rahul mehrotra of RMA designs hathigaon elephant village

rahul mehrotra of RMA designs hathigaon elephant village

indian architect, urbanist and educator rahul mehrotra’s firm RMA won a competition organized by the rajasthan government for a housing project for mahouts, the hindi term for elephant riders, as well as their elephants and families, and has been recently awarded the gold medal prize for sustainable architecture (organized by the italian university of ferrara). rahul mehrotra spoke @WhatDesignCanDo about his most recent work including the elephant village, or hathigoan.


a mahout starts as a boy in the ‘family profession’ when he is assigned an elephant early in its life. they remain bonded to each other throughout their lives. thanks to skill and a cultivated, longstanding relationship, the mahout is the sole person the elephant will obey; however, the keepers are not well paid– their salary totals about 5,000 rupees ($100) per month. the design strategy is based on the need to improve an area devastated by indiscriminate exploitation of sand quarries, capitalizing on the potential offered by the artificial orography created by quarrying. the quarries thusly become reservoirs to collect rainwater, an extremely precious resource and fundamental tool for improving the entire region with regard to the environment and microclimate.

the elephants are housed in garage-like rooms with exits on the outer, non-courtyard-facing, sides of the buildings.
families cook and eat meals outside, and children can play away from the elephants.
image courtesy RMA

visitors commonly reach amber fort, a sixteenth-century hilltop palace outside the city of jaipur, in rajasthan state, by car, foot, or elephant
image © designboom

the mahout conducts the elephant and tourist up through the palace’s entrance arch. a ride costs ca. $20, but the mahouts must give most of it to the elephants’ owners.
image © designboom

the amber fort – a ride atop an elefant offers spectacular, panoramic views of lakes and gardens below, the stone wall that rings the royal complex’s perimeter, winding across mountainsides…
image © designboom

comparative before and after images of the landscape (march, 2007 and september, 2010)
image courtesy RMA



the mahouts’ previous accommodations, in an urban setting without a water source nearby, made for sick and sad elephants.


elephants require 300 liters of water per day; therefore, 100 elephants x 365 days x 300 litres = 10,950,000 liters as of 2013, due to the successful implementation of design strategies, the approximate quantity of water retained on site per year is 20 million liters, approximately double the yearly requirement for one hundred elephants at the hathigaon. the landscape process required an acute understanding of the history of the site as well as needs of the elephants. local knowledge was also vital in selecting the material palette and establishing building systems throughout the complex.

hathigaon (elephant village in hindi) is intended as both a residential complex and a tourist destination in its own right, with enough units to house all of the city’s elephants and their keepers. what started as a barren site is now lush and green, especially during the rainy season.
image courtesy RMA



the hathigaon village is situated at the foothill of the amber palace and fort near jaipur. the design first involves structuring the landscape to create a series of water bodies to harvest the rain runoff, as this is the most crucial resource in the desert climate of rajasthan. with the water resources in place, an extensive tree plantation and seeding program was carried on the site to propagate and stabilize local species.


the various water reservoirs are designed to guarantee an adequate monsoon rainwater storage capacity and to cover the water requirements of the new settlement. a number of reservoirs have been designed to provide an ideal place for elephants to bathe, essential for their health and a ritual which reinforces the emotional bond with their mahouts. the resulting water was available to initiate an extensive planting program involving local plant species, fundamental to create a habitat to develop biodiversity and a suitable environment to accommodate the new settlement.


the individual housing units are arranged in a number of groups integrated into the redesigned natural areas and are additionally organized around central courtyards which act extensions of essential living space and an important place for socializing. the simultaneous presence of both elephants and humans is resolved with a clear functional division of the respective living spaces, while maintaining a sense of community and genuine sharing of spaces between the animals and their mahouts.


the resulting water was available to initiate an extensive planting program involving local plant species, fundamental to creating a habitat to develop biodiversity and a suitable environment to accommodate the new settlement.

rahul mehrotra
portrait © designboom



our country certainly should not unthinkingly adopt western ideals when it comes to an architecture competition and instead look for local solutions. we don’t need your glass buildings and your eco labels in india,’ says rahul mehrotra




designboom is media partner of ‘what design can do!’ and shares rahul mehrotra’s presentation on this project at WDCD in amsterdam last week.

image on the left courtesy RMA, on the right © designboom

slide of the presentation
image courtesy RMA



the dwellings are small—200 square feet—and arranged in sets of four, wrapped around communal courtyards. the housing units are organized in clusters and situated on portions of the site that are not used for the landscape regeneration. courtyards and pavilions supplement the otherwise small spaces that are allocated in the budget for the essentially low-income housing project.each housing cluster over time is expected to be transformed and appropriated by the users in personalized ways. the courtyard becomes part of the living space. all the houses have electricity and running water.

over the years, as an architect, rahul mehrotra has become less concerned with controlling all details; instead, he is fascinated by the way the residents’ contributions become part of the final product.
image courtesy RMA

image sequence showing the minimum space an elephant needs
image courtesy RMA



the limited budget available to construct the housing led to use of simple building techniques and common materials available on site. the distribution of the plan and volumes of the built spaces provides an effective response to the need for a high level of natural ventilation and passive cooling.

 image courtesy RMA



the housing units are organized in clusters and situated on portions of the site that are not used for the landscape  regeneration. unlike other architecture projects, this project has landscape as the centre and architecture has evolved around it.

 image courtesy RMA

image courtesy RMA

the body of water was a critical component of the design, as it also facilitated the bonding between the mahout and elephant, through the process of bathing an important ritual both for the health of the elephant as well as their attachment to their keeper.
image © claudia legge



political factors have stretched the hathigaon project to four years and counting , from the one year specified in the original contract. when the government that initited the project lost an election, construction was put on hold. now that the party was elected back into office, it resumed. mehrotra estimates that in another two to three years, a visitors’ center might be open for business. perhaps it could host an annual elephant festival, drawing thousands of tourists?



project: hathigaon – housing for mahouts and their elephants
designers: RMA architects, mumbai (india)
client: ADMA (amber development management authority)
location: amber, rajasthan (india)
completion: 2011


RMA architects
was founded in 2007, from a studio established by rahul mehrotra in 1990 in mumbai. simultaneously engaged with a diverse range of projects, the firm sees a multiplicity of experiences as necessary for the evolution of culturally specific design solutions. the practice engages in work that includes projects for governmental and non-governmental agencies, corporate and private individual commissions, to institutional buildings as well as unsolicited projects driven by the firm as advocacy architecture in the city of mumbai. organized as a studio, the firm collaborates with consultants and citizens groups for allied building services and urban improvements projects. maintaining a small core group of design associates, the firm works actively with local craftspeople to develop and refine construction details and methods of building that are relevant, sustainable, and founded on local knowledge. currently, rahul mehrotra is harvard GSD professor of urban design and planning and chair of the department of urban planning and design.

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