just across from my childhood home stands our ancient tharavad, our old ancestral home. A sprawling structure with over thirty rooms and open verandas both inside and outside, constructed of red bricks and teakwood in the traditional style of Kerala architecture.
With a history dating back more than three hundred years, this beautiful two story naalukettu, quadrangular building with an open to sky central courtyard, emanates an air of peacefulness and tranquility. It is an interface between the built world and the tropical greenery; with open to sky courtyard in the center and open verandas lined with pillars both inside and out. Its classical gables-like structure is supported by wooden colonnades. Many of the centuries-old naalukettu buildings of Kerala have become just a fond memory today. Several traditional houses were dismantled during the construction boom in the State in the eighties and early nineties. New houses with concrete roofs and tiled floors were built. Soon high rises followed. They were the outcome of a changed economic structure and social outlook.
The doors to our unoccupied ancestral home, one of the few remaining naalukettu homes, remain open during the day for all in our extended family. This ancient house belongs to every single person in our matrilineal line. Our ancestors who built this house had decided that every person in the extended family has access to it in times of need, but no one is allowed to take possession of it. Strange as it may seem even in this 21st century this unoccupied house is maintained by our extended family. A single light bulb burns at the front door all through the night to welcome the lonely family member who may be looking for a place to stay.
This Naalukettu was our favorite playground in my childhood. On hot summer afternoons we played hide-and-seek around the massive wooden pillars surrounding the quadrangle. And on monsoon-drenched days, we would close the outlet from the inner courtyard with its granite stopper and wait for the inside water level to rise. Then we floated paper boats made with old newspapers in the water. During summer holidays our kaikottikali (Kerala folk dance) classes were held around the courtyard.
In times past, Nira, the agricultural festival that celebrated bringing home the harvest of first rice stalks, was a major event at this house. The whole extended family gathered around the courtyard for the festivities. The house was cleaned thoroughly and the floor of the nadumittam, inner courtyard, was decorated with lighted bronze oil lamps and kolam, an intricate design drawn with rice flour. Much more than just an aesthetic art, it symbolizes happiness and prosperity. These designs consist of dots and lines that are joined with straight and curved lines or, lines going round the dots resulting in a design consisting exclusively of curved lines. As the farm hands brought in the stacks of rice we would chant
Nira nirayoodu nira nira nira,
Poli poliyodu poli poli poli,
Ellum nira vallam nira vallotti nira, which translates loosely as “fill the home with rice and fill the vallam and vallotti (rattan seed storage containers) with rice.”
The rice stacks were placed on a large banana leaf spread in the middle of the courtyard. Following the festive rituals, the stacks of paddy were distributed to everyone. After hanging a few stacks on the doors of the ancestral home, we took the remaining stacks to our individual homes and hung them on doors and placed them in our ari mancha, the huge wooden box where rice is stored.
There was a time when weddings of the girls in the extended family were celebrated here. Under the ancient matrilineal system, the house belonged to the women and they continued to remain at home after marriage. Brides of our men were ceremonially welcomed at this home after weddings; later they returned to their own ancestral home. For centuries foreign visitors and anthropologists have been fascinated by the Nayar community of Kerala for their matrilineal kinship and descend traced through the female line. Social, political, and economic changes that began during close of 18th century and continued throughout 19th century and the constant contact with the outside world slowly brought considerable change to the matrilineal system. By the dawn of 20th century Nayar women began to set up separate households with their husbands. The breakup of a joint family into smaller units did not necessarily represent total rejection of the joint family ideal. Even when the ideal joint family is seldom found, still people continue to observe the ritual aspects of this ancient social system.
The inner veranda around the nadumittam easily seated fifty people for wedding feasts. Of course, there were several rounds of seating as guests usually numbered anywhere from four hundred to six hundred or more. When the number of guests was greater, both the inner and the larger outer verandas were used. Guests sat cross-legged on straw mats and wedding feasts were served on green banana leaves laid out on the floor in front of them. The fragrance of sambar and rasam in the air dominated the other less fragrant dishes. A cloud of steam rose up as the thick hot paayasam (dessert course) was spread over the banana leaves. When the first round of guests rose to wash their hands, the cleaning crew would march in to remove the banana leaves and clean the floor for the next round of serving.
