Kerala Architecture - Balagopal T. S .Prabhu
Materials / Pre-historic Vestiges / Influence of Buddhism / Vedic and Brahmanical Influences / Temple Architecture
Traditional Domestic Architecture / Jewish Monuments in Kerala / Islamic Architecture in Kerala / Church Architecture of Kerala
Indo-European Style in Secular Architecture / The Present Trend
The cultural heritage of any country is seen best exposed in its architectural monuments. The ways in which the buildings are designed, constructed and decorated speak not only the technical and artistic capabilities of the craftsmen, but also of the aspirations and visions of the perceptors, for whom the construction is only a medium for thematic expression. From the single dwellings to the magnificent edifices, architecture also reflects the human endeavour meeting the ever changing social needs. Kerala abounds with many such architectural monuments-prehistoric megaliths, tombs, caves, temples, mosques, churches, theatres, houses, palaces and public buildings, built and renovated over centuries representing a panorama of architectural development. None of these structures is very big; the aesthetic appeal of these buildings mainly arise from the simplicity of form and functional perfection.
The characteristic regional expression of Kerala architecture results from the geographical, climatic and historic factors. Geographically Kerala is a narrow strip of land lying in between western seaboard of peninsular India and confined between the towering Western Ghats and the vast Arabian sea. Favoured by plentiful rains and bright sunshines, this land is lush green with vegetation and rich in animal life. In the uneven terrain of this region human habitation is distributed thickly in the fertile low-lands and sparsely towards the hostile highlands. Clustered houses are rarely seen in villages. Large cities are also absent in this landscape. The architecture of this region has been of a humble scale, merging with nature. The form of the buildings with low walls, sloping roof and projecting caves was mostly evolved from climatic considerations - for protection from excessive rain and intense solar radiation. The setting of the building in the open garden plot was again necessitated by the requirement of wind for giving comfort in the humid climate.
The natural building materials available for construction in Kerala are stones, timber, clay and palm leaves. Granite is a strong and durable building stone; however its availability is restricted mostly to the highlands and only marginally to other zones. Owing to this, the skill in quarrying, dressing and sculpturing of stone is scarce in Kerala. Laterite on the other hand is the most abundant stone found as outcrops in most zones. Soft laterite available at shallow depth can be easily cut, dressed and used as building blocks. It is a rare local stone which gets stronger and durable with exposure at atmospheric air. Laterite blocks may be bonded in mortars of shell lime, which has been the classic binding material used in traditional buildings. Lime mortar can be improved in strength and performance by admixtures of vegetable juices. Such enriched mortars were used for plastering or for serving as the base for mural painting and low relief work. Timber is the prime structural material abundantly available in many varieties in Kerala - from bamboo to teak. Perhaps the skilful choice of timber, accurate joinery, artful assembly and delicate carving of wood work for columns, walls and roofs frames are the unique characteristics of Kerala architecture. Clay was used in many forms - for walling, in filling the timber floors and making bricks and tiles after pugging and tempering with admixtures. Palm leaves were used effectively for thatching the roofs and for making partition walls.
From the limitations of the materials, a mixed mode of construction was evolved in Kerala architecture. The stone work was restricted to the plinth even in importat buildings such as temples. Laterite was used for walls. The roof structure in timber was covered with palm leaf thatching for most buildings and rarely with tiles for palaces or temples. The exterior of the laterite walls were either left as such or plastered with lime mortar to serve as the base for mural painting. The sculpturing of the stone was mainly moulding in horizontal bands in the plinth portion (adhistans) whereas the carving of timber covered all elements _ pillars, beams, ceiling, rafters and the supporting brackets. The Kerala murals are paintings with vegetable dyes on wet walls in subdued shades of brown. The indigenous adoption of the available raw materials and their transformation as enduring media for architectural expression thus became the dominant feature of the Kerala style.
Trissoor district. The tombs are roughly oblong in plan with single or multiple bed chambers with a rectangular court in the east from where steps rise to the ground level. Another type of burial chamber is made of four slabs placed on edges and a fifth one covering them as a cap stone. One or more such dolmens are marked by a stone circle. Among the megaliths are the umbrella stones, (kudakkal) resembling handless palm leaf umbrellas used for covering pits enclosing burial urns. Two other types of megaliths, hat stones (thoppikkal) and menhirs (pulachikkal) however have no burial appendages. They appear to be rather memorial stones.
