[ID:1859] Expressing the Language of Architecture; Through Courtyards
“Fifty steps around the courtyard and all you ate would reach your feet.”
This was my grandfather telling his children to take a short walk around the courtyard of their ancestral home in Kerala. Fifty steps on the path to digestion one would say but he was among many who had discovered the many advantages of a courtyard in the house, albeit an unusual one.
The term architecture does not merely signify a profession or art, it is a life form; a true living person with a throbbing heart. It forges man’s construct and the earth’s soil in a relationship that has a tremendous bearing on our lives. Architecture has a great influence on how we perceive the aura of a particular place.
“For what culture is to humans, feeling is to architecture.”
Culture is what sets us apart from animals, it is the same with architecture; the feeling a building arouses in you makes it a good or bad piece of architecture. This sensation determines whether the building spreads a positive or negative vibe.
In this present period of recession when people yearn for something to cheer about, would row after row of concrete structures evoke any sentiment let alone a smile? The absence of character in our present day buildings is disconcerting. What; contemporary architecture has failed to do was successfully achieved to a great extent by the traditional form of architecture. The twentieth century German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer aptly summed it up,
“There was a time in our past when one could walk down any street and be surrounded by harmonious buildings. Such a street wasn’t perfect…, but it was alive. The old buildings smiled, while our new buildings are faceless.”
Traditional architecture has designs and concepts that are not only time tested but also sustainable and more energy efficient than some present day ones, one example is the courtyard system. The courtyard system had its origins in India and was even found in the ruins of the ancient Harrapan and Indus Valley civilization settlements. From here it was replicated far; like China and the Middle East. Courtyards are a part of traditional architecture, but in several places in India it also took the form of vernacular architecture when it was adapted to suit the specific needs of the culture, climate and diversity of the region.
India is a melting pot of people of different creed, colour and religions; therefore a variety of influences from Islamic-Hindu to Buddhist-Jain styles can be seen in its architectural history. Sthapathyakala (‘Sthapathya’-to estabilish, ‘kala’-art) the Sanskrit for architecture was treated as both an art and science. The first written record on architecture in India; the Vaastushastra (‘Vaastu’-edifice, ‘shastra’-study of) was a culmination of a train of thoughts and ideas. It advocates the integration of science and theology and seeks to promote natural well being in people through the use of built forms. Vaastu balances man made structures with the three important elements of nature – air, water and fire (the sun). Its primary focus was on the four cardinal points: site selection, orientation, layout of the building and the importance of having a central courtyard. These central courtyards were known as Brahmastans, they consisted of a dwelling or group of dwellings in a polygonal plan enclosed on all sides by walls and having an open-to-sky courtyard or small water body in the centre.
The courtyards were an ‘energy saver’, providing a natural passive heating and cooling system through the shading effects of its walls with the added advantage of natural ventilation through gaps or holes in the enclosure walls. This restricted the use of electrical appliances to cool or heat the rooms. Thus courtyards succeed in providing a microclimate within a dwelling to increase the comfort of its inhabitants. The open courtyard also provided enough deflected natural light to seep into the inner rooms. This interplay of light, allowing both direct and subdued sunshine to fall upon the courtyard creates a moment so beautiful that it awes the viewer. Courtyards also kept prying eyes out, high walls and an additional wall just inside the main entrance completely obscured the view of anybody outside; thus maintaining privacy. One of the main advantages of a courtyard system house was that it served in weaving together the social fabric of the community as an interaction spot within the enclosed walls. This was beneficial for the women folk who in ancient India were forbidden to venture out or interact and spent most of their lives within the confines of their home. Most of the domestic architecture in India was organized around the central courtyards. Its position created a space based on a progression ranging from open to enclosed. The tropical climate of India demands air movement as well as shade for comfort, this open yet protected space became the heart and soul of the house coordinating all movement in the house with respect to itself. This system of having a central open space was in practice in almost the whole of India covering its length and breadth comprehensively.
In northern India, the desert houses of Rajasthan incorporated the courtyard system to get respite from the intense sun and cold nights; and to serve as an outdoor activity space. The brick or mud walls were made thick to provide thermal mass to keep out the persistent heat through the process of conduction and also to protect the inhabitants from sandstorms. Windows were provided high in the walls in the form of small-narrow slits or triangular openings. The courtyards here were different because they innovated one step further and designed smaller courtyards inside the main ones. The larger courtyard served as a receiving area for guests, its walls were decorated with ornate paintings and sculptures flaunting the owner’s prosperity. The inner courtyard contained the kitchen and was strictly the women’s domain and accessible only to family members. The courtyard system was not just restricted to domestic architecture, huge havelis (bungalows) and palaces too adopted this system. In such instances the courtyards were present at several floors apart from the ground floor, at the highest floor it served as an enclosed terrace. But no matter how big or small the dwelling, the scale of the courtyard was in proportion to the inhabitants and not to the building. The features of these houses are similar to those in the desert regions of the Middle East.
To the west of India, the Pols of Ahmedabad in Gujarat show the same characteristic of possessing an open courtyard. Communities lived together in houses enclosed by walls guarded by huge gates known as Pols, short for the Sanskrit word ‘pratoli’ meaning door or entrance. The population consisted of people of the same caste or profession. The houses are long and narrow and are placed back to back with narrow streets which limit natural light. The streets run dead end, and the only entrance or exit possible is through the main gate. These honeycomb like dwellings have an open space in the centre called ‘chowk’. The ‘chowk’ served as the courtyard becoming the source of light and ventilation in this hot and humid city. It contained community wells and ‘chabutaras’ which were carved wooden platforms for feeding pigeons. The ‘chabutaras’ attracted birds inside the compound as there were no trees inside due to space constraints. The Pols are an example of architectural finesse and design with richly decorated wooden carvings and stone facades. These courtyard neighborhoods were self sustaining with underground storage for food, grains and water. Besides providing security they succeeded in helping different communities to live together in harmony.
