The traditional houses in Kerala with their sloping roofs and inviting courtyards have a timeless appeal. Referred to as Nalukettu, these sustainable houses are based on the principles of Thachu Shastra (the science of carpentry) and Vaastu Shastra - the traditional Indian system of architecture.
Nalu means four and Kettu means blocks. So a Nalukettu is a rectangular structure with four blocks linked by an open courtyard. The Nalukettu houses are also referred to as Tharavadu, Kovilakam, Kotare, Meda or Illam.
Also Read: Build local: This architect creates sustainable & sturdy homes without using cement or steel
Larger houses were called Ettukkettu (8-block structure) or Pathinarukkettu (16-block structure).
A traditional house had sloping roofs, porches, and verandahs and the construction allowed for ample natural lighting and cross-ventilation. Houses also traditionally had a granary, cattle sheds and a pond while the land around the house had several fruits and coconut trees.
Materials used in construction
The houses are built in keeping the hot, humid and rainy conditions in Kerala. All the materials like clay, timber, palm leaves and stone used in the construction are sustainable and sourced locally, minimizing carbon footprint.
A Nalukettu is usually single-storeyed and made with wood. But they can also be two-storeyed or three-storeyed.
Teakwood, Mahogany or wood from the jackfruit are used for the construction of the doors and windows. As a 'carbon store', wood absorbs carbon-di-oxide, taking it out of the atmosphere.
Moreover, the wood used is recyclable and reusable. The wooden walls, pillars and roof have beautiful carvings, showing the skill of the craftsmen. The walls are made from a mixture of laterite and clay. The flooring is usually of red oxide or clay or wood.
The entrance of the Nalukettu has an arched gateway like a temple gopuram called Padippura. The entrance has a tiled roof and a large wooden door.
Traditional houses were constructed facing the east or north, which are considered auspicious directions as per the Vaastu Shastra. The four blocks correspond to the four directions. Traditionally, the kizhakkini or the eastern block was where the temple or puja room was situated.
Vadakkini or the northern block was considered a favourable direction for the kitchen, while the Padinjattini or the western block was for the storage of grains, as per the Vaastu Shastra.
Thekkini, the southern block, was where the money and wealth were stored. The rooms were also located on the southern block.
An integral feature of every Kerala house is the open courtyard called Nadumuttom. As per Vaastu Shastra, it is located in the centre of the house and is square or rectangular. It is open and does not have any pillars, allowing natural light and ventilation. In the Nalukettu design, all the rooms open into the courtyard.
Nalukettu has two verandahs – internal and external. The external one protected the rooms from direct sunlight. The verandah on the east and west block was kept open while the north and south verandahs were shaded.
The inner verandah around the courtyard allowed light to enter the house. It was used as a recreational space. Traditional houses in Kerala had a Charupadi, a built-in wooden seat on the porch or balcony, facing the entrance. Traditionally, the verandah seat was made for the family and visitors to sit and socialise and enjoy nature.
In the interiors of a traditional Kerala house, pillars were a common feature instead of walls. The roof frame was structurally supported on the pillars on walls erected on a plinth. They were raised from the ground to protect them from dampness.
As per Vaastu Shastra, water bodies help in balancing energies. Thus, traditionally, Kerala houses have a pond that is usually situated at the end of the verandah. The pond was made with rubble and could be used for bathing.
Nalukettu houses were built in harmony with nature and reflect the state’s rich culture and heritage.