Famous for its toddy, delicious seafood, and Ayurveda, Kerala, one of the southernmost states of India, is home to a number of architectural spectacles influenced by its rich history. The maritime tropical climate of the state has played a very important role in moulding the vernacular architecture of the region. Vernacular structures in Kerala strictly follow the rules of the Vastu Shastra, and hence the design is strongly influenced by this doctrine.
Since Kerala has engaged in trade with countries such as China and some Middle Eastern as well as European countries, slight influences of architecture from these regions is also evident in Kerala’s typical architectural style. For example, the overhanging hipped roofs of Kerala’s vernacular buildings reflect the pagodas of Chinese vernacular architecture. An impact of Portuguese influence is also visible in certain structures along the coastal region of the state.
The heritage structures of Kerala are broadly divided into two categories- domestic consisting of residences, and religious consisting of temples, churches, and mosques. These spectacular heritage structures of the state are composed of inherently available materials such as palm leaves, natural timbre, stone, and clay.
In fact, a unique mixture of lime, egg whites, jaggery and coconut shells was used for the flooring of aristocrat’s mansions and kings’ palaces. Stone was not available easily in this region, and hence granite sourced from neighbouring states was used in palaces and mansions.
Pitched roofs, specifically angled between 30 degrees to 40 degrees, are popular here as these have been devised particularly for protection against rainwater and harsh sunlight. It was common to have verandahs around the edifice which were protected by the overhang of the sloped roofs, which protected the interiors from the harsh climate, thus keeping it cool.
There are a number of heritage structures in the state that reflect the uniquely elegant character of its vernacular architecture.
1. Mattancherry Palace, Kochi
The quadrangular houses of Kerala were traditionally known as nalukettu. The Mattancherry Palace was also built in this style, but with a slight Dutch architectural influence as it was a gift from the Portuguese to Raja Veera Kerala Verma
The palace is located in the Portuguese influenced town of Kochi. It consists of two storeys, and houses a temple in the central courtyard which is surrounded by four wings. Though it is quite simple compared to other palaces all around the country, its elegance is rather unmatched.
2. Krishnapuram Palace
The Krishnapuram Palace in Alappuzha is the epitome of typical Kerala style architecture. The iconic structure consists of 16 wings which surround four central courtyards, vernacularly known as Nadumuttam. The steep gabled roof is covered with Mangalore tiles, which predominates the elevation of the entire edifice.
The floor is finished off in fine polished natural wood, and the interior is surrounded by a verandah. Intricately carved wood accentuates the polished interiors in the form of doors, window frames, columns, and cornices. A pond created at the centre of the palace served as a primitive means of central air conditioning to the interiors.
3. Vadakkunnathan Temple, Thrissur
This temple complex stands on a hillock in the town of Thrissur, covering about 9 acres of land. There are four gopurams or entrances that surround the temple which occupies the centre of the entire complex. Its magnificence is quite mesmerising, and the edifice is intricately detailed.
The two-storey structure is protected by a gabled roof on each storey, enveloped with Mangalore tiles. The walls are ornated with murals and carvings. Each and every detail from the columns to the brackets supporting the roof have been finely chiselled in wood, stone, or plaster.
4. Madhur Temple, Kasaragod
The Madhur temple is one of the few temple structures in India that has an apsidal plan. Situated in the city of Kasaragod, this uniquely shaped temple is three-storeyed, constructed out of a wooden post and lintel structural system. Wooden brackets on the exterior walls on each storey support a sloped roof that runs throughout the apsidal perimeter.
The topmost roof is capped with a series of brass finials. The temple is located on a lush green plot surrounded by opulent coconut plantations. Though the form of the temple is quite unique, its style obeys the elements of vernacular Kerala architecture.
5. Peruvanam Mahadeva Temple, Thrissur
Yet another popular temple complex in Kerala, the Peruvanam Temple in Thrissur stands out from the rest. It is one of the only temples which consists of a square-shaped structure that houses the main shrine, which is extremely rare.
The main shrine is covered by a three-tiered sloped roof—the first two tiers are square in plan but the last tier is unusually hexagonal in plan, topped by an intricate brass finial. The outer walls of the temple are adorned in wooden jaalis provided for lighting lamps. The white exterior walls and terracotta-coloured roofs of the temple complex form an interesting contrast that catches one’s eye.