On the roof!

In Culture, Europe, India, Places, Travel on March 12, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Taj Mahal

In Amitav Ghosh’s  novel “Shadow Lines“, Tridib, the uncle of the narrator asks his nephew:

“Did you notice that Ila’s house had a sloping roof?”

They had just heard a story from Ila, Tridib’s niece, about their house in Colombo and the close encounter she had had there with a snake. Not surprisingly, the narrator as well as the reader retains much of the drama in the story and neglects the fine point of a sloping roof.

Tridib asks the bewildered narrator to think of life under a sloping roof, contrary to the flat roofs in India, where you can’t go when you want to fly kites, to sulk and hide or to just scream at your friends on their roofs.

Roof Tops

Roof Tops (Photo credit: judepics)

Up until that moment, I had not thought of how roofs can change your entire life. Today, having spent 4 years in France, I feel the difference. What I miss most in Paris are open spaces but more than that a space where I can go to when I want to be alone. Not a public park where you can’t really be alone but to the rooftop where you can sit in complete darkness swept by gentle winds and listen to music, watch the world go by below and pretend not to be part of it, where you can camp and sleep in the open if you want or organise parties with your friends.

Kite Flyers

Kite Flyers (Photo credit: Mr Jon Ardern Esq.)

Rooftops in India are the hub of activities. That is where you go to dry your spices, to have your tea under the mellow winter sun, to chat and gossip with your neighbours, to study for your exam undisturbed by the unceasing activities of an Indian household, to dry your clothes or to just get away from it all. It is a refuge and an escape as well as a place where the community comes together.

Escape - D7K 2205 ep

Escape – D7K 2205 ep (Photo credit: Eric.Parker)

My grandfather always complained that during summer it was suffocating to sleep inside the house and my grandmother would complain that it was not safe to sleep outside. My grandfather never regarded it as a dispute, he just took it for granted that he would have his way and so in the evening, mattresses, pillows etc. would painstakingly be brought up to the roof while grandfather tinkered his way with electrical wires and plugs to get the fan to work. I remember going to sleep with the stars overhead and my grandfather grunting with pleasure at his corner of paradise. I also remember sometimes being woken up by the first raindrops on my face and the scramble to get everything and everyone inside the house before the downpour started and my grandmother who had prudently stayed behind smirking,

I told you so”, and then adding with exaggerated resign-ed-ness, “but then no one ever listens to me anyway!”.

Of course a flat roof in Paris would not do. The slope is required to drain out the water from the rain throughout the year, to make sure snow does not stagnate on the roof and to just give the kind of thermal isolation that is required in a cold country. Besides, who would want to go and sit on the roof when it is 0 degrees outside or cold and wet??!

However, I confess that I like rooms with sloping roofs like on the topmost floor of an apartment. I am no fan of having windows half-way up the ceiling to have it open onto the sky instead of the street outside but I will have to admit that it has its own charm. A room with a sloping roof is so much more interesting than those with just straight lines. It also has the advantage of giving a really cosy feel to a room which can be quite comforting when you live in a country that is cold most of the time in a year.

Roofs in Paris are quite striking. It gives a randomness to the otherwise symmetric and sometimes boring beauty of this city.


It would be interesting to study roofs of the world. Of course, a lot has to do with climate and even in India, you can see the difference in roofs in the plains (flat and walled) and the mountains and places which experience heavy rain (sloping).

English: A clearly visible example of hidden r...

English: A clearly visible example of hidden roof (noyane), Ebisu-dō, Honkaku-ji, Kamakura (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But there is also the esthetics of it no one has put it to better use than the Chinese and the Japanese. Their roofs are so distinctive that one would recognise them anywhere. Japanese architecture is said to be heavily inspired and influenced by its chinese counterpart. The Japanese are also credited with having coming up with the “Hidden Roof” design (also inspired by a Chinese design, apparently) that solved their drainage problem without having to compromise on esthetics.  It is called the Hidden Roof because the second roof can be seen only from below the eaves.

I guess all this entails a trip to my local library. In the meantime, I am leaving you with some pictures of roofs from our various travels, though I have to admit not having ever thought of actually writing on roofs one day, I have neither very awesome shots nor a lot to say of them.

The roofs in Tallinn, Estonia:


The roofs in villages in Estonia as they were before. They were as thick as possible to keep out the rain as well as the cold.


This is a close up shot of the roof. Due to the rain, the upper part is soaked and wet but the bottom remains relatively dry because it is so thick.

Estonia village

Seville, Spain. Hotter climate gives way to flat roofs, terraces and balconies.


Kerala, India. The arhitecture here has evolved and become enriched due to influences from Chinese, Europeans and Arabs who had major trade interests here.

The need to protect the houses from heavy rains gives rise to steep sloping roofs and gable windows or different storeys to provide ventilation against the hot and humid climate.


Delhi, India. The view over the old city. On the right, in the background, one can make out the commercial center of the city.

Old Delhi

Rouen, Normandy, France. Some vestige of the old norman houses still remain in this city which is special considering the amount of ruin caused by the second World War in this region.

Rouen, Normandy

  1. Nice post of architecture and space. I found it’s quite interesting to view the space/place through different lenses…http://wp.me/p3bwN9-2X

  2. Thank you! I am glad you enjoyed reading my post and thanks also for the link to the article on space vs. place. I kind of agree with Lin and it reminded me of this World War II memorial in Berlin which was just a bare room with the sculpture of a woman with her dead son in the middle. It spoke to me much more than any text on the subject.

  3. Never imagined anyone could write on roofs!!!!. Good insight

  4. The only roof I had access to was the one at Crematorium Street and the other at Jhargram. The Crematorium Street was special because one could stand there for hours watching humanity on the streets below and people spreading a sheet of cloth near graves of their dear ones in the crematorium ahead. Flowers would bloom in winter and children would play, making the cemetery an enchanting place. Enjoyed reading your post, as always !! Thank you, dear.

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