Maison traditionnelle avec cour centrale
Houses with Centered Courtyards

nālukeṭṭu , eṭṭukeṭṭu , paturaṇṭukeṭṭu , patināṟukeṭṭu

7 novembre 2012

William A. Noble, Houses with Centered Courtyards in Kerala and Elsewhere in India, in Paul Hockings, Ed., Dimensions of Social Life. Essay in Honor of David G. Mandelbaum, Berlin, Mouton De Gruyter, 1987, pp.215–262.

/245/ Centered Courtyard Houses in Kerala

Many houses in Kerala, including those in cities, are in compounds with enclosing walls. These are typically scattered over the landscape, separate from the compounds of neighbors. A compound with traditionally arranged festures is illustrated in the volume edited by Asok Mitra (1966: between 116 and 117)*. The substantial compound wall has three wickets, a gateway and a large, formal entrance complex centered on the eastern side. A portico extends frontward, and there is an entrance-way shelter behind it (Diag. 11). The rectangular house, with kitchen extended outward, has two rectangular courtyards with longer axes oriented in the opposite (north-south) /246/ direction. Because each centered courtyard in Kerala is related to four quarters (nālukeṭṭu), this house is an eight quarters (eṭṭukeṭṭu) house. There is also a minor courtyard near the kitchen. The private family temple, with eastern entrance, lies south of the house. A well, not far from the northeastern kitchen, is dug right next to the kitchen for some houses. A cowshed lies in one corner of the compound, and there is a multipurpose shed in another corner. Most house walls and the temple walls are made with wood, and this common use of wood is characteristic of the traditional houses of Kerala. The compound walls, most entrance-way shelter walls, the northern wall of the house and the walls of adjacent rooms, and a partition dividing the house are made with laterite blocks and mortar. The reason for the partition is not given, but similar partitioning elsewhere in India often stems from problems related to mothers-in-law. Nowadays Mangalore tiles are often utilized in the roofing of complexes such as this one.

* Asok Mitra, Census of India 1961. Vol. I Part IV–A (iii). Report on House Types and Village Settlement Patterns in India, Delhi: Manager of Publications, 1966.


While surveying the traditional architecture in Kerala during 1970-71, I drew the plans of some centered courtyard houses. Following the Kerala system, these and related data will be covered under the headings of four quarters (nālukeṭṭu), eight quarters (eṭṭukeṭṭu), twelve quarters (paturaṇṭukeṭṭu), and sixteen quarters (patināṟukeṭṭu) houses. Because time ran out, details of architectural symbolism related to terrestrial-celestial modeling could not be delved into. Some entrances face due east, but an entrance facing either slightly southward or northward from due east is preferred. An explanation given for this preference by the Badagas of the Nilgiris, in Tamil Nadu, is that it would be offensive to Siva if a housewife threw trash out of a front door facing due east: it would be thrown toward the rising sun, the emblem of Siva. By changing the alignment of the house this possibility is automatically avoided. Houses in Kerala usually have other entrances as well, and there seems to be no bias against these facing in a northerly, westerly or southerly direction. Entrances and inner doorways are often aligned with each other as well. Entrances usually left open, when aligned with inner doors, permit freer air circulation and the penetration of sound. Among people like the Malayalis of Kerala who typically live amid gardens, these factors enhance the feeling that one lives with nature. As in other Southern houses, those in Kerala have open shaded areas surrounding each centered courtyard. How far these areas extend outward is determined by varying room arrangements, often associated with wood partitions in the smaller houses.

Conforming with the concept of four quarters, in turn related to terrestrial-celestial modeling, there may be east (kiṟakkappura) , north (vaṭakkappura), west (paṭiññārappura), and south (tekkappura) rooms, or some combination of rooms so named. Another primary factor in interior arrangements is the conspicuous presence of a grain storage room (ara) or rooms, and in some houses an additional place (nīḷavara) to store jewels, money and /247/ other prized material possessions. Kitchens usually have walls of laterite blocks or bricks and mortar, and occupy the northeastern portions of the square to rectangular houses. A special worship center within the house will normally occupy a northwestern segment close to the courtyard.


