Making of Prototype house of Dhe, Lo Mustang Applied Visual Anthropology, Case Study I

May 30, 2017


Dhe village council decided to resettle their whole village in their ancestral land in Thangchung plain. The village is facing acute water shortage for irrigation and pastureland are arid and desertification is rampant in the region due to change in climate pattern and its impact on the local environment. The livelihood of the community was based on agro-pastoralism and seasonal trade of surplus local produce. Due to change in precipitation pattern, most of the water sources in the region have dried and pastures quality has sharply degraded, immensely affecting the local subsistence. Many families have migrated elsewhere, mostly in the bigger town and cities as a last resort. Dhe was slowly turning into a ghost village and thus the village council decided to act.

The village council, led by Pasang Gurung came to the conclusion that the name of Dhe village should not die, its culture and heritage too. It was a unanimous decision of the remaining villagers to move to Thangchung/Tsamwale, and if possible together with families in exile. Dhe village council informed all other families in exile about the decision asking them to join the resettlement project. All the families in exile obliged, except an old couple and his family based in Tsarang. So, 26 families of Dhe laid the foundation of resettlement project around 2009 with the apple plantation in Tsamwale without any help from outside sources. It was totally a local initiative that makes this project unique and a role model in different fronts.


Enthusiasm and experience were there in abundance but resource (mostly financial) was lacking but it didn’t deter the community. Village council collected a small sum from all the families of Dhe to invest on a small apple orchard, which also consisted some fodder (Chyngma plant) and timber plants (Himalayan poplar tree), pine, and fruits such as peach, apricot, and walnut.  The money was spent mostly on fencing, irrigation, and the purchase and transportation of the apple plants to the region, at the time Apple samplings and transportation facilities were still limited in Lo Mustang, it still is. There is a possibility of ample amount of water supply from Dhe River but it needed reinforcement of the catchment (use of gabions) and minimal construction of water supply canal to the orchard (apple project of Dhe will be discussed in a separate chapter).


I was in Dhe Village for my fieldwork in 2011 for my master degree that was based on the study of the socio-cultural impact of climate change in the Himalayan. Even though I was in Mustang in 2008 and have started with theoretical research about the region since 2009 – what I saw in Lo Mustang and especially in Dhe and Samzhong village shook my ‘romantic’ notion of the ‘majestic Himalaya’. The hardship of the locals in the time of climate change was intense and ever-growing but their basic human rights were being taken away and justice denied. I have been fighting a subtle war on all frontiers for our rights because I am one of them, almost literally. I was basically focused on visual and cultural anthropology during the initial phase of Mustang research my experience of the region forced me strongly into the ‘applied’ approach of cultural anthropology, a field championed by one of our university lecturer, Sarah Pink.


I was again back to Dhe and Lo Mustang, for my Ph.D. which was based on understanding the climate vulnerability and adaptation to the climate impacts. I was researching the vulnerabilities of various settlements such as Samzhong, Yara, and Dhe for the case studies and I was mostly based in Dhe during my doctoral research that ended in 2016. I stayed around 5 months in Lo, mostly in Dhe Village in 2012. It was during this visit, I was officially appointed, as ‘advisor’ for the resettlement project by the village council of Dhe and it was the begging of the active involvement in the resettlement project, apart from my doctoral research. I joined forces with Michel Houdon from Normandy who was also deeply involved in the project and knew the villagers of Dhe for more than a decade prior to my own involvement in the project. We formed a solid alliance from the beginning for Dhe and it has grown, evolved, and consolidated over time, most importantly it has mutually benefited all of us.


Dhe villagers had their plans and agenda set for resettlement and they were working with a plan. During one of the village meeting, some villagers showed me a village planning of their settlement that was supposed to be built in the plain of Thangchung (which roughly translates as big plain). During this meeting, they asked me, if I could find someone who can assist them with their planning of the settlement and housing units so they could incorporate local design with basic modern facilities such as running water in the kitchen, indoor bathrooms and toilets and so on. Local engineers were not used to plumbing (water and sanitation) and wiring (electrical) jobs which were (is) new to them so they wanted some planning and architectural assistance. They also wanted to have their plan studied by an expert for its feasibility and longevity. Even though their work on building houses in Thangchung was scheduled for later years, they wanted to have village plan and design sorted in advance so they don’t lose time when the water reaches Thangchung plain and they have enough resources to build a house, all of them together. I took the photos of their plan and drawings with me to Berlin with a job to find some expertise and helping hands.


It was by luck and chance, Wolfgang Korn from Cölbe was planning to visit Lo Mustang and was looking for someone who can give him some first-hand information about the place. A mutual friend of ours gave him my email and boom…there was an email for me from the Wolfgang Korn. I don’t want to go to the specific of Wolfgang and his contributions to the traditional Newar and Nepalese architectures of Nepal, I only want to focus on what it means to me personally. During my bachelor years, I had to study his book ‘The architectural heritage of ….”. It had borrowed that book from my wife (now), who herself had studied that book during her years as an architectural student. The book was published by Ratna Pustak Bhandar in 1976 in Biblothecika Himalaya series. Almost all the writers from that series are dead, for decades and I always though Wolfgang was either too old or already dead. I want to share an incident, Wolfgang and I went to a book store in Thamel and when Wolfgang introduce himself to the owner…the owner was shocked to see him and asked…How old are you…125 or something? That was also my initial reaction when I had my first communication with Wolfgang Korn.


