Paliam Nalukettu: A Glimpse into a Matrilineal Society
In the small town of Chendamangalam in Paravur, Kerala, is the Paliam Nalukettu, which is located within the Paliam complex. Benny Kuriakose and Associates conserved the residence as part of the Muziris Heritage Project. The museum is a depiction of the lifestyle of the Paliam family and the matrilineal society of those times. This nalukettu was where women of Paliam lived with their young children through generations. Men lived in the mansions around, and boys, when they turned adults, moved out to one of them to share the residence of their uncles and cousins. The blog looks into the history of this majestic nalukettu and how it was conserved to its present day.
List of Contents
The Matrilineal Society
Marumakkathayam was a system of matrilineal inheritance that existed until the 1930s, where the inheritance was passed down to the women of the family. In the Paliam family, Valiachan was the family’s patriarch. But Valiachan’s son will not be Valiachan, not even a scion of Paliam. Succession falls to his nephew, his sister’s son.
There could be several reasons for the birth of matrilineality. One was that women were mostly in the house while men were busy in the army or political affairs, thus carrying the sole responsibility to look after the home and preserve their lineage.
In those times, most properties were in the hands of the Namboothiri Brahmins, who held the highest position in the caste structure. The eldest son of the family was privileged to get married to a Nair woman, while his younger brothers got into a consensual relationship called Sambandham. The women of the family stayed back in their homes with her brother and children, while the men shifted to their wives’ homes.
The spatial morphology of the tharavadu was a reflection of a system that favoured the interests of women. Thus, the Nair communities’ social and behavioural patterns are reflected in the architecture of a Nalukettu.
What is a Nalukettu?
Nalukettu is a single-story traditional home and a disappearing heritage in Kerala. These houses were the abodes of the Nair and Brahmin families. It prevailed at a time when people lived in joint families. It is referred to in several ways: tharavadu, kovilakam, kottaram, meda, or illam. Nalukettu can be literally translated as "Four Blocks", and these blocks surround a common courtyard called the Nadumuttam. The four blocks are Thekkini (south), Vadakkini (north), Kizhakkini (east), and Padinjattini (west).
The nalukettu originated from salas. Sala is a rectangular living room with one or two verandas. The akasala, or single block, transformed into the dwissala, the thrissala, and finally the nalukettu and ettukettu (eight blocks). The maximum it expanded was till Pathinarukettu (sixteen blocks and four courtyards). The lower caste lived in single blocks, and the rich expanded their house. They also usually had a granary, a cattle shed, a pond or a small family temple.
Architectural Features and Spatial Arrangement
The four blocks of the Paliam Nalukettu face the cardinal directions and serve various purposes. The western block, or padinjattini, is divided into three rooms, the middle one of which is the private strong room, or Ara, where all the valuables are kept; interestingly, it is said that there is a concealed room below the Ara with a secret exit. The vadakkini comprises the kitchen and the dining room. The other rooms in the north quarter house are the general rooms. The middle portions of kizhakkini and tekkini, are open halls that receive guests.
The upper floors consist of bedrooms for the women, where they are occasionally met by their husbands in the night. There is a veranda running all around the building on both floors. There is attached to the building a poomukham, or open portico, in which male visitors are received and entertained. By the side of the kitchen is the well, from which water can be drawn through a window. In the centre of the eastern courtyard is the tulasitara, a kind of altar on which the tulasi, or sacred basil plant, is kept. There is a beautifully laid out and exquisitely carved entrance foyer, Purathu Thalam, in the south eastern block, which stands out as an ode to perfection and grandeur in workmanship.
The Original Use Of The Spaces
Purathu Thalam (Ladies Veranda)
Corridor with rooms for Menstruating women and pregnant ladies
Room with window for drawing water
The chief building materials were laterite blocks, lime plaster, teak wood, granite slabs, mangalore tiles, and cement slabs. The main walling material for the nalukettu is laterite stone, which is low density, permeable, and soft. Lime made from shells has been used for the binding material and was also used for plastering. Timber members and Mangalore tiles were used for roofing. Single pieces of timber were also used as tie beams for the roof trusses. The flooring in the external areas made use of a variety of stones, including imported ceramic tiles.
Techniques of Construction
The laterite stone walls have coursed masonry, and the thickness is more than one and a half feet, going up to three feet in some places. All the openings in the building are splayed. The roof is made of timber. The building has timber pieces joined together like a jigsaw in a perfect fit, without a single nail in most of the places. The craftsmanship was excellent to create such functional as well as aesthetically pleasing joinery. There is a lot of carving on the ceiling, and the brackets, doors, and balusters are exquisitely carved from single pieces of timber.
Location and Surroundings
The building is set close to the backwaters and is easily accessible by road as well as by waterways. Many old monuments of the Paliam family surround the nalukettu, which includes the Paliam Dutch Palace, Siva temple, and Vishnu temple. There are three tanks in the surrounding area. Kottayil Kovilakam is also not far from this important square. The immediate surroundings of the building now feature a tank that was used for bathing and a large open space on the south side of the building that leads to the Padipura, or gate house.
Proposal for Conservation
The proposal intends for the building to be used as a museum with displays on the history of the Paliam family and Kerala. It requires the building to be in its original form with no additions. Thus, proper conservation and maintenance are required before converting it into a museum.
Significance of Paliam Nalukettu
The Nalukettu signifies the economic status of the family occupying it; usually, the dwelling of a wealthy family may consist of two Nalukettu, or one or more blocks may be two-storied. The poorer houses consist of the western block alone. The well-conserved condition of this Nalukettu helps us to understand the significance of the Paliam family and their rituals and practises. In recent years, there has been a development of residences in Kerala; the newer nalukettu have airier rooms and are better ventilated. The Nalukettu helps us decode the social and domestic lives of the women during that time.
Before Conservation and Strategy Employed
The Paliam Nalukettu required minor repairs as the building was not badly damaged. Nevertheless, the conservation succeeded in bringing back the character that was lost in the painting and addition. The ceiling beams were damaged and deteriorated. This may be due to termite attack, roof leakage, weathering, and a lack of maintenance. As a result, some of the beams were strengthened by inserting steel plates and epoxy chemicals. Anti-termite treatment was also required to treat the damaged beam. The paint on the walls was flaking in some patches. Thus, the paint had to be removed and plastered using lime. The floor was undulating, which could have happened due to settlement, dampness, lack of maintenance, and so on. Thus, the floor is replaced with antique granite flooring with lime mortar joints. There were new windows added, which were replaced back by windows resembling the existing characters. Apart from the following, there were minor cracks and stains on the walls and other portions of the building.
The transformation of Paliam Nalukettu into a museum resurrected an extinct lifestyle through storytelling. The project is a government-funded one with the best interests of the local community in particular as well as the tourists. The conservation was carried out in a very systematic manner, which followed an elaborate site study and analysis of the various defects and unnecessary additions that did not understand the context and importance of the building. The restoration was done in a conscious manner so that minimum intervention is done and each stage is sustainable and makes use of indigenous materials without romanticising vernacular architecture. On entering the home, the audiovisuals take one back to a time when life was simple and communal, devoid of technology and complexity. With the coming of countless homes inspired by the Nalukettu house, it can never replace the feel of stepping into a real one, where the stories are buried deep beneath the walls.
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