Kerala’s traditional houses are built to withstand rain and heat. There is a mix of influences from Arab, European and Chinese culture, but Kerala has developed its unique architectural style.
The eye catcher of any traditional Kerala house: its enormous roof. Due to heavy monsoon rains, Keralites in earlier centuries have made a large gable roof the most striking feature of their houses. Traditionally it was covered with banana leaves, then tiles became omnipresent. Houses were constructed of timber, wealthy families had the ceilings carved by local craftsmen with symbols of wealth, power and beauty.
The large roof has several advantages: it protects against the rain and leaves space around the house to be outside while keeping dry. It also extended the shaded parts, well protected from the stinging sun. Furthermore, the hot air will rise upwards into the higher roof part, leaving the floor area cooler. Roof openings on either side work as a natural ventilation.
Traditionally, a Kerala housing complex was placed in an open space entered through a gate and had several buildings to host the large joint family. Inside one of the houses, a courtyard was a common feature. South Indian climate is hot and humid. Having the rain inside your house has a cooling effect, rainwater was also collected to take a bath. One example of an open courtyard can be seen inside the main palace of the royal family of Travancore in Tripuram.
In a two story house, the upper floor would have porticos, like seen here in a beautiful example at the royal palace in Trivandrum. The inhabitants would meet there for a tea and chat, enjoying a breeze in the shade. People sitting in the wooden porticos were not visible from the outside, but they could well observe the life from inside. The royal palace has splendid wood carvings, like flowers on the ceiling or the famous horses on the porticos outside.
Keralas capital Trivandrum is a good place to discover different types of buildings in the typical Kerala style, as well as the influences the Malabar coast has experienced over the centuries. Mosques, churches, temples, museums, public buildings from the past and present are located right in the centre of town, in walking distance or just a short Riksha ride away.
One of the capitals marvels is the Napier museum located in the same park as the famous Trivandrum zoo. It was commissioned by the royal family and opened in 1880 to the public. The museum houses a large collection of artefacts from India and other South-Asian countries.
Though built by the architect of the Government of Madras, Robert Fellowes Chisholm, at that time, it is clearly inspired by Kerala’s traditional architecture, interwoven with foreign design ideas, especially the coloured brickwork patterns, creating its unique style. Today the museum is categorised as Indo-Saracenic structure, marrying features from the Indo-Islamic, Indian and Gothic architecture. Inside, the wooden carvings decorating the roof structure in the form of dragons, statues of goddesses painted in vibrant colours are just as precious as the artefacts on show. Don’t forget to look up!
This classic red brick colonial heritage building houses the Central State Library, the first public library in India, established 1829. Located right at the heart of the city on Mahathma Gandhi road, the library is open to all Kerala citizens. For a few rupees you can get life long membership and access to thousands of books. Foreigners can also visit it, however, they can not borrow any books.
In many Indian cities and rural areas, sacred buildings are among the most impressive architectures. The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, just opposite the royal palace of Trivandrum, is a major pilgrimage site for Hindu devotees from entire India. Padmanabhaswamy is the tutelary deity of the royal family of Travancore.
Foreigners can not enter the temple beyond the entry gate. Its architecture presents a mix of Kerala and South-Indian temple style features. Particularly striking is the 30 meters high entrance gate – the gopura – dating back to the 16th century.
The temple is said to be the worlds richest place of worship due to unimaginable treasures stored in its vaults.
Kerala having a strong Christian population of nearly 20 %, the omnipresence of churches in the capital is not surprising. Walking past Connemara market on upper Mahathma Gandhi road, one passes three churches, with the St. Joseph Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral Palayam the one not to be overseen. I passed there on a Saturday and in each of the three churches a wedding ceremony was taking place. Christmas seems to be marriage season in Kerala.
Christianity in the southern Indian state dates back to the time of birth of Jesus, as one of his twelve disciples, Saint Thomas, landed on the shore of Kerala in 52 AD.
Regarding religion, Kerala has a reputation of being one of the most diverse states in India. The majority follows Hinduism, Muslims are the second largest community, at present more than one fourth of the population. Mosques as places of worship, like the central Palayam Jama Masjid, are just as frequent as churches, outnumbered only by Hindu temples.
Among the sacred sites of Hinduism in Kerala is also the Sabarimala temple, visited by up to 50 millions devotees each year, making it one of the worlds most frequented pilgrimage sites. The temple made headlines after the Supreme Court of India ordered to allow all women to enter the temple premises in 2018. The decision was met with fierce opposition and is currently under review.