“Two years back, the apartment block round the corner was a typical agraharam house like mine. Today, the two brothers occupy one apartment each and have rented out the other two. My brother's family has moved in there,” says Devanathan, a resident of the K.P. Sannidhi street agraharam in Mylapore. Several such stories expose the decay within the first garland of the various temple complexes in the city.
Once common, the traditional row houses, with the occasional high rise or individual houses, agraharams are today a vanishing part of Chennai's architectural heritage. The few surviving examples are either owned by the temple trusts or by individuals who haven't had the heart and/or the finances to raze them down. Well over a 100 years old, these houses and their occupants are an anomaly in a neighbourhood once dominated by them.
Once entire streets occupied by Brahmins, agraharam architecture is distinctive with Madras terraces, country tile roofing, Burma teak rafters and lime plastering. The longish homes consisted of the mudhal kattu (receiving quarters), irandaam kattu (living quarters), moondram kattu (kitchen and backyard) and so on. Most houses had an open to sky space in the centre called the mitham, large platforms lining the outside of the house called the thinnai and a private well in the backyard. The floors were often coated with red oxide and sometimes the roofs had glass tiles to let in light.
“This whole area had only agraharam style houses 30 years back. Today, with so many apartment blocks and individual houses, the neighbourhood is losing its charm,” says P.S. Padmanabhan, an octogenarian who has lived in trust-owned agraharam homes in Mylapore all his life.
In 1919, lawyer Kesava Aiyangar bought a house in the Parthasarathy temple agraharam in Triplicane. Today, 140 years after its construction the periodic restorations required by the house are carried out by his family. “The process is not only getting more expensive, but the skilled labour required is becoming rarer to find. Though our kothanar (mason) is 85 years old, we still ensure that he supervises the restoration work we need to carry out every few months,” says Kalyani, his daughter-in-law. “There is hardly anyone left these days who knows how to re-lay the country tiles on the roofs.”
Apartment buildings that have sprung up on either side of their house have not only blocked out the steady breeze, but also eaten into the neighbourhood's charm.
Many of the surviving examples of agraharam architecture today are kovil (temple) houses occupied by the descendants of those who worked in the temple in one capacity or the other. Owned by the trusts administering the various temples, they are in disrepair because the tenants are not authorised to carry out restoration. “The temple trusts are often not very keen on restoring these ancient buildings. They say they have other plans for the property,” says Mr. Devanathan.
Several kovil houses have been demolished to expand the temple premises or to house the temple car, according to residents. Explaining these demolitions and the lack of active restoration activities, Mr. Kumar, who belongs to the trust that runs the Desigar Devasthanam in Mylapore, says that most temples do not have enough space or income. “Our committee has made a detailed study to identify the temple's assets and evict encroachers.
We have strengthened the old agraharam houses and made new leases according to the prevailing market rates, to improve our finances.”
“We get at least one proposal to sell every two months,” says Kalyani. “But we have always resisted, because the house symbolises our family history and it cannot be bought.”
Architect Benny Kuriakose who has restored several old structures in the city thinks the economic incentives of demolishing an old building almost always supersede the awareness that they are a part of the city's heritage. “Being able to construct two or three times the original built up area is something many find hard to resist,” he says.
Historian and author V. Sriram believes that only the government has the wherewithal to intervene and prevent further destruction of the agraharams. “For restoration, labourers have to be brought in from places like Chettinad.
The government can change this situation by creating a skilled workforce that can be hired by the locals here.
Also, the tourism potential agraharams present (especially during temple festivals) is yet to be harnessed,” he says.
While he thinks Mylapore is beyond redemption, Triplicane, in his opinion, can still be saved. “The agraharam quadrangle in Triplicane is not fully commercialised yet, unlike the Kapaleeshwarar Temple agraharam in Mylapore. There are more heritage houses here than in Mylapore. The government should recognise Triplicane as a heritage precinct, regulate the kind of constructions allowed around the tank and declare it a pedestrian zone.”