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The Architecture of Kerala – An introduction


(An excerpt from the Thesis of Ar.Tony Joseph under the guidance of Ar.Charles.W.Moore at the TheUniversity of Texas at Austin)

And in all this span of two months journey there is not a span free from cultivation for everybody here has a garden and his house is placed in the middle of it, and around the whole of this is a fence of wood up to which the ground of each inhabitant comes.”

The lush, green landscape and the warm, humid climate of Kerala combined with the unique culture of the people generated an architecture which was simple and elegant, uncluttered and in complete harmony with nature.  While in most parts of India wooden buildings had given way to those of stone and brick, the shilpis in Kerala continued with the tradition of wood, refining it and developing a unique style of architecture.  This style was termed the Dravida Kerala by Stella Kramrish, who is of the opinion that the Dravida School of architecture in Kerala is a school within the Dravida tradition and is strong in its own way, giving shape to the tradition.

The architecture in Kerala can be broadly classified into two groups, secular and religious. Although both groups share many common features, the fact that they serve totally different functions is reflected in their planning, their form, and their degree of opulence and even in their use of materials.

 “The temple, the palace and the house in Kerala represent degrees in drawing on all the resources of structural knowledge and symbolic reference. All the resources are activated in building temples; many are left untapped in the building of palaces. And the reticence is even greater when constructing dwelling houses for what belongs to the Gods is not meant for man, be he even the king

 Since the gods were immortal, permanent materials like stone, brick and tile were to be used for only the houses of gods, temples, while the mortals were to restricted  themselves to mud and thatch construction. This was the practice until about sixteenth century when kings and persons belonging using permanent materials. The houses remained simple, with few embellishments, while carvings, colored murals and other decorative elements were lavished upon the temples. The view that splendor belongs only to the gods was reflected not only in the architecture, but also in the lifestyle. While the gods were adorned with jeweled richness, their devotee wore a simple while “mundu”.

 In spite of these differences, both secular and religious architecture have many similarities in their organization and construction methods.  The wooden construction details as given in the Sastras are virtually the same for both temples and domestic buildings. Since both of these types of architecture used the Vastu Purusha Mandalas for their organization, orientation and layout, they had a great deal in common.

The development of architecture in Kerala was always horizontal rather than vertical, moving in the direction of a complex of buildings as opposed to one huge structure, and thereby maintaining the intimate human scale in buildings.  A typical large residence or temple consisted of a group of buildings interspersed with open spaces, all contained within a boundary wall.  The outdoor spaces in both temples and residences were as important as the indoor spaces.  The space enclosed by the Nalambalam within a temple can be compared to the inner courtyard of a house.  Just as the inner spaces of the houses were private areas into which outsiders were not allowed, the Nalambalam and the area confined by it is to this day off limits to non-Hindus in most temples in Kerala.  In some houses, the inner sanctuary, the garbha Griha, within the Nalambalam is represented by

small shrines in the main courtyards and in the Mattancheri palace at Fort Cochin, is itself a temple.

 As we move from north to south in Kerala, we a gradual variation in architectural styles. The buildings in the south are stylistically more distinctive and ornate in comparison to the dull functional nature of the buildings in the north.  This variation is more visible in the

residential buildings than in the religious structures.  Most of the residential buildings in the south, with the exception of palaces, tend to be single storied, but as we go north two and three-storey houses are common.  In the north laterite is used extensively even in superstructures, while in the south laterite is used only in the foundations, with the walls being made of wood.

 Since most temples and houses are surrounded high walls and roofs end up being the only element visible from the outside, the roof is the most important element in traditional Keralite architecture. For this reason, much care and effort is lavished on it.  Roofs appear in various forms, the most common one being the double-hipped roof with pierced gables, called Nasikas or “noses,” at either end. The heavy rainfall necessitated that the roofs be steeply pitched and have deep overhangs. The roof angle was usually around 45° to the horizontal. Traditionally, the houses had thatched roofs made of coconut leaves, while clay tiles were restricted to temples and, in rare cases, to palaces. The fifteenth-century Chinese traveler Ma Huan describes the houses in Cochin as “built of the wood of the coconut tree and thatched with its leaves which render them perfectly watertight.”

 Fra Bartolomeo, who visited Kerala in the late eighteenth century, describes the positive aspects of thatched roofing as follows:

 “The palm-leaves with which [the houses] are covered, and the [teak] wood have the property of attracting the moisture, and of suffering it again to escape, as soon as a breath of wind begins to stir , or the sun to shine.  Hence it happens, that these houses are much healthier than those of stone and lime ; which, if not allowed to dry properly, evaporate, for a long time after they are built, a great many calcareous materials and highly pernicious particles.”

 The restriction on the use of tiles by ordinary people was put to an end by the Maharaja of Travancore’s royal proclamations of 1817 and 1857, after which dates clay tiles became very popular in Kerala.  The Silpa Sastras have a detailed description of different types of clay roofing tiles, along with their manufacturing details. They were mostly rectangular in shape, with a thick edging at one end ic that they could be suspended from the battens, raring later periods, “fish tiles” or Dutch tiles) came into vogue and were popular in southern Kerala. With the establishment of tile factories by the Christian missionaries by the middle of the nineteenth century, “Mangalore tiles” became the   common roofing material all over Kerala.

 From very ancient times, copper shingles over wooden frames were also used extensively as a roofing material for temples.  The earliest reference to this practice is found in the thirteenth-century manuscript fire the Janardana Temple at Varkkala, which records that the King of Venadu raised in stone the main shrine and had it covered with copper sheets.  This roofing material, which is believed to have been imported to Kerala from other countries, became popular in the temples of Kerala by the fifteenth century and has since been recorded to have also been used in some of the traditional Muslim mosques.In recent times, due to the escalation in the price of copper. Most of the copper sheathing over temples has sold or stolen and has been replaced with ordinary clay tiles, leaving very few standing examples of this former usage, which is mostly in the Garbagriha or inner sanctum of the temples.

