Formation of Sustainable Culture Connections

A view in the Indian context


नूनं जना: सूर्येन प्रसूत: ।
nUnam janAha sUryena prasUtaha
(all living beings originate from the (power of the) Sun)


1361 – The magic number; meaningless standing alone; yet magical when suffixed with the units ‘watts per square meter’. A quantified expression of the sun’s love extended forth to us in the form of electro-magnetic radiation: the invisible band – ultra violet for vitamin D production, melanin secretion, and skin tonality; and infrared for warmth and visible light for all of the endless stories about nights and days, darkness and light, and heroes and villains and spies and messengers.

Yet it isn’t one number when it hits the surface of the earth. It manifests in thousands of different ways, varying with the slightest change in the rotation of the earth as well as what humans now refer to as “Latitude”. So the 1361 would be highest at the equator and the least at the poles.

What hits the earth on its numerous surface-types (land, sea, rivers, mountains, snow, forest, etc.) is partly absorbed (over the deep seas), partly reflected (over snow and ice), and partly both, over the lush, deep greenery of equatorial rain forests. The delicate balance in the earth’s temperature and humidity is created by an equally delicate balance of snow, sea and land, with white, black, green & brown cover respectively. These factors combined with altitude, distance from the oceans and rivers, give rise to rainfall patterns and lo! out of a combination of all of the above is born ‘soil’.


Pedogenesis or the science of evolution of soil is oft represented in the formula.
Soil = f(C, PM, R, O, V,) x time (where C = climate, PM = parent material, R = relief/topology, O = fauna, V = flora).


This single formula captures all that goes into the slow process of soil evolution, taking anywhere from 100 to 1000 years to give us what we see as humus – the rich, delicate (its only a few inches thick), fertile layer that supports plant and organic life across the mother ship. What this formula shouldn’t do, is to deceive you with its simplicity. Climate in itself encompasses all that we discussed in the paragraphs before. Similarly, parent material could be any of the millions of rock types in the sub-strata.
So in a given climate zone, what we pee, poop and throw (organic waste), and the dead matter of animals and plants, mingles with each other to become the rich humus – something that in the process of modern building we so readily destroy in huge chunks, largely out of ignorance.


Being Punjabi, the simplest analogy for explaining the distribution of biodiversity on our planet, is that of a tandoori chicken and the open fire that it gets cooked over. The slow turning of the chicken allows for the fattest, roundest part to get cooked the maximum (which happens to be closest to the flame), but the ends don’t get cooked as well (if the cook doesn’t twirl the skewer just right and evenly).

The earth; the big tandoori chicken, with what we call ‘nature’ as its skin; is its richest near the equator, with the densest forests, the brightest flora and fauna under high tree canopies and the darkest skinned people[1]. The richness of nature (now referred to as biodiversity) that surrounds them makes these people humble, inclusive, caring and cautious of the preservation of what, whoever their gods and goddesses are, have given to them.
[1] Gloger’s Rule is a zoological rule which states that within a species of endotherms, more heavily pigmented forms tend to be found in more hot and humid environments, e.g. near the equator.


“Culture! Westerners often use this word to mean a taste for the fine arts, music and other aesthetic matters. But it has a much broader meaning, namely, the shared values, language and traditions that define a particular group of people, be they Australian Aborigines, black American, or the ancient Greeks.” (Clarke)

Over several generations nature allows for organisms to adapt themselves to the 1361. Where the 1361 is optimum, the animals (including humans) are smaller, higher in diversity and numbers (population), serving different purposes and varied, balanced over nocturnal and diurnal. It is not by accident that the 17 mega-diverse[1] nations of the world (including India) are in and around the equator, and within the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Where the 1361 spreads itself thin (as you move away from the equator and the tilt of the earth causes a reduction in solar radiation per square meter) the organisms become fairer, larger[2] and live farther apart to make the most of the rare sunshine.
All of these phenomena come together to create what is commonly called culture. But what is culture? What comes to mind when we hear that term? Isn’t culture a dynamic phenomenon? Doesn’t it evolve with time? If we agree to the premise that human response to the environment shapes culture – it perhaps becomes easier for us to attempt defining this in a country like India. Here the ancient codex of Sanskrit and elements of vernacular tradition are still alive; elements of which manifest themselves in the ancient components comprising culture, namely – Bhasha (language), Bhesh (attire), Bhojan (food), Bhavan (shelter) and Bhajan (prayer/festival). We would like to briefly touch upon some of these to elucidate the essential interconnectedness of all these aspects to Culture and Sustainability.
[1] Housing the maximum bio-diversity within a geo-political boundary.
[2] Bergmann’s rule is an eco-geographic principle that states that within a broadly distributed taxonomic clade, populations and species of larger size are found in colder environments, and species of smaller size are found in warmer regions. Allen’s rule states that endothermic animals, with the same volume, may have differing surface areas, which will aid or impede their temperature regulation. Hesse’s rule, also known as the heart–weight rule, states that species inhabiting colder climates have a larger heart in relation to body weight than closely related species inhabiting warmer climates


