Homes and gardens

Tale of the travelling tharavadu

Earlier repurposed as resorts and now finding popularity as private holiday retreats, we trace the journey of old Kerala and Chettinad homes

On a sleepy island in Vattakayal, Kuttanad, men work under the midday sun, shaded by coconut palms, assembling wooden walls and fixing the roof of a turn-of-the-century Kerala house. As the cool breeze blows in off the waters, architect Jyothi, of design firm Studio Jyothi, makes sure that the structure (dismantled and transported by road and water from Pala, over 80 km away) is seamlessly turning into a holiday retreat for Chennai-based filmmaker, Bharat Bala — one that blends contemporary luxury with traditional aesthetics.

Transplanting old abodes and repurposing them, of course, is nothing new. Many of Kerala’s popular resorts, with properties like CGH Earth’s Coconut Lagoon in Kumarakom leading the way, are brand ambassadors of the local architecture. But recently, conversations around such ventures have started anew — some as a result of people undertaking the arduous job of relocating these hardwood-bound houses to faraway cities like Gurugram and others because people are looking to save a slice of their past.

The big shift

Eight months ago, Bengaluru-based engineer Subban Shiva Rao had his 115-year-old bungalow, Shiva Bagh, in Mangalore, dismantled and transported to the Hasta Shilpa Heritage Village in Manipal. “With everyone in the family living in different cities, we wanted to find a place for it. Since we couldn’t restore it in-situ, we opted to transplant it,” says Rao. Built by his great-grandfather, Dewan Bahadur Naimpalli Shiva Rao in 1906, the house — which has hosted luminaries like Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru — boasts elements of traditional Mangalore-style architecture, like laterite brickwork and wood roofs.

Tale of the travelling tharavadu

However, it was Delhi-based architect Pradeep Sachdeva’s transplantation of a 300-year-old home, Meda — from the village of Mepral, in Kerala, to his agricultural farm in Gurugram — that truly caught everyone’s attention earlier this year. While the relocation of the 2,000 sq ft tharavad had been completed 2011 (he uses it as a weekend home today), news about it resurfaced with a detailed before-and-after piece by The New York Times in April. Sachdeva recalls how a host of specialists had helped him, including Narayan Achari, one of the last Mepral carpenters skilled in building traditional Kerala houses, Los Angeles-based lighting designer, Babu Shankar, and British designer John Bowman, who lives and works in Rajokri. “Achari did his own measurements and numbered the individual pieces of timber,” says Sachdeva, adding that the entire process took about 10 months and cost close to ₹50 lakh. He has kept the house’s authenticity intact (apart from electrical lines and plumbing), only adding features like bathrooms to make it more liveable.

Changing with the times

As it turns out, such dramatic changes of addresses were not unheard of even a couple of centuries ago. Jose Dominic, CEO of CGH Earth Group, says, “According to family stories, our 200-year-old tharavad, on the banks of the Meenachil river in Pala, is said to have been transplanted from somewhere upstream and brought here. That’s one of the main reasons why houses were built this way (often likened to giant jigsaws) — so they could be dismantled and re-assembled quickly.”

Tale of the travelling tharavadu

Built with anjili (a wild jackfruit) and teak, the old naalukettu and ettukettu (four and eight block structures built around a courtyard) were rooted in the principles of geometry and trigonometry. “The calculations were so exact that carpenters would start working on the roof and walls at the same time the foundation was being laid, and each piece would fit perfectly at the end,” says Jyothi, explaining how he and his team are trying to revive interest in these old carpentry techniques. “Most of the old houses had a lot of rooms, but they were small and dark, with hardly any ventilation. So, to adapt it for contemporary use, we often make changes — taking down partitions to make bigger spaces and removing the attic to give more height,” he adds.

But Niels Schoenfelder, managing director of Chennai-based architecture firm Mancini — who has transplanted eight homes to the Dune Eco Village & Spa, outside Puducherry — says a resettled home is not a great choice as a primary residence for urban families. “Building a house is already a fairly unorganised process. Add to that, finding such a house, sending a team to document, transport and finally assemble it — it is a challenging and expensive affair,” he says, laughingly pointing out that “only when you are in a mood to live a more relaxed weekend life will you not mind bending your head every time you enter a room (traditional doors are five-and-a-half feet tall).”

Shifting perspectives

Tale of the travelling tharavadu

As it turns out, the transplanting boom coincided with the so-called ‘Gulf boom’ in Kerala. One of the first things people returning from the Middle East (in the nineties and the noughties) did was sell their tharavads and build concrete houses. “Newspapers at the time were filled with ‘house for sale’ ads,” remembers architect TM Cyriac, who put up 30 of these abodes at Coconut Lagoon between 1993 and 2003. “We bought a 1,500 sq ft naalukettu for just ₹2 lakh,” he adds.

However, today, while there are still a few old homes on the market, he feels “the time for transplanting is almost gone”. “The early projects got a lot of attention in the media, and people began to understand that their heritage has value. Now they don’t want to sell their homes; instead, they are renovating and adapting them (home stays have grown exponentially). This is a positive sign, as it helps to preserve the architectural language of the state,” he says.

In fact, Chennai-based architect Benny Kuriakose, who transplanted four homes for the Kerala section of DakshinaChitra, the living museum on ECR, in the 90s, has discontinued the practice as a matter of principle. “Homes need to be conserved in their original setting. When you use an antique column in a new building, in a way you are encouraging the destruction of heritage,” he shares.

Looking East

Experts say the market is now shifting to Chettinad. “Many homes are still being dismantled there. I’ve used elements from old Chettinad houses in several projects — from stone pillars to the roof,” says Cyriac. After all, doors and ceilings are easier to integrate into a modern house. Schoenfelder recently transplanted granite chatrams (pavilions in pilgrimage homes) from near Dindigal and re-purposed them at the Dune, while architect Tony Joseph, who has worked on projects such as the Kumarakom Lake Resort in Alappuzha, says he used salvaged portions, including columns from Karaikudi, for a project in Madurai last year.

Tale of the travelling tharavadu

Pick and choose
  • Deborah Thiagarajan, the founder of DakshinaChitra, weighs in
  • Easiest to transplant: South Kerala homes, as they are primarily made from wood. The ones from North Kerala use laterite, making them heavier.
  • Toughest to transplant: Houses from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, as they are made with stone. The Muslim house from Chikmagalur (transplanted in 2014) was a tough project. By the time we’d got there, most of the structure (with walls of sun-dried brick and wood ceilings) had been dismantled. It was complex to put back together.
  • A house (at DakshinaChitra) best suited for today: The Calicut house. It was also the hardest to find. It would work best for our urban context as it has a lot of space for bathrooms, and many private spaces.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 3:10:09 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/homes-and-gardens/tale-of-the-travelling-tharavadu/article19378843.ece

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