In West Bengal; to the east of India, the capital city of Kolkata; lined with eighteenth and nineteenth century homes with narrow winding lanes and alleys are a mélange of different styles of architecture. The planning of the city is haphazard and intertwining but inspite of all this there is a symmetry in this chaos that one can’t miss. The humid climate of the city propelled the need for a courtyard system housing for natural ventilation and cooling thus making the insides of the home comfortable. Courtyards are prevalent here; most of them house a temple in one corner and an anteroom in the other corner leading to the main living rooms. Small courtyards can be found at the end of a labyrinth of interconnecting alleys and lanes in a neighborhood providing one with a much needed rest and breathing space. In the traditional homes, one courtyard symbolized one family, more the number of courtyards reflected the number of families residing. The central courtyard was the focus of the house, shuttering it from heat, noise and the smells of the city. But one problem these houses faced were the seasonal monsoon onslaughts which inundated the houses, thus the concept of a roofed or cloistered courtyard came into being. The courtyards here were developed into cultural spaces and as part of the living spaces becoming an extension for household activity. They become spaces that dictated all household and group activity, differing from other places where the courtyards laid a clear demarcation between social and private spaces.
Moving to southern India, in “God’s Own Country” – Kerala the courtyard system had a makeover attributed to the difference in climatic factors for it being a coastal region. Here the nature of materials used in the courtyards changed from stone to wood. Such a house with a courtyard was known as a ‘tharavad’, and the courtyard itself was known as ‘nadumittam’. Many of the ancestral homes in Kerala are ‘tharavads’, indicating that this system had been in use since a long time. In Kerala similar to the Rajasthani homes, there were multiple courtyards inside one main large courtyard. The courtyards were divided according to their number. ‘Naalukettu’ (‘Naalu’-four, ‘kettu’-wall) referred to a courtyard with four enclosing walls; ‘Ettukettu’(‘Ettu’-eight, ‘kettu’-wall) referred to two courtyards enclosed within eight walls and ‘Pathinarukettu’ (‘Pathinaru’-sixteen, ‘kettu’-wall) meant four courtyards having sixteen enclosing walls. Since these ‘tharavads’ were not built back to back, they were quite porous to the effects of the weather. There were specific locations for prayer, storage and the kitchen inside the courtyard. They also served as a cultural space where traditional dance routines like ‘Theyyam’ were performed and where arts like the combat technique ‘Kalaripayattu’ were taught.
In the cities, single unit houses have been fast replaced by apartment blocks to cater to the influx of people migrating to the urban areas. In such a setting using every inch of land is the utmost priority, as this translates into money for the developers. Landscape architects earlier used to categorize parks and gardens as open spaces but now due to the space crunch even pavements and side walks are classified as open spaces. In such a case where land is at a premium the concept of a large open courtyard is simply not feasible both in terms of space and money. Strict building by-laws and city regulations further cut to size an already weakening concept. So the courtyard has evolved to suit itself to the needs of the city dweller while still retaining its true essence and functionality. Urban courtyards now are designed as irregularly shaped spaces instead of the regular polygonal shapes used. The fully enclosed form has given way to a semi-enclosed region with one side overlooking the apartment and the other the street. This open space in between is not hard earth but paved or grassy with a small playground or seating space to facilitate for interaction among the residents. Since city life tends to make us a fragmented society the courtyards do manage to retain their place as an interaction spot.
The most visible difference between urban and rural areas is the microclimate of the region. As density of the urban areas increases, the temperature increases thus deteriorating the microclimate. Therefore the courtyards are all the more useful in maintaining a cool temperature of the rooms overlooking it. The sky view angle; which determines the amount of direct solar radiation received by the courtyard is generally lower than that of an uncovered street. Higher the angle more is the amount of direct sunshine the block receives. If the open spaces are seen in the present day context, town/city squares, even piazzas could be clubbed in the category of a courtyard.
The pocket park is another concept having similar characteristics of a courtyard. As the name suggests these are small pockets of land; of any shape or type, free from the hustle bustle of the city. Its purpose is to create an open yet enclosed rest space and to facilitate the exchange of ideas and culture among people in a dense area. Pocket parks can be found nestled between towering office blocks or bang in the middle of a busy city road. The enclosing walls (if any) are those of the neighboring buildings or are covered with vines. Sculptures and fountains further liven up the mood of those using it. The parks therefore also help in regulating the temperature of the adjoining area with its use of water as a soothing element. Pocket parks are public courtyards of sorts, with it being also used for staging art and cultural performances. These parks also satiate a hidden desire among us. Life in the city is immersed in anonymity; we day-dream in shops, in empty buses; waiting for that chance encounter to discover our identity among this sea of people. This place fulfills that desire and permits the seated the pleasure to observe people move on with life; veiled in a cloak of anonymity.
Architecture is like a door between generations; it interconnects the past, present and the future, but passing through these doors one should not slam back the doors too tightly that we completely lose sight of the past. Leaving this figurative door ajar would allow the light of each generation to seep in to that of ensuing one. Traditional architecture is losing its prominence; before it fades out completely we should hold on to some of its bits and pieces. Just like the British actor and playwright Colley Cibber said
Old houses mended,
Cost little less than new, before they’re ended.
Likening the concept of a courtyard system to an old house, we can observe that its functionality and usability outweighs many modern concepts. This concept should be rejuvenated before it is replaced or evolved to such an extent that we lose the tradition.
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Kerala architecture is a kind of architectural style that is mostly found in Indianstate of Kerala and all the architectural wonders of kerala stands out to be ultimate testmonials for the ancient vishwakarma sthapathis of kerala. Kerala's style of architecture is unique in India, in its striking contrast to Dravidian architecture which is normally practiced in other parts of South India. The architecture of Kerala has been influenced by Dravidian and Indian Vedic architectural science (Vastu Shastra) over two millennium. The Tantrasamuchaya, Thachu-Shastra, Manushyalaya-Chandrika and Silparatna are important architectural sciences, which have had a strong impact in Kerala Architecture style. The Manushyalaya-Chandrika, a work devoted to domestic architecture is one such science which has its strong roots in Kerala.
The architectural style has evolved from Kerala’s peculiar climate and long history of influences of its major maritime trading partners like Chinese, Arabs and Europeans.
