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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

In Conversation With a Traditional Kerala Master Craftsman - Mr. Koyithatta N. Narayanan

Timber carpentry is one of Kerala's oldest crafts. Kerala's ancient and historic monuments, such as temples and palaces, are a tribute to the fine timber craft, with carved pillars, doors, and ceilings. Kerala's skilful master craftsmen make stunning art in tables, chairs, cabinets, sofas and houses. The Koyithatta is one family that has been involved with the design and construction of buildings in North Malabar for generations. This blog post is an interview from 30 years ago (1986) with Mr Koyithatta N. Narayanan, a Kotyithatta family member and a traditional Kerala master craftsman.

Mr. Koyithatta N. Narayanan
Mr. Koyithatta N. Narayanan

Biographical Sketch

Koyitatta N. Narayanan was born in a traditional carpenter’s family on September 16, 1916, at Vadakumbad village, five miles northeast of Tellichery. His father’s name is Govindan Achari and his mother’s name is Nangeli Amma. Mr Narayanan has undertaken house construction assignments all his life. He does the drawings, adjusts the site, and prescribes all dimensions for the house and timber members.

Besides his role as Stapathi or taksaka, he was a Sanskrit teacher and has served in many schools in Tellicherry. He joined the Government services in 1944 and served most of his time at the Tellicherry Brennen High School until he retired in 1972. He has also written many books on literature criticism and Vaastu Vidya. The earliest remembrance of Mr Narayanan about his family’s history was an incident, from over 400 years ago.

A stone deity that was carried for installation in Thrikkaikunnu Temple attached to the Kottayam Kovilakom (Palace) was seen by a female member of the Koyithatta family who protested that the deity could not be installed in the temple in that form. At the time of installation, many obstacles and inauspicious events occurred. Remembering her words, the temple authorities went to her for help. She applied some medicine and took out a frog and some water from the stone deity. The king was pleased and the Koyithatta family was given land as a token of appreciation.

How did you learn this trade?

My father, a practising carpenter, became ill when I was about 20 years old. He was in bed for about 12 months. I was very lucky to serve him all this time. While nursing my father, I had to read to him from the Bhagavad-Gita and Narayaneeyam every day. Thus I learned both of these by heart within one year. At that time, I also had to take responsibility for the house construction my father had begun before his illness. My father would explain the various books. When I had to consult the Shastras at various places and had any doubts, my father would clear them.

There were many expert workers among the carpenters who could deal with any problem in wood and stone in my family. By having constant contact with them from a younger age, I easily learned the technical aspects. Although I had to get the help of teachers for learning Sanskrit, I did not need outsiders’ help in the case of learning about Vaastu Vidya. What I could not learn from my father, I could learn from his younger brothers. There were many books in our house. All that I had to do was to work hard.

Among the books you read, were there any which was written by your forefathers?

No, all of them were famous books. They were handwritten on palm leaves or, in later periods, they were done on paper.

What were the things you learnt from others?

One of my father’s younger brothers, Madhavan Achari, was an expert in Vaastu Vidya as well as Tantrik Vidya. Another brother, Kesavan Achari, was a school teacher and Sanskrit scholar. I learnt Sanskrit from him. I learned about the traditional Shastras from my contemporaries like Vengalasseri Kuttirama and Purameri Govindan. They helped me in finding solutions to many problems.

Paravur Synagogue
Carpenter Working on a Window Frame at Paravaur Synagogue. Image Taken by V. Issac Sam.

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Was there any attempt by the scholars to keep their knowledge secret?

No, Not at all. We used to enter into arguments. Each one would point out the other’s mistakes. There was healthy competition amongst us to collect more information. Thus, we tried to understand more. Anybody can say wrong things. The important thing is whether a person is willing to correct it or not.

What qualifications do you prescribe for a Stapati or Shilpi?

The qualifications are the ones usually mentioned in the Shastras, such as in the Manushyalaya Chandrika. But we normally adhere to the qualifications prescribed in Prayogamanchari, which we consider older than the Manushyalaya Chandrika. We possess a copy which is written on a palm leaf. A shilpi should be born into a good family, be humble, truthful intelligent, be able to control his mind and be clean, both mentally and physically.

When do you determine the position of the house, do you also draw the plan of the house?

Yes, I do everything. I will show all the dimensions on the drawing. In the olden days, the plan was drawn on palm leaves. Even now, only a line sketch is drawn, no elevation or section is done. The perimeter, the length and the offsets will be noted. The perspective of the building will be in my mind. It is the duty of the house owner to go to a craftsman who does good elevations.

How did you arrive at the dimensions of the various members?

