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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

Kerala Traditional Houses and Chettinad Architecture in Contemporary Homes

Introduction to Indian Traditional Buildings

The great Laurie Baker often used to say. "We should be thinking and designing as Indian, for Indians, in India. The buildings I see have nothing to do with the normal life of the Kerala individual or with the climate or materials available." True, we have a rich and varied vernacular architecture which is beautiful and interesting: unfortunately, there is no Indianness in most of the buildings we make. Traditional architecture, including traditional courtyard houses of Kerala, is not a style, it is knowledge. Governed by vital elements such as climate and locally available materials, there was a concept and logic behind everything that was constructed in the earlier days. Southern India had a rich and varied repertoire of vernacular architecture which was as beautiful as it was practical. This article portrays how elements from old Kerala and Chettinad homes can be successfully incorporated into contemporary dwellings.

Table of Contents:

Nalukettu – Architecture of Kerala

In the olden days, Kerala's rich and famous usually lived in nalukettus. This type of Kerala traditional house had sloping roofs which came down very low and protected the walls from rain and sun, thus keeping the interiors cool. The nalukettu veedu had a large internal courtyard; those with two such courtyards were called ettukettus. The number of courtyards usually depended on the size of the family. In the case of the Nair houses, in which a joint family system existed, courtyards were added as members of the family increased. The internal courtyards had a verandah on all the four sides of the courtyard. In North Kerala, where two or three-storied courtyard houses were common, the northeast portion was single storied because of the kitchen. In all the old houses, the kitchen is invariably in the north east corner of the houses. This is because in Kerala, the prevailing winds blow from the south-west and the smoke is blown away. The bedrooms are upstairs in the south-west portion.

Roof is very predominant in traditional Kerala buildings
Roof is very predominant in traditional Kerala buildings
In North Kerala,  two and three storied houses were quite common in the old days.
In North Kerala, two and three storied houses were quite common in the old days.

Chettinad House, Tamil Nadu

In Tamil Nadu, the most palatial of houses were built by members of the prosperous Chettiar community. Built between the 1880s and the 1920s, these Chettinad house design bore strong colonial influences. Chettiar houses combine both traditional and colonial architectural features. Since many of the Chettiars worked in Burma, Singapore and Malaysia, the houses made ample use of Burma teak and Ceylon satinwood. Imported materials such as Italian marble, Dutch ceramic tiles, cast iron, stained glass and Bohemian chandeliers too were used in the Chettinad house interiors.

Classic Style Chettinad House Exterior View
Classic Style Chettinad House Exterior View

A typical Chettiar house would be raised six feet high from the road level with steep flights of steps leading in. Every house built following Chettinad architecture had an imposing entrance with elaborately carved wooden doors and panels. On either side of the entrance would stand two huge raised platforms called thinnai. The main door traditionally opened into a massive hall with columns made of elaborately carved wood. This used to be the men's quarters in the old days. Courtyards were an integral feature of every Chettinad house architecture as well, with most functions taking place in this part of the house. One courtyard (onnam kettu) would lead into another rectangular hall (randam kettu) for women.

Today, as our cities turn into concrete jungles, I find it heartening to have clients coming and asking me to recreate the old houses for them. When we incorporate ancient design principles into modern-day homes, we achieve an amalgamation of beauty and utility and a perfect balance between style and substance.

Mammootty’s House, Chennai

Southern superstar Mammootty's home at R.A. Puram in Chennai, which I designed about 14 years ago, is one such example. The brief he gave me went like this: 'I want a house built with natural materials. I do not want much concrete. I do not want large sheets of glass. I do not want marble. In short, I do not want an expensive house. My home is a very private space for me and my family and I will not bring too many people here.’ Mammootty wanted a home enriched in his roots. The actor wanted only four bedrooms plus a room to accommodate all his electronic equipment and a projection theatre.

As in most Kerala homes, actor Mammoothy's has a verandah at the front. (Image courtesy : V Vinoth)
Brick columns in Mammootty House Chennai
A narrow staircase leads up from the office to the first floor home theatre room and a view of the house's slanting roof

Since Mammootty was clear that he wanted his home to have a distinct flavour of Kerala architecture house design, I gave it a slanting roof which is very typical of homes in those parts. The roof ears make for a good overhang which protects the walls from sun and rain. Arches were used instead of concrete lintels and traditional burnt clay tiles were used for the flooring. As in most Kerala architecture homes, the house has a front verandah and a side verandah. With the master bedroom and the children's bedrooms being at two opposite ends with the family room in between, the homestead is quite spread out. The kitchen faces east and lets in the morning sun. A narrow staircase leads up from the office to the first floor home theatre room. The idea here is that when Mammootty takes producers and directors to view films on the large screen in the projection room, it will not affect the privacy of the family.