The megaliths are not of much architectural significance, but they speak of the custom of the primitive tribes erecting memorials at sites of mortuary rites. These places later became the annual meeting grounds of the tribes and gave rise to occult temples of ancesteral worship. While the custom of father worship can be seen in these cases, the protecting deities of the villages were always in female form, who were worshiped in open groves (kavu). These hypaethral temples had trees, stone symbols of Mother Godesses or other naturalistic or animistic image as objects of worship. The continuity of this early culture is seen in the folk arts, cult rituals, worship of trees, serpents and mother images in kavus.
Historic factors did not allow the continuance of the cultural isolation of Kerala from the remaining parts of India which was the arena of cultural invasions of Aryans and other races. Aryans had spread their culture all over north India by about 1000 B.C. Kerala also started experiencing a cultural invasion by the slow ethnic migration of Aryans in the beginnings of Christian era. In the second rock edict of Asoka dated third century B.C. Kerala is referred as one of the border kingdoms of the Maurya empire. It is possible that Buddhists and Jainas were the first north Indian groups to cross the borders of Kerala and establish their monasteries. These religious groups were able to practise their faith and receive patronage from the local kings to build shrines and viharas. For nearly eight centuries Buddhism and Jainism seem to have co-existed in Kerala as an important faith, contributing in its own way to the social and architectural development of the region.
The Jain monuments are more numerous in Kerala. They include rock shelters at Chitral near Nagercoil, a rock cut temple at Kallil near Perumbavoor, and remains of structural temples at Alathoor near Palakkad and at Sultanbathery. Sculptured Jaina figures of Mahavira, Parswanatha and other thirthankaras have been recovered from these sites. Sultanbathery also has the remains of a Jaina basti, known as Ganapati vattam, being an example of a cloistered temple built entirely of granite.
Inspite of the absence of architectural monuments there is conclusive proof of the influence of the Buddhist school on Kerala architecture of later periods. The circular temples basically follow the shapes of the Buddhist stupas, the dome shaped mounds. The apsidal temples are modelled in the pattern of chaitya halls, the assembly halls of Buddhist monks. The chaitya window seen repeated in the decorative moulding of the thorana around the temple shrine is clearly a Buddhist motif adopted in Hindu style, according to Percy Brown. Basically thorana is a gateway provided in the palisade seen in the vertical and horizontal members of the vilakkumadam, which is a feature seen only in Kerala temples of the post-Buddhist period. In its most primitive form this construction is seen in the hypaethral temples enshrining trees and later on the outer walls of the shrines proper. With the stylistic development of the Hindu temple this form of palisade is removed from the shrine structure (srikovil) and taken as a separate edifice beyond the temple cloister (chuttambalam). Historians are also of opinion that many rituals including the elephant procession during festivals are of Buddhist origin and adopted in Kerala temples.
Its capital was Vanchi, identified with the Thiruvanchikulam near Kodungallur. At this time the southern part of Kerala was ruled by the Ay chieftains and the northern parts by the Nannans of Ezhilmalai. The early period of Christian era - first to third century - is also marked by the contact with Aryans and their vedic religion rooted in the fire sacrifices. Between fourth and seventh centuries A.D. Brahmanas appeared to have settled in Kerala and established their religion. The amalgamation of different cultures and religious philosophies helped to evolve the architectural styles of Kerala temples.
The early Aryan religion in Kerala and Brahmanical practices showed a tendency to adopt and adapt the native rituals and hence exhibit a dual nature. On the one hand there was emphasis on the pure Aryan practice of fire sacrifice or yagas; on the other hand there was also a practice of installing deities in temples and worshiping them by flowers. Traditionally only vedic Gods were invoked in fire sacrifices and all divinities adopted from the native religion were worshipped in temples called kottam, kovil etc. The most important of these divinities were Muruga, Bhagavathi and Sastha. With the bhakti movement of the sixth-seventh century, two main streams of Brahmanical religions _ saivism and vaishnavism _ eulogised by the nayanars and alwars respectively became the predominant religions patronized by the kings. Siva and Vishnu thus became the most important deities of worship. The two streams, however, were interwoven by Sankara in unified philosophical thought, and a cult synthesis. In ritualistic worship this is manifested in offering of sandal paste as well as vilva and thulasi to the devotees of both Siva and Vishnu temples. Examples of temples with two main shrines one for Siva and another for Vishnu in the common enclosure are also the result of this cult synthesis. The bhakti movement and the work of Sankara helped to firmly establish the Hindu religion and completely displace Jainism and Buddhism from Kerala by about eighth-tenth century.