Wolfgang invited me to Cölbe to talk and plan about his trip to Lo Mustang and I obliged, as I also had some hidden agendas in my mind concerning the resettlement projects of Dhe. We met in Cölbe and discuss and plan and his travel to Mustang in 2013. I briefly ask him if he could help and provide his expertise to Dhe villagers. He was bit skeptic but assured me he will visit Thangchung and meet local and will decide if he can contribute. I was optimistic that it will work out, but didn’t have a clue how?


Wolfgang visited Lo Mustang with his wife in the spring of 2013 and I too was there, before him for my fieldwork. We met briefly in Thangchung, showed him around the site with locals and later in the night and following morning we had an intense discussion with local engineers of Dhe and Wolfgang. I was a translator for both the sessions, initial ideas, and information was exchanged. Wolfgang listed me to get few information and details from the villagers so he could work further on it. He was still skeptic but was willing to help…still not sure how?


Wolfgang and I met again in Germany in the summer and I handed him the details he wanted and through out the summer and winter, he worked on the design based on Dhe villagers plan. I had to call numerous times to locals to ask for certain technical information and details. It was a hard and long process but was going smoothly and Wolfgang was planning to visit Lo Mustang for the second time, this time specifically for resettlement project through SES program (Senior Experten Service) with another expert for apples (details about the apple expert and his work will be covered in another chapter). Wolfgang made drafts for the settlement with six different prototypes of housing models. I was in Lo Mustang again in the autumn of 2013 from my fieldwork. I was given some designs and planning by Wolfgang to show and explain to the locals and get their feedbacks. I showed the design to local engineers of Dhe and families of Dhe and gathered as much technical information as I could for Wolfgang to work on. I handed him the information on the return. By the end of 2013, we in Europe had already formed a strong alliance with numerous experts and were constantly in touch with each other and held numerous meetings in various cities in France and Germany.


Wolfgang Korn visited Thangchung with apple expert Dr. Nobert Clement in the spring of 2014. I was also in Lo Mustang since the middle of winter and worked as a coordinator and translator during their visit. Wolfgang and I visited the settlement of Dhe (3900m) and took measurements of houses and gompa. We visited almost all the houses for the measurements and technical details so nothing was lost in planning and design. Wolfgang had a long session with local engineers namely, Tshetup and Pasang Gurung. Wolfgang returned with most of the information he wanted so he could work on the final planning and designs of the settlement and individual home units. Most importantly he was back with one design that the villagers unanimously agreed on, so it was this design that he will work in the future from now.


I return to Berlin in the summer and by the time Wolfgang had already done some preliminary planning of the settlement and house design. There were many meeting between me, Michel, and Wolfgang in Europe. There were also countless information exchanges between villagers and Wolfgang and I was facilitating their communication. Plans and designs were also progressing, better with the every local output. Wolfgang also made a design model of the house, was made in such a way that those not used to reading figures should also understand the design/model and thus give their feedbacks which will be incorporated into the final design. It looked like never ending process but the outcome was tremendous and we all were satisfied with the development of the prototype house for the new settlement. The house was going to be built on Tsamwale (apple plantation area) because the water project for Thangchung had not started and without it was impossible to have a house or the settlement. The idea of the building a prototype house was simple, learn from the mistakes and living experiences of the locals in making future homes and not make the same mistake 26 times.


Villagers had already identified a suitable location for the prototype house in Tsamwale where the apple plantation is located. There is a heavy movement of people in Tsamwale due to various community work and development in apple plantation. It was planned that some of the community members would live in the house and share their comfort experience for the final houses. It was also necessary to know the detailed cost of each unit and building materials so the necessary fund can be arranged in time.


Locals had already started making bricks for the unit since late spring of 2014 and it was left to dry in the sun, which is in abundance in Lo Mustang. Michel and Bessin Nepal members had collected some funds to contribute to the cost of material that had to be bought from outside. Locals were supposed to provide all the manpower and money would only be spent on buying materials that were not available locally. Things were going as planned the construction of the prototype house was supposed to start in the autumn of 2015. The Nepal Earthquake of 2015 and its aftermath changed our planned construction. Wolfgang, Michel and I visited Lo Mustang in Oct. 2015 for a final discussion with the community and our mission was also to incorporate earthquake resistance technique. The final plan was presented to the villagers with miniature model and photos and many diagrams. The area of Thangchung and most of Lo Mustang is infamous for its windy conditions, so got some experts in Germany to help us with the simulation test of the proposed resettlement area so the design and planned settlement will be protected from the afternoon wind brewing in Kali Gandaki valleys rush towards the cooler Tibetan plateau.


By the end of 2016, prototype house was finished except for the interiors. The project was basically funded by Du Bessin au Népal (France) and all the manpower was contributed by the community of Dhe. Some building materials used in the construction came from China which came as a relief material after the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake. The house was finally inaugurated and delivered to the community by Olivier Lepetit (President of Du Bessin Au Népal) in 2017. The house is being used by community members for various purposes and based on their ‘experiences’ and output, final housing units for Thangchung will be designed in the near future.

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Making of Prototype house of Dhe, Lo Mustang Applied Visual Anthropology, Case Study I

May 30, 2017

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