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While visiting southern temples towns like Chidambaram, Thanjavur or Thiruvananthapuram,  you must have seen many rows of similar looking houses around the main temple.  This group of traditional houses of South Indian Brahmins is called an Agraharam.  They also go by names such as Chaturvedimangalams, Boya or Ghatoka.

Such traditional India buildings structures are always vintage stuff.  I wanted to revisit these sites, that I heard a lot of, through this post.

Evolution of Agraharam

In earlier times, a grant of land or gifts was given to Brahmins.  Such a gift was given by Kings and members of the royal family for the sustenance of the Brahmins and their families.  Using these, the Brahmins built a series of simple houses to live in.  These houses or Agraharam were built on either side of the road around the temples, such that it looked like open-ended garland around the temple.  Thus the name Haram or garland.   A reference to the existence of such houses occurs even in the 3rd Century Sangam Literature texts called Perumpanarruppatai.

Architectural Features of an Agraharam house

All traditional houses are valued for their Architectural Features.  Same is the case of an Agraharam house.  An Agraharam is planned by the position of the main temple.  All streets are in the east-west direction with residences on both the sides of the street. The backyards of these houses opened to alleys that are narrower than the front street.

Rivers were the main source of water.  Houses were built above the area sloping toward the rivers.  This way, the flooded river never affected the inhabitants of these community houses.

The front portion is used as a community center for meeting people.  The streets were used as space for vendors, play area for kids, get-togethers for all ladies and men.  It was also the place where religious processions took place.

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The Houses…

Houses were divided by common walls.  The front space had a veranda called Mudhal Kattu, which is sheltered by a raised sloping roof. There is a veranda inside as well which acts as a place for receiving guests.  It also had steps to reach the upper floor.  The Rezhi was a place for storage and ceremonies.

country tile roofing photoPhoto by masochismtango

The central Courtyard or the Mitham had an opening in the roof for allowing sunlight to seep inside. The openings were covered with parallel Iron rods to stop thieves or monkeys from entering inside. Here was the personal area for family get-togethers, family ceremonies, for lunch, for dinner and the like. Potable Wells were a common feature. The third kattu had the kitchen and the living personal quarters of all the individuals.  All the houses had Thinnais, large platforms of sheltered space, where even outsiders and unknown strangers would take rest from the hot sun.  Entrances were always welcoming what with decorative patterns of Rangoli called Kolam in the local language.

Agraharam houses were characterized by Thick pillars, lime plastering, red oxide country tile flooring and Madras terraces.  Symmetry and decorative flooring were regular features in these houses. The flooring and the open central place kept the residential quarters cool as compared to the hot exteriors.  The houses were built such that water in any part of the house sloped easily towards the drain.  The whole area was spacious, neat and tidy.

Present situation

Agraharam Settlements were found in all the four states of the South namely erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.  Now they are found in only few temple towns.

They are the precursors to the present housing communities that are coming up in big cities. Their community model constituted sharing civic problems,  sharing amenities and social interaction.  Thus, Agraharam housing model represented Housing structures that protected residents from the vagaries of Nature and also served as a center of healthy community Interaction.

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Presently, as Brahmins are taking up newer professions, the Agraharam structure is fast disappearing. There also various other political and social reasons for this.   Many houses are being pulled down to construct building complexes as per the demands of the Modern era. Very few people are clinging to the fast dilapidating houses. Some Heritage enthusiasts are doing their bit to restore these vintage houses to its past glory.

For the Future……

Efforts are being made by private individuals to stop the total disappearance of these Agraharams.  I hope they are successful.  Then, we can give a glimpse of our rich traditional culture and architecture to our future generations.  And they, in turn, can tap into these resources for ideas to make sustainable and comfortable future living places on this beautiful planet called Earth.

Featured Photo by Koshyk

Agraharam – The Traditional House Of The Brahmins Of South India

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