In Kerala’s Courtyard

Beyond backwaters and beaches, explore the other side of this picturesque state through its matrilineal homes, says Shashi Priya

From Ayurveda to anthropology, wildlife sanctuaries to waterfalls, backwaters to beaches, spices to shrimps, tea to toddy, coffee to coconuts, kathakali to kalaripayattu, snake boats to synagogues, houseboats to hyacinths…. Just when I thought I had touched every nook and cranny of God’s own country, it sprung yet another surprise. Off the Internet and away from tourism brochures, there is a Kerala waiting to be explored. But this palm-fringed tropical haven bares its soul only to the committed traveller… And the first move in that direction is to step into its centuries-old nalukettu homes. Here, in a 250-year-old house in Naduvilat Illam in Kozhikode, I got my first true glimpse of the reclusive soul of Kerala.

Sitting on its verandah, I looked up at its sloped roof, ornate wooden gables and geometric floor tiles, wondering in which layer of its heritage this state hid the traditional nalukettu homes of its matrilineal communities. “Where you are sitting is the chuttu verandah,” informed the lady of the house, 85-year-old MA Vanajam, a retired English teacher. “And the area after the three stairs you climbed to enter the front of the house is called poomukham,” she added. She smiled through her wrinkled face and decided to simplify things for me: “Nalukettu is a rectangular- shaped single-storey structure, wherein four halls are joined together at a sunken, open-air courtyard called nadumuttam. Most nalukettu homes also have a basement storage called nilavara. The architecture is based on Thatchu Shasthra, the ancient science of carpentry and Vaastu Shasthra. Every nalukettu has a chuttu verandah to either side in front of the house, where oil lamps hang at an equal distance from the sloped roof.”

Even after Vanajam’s excellent explanation, the compulsive researcher in me could not help looking up nalukettu online. An informative article on Kerala Tourism’s official website introduces nalukettu as the most developed form of the typical Kerala mansion and further explains that the nalukettu house is ideal for large families of the traditional tharavadu (a system of joint family), for which it is customary to live under one roof. The word tharavadu was intriguing and I decided to give my research cravings another go. I found out that American cultural anthropologist David Murray Schneider in his book Matrilineal Kinship defines tharavadu (also spelt tarawad) as genealogical matrilineage. Another social anthropologist, Melinda A Moore, defines it as “a holistic, ritually significant property unit to which the members along the line of a common female ancestress were attached”. By the time Vanajam served me tea, my research told me nalukettu, mostly associated with matrilineal communities of Kerala, is a traditional homestead, spread across huge tracts of land.

Kerala

Back to where I was, in the chuttu verandah, with Vanajam and her 85-year-old husband KV Vasudevan, I finished my tea and began a tour of the house. Following Vanajam’s lead, I stepped into the narrow corridor that outlined the sunken courtyard, which is also used to harvest rain water. There was a puja room facing the courtyard and a string of rooms that ran along the other side of corridors that connecting the four blocks on each side of the courtyard. In one of the corridors was the second surprise of the day – a hanging bed called attukattil.

Swinging on the large wooden hanging bed and flipping through faded photographs of her time-worn albums, Vanajam spoke proudly of her property, which was once spread across a 1,000-acre plot. Today, Vanajam and Vasudevan want to maintain it without making any changes. “The four halls on the sides are the northern, western, eastern and southern blocks for you, but for us they are vadakkini [northern block], padinjattini [western block], kizhakkini [eastern block] and thekkini [southern block].

Kerala

In Kerala it is said that every element of the house has a life and soul of its own, which is why we give an individual name to everything. In fact, every house in Kerala has its own name. They are known more by their names than their addresses, and we add the name of the house as a prefix to our own. My name is KV Vasudevan, where KV stands for my house’s name – Kizhunallur Naduvilat,” said Vasudevan. The name of the house, as it turned out, was as old as its existence and so were a string of family heirlooms, which were perhaps even older than the house. While the story of this house wafted into its courtyard and echoed in its tiles, it also painted a picture through a gramophone, age-old palm-leaf scripts and decorative wooden spears, which a nostalgic Vanajam took out from her cupboard. “This house is a treasure trove of fond memories for me. I don’t want to change anything in it,” Vanajam said.

The visit to the house only left me wanting more, and I headed to the foothills of the Western Ghats to visit the Varmas, members of the ninth generation of the royal family of Nilambur, which follows the matrilineal system. The family, unlike Vanajam’s, lives in a kovilakam, which roughly translates to the official residence of a dignitary. Just like other matrilineal homes, the Varmas’ Puthiya Kovilakam follows nalukettu architecture but in a much more elaborate way – and I was soon to witness its grandeur.

Ornately carved wooden staircases, balus trades and thick walls with splayed openings greeted me as I entered a circular space that ran along the private area of the building. However, it is not the architectural splendour but science that will leave you speechless. The circular area is not there to just sit pretty, it serves the most important purpose in the house – facilitating air circulation, resulting in insulated interiors and moderate temperatures in all seasons. Ravi Varma, my host for the evening, elaborated on this phenomenon, “Climate-responsive design is an integral part of Kerala’s traditional architecture. We don’t need air-conditioners here. In Kerala’s climate, the only way to achieve a comfortable indoor environment is building an envelope that can maintain the indoor temperature at an optimum level and provide a controlled and continuous air flow. Nalukettu architecture helps in building it.”

The kovilakam was once a pathinarukettu (16 halls with four central courtyards), which boasted over 50 rooms, but with time one of the courtyards was remodelled. However, even with just three courtyards and 25 rooms, the kovilakam retained its royal grandeur. Sreemathi Varma, the owner of the house, inherited it from her mother as per marumakkathayam – a legal system of inheritance in matrilineal communities where the inheritance of property is traced through females – and now she and her husband, Ravi Varma, run a heritage homestay in two of the 25 rooms of the kovilakam. In the house, the core nalukettu structure retains its original layout. The chuttu verandah is the same but with the addition of charupady – wooden benches with carved decorative backs – and the hand-made Athangudi floor tiles with unique hues and patterns. In olden days, the karanavar, or the head of the family, would sit on the verandah in a reclining chair and keep a watch on the goings-on inside and outside. The bedrooms, numbering eight, two in each block, accommodated individual households. “These bedrooms were used by the married women of the house. Attached to the bedrooms were storage spaces. The sleeping quarters of the male members were on the second floor. Every house had two staircases on each floor. The men’s sleeping quarters were reached through the one at the entrance. The second staircase was used only by women. The same basic structure is repeated for the upper floors. In its full glory, the Nilambur kingdom spread across 1,25,000 acres of land and 60-70 families lived in the kovilakam,” said Sreevidya Varma, Sreemathi Varma’s daughter and the next heir of the house. The good news is these homes of the past seem to have a future as well. Several NRIs relocating to Kerala are rekindling their romance with this eco-friendly architectural style and the demand for new nalukettubased homes is on the rise in the state.

The author is a senior journalist and travel writer, and the views expressed in this article are her own

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