The traditional joint family residences of Namboothiris and Nairs of Kerala epitomised an era and a way of life. The story of how some of them fare in today’s changed world.

Narayanan Namboothiri, 57, presides over the two-centuries-old, 10,351 sq ft Swarnathu Mana, 30 km south-west of Kochi. The ancestral home of the Ponnorkkottu family, the Nalukettu — a behemoth comprising four giant blocks typical of Namboothiri and Nair households, especially in central and north Kerala. It used to house 40 inmates and 16 servants during Narayanan’s childhood before the joint family system began to give way to smaller households. Today, less than 10 members of his extended family live here.

Unlike many Nalukettus, Swarnathu Mana has been able to withstand the onslaught of time. “But if something happens to its wooden structures which form the core of the building (walls, ceilings, attics and cellars), there is no way I can repair it,” says Narayanan, determined to keep the legacy intact as long as he can.

The Nalukettu architecture was shaped by Kerala’s unique society and environment. A product of an era of warrior-class Nairs and feudal, patriarchal Namboothiris, the foundations of the expansive, aloof structures rested on principles of caste exclusivity, aristocracy, ecological sensitivity, gender politics characterised by a certain liberation enjoyed by Nair women by way of polyandry, and protectionist land holding and custom of inheritance that defined the era.

Land reforms coupled with resultant changes in social order and family structures led to the disintegration of Nalukettus post-independence. With many joint family members, especially those who sought employment in far-off places during the Raj, staking claim to common property, the mammoth structures began to come apart.

While many Nalukettus morphed into museums, ayurvedic health care centres and home stays in the ensuing struggle for survival, a few on the verge of collapse continue to be used for dwelling even today. Says A.T. Thrivikraman Namboothiri, the visually-challenged patriarch of Amalloor Mana in Thrissur who lives in the dilapidated home with his aged mother and wife: “The wooden roof has begun to show signs of deterioration. Seepage through broken tiles has made some portions damp beyond repair. I’ve heard from elders that till about two centuries ago, the house had a roof made of braided palm fronds.”

While two Nalukettus of his family were broken apart, U.S. Narayanan of Umampally Mana in Thrissur marshalled his skills as a civil engineer to alter and renovate the last, where he lives with his family of five.

Perhaps the only Nalukettu that captures the sea change in social order is Indamthuruthil Illam, an ancient Namboothiri homestead near the historic Vaikom Temple, where a Satyagraha for right to free entry for all sections of society was held in 1924. If it epitomised fiefdom and social exclusion in the past, today the Illam houses the local office of Communist Party of India’s (CPI) Chethu Thozhilali Union (the union of toddy tappers).

Text, Photographs by Thulasi Kakkat