With agraharams in Thiruvananthapuram slowly giving way to urbanisation, some heritage lovers are trying to protect and preserve them

A garland with open ends is what it was called. An agraharam, the traditional Brahmin settlement, was once a ubiquitous feature of most south Indian towns. Essentially a cluster of simple homesteads built in a row, the agraharam represented the values of community living and shared space.

Most agraharams in Thiruvananthapuram were built in the Karamana, Valiyasala, and Fort areas. But over the years, the heritage buildings have become the victims of urbanisation and modern architectural trends. While some have been demolished to make way for multi-storey structures quite out of sync with the architectural profile of the area, others have been altered in ways inconsistent with traditional planning principles.

With 18 streets, the Karamana Agraharam is the oldest Brahmin colony in the city. The row houses are centred around the Siva temple. Spread over an area of 127 hectares, the Agraharam slopes towards the river bordering the east.

The settlements are built at three levels to suit the topography. The vegetation on the river bank offers a cooling effect. The proximity to the river ensures a high water table. Located away from the central business district, the agraharam still retains its residential character. Heritage lovers and conservation architects are now coming together in an attempt to restore the agraharams at Karamana. The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Kshetra Paithruka Samrakshana Samithi (temple heritage conservation committee), a city-based non-governmental organisation, has tentatively drawn up a scheme to clean up the two bathing ghats bordering the colony, restore the ‘Kalmandapam,' and create a garden in the open space.

“We understand that anti-social elements are posing a threat to the agraharam residents. There have been reports of drinking at night and illegal parking of vehicles inside the colony. By cleaning up the place and beautifying it, we hope to deter miscreants,” says S.R. Krishnakumar, general convener of the samithi, who is the chief executive officer of a Technopark-based company.

“What we have in mind is a total restoration programme for the agraharams on the lines of the one implemented at Kalpathy in Palakkad,” Mr. Krishnakumar says. “But that will depend on the availability of funds from organisations such as UNESCO. Such a programme will also require a broad consensus.”

A recent study carried out by students of the Department of Architecture, College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram, has identified the problems facing the agraharams and mooted a special area intervention programme to rectify the issues.

Architectural features

A typical agraharam consists of row houses with sloping roofs and common walls lining a street. The planning of an agraharam is dictated by the temple which forms the focal point of the colony. The streets are aligned east-west with the row houses clustered along either side. The backyards of the houses are linked by narrow lanes.

The streets in front of the houses transform themselves into an active community space serving as a commercial space for vendors, a play area for children, a meeting place for elders, and venues for religious processions and meetings. The study says the closely built structures offer a high degree of security and facilitate community interaction.

The compact cluster houses were designed with common walls to maximise the use of space. Houses are characterised by symmetry and decorative features, such as mouldings, cornices, and large openings.

The front space of each house is divided into an outer and inner veranda with a raised plinth used as a seating area. The overhang provides shelter from rain and reduces the glare in the building. The inner veranda serves as a study or guest room and provides access to the upper floor.

The ‘Rezhi' or central space is the coolest and darkest area in a typical agraharam house. This private, ceremonial, and community space also accommodates the storage facility.

The central courtyard is the source of natural light. It doubles up as a space where the family members gather to relax. The built space around the central courtyard is utilised for dining.

The small kitchen is an extension to the main built space and has direct access to the well.

The study found that most of the houses have undergone alterations to suit modern trends in architecture and changing lifestyles.