Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
CITIES: AUGUST 12, 2001
The vanishing tharawads of Kerala
Architect, Urban designer, Founder Member, Centre for Environment, Architecture and Human settlements based in Kozhikode.
We came to the country of black pepper, Malabar. Its length is a journey two months from Sindhbar to Kawlam. The whole way by land lies under the shade of trees.And all this space of two months journey, there is not a space free from cultivation. For every man has his own orchard with his house in the middle and a wooden fence around it.
ibn batuta(1929);quoted from
T.T. Sreekumar (1993)
Kerala remained a farming community till recently with rigid caste class distinctions. Situated in the south western corner of the country, and guarded by seas and high mountains, Kerala for a long time enjoyed isolation and was out of the way of the great migrations and invasions. Settlement patterns from early times remained the homestead unlike that of the other cultural types like ancient, early, and medieval Hindu Mughal or even that of the Tamil Brahmin "agraharams" types.
The kovilakom of the ruling class, the illam and mana of the Namboodiris (priestly class), and tharawads of the Nair community (administrative and warrior group) are the major upper class housing types that formed the settlement of this region.
The Tharawad, though it now stands generally for the ancestral home, gains its name from the context of which it is a part of.
Thara is a neighbourhood, mainly Nair dominated. The Namboodiri dominated areas are called uru. Many thara formed a desom
and many desoms formed a nadu and many nadus formed a swaroopam. The inhabitants of thara formed a government
under a Karanavar (elder one) - a feudal group that ruled the region. Thara as a political organisation ceased to exist long before,
but still is lively in many places as a community group. The many Nair houses associated with a temple and its surroundings called thara
is a common settlement cluster in the region.
The tharawad now stands for historic association with generations of ancestors. It goes back several generations. Overburdened with inhabitants, the tharawad split into manageable matrilineal groups that stayed in different buildings. Some tharawads comprised over 200 inhabitants!
The Nairs followed the marumakkathayam - a system of matriarchial descent while the Namboodiris were patriarchial. Nairs took land on lease from the Namboodiris and cultivated the same. Among the Namboodiris only the eldest one could marry. The younger ones could have "relations" called sambandham with Nair women. These women stayed in their own tharawads and the Namboodiris visited them from time to time. Even Nair men never stayed with their families. The relationships between husband and wife, father and children were not recognised.Hence the Namboodiri illams had spacious public areas while the Nair tharawads had more bedrooms.
A tharawad consisted of the karanaver (senior most male member), his wife - ammayi (aunt) and their children; his sisters and their children. Senior male members managed the property on behalf of the women.
The karanavar had the absolute powers to represent, possess and manage the tharawad and its properties. The karanavar provided everything from pocket money to clothes to the members. No marriage took place between members of a tharawad as they are considered related by blood.
These tharawads were "urban clusters" in themselves. Functions and rituals considered sacred among the Nair community that now take place in temples, like naming of the child, ear boring ceremony, initiation to letters, first tonsure of the new born and so on used to be conducted within the tharawads. Festivals like Onam, Vishu and Navarathri were celebrated with pomp. Many local festivals associated with temples in different parts of Kerala are even now conducted and managed by the respective Nair tharawads of the region.
The traditional building types of these tharawads were nalukettu (four blocks), ettukettu (eight blocks), pathinarukettu (sixteen blocks) - the multiples of a basic chatursala type. Chatursala, according to texts, is an interconnected four blocked building around a central courtyard called anganam or nadumuttam. The lower class types mainly remained ekasala - the one sided. The four blocks are the vadakini, thekkini, kizakkini and padinjattini according to their corresponding cardinal locations of N,S,E,W respectively. Vadakkini houses the kitchen and dining, padinjatini, the bedroom and granary, thekkini and kizhakkini are halls and rooms for visitors.
