Timber classics

Published : Oct 06, 2006 00:00 IST

The extraordinarily beautiful wooden temples spread across Kerala reflect a great simplicity of form.

THE architecture of Kerala is unique not only in India but in the world. The extraordinary wooden temples spread across the State reflect a great simplicity of form and materials. Glimpses of Architecture in Kerala is a book that attempts to bring out their special quality of design through images. It portrays a number of major temples that represent Kerala architecture at its finest. The delight with which designers of a different era were able to build and create space in harmony with their surroundings is worth experiencing.

Kerala's waterways, greenery and architecture are experiences that are now becoming scarce in other parts of the country. I had this experience for the first time in the early 1980s, while designing a house for a friend. We were visiting the backwaters when a fisherman offered us his catch. We liked the idea and negotiated a purchase. Before we knew it, a local gardener quickly cleaned the fish, plucked a couple of raw mangoes from a tree close by, and made a chutney with fresh chillies and salt. She fried the fish over a fire built from broken twigs and produced a delicious dish; its taste is still fresh in my memory. This small gesture has always symbolised to me the abundance and self-sufficiency of Kerala.

Many of Kerala's magnificent temples are hidden in the countryside, along its rivers or high up in the hills. In every instance, the location is chosen carefully and the setting is invariably beautiful.

Temples in this land are the focus of the lives of people who follow the Hindu faith. Unlike the grand edifices of the more famous Indian temples, these places of worship are low in profile and offer a tranquility and space for prayer that is rare in today's world of intense activity.

Older temples usually have streets leading to them on four sides, each becoming an axis of settlements surrounding the temple. At Peruvanam, one of the streets leads to a temple tank, which in this instance is situated at a distance and the houses on both sides become an extension of the vista. A temple becomes a meeting point where philosophy and politics are discussed. It is also the centre for theatre and traditional dance performances and the main venue to celebrate major festivals.

In a town or city, a temple can play a pivotal role in the manner in which the Vadakkunnatha temple in the middle of Thrissur town does. The temple at Mannar, a small town near Kottayam that specialises in making brass lamps, is extraordinarily simple, its sand-covered outer court typifying the style of a Kerala temple.

The Kaviyur temple at Kaviyur near Thiruvalla and the Sri Vallabhaswami temple at Thiruvalla are my personal favourites. In scale and detail, they are representative of Kerala temples. These two are masterpieces of their workmanship in timber and the intricate sculpture is a joy to experience. Oil lamps light up the woodwork at the entrance to the Sri Vallabhaswami temple and illuminate the beautiful interior.

The theatres attached to a temple are known as Koothambalams and provide a space for other activities related to the temple. These are magnificent timber structures with high roofs and give the designer and the builder a chance to work on a larger scale than is available to them when making temple shrines. Decorative elements within the Koothambalams are areas where the sculptor and the painter are given more opportunities to use their skills. The temple tank is another major feature of the complex. Used for bathing before entering the temple, these water bodies are able to give a balance to the architecture.

In northern Kerala, there is a kind of austerity to both the landscape and the design of temples. The Rama temple at Thripprayar has very few frills, but it blends in with the natural landscape. The Ananthapadmanabhaswami temple near Kumbla in Kannur district is surrounded by water. Close to it are the ruins of a once prosperous settlement, a lone oak tree conveying the desolation of the place.

Designers of these extraordinary structures were able to soften the sunlight; yet there is enough natural light to illumine and enhance the interiors, the play of light and shade adding a special quality to the way the architecture is experienced. The murals and wooden sculptures, portraying events in the lives of gods, complete the design. Episodes from the life of Krishna are depicted in the elaborately carved panels surrounding the Srikovil (main shrine). The panels also tell stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The dark confines of the garbha griha (sanctum santorum), which houses the deity, is lit up with oil lamps.

The basic form of the temples has remained unchanged for centuries, yet each temple is unique. Inside the temple, one is either alone with oneself or one with the gathering of devotees. It is a space that allows the individual to become aware of his/her being. Sri Aurobindo observes that Indian architecture is built in relation to its surroundings and the sky.

He also says that "the buildings should be seen in loneliness, in the solitude of one's self, in moments when one is capable of long and deep meditation and as little weighted as possible with the conventions of material life". Kerala temples, as the images illustrate, are reflections of this kind of architecture and bring balance back to one's life.

Ramu Katakam can be contacted at ramu@katakam.com, Joginder Singh at jogisingh@gmail.com

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