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The Knockdown Option

The world’s only prefab, portable mansions, the tarawads trace their origins to the state's martial tradition

Kerala, now 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 location!

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.

Traditionally, 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.

There was, 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.

“Observe” 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 location.

This old, 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 below.

Regrettably, 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.

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