Lessons in sustainability from India’s past

Agra, May 1579

The mercury has hit 40.2 degrees Celsius. The heat rises to form mirages across the city. In the palace of Sikri, Ranis – queens of Akbar – do not have the luxury of retreating into their rooms and turning on the air-conditioning. It is a good thing that they do not need to. During the summer, the women shift to their summer bedrooms, next to which is a pool of water with a fountain.

The fountain, which sprinkles water into the air, allows for a more efficient form of evapo-transpiration, cooling the bedrooms which are fitted with small windows in a large wall, allowing air to move inside with a greater force. In the evening, they have planned a game of Ludo – now played as a board game in which four players race their tokens from start to finish – in the court yard of the Panchmahal, a five-tiered pavilion with movable screens which are fixed with grass mats sprinkled with water. Summer in Agra is a breeze.

Playing on physical mechanisms like air velocity, evapo-transpiration, controlling micro climates, landscaping, construction of spaces such as verandas and courtyards, ensured that the Mughals – referring to the people who lived under the Mughal rule, the second largest empire in the Indian sub-continent – lived in thermal comfort in an era bereft of modern technology.

Applying lessons from the past

Sustainability is a common enough word today that has become part of mainstream vocabulary. It gained traction in 1987 after a report submitted by the Brundtland Commission. Chaired by the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, sustainable development was defined as that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

To date, it still remains the most popular definition and essentially implies more conscious consumption in line with needs rather than wants.

So what does Mughal architecture have to do with sustainability? For one, Mughal architects were not too concerned with maintaining a constant building temperature like modern day architects do. They cared more about the thermal comfort of building occupants who were willing to bear with minor inconveniences. Thus, an energy crisis was leap frogged over in the late 16th century in India by simply tailoring lifestyles to be more in tune with the natural world.

There is a lot of wisdom in traditional and indigenous practices which remains applicable even today.  We all seem to forget, in this era of globalization, solutions that worked many centuries ago – for example, Mughal architectural nuances – which seem to have been replaced in our quest for development.  They were ethical in the sustainable sense and promoted consumption patterns that included principles of resource efficiency.

Our role as ICLEI

A lot of what ICLEI does takes into account the global conversation revolving around sustainability.  And while there have been several engineering innovations aimed at solutions to the same, we do not tend to include traditional knowledge and case studies from the past that have worked in our specific regions and geographies.

Through this blog series I hope to revisit lessons of sustainability from the past, looking at what worked in an era where the idea of technology was not as coherent as it is today.

Photo by Sanyam Bahga