Airy with a view of the sky, cool summers and warm winters, open privacy for extended families – courtyard houses are a blend of functionality and connectedness.
Courtyards have existed for thousands of years in ancient Egypt, China, India, Rome and Greece. Structured at the core of a building, open and unroofed, airy and spacious, they stand unaffected by the world outside, providing a sense of calm and quiet. They give a sense of being on the ‘outside’ without compromising convenience and privacy and create an element of connectedness with the rest of the house.
Courtyard houses are built on the principles of Vaastu which dictates that Brahmasthaan – the centre of the house – be vacant and free of construction. This area is considered the root of energy which is then dispersed in every direction of the house.
Generally bound by passages with rooms along the sides, the courtyard is a multi-functional space. In smaller towns or villages, it could be the extension of a kitchen or a place for washing and cleaning. It could serve as a living room when there are guests or as a cosy evening set aside for family-time with laughter and bonding over games and chit-chat. It could be the mini-playground for children to play in after school. It could even transform into a bedroom on a cool summer night or into a place to relax with a good book on a warm winter afternoon. Light pours in during the day illuminating the courtyard and the night sky hangs over it like a starry blanket.
Above the Vindhyas
Havelis, for example, which are mostly found in Gujarat, Rajasthan and Punjab, refer to town houses or mansions of the merchant class. Some were fortified too. Their courtyards could be surrounded by a single or double-storeyed structure with beautifully carved arched columns. Many were influenced by Mughal architecture with vaulted gateways, arched windows, pillars and lattice windows.
In regions where women were under purdah, it was the only open air space available to them. It was a different way of life as Geeta finds in her new household in Rama
Mehta’s book, Inside the Haveli – the women had little contact with the men of the haveli, living as they did in separate quarters. What is more shocking for this college-educated girl from Bombay who marries the son of an ex-prime minister of Mewar and comes to live in her in-laws’ traditional haveli in Udaipur is that there is no life for women outside the haveli’s high walls. That she creates an identity for herself and more importantly, begins literacy classes for women and sends the female children to school is the story of how life was partitioned and lived in havelis prior to the transition to a new world.
A unique feature of the havelis of Gujarat is that they are made of wood. With a chowk or a central open court from which many rooms open, the typical Gujarati haveli has richly carved brackets and facades. With filigreed struts and doorways carrying ornamentation, they were once a symbol of the family prestige and power. The Ahmedabad Heritage Walk gives guided tours of the pols – residential areas in the old city connected by narrow lanes – where many of the wooden havelis continue to stand. Mangaldas ni Haveli is one such haveli open for tourists.
The Bohra havelis of Sidhpur on the other hand display European influence. These have clear separations within, ensuring privacy to its women – an entrance platform, an arrival space, a courtyard and other rooms, with the upper floors housing the bedrooms. They are three to four-storeyed and are built along broad avenues, enclosing a mohalla, sometimes bringing colour to the street with a multi-coloured facade. Adopting the Gujarati tradition, these havelis display intricate wood work too.
Wadas, popularised by the Marathas, are more common in Maharashtra. They are large multi-storeyed buildings with groups of rooms arranged around a single courtyard. There are primarily two types of wadas – the first, which is more or less like an apartment building or a chawl meant for the middle class families and the second, which is meant for only one family often owned by the peshwas or traders or their relatives. Most of the rooms around such wadas were ventilated by the courtyard and some courtyards – often when a wada had multiple courtyards – even consisted of wells or places to tie horses.
Rajbaris are a characteristic feature of Bengal and although influenced by western architecture, their inner courtyards are quite traditional. They are large in size, sometimes with a garden in the centre, and are surrounded by multiple-storeyed buildings with arched columns. The Shobhabazar Rajbari, built in 1700 by Raja Nabakrishna Deb, son of the dewan of the Nawab of Cuttack, is a reminder of the zamindari era.
Today, many of Kolkata’s Rajbaris are rented out for weddings which helps pay for their restoration and maintenance. Some are available for stay too. The thakurdalans, that is, the open courtyards are a place for Durga puja.
Badas on the other hand can be found in Chattisgarh and can be rectangular or circular in shape with cement flooring. The courtyard was mainly used for cooking and also served as a seating area for family members. Badas often had a rear courtyard meant for gardening and agricultural purposes.
Below the Vindhyas
Manduva Logili of Andhra Pradesh means courtyard house. The roof is generally supported by logs of rosewood or teakwood and the roof itself is covered with red tiles. The centre is usually left uncovered and rainwater is collected in a pit and is channelled out of the house through a drain. Manduva houses with closed tops have a pipe which channels rain water into a small pit. During dry days, it is a place for pickle-making, papad-drying and oil-bathing children too.
Kerala’s Nalukettus are compact courtyards surrounded by four halls joined together with a sloping tiled roof on all sides overhead. While Nalukettu had one courtyard, Ettukettu had two and Pathinarukettu had four courtyards. Simple-structured columns hold the roof up around the courtyard. The courtyard is called Nadumuttam and generally consists of a tulsi plant in the centre. These houses are simple yet large and can house a large number or people. Many generations of matrilineal family lived within.
The Chettinad courtyard house with its long, rectangular courtyard is a typical residence of the Chettinad villages in the Siva Ganga region of Tamil Nadu. Headed by ‘aachi’ the senior lady of the house, traditional Chettinad houses have at least two-columned courtyards into which spacious living rooms open. These houses can be identified by the colourful glasswork, marble and tiled-flooring and Burma teak pillars in addition to intricate woodwork. Used for many ceremonies including births, weddings and deaths, the courtyards have also been designed in such a way that rain water can be harvested which shows how well-planned they are.
Courtyards these days have a trendy and chic look, are found in various shapes, sizes and designs. They may not necessarily be bound by passages or rooms on all sides and instead may have high fences for privacy. A lot of courtyards have tasteful woodwork and tiling with beautiful seating arrangements, grass or shrubs and plants and sometimes even swimming pools and water features. They use artificial lighting for the night which is not too bright and gives a warm look to the courtyard. However, the cost of land and construction being high courtyard houses remain the privilege of a few either as homes or as weekend getaways.
Courtyards may be simple open spaces with stone slabs for flooring and a tap in a corner for washing or for other household work; they may go a step further and have a basic seating arrangement with a chair and a table or sometimes even a swing; or the larger ones and the mansions may be grand with arched decorative columns along the perimeter of the courtyard and even plants, trees or a small garden for a little greenery and a cool atmosphere. What is true of each of these is that they were places to live, breathe and celebrate.