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Save the heritage of Naalukettu

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NaalukettuArchitecture has always represented an expression of social mores and values. It has metamorphosed yet retained a distinct regional character. The best example is the one that evolved in Kerala, decided by the local materials, climate and aesthetic values. Contemporary architectural scene reflects the synthesis of evolved architecture and the innovations in technology. However the vernacular character and subtle aesthetics of the social values are slowly succumbing to the ignorance of the present generation of nouveau rich and returning settlers from the NRI clan to the inherent strength of functional perfection, simplicity and environmentally friendly aspects of the naalukettu.

Some families are breaking down these houses because they can no longer afford to maintain them, and nobody seems willing to buy them. However this is an excellent opportunity for those with aesthetic sense, who are relocating to Kerala, to acquire a naalukettu house at very down to earth prices. However unless one lives in these houses and maintains them in good condition, it can fall in to disrepair. A suggestion for those resisting the option to sell, is to run the hose as a old age home or orphanage, and use the income thus generated to maintain the structure. Naalukettu houses, depending on its location can be purchased for anything from a few lakh rupees to within twenty five lakh rupees. So if you want to upgrade from a collector of antique furniture to an entire antique home, this is the time. After a few years there may not be any left for sale. And all the money in the world cannot reconstruct one in a tangible and authentic manner.
Once a typical Kerala house of a courtyard type – naalukettu literally means four square building; (naalu = 4, kettu = built). Naalukettu is a combination of four halls along four cardinal directions, centred around the courtyard. One can build any one of the four halls (ekasala), a combination of two (dwisala) or a complex of three (thrisala) depending on the needs. The most commonly found type in Kerala is the ekasala facing east or north. Being located on the western and southern sides of the anganam they are referred as western hall (padinjattini) and southern hall (thekkini) respectively. The central courtyard is an outdoor living space which often includes a puja room or other worship such as a raised bed for tulasi or jasmine (mullathara). The four halls enclosing the courtyard, identical to that of the  temple, houses multiple rooms for different activities - cooking, dinning, sleeping, studying, and storage of grains. Depending on the size and status of the household the building may have one or two upper storeys (malika) or further enclosed courtyard by repetition of the naalukettu to form ettukettu (eight-hall building) or a cluster of such courtyards.

The naalukettu is the principal structure of a kalam or farm house. The compound contains cattle sheds, bathing tanks, wells, farm buildings, and granary as ancillary structures, protected by a compound wall or thorn fence. An entrance structure (padippura) like the gopuram of a temple, with a mini, tiled roof is built in to the wall, with a strong wooden door that can be barred and bolted, giving it a fortress-like appearance. In larger mansions this area may contain one or two rooms for guests or occasional visitors who are not entertained in the main house. The position and sizes of various buildings, including the location of trees and paths within the compound wall are decided from the analysis of the site according to the prescriptions in the classic texts. This analysis involved the concept of vastupurusha mandala wherein the site (vastu) was divided into a number of grids (padams) occupied by different deities and appropriate grids were chosen to house the auspicious structures. The site planning and building design was done by learned stapathis (master builders) who synthesized the technical matters with astrological and mystical sciences.

There are numerous buildings of the nalukettu type in different parts of Kerala, though many of them are in a poor state of maintenance. Changing socio-economic conditions have destroyed the joint-family system centred on the large naalukettu. The Kailasa mandiram belonging to the Arya Vaidyasala at Kottakkal, is a living example of a three-storey naalukettu. Some of the best preserved examples of this type are Mattancherry Palace at Kochi and the Taikottaram of the Padmanabhapuram palace near Kanyakumari.

The Mattancherry palace located amidst the panorama of backwaters on the east, built in 1557 for the use of Kochi Maharajas, was a gift from the Portuguese. Later it underwent extensive repairs by the Dutch. The double storey building follows the naalukettu design, with a courtyard in the centre housing a Bhagavathi (Goddess) temple. The different wings of the palace in the upper storey contain the coronation hall, council halls and bed chambers of kings and queens and their consorts. The lower storey contains many small rooms beside the kitchen and the dining room. An important feature of the palace is the exquisite wood work of the ceiling. and fine murals on the walls. The ceiling work includes a grid of wooden joints well proportioned and precision moulded with beautifully carved panels.

The Padmanabhapuram palace consists of a complex of buildings including the entrance hall, council chambers, temple and dance halls done in various periods. But the earliest structure of this group is the taikottaram _ which is a fine example of the old naalukettu in its purest traditional form.

Naalukettu type buildings are also found in many villages and towns, many now in a languishing state. The humbler buildings of the population are however smaller and simpler in form but basically derived from the naalukettu.

The core unit is raised to an upper storey with a steep stair located in the front passage. The building is also extended horizontally on all the four sides adding side rooms for activities such as cooking, dining, additional sleeping rooms, front hall for receiving guests etc.

The Present Trend
The use of locally available materials and adoption of traditional techniques matching of climatic needs are the features of this trend in architecture, ardently propagated by Laurie Baker, the French architect who came to study Kerala architecture, got fascinated by it and stayed back.. The Centre for Development Studies at Tiruvananthapuram and a large number of ‘Baker Houses’ are good examples of this school, which propagates a sort of neo-classic design.

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