Let’s start with Bhasha. It is interesting to discover that the temperature and level of moisture in the air, our food (which comes from the soil), and the quality of water we drink and cook in (which also comes from the soil), allows for variability in prosody of language, the vowel and consonant combinations, and syllable richness. Local dialects always acknowledge local environmental phenomena, be it native animals and plants or seasonal shifts from one to another of our six seasons, or then community events that allow for sharing of wealth, health, sorrow and joy here. It is even more amazing to observe that these dialects we speak also shape how we perceive the world within and without us.
For instance – a simple example: The English language, as we perceive it today, has given rise to many breakthroughs and inventions. But we don’t realize that the very term “Sustainable” was born as a response to a largely unsustainable way of being.  In many ancient cultures, the term “Sustainable” does not exist in the vocabulary, since the people who speak those local dialects know of no other way but being sustainable. A design sensibility that is inclusive, compassionate towards nature in all its forms, and context specific is natural to many communities across India. But it all traces its roots back to the language or the dialect that is spoken amongst the people there.


Similarly, 1361, the humidity and temperature combination, the winds, altitude, topography (among a million other things that we may or may not be aware of) allow for the production of different types of fibre and dyes, which further allows our weaves to vary from Kanchipuram to Benares and beyond into the hills of Himachal and Kashmir.

Let’s see if you can cover all these in one breath: Amru, Arhi Bharat, Batik, Banarasi, Bandhini, Chamba Rumal, Chanderi, Chaunsa Khaddar, Chikankari, Do Rukha, Himru, Ikkat, Jamdani, Jamewar, Kalamkari, Kanbi Bharat, Kantha, Kasaba, Kashida, Khaddar, Maheshwari, Mochi Bharat, Murri, Paithani, Pashmina, Phanda, Phulkari, Pipli, Pitamber, Patola, Rabari, Refoogari, Taipachi, etc. etc.

All of these weaving traditions impact architectural expression and construction technologies that are prevelant in the areas where these weaves come from. Since very often, these very weaving patterns find their way into walling systems (wattle and daub), roofing systems (thatches) and partitioning systems particular to that region.


In the ancient tradition of Ayurveda it said “you are what you eat” and what you eat comes from the soil.  We have 5 climate types in India, and more than 50 soil types. Each soil type allows for the mind boggling diversity that comprises our cuisine; to create the cornucopia that offers itself as we traverse the country’s length and breadth. In a circular relation, the very food we eat then feeds back (via our physiology) to produce specific sounds that lead to variability in vowel-consonant pronunciation.
The diets also allow local people to bring their physiology in harmony with their natural environment. Thus desert food is designed to increase internal resistance to heat and reduce dependence on water (think – extremely spicy Rajasthani food), and hill food will be high on fat and dairy produce to increase the body’s resilience towards the cold (think – all the pork dishes and spices in northeastern food).
Onam Sadya
Rajasthani Thali


This gives rise to an architectural expression that belongs to the people – vernacular, responsive and contextual. All building materials are local, of the region and either available in plenty or recyclable or bio-degradable. Over centuries, depending on local needs, artisanal skills and building knowledge have been honed to a very high level.
“Traditionally, building materials have come from the 50-plus soil-types, glues and adhesives from the varied but scrumptious bhojan, walling and partiitioning techniques from Bhesh or weaving, and the master-techniques with which they are put together are codified in the local bhasha. So appreciating the philosophy of a certain architectural style or construction technology is very difficult unless the preceding three “Bh”s  are learned alongside.”
This gives rise to an architectural expression that belongs to the people – vernacular, responsive and contextual. All building materials are local, of the region and either available in plenty or recyclable or bio-degradable. Over centuries, depending on local needs, artisanal skills and building knowledge have been honed to a very high level.

You only have to look at the exquisitely crafted Himachal village dwellings of timber bracing and stone (image enclosed), to appreciate their understanding of seismic engineering. Or the beautiful Ladakhi homes with their tiny windows and very thick adobe and trombe walls to appreciate their understanding of thermal mass and passive temperature control. The splendid Naga Bamboo dwellings on stilts that use the material that is most abundant around them in a manner that is responsive to the climate, terrain and has spawned a plethora of cane and bamboo related craft. Or then the Rajasthani havelis…(The list is endless and to our mind awe inspiring). These highly evolved responses make our “globalized” attempts at sustainability seem like baby steps and apologies to true sustainability that celebrates the environment and local social and cultural mores.