It was not just on these happy occasions that the family gathered here. The sad and somber occasion of death of the elders in the family was also observed here with various religious rites. During the fifteen-day mourning only simple food was cooked and served. Desserts and deep-fried foods considered ceremonial were avoided. The life of the demised was then celebrated with a feast on the sixteenth day. This feast always included some special dishes: ingithayir a ginger, green chilies and yogurt chutney, Pulisseri, a squash curry in sour buttermilk sauce and ellunda a sesame seed and brown sugar sweet.
Ancient Kerala Architecture
This old tradition of domestic architecture is one of the richest components of Kerala’s cultural heritage and has remained un-swayed by external influences. Designed and built according to the rules of Vasthu Sastra and Tachu Sastra, sciences of architecture and carpentry, the naalukettu manifests the creative and aesthetic skills of the Malayali homebuilders. The wooden decorations of the building, especially the front door and pillars, are solid and beautifully carved. Up above the flight of granite steps leading to the entrance of the house, a wooden ring on a twisted wooden rod, all carved out on a single piece of wood, is fitted under the sloping roof overhang. It is a symbolic signature signifying the expertise of the master carpenter. The beauty of the naalukettu lies in the lack of ostentation. Decorations are modest and practical. The walls are made of brick and mortar and whitewashed. Wooden ceilings, pillars, windows, and doors retain their natural coloring. The earthy color of the floor owes its rich shade to natural dyes.
The building provides a sensuous experience of space, design, and scenery all allowing for living in open harmony with nature. It is not just the grace and beauty that this traditional home has in favor; it is eminently practical as well. This ancient architectural style paid special attention to the peculiar topography of the land with its hills, slopes, and valleys. Elevation of the house keeps it well above flood waters and rain-soaked ground, especially during the monsoon season. These massive structures cleverly deal with Kerala’s tropical climate, high humidity, and the intensity of monsoon rains. The house faces the rising sun and there is free flow of sunlight and ventilation. The high-pitched roof traps rising heat well above living areas and the wooden ceiling provides another layer of protection from the heat. Large roof overhangs diminish solar glare and form shady covers to verandas. They protect rooms from direct sunlight, keeping them cool even on the hottest day. These overhangs also drain rainwater further away from the windows, allowing them to remain open even during heavy downpours. Carved open work forms ventilation grills on windows and gable ends. Its windows have shutters, not the decorative ones, but real wooden shutters that could close and lock from inside.
The style of architecture of this traditional Hindu joint family home was well-adapted to the way of life in the past when customs and rituals were part of life. It was also both functional and capable of accommodating large, extended families. The kitchen and the pantry are at an extension of the northern block. The middle rooms in the southern and eastern blocks are for family gatherings. The western block has a special prayer room, machu, where the sword of the family’s patron goddess is kept. The attached open portico in the front, purathalam, was where visitors were traditionally entertained. The entrance into the house is through the gatehouse called padippura, a simple structure with a door in the center surrounded by built in seats on both sides and a thatched roof above. It is constructed at some distance from the main house and in ancient times permission to build such a gate house was a rare privilege and had to be obtained from the rulers. In the center of the eastern yard there is a tulasithara, a small brick platform where a sacred basil plant is grown. In the backyard there are cowsheds where, in earlier times, milking cows were kept. It has a bathing pond and a serpent grove in the backyard where the trees, hedges and shrubs around the granite images of serpent deities are always left undisturbed.
Hope remains that these old-style houses will not become extinct as just as some of the traditions of the matrilineal society are continuing today. This style of architecture has today become a status symbol among the well to do in Kerala. Many efforts are made to ensure that the remaining historic homes are preserved. Several of them were converted to favorite tourist destinations where visitors enjoy the lifestyle of Kerala in ethnic surroundings. Understanding this heritage should provide modern architects with exceptionally rich possibilities for the developing of a contemporary indigenous aesthetic.