Heritage – Kerala Architecture

Heritage – Kerala Architecture
Kerala’s style of Architecture is unique in India, which has been greatly influenced by the Indian Vedic Architectural Science of Vastu Shastra. Thatchu Shastra, a Science of Carpentry and traditional Vastu, was the governing science in this architectural form. This branch of knowledge was well developed in the traditional architecture of Kerala and has created it’s own branch of literature known under the names of Tantrasamuchaya, Vastuvidya and Manushyalaya – Chandrika and Silparatna. The Manushyalaya-Chandrika, a work devoted to domestic architecture is one such science which has its strong roots in Kerala. Traditional Kerala architectural style is a testimonial of the ancient Vishwakarma sthapathis.

Geographical, climatic and historical factors, have been responsible for the characteristic regional expression of Kerala architecture. Geographically Kerala is a narrow strip of land lying in between western seaboard of peninsular India and confined between the towering western ghats on its east and the vast Arabian sea on its west. Favoured by plentiful rains due to monsoon and bright sunshine, this land is lush green with vegetation and in the uneven terrain of this region human habitation is distributed thickly in the fertile low-lands and sparsely towards the hostile highlands. Heavy rains have brought in presence of large water bodies in form of lakes, rivers, backwaters and lagoons. The climatic factors thus made its significant contributions in developing the architecture style, to counter wettest climatic conditions coupled with heavy humidity and harsh tropical summers. History also played its own contributions to the Kerala architecture. The towering Western Ghats on its east, helping the evolution of an isolated culture of proto-Dravidians, contemporary to the Harappan civilization. While western ghats isolated Kerala to a greater extent from Indian empires, the exposure of Arabian sea on its east brought in close contacts between the ancient people of Kerala with major maritime civilizations like Chinese, Egyptians, Romans, Arabs and Europeans. The Kerala’s rich spice cultivations brought it center of global maritime trade until modern periods, helping several international powers to actively engage with Kerala as a trading partners. This helped in bring in influences of these civilizations into Kerala architecture. The earliest vestiges of constructions in Kerala belong to the period dated between 3000 B.C. to 300 B.C.

Broadly, based on their functionality, Kerala architecture is divided into two distinctive areas namely, religious architecture, which is primarily patronized by temples of Kerala as well as several old churches, mosques and other religious structures, and, domestic architecture, which is, primarily seen in most of the residential houses, where there are distinctively styles in this area, as palaces and large mansions of feudal lords different from houses of commoners and also marked difference exists between religious communities.

Structurally all the primary elements of construction, tends to remain the same. The base model is normally circular, square or rectangular plain shapes with a ribbed roof evolved from functional consideration. The most distinctive visual form of Kerala architecture is the long, steep sloping roof built to protect the house’s walls and to withstand the heavy monsoon, normally laid with tiles or thatched labyrinth of palm leaves, supported on a roof frame made of hard wood and timber. The roof frame was structurally supported on the pillars, on walls erected on a plinth raised from the ground for protection against dampness and insects in the tropical climate. Often the walls were also of timbers abundantly available in Kerala. Gable windows were evolved at the two ends to provide attic ventilation when ceiling was incorporated for the room spaces. Most of Kerala buildings appears to low height visually, due to over-sloping of roofs, which are meant to protect walls from rains and direct sun shine. The gabled roof and ceiling works are the prime feature of Kerala architectural style

The science of Vastu plays a very important role in developing architecture styles. The basic concept underlines that, every structure built on earth has its own life, with a soul and personality which is shaped by its surroundings. The most important science which Kerala has developed purely indigenously is Thachu-Shastra (Science of Carpentry) as the easily availability of timber and its heavy use of it. The concept of Thachi underlines that as timber is derived from a living form, the wood, when used for construction, has its own life which must be synthesized in harmony with its surroundings and people who dwell inside it.

