Searching for windcatchers in Hyderabad

When I first found out about the windcatchers of Hyderabad in southern Pakistan, I was completely fascinated by this traditional ventilation and cooling technique. In the pictures I saw, these simple wind scoops on roofs completely dominated the city’s skyline, raising above the houses like an endless sea of sails. A technique this widespread had to be effective – and it was a completely passive technique, requiring no electricity.

But all the pictures I could find were black and white pictures from the beginning of the 20th century. Nowhere could I find any information about whether any windcatchers were still in use in Hyderabad. I read that windcatchers had been replaced by air conditioning, but surely something this widespread couldn’t have completely disappeared in just a few decades, could it?

I realized that the only way to find out if windcatchers still existed in Hyderabad was to go there and see for myself. This decision lead to some of the most interesting discoveries I have made so far while traveling. What I found was that windcatchers do still exist – even though they are very rare – and in my opinion they are ready for a comeback.

Old photo of windcatchers in Hyderabad
Old photo of windcatchers in Hyderabad shown to me by a lady working for the Hyderabad Development Authority. In even older photos windcatchers like these can be seen on practically every building in Hyderabad.

How the Hyderabad windcatchers work

Compared to Iranian windcatchers – which can work in many different ways depending on the design, use and weather – the Hyderabad windcatchers are relatively simple. The windcatcher essentially consists of a chimney-like opening with a scoop on top that directs the wind inside the house. These scoops are directed towards southwest, because Hyderabad has a dominant and fairly constant wind from the southwest.

The windcatcher has a cover that can be opened and closed according to need. The windcatchers were traditionally kept open during the night in the summer and during the day in the winter. This technique is very effective in a hot-dry climate like Hyderabad where there is a large temperature difference between night and day. Cool night air kept the houses cool during the summer, while in the winter warmer daytime air would be more comfortable. The windcatcher would serve only one or sometimes two rooms, and one house could have several windcatchers.

Windcatcher sketch
Sketch received from Hyderabad Development Authority showing the air flow in a house where the windcatcher serves two rooms.

The wind scoops were originally made of wood but over time these scoops have been eaten by termites. Cheap electricity in the 20th century meant a lot of people switched to air conditioning devices instead of replacing the wind scoop. As a result windcatchers nearly disappeared from Hyderabad – but not completely as I discovered during my visit.

Hunting windcatchers in today’s Hyderabad

After arriving to Hyderabad, it didn’t take long to realize the city looked just like any other city in Pakistan. The skyline didn’t resemble the pictures I had seen at all, and the once dominating wind scoops were nowhere to be seen. But my Pakistani friend and I were determined to find some windcatchers.

My friend asked at the reception of our hotel if they knew where to find windcatchers. They had no idea what he was talking about and probably thought we were crazy. We figured we were on our own, and so we went out on the roof of the hotel (I don’t think we were allowed to be there) and started looking around the rooftops making guesses. Could that chimney looking thing once have had a windcatcher on top? Or maybe that hole in the roof of that building?

Eventually we managed to spot a couple actual windcatchers. They weren’t like the pictures I had seen, mostly because the materials were different, and there were only a couple. But the discovery felt like a major achievement and it got us thirsting for more.

Modern windcatcher in Hyderabad
Windcatchers are hard to find in Hyderabad today, but with some patience one can find windcatchers like this that are made of more permanent materials than the traditional wooden windcatchers.

During my internet research I managed to find pictures of two modern buildings in Hyderabad that had windcatchers, the Aga Khan Maternity Hospital and the Hyderabad district administration’s office. These were our only clues, and we decided to start at the district administration’s office.

It turned out that the two windcatchers of the district administration’s office were only decorative. One was completely closed from the inside while the other one opened to a small, enclosed and fly-infested storage room. But luckily the visit was not useless as my friend managed to talk his way into the office, and in this way we got more information about the Hyderabad windcatchers.

Hyderabad district administration's office with decorative windcatchers
Hyderabad district administration’s office has two decorative windcatchers – and numerous air conditioning devices.

After a three-hour conversation at the office, it was concluded that we should visit the neighbouring building. This was the office of Hyderabad Development Authority, and there would be a lady there who knew more about windcatchers.

Actually, the lady wasn’t at the office that day but she came from home just to meet us which felt quite flattering. She showed us pictures and documents from a study they had done a few years before on windcatchers, which were seen as a part of Hyderabad’s history and cultural heritage. She confirmed that windcatchers still exist in Hyderabad, and they could send someone to take us to an area where more of them were found.

Visit to a single-family home with a functioning windcatcher

With the guidance of Hyderabad Development Authority, we ended up at the house of one family that still used their windcatcher. The family was reluctant to let us visit, and they had never let in any other researchers into their home, despite researchers from many different countries having been there. But the wife had a medical problem that my friend, a doctor, offered to help with, and this got us into the house.

Interior of house with a windcatcher
Rare photo of the interior of a house in Hyderabad with a windcatcher in the corner.

The family used their windcatcher the same way I had read – keeping it open during the night in the summer and during the day in the winter. Like other houses, the wooden scoop had been eaten by termites, but the family hadn’t built a concrete or brick scoop like some of the others we had seen. Instead they used only the shaft structure with the horizontal opening, and according to them it still worked very well.

The house had two rooms and both of them had originally had a windcatcher, but the one in the second room had been permanently sealed because rain started to come through it. Normally, during the rainy season the wind direction changes so rain doesn’t come in through the windcatcher, but according to the locals the direction of rain has been varying more in recent years.

Shaft of one of Hyderabad's windcatchers
The Hyderabad windcatchers are opened and closed from the roof, where the windcatcher consists of a chimney-like shaft like this one.

Overall the family was very pleased with how well the windcatcher worked. The house had a ceiling fan, but according to the family they didn’t need it.

Cultural heritage or useful technical device?

Now the question is, if windcatchers work so well then why are they so rare today? Pakistan today is in an energy crisis, and relying on mechanical air conditioning devices is difficult and expensive because of frequent power cuts. Passive cooling techniques like windcatchers could substantially improve people’s comfort – especially for those who can’t afford mechanical air conditioning.

In my opinion, the problem has a lot to with the image people have of what’s modern and what’s seen as backward. Windcatchers are seen as something old and a part of cultural heritage, not as a technical device that could be used today. The few modern buildings that had windcatchers – the district administration’s office and the Aga Khan Maternity Hospital – only had decorative windcatchers. But if modern buildings like these would use windcatchers that were both functional and aesthetically pleasing, it could raise the status of the technique considerably, contributing to a more comfortable and energy efficient built environment.

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