A four quarters (nālukeṭṭu) house at Poovarani, in Palai [North Travancore], can serve as the ideal (Diag. 12). The amazing degree of centering present in the house parallels the centering which occurs in Kerala style Hindu temples (Noble 1981)*, and further demonstrates how important centering is to traditional Kerala architecture. The square courtyard (naṭumuṟṟam) is precisely centered between the east and west sides of the rectangular base upon which the house stands. Four roof support posts (a tetrastyle system, common in Kerala) rise from the low wall surrounding the courtyard. In order to have a square unit, the back wall was set back. The kitchen (aṭukkaḷa) to one side is surrounded by a wall made with laterite blocks and mortar, and the northeastern cooking area has its own horizontal roof made with wood overlain by adobe. This roof's upper surface is used for storage. Family ceremonies, including those related to marriage, are performed in the largest section (iṭakeṭṭu) of the open shaded area surrounding the courtyard. A grain storage room (ara), with raised floor, is located precisely below the outer roof crest. This runs north-south, the longer axis of the grain room runs north-south, and the edges of the overlying inner roof form a rectangle with a longer north-south axis. The top of this wood with adobe roof serves as a storage area and is reached by stairs. The grain room is centered in a rectangular southern complex of rooms, all of which have wooden walls.

* William A. Noble, The Architecture and Organization of Kerala Style Hindu Temples, Anthropos, Bd. 76, H. 1./2. (1981), pp. 1–24.

The basic symbolic concept underlying the overall plan is, I suggest, the use of the square unit with courtyard to acknowledge — through inward focusing upon light — the universal creative spirit (Atman or Brahma); the use of a subsidiary rectangle, with centered grain room, to acknowledge the bounty provided by the universal spirit to earth-bound humans. A southern prayer room (varam) replaces a separate family temple to the south. A surrounding veranda (tiṇṇa) is formed by the use of posts to support a tiled roof extended over the house base.

The house at Cheravalli [North Travancore] (Diag. 12) is a standard square structure with a surrounding veranda (iṟavāram) and a centered square courtyard (naṭumuṛṛam). A tetrastyle system of posts is linked to the shallow wall surrounding the courtyard. There is a northeastern kitchen, and a western grain room (ara) lies between a north room (vaṭakkappura) and a south room (tekkappura). A shelter for the deity (gṛhappuradēvada) has a northwestern location next to the courtyard. An eastward-facing portico was added to the house. An extra storage area (ōrappura) with shallow walls is at the back. An entrance in it leads into the storage area for valuables (nīḷivara) beneath the grain room. The nearby house at Cherukol (Diag. 12), which might /… 249/ at first be taken to be irregular in plan, was inspired by a square and has a square courtyard centered in that square. The front veranda is within the square. Following the system used at Cheravalli, a room was aligned to each side of the grain room. The three rooms were then aligned along the southerly edge of the square rather than the western edge. Thus in the Mundakkal Ham, a house occupied by Nambudiri Brahmans at Cherukol, the grain room has an east room (kiṟakkappura) to one side and a west room (paṭiññārappura) to the other. By making the dimensions of the three southern rooms smaller, it was possible to add a western veranda. The eastern and western verandas were then extended southward to each side of an added southern room for worship (vadavu). As there is more open shaded space to the north of the courtyard, a small formal temple was constructed in the northwestern quadrant. Because there is no portico, the meeting place (tallam) has a northeasterly indoor location. The entire northeastern kitchen with adjacent well is a large addition to the basic square. The house at Tripparrappu [Near Padmanabhapuram] (Diag. 12), now located in Tamil Nadu but once within Travancore, also illustrates the Malayali use of the square in housing. The centered rectangular courtyard has a longer northerly-southerly axis. There are two grain rooms behind the front porch. A passage from the courtyard goes to the entrance into the storage area for valuables under one of the grain rooms. There is an attached northeastern kitchen, and the supplementary storage shed to its north is a later addition. The northwestern kitchen is an exception, but results from some family members wishing to have their own living arrangements. In the traditional manner, there is a separate family temple to the south.

The Maharajas of Travancore once used the palace at Padmanabhapuram (Diag. 13). This city surrounded by massive walls was once the capital of Travancore, a state which extended to Cape Comorin. While most of Travancore was allotted to Kerala after Independence, the southern portion with Padbanabhapuram became a part of Tamil Nadu. The palace, now in a museum officially linked to Kerala, is significantly a double-storied structure based upon the apadana design. In order to live in a dwelling with more than one story when the traditional system still flourished in Travancore, a person had to be a member of royalty or a member of a privileged family honored by royalty. Thus even to the present there is a noticeable absence of double-storied houses in the rural areas that were once within Travancore. The resulting landscape impression provides a marked contrast with Malabar in northern Kerala, where large two- and three-storied houses are by no means rare. As all the rosewood trees in Travancore were royal trees, owned by the Maharaja, the use of this wood to add the finishing touches in dwellings was also a royal prerogative.