Under the rule of the second Cera Perumals (eighth-eleventh century) most of Kerala except the extreme north and south got unified. This was highly conducive of architectural development and renovation of a large number of temples. After the decline of the Ceras several small principalities developed all over Kerala. By fifteenth century, Kerala was broadly covered by the suzerainty of four principal chieftains - Venad rulers in the south, Kochi Maharajas in the centre, samutiris of Kozhikode in the north and Kolathiri Rajas in the extreme north. They were rulers who patronized architectural activities. A regional character in construction incorporating the Dravidian craft skills, unique forms of Buddhist buildings, design concepts of vedic times and cannonical theories of Brahmanical Agamic practices in locally available materials and suited to the climatic conditions was finally evolved in Kerala. The theory and practice of architectural construction were also compiled during this period. Their compilations remain as classical texts of a living tradition to this day. Four important books in this area are Thantrasamuchayam (Chennas Narayanan Namboodiri) and Silpiratnam (Sreekumara), covering temple architecture and Vastuvidya (anon.) and Manushyalaya Chandrika (Thirumangalathu Sri Neelakandan), dealing with the domestic architecture. A number of minor works in Sanskrit, manipravalam and refined Malayalam, all based on the above texts have found popularity in Kerala with the craftsmen and professionals related with the subject.
The structural temples appear in the second phase spanning the eighth to tenth centuries, and patronised by the Cera, Ay and Mushika chieftains. The earliest temples had a unitary shrine or a srikovil. In rare cases a porch or ardhamandapa is seen attached to the shrine. A detached namaskara mandapa is generally built in front of the srikovil. A quadrangular building _ nalambalam _ encloses the srikovil and the namaskara mandapa. At the entrance to the nalambalam is located the altar stone _ balikkal. This basic plan composition of the Kerala temple is seen emerging in this phase.
The srikovil may be built in different plan shapes - square, rectangular, circular or apsidal. Of these the square plan shows an even distribution throughout Kerala state. The square shape is basically the form of the vedic fire altar and strongly suggest the vedic mooring. It is categorized as the nagara style of temple in the architecutural texts. The rectangular plan is favoured for the Ananthasai Vishnu and the Sapta matrikas. The circular plan and the apsidal plan are rare in other parts of India and unknown even in the civil architecture of Kerala, but they constitute an important group of temples. The circular plan shows a greater preponderance in the southern part of Kerala, in regions once under the influence of Buddhism. The apsidal plan is a combination of the semi-circle and the square and it is seen distributed sporadically all over the coastal region. The circular temples belong to the vasara category. A variation of circle-elipse is also seen as an exception in the Siva shrine at Vaikkom. Polygonal shapes belonging to the Dravida category are also adopted rarely in temple plans but they find use as a feature of shikhara.
For the unitary temples _ alpa vimanas - the overall height is taken as 13/7/ to 2 1/8 of the width of the shrine, and categorised into 5 classes as _ santhika, purshtika, yayada, achudha and savakamika - with increasing height of the temple form. The total height is basically divided into two halves. The lower half consists of the basement, the pillar or the wall (stambha or bhithi) and the entablature (prasthara) in the ratio 1:2:1, in height. Similarly the upper half is divided into the neck (griva), the roof tower (sikhara) and the fonial (stupi) in the same ratio. The adisthana is generally in granite but the super structure is built in laterite. The structural roof of the shrine is constructed as the corbelled dome of masonry; however in order to protect it from the vagaries of climate it was superposed by a functional roof, made of timber frame covered by planks and tiles. This sloping roof with its projecting caves gave the characteristic form to the Kerala temple. The fenial, made of copper, provided the crowning spire denoting the focus of the shrine wherein the idol was installed.
The namaskara mandapa is a square shaped pavilion with a raised platform, a set of pillars and a pyramidal roof. The size of the mandapa is decided by the width of the shrine cell. The pavilion in its simplest form has four corner pillars; but larger pavilions are provided with two sets of pillars _ four inside and twelve outside. Pavilions of circular, elliptical and polygonal shapes are mentioned in the texts, but they are not seen in Kerala temples.
The shrine and the mandapa building are enclosed in a rectangular structure called the nalambalam or chuttambalam. Functionally the rear and side halls of the nalambalam serves for various activities related to the ritualistic worship. The front hall is pierced with the entry, dividing it into two parts. These two halls _ agrasalas _ are used for feeding Brahmans, performing yagas and sometimes for staging temple arts such as koothu.
