Old Memories and New Life for an Ancestral Kerala Home

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December 15th 2018
Published: December 15th 2018
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Unnikrishnan didn’t want to just preserve his family’s ancestral home in the village of Painkulam, Kerala. He also wanted to offer an authentic and traditional place that Kerala families could use for family functions and reunions.

“They’re going to hotels and modern places these days, instead of doing what they traditionally did—gather in the family home.” So with that in mind, and with his background in construction, he tackled the challenge of renovating the home, a 150-year-old structure not lived in full time since 1960.

The result is remarkable. Gleaming red laterite stone walls are trimmed with wooden door and window frames and carved wooden panels. Teak columns salvaged from the house interior and concrete columns that look like wood support a long veranda. The third story roof, formerly a low attic that helped insulate the structure below from heat, was raised to make a useable space for family functions. Lathe-turned spindles of wood decorate the third story facade. Unnikrishnan proudly told me most of these pieces are reclaimed teak from the roof of the original structure.

He used the footprint of the original building and wanted to retain as much of the original structure as possible while
Unnikrishnan stands by the Tulasi planter boxUnnikrishnan stands by the Tulasi planter boxUnnikrishnan stands by the Tulasi planter box

Usually on the east side, every home has a place to grow tulasi, or sacred holy basil.
replacing unsound structural elements and modernizing features. Most striking is the incorporation of green building awareness. For example, he installed a one-kilowatt solar panel array for sun-generated electricity. And the focal point of the house is the retention and upgrade of the central cooling system.

This system uses the evaporation of water as a cooling source. A tile-lined pit in the floor accepts water splashing down water chains from the roof of the building. Water collected in the pit is diverted outside and recirculated. Unnikrishnan added horizontal pipes above the pit which release streams of water during times of no rain. While demonstrating its use, he noted that the water from the pipes was to have spouted up like tiny fountains, but the holes were not cut to his specifications. Even so, I thought it was a very clever update of the original cooling system, enabling effective year-round use.

Termites had destroyed some of the wood in the house, so he saved what he could, replaced where needed, and salvaged pieces for decorative elements. He even made the new concrete pillars inside look like wood, thus mimicking the original 150-year-old appearance. At the time it was built, large teak trees from Kerala forests were used. But now the teak has been depleted, leaving only smaller diameter trees.

He and his sister Gouri showed me the “delivery” room, now remodeled into a modern bathroom. I immediately thought this was the place where the family received deliveries of rice, wheat, or supplies. No, it was the delivery room. For babies. This narrow space was where his and Gouri’s mother had delivered the 10 children of their immediate family—seven girls and three boys.

The kitchen is now in a more spacious room. Two pieces of recycled laterite stone from the original exterior walls support a vessel on the floor of the new kitchen. Laterite varies in compression strength, depending on its source location. Unnikrishnan hopes the laterite he used to rebuild the exterior walls will last another 500 years.

One small room from the original construction survives. On the floor of this wood-lined closet is an earthen vessel used to store rice here over a century ago. A massive stone lintel graces the door. And dotting the walls is evidence of the family’s gratitude for the rice harvest. When they brought in the rice, they painted a circle of rice paste on the wall which dripped, leaving a long white tail.

I suggested that Unnikrishnan use the home as a hotel for rich foreigners. “That would require catering to their individual tastes and would be a lot of trouble,” he said. I was joking, but I could see how delightful it would be to spend a night in this modernized traditional Kerala home with its riverside view.

Childhood memories are packed in this place. Both he and sister Gouri talked about their daily schedule in the 1940’s through 1960. Some 20-25 children might be living in the house at any time—“gangs” of boys and girls—having different parents, all related through their mothers to their common grandmother who was the matriarch of the extended family. Once she passed away, the matriarchal role passed to the oldest female in the household. The matriarch was the unquestioned authority and representative of the family. She not only decided daily menus and delegated their preparation, but also her name was presented as the family head in official invitations, family functions, and temple activities.

As children, their day began around 6:00 am, when, after being awakened, they raced to the river,
Every day the “para” was filled with rice—about 22 pounds—and cooked for the extended family.Every day the “para” was filled with rice—about 22 pounds—and cooked for the extended family.Every day the “para” was filled with rice—about 22 pounds—and cooked for the extended family.

