Living spaces Homes and gardens

The house under the trees

Seetha Cottage at Althara Junction is more than 90 years old.

Seetha Cottage at Althara Junction is more than 90 years old.  

Seetha Cottage has a treasure trove of memories

Madhava Rao’s verdant slice of tranquillity by the side of the busy Vellayambalam-Vazhuthacaud road is a rarity in the city today. Zealously guarded and treasured by the octogenarian, the house, Seetha Cottage, and its surroundings are a gateway to a gracious past; a time before concrete jungles mushroomed in the city.

Built around 1920, the simple, single-storeyed building with its austere white walls and dark wooden attics mirror the simplicity and minimalism of a bygone era. Originally built as a resting place for guards in the Dewan’s residence nearby, it became a home when one of the sons of Udarasiromony T. Padmanabha Rao, a descendant of Dewan T. Rama Rao and Dewan T.Madhava Rao, moved into the house in the late twenties with his young family. “We used to call it the ‘Thavana pera’. This 70-cent plot on which the house now stands was part of the 21-plus acres that our ancestor Dewan Rama Rao bought from my acquaintance Dwaraswamy’s father,” recalls Rao.

In those days, Udarasiromony House, which was demolished recently, used to be right behind the petrol pump opposite the Kerala Water Authority offices and Rao’s many relatives used to live in and around Seetha Cottage in mansions, most of which were knocked down in the last 10 years.

He adds that for a long time the house used to be called the Thavana pera till his great-grandmother, Rajamma Bai, insisted on it being called the ‘Puthen Malika’. “My grandmother was known as Seetha and so after her demise, it was named after her and that is how it became Seetha Cottage.”

The inverted L-shaped 5,000 square feet bungalow has three separate entrances that open to the overgrown garden in the front. Each, perhaps, represents additions and alterations that were made to the original structure. The oldest portion on the extreme right still retains the original thick mud walls and lime plaster of the old structure. Greenish cement floors, polished by years of usage, gleam with the patina of age while the thick walls and heavy wooden roof prevent the heat from seeping in. Many of the doors that open to the garden have quaint wooden half doors. Antique furniture modestly inhabit corners of the house and there is no attempt to showcase some truly lovely tables and chairs, including a magnificent table that is now used by Rao.

The courtyard in Seetha Cottage.

The courtyard in Seetha Cottage.  

“In the olden days many of the rooms were not separated by walls. The idea of separate bedrooms and studies was not common in those days, But once the young family started growing, walls were built to divide some of the big rectangular rooms into smaller rooms,” explains Madhuri Rao, Rao’s daughter, an architect.

The kitchen, living room and kitchen are located in the middle portion of the house. An old naalukettu, minus any kind of ostentation, has the dining room on one side and another room that leads to the kitchen and vast open space behind the house. A small pooja room that opens to the dining room has a grand pooja stand with ornate embellishments. “In those days, we had priests for our small community of Maratha Brahmins and we used to have regular poojas at home. But now we don’t have regular poojas since there are hardly any priests from our community here in the city,” says Rao, speaking in perfect Malayalam and using Marathi only while talking with his family.

A short flight of steep steps from the dining area leads to a disused room almost completely occupied by a huge pathayam (wooden granary).

The antique pooja room in Seetha Cottage.

The antique pooja room in Seetha Cottage.  

The large, airy kitchen has been completely modernised and a couple of rooms on one side now serve as rooms to store coconuts though even that is absent now.

The spacious ground behind the house used to have stables and a separate kitchen as well. However Rao does not remember where exactly the stables were located though he remembers a white horse and a judka. “In those days there were lots of bullock carts on the road outside that used to travel to and fro from Nedumangad carrying agricultural produce,” he recalls.

Now the backyard is a delightful oasis of tall trees and coconut palms. But the pride of place in the greenery must go to a grand-daddy of a mahogany tree in the front yard of the house. A concrete bench beneath the tree is difficult to ignore as the wind creates music in the leaves of the grand old tree towering above the house.

The latest addition, again with a simple entrance, was where Madhuri used to hang out with her friends during her student days in the city. “There is a trap door leading to the attic and I remember climbing on to the attic through that door. The roof is quite elevated and it is easy for a person to stand there,” she says.

The unassuming ‘Seetha Cottage’ with its treasure trove of memories is one of its kind in the bustling area and perhaps the only place that continues to be inhabited by an heir of the illustrious Tanjavur Raos who played an important role in the modernisation and administration of erstwhile Travancore.

(A column on houses in and around the city that are more than 50 years old.)

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2020 5:59:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/homes-and-gardens/The-house-under-the-trees/article14928523.ece

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