The middle phase of the evolution of the temples is characterised by the emergence of the sandhara shrine. In the unitary shrine of the earlier type _ nirendhara _ there is a cell with a single doorway to the cell. But in the sandhara shrine the cell has twin wells leaving a passage in between them. Also there are often four functional doors on all the four cardinal directions and pierced windows to provide subdued light in the passage. Sometimes the functional door on the sides and the rear are replaced by pseudo doors _ ganadwaras _ decorated in the pattern of real doors.
The concept of the storeyed temple is also seen in this phase. The tower of the shrine rises to the second storey with a separate upper roof forming a dwitala (two storeyed) temple. There is a unique example of thrithala (three storeyed temple) _ Siva shrine at Peruvanam with lower two storeys of square plan and the third storey of octagonal form.
In the last phase, (1300-1800 A.D.) the stylistic development reached its apogee with greater complexity in the temple layout and elaboration of detail. The vilakkumadam, the palisade structure fixed with rows of oil lamps is added beyond the nalambalam as an outer ring. The Altar stone is also housed in a pillared structure _ balikkal mandapam _ in front of the agrasala (valiyambalam). A deepastambham and dwajasthambham (the lamp post and flag mast) are added in front of the balikkal mandapam. The temple is now fully enclosed in a massive wall (prakara) pierced with gate houses or gopuras. The gopuram is usually two storeyed which served two purposes. The ground floor was an open space generally used as a platform for temple dances such as kurathy dance or ottan thullal during festivals. The upper floor with wooden trails covering the sides functioned as a kottupura _ (a hall for drums beating).
Within the prakara but beyond the vilakkumadam, stood the secondary shrines of parivara devathas in their assigned positions. These were unitary cells, in general, though in a few cases each became a full fledged shrine as in the case of Krishna shrine in the Siva temple at Tali, Kozhikode. The last phase culminated in the concept of the composite shrines. Herein two or three shrines of equal importance are seen cloistered inside a common nalambalam. The typical example of this is the Vadakkumnatha temple at Trissoor, where in three shrines dedicated to Siva, Rama and Sankaranarayana are located inside the nalambalam. The prakara may also contain temple tanks, vedapadhasalas and dining halls. Paradoxically some shrines have not a single secondary shrine _ the unique example being the Bharatha shrine at Irinjalakuda.
A significant feature of big temple complexes is the presence of a theatre hall - koothambalam-meant for dance, musical performance and religious recitals. This is a unique edifice of Kerala architecture, distinct from the natyasabha or natyamandir seen in north Indian temples of this period. koothambalam is a large pillared hall with a high roof. Inside the hall is a stage structure _ rangamandapam _ for the performances. The stage as well as the pillars are ornately decorated. Visual and acoustic considerations are incorporated in the layout of the pillars and construction details so that the performances can be enjoyed by the spectators without discomfort and distortion. The koothambalam design seems to have been based on the canons given in the Natyasastra of Bharata Muni.
In the southernmost Kerala, the temple architecture was also influenced by the developments in Tamil Nadu. At Sucheendram and Tiruvananthapuram this influence is clearly seen. Herein lofty enclosures, sculptured corridors and ornate mandapas _ all in granite stone _ practically conceal the view of the original main shrine in typical Kerala style. The entrance tower _ gopuram _ also rises to lofty heights in a style distinct from that of the humble two storeyed structure seen elsewhere.
Technically the most important feature of the temple architecture of Kerala is the construction technique using a dimensional standardisation. The nucleus of the temple plan is the shrine containing the garbhagrhiha cell. The width of this cell is the basic module of the dimensional system. In plan composition, the width of the shrine, the open space around it, the position and sizes of the surrounding structures, are all related to the standard module. In vertical composition, this dimensional co-ordination is carried right up to the minute construction details such as the size of the pillars, wall plates, rafters etc. The canonical rules of the proportionate system are given in the treatises and preserved by the skilled craftsmen. This proportionate system has ensured uniformity in architectural style irrespective of the geographical distribution and scale of construction.
Temple architecture is a synthesis of engineering and decorative arts. The decorative elements of the Kerala temples are of three types - mouldings, sculptures and painting. The moulding is typically seen in the plinth where in horizontal hands of circular and rectangular projections and recesses in varying proportions help to emphasize the form of the adisthana. Occasionally this plinth is raised over a secondary platform - upapeedam - with similar treatment. Mouldings are also seen in the mandapam, the hand rails of the steps (sopanam) and even in the drain channel (pranala) or the shrine cell.
