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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

Traditional Kerala Architecture Conservation Problems

Old buildings in Kerala, as elsewhere in India are not given enough care. Most owners regard them as a burden, and no maintenance is carried out. They are demolished without giving any serious thought to their possible importance. The monuments such as Padmanabhapuram Palace and Mattancherry Palace, which are in the care of the Central or State Archaeology Departments, are not under any threat of demolition. But, other important historic buildings under the ownership of other Government bodies can be demolished because of a wrong decision taken by a single official.

Padmanabhapuram Palace
Padmanabhapuram Palace
Mattancherry Palace
Mattancherry Palace

The reason is that only a few buildings are declared protected monuments. If this is the case for State-Owned buildings, it is easy to imagine the vulnerability of those buildings owned by private bodies or individuals. Such buildings of historical and architectural interest are demolished without any questioning, even if they are a few hundred years old. This blog, precisely, outlines some of the problems in conserving the vernacular architecture of Kerala.

List of Contents

1. Socio-Economic Problems of Conserving Old Kerala Houses

The layout and planning of the old traditional Kerala houses depended on social and religious customs rather than technology. The houses of each caste and religion differed according to their customs, and relations prevailing at that time. This has lost much of its relevance today because of the changing social relationships and lifestyles.

1.1 Effect of Changes in the Social System

In large traditional courtyard houses of Kerala, the light and ventilation depended mainly on the internal courtyard. The females of the family had lived in an internal community in the house, whereas the males spent their time in the front. Such houses will have an entrance hall where the men sat during the daytime and received the visitors. The height of the rooms is low and they do not have large window openings. The bedrooms were meant purely for sleeping, hence the darkness.

Abdul Rahiman Sahib Museum
Abdul Rahiman Sahib’s House, a Typical Nalukettu Has Been Converted Into a Museum to Showcase His Life.

The modern style of living is very different. The status of women has increased and the literacy rate has also gone up. Now, people want to read in their bedrooms. Instead of putting in more windows in the existing house, the tendency is to demolish and construct a concrete roofed house, which gives the family more status. In traditional timber buildings, the insertion of more windows does not cause any problem, because the timber walls are not load-bearing. If the old building has rich woodcarvings, they will probably be sold and the money used for new constructions. The old buildings do not have attached bathrooms, which is another reason why they are considered 'old-fashioned', leading to their abandonment. In North Kerala houses, one can find Urinals attached to bedrooms while in the South even that is rare.

Kerala house
A typical North Kerala House

The high caste Namboothiri Brahmins believed that they were purified only by submerging their heads in the water and not by pouring water over their heads. So a pond was absolutely essential for them. Now many of them live in cities where they cannot practise their old customs. As a result of the shift in the social system, many of the ponds have become obsolete.

A View of the Pond at Poomulli Mana
A View of the Pond at Poomulli Mana.

1.2 Disappearance of the Joint Family System

Before independence in 1947, many prominent Hindu castes had a joint family system. In some cases, a single-family had more than 100 members. Large houses were essential, and some of them had as many as eight courtyards. Now, the joint family system is gone and family members live in different places, even outside India. The younger generation is not interested in preserving their ancestral house, which does not bring any income to them. If it is demolished and sold, at least they can benefit financially.

There will be one or two elderly people living in many of the large country houses now. For example, in the case of Koodalloor House in the Trichur district, the lone resident was an 84-year-old lady. It was the same in the case of Deshamangalam House near Trichur. But it was demolished despite public protests in 1985. Although Deshamagalam was constructed only 55 years back, it was a typical Namboothiri house in its layout, with many elements of traditional architecture. The main house was a three-storey building with four courtyards.

The Koodalloor House
The Koodalloor House

Adjacent to it were other buildings such as the granary, dining hall, guest house, bathhouse and gatehouse. When the partition of the family property (after the break up of the joint family system) occurred in the early fifties, the main house and the adjacent buildings were set apart as common property. In 1986, there were 54 heirs to this, which was the main obstacle to doing anything with it. They did not want to sell the building because they believed that a treasure is buried under the foundation: they wanted to demolish it.

The elderly resident had moved into a small house outside the main compound. Five younger members formed a committee and organised the demolition with the blessings of the older generation. They invited tenders for all the buildings. There were wide public protests against this as people came to see the building from far away places. But there was little chance of an organised protest, and some of the local politicians were among the bidders. The pressure on land in the case of old buildings is little as most of them are in rural areas (according to the 1981 census 81.46 per cent of the total building stock is in rural areas).

1.3 Superstitions and Economical Troubles

Superstitions also play their part in some cases. In the case of the Sreekariyath house near Trivandrum, nobody lives there because they think that it is not good for the wealth of the family. It is badly maintained, but the owner is not demolishing it because of the family shrine inside the house. The majority of them are not demolished for structural reasons. As far as the smaller units (two rooms and a verandah including the kitchen) are concerned, they do not fetch big amounts on demolition because there will be no fine quality woodcarvings or costly materials. If the owners are wealthy, they may demolish and build a new one. If they are poor, they have no other alternative except to live there, but it may be maintained badly.

2. Problems in Conserving Religious Structures

The buildings owned by the religious institutions generally suffer from bad restorations and additions. Temples were always built at prominent locations, such as atop a hill or along the banks of a river. The gateway could have been seen from a considerable distance, but many of these views are now spoilt because of the construction of new buildings on either side of the road. In the case of wealthier temples, one can even find multi-storied structures being constructed very close to them, usually owned by the temple authorities themselves. In the more common case of temples, which are not wealthy, the copper roof is often removed and replaced by a concrete roof. According to the temple authorities, this causes fewer maintenance problems, and they can spend the excess money on the temple administration.

