Coloured by sepia-toned memories and a strong sense of nostalgia, getting ‘back to our roots’ is in vogue. This heightened longing for the good old days has been instrumental in bringing back many classical architectural styles, and one of them is the nalukettu veedu in Kerala…
NALUKETTU means four blocks and a typical house built in this fashion would be divided into a north, south, east, and west block. The naalukettu was a typical feature of the Kerala tharavadu tradition, where joint families lived together for generations with a patriarch and matriarch overseeing all their affairs. At the centre of the house is a nadumuttam, which is an open courtyard that served as the focal point of interactions between the family as well as various household activities and festivities. The larger and wealthier families had ettukettu or, the rarer, pathinaarukettu houses featured eight and 16 blocks with two and four courtyards respectively. All of these houses were built following the principles of ancient thachu shastra or the science of carpentry and developed during the 18th and 19th centuries, a time when the Nairs and Namboodiris
dominated the society with their power and wealth. These aristocratic families who prided on their lineage and the name of their tharavadu would build extensive naalukettu homes that would feature a grove with a snake mound to facilitate the popular worship of snakes, a basil leaves plant installation made of stone or brick, and even a pond for the exclusive use of the family. Naalukettus can be sprawling, entirely built on the ground floor or can go up to three storeys high.
RICH AND INTRICATE DETAIL
Typically made of teak wood or the wood from wild jackfruit trees, brick, and mud, these houses had superior ventilation and lighting that kept the house well lit and aerated at all times. A padippura is a distinguishing feature
atop a naalukettu gate consisting of an elaborate, temple-like gopuram. The entrance to the house would have a verandah designed to receive visitors. Inside, the nadumuttam is surrounded by rooms on all sides like the ara, a special room meant to store valuables. Granaries, cattle sheds, kitchen and utility, dining halls, bathrooms, bedrooms, puja rooms, wells and other purpose-built spaces filled all the corners of a naalukettu. Another feature that showcases the technical ingenuity of these complex yet very thoughtful structures is the roof. Gabled windows on the top of all naalukettus ensured cross-ventilation at all times and let in enough light into the attic while extended rafters gave ample protection from the heavy rains that are characteristic to Kerala.
A DISAPPEARING HERITAGE
Naalukettus faded into oblivion as socio-cultural changes swept over Kerala. Education gained prominence, and more women began migrating from a life led entirely inside sooty kitchens to the outside world of work and independence. Nuclear families evolved with men and women settling down wherever work took them resulting in the break-up of the joint family system. Soon, naalukettus housed only the elders in the family and the upkeep of such large properties became near impossible. With the demand for elaborate homes dying, architects lost the special skill sets required for building these traditional houses.
Today, only a few of the original naalukettus remain mostly in the form of museums or heritage homestays.
Modern constructions now sport some features of the naalukettu style of architecture like the sloping roof, a small verandah supported by tall pillars, and a mini courtyard in the middle. Used by not only houses but also restaurants, ayurvedic spas and other establishments that are traditional to Kerala, the naalukettu design is now seeing a massive reprise. It is not uncommon to see naalukettu houses for sale in cities and real estate agencies advertising low-cost naalukettu houses to customers. And although not as glorious and rambling as the older naalukettu houses, they are a treat to the eyes.