The sculptural work is of two types. One category is the low relief done on the outer walls of the shrine with masonry set in lime mortar and finished with plaster and painting. The second is the sculpturing of the timber elements - the rafter ends, the brackets, the timber columns and their capitals, door frames, wall plates and beams. Decorative sculptural work is seen best in the ceiling panels of the mandapas. Exquisite lacquer work in brick red and black colour was adopted for turned columns of timber. Metal craft was also used in sculpturing idols, motifs, cladding and fenials. All sculptural works were done strictly according to the canons of proportions (ashtathala, navathala and dasathala system) applicable to different figures of men, gods and goddesses, prescribed in texts.
The painting was executed in organic pigments on walls when the plaster was still wet - in soft subdued colours, making them into a class designated as Kerala murals. The theme of these paintings is invariably mythological and the epic stories unfold as one goes around the temple in circumambulations. The moulding, sculpture and painting are also taken in vertical compositions to emphasize the different storey heights, projecting dormer windows which break the sloping roof and the crowning fenial. But in all cases the decoration is secondary to the structural form. The sculptured walls are protected by the projecting caves which keep them in shade in sharp contrast with the bright sunlit exterior. This helps to impart the overall perceptual experience of light and shade revealing details only gradually to a keen observer.
Basically the domestic architecture of Kerala follows the style of detached building; row houses seen in other parts of India are neither mentioned in Kerala texts nor put up in practice except in settlements (sanketam) occupied by Tamil or Konkini Brahmans. In its most developed form the typical Kerala house is a courtyard type - nalukettu. The central courtyard is an outdoor living space which may house some object of cult worship such as a raised bed for tulssi or jasmine (mullathara). The four halls enclosing the courtyard, identical to the nalambalam of the temple, may be divided into several rooms for different activities such as cooking, dinning, sleeping, studying, storage of grains etc. Depending on the size and importance of the household the building may have one or two upper storeys (malika) or further enclosed courtyard by repetition of the nalukettu to form ettukettu (eight halled building) or a cluster of such courtyards.
The nalukettu is the principal structure of a garden compound. The garden may contain cattle sheds, bathing tanks, wells, farm buildings, grain stores etc., as ancillary structures, the whole being protected with a compound wall or fence. An entrance structure (padippura) may also be constructed like the gopuram of a temple. This may contain one or two rooms for guests or occasional visitors who are not entertained in the main house. The position and sizes of various buildings, including the location of trees and paths within the compound wall were to be decided from the analysis of the site according to the prescriptions in the classic texts. This analysis involved the concept of vastupurusha mandala wherein the site (vastu) was divided into a number of grids (padam) occupied by different deities (devatha) and appropriate grids were chosen to house the suspicious structures. The site planning and building design was done by learned stapathis (master builders) who synthesized the technical matters with astrological and mystical sciences.
There are numerous buildings of the nalukettu type in different parts of Kerala, though many of them are in a poor state of maintenance. Changing socio-economic conditions have split up the joint-family system centered around the large nalukettu. The Kailasa mandiram at Kottakkal belonging to the Arya Vaidyasala is a standing example of a three storeyed nalukettu complex. Of the best preserved examples of this type are Mattancherry palace at Kochi and the taikottaram of the Padmanabhapuram palace near Kanyakumari.
The Mattancherry palace standing in the panorama of backwaters on the east was built in 1557 for the use of Kochi Maharajas, originally as a gift from Portuguese. Later it has undergone extensive repair by the Dutch. The double storeyed building follows the nalukettu plan with a courtyard in the centre housing a Bhagavathi temple. The different wings of the palace in the upper storey contain the coronation hall, council halls and bed chambers of kings and ladies. The lower storey has many small rooms apart from the kitchen and the dining hall. An important feature of the palace is the exquisite wood work of the ceiling and fine murals on the walls. The ceiling work include a grid of wooden joints well proportioned and precision moulded with beautifully carved panels. The murals in subdued brownish tints were executed on wet wall plaster depicting themes from Ramayana, Bhagavatham and Kumarasambhavam of Kalidasa.
The Padmanabhapuram palace consists of a complex of buildings including the entrance hall, council chambers, temple and dance halls done in various periods. But the earliest structure of this group is the taikottaram _ which is a fine example of the old nalukettu. Being of an earlier period, this shows the concept of the courtyard building in its purest traditional form.
