India is known as a land of temples. Temples that stand as a testament to the might of powerful kings, the divine energy of a million gods, and the devotion of an entire nation. Life revolved around temples, and everything was built around it, including homes.
Going back centuries, agraharams were the Brahmin neighbourhood of a village and consisted of row houses on either side of the road. Also known as Chaturvedimangalams, these row houses were unique in construction, spacious, and extremely well planned. Agraharams incorporated the way of life back then, which was centred around temples and religion and was spread all over South India.
The original residents of these agraharams were the priests who presided over the local temple and their families.
Traditional architecture and heritage
Agraharams are a study of the times, infusing typical Brahmin culture with traditional architecture. The name agraharam denotes row houses laid out in the shape of a garland around a centre, which would be the village temple. The layout was evidently designed on a very logical and scientific basis incorporating the topography, household needs, water supply facilities, and other factors. Every house would be a microcosm of the community outside, which fostered a culture of sharing. Houses had shared walls, and every village had a few wells that were meant for common use by all residents.
At the entrance to each house would be a raised platform called thinnai, which ran all around the house acting as seating for visitors while they waited to be called inside. A big awning would shelter people from driving rain and blazing sunshine, keeping the inside of the house cool at all times.
Uniquely designed layout
A typical agraharam is divided into three parts - the mudhal kattu or receiving quarters, the irandam kattu or the living quarters, and the moonam kattu or the utility and other sections of the house. The centre of the house would be open to the skies, a courtyard with a sunken floor where rituals, festivities or general gatherings would take place. In some cases, the courtyard would be substituted by a high-ceilinged roof made of wooden rafters with big windows along the sides for better ventilation. Safety and security and the entry of monkeys or other critters would be restricted with iron grilles covering any open spaces. In the irandam kattu would be the bedrooms and storage rooms that held valuables while the third section contained the kitchen, dining area, and the puja room.
A disappearing tradition
Today, agraharams are fast disappearing to make way for bigger, swankier apartments and modern houses. With the younger generation migrating to cities or other countries across the world in search of jobs, agraharams now stand alone with only memories of a way of life. Urbanisation has made the performance of elaborate rituals shorter, and there is a marked change in modern lifestyle that can no longer be adapted to the agraharam and its community. Privacy is valued a lot more today, which means common walls are a source of discomfort and common wells are no longer in use with every household having a plumbing system.
In all the southern states where agraharams were prominent, governments and independent heritage conservation bodies are driving efforts by spreading awareness and providing incentives to people to preserve the agraharams. For, the unique charm of agraharams is timeless.
This article is contributed by RoofandFloor, part of KSL Digital Ventures Pvt. Ltd., from The Hindu Group