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The Story of the Incredibly Versatile Jaali

The Story of the Incredibly Versatile Jaali

Amidst all the mad hassle to go for environmentally friendly technology, our desperation often makes us short sighted. Large scale spending goes into research on technology that only seems to get more expensive even as it comes with glaring side effects that, in some cases, undermine the good that this technology is supposed to be doing. More air conditioners that use up more energy to expel more pollutants to cool an earth that is becoming hotter because of pollutants? You get the idea.

This Earth Day, we look at a brilliant piece of technology that started becoming popular in the Indian sub-continent around the 16th century, a miracle solution of sorts to our modern day problems.

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The Jaali: An Ancient Solution to Modern Day Problems

This is the Hawa Mahal in Jaipur. A five story palace that is part of a larger royal complex, this structure was commissioned by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, and completed in 1799. The palace has a unique wall running up its five storeys, studded with octogonal windows that make it look like a honeycomb.

hawa mahal

Look closer, and you’ll see that the windows are intricately latticed, riddled with other minute windows. There are 953 of these tiny windows, called jharokhas, making up the jaalis which cover the windows.

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Natural Air Conditioner

The jaali is made up of scores of tiny holes that change the velocity and pressure of air going through them. When air is constricted and funnel through holes, it’s pressure decreases, an effect described in Venturi’s Law, and a principle used in modern day electronic air coolers. When air loses pressure, it becomes cooler and moves faster. The result is a fanning effect caused by the fast circulation of air.

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The Venturi Effect

In the Hawa Mahal, the Maharaja had also installed a number of fountains inside the palace, to magnify the cooling effect.

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The Jaali: A Multi-purpose Technology

In the Hawa Mahal, the original intention behind creating the jaali was to allow the women of the palace to observe public events and look upon the street without being seen. As Rajput women of the 19th century, they were under strict purdah.

jaali inner view

The jaali on the windows slanted the light, without decreasing its intensity. So, to someone looking out from the inside, the outside was clear as day, while the insides were optically impenetrable to someone on the outside.

This particular feature of the jaali is another highly relevant feature for modern life- the concrete and glass modern structures of today only allow the blinding glare of direct sunlight in huge doses.This disrupts human circadian rhythms and hormones which are biologically responsive to light- the intensity, colour, and texture.

jaali unset

The jaali creates a porous divide between the inside and the outside that is more suited to circulating  buildings in our tropical geography than the tightly sealed buildings needed for electronic air conditioners to work.

Different Types of Jaali

The jaali has been popular throughout the North, West, Southern part of the country for centuries. For the Islamic and Rajput eras that were marked by conquests, and defence, the jaali was a protective shield from the outer world that was porous enough to allow a vantage point of view from the inside.

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During Islamic rule, the jaali was as much a canvas for symbolic expression as it was a functional element. Jaalis from the Muslim era feature flowers and patterns that are intended to invoke memories of the Persian past and its heritage, in service to the Persianized elite. Babur, the first Mughal emperor, for instance, found himself quite disoriented and sick in India, and longed for the beauty of his homeland. He grew an extensive garden filled with flowers which reminded him of home.

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Sacred symbolic latticework at the Siddi Sayyed Mosque, Ahmedabad

The Jaali is sometimes embedded with stained glass or precious stones. Nasir al-mulk mosque, Iran

The Jaali is sometimes embedded with stained glass or precious stones. Nasir al-mulk mosque, Iran

The jaali was first featured prominently in the sacred architecture of Hindu and Jain temples. In temples, the porous jaali seems to reflect the perforated divide that separates the material and the spiritual.

Lodurva Jain Temple, Jaisalmer

Lodurva Jain Temple, Jaisalmer

The Problem

With large networks of commercial lobbyists pushing electronic technology in the market, the practicality and effort involved in constructing jaalis is becoming more and more unfeasible. Lobbying bodies aim to bring in electronic technology that was developed in the West, for different topography, climate, and culture, and this contextless appropriation is bound to make it inefficient.

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Endorse and promote culturally specific solutions for the most efficient solution to environmental degradation.  

The 'eco cooler', a handmade window fixture that follows the same air cooling principles as the Jaali

The ‘eco cooler’, a handmade window fixture that follows the same air cooling principles as the Jaali

15578024_1394520730559491_4542611669513427179_oA nomad at heart, Faustina lives many lives through the spaces that she visits, and finds a temporary home in. Whether it’s the pages of a book or the tourist infested streets of Kodaikanal, or the swanky new Japanese restaurant in Delhi, or the frontlines of the queer movement, she finds compulsive pleasure in writing about what inspires her everyday.


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