Havelis of Jaisalmer
Secmol School in Ladakh


Bhajan – a song sung in praise of the eternal truth – truth being that which does not change with time, and with personal opinion (far from the world of right and wrong). Once again, traditional cultures such as ours sang songs of love and togetherness with whomsoever it was you worshipped. Sufi, boul, or aarti – musical traditions till very recently reflected the sentiments of an ancient wisdom – a wisdom that repeatedly said – dwell on the eternal self for the rest is “Maya[1]”; let all living beings prosper together; and do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others, etc.
Little do we realize how the songs we hear and sing influence our actions in childhood and eventually as adults. The songs that our grandparents grew up on addressed themes such as nature worship, togetherness, the virtues of community, ethics, and love. It isn’t surprising that the world timeline of sustainable development reflects events such as the Chipko movement (from whence the term Tree Hugger originated) as one of the first movements reflecting sustainability in the world.
[1] Contrary to popular belief, Maya refers to “all that which can be perceived by the senses – including all things material”. It is loosely translated as “illusion” in today’s day but that is only one meaning.


We are a unique nation. Over here, the 1361 spread itself over 3.287956 million square kilometers. The 1361 fueled the creation of the world’s largest cultural melting pot and political democracy. It gave us 1,652 languages and over 16,000 dialects; weaves that number in the hundreds based on the banks of the river they were woven next to, and the soil found there. It gave us a thousand different (as in, totally unlike each other) architectural solutions, crafts, arts and styles, spread across the entire 3.28 millions square kilometers. Then why battle the 1361?

Look at any “modern” city / building / restaurant / clothing style / music style and you will see Indian people (and humanity at large) trying to battle the 1361 for individual supremacy and mass “copy-pasting”. All at a very high energy and resource cost. As a simple case in point – ever noticed how all international cuisine can almost only be served in air-conditioned spaces? It does mostly come from a colder climate than ours and can’t really be savored in the sweltering heat of the Indian summer!

And climate change is upon us as a fact of “modern” science.

What we need is an immediate acknowledgement of the impact of 1361 across the length and breadth of India; an attempt to appreciate and preserve the extremely unique cultural heritage across the thousands of tribes in our country. Can you imagine how much knowledge that would be? How many tools, techniques, materials, innovations and inventions could help expand the horizons of design in India as we know it? Not to forget, the weaves, recipes and music that would tag along such an expansion.
The beginning must be with language. After all, design is nothing but a language. And the language of unsustainability cannot learn or appreciate a language that has lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years.


Going forward, solutions need possibly come through localized interventions that are holistic. This means looking inwards – both towards traditional and historic responses that include not-only architecture, but all that contributes to it (food, clothes, etc.). And at the changing modern scenarios especially in terms of changing user needs and aspirations. It is imperative therefore that as an Architect and Planner one begins to look at a matrix of localization as a foundation of the design process.

A study of the available resources – both material and human; a keen sensitivity towards various parameters such as social and cultural factors and of course Climate, and last but not the least , an inclusive approach to the act of building – an awareness of the impact that the design and build process has on all its stakeholders.
This sensitization might perhaps then begin to lead us to generate an architecture that is born of a process that is true to its context and devoid of the relatively egoistical expressions of modern and post modern architecture, that celebrate authorship and brilliance of the individual. Poised against this is the collective expression of a community with centuries of wisdom imbibed within it – something almost always will lead to a truly sustainable and timeless expression


If there is any one country that stands a chance to lead the way in the global race to battle climate change (strange – this common problem has also managed to become a race!) it is India. But it must do so by reviving faith in its traditional knowledge systems that are on the brink of extinction; Reviving faith in its mega-diversity; reviving faith in its people and its multitude of religions and its multitude of cultures that have kept it so close to nature for millennia.
And ultimately reviving faith in something that lies beyond modernist notions of growth synonymous with increasing consumption – a celebration of the gift of this magical planet that we all have been given – with a deep understanding that we (man – nature – material) are all fundamentally interconnected.


Clarke, Mary E. Ariadne’s Thread – The Search for New Modes of Thinking. New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc., 1989.
Bureau, ET. Power Consumption by Internet Datacenters Worldwide. 24 November 2012. 26 December 2013 <>.
Bhatnagar, Gaurav Vivek. Long wait for new car number plates to end soon. 24 October 2012. 27 December 2013 <>.
Wikipedia. “Indra’s Net.” 25 December 2013. 27 December 2013 <>.
GPO for the Library of Congress. “India: A Country Study.” 1 September 1995. Ed. James Heitzman and Robert L. Worden. 25 December 2013 <>.