The ancient anti-seismic design of the Himalayas

In 1905, a deadly earthquake rocked the landscape of Himachal Pradesh, an Indian state in the western Himalayas. Rugged-looking concrete buildings crumbled like houses of cards. The only surviving structures were in towns where locals had used an ancient traditional Himalayan building technique known as kath kuni.

On a hot Tuesday afternoon, I was heading to one of them: Naggar Castlewhich was built over 500 years ago as the seat of the mighty Kullu kings of the region, and which has remained standing, unscathed, after this calamity.

Officers from the Geological Survey of India were astonished by the lack of earthquake damage to the castle and other kath kuni houses within the radius of the earthquake. “This, at first glance, seemed unnatural due to the seemingly rather heavy construction of the houses…until one realized the natural resisting power of their wooden walls,” they wrote.

The castle is one of the most exquisite remaining examples of the building style, but kath kuni houses have been built in this area for thousands of years. The design is recognizable by its layered interlocking of deodar wood (a type of Himalayan cedar) with locally sourced stone, without the use of mortar. Naggar Castle is now a hotel and tourist attraction, but its rustic walls — flat-stacked gray stones alternating with earth-toned wooden planks — are proof that some things are timeless.

As a design, kath kuni is ingenious. “Wood and Deodar stone together create a spectacular balance and composition,” said Rahul Bhushan, architect and founder of NORTH, a Naggar-based architecture and design studio that works to preserve the building technique through building projects, workshops, artist residencies and homestays. “The stone gives weight to the structure, resulting in a low center of gravity, and the wood holds the structure together, thanks to its flexibility.”