Nalukettu type buildings are also seen in many villages and towns, occupied by prominent people. The humbler buildings of the population are however smaller and simpler in form but basically derived from the nalukettu. Nalukettu is a combination of four halls along four cardinal directions, centered around the courtyard or anganam one may build any one of the four halls (ekasala), a combination of two (dwisala) or a complex of three (thrisala) depending on the needs. The most commonly found type in Kerala is the ekasala facing east or north. Being located on the western and southern sides of the anganam they are referred as western hall (padinjattini) and southern hall (thekkini) respectively.
The core unit of ekasala consists of generally three rooms connected to a front passage. The central room is used as prayer room and grain store and the two side rooms are used as living rooms. The core unit may be raised to an upper storey with a steep stair located in the front passage. The building may also be extended horizontally on all the four sides adding alindams or side rooms for activities such as cooking, dining, additional sleeping rooms, front hall for receiving guests etc. If needed ekasala may also be provided with ancillary buildings for cattle keeping, barn, bathing rooms near tanks, outhouse for guests, gate house etc. By such extension the building may become much larger than a nalukettu in space, but it is still categorized as ekasala with reference to its core unit.
Vastuvidya texts prescribe the dimensions of different house types suitable for different classes. They also give the proportional system of measurements for different parts of the building all based on the perimeter (chuttu) of the core unit. The scientific basis of this dimensional system is yet to be enquired by modern studies; however the system appears to be well founded on traditional computational methods and rigidily adhered to all sizes of buildings. All over Kerala and specially in villages where the building activity is still carried out under the control of traditional stapathis, the system is still a living practice, though it has started disappearing under the impact of 'modern architecture'.
Undoubtedly Islam spread in Kerala through the migration of new groups from Arabia and the gradual conversion of native population in the permissive social set up of Kerala. By twelfth century A.D there were at least ten major settlements of Muslims distributed from Kollam in the south to Mangalore in the north each centered around the mosque. Also a branch of the ruling kingdom at Arakkal, Kannur was converted to Islam. The primacy in trade, the spread of the faith and the experience of the sea made Muslims a prominent class and dear to the rulers, especially of the Kozhikode samutiris. Consequently by fifteenth century Islamic constructions reached considerable heights.
The mosque architecture of Kerala exhibit none of the features of the Arabic style nor those of the Indo-Islamic architectures of the imperial or provincial school in north India. The reason for this is not far to seek. The work of mosque construction was done by the local artisans under instructions of the Muslim religious heads who wanted to erect the places of worship. The models for places of worship were only temples or the theatre halls (koothambalam) and these models are to be adapted for the new situations. The early mosques in Kerala consequently resembles the traditional building of the region. In plan the mosque comprises of a large prayer hall with a mihrab on the western wall and covered verandah all around. Generally it has a tall basement similar to the adhistana of the Brahmanical temple and often the columns are treated with square and octagonal section as in mandapa pillars. The walls are made of laterite blocks. The arch form is seen only in one exceptional case for the mosque at Ponnani and nowhere else in the early ten mosques of the land. Wood was used extensively in superstructure for the construction of ceiling and roof. The roof in many cases is covered with sheets of copper incorporating fenials in the ridge, completing the form of temple sikhara with the stupi. At Tanur the Jama Masjid even has a gate built in the manner of temple gopuram, covered with copper sheeting. This mosque itself is a three storeyed building with tiled roof crowned by five fenials.
The pulpit in the mosque present the best example of wood carvings associated with Islamic architecture of Kerala. The Jama Masjid at Beypore and Mithqal Mosque at Kozhikode have the pulpit (mimbar) built by the ship masters of the Arab vessels.
All other construction work was done by the same local craftsmen who were building the temples and residences. The Arabic tradition of simplicity of plan had perhaps combined itself with the indigenous construction techniques giving rise to the unique style of mosque architecture, not found anywhere else in the world. In contrast the Indo-Islamic architecture drew its inspiration from the Turkish and Persian traditions and created highly ornamental style in the north India. The typical Kerala mosques are seen at Kollampalli, near Kollam, Panthalayani near Koilandy, Kozhikode, Thanur, Ponnani and Kasargode as well as in most old Muslim settlements. The austere architectural features of the old mosques are however in the process of being replaced in recent times. The use of arcuated forms, domes and minar-minarets of the imperial school of Indo-Islamic architecture are being projected as the visible symbols of Islamic culture. The Jama Masjid at Palayam, Thiruvananthapuram is the classic example of this new trend. Similar structures are coming up all over Kerala in the modification of old mosques during the last decades.