The characteristic regional expression of Kerala architecture results from the geographical, climatic and historic factors. Geographically Kerala is a narrow strip of land lying in between western seaboard of peninsular India and confined between the towering Western Ghats on its east and the vast Arabian sea on its west. Favoured by plentiful rains due to Monsoon and bright sunshines, this land is lush green with vegetation and rich in animal life. In the uneven terrain of this region human habitation is distributed thickly in the fertile low-lands and sparsely towards the hostile highlands. Heavy rains have brought in presence of large water bodies in form of lakes, rivers, backwaters and lagoons. The climatic factors thus made its significant contributions in developing the architecture style, to counter wettest climatic conditions coupled with heavy humidity and harsh tropical summers.
History also played its own contributions to the Kerala architecture. The towering Western Ghats on its east, has successfully prevented influences of neighboring Tamil countries into present day Kerala in later times. While Western Ghats isolated Kerala to a greater extent from Indian empires, the exposure of Arabian sea on its east brought in close contacts between the ancient people of Kerala with major maritime civilizations like Chinese, Egyptians, Romans, Arabs etc. The Kerala’s rich spice cultivations brought it center of global maritime trade until modern periods, helping several international powers to actively engage with Kerala as a trading partners. This helped in bring in influences of these civilizations into Kerala architecture.
The locational feature of Kerala has influenced the social development and indirectly the style of construction. In the ancient times the Arabian sea and the Ghats formed impenetrable barriers helping the evolution of an isolated culture of Proto-Dravidians, contemporary to the Harappan civilization. The earliest vestiges of constructions in Kerala belong to this period dated between 3000 B.C. to 300 B.C. They can be grouped into two types – tomb cells and megaliths. The rock cut tomb cells are generally located in the laterite zones of central Kerala, for example at Porkalam, Thrissur district. The tombs are roughly oblong in plan with single or multiple bed chambers with a rectangular court in the east from where steps rise to the ground level. Another type of burial chamber is made of four slabs placed on edges and a fifth one covering them as a cap stone. One or more such dolmens are marked by a stone circle. Among the megaliths are the umbrella stones ("kudakkal"), resembling handless palm leaf umbrellas used for covering pits enclosing burial urns. Two other types of megaliths, hat stones ("thoppikkal") and menhirs ("pulachikkal") however have no burial appendages. They appear to be rather memorial stones.
The megaliths are not of much architectural significance, but they speak of the custom of the primitive tribes erecting memorials at sites of mortuary rites. These places later became the annual meeting grounds of the tribes and gave rise to occult temples of ancestral worship. While the custom of father worship can be seen in these cases, the protecting deities of the villages were always in female form, who were worshiped in open groves ("kavu"). These hypaethral temples had trees, stone symbols of Mother Goddesses or other naturalistic or animistic image as objects of worship. The continuity of this early culture is seen in the folk arts, cult rituals, worship of trees, serpents and mother images in kavus.
Influence of Buddhism and early Tamillakam architecture
See also: Tamil Buddhism
The nature worship of the early inhabitants of Kerala has its parallel in serpent worship and Buddhism, in the tree worship owing to the association of Buddha's birth, revelation and preaching under a tree. This rose in parallel to the developments in the other areas of Tamilakkam during the latter stages of the Sangam period. Although sculptural relics of Buddhist images have been recovered from a few places of southern Kerala, there are, however, no extant Buddhist monuments in this region. But literary references such as the 3rd century Tamil epic Manimekhalai and Mushika vamsa, a Sanskrit epic of the eleventh century suggest the fact that Kerala had important Buddhist shrines. The most renowned of these was the Sreemulavasa vihara with a magnificent image of Bodhisatwa Lokanatha. This shrine is believed to have been washed away by coastal erosion. In their design features some of the temples such as Siva temple at Thrissur and the Bhagavathi temple at Kodungallur are believed to be Buddhist viharas; but there is no irrefutable proof for such beliefs.
The Jain monuments are more numerous in Kerala. They include rock shelters at Chitral Jain cave near Nagercoil, a rock cut temple at Kallil near Perumbavoor, and remains of structural temples at Alathoor near Palakkad and at Sultanbathery. Jainimedu Jain temple is a 15th-century Jain temple located at Jainimedu, 3 km from the centre of Palakkad. Sculptured Kerala Jaina and Dravidian figures of Mahavira, Parswanatha and other thirthankaras have been recovered from these sites. This remained a Jain temple until 1522CE before being consecrated as a Hindu temple.Sultanbathery also has the remains of a Jaina basti, known as Ganapati vattam, being an example of a cloistered temple built entirely of granite.
In spite of the absence of architectural monuments there is conclusive proof of the influence of the Buddhist school on Kerala architecture of later periods. The circular temples basically follow the shapes of the Buddhist stupas, the dome shaped mounds. The apsidal temples are modelled in the pattern of chaitya halls, the assembly halls of Buddhist monks. The chaitya window seen repeated in the decorative moulding of the thorana around the temple shrine is clearly a Buddhist motif adopted in Hindu style, according to Percy Brown. Basically thorana is a gateway provided in the palisade seen in the vertical and horizontal members of the vilakkumadam, which is a feature seen only in Kerala temples of the post-Buddhist period. In its most primitive form this construction is seen in the hypaethral temples enshrining trees and later on the outer walls of the shrines proper. With the stylistic development of the Hindu temple this form of palisade is removed from the shrine structure (srikovil) and taken as a separate edifice beyond the temple cloister (chuttambalam).