Vishram By the Sea

Vishram by the sea aims at integrating the outdoors with the indoors. Just as Mammootty wanted an unpretentious home with a Kerala flavour, so did another Chennai client for his beach home. She was so focused on authenticity, we brought in carpenters from Kerala to construct the thatched roof. Located on Chennai's East Coast Road over a half-acre plot and aptly called Vishram by the Sea, this home aims at integrating the outdoors with the indoors. Because of the stupendous view, I decided to focus more on the verandahs and public areas and deliberately kept the bedrooms small as in an old Kerala traditional house. The verandahs here are so large that one can easily put a bed and a writing table on them, apart of course from armchairs and recliners. In this house, I have divided the common areas into smaller spaces. Each space has a character all its own: so, each person can have a favourite corner in the house. My favourite place in this house are the rough granite steps on the pond where one can spend hours gazing at the fish in the water and watch the reflection of the trees all around.

Chettinad columns, Athangudi tiles and granite stone along the edges, eave boards, timber rafters etc. add character to the house.

Inside, we have used a lot of traditional architectural accents. The client possessed some Chettinad architecture features like windows and rafters from an old building she owned in Chettinad and we decided to install them here. The doors came from another old home that was being pulled down in the city to make way for an office complex. The client also had other Chettinad architecture elements, two sets of Chettinad pillars, one made of timber, the other of stone. I decided to use the stone set, because the timber pillars were far too decorative and would not have gone with the rustic style of the house.


Not too far away from Vishram by the Sea is the home of businessman Vijaykumar Nambiar and his wife Aruna, at Akkarai. A padipura or gatehouse, a typical Kerala architecture design feature, stands at the entrance to the house. Appropriately named Tarawad (after the ancestral mansions of Kerala), the sprawling 5,200-sq-ft bungalow is set on a quarter-acre plot, with the beach well within sight. The gable roof is heavily patterned with timber fretwork. The built-in seating on the entrance verandah adds to its quaint charm as do the Chettinad stone pillars.

The built-in seats and Calicut columns add to the charm of the Nambiar House
The built-in seats and Calicut columns add to the charm of the Nambiar House.
Chettinad pillars combined with period furniture, brass diyas and urlis give the Nambiar’s' living room a thorough dose of tradition.

The combination of wood, stone and tiles add a touch of authenticity and old-world piquancy to the otherwise modern setting.

The nadumuttam or atrium, which doubles as a living room, is designed with elements of the nalukettu architecture principle. The wooden pillars and a temple door, both from Chettinad house design, combined with brass diyas and urlis infuse the space with a sense of tradition. Special attention has been given to natural light and ventilation, and French doors and window let in oodles of light, giving the house a very airy and spacious feeling.

The Pyramid

Another light and airy home are that of theatre director N.S. Yamuna, located at Injambakkam, also on East Coast Road, is called The Pyramid because of its wide-angled. 40-ft high pointed roof, each of the house's two bedrooms has a courtyard attached with a bathing area open to the sky. As traditional courtyards of houses in Kerala were meant to, these encourage laid back activities like oil massages, sunbathing and relaxing in recliners.

The small sunken area in the centre makes for an intimate space. Two pillars and a wall support the mezzanine that serves as a library and continues up to the pyramidal "lookout" which is glass-enclosed. The floors of these two central spaces are made of wood, like the spiral staircase leading up from the ground as well as the ladder going up from the library.

Pyramid power: The glass-enclosed pyramidal ‘lookout’ of Yamuna’s home (Image courtesy : V Vinoth)
Kerala Veedu Staircase Spiral
The spiral stairs and the living room. (Image courtesy : V Vinoth)
“The double height ceiling and windows give the home a lightness of being”.

The Mangalore tiled roof is in two tiers and resembles the Kerala traditional house roof structure. The extending overhangs protect the exposed brick walls. The flooring in the rooms has been created with custom-made Athangudi tiles, the verandahs with black Cuddapah while courtyards are lined with terracotta tiles. Here too, the doors and windows have been salvaged from a village home.

Reviving Traditional Architecture in India

The architectural scene has changed rapidly in the last two decades. Reviving Kerala traditional buildings and Chettinad architecture and blending it in modern context not only keeps the traditions alive but also suits the environment, climate and people. This is a major aspect of any strategy that is to be evolved to get out of the present "crisis". How the new architects take up the challenge is to be seen in the next decade!

This was an article originally published in India Today in June 2007.

To know more about the importance of Traditional Architecture please read our article "Traditional Architecture And Its Relevance In Contemporary Context ".


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