The worlds only prefab, portable mansions, the tarawads
trace their origins to the state's martial tradition
widely regarded as the beautifully serene God's Own Country by many
international travellers, was not always so. Tiny, aggressive,
principalities, fighting for control of the rich coconut groves,
spice plantations and marine resources of this tiny, littoral, land
kept Kerala in a state of creative uncertainty for many generations.
Out of this ferment was born such innovations as: Kararippayat ,
increasingly acknowledged as the grand daddy of all Asian martial
arts; the annual boat races featuring the world's largest team sport
in the regatta of the 100-oared chundan valloms, originally designed
to carry cannons and warriors in the fierce water wars of Kerala; and
the tarawads, the first, and possibly still the only prefabricated
and portable mansions in the world. If needed, one could always
dismantle oneís double storied tarawad and move it to a safer
In course of
time, a tarawad became more than a beautifully carved miracle of
construction. The tarawad today, is the family home which gives its
ëhouse nameí to the recognised families of Kerala. Much
as you would talk of the House of Mountbatten or the House of
Windsor, many Malayalees take their family name from their tarawad:
it is generally shortened to an initial such as C for the family of
Chenna-kattukalankamari or N for the House of Nechupadom.
the tarawad was handed down to the youngest son, who because he was
closest to his parents, could be most relied upon to care for them in
their old age. Thus, as long as the joint family, the extended family
lasted, the tarawad was the repository of its traditions, the source
of its strength, its permanent status symbol. Sadly, because of the
break up of the old families, many of the great tarawads have been
demolished, others are in decay and some have been painted and
wallpapered and ëmodernisedí beyond recognition.
however, at least one tarawad that had been maintained in its
original, exquisite form. It was the family mansion of the
Kuruvinakunnels. We drove out to the central foothills of Kerala to
discover this gem for ourselves.
Near the hamlet
of Palai, vast, silent, rubber estates darkened the hills. Fat, green
rice fields spread in the valleys that were once ancient
watercourses. Roads meandered over little bridges spanning mountain
streams, snaked through the brooding plantations and then, quite
unexpectedly, opened into gently rising green lawns.
We stopped our
car and took a deep breath. The air was damp and smelt of musky
flowers and loam, the ground felt soft underfoot, and a flock of
green parrots settled on a tall anjali tree, feasting on the
sweet-sour flesh of its fruit. There was a sense of gentle
timelessness about it all.
At the far end
of the lawn, topping a rise, stood the mansion. Its wine-red plinth
gave way to rising, white, arches, the gold of old wood, the steep
serration of terracotta tiles, the achingly blue sky backdropping it
all. Newer wings had been added to the right and the left of the old
house but these merged seamlessly with the main mansion, never
questioning its bulking dominance.
It is very easy,
when visiting the old families in Kerala, to get overwhelmed in
greetings in warm pleasantries and the generous wining and dining
that is an essential feature of such occasions. Only the boorish and
ill-bred conduct business right away, so we shook hands and thumped
backs, and asked about the children and the grandchildren and the
cousins and their spouses and relatives in distant lands scattered in
the great Syrian Christian diaspora. And we wined and we dined when
we had sopped the last traces of the golden coconut syrup on the last
dollop of steamed bananas, we asked if we could walk around the old
mansion and be guided by the master carpenter, the asari.
Parameswaran Bhaskaran is a traditional craftsman steeped in the lore
of the ancient Tachi Shastra. All tarawads must be built according to
the principles laid down in this revered treatise.
said Bhaskaran, leading us around the base of the mansion, ìthe
tarawad is embedded on a foundation like other houses. It sits on a
plinth of laterite or granite blocks bound together with a mortar of
lime and river sand. It is only the weight of the Tarawad that holds
it firm. It is, after all, a pre-fabricated building that can be
dismantled and set up anywhere else.
In green and
rain-drenched Kerala, high plinths repel snakes and other
creepy-crawlies, keep houses cool and dry during monsoon flooding.
ìBut wonít the wooden mansion, resting on this plinth,
be attacked by termites?î we asked. White ants can be a major
problem in this southern state. We should have realised that the
Tachi Shastra had anticipated this. Bhaskaran told us that between
the plinth and the place where the huge base beams rest on the
plinth, a layer of termite repellent eta leaves has to be laid. The
weight of the tarawad then crushes the essential oils out of these
leaves and lets them soak into the pores of the wood making
the beams permanently immune to termite attack.
As we should
have expected from such a fortress-mansion, the heart of the tarawad
is the strong-room or ara. Here are stored the bags of grain and the
familyís valuables. In fact the door of the mansion and the
ground floor of the main building are little more than a strong shell
to hold the impregnable wooden vault of the ara.
Even the ara,
however, can be dismantled, carted away and re-erected. Bhaskaran
pointed out the other ingeniously-designed features of these
remarkable pre-fab mansions. On top of the base beams stand the
vertical wooden slats that form the walls of the building. Cross
beams, dove tails, wedges and metal bosses concealing the very few
copper nails used in the building, distribute stresses evenly, hold
the mansion firmly together using its own internal pressures to
stabilise it. And yet, a few well-placed blows can separate these
members into their individual pieces, ready to be carted to their new
wooden, mansion was full of light and air: a very important
consideration in often humid and overcast Kerala. White arches,
seemingly influenced by the old Dutch buildings of Kerala, rose out
of the plinth, provided cool spaces for the lesser members of the
family to rest in while the senior members slept in a room just above
the ara. Alternatively, the whole family could relax in the broad
verandah surrounding the sunken court open to the sky: it also served
as an effective ventilation shaft, letting hot air rise, sucking in
cooler draughts from the shaded areas of the tarawad.
What is most
remarkable about the tarawad, however, is the way in which function
and aesthetics have been merged so effortlessly. Thus, the expansion
spaces between the wall slats have been fashioned to form a
pleasingly repetitive pattern; the projecting ends of beams are
bevelled, polished and embellished with abstractions chiselled into
the wood; the great brass lock of the ara door is a thing of
Byzantine beauty. And, as a measure of extra protection, pious
Portuguese designs had been carved into the wood at lintel level.
Such an eclectic choice of idioms is fairly common in this spice-rich
state where foreign nations had established trading interests from
the very inception of colonial history.
It was late
afternoon when we stepped out of the house. High above the tarawad,
the typical saddle back roof of Kerala sucked in the breeze through
its fretted gables, constricted it, and wooshed it out on the other
side in a scientifically designed forced draught. Lightning must have
struck such buildings often but no one had heard of a tarawad falling
victim to the monsoonís wrath. Just above the wooden false
ceiling of the mansion, there is another layer of eta leaves. Between
the leaves and the frame holding the tiles of the high steeply
pitched roof is a thick filling of clay. Should lightning strike, it
will only crack the tiles and singe the supporting frames. It cannot
penetrate the fireproof clay and attack the beautiful old building
however, what the fires from heaven cannot do, the pressures of
progress might. As old traditions crumble so too could
the great old tarawads of Kerala.