Kannankulangara Temple.
The Influence of the Vernacular Architecture of Kerala Can Be Seen in the Kannankulangara Temple.

About a decade ago, loudspeakers were used only in churches. They are now widely used in temples, causing not only aesthetic issues but also noise pollution. What has been said about temples is also true in the case of churches and mosques. Once, churches looked like temples. But with the advent of Europeans from the 15th century onwards, the Westernization process began. One can still find churches with typical traditional elements, with a western facade. This had happened to almost every church, whether large or small.

The Paravur Jacobite Church
The Paravur Jacobite Church With Typical Kerala Sloping Timber Roof and a Western Facade.

In the case of Mosques, the same process is happening. Many of the Muslims who work in the Middle East send large amounts of money back, and as a result, the traditionally built mosques are undergoing ‘Islamization’ with the addition of domes and minarets. This is a change that has been taking place primarily during the last 15 years. There are only a few original, traditional Kerala mosques that have been left intact.

The Kondotty Mosque
The Kondotty Mosque Representing the Traditional Architecture of Kerala.
Maqam Masjid
Maqam Masjid After Conservation Is a Prime Example of How Traditional Kerala Architecture and Islamization of Mosques Took Place.

Click to know more about Maqam Masjid

3. Technical Problems of Conservation of Buildings in Kerala

In comparison to many other places, Kerala has few technical conservation issues. As mentioned earlier, there is no attached bathroom in old buildings. In two or three-storied buildings, bedrooms are present only upstairs. Bathrooms were added next to them and a lot of technical problems have been caused because of the lack of proper waterproofing, particularly on the wooden floors. Since wood is the most widely used building material, termites and wood borer insects can also cause serious problems.

4. Ignorance Towards Conservation

For instance, the dining hall of the Padmanabhapuram palace was badly attacked by termites. When the building was taken over by the Government in 1956, The Public Works Department repaired the clay tile flooring of the first floor. Instead of putting burnt bricks as a base for the tiles, they used mud. No termite proofing was done and the termites attacked the whole intermediate floor. Nothing was visible from underneath until one of the staff saw through, the floor in 1984 after nearly 29 years, the ignorance of the engineers who dealt with the floor had serious consequences.

The traditional solution to prevent termites from reaching the floors and roof was to use strong lime mortar for the first few courses of the wall and the foundation. Termites cannot bore through this. Applying preservatives is a costly solution, because of the large size of the timber members involved. Many owners have applied paints. Painting does little good and also spoils the look. The chances of catching fire are little because there are few generating causes such as heating and the kitchens are built with masonry.

Termite Attack in Timber Rafters.
Termite Attack in Timber Rafters.

But the introduction of electricity can cause short circuits and initiate fires, which was the reason for the Chovvur House fire. The large country house was almost completely destroyed by fire. No electricity is used in the Padmanabhapuram palace except in the office room because of this fear of a short circuit. The electric wiring also causes many aesthetic problems. It is a common act to have additions to the front to give a ‘facelift’.

The open verandah is sacrificed and converted into an enclosed space, usually with a concrete roof, sometimes even with chicken mesh. This does not give any additional floor space in the house, but much of the old buildings will be intact. Another common change made is to put in large windows instead of the smaller ones. Many of the changes are done by the people themselves without consulting any qualified people. Most alterations are ugly and are unsympathetic to the character of the building.

5. Lost Methods of Traditional Construction

The stone used is always granite while the timber is teak, or jack of Anjali wood, which is very durable. In traditional buildings, ironwork is rare and wooden rails were used for windows. The foundation built of granite is raised above the ground level for about two feet. The walls start only from that level. The craftsmen say that this is to avoid poisonous reptiles crawling into the house easily and water splashing onto the halls. There are no basements (rooms below ground level) in the traditional houses.

Thalassery Fort
Exposed Laterite Work in Thalassery Fort

Thus, rising dampness is not a problem. The roof overhang is as much as three feet and protects the walls from heavy rain and sun. Most buildings are plastered externally with lime and sand. Laterite blocks used for walls, increase in strength if they are protected from rain. They do not suffer from any problems like limestone and sandstone. Limestone and Sandstone are not uniformly hard and can suffer from the problem of weathering where they are soft if they are not protected by plaster. Since 80% of Kerala’s surface is covered with laterite the chances for differential settlement are little.

The hard laterite layer is as deep as 15 metres and clay is found only beneath it. In addition, buildings more than three storeys are rare. The technique of black coloured traditional flooring has nearly been lost. It has not been used at all for the last four or five decades. When parts of the flooring in the Padmanabhapuram were damaged, the Archaeology officials found it very difficult to match the old flooring in colour texture. The exact composition of the old flooring is not known and more research needs to be done in the field.

Padmanabhapuram Palace
Timber Jallis and the Shiny Black Oxide Flooring After Conservation at the Padmanabhapuram Palace.

6. Conclusion

Old buildings are considered ‘old-fashioned’. Besides those buildings, which can be put in the monument category, there are thousands of ordinary buildings which form an integral part of the culture of the people. A large number of these buildings, some of them qualitatively much better than the protected monuments, are being demolished at regular intervals. Quite simply, nobody thinks about conserving an old building in general.

There is not a good example of a timber-framed building known to the equator, which has been conserved by incorporating modern facilities. The most important problem in conserving the traditional architecture of Kerala is that modern engineers and architects do not generally know about the traditional methods of construction. However, the hopeful sign is that there are craftsmen who can still build in a well-trained way. A heritage bill to protect our monuments is highly advisable for India.

For more information on the importance of conservation of Architecture, check out the following blogs:


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