Perhaps the influence of Arabic style of Kerala construction is seen in a subtle manner in the secular architecture of Muslims. The bazar streets lined by buildings on both sides, the upper floor living rooms with view windows to the streets, the wooden screens used to provide privacy and shade in the verandahs (specially of upper floors) etc., are a few features superposed on the traditional construction. These built forms would have been modelled in the pattern of the houses in Arab countries (such as Egypt, Basra and Iran) having contact with this region. This trend is most conspicuous in market towns such as Kozhikode, Talassery, Kasaragode etc. But basically the Muslim domestic architectures at large follows the traditional Hindu styles. Both ekasalas and nalukettu are seen adopted for this. These buildings with extensive alindams and verandahs are also seen generally surrounding the mosques in Muslim settlements.
Historical evidences suggest that the first wave of Christianity came from Syria in fourth century A.D. owing to the persecution of Christians in the Persian empire. According to the narration of Byzantine monk Cosmas, Kerala had many churches by sixth century A.D. According to the inscription of the times of Stanu Ravi by nineth century, Christian communities enjoyed many rights and privileges. They also played a vital role in trade and commerce. The domestic buildings of the Syrian Christians were akin to the native architecture.
But original Syrians who had migrated to Kerala had brought with them some of the west Asian conventions in church architecture. Consequently churches with regular chance and have began to be built and there evolved a distinctive style of church architecture. The peculiar feature of this style was the ornamental gable facade at the nave end, summounted by a cross. An entry porch (shala) in front of the nave was another feature of these early shrines. The baptistry was a small chamber inside the nave near the entrance. Belfries were built on one side of the nave, but in smaller churches the bell was hung in an opening in the nave gable.
The church had a gable roof extending to the chancel, the most sacred part of the church and the sacristy by its side. The tower over the chancel soared higher than the roof of the nave similar to the sikhara over the garbhagriha in a Hindu temple. The residence of the priest and the parish hall were located on one side of the church and the cemetery was on the other side.
In their external feature syrian churches retained some of the indigenous features of the Hindu style. The church and the ancillary buildings were enclosed in a massive laterite wall. There was an open cross in front of the main entrance on a granite basement in the model of balikkal, the altar stone. A church also had the flag mast, (the dwajastambha) in front. In the Orthodox Syrian church at Chengannur, Peter and Paul occupy the place of dwarapalas, the guarding deities of a Hindu shrine. Sometimes a gateway like the temple gopuram with a kottupura or music room on the upper storey was also provided. The oldest Syrian church of Kerala is believed to be the St. Mary's church at Kuravilangad. Originally built in 335 A.D. it had undergone renovations several times. The church has a rich collection of old relics including an idol of Virgin Mary and a cross carved in granite. The Valiapally of Kaduthuruthy is another old church with the biggest cross formed in a single granite piece.
Wood carving and mural paintings, the two decorative media of temples are seen to be adopted in ancient churches also. A famous piece of wooden carving is a large panel depicting the last supper in St. Thomas church, Mulanthuruthy. The All Saints church at Udayamperur has a beam resting on wooden mouldings of heads of elephants and rhinoceros. Floral figures, angels and apostles are the usual motifs of mural paintings. This form of decoration had continued in later churches as well. In St. Sebastian's church at Kanjoor a mural even depicts the fight between British and Tippu Sultan.
The Portuguese were the first to introduce European styles in the church architecture of Kerala, followed by Dutch and British. The first church of this type in India was built by the Franciscan missionaries in 1510 A.D. at Fort Kochi. It is a small unpretentious building of the medieval Spanish type. When Vasco De Gama died in Kochi in 1524 his body was interned in this church and later removed to Lisbon in 1538. The church thus came to be known as Vasco De Gama's church. It was later seized by the Dutch and was used for reformed services. Later with British occupation of Kochi it became an Anglican church and presently it belongs to church of south India.
The Portuguese had introduced many innovations in the Kerala churches. For the first time, the dominating tower above the altar, which was the adaptation from temple architecture was discarded. Inside the church, the granite images were not favoured owing to their association with the Hindu art; instead images of Saints made of wood were used to adorn the riches. Generally pulpits were erected and altar pieces were ornamented in an impressive manner. Ceilings and walls were painted with religious themes in the style of European masters. Pointed and rounded arches were introduced and stained glass windows were installed.