Migrant and Dravidian influences
Buddhism was co-existent with the indigenous Dravidian cultural and social practices of Kerala. Early Tamil Sangam literature says that by the First century A.D. the Cheras all of present-day Kerala, parts of Tulunadu and Kodagu, and the Kongu lands (present Salem and Coimbatore region). It had multiple capitals simultaneously administered by different lineages of the Family, its main capital being Vanchi, identified with the Thiruvanchikulam near Kodungallur. At this time, the two extremities of the Kerala region were administered by two Velir families. The southernmost part administered by the Ay chieftains of Thiruvananthapuram and the northernmost parts by the Nannans of Ezhilmalai. The Nannan line was a branch of the Ay originating in the Thiruvananthapuram area and both were representatives (or vassals) under the suzerainty of the Cheras (and sometimes the Pandyas or Cholas or Pallavas). Brahmanas appeared to have settled in Kerala and established their religion. The amalgamation of different cultures and religious philosophies helped to evolve the architectural styles of Kerala temples. This was highly conducive of architectural development and renovation of a large number of temples. After the decline of the Cheras several small principalities developed all over Kerala. By fifteenth century, Kerala was broadly covered by the suzerainty of four principal chieftains – Venad rulers in the south, Kochi Maharajas in the centre, Zamorins of Kozhikode in the north and Kolathiri Rajas in the extreme north. They were rulers who patronized architectural activities. It was this period, Kerala Architecture started shaping its own distinctive style. A regional character in construction incorporating the Dravidian craft skills, unique forms of Buddhist buildings, design concepts of vedic times and canonical theories of Brahmanical Agamic practices in locally available materials and suited to the climatic conditions was finally evolved in Kerala. The theory and practice of architectural construction were also compiled during this period.
Their compilations remain as classical texts of a living tradition to this day. Four important books in this area are;
- Thantrasamuchayam (Chennas Narayanan Namboodiri) and Silpiratnam (Sreekumara), covering temple architecture
- Vastuvidya (anon.) and Manushyalaya Chandrika (Thirumangalathu Sri Neelakandan), dealing with the domestic architecture. A number of minor works in Sanskrit, Manipravalam and refined Malayalam, all based on the above texts have found popularity in Kerala with the craftsmen and professionals related with the subject.
Kerala is referred as one of the border kingdoms of the Maurya empire. It is possible that Buddhists and Jainas were the first north Indian groups to cross the borders of Kerala and establish their monasteries. These religious groups were able to practise their faith and receive patronage from the local kings to build shrines and viharas. For nearly eight centuries Buddhism and Jainism seem to have co-existed in Kerala as an important faith, contributing in its own way to the social and architectural development of the region.
Composition and structure
Kerala architecture can be broadly divided into 2 distinctive areas based on their functionality, each guided by different set of principles;
- Religious Architecture, primarily patronized by temples of Kerala as well as several old churches, mosques etc.
- Domestic Architecture, primarily seen in most of the residential houses. There are distinctively styles in this area, as Palaces and large mansions of feudal lords different from houses of commoners and also marked difference exists between religious communities.
The primary elements of all structures trends to remain same. The base model is normally circular, square or rectangular plain shapes with a ribbed roof evolved from functional consideration. The most distinctive visual form of Kerala architecture is the long, steep sloping roof built to protect the house’s walls and to withstand the heavy monsoon, normally laid with tiles or thatched labyrinth of palm leaves, supported on a roof frame made of hard wood and timber. Structurally the roof frame was supported on the pillars on walls erected on a plinth raised from the ground for protection against dampness and insects in the tropical climate. Often the walls were also of timbers abundantly available in Kerala. Gable windows were evolved at the two ends to provide attic ventilation when ceiling was incorporated for the room spaces.
The science of Vastu plays a very important role in developing architecture styles. The basic concept underlines that, every structure built on earth has its own life, with a soul and personality which is shaped by its surroundings. The most important science which has Kerala has developed purely indigenously is Thachu-Shastra (Science of Carpentry) as the easily availability of timber and its heavy use of it. The concept of Thachi underlines that as timber is derived from a living form, the wood, when used for construction, has its own life which must be synthesized in harmony with its surroundings and people whom dwell inside it.
The natural building materials available for construction in Kerala are stones, timber, clay and palm leaves. Granite is a strong and durable building stone; however its availability is restricted mostly to the highlands and only marginally to other zones. Owing to this, the skill in quarrying, dressing and sculpturing of stone is scarce in Kerala. Laterite on the other hand is the most abundant stone found as outcrops in most zones. Soft laterite available at shallow depth can be easily cut, dressed and used as building blocks. It is a rare local stone which gets stronger and durable with exposure at atmospheric air. Laterite blocks may be bonded in mortars of shell lime, which have been the classic binding material used in traditional buildings. Lime mortar can be improved in strength and performance by admixtures of vegetable juices. Such enriched mortars were used for plastering or for serving as the base for mural painting and low relief work. Timber is the prime structural material abundantly available in many varieties in Kerala – from bamboo to teak. Perhaps the skilful choice of timber, accurate joinery, artful assembly and delicate carving of wood work for columns, walls and roofs frames are the unique characteristics of Kerala architecture. Clay was used in many forms – for walling, in filling the timber floors and making bricks and tiles after pugging and tempering with admixtures. Palm leaves were used effectively for thatching the roofs and for making partition walls.
From the limitations of the materials, a mixed mode of construction was evolved in Kerala architecture. The stone work was restricted to the plinth even in important buildings such as temples. Laterite was used for walls. The roof structure in timber was covered with palm leaf thatching for most buildings and rarely with tiles for palaces or temples. The exterior of the laterite walls were either left as such or plastered with lime mortar to serve as the base for mural painting. The sculpturing of the stone was mainly moulding in horizontal bands in the plinth portion (adhistans) whereas the carving of timber covered all elements _ pillars, beams, ceiling, rafters and the supporting brackets. The Kerala murals are paintings with vegetable dyes on wet walls in subdued shades of brown. The indigenous adoption of the available raw materials and their transformation as enduring media for architectural expression thus became the dominant feature of the Kerala style.
Structure wise, there can be two major classifications having its own specialities.
The variety of temples, numbering more than 2000 dotting the Kerala state has no match with any other regions of India. The temples of Kerala highly developed in strict accordance to two temple construction thesis, Thantra-Samuchayam and Sliparatnam. While the former deals in developing structures that regulates energy flows so that positive energy flows in, while negative energy do not trend to remain retarded within the structure; whereas the latter deals in developing stone and timber architecture in such manner that each carved structure imbibe a life and personality of its own.
Elements and features of Kerala Temple
The inner sanctum sanctorum where the idol of presiding deity is installed and worshiped. It shall be an independent structure, detached from other buildings with no connections and having its own roof shared with none. The Sri-kovil does not have any windows and have only one large door opening mostly towards east (sometimes it happens towards west, whereas a few temples have north facing door as its specialty, while no temples will have a south facing door).