The ground floor of the squared palace at Padmanabhapuram has a centered northerly-southerly oriented courtyard surrounded by a veranda. /… 251/ The veranda is protected by a roof projected outward from the higher floor level. Laterite was used to make the thick walls. The surrounding outer veranda is edged by wooden walls and screens designed for subdued lighting. The southwestern segment, probably used as an audience chamber, has embedded wooden pieces in the smooth floor to delineate this corner of the palace. An intricately sculptured wooden pillar stands at the corner. Near the courtyard there is the entrance to an escape tunnel which is said once to have run for a long distance. On the upper floor there are narrower laterite walls and wooden walls. The surrounding outer veranda is enclosed with a distinctive wooden screen vertical from the base and then slanting outward to the overhanging roof. The inner centered space is surrounded by a narrow veranda also enclosed by a wooden screen on the outer edge. An above-ground-level walk leads into the southwestern corner room. This is a delightful room with a wooden sitting platform and subdued lighting ideal for the tropics. With the exception of the northeastern segment of the ground floor, the Iranian apadana* is clearly reflected on both floors. The emplacement of stairs in corner squares, one overlying the other, was also an Iranian practice. There is some probability that astrologers and members of the carpenter caste (the asaris, the traditional design bearers from one generation to another) use the apadana outline while designing a house, and particularly when assigning the grain room and two adjacent rooms to either a southern or western alignment (note that the center grain room in each example given is slightly broader than the two adjacent rooms). However, the overall apadana is not reflected in the smaller houses. Thus in this respect the palace at Padmanabhapuram offers a contrast. This raises the question, Do all the squared two-storied palaces with centered courtyards in Kerala strongly reflect the apadana? If so, the apadana was closely followed in palace architecture. Kaudiar Palace in Trivandrum, still a temporary residence of the former Maharaja of Travancore and the unused palace of the Raja of Chirakkal in Malabar are both squared structures with at least two stories and centered courtyards. I do not know if they reflect the Iranian apadana.

* Apadāna (Vieux perse) "hypostyle hall", salle en pierres de taille à colonnes.

Because of its two courtyards, the Vijaya Vilas (Palace) in Poojapura, Trivandrum (Diag. 13), is in the traditional system called an eight quarters (eṭṭukeṭṭu) house. However, rather than being a traditional Kerala house, this structure was doubtlessly inspired by Roman architecture. It might in part be based upon the plan of an excavated Roman villa at Pompeii. The similarity does not stem from ancient contacts, but from the far later British presence. In Trivandrum, where this palace was built in this century and prior to Independence, there was an English Resident and other British officials, some Catholic priests, and the children in the royal families were tutored by the British. While Indians at the time did to a major degree continue their cultural ways, some admired and adopted British ways and /252/ preferences in a dual manner. In the construction of the Vijaya Vilas for members of a royal family probably getting along well with the British, one can imagine the large role which an Englishman intent on furthering Classical Revival may have played in its planning and execution. The abundance of latrines in the palace would please British expatriates, and is probably attributable in part to their influence. The most Roman characteristics of the palace are (1) the emphasis upon a central axis, (2) the front later Corinthian atrium and a back Corinthian peristyle straddling the axis, (3) a striving for balance to each side of the axis (perfectly executed up to the back dining and kitchen area), (4) the front vestibule, (5) the prayer room (pūjappura) adjacent to the atrium, and (6) the supplementary posts erected near the atrium and designed to impress. Characteristics typifying Malayali cultural preferences are (1) the verandas on all sides, (2) the back open shaded area extending from a square back courtyard, almost centered in an incomplete square, to two outer walls, (3) the tulasi plant grown on a centered pedestal in the front courtyard, and (4) the indoor and open shaded (on the back veranda) kitchens. The open shaded and indoor kitchens have their parallel in the desert of Rajasthan. To bring out some cultural traits dating back for thousands of years in India, details are provided for the different features in the kitchens. The sacred tulasi plant receives special attention from Hindus all over India and, as indicated already for the Mandi District in Himachal Pradesh, is often planted on pedestals. The addition of another floor in the front provides a more impressive facade. By having a porch with fronted steps, the driver of an automobile or carriage coming into the grounds can easily tell where to drive to.

Excepting the unusually large number of formalized bedrooms with latrines behind, resulting from British influence, V.K. Krisna PilIai's house at North Mathirappilly, near Cheranelloor [north of Trichur] (Diag. 13) is a traditional eight quarters (eṭṭukeṭṭu) house. It has laterite walls and lacks wooden partitions, but notice how the traditionally important grain room (ara), the womb house (garbhagṛha) for a deity's image, and the prayer room (pūjappura) have wooden walls! The northeastern outward-extended kitchen with a well next to it, the two courtyards surrounded by open shaded areas, and the verandas on each side of the house basically reflect Malayali preferences. As we know already, the tetrastyle order of posts related to each courtyard is also commonly chosen. The stairs in the house only provide access to storage areas on levels above rooms, and are not linked to a second story.


