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Common connections: The Indian courtyard

A traditional Indian courtyard adorned by a tulsi plant

There are two types of people around us, the ones that associate themselves with being the last generation to have grown up playing in the courtyard and the ones that have heard of courtyards only through their history books. Well, if you belong to the latter, make way for a virtual tour round the central hub of activity in former Indian households.

Tracing its way back to the Indus valley civilization, courtyards have been an integral part of our country’s architecture for thousands of years. Used as a central space between houses or rooms as a matter of course, courtyards, aimed at partitioning the interior from the exterior, have served as a cardinal point of settlement for families, strengthening and binding their bonds for years to come. Courtyards have always played a pivotal role in encouraging societal synergy, thus, becoming the centric place for all communal interactions as it further offered refuge from harsh climates, animals and enemies.

Courtyards have always been analogous with the Indian households until they ceased to be so. Long summers and courtyards were a match like no other, buzzing with activity right from the time the first ray of sunlight illuminated the entire household. Be it board games, hide and seek, a lazy siesta, churning of masalas or just random banter and laughter, courtyards were where the magic happened and everlasting bonds nurtured and grew. However, the most prominent feature of the courtyard was and will always be the tulsi plant seated at the center, worshiped by the women in the house day in and day after. Although courtyards served their duty from dusk to dawn from generation to generation and seemed like a piece of architecture that would never fade, over the lapse of time they soon became a fast fading luxury, and a fairly unheard concept to modern civilizations.

Over the years to come, India saw a swift growth in its population which was further accompanied by housing shortages and soaring land prices resulting in living places getting even more compact. Thus, in an attempt to contraband the country’s linear population explosion, towering buildings have replaced signature housing yards with cities periodically expanding to make way for more and more, leading to clustered housing complexes, both large and small, with cramped or no balconies but yet sold at skyrocketing prices. And sadly so, this is what saw the end of the timelessly beautiful courtyard era, which can now be reminisced as a distant memory of a past life. While it was the urban population that was the first to witness the decline in courtyard architecture, the rural setting soon caught on to make way for their city counterparts of multi-storied fancy houses with the finest stone and finish.

Although well known for harbouring diversity, Indians has always been victims of discrimination in terms of cast and wealth, which was evidently represented even through a courtyard ensemble. Wealthy families saw courtyards as a recreational space that provided comfort and assuagement from the humid summers and chilly winters. However, if you belonged to a middle or lower class family, courtyards played a multifaceted role, where it could be your sleeping space, dining area, or even serve the utility purposes of washing clothes and utensils. Irrespective of this disparity, in the end, the courtyard served its purpose the same, by giving you the intentional solitude and open sky at once.

Modern day courtyard settings

Almost driven to extinction, a perishing Indian phenomenon, courtyards have seen a steady revival during the recent times. Even though economic reasons prevent the complete rebirth of this architectural piece of the olden day, modern day courtyards have begun to exist, though there has been a compromise of several factors. However, this resurgence of courtyards is a commodity enjoyed only by the urban elite, while the common man is yet to be added to this historic remake. Originally built as a source of light and ventilation to households, today, courtyards are much more than a play of light and shadow. New lineaments such as hanging gardens, green walls and cascading water bodies have been added to make it more beseeching to its occupants.

Hopefully in the near future, courtyards will escalate from being just a mere privilege to the rich and be built in manners making them economically feasible and sustainable in neighbourhoods and community spaces so everyone can enjoy this pristine, ancient element. In India, courtyards once scattered across all states and communities, and played their part in embodying this large and diverse country in ways unimaginable, ranging from public spaces such as schools, temples, community halls and hospitals to houses. Thus, the courtyard can and will always be one of the oldest architectural elements of the Indian subcontinent.


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