The Srikovil may be built in different plan shapes – square, rectangular, circular or apsidal. Of these the square plan shows an even distribution throughout Kerala state. The square shape is basically the form of the vedic fire altar and strongly suggest the vedic mooring. It is categorized as the nagara style of temple in the architecutural texts. The rectangular plan is favoured for the Ananthasai Vishnu (Lord Vishnu in reclining posture) and the Sapta matrikas (Seven Mother Goddesses). The circular plan and the apsidal plan are rare in other parts of India and unknown even in the civil architecture of Kerala, but they constitute an important group of temples. The circular plan shows a greater preponderance in the southern part of Kerala, in regions once under the influence of Buddhism. The apsidal plan is a combination of the semi-circle and the square and it is seen distributed sporadically all over the coastal region. The circular temples belong to the vasara category. A variation of circle-elipse is also seen as an exception in the Siva shrine at Vaikkom. Polygonal shapes belonging to the Dravida category are also adopted rarely in temple plans but they find use as a feature of shikhara. As per the Thantrasamuchayam, every Sreekovil should be built either neutral or even sided. For the unitary temples, the overall height is taken as 13/7/ to 2 1/8 of the width of the shrine, and categorised into 5 classes as i.e.; santhika, purshtika, yayada, achudha and savakamika – with increasing height of the temple form. The total height is basically divided into two halves. The lower half consists of the basement, the pillar or the wall (stambha or bhithi) and the entablature (prasthara) in the ratio 1:2:1, in height. Similarly the upper half is divided into the neck (griva), the roof tower (shikhara) and the fonial (Kalasham) in the same ratio. The adisthana or foundation is generally in granite but the superstructure is built in laterite. The roofings will be of normally taller than other temple structures. The structural roof of the shrine is constructed as the corbelled dome of masonry; however in order to protect it from the vagaries of climate it was superposed by a functional roof, made of timber frame covered by planks and tiles. This sloping roof with its projecting caves gave the characteristic form to the Kerala temple. The fenial or Kalasham, made of copper, provided the crowning spire denoting the focus of the shrine wherein the idol was installed.
Normally the Srikovil is on a raised platform and has a flight or 3 or 5 steps to be. The steps are called Sopanapadi and on sides of the Sopanapadi, two large statues known as Dwarapalakas (Door Guards) are craved to guard the deity. As per Kerala rituals style, only main priest (Thantri) and second priest (Melshanti) only allowed to enter into Sri-kovil.
The namaskara mandapa is a square shaped pavilion with a raised platform, a set of pillars and a pyramidal roof. The size of the mandapa is decided by the width of the shrine cell. The pavilion in its simplest form has four corner pillars; but larger pavilions are provided with two sets of pillars; four inside and twelve outside. Pavilions of circular, elliptical and polygonal shapes are mentioned in the texts, but they are not seen in Kerala temples. The Mandapams are used to conducting Vedic-Thantric rites.
The shrine and the mandapa building are enclosed in a rectangular structure called the nalambalam. Functionally the rear and side halls of the nalambalam serves for various activities related to the ritualistic worship. The front hall is pierced with the entry, dividing it into two parts. These two halls; Agrasalas which used for feeding Brahmans, performing yagas and while Koothuambalam are used for staging temple arts such as koothu and temple murals. In few cases, Koothuambalams are separated as an individual structure outside Nalambalam.
At the entrance of Nalambalam, a square shaped raised stone altar called as Balithara can be seen. This altar is used to make ritualistic offerings to demi-gods and other spirits. Inside the Nalambalam, several small stones, called Balikallukal can be seen, meant for same purpose.
The outer structure within the temple walls, is known as Chuttuambalam. Normally Chuttuambalam has main pavilion known as Mukha-Mandapam or Thala-mandapam. The Mukha-Mandapam will have the Dwajastambam (Sacred Flag-post) in center of it and has several pillars supporting mandapam. The temple is now fully enclosed in a massive wall (Kshetra-Madillukal) pierced with gate houses or gopurams. The gopuram is usually two-storeyed, which served two purposes. The ground floor was an open space generally used as a platform for temple dances such as kurathy dance or ottan thullal during festivals. The upper floor with wooden trails covering the sides functioned as a kottupura _ (a hall for drums beating). The Chuttuambalam will normally has 4 gates from outside to entrance at all sides. A stone paved walk-way will be seen around the Chuttuambalam to allow devotees circulate around the temple, which for some large temples are covered with roof supported with massive pillars on both sides. The Chuttuambalam will have Dwajavillakku or giant lamp-posts in several places, mostly in Mukha-mandapams.
Every temple will have a sacred temple pond or water lake located within temple complex. As per Vastu-rules, water is considered as source of positive energy and synthesis balance of all energies. Hence a temple pond or Ambala Kulam will be made available within the temple complex. The temple pond is normally used only by priests as holy bath before start of rituals as well as for various sacred rituals within the temple. In few cases, a separate pond will be constructed to allow devotees to bath before entering in temple. Today several temples have Mani-Kenar or Holy Well within the Nalambalam complex to get sacred waters for purposes of Abisekham.
Normally within Nalambalam, a separate complex will be constructed for cooking foods meant to serve for the deity and distribution among devotees as holy prasadam. Such complexes are called Thevarapura, where the holy fire or Agni is invoked.
Phases of evolution
In its stylistic development, the temple architecture can be divided into three phases.
The first phase is that of rock-cut temples. This earliest form is contemporary to Buddhist cave temples. Rock-cut temples are mainly located in southern Kerala – at Vizhinjam and Ayirurpara near Tiruvananthapuram, Kottukal near Kollam and Kaviyoor near Alappuzha. Of these the one at Kaviyoor is the best example. The Kaviyoor cave temple dedicated to Siva comprises a shrine room and a spacious ardhamandapa arranged axially facing the west. On the pillared facade as well as on the walls inside the ardhamandapa are sculptured reliefs of the donor, a bearded rishi, a seated four armed Ganesh and dwarapalas. The other cave temples also have this general pattern of a shrine and an ante-room and they are associated with Siva worship. In the north similar rock-cut temples of saiva cult are seen at Trikkur and Irunilamkode in Trissoor district. Historically the cave architecture in India begins with Buddhism and the technique of rock-cut architecture in Kerala seems to be a continuation of similar works in Tamil Nadu under the Pandyas. The rock-cut temples are all dated prior to the eighth century A.D.
