HATHI GAON, AMBER

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[one_half_last][alert-success]Architect: Mohan Rao [/alert-success]

The natural habitat of the Asian Elephant, identified as tropical and semi-deciduous forests in proximity to a water source. In striking contrast is the case of the captive elephants employed in the tourism sector in Amber, 11 kilometres from JaipurCity, which ferry tourists from the foothills to Amber Fort along a steep incline in a dry, hot and drought-ridden climatic zone. Animal activists have raised concerns over their living conditions for a number of years, taking cognizance of which, the state allotted land to develop an elephant-centric settlement, christened ‘Hathi Gaon’. As only a fraction of this barren site was to be built, the primary concern of the masterplan was to recreate an ecosystem which addresses the physical and psychological comfort of the elephants.

Prior to the landscape development of the settlement, it was essential to understand the nature, lifecycle, preferred habitat, diet and daily rituals of the pachyderm. Research included consultations with evolutionary and behavioural Proboscidae scientists. The settlement was to be a habitat for a hundred elephants, which included ones in active duty, calves, convalescent and aging animals as well as their mahouts (Elephant Keepers). Limited access for tourists generates necessary revenue for the development. Vehicular access is limited to the entrance and a pedestrian pathway leads to the entrance court, a semi-shade informal plaza for folk performances.

A wetland at the adjoining lower level forms the connect between the plaza and the elevated visitor’s gallery. Physical access for visitors is limited to the zone around the gallery, from where one can view grazing grounds and the bathing reservoir of the elephants. Housing for the elephants and their keepers (‘Thans’) is developed along the elevated zones of the site, towards the periphery and arranged in clusters. The other built facilities include the veterinary hospital and the fodder stores.

The estimated annual water requirement of this habitation including drinking, irrigation and bathing (for the elephants) is around 150 million litres. Scanty rainfall averaging 600mm per year renders water closure on site an unrealistic proposition. To reduce external dependency, design initiatives encourage the retention of the surface water and its recharge. A series of large, interlinked reservoirs at the central low-lying region of the site are fed by a network of vegetated swales, punctuated by retention basins and larger ponds. Water thus harnessed is utilized by the elephants for drinking (upper reservoir) and for bathing (lower two reservoirs). Islands within these water bodies function as nesting grounds for avian life. Waste water from the mahout’s housing is filtered through a decentralized wastewater treatment system (DEWATS) and reused for irrigation.

Establishment of a balanced ecosystem in this degraded site formed the crux of the design, an approximation of the natural habitat of the elephants. The selection of species for multi-storied vegetation is derived from the larger region, more specifically based on the ecosystem of the Aravali ranges. Zone-wise interpretation of the vegetation, such as the definition of the perimeter and microcosms of grasslands and wetlands, are characteristics that modulate visual access to the elephant habitat. The root system of the indigenous plant palette stabilizes the topsoil layer in this erosion-prone site in conjunction with other soil conservation measures.

The approach to such a landscape articulation focuses on the conversion of a terrain that contradicts the ‘traditional’ vocabulary of its location but mediates and expresses itself to the larger ecosystem setting. Such a landscape project in particular probably stages a more impure an unstable organization of landscape as it attempts to intermediate between disparate and at most times uncomprehendable forces working within the territory. The space produced is more the nestling of user demands against ecology and environment and moving further towards cultural and functional tendencies and adjacencies. Though the need and the functioning of the landscapes has an embedded quality and quantity, its appropriation remains more open ended due to the constant oscillations between the user and the consumer of the space.

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