 The stages in the evolution of the traditional roof form from the simple pitched roof to the complex double-hipped roof with gables at either end can be traced in the structures which still exist in Kerala. The sag produced in the ridgepole in the primitive structures made of either bamboo or other light wood evolved to become a typical feature in certain traditional houses and temples.  This concave roof curve helped to break the rigidity of the straight lines and combined with the Nasikas at either end to make the skyline more dramatic.

 The Nasikas on the pierced gables evolved as a natural solution for light and ventilation, but became -are of a decorative element where the silpis could exhibit their prowess in their art. The Nasikas also functioned as a sort of signboard to communicate the residents’ religious beliefs and preferences or as a frontal element to emphasize the entry point.  In most Hindu temples, Kasikas    were decorated at the apex on the inside with carvings of gods with hideous faces to ward off evil.  This type of demonic figure, which can be compared to the gargoyles in Gothic churches, is believed to be vudikandan, an evil spirit with power to negate the

effect of the “evil eye.” In the Christian churches, religious motifs like crosses, angels or saints are carved within the Nasika.

 The Nasikas in mosques have plural and geometric decorative elements; in some cases they are enlarged function as a minaret, where the faithful can be called to prayer.  In recent times, the nasikas in some religious buildings have become receptacles for loud speakers.  Although most Nasikas triangular with straight edges, which may be ward, there  are a few which are curved, with horseshoe-shaped edges that resemble the Buddhist chaitya windows .The decorative fatures common to all Nasikas are the column-like vertical elements, usually numbering four or in some two.  These are called upa stambhas, and they function as structural elements in larger Nasikas but is regained as decorative elements in smaller ones.  The upa stambhas combine with layers of decorative elements to create a dramatic space, which occasionally has a small door-like opening that creates a stage-like atmosphere.  Although in most cases, Nasikas were located on the top edge of the ridge pole, smaller openings were also provided in some buildings when more light and ventilation were needed.

Although the most prevalent roof form was the double-hipped version, roofs in Kerala appear in all shapes and sizes.   Roofs which were conical, apsidal, elliptical and pyramidal were restricted to temples and were usually built to cover the Garbha Griha.  The conical roofs are believed to have aboriginal origins and are compared to tribal houses still in existence in the mountainous forest regions around Kerala. Certain temples have multi-tiered roofing systems which are built only for appearance, with no function taking place in the upper stories.  The stage in the Koothambalams, the traditional theater, has a roof which, in turn, is covered by a larger roofing system, thus creating a very peculiar roof within a roof.  Some rare examples of hexagonal roofs are seen in temples but were non-existent in traditional secular I architecture until the beginning of this century.  The Traditional mosques have developed a very unique coring system which varies in form from place to lace.

 In any structure they built, the silpis gave design construction of the roof primary importance.  In fact, the whole proportioning system, the various elements in the house was applied with reference to the length of the Uttaram, the wall plate.    The Vastu Sastras devote large sections to this subject, starting from the selection of wood and going on to detailed construction and joinery details. Each element in the roof structure is related to the others by a system of proportions.  The proportion, positioning and joinery details of Uttorams were used ` criteria for classification of houses in the   manushalaya Chandrika. In traditional roofing systems, all of the rafters are extended to meet the ridge pole, and in some cases the lower edges of the rafters notched to create interesting patterns .  However, the roof members in the Koothambalams, the temple theaters, are treated very differently with rafters creating diagonal patterns.  This roofing system is credited with excellent acoustical properties.

 There is a marked change in roof forms as we move along the length of Kerala, this being more visible in the secular structures.  The roofs in northern Kerala are sterile, having simple double hipped Nasikas except on a few temples.  When we reach central Kerala, the Kasikas make their appearance, and as we move southward, the ridge line begins to curve until the roof attains its most distinctive form in the Travancore area.

 The door and door frame constitute another important feature of the house.  In the temple, the doorway possessed symbolic importance as the threshold between the sacred and the profane; in the house, it separated the various levels of privacy.  The Sastras devote a large section to the design and construction of doors.  The position, the proportions, the various elements, the wood used, and the decorative features were all very important in the construction of the door and door frame.  The left shutter of the door was regarded as the mother and the right as the daughter. The top of the door frame was mounted a wooden board called the Manqalappalaka, which had images of gees or scenes from the epics carved on it.  This carving was invariably present above the main entrance doors of both houses and temples.  In houses, the extent of the carvings above the door functioned as a status symbol to indicate the family’s degree of affluence.


K. P. Padmanabha Menon, History of Kerala itten in Form of Notes on  Visscher’s Letters from labar, 4 vols. (1937; rpt. New Delhi: Asian ucational Services, 1986), IV, 148-149.

 Stella Kramrish, J. H. Cousins, and Vasudeva c-val, The Arts and Crafts of Kerala (Cochin, India: tzo Publishing House, 1970),

 George Woodcock, Kerala: A Portrait of the . ;rar Coast (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1967),

 H. Sarkar, An Architectural Survey of Temples ?;:;Ia [New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India,

 Ronald M. Bernier, Temple Arts of Kerala (New Delhi: S. Chand and Co., Ltd., 1982

Vtenv.s’nalaya Chandrlka   (Kunnamkulam,   India:   Panj angam Pusthaka Shala,   1987),   Chap.   3,  Verse  35,

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