With the limitations of the materials, a mixed mode of construction was evolved in Kerala architecture and as such stone work was restricted to the plinth even in important buildings such as temples. Laterite was used for walls. Laterite is the most abundant stone found as outcrops in most areas. Soft laterite available at shallow depths can be easily cut, dressed and used as building blocks. It is a rare local stone which gets stronger and durable with exposure. The exterior of the laterite walls were either left as such or plastered with lime mortar. The sculpturing of the stone was mainly moulding in horizontal bands in the plinth portion known as adhistans, whereas the carving of timber covered all elements such as pillars, beams, ceiling, rafters and the supporting brackets.

Basically the domestic architecture of Kerala follows the style of detached building and in it’s most developed form the typical Kerala house is a courtyard type –Nalukettu. Nalukettus are primarily differentiated based on their structure. Traditionally Nalukettu has one courtyard with 4 blocks or halls constructed around it in cardinal directions. However some Nalukettus have two courtyards, which are known as Ettukettu (8 Blocked structure) as they have altogether 8 blocks in cardinal directions. Some super structures have 4 courtyards, which then are known as Patinarukettu (16 blocked structure). While Nalukettus and Ettukettus are more common, Pathinarukettu are extremely rare, due to its enormous size.

The central courtyard is an outdoor living space which may house some object of cult worship such as a raised bed for tulssi or jasmine . The four halls enclosing the courtyard, identical to the nalambalam of the temple, may be divided into several rooms for different activities such as cooking, dining, sleeping, studying, storage of grains. Depending on the size and importance of the household the building may have one or two upper storeys (malika) or further enclosed courtyard by repetition of the nalukettu to form ettukettu (eight halled building) or a cluster of such courtyards.

Nalukettu is the traditional homestead of Tharavadu where many generations of a matrilineal family lived. The traditional architecture is typically a rectangular structure where four blocks are joined together with a central courtyard open to the sky. The four halls on the sides are named Vadakkini (northern block), Padinjattini (western block), Kizhakkini (eastern block) and Thekkini (southern block). The architecture was especially catered to large families of the traditional tharavadu, to live under one roof and enjoy the commonly owned facilities.

Elements of Nalukettu :

Padippura is a structure containing a door forming part of compound wall for the house with a tiled roof on top and is the formal entry to the compound with the house.

Poomukham is the prime portico soon after steps to the house, which traditionally has a slope tiled roof with pillars supporting the roof and sides are open.

Chuttu verandah, a verandah to either side in front of the house through open passage from the Poomukham. Chuttu verandah would normally have hanging lights in equal distance hanging from its sloped roof.

Charupady are wooden benches with carved decorative resting wooden pieces for resting the back which are provided by the side of Chuttu verandah and Poomukham, where traditionally the family members or visitors used to sit to talk.

Ambal Kulam (Pond),a small pond built with rubble on sides where lotus or Ambal used to be planted which almost every Nalukettu had for bathing of its members, at the end of Chuttu verandah. The water bodies were maintained to synthesize energy flow inside the homestead.

Nadumuttom or central open courtyard is the prime center the Nalukettu. This is an open area usually square shaped in the exact middle of the house dividing the house in its four sides. Nadumuttom used to be normally open to sky, allowing for sunshine and rain and to allow natural energies to circulate within the house and for positive vibrance within. A thulsi or tree will be normally planted in center of Nadumuttom, for worship. Architecturally, the logic is allow tree to act as a natural air purifier.

Pooja Room, should preferably be in the North East corner of the house with Idols being placed facing east or west and the person praying facing west or east respectively. Normally, woodden paneling is done on Pooja room walls and there is a standard design.

Chitra thoonukal are pillars in wood or rubble with carvings or decorative works used to add elegance to the Hall portion of the old Kerala houses. Pictures are carved into such pillars of concrete. In the case of wood pillars, generally it is plain round pillars with polished surface.

The flooring is basically of clay tiles or wooden flooring or red/ black oxide , with a local mix of egg white batter and lime which was most commonly used , which gives off a rich shine on polishing.

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