Made from palm tree wood, this vessel is over 100 years old. The para is both this vessel and a measurement of volume.
toothbrush in hand, and sat in a line. After brushing with a toothpaste of burnt rice chaff and cleaning their tongues with a mango leaf, they hopped in the river for a bath. Racing back to the house, they drank “white tea,” watered milk with a little sugar, and ate puffed rice. Then they headed for the village temple.

If it was a school day, they ate a meal at 8:30 am, and did not receive their next meal until after their return at 4:00 pm. On non-school days they ate lunch in shifts, starting about 10:30 am, the smallest children eating first. Reveling in their summer vacation, they roamed the unfenced and uninhabited surrounding lands, plucking ripe mangos and snacking on jackfruit, which some preferred eating while sitting in the tree. Unnikrishnan boasted that he held the record for eating an entire jackfruit at one sitting. Jackfruits get monstrously big, some reaching 25 pounds or more. He claims his jackfruit was about 5 kg (about 11 pounds).

At tea time, about 3:30 pm, an elder rounded up the kids and ushered them inside to avoid the heat of the day. They played dice games, recited poetry, and
Central cooling systemCentral cooling systemCentral cooling system

Guard rails around the tile-lined pit, with baffles above direct water from pipes above. The hole is open above through the pictured second floor, then on above through the third floor and finally the third floor roof to allow natural rain water to circulate.
played the Indian version of chess with chess pieces they had carved from plantains.

But life wasn’t all play. They had chores. The children fetched water from the well, helped wash dishes in the river, and collected flowers to make garlands for the temple. Girls swept and mopped the floors in the evening. Unnikrishnan teased his older sister as the three of us talked by claiming that the girls would often go to fetch water, but instead take a knife and spend most of their time eating mangoes.

By 5:30 pm, the children ate another meal, played in the river, and returned to the house to say prayers and recite math tables, all supervised by one of the uncles. The small children gathered around grandmother as she told stories from Hindu mythology, thus transmitting traditions, culture, and appropriate behavior.

The older boys and their uncles slept in a separate house just beyond the main one, while the girls, mothers, and smaller children slept in the ancestral home. They all slept on the floor, rolling out mats for a bed.

Gouri emphasized the security of the extended family then, when there were plenty of people to bear the workload and share challenges. When an uncle remained bedridden with illness for three years, all participated in his care, even the children who brought him water and visited. He thanked them with bits of candy he collected from other visitors.

Things fell apart in the late 1950’s, when the Kerala government imposed a redistribution of land. Those who actually worked the land would now assume ownership of it, while under the old system they had been working it under a lease.

For Gouri’s and Unnikrishnan’s family, who belonged to the Varya group, this transition was devastating. Traditionally this group was responsible for caring for the temple—cleaning it, providing and preparing the temple foods of rice, ghee, and coconuts, and making the flower garlands. To support their responsibilities they had been given land that was passed to succeeding generations through the women. But all this changed in 1957 as their property was transferred to the workers to whom they had leased the land.

The old traditions, where tightly bonded extended families worked together under a matriarch, eroded over the years. Unnikrishnan’s project to revive the ancestral family home and its use as an anchor for the extended
Tile-lined Pit for the central cooling system.Tile-lined Pit for the central cooling system.Tile-lined Pit for the central cooling system.

Original rock surrounds the pit that collects water directed from above.
family is born of his heartfelt desire to recover and reaffirm what was an essential aspect of their lives.

I am sincerely grateful to Unnikrishnan and Gouri Krishnan for graciously sharing their stories with me.

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


Open passageway for atman, the soul of the deceased to passOpen passageway for atman, the soul of the deceased to pass
Open passageway for atman, the soul of the deceased to pass

The room on the first floor where the deceased people are laid needs to have a pathway above to allow their soul to pass. A raised triangular part of the second floor with these windows assures an open pathway.
Delivery room transformed into a bathroomDelivery room transformed into a bathroom
Delivery room transformed into a bathroom

Delivery room not for rice, but for babies. Unnikrishnan’s and Gouri’s mother delivered her 10 children here.
Second floor opening for cooling system surrounded by guard rails.Second floor opening for cooling system surrounded by guard rails.
Second floor opening for cooling system surrounded by guard rails.

Directly beyond is the raised triangular floor allowing for passage of the souls of dead people laid out in the room below.

15th December 2018

I like the weblog, it is very attractive. I will bookmark it and will come back on it.
15th December 2018

Thanks so much for your comment!
22nd February 2022

these blog get me back to the old days of kerala,these are the days people were young and fun hawaiistore

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