Vernacular Architecture

Architecture of Kerala

The architecture, environment and culture of Kerala stand in marked contrast to that of Tamil Nadu. Kerala has been blessed with abundant water, verdant forests and rich lands.

Keralites have a keen understanding and appreciation of their environment and climate that is reflected in their architecture, characterised by simplicity and boldness of form and dominated by sweeping, red tiled roofs.

Unlike the Tamilian, the Keralite prefers to live isolated from neighbours in the middle of a plot of land, with privacy and beautiful tropical vegetation. The Keralite has a strong appreciation of nature and cultivates coconut, mango, jackfruit and banana trees, cocoa plants, and pepper vines, even on the smallest parcel of land surrounding his house.

A distinctive feature of Kerala housing is its egalitarian style. Technique, form and materials are basically the same for all classes and economic levels. Only size, the addition of a more extensive area under embellishment, and the addition of more buildings to a compound, separate rich from poor. Generally, the craftsmanship is similar in all.

Within Kerala there is a clear division of style of architecture between Malabar in northern Kerala and Travancore in southern Kerala. Just north of Cochin, extending all the way up north, are large deposits of laterite, a porous clay and pebble substance which oxidises into a hard block when cut and left to dry. These laterite blocks have been used throughout Malabar for the walls and foundations of both houses and temples. They have enabled the Keralite to build the double storey homes with the sloped roof seen throughout the north. In southern Kerala wood was the primary building material, and homes remained primarily single-storeyed until the end of the 19th century.

The abundance of wood and the absence of other building materials in South Kerala throughout most of the 19th century, gave rise to an almost total dependence on wood construction. Houses were thatched until tiles became popular in the second half of the 9 century. Expansion occurred by the addition of supplementarybuildings: an agricultural house, a cow shed, a separate granary, guest house,multiple bathing tanks and elaborate gate houses. Hindu families often built their own temples or shrines and had a corner for ancestor worship as well as an area for
snake worship. Some had a building for practising martial arts (kalari payattu).

The most distinctive visual form of Kerala architecture is the long steeply sloping roof, built to protect the house’s walls and to withstand the heavy monsoon. The extensive use of wood is another major feature. Water is plentiful and every house has its own well, usually next to the kitchen itself. Many have large stone lined agricultural tanks, which are often used for bathing. The main focus of traditional Kerala houses is the granary and special storage spaces, stressing the primacy of agriculture in the Keralite’s life.

As in Tamil Nadu, the Kerala house, as it expands in size, often includes at least one, if not two, small courtyards. The courtyard and the cut-work gables and wooden windows with their carved or lathe-turned grills, ensured a steady flow of breeze. Kerala’s domestic architecture is punctuated in form by the religious architecture of its three communities: the Hindus, Christians and Muslims. While the domestic architecture of the three communities is similar, small details such as a cross on a gable or above a door will distinguish a Christian home from a Hindu home. A slight variation in the arrangement of rooms and spaces according to the social customs of each group, characterises the differences in the interior.

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