Walking over the cold stone floors
Hands brushing over the lime plastered wall
A flood of light gushes into the courtyard,
Some of the rays finding their way into the corridors and rooms
Creating subtle changes in light and darkness
The Tharavadu renders poems
About its connection with nature.

Basking in the shades of tall towering trees, Tharavadu that has stood the test of time is a proud cultural heritage for the people living in Kerala. While the Tharavadu was a symbol of a family’s status, community and wealth, it also acted as a bridge between nature, humans and the building. The Kerala treatise, Manushyalaya Chandrika influenced the design process followed and the space planning followed the Vastu Purusha Mandala. The houses were either single-storeyed made of timber or double or triple storeys with clay laterite walls. 

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A Tharavadu. ©www.pinterest.com

The design of the Tharavadu started as an immediate response to the climatic conditions of Kerala. The steeply sloped roof reaching so low to the ground kept the rain away. Usage of local materials like clay, timber, stone and palm leaves rejected foreign influence. While the verandah around the building protected the external walls from sun and rain, the courtyard allowed a better airflow in the interiors. Timber jali walls or small windows placed at low heights, bringing in diffused light to the interiors. 

The flooring was done with earthy materials, polished with cow dung at various intervals. The Black coloured traditional flooring was done with the help of lime, sand, coconut shells, white of egg, jaggery and other vegetable extracts, polished with particular varieties of banana. The buildings stood on a high plinth to protect the interiors during floods. This way the Tharavadu was prepared to combat the harsh climatic conditions of Kerala and make maximum use of it. 

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Climate response. ©www.archiestudio.in

The Tharavadu is not just a single building but an organisation of various buildings housing various activities of the family residing, making them co-dependent only on each other. Many times, the family-owned a temple, a Kalaripayattu practice centre or any other community space which was placed far away from the house itself, and was open to the public at all times except during major family events. The Tharavadu complex is accessed through a mud path, lined with trees on both sides, and placed away from the road to keep it away from the crowd. 

Today, while the existing temples and community centres of Tharavadu are still used for their original functions, the Main Tharavadu itself is used for film shootings, wedding photoshoots, tourist attractions, performances or converted to temples and homestays. Today, Tharavadus coexist with modern concrete buildings, acting as an urban artefact that has stood the test of times. 

The house itself acts like a museum containing various cultural, ecological and religious symbols. The wooden carvings on the lintels of Pooja rooms depict goddess Lakshmi, and the capitals of columns, ceilings, storage boxes, etc. contain wooden carvings of ecological organisms found in the forests of Kerala. 

Organic colours were used for mural painting and floral patterns on walls and other areas. Very few Tharavadus have used stained glass for windows, which is proof of foreign relations as this is not a vernacular material. Timber posts acting as lamps may be placed around the site for lighting as well as a cultural symbol. 

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Ecological symbols ©www.pinterest.com 
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Wooden carving on capital ©www.pinterest.com 
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Lintel carvings ©www.pinterest.com 

While there are various typologies of the Tharavadu house, the placement and arrangement of few elements remain the same. One of the main elements is the courtyard or the nadumuttam placed centrally. The number of nadumuttam in the house speaks about the wealth, status and size of the family. Based on this, there is the nalukettu (1 courtyard, with 4 corridors), ettukettu (2 courtyards with 8 corridors) and the pathinarukettu (4 courtyards with 16 corridors).  The courtyard is believed to let in cosmic energy inside the house. It links the house with nature as it brings in air, rain and breeze. It ventilates the house and allows daylighting. 

Another such element is the verandah or the Poomukham. It flanks at least one side of the house and acts as an important gathering space during the day and the evening. If it flanks the other sides of the house, it is called the chuttu verandah and consists of oil lamps hanging at equal distances. Charupadi is a platform seating space in the verandah with wooden railings curving outwards. 

The Padipurra acts as a formal gateway with a tiled roof introducing the visitors to the house. Other important rooms include: 

  • The nagathara was a laterite platform on which snakes carved in granite or made with clay were placed. It was a symbol of the ecological worship of snakes practised by the Nairs.
  • The stepwell known as the Kulam was used as a bath by the family. There were taps and changing rooms next to this. 
  • The Pathayapura or the granary is the storage space for paddy or other agricultural produce by the family. It is sometimes a separate building and sometimes attached to the house itself.
  • A private shrine for the family where other visitors were not allowed. The theyyam performances happen in front of the family deity placed here.
  • A Well, called the kinnar placed outside the house collects rainwater and acts as a water source for the family.
  • A Goshala or the cowshed.
  • Private crematorium for the deceased family members, or the smashanam.
  • Family-owned temple.
  • A family-owned martial arts training centre.
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Earlier the usage of these spaces depended on caste and gender. The social system of the marumakkathayi, which is a matriarchal system, influenced the usage of spaces. The only men who stayed in the house were the brothers. The fathers and other men came and went only through specific paths. Throughout the years, this changed and the place started becoming more and more permeable. 

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A rough study on the influence of gender on the usage of space. ©Megha Subodh

Tharavadu could be an excellent example in the Indian context for the book ‘In praise of shadows’. The dimly lit rooms owe their experiential beauty to the filtered light from the courtyard and strategically placed windows or jalis. The glow produced by sooty oil lamps, also placed strategically, provides the house with an elegant charm, compared to the modern tube lights that eradicate even the slightest darkness. The natural polish of the floor doesn’t seem too glossy to look at but feels smooth under your feet and the timber structures that expose their grains over time adds to the beauty and charm of the house. 

The depth of the wooden carvings on the column capitals can only be fully appreciated in dim light as the subtle touch of the minimal light rays that fall on it is what it was designed for. You will also notice the staircases, granaries, and storage spaces in dim light. The subtle creaking of the steps below, the feel of the wooden textured railings, the smell of rustic timber is what makes up the experience of the house. The oil lamps spaced equally in the veranda, and the lamps lit in the Thulasithara or the timber post lamps create a different ambience with its small area of illumination. 

Very few elements that are made with brass or that are gold plated and polished, are used to accentuate and also to reflect light in the interiors. This is mostly used for door latches and in columns for ornamentation.

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Inspired by architecture and filled with a passion for writing, MeghaSubodh is an Architecture student pursuing her studies in RV college of Architecture, Bangalore. Influence of people, culture and climate on Architecture is an area that evinces much interest in her. She is desirous of giving voice to Architecture through her writings and is consistently striving to improvise herself in this field.