From Pontoons to Settlements

Authored by Niomi Shah

Boats are used as shelter spaces often by the boat-makers who would travel back and forth to the city from the hinterlands looking for job opportunities.

Have you ever thought of pontoons as shelters for a nomadic lifestyle? This blog post is about challenging such mundane objects and how it is defining the middle ground at the banks of Ganges.

To imagine objects like pontoons and boats transformed into holding spaces for transient livelihoods, it is important to understand their very inhabitation and settled condition. They demand thinking beyond the framework in formal and informal divide that binds us to settlement thinking. They rather suggest that we think in terms of fluxes and blurs where temporality becomes the lens to observe how people occupy these spaces.

Different objects like pontoons, boats, cloth and bamboo used as shelters or for building one.

For example, Pontoons are air filled structure that can float. Because of this ability, they have historically been used as transport blocks to create bridges spanning the river Ganga. These structures were also used during the famous Kumbh Mela[1] at Allahabad in 2013, the Disassemblable city [2] built for more than 100 million people. And in Varanasi, these structures were recently deployed as temporary elements connecting the Assi Ghat to Ramnagar while the construction of the new bridge was going on. Presently docked at the Assi Ghat, this wasted infrastructure has a functional use for communities.

The river changes its edges in the monsoon season when the level of the water rises up to more than 15 meters and recedes back within a span of 3 months. This fluctuation of water sometimes leaves behind elements like pontoons and silt that forms a new landscape at the banks. This fickle nature of the availability of the land becomes the most apt setting for nomadic communities and new comers to settle in for the rest of the year.

These communities are majorly involved as construction workers, boat-makers or indulge in making and selling art in different cities. They move in groups and their livelihood depend on moving from one place to another. The choice of lifestyle is more common than you think for a lot of micro economies in India and not because of the lack of a permanent shelter but the very nature of their work.

Floating pontoons in the Ganges docked at the Assi Ghat.

Some of these pontoons are left behind on the land with the silt deposits after monsoon when the water level decreases, forming spaces to host these nomadic communities.

Let’s talk about the various objects and materials that people adapt and utilize to construct their livelihood.

As you can see below, they use landscape created by the river to organize their activities. Dry activities happen on a higher ground and facilitates resting spaces, whereas lower ground provide privacy for activities that rely on water. This system make the clusters partially hidden when viewed from the riverside or when approached through the road.

By using all the available materials around them, they have adapted these pontoons to make a housing system on this middle ground. The shelters are temporary shacks with living spaces, playgrounds, green areas, and water facilities, that a pukka house (house made up of more durable materials like bricks, concrete, steel) would provide.

If you think that bricks and mortar are the only ways to segregate and organize the usage of spaces, look for order in these images where the activities like cooking, washing, drying, sleeping, storage happen in the vicinity of the household.

Fabric of the sarees that women dress become their roof, plastic sheets become their doors and windows, bamboo sticks from the scaffoldings either become structural post to their home or drying stand for their clothes. With the understanding of the impact of the monsoon season, these structures are built to last for a shorter duration so that it is easier for them to move again before the next season.

In the above two pictures, the cluster of pixelated activities delineate the complexity of the household within this community. The land that accommodates children playing, women washing utensils and cooking the family meals while watching over their kids is kept clean and organized compared to the area closer to the river.

Apart from resting, all the other activities spill out in the shared area which is demarcated by a piece of cloth as eating spaces or a small pit for drying clothes to contain the flowing water. These rather flexible and faded lines makes their networks stronger.

The enclosure formed by the pontoons provide space for the shelters and the steel beams are either used as shading devices or for drying clothes. Each pontoon accommodates 2 or 3 households with additional supports constructed around it.

Different elements of the pontoons are adapted to create carved living spaces inside it. Like rather than just tying the covering material of the shelters to a bamboo post, the hooks of the structure are repurposed as anchors thereby giving them durability. Likewise, the natural slope that the pontoon has formed with the land is adapted by creating a division between dry area for resting spaces and wet area for drying clothes.

The photograph below is an example of how these shelters are created. The framework is set up with bamboo posts creating ridge lines for the roof. The women utilize cow dung and water to create a mixture that is used to line the floor which is clean and ready to live on. The cow dung also acts as a mosquito repellant due its medicinal properties and can also be utilized to light the fire used for cooking or heat. To complete their shelter available covering material is fixed on the post.

It is important to understand that although these images are moments in a time frame situated in such delicate settings, the rusticity by the untrained is now their coeval livelihood.

These children were searching for coins that people have dropped in the river as a part of the rituals.

[1] Kumbh Mela is a festival that has the largest gathering of pilgrims held in rotation in 4 cities of India who participate to take a dip in the sacred river Ganga.
[2] Mehrotra, Rahul. 2014. “Constructing the World’s Biggest (Disassemblable) City.” Works that work,

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