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What’s common between a medieval necropolis and a modern Hyderabad hotel?

Architectural devices used by medieval builders of Hyderabad’s heritage complexes hold lessons modern buildings must emulate.

Aug 04, 2018, 11.00 PM IST
All the architectural devices used by ITC have an impeccable rationale, which begs the question of why these methods are still not the norm or mandatory.
My room in the newly opened ITC Kohenur in Hyderabad overlooked the 16th century Durgam Cheruvu reservoir, partly restored but still dotted with water hyacinth and littered with the detritus of a bridge being built to ease traffic, urban India’s perennial headache. In the distance, the crenelated ruins of Golconda Fort formed a craggy backdrop to the white domes of the Qutb Shahi necropolis, gleaming in the grey monsoon light.

It is, of course, not a coincidence that Hyderabad’s second ITC hotel is named after the most famous diamond extracted from the mines bearing the same moniker as Golconda Fort. Everything from ITC Kohenur’s magnificent crystal chandeliers in the lobby to the recurrent diamond theme etched on the floors of the rooms reiterate its connection to both the old grandeur of Hyderabad as well as the new splendour of Cyberabad.

For me, however, the hotel and the medieval monuments seen from its huge windows seemed to be perfect opposites. The Kohenur certainly epitomises the ITC Hotels’ Indian ethos and the chain’s motto of responsible luxury. But a chance meeting with the group’s executive vice-president (projects) Alwyn Noronha in the lobby revealed an unlikely synergy with the monuments as well.

Technology now offers many easy if expensive ways to ensure water, cooling, heat and light. So the need to consider and respect natural elements like climate, topography and orientation for prestigious projects is now optional. Hotels, in particular, can (and often do) spend inordinate amounts of money and effort to ensure all these for their guests when a little forethought can save them millions, and make their buildings more eco-friendly.

The Dum Pukht Begum’s dining room at the ITC Kohenur

Ancient and medieval architects had to be far more perspicacious, keeping in mind the limitations of the locale while addressing the aspirations of their royal patrons. The Golconda Fort and the unique Qutb Shahi necropolis below (now being restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture for the Telangana Government) are cases in point, where nature was not combatted but coopted to provide both the living and the dead a salubrious environment.

The Durgam Cheruvu anicut provided me with the key link. Once known as the hidden lake as it nestled in a natural rock cradle behind Jubilee Hills, it actually supplied water to Golconda Fort using an ingenious system of underground pipes and gravity. That is why the Qutb Shahi garrison inside the besieged fort could thwart Emperor Aurangzeb’s Mughal army indefinitely in the summer; sadly, it finally fell in 1687 due to treachery. The Qutb Shahis devised a fivetiered system to ensure water.

The complex is aligned so that rainwater flows into pits, which then carry the water to baolis

Qutb Shahi tomb (After renovation)

From the bund at the Durgam Cheruvu, located at 610m above sea level to Golconda fort, also at the same height, water flowed secretly via pipes and even an aqueduct, bypassing several mosques and the urban lakes of Malakka Cheruvu and Ibrahimbagh Cheruvu, reappearing as a mostlyhidden canal near the Qutb Shahi complex before continuing onwards to the fort above.

While Durgam Cheruvu’s water passed by the Qutb Shahi tombs, the medieval architects of the complex also did their bit to conserve water. As the AKTC restoration project reveals, the complex is aligned so that rainwater flows into pits, which then carry the water to custom-built baolis so that not a drop is wasted. Seven baolis had systems to draw water out using oxen so that the tombs and gardens always remained clean and verdant.

The Golconda Fort’s chambers were so aligned that the winds naturally cooled the interiors—a real boon, as the region is hot or sweltering all year round. Even the tombs below remain cool as I discovered, walking around the complex on a particularly muggy day. No wonder the Qutb Shahi royal family apparently often spent time in the necropolis not only paying homage to ancestors buried there but even relaxing in the hamam sauna and baths.

The hamam — a favourite locale for Telugu films thanks to its eye-catching arched interiors — was initially thought to be a mortuary bath but was definitely meant for the living, as Prashant Banerjee, AKTC’s conservation architect and project leader, explained. Its stone floors have hollow channels underneath, through which boiling water was passed to create steam even as several cold plunge pools offered a respite.

The hamam is a favourite locale for Telugu films, thanks to its eye-catching interiors. (Before renovation)
(After renovation)

So it is apt that the ITC Kohenur overlooks the Durgam Cheruvu, for the company has used technology to cooperate with the environment, not overcome it. It is easy to get awed by its impressive presidential suite, complete with gigantic bulletproof plate-glass windows (which squashed the thumb of my unwary guide, the hotel’s genial general manager) but ITC Kohenur’s real marvels, like the water channels, are not obvious.

As Alwyn Noronha pointed out, it begins with the shape of the hotel — a narrow Z with the building appearing to lean forwards at an angle. What I thought was just an architectural device to stand out amid the high-rise razzle-dazzle of Hyderabad’s Hitec city, turned out to be a carefully crafted plan to optimise the plot while minimising costs of cooling and lighting. How medieval and yet how modern; so practical and logical!

“We found that an orientation of 93 degrees N would be the best for light and cooling all year round,” Noronha said as he drew a diagram on a napkin. “But the plot was too narrow on that axis to accommodate a straight building so we angled the edges to form an S or a Z, so that we can maximise lake views.” Add to that strategically located louvered sections and balconies, the building gets sunlight but also shade for segments with tall windows.

The leaning-forward look of the building also has a practical element, as I found out from Noronha. The tapering has been done to reduce the direct impact of the sun on the east-west axis, so that guests can enjoy sunrises and sunsets without the need for excessive air-conditioning to offset the heat. Very neat indeed. And wooden louvers and balconies also make sure that a low sun will also not cause overheating even in the Hyderabad summer.

The edges of the building are rounded, not only for airflow but also as an ode to the dramatic wind-smoothened boulders so integral to the rocky landscape of this part of the Deccan. Unfortunately, the large projects in the area — including India’s first IKEA outlet — don’t pay homage to this unique geology. But if these rocks remain perched at precarious angles despite millennia of winds and monsoons, the hotel did well to incorporate this feature.

Taking a cue from the orderly, verdant charbaghs that were the medieval luxury customers’ (aka Qutb Shahi royalty and nobility!) way to relax, sky gardens have been added at various levels to green the hotel as well as allow natural ventilation and fire breaks. And the vertical gardens along the entrance area made me think that medieval architects and landscape planners would have appreciated this method to cool the building and soothe the eye!

The sheer wealth of a bygoneera’s architectural ingenuity visible in Hyderabad should have made its custodians sensitive to its legacy. Instead, among the incongruities introduced in our supposedly more enlightened times are a Japanese garden in the Qutb Shahi complex and a huge Buddha statue in the Hussain Sagar Lake. Luckily there is now a move to restore this legacy and hopefully earn a Unesco World Heritage Site tag.

All the architectural devices used by ITC have an impeccable rationale, which begs the question of why these methods are still not the norm or mandatory. Hyderabad is full of medieval manmade water bodies and naturally cool and airy buildings, which proves that sultans of yore were more concerned about the environment and the basic needs of their people than today’s political potentates. Has technology made us lazy or arrogant? Or both?

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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