Everything is done according to the Shastras. All the dimensions are relative. It starts from Ishta Deerkham, the length of the house. The perimeter, width, height of the basement, height and width of the column, and the width and thickness of the beams are all arrived at from the Ishta Deerkham.

Carpenters Working on the Repairing the Roof of Cheraman Juma Masjid.
Carpenters Working on the Repairing the Roof of Cheraman Juma Masjid.

What about the dimension of the rafters and other wooden members?

That will be suggested by the head craftsman, Sthapathi or taksaka in the plan. The duty of the head carpenter is to do it accordingly, but he may have several choices to make himself. For example, if the pitch of the roof is not specified, then the head carpenter can determine it himself.

How does the carpenter determine the position of the holes for the wooden piece (lierne) to be driven through?

The carpenter will have to draw a sketch on a wooden plank. He can also draw the sketch on a cow-dung smoothened floor. But usually, it is drawn on a wooden plank at the site itself. He then determines the length of each rafter and the position of the holes based on the drawing. He might be able to calculate mentally the length of the rafter, but for the whole roof to be ready, he must diagram the members.

Marking the Position of Holes in a Timber Rafter
Marking the Position of Holes in a Timber Rafter
Timber Members With Holes for Wooden Pieces Driven Through Them
Timber Members With Holes for Wooden Pieces Driven Through Them

The perimeter is very important. Which is this perimeter – the perimeter of the room?

When we say perimeter, it is the external perimeter of the wooden wall plates. (Uttaram)

How much accuracy is needed for the various members?

The measurement should be correct up to one Yavam. 1 Yavam = 1/8 Viral (finger). 24 Viral (fingers) = 1 Kol. In some cases, the dimensions can vary up to 6 Yavams.

How do you determine the thickness of the walls, depth of foundation, etc., because they may vary from place to place?

Shastras give only certain directions regarding these points. Stapathi will have to calculate the rest based on his own experience. For instance, more excavation will have to be done in some cases than others.

Were there any variations in the Shastras from place to place?

No, Shastras are the same, not only throughout Kerala but also throughout India. There are few regional variations. However, Prayogamanjari is common in North India. Mayamata is popular throughout South India.

What about the various intricate carvings found in many houses?

They were also done according to the Shastras. Only experienced people could do it. The carvings can be done at the site, or in the house of the carpenter. In many cases, there might not be any experienced carvers on the team of the head carpenter who is in charge of doing the house. Then the carving will be done in pieces in the house of the carvers. As far as less intricate carvings are concerned, ordinary carpenters can do it themselves.

Padmanabhapuram Palace
The Intricate Carvings Seen in the Padmanabhapuram Palace.
The Detailing of an Opening From an Old Traditional Kerala House.
The Detailing of an Opening From an Old Traditional Kerala House.

What are the various Poojas performed during the construction of the house?

  • New house construction poojas are held at five different stages. The first one is when the various Sutras are determined. The length and the extent of the Poojas depend on the wealth of the house owner. If a King builds his palace, Vastu Yajna will be conducted. Both Ganapathy and Chandrika Devi will be worshipped.

  • The Second pooja is conducted when the land is measured after fixing the four boundaries. Depending upon the slope of the land, the position of the land is determined. To get a square plot, some land will have to be added or omitted. Both Ganapathy and Chandrika Devi will be worshipped at this stage also.

  • The third Pooja is performed after the direction the house is to face is determined. For example, a house owner can have a Patinjattani, Thekkini or Vadakkini. It is our duty to tell the owner which one is best. When this is determined, the third pooja is performed. At this stage, the dimensions of the house will be finalised.

  • The fourth pooja is performed when the columns are placed. Some people conduct Vaastu Pooja at this stage. This is not to please Vaasthu Purusha but to please the 53 gods who control the Vaastu Purusha. Vaastu Purusha is an Asura, a bad man. Vaastu has got several meanings like earth, house etc.

Pooja at site
Pooja at site
A Pooja Being Performed for Placing the Frame of the Main Door at Our Site
  • The fifth pooja is performed when the house is ready for occupation. This is the most important and usually lasts for the whole night. Milk boiling is also a part of the ceremony.

Autism school design
Pooja Performed at Sankalp School After the Construction Was Over.

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Is it usual for the house owner to give presents to the workers? When were they given?

The presents were given when the workers had to perform important tasks. For example, when the position of the building is marked on the ground, ‘Dakshina’ (money) is given as well as clothes. Also, on the day the first door is placed, and the wall plate is fixed, presents are given. When the last pooja is performed and the house is ready for occupation, all the workers will be given a feast, money and other gifts.

My father used to get gold bangles as a gift. He had more than 50 gold bangles that were given to him. I have rece