The Mankeezhu Vedu (House) in Muttathara, Trivandrum (Diag. 14), is also a traditional eṭṭukeṭṭu house. It was constructed in two phases which were probably separated by a period of over thirty years. Squares were the basis of design in each phase, and apart from the palace at Padbanabhapuram this house offers the best evidence for the use of the apadana. The design used /253/ in the first phase may be unique, but it might also be one among several in the traditional system. An apadana was used, but the southeasterly square and middle eastern portion were then removed. In the earliest house there was probably a kitchen in the northeasterly square. The centered square courtyard here was approximately bisected, but in order to have a courtyard which conformed with the house outline a northeasterly extension was then added to the courtyard (anganam). The pride of place assigned to the three grain rooms (aras 1-3) and a grain bin (pathayam) built with wood into the southeastern rectangle with a front porch is indicative of the profound conceptual meaning which these features must have in Malayali thinking. They are also significant features in other Malayali houses without centered courtyards. A long grain bin (pathayam) is also aligned between the courtyard and the rectangle with wooden walls. A fourth rectangular grain room (ara 4) is located in the southwestern corner of the first house unit, and there is a room in the northwestern corner. I conjecture that the separate northern kitchen and servants' quarters ended the use of the northeasterly extension as a kitchen. This could have resulted from British influence, for they often had kitchens sep.arated from their houses. After the second back unit was built onto the house and a kitchen was provided in its northwestern corner, the separate kitchen and servants' quarters were abandoned. The back unit is based upon a square extended backward from close to the back edge of the front courtyard and made flush with the southerly edge of the front unit. A square courtyard (anganam 2) was then centered in this square. Though the southerly centered room and two adjacent square rooms were narrowed and pinched into the space available , they perfectly illustrate the aligned side units of an apadana.

The squared house at Padbanabhapuram is a twelve quarte'rs (paturaṇṭukeṭṭu) house with a surrounding veranda and a northeasterly kitchen extended outward (Diag. 14). The centered grain room and the centered courtyard north of it are in an easterly rectangle. Their basic arrangement, paralleling that of the four quarters (nālukeṭṭu) house at Poovarani, in Palai, is probably a further expression of the integral system in the traditional architecture of Kerala. By adding the two westerly courtyards, a squared unit with inward focusing in each quarter was formed. To demarcate where a higher floor is followed by a lower floor next to each western courtyard, edging wooden planks were set alongside the higher floor. The floor of the front porch before the grain room is also edged on the outer side with a long wooden plank, and several posts are inset into it. With the exception of the kitchen walls made with bricks and mortar, all the other walls in the house are of wood. A pit centered behind the grain room is used for access to space — for valuables (nīḷivara) — below the grain room. The family temple to the south has a narrow veranda on three sides, wooden walls, and a front open section with a higher floor edged by wooden planks.


/… 255/ The Padma Vilas (Palace) in Trivandrum, completed in 1913 AD, during the heyday of the British presence, is probably the only sixteen quarters (patināṟukeṭṭu) house in Kerala (Diag. 14). It was the residence of the Dewan (The Prime Minister) of Travancore. The reflections of both Roman and English influences in the palace are to a major degree counteracted by Malayali influences. The triumph of Malayali traditions is revealed in (1) the verandas on all three sides of the main rectangular structure, (2) the primary entrance facing eastward, (3) the northeasterly kitchen, (4) the abundant use of wood in the walls, (5) the brick walls surrounding the kitchen and other utilitarian areas in the back, (6) the open shaded areas surrounding each courtyard, with shaded portions extending to the outer walls in all four instances, and (7) the tulasi plant grown in a centered pedestal in the third courtyard back. Indeed, the British and Indian designers of this palace were in a sense more Roman than the Romans! Have the archaeological remains of a single Roman villa with four courtyards aligned on an axis ever been found? Yet it is also worth noting that the back courtyard was displaced westward because of the pre-eminent wish to provide a substantial northeastern kitchen. As each of the first three courtyards is encompassed by twelve posts and the last courtyard is encompassed by fourteen posts, each post order can be labeled Corinthian. The two front courtyards (anganams) were thought of differently from the courtyard with a garden farther back. Front areas near the courtyards, once with functional counterparts (near atriums) among the Romans, were more public areas (esepecially anganam 1). The area associated with the courtyard and garden farther back, with its functional counterpart (near a peristyle) among the Romans, was more private and for the enjoyment of family members. The back utilitarian area, with a well and kitchen, adjacent to the back courtyard probably reflects British influence as well. A common practice among the British was to have the kitchen and related utilitarian rooms (perhaps for servants as well) at the back of the house, if not separate and behind it. To permit a grand coming to and fro, there is a portico to shelter a car. Steps from the portico lead to the main entrance. A front double-storied section of the palace, with brick walls, provides a more impressive facade. Now however this building has been divided into governmental offices.