The structural temples appear in the second phase spanning the eighth to tenth centuries, and patronised by the Chera, Ay and Mushika chieftains. The earliest temples had a unitary shrine or a srikovil. In rare cases a porch or ardhamandapa is seen attached to the shrine. A detached namaskara mandapa is generally built in front of the srikovil. A quadrangular building, nalambalam that encloses the srikovil, the namaskara mandapa, balikkal (altar stones) etc. became part of this basic plan composition of the Kerala temple started emerging in this phase.
The middle phase of the evolution of the temples is characterised by the emergence of the sandhara shrine. In the unitary shrine of the earlier type, Nirendhara (single level of srikovil), there is a cell with a single doorway to the cell. But in the sandhara shrine the cell has twin wells leaving a passage in between them. Also there are often four functional doors on all the four cardinal directions and pierced windows to provide subdued light in the passage. Sometimes the functional door on the sides and the rear are replaced by pseudo doors.
The concept of the storeyed temple is also seen in this phase. The tower of the shrine rises to the second storey with a separate upper roof forming a dwitala (two-storeyed) temple. There is a unique example of thrithala (three-storeyed temple) is at Shiva shrine at Peruvanam with lower two storeys of square plan and the third storey of octagonal form.
In the last phase, (1300–1800 A.D.) the stylistic development reached its apogee with greater complexity in the temple layout and elaboration of detail. The vilakkumadam, the palisade structure fixed with rows of oil lamps is added beyond the nalambalam as an outer ring. The Altar stone is also housed in a pillared structure, the Balikkal mandapam in front of the agrasala (valiyambalam). A deepastambham and dwajasthambham (the lamp post and flag mast) are added in front of the balikkal mandapam.
Within the prakara but beyond the vilakkumadam, stood the secondary shrines of parivara devathas (sub-gods) in their assigned positions. These were unitary cells, in general, though in a few cases each became a full-fledged shrine as in the case of Krishna shrine in the Siva temple at Tali, Kozhikode. The last phase culminated in the concept of the composite shrines. Herein two or three shrines of equal importance are seen cloistered inside a common nalambalam. The typical example of this is the Vadakkumnatha temple at Trissoor, where in three shrines dedicated to Siva, Rama and Sankaranarayana are located inside the nalambalam. The prakara may also contain temple tanks, vedapadhasalas and dining halls. Paradoxically some shrines have not a single secondary shrine, the unique example being the Bharatha shrine at Irinjalakuda.
A significant feature of big temple complexes is the presence of a theatre hall known as Koothambalam, meant for dance, musical performance and religious recitals. This is a unique edifice of Kerala architecture, distinct from the natyasabha or natyamandir seen in north Indian temples of this period. Koothambalam is a large pillared hall with a high roof. Inside the hall is a stage structure called as Rangamandapam for the performances. The stage as well as the pillars are ornately decorated. Visual and acoustic considerations are incorporated in the layout of the pillars and construction details so that the performances can be enjoyed by the spectators without discomfort and distortion. The Koothambalam design seems to have been based on the canons given in the Natyasastra of Bharata Muni.
In the southernmost Kerala, the temple architecture was also influenced by the developments in Tamil Nadu. At Sucheendram and Tiruvananthapuram this influence is clearly seen. Herein lofty enclosures, sculptured corridors and ornate mandapas all in granite stone practically conceal the view of the original main shrine in typical Kerala style. The entrance tower, Gopuram also rises to lofty heights in a style distinct from that of the humble two-storeyed structure seen elsewhere.
Technically the most important feature of the temple architecture of Kerala is the construction technique using a dimensional standardisation. The nucleus of the temple plan is the shrine containing the garbhagrhiha cell. The width of this cell is the basic module of the dimensional system. In plan composition, the width of the shrine, the open space around it, the position and sizes of the surrounding structures, are all related to the standard module. In vertical composition, this dimensional co-ordination is carried right up to the minute construction details such as the size of the pillars, wall plates, rafters etc. The canonical rules of the proportionate system are given in the treatises and preserved by the skilled craftsmen. This proportionate system has ensured uniformity in architectural style irrespective of the geographical distribution and scale of construction.
Temple architecture is a synthesis of engineering and decorative arts. The decorative elements of the Kerala temples are of three types – mouldings, sculptures and painting. The moulding is typically seen in the plinth where in horizontal hands of circular and rectangular projections and recesses in varying proportions help to emphasize the form of the adisthana. Occasionally this plinth is raised over a secondary platform – upapeedam – with similar treatment. Mouldings are also seen in the mandapam, the hand rails of the steps (sopanam) and even in the drain channel (pranala) or the shrine cell.
The sculptural work is of two types. One category is the low relief done on the outer walls of the shrine with masonry set in lime mortar and finished with plaster and painting. The second is the sculpturing of the timber elements – the rafter ends, the brackets, the timber columns and their capitals, door frames, wall plates and beams. Decorative sculptural work is seen best in the ceiling panels of the mandapas. Exquisite lacquer work in brick red and black colour was adopted for turned columns of timber. Metal craft was also used in sculpturing idols, motifs, cladding and fenials. All sculptural works were done strictly according to the canons of proportions (ashtathala, navathala and dasathala system) applicable to different figures of men, gods and goddesses, prescribed in texts.
The painting was executed in organic pigments on walls when the plaster was still wet – in soft subdued colours, making them into a class designated as Kerala murals. The theme of these paintings is invariably mythological and the epic stories unfold as one goes around the temple in circumambulations. The moulding, sculpture and painting are also taken in vertical compositions to emphasize the different storey heights, projecting dormer windows which break the sloping roof and the crowning fenial. But in all cases the decoration is secondary to the structural form. The sculptured walls are protected by the projecting caves which keep them in shade in sharp contrast with the bright sunlit exterior. This helps to impart the overall perceptual experience of light and shade revealing details only gradually to a keen observer.
