it can trigger landslide by increasing the degree of soil saturation and adding weight of the soil itself. Furthermore, people know the importance of preserving trees in order to prevent landslide, so they protect certain critical areas by dedicating them to the local deities.
Landslides and floods are not only the disasters they have to worry about. There are thunderstorms too. Local knowledge says, the native plants like kalki, peepal, lapsi are not to be planted close to the houses, because they were vulnerable to fire during thunderstorm. Some houses put a trishul, a forked shaped metal weapon of thunderous lord Shiva, as it creates a route for the electricity to go underground.
In ancient mythological text book the North-West direction was attributed to the wind god Vayu, south-west to the sun god Surya, east to the rain god Indra and South-East to the fire God Agni. The doors and windows, wells and ponds were placed in different direction in order to attract and appease the gods of nature. After every monsoon, all the houses are plastered and painted with the locally available mud and colorful pigments in order to bring the harvest, represented by Laxmi the goddess of wealth. Women use the locally available vegetable dyes to create beautiful artwork on the walls, with the motifs ranging from ceremonious union of Rama and Sita to playful depictions of airplanes and tractors. For them art is not religious rather its celebratory.
The harvest is brought in, after much festivity and stored in a large earth container called Bhakari. Storing in the earth container preserves the harvest, because the temperature of the earth is constant. Water buffalos are stored in the first floor, because they require damp surface. Their body heat goes to the second floor and it heats up the house. The house is always facing south. The southern heat is precious. There is a very common expression in Nepal called gham lagyo. It means to wear the sun, as one wears a jacket. Heat is very important. “Guestrooms” or pidi are the patio, which is facing the south. Pidi has a very emotional attachment in the rural Nepali psyche. All the functions happens in the pidi, like receiving guests, spinning yarns, cleaning vegetables. This is the place where people wear the sun.
Just after the harvest there are five days of worship, starting with crows, dogs, cows, bulls and finally the humans. Crows have helped them in the farming season by eating insects and mice, the dogs have guarded them against the impish village boys, cows have given milk and dung are used as fertilizers, and the bulls have been used to plough. The final day is the worship of our body, as it goes through lot of turmoil during the harvest season. A beautifully woven, wheat is placed on the window, as an homage to the birds, who are now deprived of the food as the harvest is over.
Our body requires certain level of temperature in order to be comfortable. People have devised ingenious spaces to keep their body in an optimal thermal level. For example, in the northern part of Nepal in the Himalayas, people have lowered their roofs and window sizes, while in the tropical regions of country, people place courtyard in the middle of the house for evaporative cooling. In our modern world, we spent millions of on energy bills, while local people, with the use of natural materials and ingenious design techniques have coped with the harsh mother natures fluctuating temperature.
Beauty of the rural living seems to be crumbling away right in front our eyes. Though we were attached to the soil ever since the prehistoric times, our modern age has alienated us from the soil, made us migrate to the foreign land and become the slave of the corporate world. The decline has intensified since the 90’s as neo-liberal policies are putting profit before the human needs. The ratio of farmers to the world population is declining, so is the productivity as it is manifested in the steady rise in the food prices. Perhaps, it is too early to tell where the world is heading. Yet, the struggle continues; evoking mixed sense of hope and despair. Our century is defined by the resistance of the peasants against the landlords, subaltern against the hegemony of the elite, occupied against the occupation, traditional farmers against the industrialized farmers, periphery against the center, rural people against the urban hegemony. Moreover the peasants, who according to John Berger were treated as “…, a kind of anonymous historical raw material which, like the soil itself, was given from—used, controlled, and finally rendered historical by the identifiable social forces of the minority…” are now making their desires loud and clear.