These buildings were laid and constructed following elaborate rituals and principles according to the traditional texts on Vastu Vidya which were highly articulated prescriptive building guidelines. The guidelines ranged from selection of site, nature of soil, orientation buildings , position of buildings and rooms according to mandalas, to the perimeter of the building, dimensional system, kind of motifs and decorations to be used and so on. These buildings demonstrate excellent craftsmanship in wood and a good understanding of construction and building material science.
The structure and form of the roof system with their eaves and gable ears is one of the uncomparable achievements of Kerala's traditional buildings and craftsmanship. The rafter, wall plate, collar pins, ridge beams, and ties join together with surprising sophistication and precision to form a self adjusting lattice. The tiled roof allows for ventilation in hot and humid climate. The pathayam (granary) , thulasithara (platform for the tulasi), and sarpakavu (temple for snakes - snake worship used to be common among the Nairs), were an indispensible part of all tharawads. Pillared verandahs bordered the building and courtyards. Entry was through a gateway called padipura, normally part of the compound wall.
The Malabar Marriage Act of 1896, the Travancore Nair Act of 1912, 1925 and the Cochin Nair Act of 1920, dealing with the laws of marriage and family succession, right to property, protection and management have fundamentally affected the structure of Nair tharawads. By the second half of the 20th century, the joint family system collapsed in Kerala. The last stone was the 1975 Joint Family Abolition Act. Nuclear family became the pervasive type.These brought about major changes in property ownership and occupational patterns. The Namboodiris and Nairs, not used to farming by themselves and also due to intra family dynamics, sold their properties to others. The Land Revenue Act introduced by the communist goverment regularised the land for cultivators. That marked the end of the feudal system in Kerala.
The social change in Kerala was dramatic with political upsurges, accessibility to services due to the closely distributed settlement centres and ribbon development, modern reformers and movements. People migrated in search of better opportunities. According to a recent census, at the state level there are 3.75 million migrants - nearly 40 per cent of households have migrants. Around 1.5 million Keralites live outside India with 95 per cent in the Gulf countries. The total remittance according to a 1995 data is 10 per cent of the state domestic product. Kerala was getting integrated to a global system. Property prices were rising. The agricultural sector declined. Kerala now does not even produce 50 per cent of its rice needs. People sold agricultural lands for money. The new middle class with more purchasing power powered by Gulf money turned bidders. The physical and cultural topography of Kerala was changing, with new consumption practices and value systems.
The old tharawad houses and such traditional buildings found no place in the new middle class aesthetics and demand. Some of the traditional buildings like prominent monuments, kovilakoms and temples were looked after by Dewaswom Boards, trusts, archaeology departments and governments. The Nair tharawads were distributed widely. Owners of these tharawads had increased manifold by this time and were dispersed in different parts of the world. The demand for woodwork, especially the carved components in international and national markets, the financial and physical burden of maintaining them, the value of the prime land on which these buildings stood, were factors that encouraged the owners to sell their property. The present developments in the tourism sector which attempts to create a "Kerala ambience" at any cost has probably been the most damaging. These groups with their transplantation architects and antique dealers brought out the tharawads from even the interiors of the region in bulk and reused its components - like columns, doors, doorframes, rafters and wall plates to create the "Kerala" ambience in resorts.
Neither the recent Vastu consciousness, the proponents and guardians of traditional architecture, nor the government with their defunct heritage commissions and guidelines could do anything about these buildings that are integrated with local histories and craftsmanship, that are of immense heritage value to the region.
There are rules that gives provision to the local bodies, to document and preserve the important heritage buildings within their jurisdiction. If the local bodies or the politically powerful Nair service societies,or at least the respective families of these tharawads do not take the initiative to preserve and reuse appropriately, all of these would vanish as pieces to entertain tourists.
1. Urban Process in Kerala, T. T. Sreekumar
2. Marriage and the Family in Kerala, Fr. J . Puthenkulam
3. C.D.S. working paper by K.C. Zakariah, E.T. Mathew
4. Impact of Migration on Kerala's Economy and Society, S. Hrudayarajan
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