Wooden Architecture of Kerala:
A Distinct Tradition in Indian Subcontinent
by Miki Desai
Indian architecture has manifestations that cover a rich heritage of building traditions. Among these, Kerala in the southwestern tip of India holds a distinct position due to the richness and the development of its wooden building science. Endowed with ancient institutions of religion and culture, Kerala's traditional architecture comprises temples, palaces and dwellings built in a unique system of wooden construction. The homogeneity and continuity in the traditional architecture of Kerala is unusual within the country and has been nurtured by the regional arts and crafts.
The craftsmen, who were highly skilled, have made creative and innovative use of wood within severe constraints laid down by the rules of building sciences. The basic principles of architecture remained faithful to Hindu scriptures, but the multi-religious social environment of Kerala added richness to this genre of wooden architecture. The Hindu, Christian and the Muslim communities with their corresponding influences made contributions with examples that ranged from the pragmatic to the highly expressive examples. The typical Hindu temple for instance, stands out among the Indian temple typology in form, structural clarity, stylistic tradition, symbolism and most of all, in material and craftsmanship in wood. The Kerala mosque and church vary from their counterparts in the rest of the country on account of the adaptations made for the wet Kerala climate.
One finds a strong religious-cultural bias in the plan organization of a dwelling, based on the regional version of Vastu Shastra: the ancient Hindu building science scriptures. The spatial organization is socially governed and is rather formal. The courtyard is a substantial central space that acts as a symbolic center and an organizing element rather than a utilitarian space. The matrilineal family system followed among some Hindus such as the Nairs and the Kshatriyas, as well as some Muslim sections of the society adds richness to the exercise of understanding of the house form.
Though the principles were rooted in the regional Hindu scriptures, the architectural symbiosis manifest in the edifices of different communities endowed continuity to the physical environment of Kerala. In the process, a distinct regional architectural language has emerged with its own intonations and symbols of a unique aesthetic experience. The proposed book, supported by a Graham Foundation grant, has extensive measured drawings and photo documentation.