The Heart of a Traditional Home

Sumit Buchasia takes us on a walk through the courtyards of Banaras. 

Like everyone who has grown up in a flat, the idea of a traditional home fascinates me. I love every element of the traditional house from the terrace to the garden, but what I found the most interesting was its ‘aangan’. The English word courtyard hardly suffices to explain the open space in the middle of a home, the way in which the private interior of a home opens out to the sky. Here clothes may be dried, marriages plotted, the Gods propitiated and everything from birth to death may be celebrated. 

In the traditional North Indian home, the aangan is the heart of the house. It is at once inside and outside. You are at once at home at one with the cosmos. Here is the tulsi, symbol of a love never consummated and all around her chaste and quiet presence are the small comedies and tragedies of marriage and family. 

The courtyard is a great idea and can be seen in residential architecture since humans started living in constructed houses. The first courtyards were seen in 6400 BC in Jordan Valley. Courtyards were prevalent across empires like Roman Empire, Mughal Empire, etc. 

My own first encounters with a courtyard happened when I went to my Dadi’s (paternal grandmother’s) place as a child. I spent most of my time in the courtyard because everything seemed to be happening there. During winters, my dadi would massage my sister’s head with oil, my aunties would be talking even as they went about doing their chores, someone would be taking a nap in the sun, an elder cousin would be studying, kids playing, someone watering the plants. These were the stories that made the warp and weft of the day. There was a constant coming and going but there was also an underlying sense of peace. During summer nights, we slept in the courtyard, savouring the cool night air and watching the stars. 


Top view from a courtyard in Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi


Courtyards were evident in the Indian culture since the Indus Valley Civilisation. I came to know about different kinds of courtyards when I visited forts in Benaras, Lucknow, Delhi, and Jaipur. These courtyards had various uses like ceremonial proceedings, queen’s leisure time activities, practising rituals and customs and others. The first courtyard was called ‘Baithak’ which might be a semi-public sphere and then there was an inner women’s courtyard. 

The old endures in Banaras. I went looking for houses in my city that still have a heart (aangan). I found Gourav Tiwari and his family, they live in the tapered lanes off Manikarnika Ghat and share their home with five other tenant families. They collectively own a 200-year-old house with a huge courtyard. The courtyard was surrounded by rooms and two staircases which lead to the first floor. I could see the entire house while standing in the courtyard. “Our fathers were born here, so were we. This courtyard shares the feelings of the 6 families living here. This is our mohalla. I remember doing everything here,” said Gourav. 


Gourav’s courtyard in Varanasi- by Sumit Buchasia


Religious infrastructures also have large courtyards embedded in their architecture. Temples like Somnath, Kashi Vishwanath, the dargahs of Nizamuddin Auliya, Moinuddin Chishti had large courtyards where pilgrims could sit and pray. While recording the courtyard stories, I visited the Siddheshwari Temple which had a courtyard with a well at its heart. Looking down into the well, you are peering into the dark mysterious heart of nature. You can then turn to the sky and imagine and axis mundi stretching between these two points, from water, to ether, past fire and earth.

“I have lived here since the day of my marriage,” recalls Punita Mishra, a tenant in the house surrounding the temple. “We are the third generation to live here. I have a special bond with this aangan, it was my first glance at this house and temple. My palanquin stopped in this courtyard. I witnessed my parents-in-law taking their last breath here. This well was earlier used to fetch water, now it is only used by the temple.” Her eyes sparkled when she looked back at the memories of her children playing in the courtyard. “It's not the same today, we hardly sit in this aangan anymore. My kids are now grown up and working. I miss those days when I used to sit here for hours in the dazzling golden dhoop (sunlight). Now one can only spot pilgrims in this courtyard just because there is a temple.” 


Siddheshwari Temple's Courtyard


Next to the temple was Maharishi Mahesh’s Ashram, where students are taught Sanskrit and other Vedic literature. It had a huge courtyard and a beautiful haveli. “All our students are taught in this courtyard. They spend most of their time in the aangan. After studying here, they are sent to different temples around the country,” said Sanjay Srivastava, who was authorised to run the ashram. During festivals, these students decorate the aangan of the haveli and conduct Vedic debates and dictation. Only Brahmins are allowed to study here. I was astonished to see students with their heads shaven, chanting Vedic mantras. Subsequently, they cleaned the courtyard and sat in a row to have lunch.


Courtyard of Maharishi Mahesh’s Ashram in Chowk, Varanasi


Pandit Vishnu Dev Jha lives in a 500-year-old house that has two courtyards. I found Jha’s family in the courtyard, keeping watch on grain drying in the sun, Pandit Vishnu was reading a holy text, his wife was cleaning a section of the aangan while his children were enjoying January’s afternoon sun. The central courtyard divides the two families living in that house. “Both the families came here as tenants. Now both of them collectively take care of this house. I came here in 1994 at a rent of Rs 100 per month,” said Jha. The smaller courtyard had a parrot who was imitating its owner’s voice. Jha said “Courtyards hold an important place in our architecture because they keep us close to nature. One can directly encounter and embrace every season.” He also highlighted the historical significance of courtyards, since there was no electricity, the courtyards kept the house illuminated and ventilated. “Courtyards are used for different purposes according to the situation. As a pandit, I have done marriage rituals to death rituals in this courtyard. Courtyards are the most multipurpose space you’ll ever find,”  Jha said. 

All these courtyards are owned by upper-caste Hindus, probably because only they could afford large homes with courtyards, also because ours has been a society that is highly unequal and it functioned on the basis of the Varna system, which structurally oppressed the lower castes.


Ashram’s courtyard


The courtyard also has spaces for animals. I found this in Shashank Jaini’s home, which had metal clamps in the corner of the courtyards. “We used to keep our cows here. They were a part of our family,” said Jaini. The courtyard was designed as a mandap and had eight pillars. “We used to play ‘shaadi-shaadi’ in this courtyard because of its shape. It often makes me nostalgic,” Jaini said with a smile.


Today the aangan is a parking space. People have retreated to their bedrooms and their air-conditioners. But one day, I shall have a home like this one, I shall have an aangan, I shall sleep again under the stars and entertain my friends of all castes and creeds who will sit around and drink tea, their children will play, the elders will ruminate and Tulsi will dream green leaf dreams of her beloved…