The Arabian Peninsula, the cradle of Islam also had direct trade contact with Kerala coast from very early times, as far as the time of Muhammad or even before. As local Muslim legends and tradition goes, a Chera King embraced Islam and made a voyage to Mecca. In his return trip accompanied by many Islamic religious leaders including Malik ibn Dinar, he fell sick and died. But he had given introductory letters for the party to proceed to Kodungallur. The visitors came to the port and handed over the letter to the reigning King who treated the guests with all respect and extended facilities to establish their faith in the land. The king arranged for the artisans to build the first mosque at Kodungallur near the port and ear-marked the area around it for their settlement. The original mosque has undergone extensive repairs, but the traces of the original construction are seen in the plinth, the columns and the roof which are in the old traditional styles of Hindu temples.
Undoubtedly Islam spread in Kerala through the migration of new groups from Arabian Peninsula and the gradual conversion of native population in the permissive and all accommodating Indian cultural ethos and social set up of Kerala. By twelfth century AD there were at least ten major settlements of Muslims distributed from Kollam in the south to Mangalore in the north each centered on the mosque. Also a branch of the ruling kingdom at Arakkal, Kannur was converted to Islam. The primacy in trade, the spread of the faith and the experience of the sea made Muslims a prominent class and dear to the rulers, especially of the Kozhikode Zamorins. Consequently, by fifteenth century Islamic constructions reached considerable heights.
The mosque architecture of Kerala exhibits none of the features of the Arabic style nor those of the Indo-Islamic architectures of the imperial or provincial school in north India. The reason for this is not far to seek. The work of mosque construction was done by the local Hindu artisans under instructions of the Muslim religious heads who wanted to erect the places of worship. The models for places of worship were only Hindu temples or the theatre halls ("koothambalam") and these models are to be adapted for the new situations. The early mosques in Kerala consequently resemble the traditional building of the region. Arabic style of architecture was introduced to the Malabar area of present-day Kerala, during the period of occupation by Hyder Ali and later by Tipu Sultan during the eighteenth century. A large number of temples were converted to mosques during this period as evidenced by the traditional Kerala style of these structures.
In plan the mosque comprises a large prayer hall with a mihrab on the western wall (since Mecca is west to Kerala) and covered verandah all around. Generally it has a tall basement similar to the adhistana of the Brahmanical temple and often the columns are treated with square and octagonal section as in mandapa pillars. The walls are made of laterite blocks. The arch form is seen only in one exceptional case for the mosque at Ponnani and nowhere else in the early ten mosques of the land. Wood was used extensively in superstructure for the construction of ceiling and roof. The roof in many cases is covered with sheets of copper incorporating fenials in the ridge, completing the form of temple shikhara with the stupi. At Tanur the Jama Masjid even has a gate built in the manner of temple gopuram, covered with copper sheeting. This mosque itself is a three-storeyed building with tiled roof crowned by five fenials.
The pulpit in the mosque present the best example of wood carvings associated with Islamic architecture of Kerala. The Jama Masjid at Beypore and Mithqal Mosque at Kozhikode have the pulpit (mimbar) built by the ship masters of the Arab vessels.
All other construction work was done by the same local craftsmen who were building the Hindu temples and residences. The Arabic tradition of simplicity of plan had perhaps combined itself with the indigenous construction techniques giving rise to the unique style of mosque architecture, not found anywhere else in the world. In contrast the Indo-Islamic architecture drew its inspiration from the Turkish and Persian traditions and created highly ornamental style in the north India. The typical Kerala mosques are seen at Kollampalli, near Kollam, Panthalayani near Koyilandy, Kozhikode, Tanur, Ponnani and Kasargode as well as in most old Muslim settlements. The austere architectural features of the old mosques are however in the process of being replaced in recent times by Islamic architecture. The use of arcuatedforms, domes and minar-minarets of the imperial school of Indo-Islamic architecture are being projected as the visible symbols of Islamic culture. The Jama Masjid at Palayam, Thiruvananthapuram is the classic example of this new trend. Similar structures are coming up all over Kerala in the modification of old mosques during the last decades.
Perhaps the influence of Arabic style of Kerala construction is seen in a subtle manner in the secular architecture of Muslims. The bazar streets lined by buildings on both sides, the upper floor living rooms with view windows to the streets, the wooden screens used to provide privacy and shade in the verandahs (specially of upper floors) etc., are a few features superposed on the traditional construction. These built forms would have been modelled in the pattern of the houses in Arab countries (such as Egypt, Basra (present day Iraq) and Iran) having contact with this region. This trend is most conspicuous in market towns such as Kozhikode, Thalassery, Kasaragode etc. But basically the Muslim domestic architectures at large follow the traditional Hindu styles. Both "ekasalas" and "nālukettus" are seen adopted for this. These buildings with extensive alindams and verandahs are also seen generally surrounding the mosques in Muslim settlements.
The evolution of the church architecture of Kerala springs from two sources – the first from the work of Apostle St. Thomas and the Syrian Christians and second from the missionary work of European settlers. The tradition has it that St. Thomas who landed in Muziris in 52 AD had seven churches built in Kerala at Kodungallur, Chayil, Palur, Paravur-Kottakkavu, Kollam, Niranom and Kothamangalam, but none of these Syrian churches are now extant. It is possible that some of the temples were adapted as Syrian churches for services by the population who got converted into Syriac Christianity by St. Thomas. For example, the present Palur Syrian church has preserved the abhisheka patra (the letter of intonation) and certain shaiva symbols as the relics of the old church which is said to have been a Hindu shrine adapted for Christian worship.
Historical evidences suggest that the first wave of Christianity came from Edessa, Persia in the fourth century A.D. owing to the persecution of Syrian Christians in the Persian empire. According to the narration of Byzantine monk Cosmas, Kerala had many churches by sixth century A.D. According to the inscription of the times of Stanu Ravi by ninth century, Syrian Christian communities enjoyed many rights and privileges. They also played a vital role in trade and commerce. The domestic buildings of the Syrian Christians were akin to the native architecture.
