A walk through samples of heritage architecture by Binumol Tom.
Sometimes gentle, sometimes turbulent, the Meenachil river flows through Thazhathangadi to the Vembanad Lake. The river had nourished a magnificent settlement here in the olden days.
The remnants of the glorious past — of an urban neighbourhood previously engaged in trade — can still be found while taking a stroll through the area, believed to be one of the oldest parts of Kottayam.
Overlooking the river are houses rich in wood, some of them four centuries old. They are the classic timber houses of Syrian Christians, built in the architectural style and techniques of Kerala in perfect fusion with the European features of architecture.
Most of these houses — there were some 25 of them in the 1990s — served residential and commercial functions. Unfortunately, the onslaught of modernisation has reduced their number to nearly 10 now. It is believed that these houses were designed and constructed by a family of Sthapathis brought in by the Thekkumkur kings. Vadakkedath Kandankali Achary was the chief architect who designed many of the outstanding houses.
The architectural vocabulary of each heritage home projects the residential function through the spatial allocation of verandas, drawing rooms, bedrooms with “Pathayam” (granary), dining and kitchen spaces, work areas and toilets. The commercial function finds expression through the “Ara,” godowns and semi-courtyards.
The wooden houses follow the traditional prefabricated system of construction. They consist of “Aras” or storage rooms made of “Nira” the panelled walls. The vertical joints of these wooden panels were detailed with grooved expansion joints. The side walls, flooring and staircases are built of planks reinforced on post and lintel frames. The mezzanine and attic floors in these houses, which are made of wooden planks on beams called “Machu,” connected vertically using wooden stairs. The homes are made of laterite walls plastered with lime mortar and a timber superstructure and covered using terracotta roof tiles. The wooden elements of the superstructure are made of teak and Anjili ( Artocarpus hirsuta ). The steep sloping roofs of these houses make a dramatic vertical statement and present an active staccato silhouette.
Though the height of the roofs may be twice or more than that of the wall that supports them, none of these structures tops the trees around them. Despite the huge and high roofs, the overall emphasis of the built form is horizontal. Projecting balconies, gable ears on roofs, pattern details and profiles of jali screens, door shutters, wooden window grilles and gables reflect its relation to the European style.
The aesthetic prominence imparted by the perfect proportion of built forms and the intricate detailing crafted in wood on every element constituting the structure make the timber houses a romantic poetry in timber.
Traditional timber buildings preserve a history of their construction.
They should not be regarded as mere isolated objects worthy of preservation, but as sources of inspiration and living evidence of the construction practices, theory and deep understanding of the material science which the older generation has handed over to us to be protected and passed on to the future generations. Preserving these living testimonies of India’s heritage architecture is of utmost importance.
The author is Professor of Architecture, Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology, Kottayam.
Thazhathagadi is an age-old settlement in Kottayam.
The old houses sport a profusion of rich wood.
They are a fusion of Kerala and European architecture.
Teak and Anjili make wooden elements of superstructure.
Each home serves residential and commercial functions.
Verandas, drawing rooms, bedrooms, dining and kitchen spaces
Storage rooms, godowns, semi-courtyards and so on