Vernacular Architecture

Similarities in traditional architecture of Kerala and South-east Asia

Traditional-vernacular architecture of Kerala is an exceptional South-Indian artistic typology, found nowhere else in India, and interestingly shared artistic commonality with traditional architecture in Southeast Asia. In this case, we use sample of architectures in Sumatran, Indonesia as typological comparison. Tropical climate, living culture based on wet-paddy agriculture, matrilineal kinship, and history of maritime trading, had contributed shared characteristic to both regional outlook of the architecture. Aspects of Southeast Asian Architecture, rendered by Roxana Waterson (1988), Gaudenz Domenig (1980); and Jacques Dumarcay (1988) are in many respects applicable to verify traditional-vernacular architecture of Kerala, by marking: hipped and gabled roof running steep- closed to typical of Dongson’s art; significance of granary and its development into residential shelter, wood construction, and the organic settlement’s arrangements. Typical of courtyard house (nalukettu) in Kerala may be the only mainstream characters of Indian architecture that marks discontinuity of Kerala architecture’s vocabulary with the Southeast Asian architecture. For case of Kerala’s architecture, possible background suggested to lend base on the shared characters are: first, the cultural seclusion of Kerala from the rest of Indian sub-continent until first century AD, due to natural boundary of Western Ghatz. This had held progressive Aryanization to deep South-India until the approximate reign of Indianization in Southeast Asia. Second: the development of maritime trading with overseas countries played important role in the establishment of the culture, including contact with Austronesian and Austro-Asian culture. Coedes (1964) has underlined that remnant of the Austro-Asiatic and Austronesian culture was observable by marking existence of social tradition based on canal settlement, wet paddy farming tradition and irrigation, with matrilineal kinship, as well as the importance of coastal community. (Coedes, 1967; Hornell, 1920). These characters are found in traditional-vernacular domestic living culture and residential architecture of Kerala. This  is a discursive attempt to respond on narration of Asian architecture as formatted mostly based on high-traditional architectural artifacts (palaces, religious buildings), and is directed to mainly mark distinctions among Asian cultures. This paper also responds on mainstream viewpoint about South Indian culture which is tended to be mainly explained as affiliated with culture of Central Asia, Mediterranean and Arya. Realm of vernacular architecture study on the other hand shall show how in the operating day-to-day art and craft, the commonality with Southeast Asian culture is more obvious. Before 1960’s field of vernacular architecture (architecture of the commoners) such as house were considered negligible to signify cultural importance. But currently it is realized that vernacular art reflect more indigenous, less historical, less political and more spontaneous living culture than High-Traditional architecture, so as to be able to represent more natural development of a indigenous living culture. Observing case of traditional residential architecture of Kerala and Sumatra, we hopefully learn that it seems obvious that part of Southeast Asian and part of South Asian architecture might have once belonged to a global and homogeneous tradition, regardless current modern but unraveling, different geo-political boundaries. Hypothetically, traditional architecture’s style of Kerala when is compared with Southeast Asian traditional architecture potentially make obvious a sustaining shared typology of the indigenous structure of Asian domestic living architecture.

Courtesy : abstract of Indah Widiastuti’s Paper titled  : A Study of Typology of Vernacular Residential Architecture in Kerala : A Continuity of South India- Southeast Asian Architectural Tradition

Vernacular Architecture

Ventilation and wind direction in Traditional Architecture of Kerala

Like a jig-saw puzzle the square or rectangular pieces can be arranged in a U-shaped pattern with equidistant projections or an L-shaped plan with the outer arm or extension generally housing the kitchen, downwind from the living areas to ensure clean fresh air, with the south west air currents carrying the smoke away. Kitchens and toilets were seldom within the main structure, but situated separately. The verandas and corridors around the house and those running the length and breadth of the house prevented direct sunlight from falling on the main walls. This aspect of the design along with ventilators on the triangulation of the roof ensured cool air inside the rooms, at a time before electricity became widely available.

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Vernacular Architecture

The influence of other cultures on Traditional Architecture of Kerala

The mosque architecture of Kerala exhibits none of the features of the Arabic style or those of the Indo-Islamic architectures of the imperial or provincial school in North India. The reason for this was that the work of mosque construction was done by the same local artisans under instructions of the Muslim religious heads. Later influences were from the Dutch, Jews, Portuguese and the Europeans (British & French). A Portuguese architect Thomas Fernandez is credited with the construction of forts, warehouses and bungalows at Kochi, Kozhikode and Kannur. The projecting balconies, Gothic arches and cast iron window grill work are a few of the features passed on to Kerala architecture by the Portuguese construction. The evolution of the Church architecture of Kerala springs from two sources – the first from the work of Apostle St. Thomas and the Syrian Christians and second from the missionary work of European settlers.