But original Syrians who had migrated to Kerala had brought with them some of the West Asian conventions in church architecture. Consequently, churches with regular chancel and nave began to be built and there evolved a distinctive style of church architecture. The peculiar feature of this style was the ornamental gable facade at the nave end, surmounted by a cross. An entry porch (shala) in front of the nave was another feature of these early shrines. The baptistry was a small chamber inside the nave near the entrance. Belfries were built on one side of the nave, but in smaller churches the bell was hung in an opening in the nave gable.
Elements of Kerala church architecture
St.Marys Forane Church, Kanjoor : AD1001
Unlike Kerala temples, there is no uniform or standard layout for all churches of Kerala. Rather most of churches have different set to architecture according to various sects and their traditions apart from experimentation of new designs. Still most of churches, particularly Saint Thomas Christian churches of Kerala, do share several common features.
The church had a gable roof extending to the chancel, the most sacred part of the church and the sacristy by its side. The tower over the chancel soared higher than the roof of the nave similar to the shikhara over the garbhagriha in a Hindu temple. The residence of the priest and the parish hall were located on one side of the church and the cemetery was on the other side.
In their external feature Syrian churches retained some of the indigenous features of the Hindu style. The church and the ancillary buildings were enclosed in a massive laterite wall.
There was an open cross in front of the main entrance on a granite basement in the model of balikkal, the altar stone. A church also had the flag mast, (the dwajastambha) in front. In the Orthodox Syrian church at Chengannur, Peter and Paul occupy the place of dwarapalas, the guarding deities of a Hindu shrine. Sometimes a gateway like the temple gopuram with a kottupura or music room on the upper storey was also provided. The Marth Mariam church at Kuravilangad, originally built in 345 A.D had undergone renovations several times. The church has a rich collection of old relics including an idol of Virgin Mary and a cross carved in granite. The Knanaya Valiapally of Kaduthuruthy is another old church with the biggest cross formed in a single granite piece. The Valiapally of Piravom is also another old church with old Persian writings.
Wood carving and mural paintings, the two decorative media of temples are seen to be adopted in ancient churches also. A famous piece of wooden carving is a large panel depicting the last supper in St. Thomas church, Mulanthuruthy. The All Saints church at Udayamperur has a beam resting on wooden mouldings of heads of elephants and rhinoceros. Floral figures, angels and apostles are the usual motifs of mural paintings. This form of decoration had continued in later churches as well. In St. Sebastian's church at Kanjoor a mural even depicts the fight between British and Tippu Sultan.
Colonial influences in church architecture
The Portuguese were the first to introduce European styles in the church architecture of Kerala, followed by Dutch and British. The first church of this type in India was built by the Franciscan missionaries in 1510 A.D. at Fort Kochi. It is a small unpretentious building of the medieval Spanish type. When Vasco De Gama died in Kochi in 1524 his body was interned in this church and later removed to Lisbon in 1538. The church thus came to be known as Vasco De Gama's church. It was later seized by the Dutch and was used for reformed services. Later with British occupation of Kochi it became an Anglican church and presently it belongs to church of south India.
The Portuguese had introduced many innovations in the Kerala churches. For the first time, the dominating tower above the altar, which was the adaptation from temple architecture, was discarded. Inside the church, the granite images were not favoured owing to their association with the Hindu art; instead images of Saints made of wood were used to adorn the riches. Generally pulpits were erected and altar pieces were ornamented in an impressive manner. Ceilings and walls were painted with religious themes in the style of European masters. Pointed and rounded arches were introduced and stained glass windows were installed.
The subsequent development in church architecture in the British period also saw the introduction of a new church design. In place of the rectangular Basilican plan the cross shaped plan became increasingly popular especially in places where large congregation had to be accommodated. Apart from the obvious symbolism of the cross, this plan is more suited for better visibility of the altar from all points in the church. Further, sufficient space was now available at the transepts for additional altars for services by several priests on important occasions like Christmas.
In the external features the central tower or rather the Roman dome now comes at the centre of the transept imparting a classic form of European architecture. Also on either side of the main entrance in the front, rose towers to serve as belfries. In the treatment of the exterior, typical features of European church architecture were introduced – the Gothic arches, the pilasters and buttresses, the rounded openings, the classic mouldings and stained glass windows making the whole composition completely different from the native architecture. Depending on the period of construction, one can also distinguish between the churches done in the simplicity of Gothic style as in the Palayam church, Tiruvananthapuram, and the luxury of renaissance style as in the church of Our Lady of Dolorous at Trissoor.
Modern trends in church architecture
While the character of church architecture is generally identified with the form evolved in the medieval times, the modernistic trends in adapting new plan shapes and structural forms are visible in the Kerala scene as well. This circular plan shape with domical shell roof has been adopted in the Christ College church at Irinjalakkuda. The Cathedral church of Archbishop of Varapuzha at Ernakulam is a soaring hyperbolic paraboloid in reinforced concrete with a bold expression in sharp contrast with all traditional forms. Perhaps experimentation in religious architecture is mostly manifested in church architecture as compared to that in temples or mosques which more or less adhere to old evolved forms.
The architectural scene of Kerala was influenced by many socio-cultural groups and religious thoughts from foreign lands. The sea board had promoted trade contacts with maritime nations such as Israel, Rome, Arabia and China even prior to the dawn of the Christian era. The trade contact would have paved the way of establishing settlements near the old port towns and gradually spreading in the interior. During the time of the second Chera Kingdom, the old port city of Makotai (Kodungallur) had different parts occupied by these groups. For example, the cultural contact of Jews with Kerala predates the time of Solomen and by fifteenth century there were Jewish settlements in Kodungallur, Kochi and other coastal towns. The most important Jewish settlement is seen at Kochi near the Mattancherry palace. Their residential buildings resemble the Kerala type in their external appearance; nevertheless they are of a different plan concept. The ground floor rooms are used as shops or warehouses and the living rooms are planned on the first floor. The frontage of the building about the streets and the sides are continuous with adjoining buildings in the pattern of the row houses. An important historic monument of the Jew town is the Synagogue. It is a simple tall structure with a sloping tile roof but it has a rich interior with hand painted tiles from Canton, China and ancient chandeliers from Europe. This religious structure built for worship according to Judaism stands in contrast with the temples of Hindus. Jewish community however did not influence the architecture of Kerala.