Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas of Pakistan) is home to communities belonging to different cultures, ethnicities and language groups, who have historically lived together in peace and tranquillity. Ismaili Muslims are among those with a strong presence in the region, including in neighbouring Chitral in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and many jamatkhanas are located throughout the area.
But Pakistan's northern regions are also part of a seismically unstable zone, and are prone to earthquakes, floods, landslides and droughts. Living conditions are harsh, with temperatures fluctuating between -15 to +40 degrees Celsius. Perhaps one of the most tangible indicators of poverty is the deteriorating housing conditions.
Despite these difficulties, 13 purpose-built Jamatkhana projects were initiated in the region in 2008. Three are now complete – Danyore III Jamatkhana in Gilgit district, as well as Hundur and Rawat III Jamatkhanas in Ghizer – lifting the spirits of the Jamat.
“We hope that the design of these simple yet functional and aesthetically pleasing Jamatkhanas, which provide spiritual ambience, a sense of serenity and reflection, will help the Jamat envision their future with greater confidence, strength and courage, while meeting their spiritual and social needs,” said Vazir Akbarali Karmali, Custodian at the Aga Khan Estate Office.
A tradition of Jamati participation
In keeping with a longstanding tradition of Jamati participation in the construction of a Jamatkhana, every member of the Jamat – the young and the old – plays an active role. They travel through steep, narrow winding roads of the mountains to quarry and collect rocks for construction. When the delivery trucks arrive at the site, members of the Jamat eagerly unload the stones, which then have to be broken and shaped as required by the architect.
One observer noted an old man “carrying out the stone shaping and humming to the tune of the music being played in the background.” On the other side of the site, a group of men could be seen mixing concrete, while young boys patiently waited with wheel barrows to transport it. A mood of happiness and harmony pervaded the site, and laughter was in the air. Activity continued relentlessly from early dawn to evening as Jamati and the institutional leaders worked hand-in-hand toward the completion of the project.
Jamati participation in construction is also facilitated through AKDN's self-help construction programme, which was recognised as a global good practice by UN-Habitat in 1998. The programme harnesses enthusiasm and comradeship from within the community, and supports participants with technical expertise to build safe Jamatkhana structures. Indigenous materials like stone, poplar wood, sand and gravel are provided by the Jamat. Other materials such as steel reinforcement, cement and reinforcing wires (galvanized steel wire mesh for seismic resistance) are sourced by the Estate Office.
Disaster resistant jamatkhanas
To address the regional challenges, a proposed jamatkhana site is first assessed by AKDN affiliate Focus Humanitarian Assistance. Geologists and GIS experts evaluate geological and hydro-metrological hazards for vulnerability. They conduct risk assessments, make recommendations for safe construction or suggest mitigation measures if the site falls in a potential risk zone.
The Aga Khan Planning and Building Service, Pakistan (AKPBS) is responsible for designing the architectural, structural and building services for the project. They also supervise the construction carried out by the project management and construction team to ensure design compliance and quality control.
The jamatkhana construction team includes graduates of the Aga Khan Planning and Building Service's Skills Enhancement Programme (SEP), which trains villagers in earthquake and energy-efficient building construction techniques. Engineers provide on-site training, and engage unemployed youth as interns, teaching them a marketable skill. The interplay and synergies between non-skilled labour, local craftsmen and the organising committee forge a versatile team that can successfully respond to construction challenges.
Strong yet elegant architecture
The jamatkhanas are simple and elegant compositions of two independent buildings that wrap around a landscaped central courtyard. The prayer hall building faces West in the direction of qibla and becomes the focal point. The other building is a multipurpose hall that is mainly used as a religious education centre for the youth.
Beyond the entrance of the site is a central court surrounded by landscaping and fruit trees. Building exteriors are finely detailed in semi-dressed stone, patterned with horizontal bands that give refinement and scale to the façade. The end walls and qibla wall are vertically supported and gently inclined to create a buttressing effect that provides both structural stability as well as visual permanence.
Window openings are dressed in plastered frames, adding intricacy to the stone masonry, and the main entrance is accentuated with wooden pergolas and crowned with a pediment. Entrances incorporate ramps to ensure a barrier free access for people with disabilities. In addition to the shoe storage area for men and women, a meeting room is also attached to the anteroom.
The insulated building is finished with plaster in a warm colour that creates an appealing glow under the indirect lighting alcoves. A simple yet elegant polished wood dado adorns the prayer hall walls, and special niches are provided for heaters. In addition, the design also meets the fire and safety requirements of the national authority codes.
The jamatkhana structures use the galvanised wire technology developed by the AKPBS Building and Construction Improvement Programme (BACIP). The simple yet innovative technology reinforced stone walls that have a very loose internal structure. Traditionally hardwood tie-beams were used for bonding the walls, but durable wood has become scarce and expensive. This new technology uses wire ladders between wall courses in a manner similar to the wooden cribbage used traditionally for seismic resistance. The advantage of using this flexible wire is that it adjusts to the contours of the uneven stone masonry stretched between tied columns. Additionally, the Jamatkhana walls and roof are well insulated with local materials, using technologies promoted by BACIP.
Improving quality of life
The new jamatkhanas will create an opportunity for Jamats to gather for prayer, learning and social functions. The facilities will also act as safe havens in the event of a natural disaster, and the building technologies they employ will also encourage the Jamat and neighbouring communities to adopt similar construction practices in their own habitat.
With the potential to uplift the Jamat in so many different ways, the new jamatkhanas of Northern Pakistan are sure to be catalysts in improving the quality of life of all communities in the region.
Fatimah Sorathia is an architect by profession and worked as a TKN volunteer for the Aga Khan Estate Office in Pakistan. This article was adapted from a piece recently published in The Ismaili Pakistan magazine