By 18th century British style was being popularised in the land as a result of a large number of modern constructions directly carried out by the British rulers and the penchant for Western architecture by the princely class and the rich. The work was guided by officers and engineers whose knowledge of the architectural style was essentially restricted to the classic books on renaissance architects – Vitruvious, Alberti and Palladio and executed by indigenous knowledge of traditional masons and carpenters. In a sense it was a compromise of antique craft and neo-classical construction needs.

The Greek and Roman antiquity was considered as the richest heritage of the west and the same was emphasised in the classic orders of pillars with triangular pediments, arches and domes for public buildings, town halls, hospitals, railway stations, colleges.

Perhaps the adaptations of European style to the climatic needs and the synthesis with traditional style are best seen in the bungalow architecture. The comfort requirement in the hot humid climate prompted the European settlers to go in for buildings with large rooms with high ceiling with veranda all around.

Vernacular Architecture

Materials and their impact on traditional Architecture of Kerala

The natural building materials available for construction in Kerala i.e. stones, timber, clay and palm leaves have anchored and guided the acceptance orrejection of outside influences. The availability of granite -a strong and durable building stone is restricted mainly to the highlands and marginally to some hilly zones. Accordingly, the skill in quarrying, dressing and sculpturing of stone is scarce in Kerala. Laterite stone however, is abundantly found as outcrops in most zones. Soft laterite available at shallow depth can be easily cut, dressed and used as building blocks. It is a rare local stone that gets stronger and durable with exposure to the atmosphere. Block of this stone may be bonded in mortars of shell lime, – the classic binding material used in traditional buildings. Lime mortar can be improved in strength and performance by admixtures of vegetable juices. Such enriched mortars were utilised for plastering and low relief work. Timber remains the prime structural material abundantly available in Kerala, in many varieties – from bamboo to teak and rosewood. The skilful choice of timber, artful assembly and delicate carving of wood work for columns, walls and roofs frames are the unique characteristics of Kerala architecture, using accurate fit of joints. Clay was used in many forms – for walling, in filling the timber floors and making bricks and tiles after firing in kilns, tempered with admixtures. Palm leaves are still used effectively for thatching the roofs and for making partition walls and along with mud walls (clay) is still the poor man’s construction material.

Due to the limitations of building materials, a multi modal approach of construction was evolved in Kerala. Stone work was restricted to the plinth even in prestigious buildings including temples and palaces. The indigenous adoption of the available raw materials for architectural expression thus became the dominant feature of the Kerala style.

Vernacular Architecture

The influence of Monarchy on traditional Kerala Architecture

During the 8th to 11th century most of Kerala except the extreme north and south got unified. This facilitated architectural development and renovation of a large number of temples. Later several small principalities ruled over Kerala. By the 15th century, Kerala was broadly covered by the suzerainty of four principal chieftains – Venad rulers in the South, Kochi Maharajas at the centre, Samutiris of Kozhikode in the North and Kolathiri Rajas in the furthermost fontiers of the North. In the southernmost parts, temple architecture was also influenced by the developments in Tamil Nadu. At Sucheendram and Tiruvananthapuram this influence is clearly seen. Herein lofty enclosures, sculptured corridors and ornate mandapams_ all in granite stone practically conceal the view of the original main shrine in typical Kerala style. The entrance tower or gopuram of the Padmanabha Swamy temple rises to lofty heights in a style distinct from that of the humble two storey tiled ‘ambalakettu’ structure found elsewhere.

However, in well documented writings of Her Highness Rani Lakshmi Bhai, of the Travancore Royal Family, one is delighted to discover that the Tamilian Style gopuram was constructed by the King to graciously acknowledge the tamil worshippers who came from the East. Thus the East Gate is distinctly different from the other three Kerala style entrances, also replicated in grand and even smaller mansions of the landed gentry and even their karnore or caretakers in cases of absentee landlords. The senior Rani who has written several books on the architecture, culture and religion of Kerala confirmed this act of generosity of a ruling monarch. Sadly popular and elected representatives of the Independent Democratic Republic of India fail to rise to such standards of democracy that they are sworn to provide.