Naalukettu - A Magnificent Tradition of Domestic Architecture
June 12, 2002
Revised  January 14, 2018

Just across from my childhood home, stands our ancestral home, a majestic building constructed over three hundred years ago with red bricks and teakwood in the traditional Kerala architectural style.

This beautiful two story naalukettu (quadrangular structure) is a sprawling two story building with over thirty some rooms. The rooms surround an open to sky nadumittam (central courtyard) with open verandas lined with solid teak pillars, both inside and outside. I have heard that there was another similar naalukettu adjacent to this building, which was demolished many years ago. Only its raised foundation surrounded by a low wall remains today. Now the area is home to a few banana plants. A combination of such two naalukettu buildings is known as Ettukettu (with open verandas around two central courtyards).

The outer walls of the building are made of brick and mortar and whitewashed. The wooden ceilings, pillars, windows and doors retain their natural color. The windows have shutters, not the decorative ones, but real wooden shutters that could close and lock from inside. Most of the rooms also have attached half bathrooms, wood paneling and built in cupboards. The western block has a prayer room, machu, where the sword of the family’s patron goddess is kept. The kitchen, pantry, and dining hall were at an extension of the northern block; these too, were demolished some years ago. The central courtyard is paved with large granite stones and it has an outlet at one corner to let rain water drain. This open courtyard emanates an air of peaceful tranquility and provides a sensuous experience of space and design, all allowing for living in open harmony with nature. In front of the house there is an open portico - purathalam - attached to the naalukettu, where guests were traditionally entertained. The top portion of the wooden pillars in this open portico and the ceiling of the front entrance have beautiful carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses.

                                         Front of the House                                                                 Back of the House                     

The main entrance from the street into the house is through a gatehouse called padippura, which is at some distance from the main house. It is a simple structure with a door in the center surrounded by built in seats on both sides. In ancient times permission to build such a gate house was a privilege, and had to be obtained from the king. In the center of the eastern yard, perhaps where the nadumittam of the demolished naalukettu stood, there is a tulasithara, a small brick platform where a sacred basil plant is grown. In the backyard there is a temple, a bathing pond and a serpent grove. In old days, at the farthest end of the backyard the family maintained a sathram, a place where everyday at noon poor people were fed rice gruel.

Today no one lives in this huge house; it is still a private property jointly owned and maintained by the family.

The style of architecture of this traditional Hindu joint family home was well-adapted to the way of life in the past, when customs and rituals were a big part of life. It is also both functional and capable of accommodating large, extended families under one roof. It is not just the grace and beauty that this traditional home has in favor; it is eminently practical as well. Over the years as the family grew in number, four houses were built around this huge building to accommodate everyone.

Ancient Kerala Architecture
This old tradition of domestic architecture is one of the richest components of Kerala’s cultural heritage. Designed and built according to the rules of Vasthu Sastra and Tachu Sastra, sciences of architecture and carpentry, the naalukettu manifests the creative and aesthetic skills of the Kerala homebuilders. Up above the flight of granite steps leading to the entrance of the house, a large wooden ring on a twisted wooden rod carved out on a single piece of wood is fitted under the sloping roof overhang. It is a symbolic signature signifying the expertise of the master carpenter.

The rectangular shape with a high roof may have evolved from functional consideration. This ancient architectural style paid special attention to the peculiar topography of the land with its hills, slopes and valleys. Elevation of the house keeps it well above flood waters and rain soaked ground, especially during the monsoon season. These massive structures cleverly deal with Kerala’s tropical climate, high humidity and the intensity of monsoon rains. With the open courtyard in the middle, there is free flow of sunlight and ventilation. The high pitched roof traps rising heat well above living areas and the wooden ceiling provides another layer of protection from the heat. Large roof overhangs diminish solar glare and form shady covers to verandas. They protect rooms from direct sunlight, keeping them cool even on the hottest day. These overhangs also drain rain water further away from the windows, allowing them to remain open even during heavy downpours.

Fond Memories of Bygone Days
This Naalukettu was our favorite playground in my childhood. On hot summer afternoons we played hide-and-seek around the massive wooden pillars. During summer kaikottikali (Kerala folk dance) classes were held around the courtyard. In times past, Nira, the agricultural festival that celebrated bringing home the harvest of first rice stalks, was a major event celebrated at this house.

The whole extended family gathered around the courtyard for the festivities. The floor of the inner courtyard was decorated with lighted bronze oil lamps placed on an intricate design drawn with rice flour. As the farm hands brought in the stacks of rice, everyone chanted -

Nira nirayoodu nira nira nira,
Poli poliyodu poli poli poli,
Ellum nira vallam nira vallotti nira,

This translates as “fill the home with rice and fill the vallam and vallotti (rattan seed storage containers) with rice.”

The rice stacks were placed on a large banana leaf spread in the middle of the courtyard. Following the festive rituals, the stacks of paddy were distributed to everyone. After hanging a few stacks on the doors of the ancestral home, we took the remaining stacks to our individual homes and hung them on doors and placed them in the ari mancha, the huge wooden box where rice was stored.

There was a time when weddings of the girls in the extended family were celebrated here. As the ceremony took place in front of the machu, guests gathered around the inner open verandas and inside the nadumittam. After the ceremony, the inner verandas became a dining area. People were seated on rattan mats and food was served on banana leaves. The inner veranda around the nadumittam easily seated fifty people for wedding feasts. Of course there were several rounds of seating as guests usually numbered anywhere from four hundred to six hundred or more. The brides of the men in the family also were first ceremonially welcomed at this house.

It was not just on these happy occasions that the family gathered here. The sad and somber occasion of death of the elders in the family was also observed here with various religious rites.

Many of the centuries-old naalukettu buildings of Kerala have become just a fond memory today. Several naalukettu buildings were converted to favorite tourist destinations where visitors enjoy the lifestyle of Kerala in ethnic surroundings. Many others were dismantled during the construction boom in the State in the eighties and early nineties and new high rises with concrete roofs, tiled floors and modern conveniences were built. Hope remains that these old-style houses will not become extinct. This style of architecture has today become a status symbol among the well to do in Kerala. Efforts are made to ensure that the remaining historic homes are preserved. Understanding this heritage should provide modern architects with exceptionally rich possibilities for the developing of a contemporary indigenous aesthetic.

My sincere thanks to Sainath Menon and Raghu Ramachandran for providing these beautiful photographs.