The subsequent development in church architecture in the British period also saw the introduction of a new church design. In place of the rectangular Basilican plan the cross shaped plan became increasingly popular especially in places where large congregation had to be accommodated. Apart from the obvious symbolism of the cross, this plan is more suited for better visibility of the altar from all points in the church. Further, sufficient space was now available at the transcepts for additional altars for services by several priests on important occasions like Christmas.
In the external features the central tower or rather the Roman dome now comes at the centre of the transcept imparting a classic form of European architecture. Also on either side of the main entrance in the front, rose towers to serve as belfries. In the treatment of the exterior, typical features of European church architecture were introduced - the Gothic arches, the pilasters and buttresses, the rounded openings, the classic mouldings and stained glass windows making the whole composition completely different from the native architecture. Depending on the period of construction, one can also distinguish between the churches done in the simplicity of Gothic style as in the Palayam church, Tiruvananthapuram, and the luxury of renaissance style as in the church of Our Lady of Dolorous at Trissoor.
While the character of church architecture is generally identified with the form evolved in the medieval times, the modernistic trends in adapting new plan shapes and structural forms are visible in the Kerala scene as well. This circular plan shape with domical shell roof has been adopted in the Christ College church at Irinjalakkuda. The Cathedral church of Archbishop of Varapuzha at Ernakulam is a soaring hyperbolic paraboloid in reinforced concrete with a bold expression in sharp contrast with all traditional forms. Perhaps experimentation in religious architecture is mostly manifested in church architecture as compared to that in temples or mosques which more or less adhere to old evolved forms.
A notable feature of the early European work in India was a tendency to demonstrate military, political and cultural superiority of the west. The Greek and Roman antiquity was considered as the richest heritage of the west and the same was emphasised in the classic orders of pillars with triangular pediments, arches and domes for public buildings, town halls, hospitals, railway stations, colleges etc. Expression of dominance was inbuilt in Doric and Ionian columns of large dimension. At the same time the purity of classic Western style gave way to the effect of style by mixing different types of columns in all sorts of buildings. For example Corinthian columns were used mixed with Doric order in public buildings as well as residences. This trend was however moderated very much in Kerala owing to the limitations of materials and climate.
For the masonry work the media of Indo-European work remained the laterite and chunam plastering. The potentiality of exposed laterite was explored in many cases from railway quarters to government offices (e.g. old Huzur office - Collectorate, Kozhikode). Chunam plastering and finishing was transferred from the interior walls of places to the exterior of buildings also to create the superwhite buildings of marble cult. The old pan tiles were replaced by Mangalore pattern tiles and flat tiles. The roof frame of traditional type was changed to trussed roof-using King post and Queen post trusses, making it possible to span large areas.
Perhaps the adaptations of European style to the climatic needs and the synthesis with traditional style are best seen in the bungalow architecture. The comfort requirement in the hot humid climate prompted the European settlers to go in for buildings with large rooms with high ceiling with verandah all around. For upper floor rooms balconies were adopted as a necessary feature, originating from the Portuguese construction. The portico, the shaded spot for passage from one building to another was added. The solid wooden shutter of doors and windows underwent change to ribbed elements - Venetian blades - permitting air circulation and providing privacy simultaneously. By 1800 glazed panels came into vogue and semicircular fan light over doors and windows became fashionable features of domestic buildings. Brick arches, terracota pieces and exposed brick work in various bonding patterns became popular. With larger number and bigger size of windows, pediments or projections supported by ornamental brackets and column decoration for protecting the window opening from rain and sun also were introduced. Cast iron fences, stair balustrades and iron grills, made in England, were used to complete the bungalow architecture. Excellent examples of this synthesis are seen in the Napier museum at Tiruvananthapuram, and many government bungalows. In fact many of these features were smoothly adopted by the native builders to the extent that they are considered by most as traditional elements. The works of Public Works Departments have helped to spread this type of construction all over Kerala. Further the introduction of engineering education with emphasis to the western practice of construction have promoted this trend practically displacing traditional design methods.
Architecture in all ages have been an expression of social values. It has been ever changing, yet a distinct regional character has evolved in Kerala, decided by the local materials, climate and aesthetic values. What is found in contemporary architectural scene is the pangs of a conflict or perhaps synthesis of evolved architecture and the innovations in technology. Whether the regional character will be still preserved or not depends on the intrinsic worth of the traditional technology and the inherent strength of the social values of simplicity, functional perfection and subtle aesthetics.q