If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Koodali Tazhathu Veedu

During our recent visit to Kerala, my friend, his wife and his mother (seen, rather, not seen in this picture) took us to their ancestral house, Koodali Tazhathu Veedu. The village near Kannur in North Kerala goes by the name Koodali and tazhathu veedu means a house – a veedu – that was below. Once upon a time, the family lived on the foothills, and hence the name. Incidentally, K and T are the initials used by all the descendents whose mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers etc. once lived in this house. The people who use these initials today are in thousands.

Why mamas and grandmas, and not papas and grandpas? Well, the Nairs (or Nāyars) of Kerala were a matrilineal people. I have written about them in my short story The Materfamilias, but a brief repetition here might be in order.

Originally, the Nairs were a matrilineal community. A Nair family owned property jointly and included brothers and sisters, the sisters’ children, and their daughter’s children. As property passed by inheritance to the female offspring, Nair women had an important position in the family. But the legal head of the family was the oldest man, known as the Karnavar. Interestingly, neither the Karnavar nor the senior-most woman wielded absolute power. Rather, they were two fulcrums in the family power structure. This system has been abandoned over time and Nairs have switched over to the patriarchal structure of kinship and inheritance.

These pictures offer a glimpse into a slice of history. They were taken on a sunny morning of May in 2009, 23rd to be precise, as Thompson and Thomson would have said.

No one lives in this house anymore. It is used only for reunions and occasions like Theyam, when the entire family gathers at this place. The huge landed property belonging to the family was partitioned after the Land Reform Act was implemented in Kerala in the 1970s, but the ancestral house was not divided. It remains in the name of the Karnavar and cannot be sold or partitioned. There is also a plot of agricultural land earmarked for maintenance and upkeep of the property. Income from this land is used for this purpose alone.

A very practical arrangement, isn’t it? I am sure that many families in North India that lost everything over land disputes should have met the Nairs of Kerala.

The diamond shaped and banister like motifs are distinctly un-Indian. They show Dutch influence on Kerala architecture. -->

The following picture shows a cottage that was used to entertain the British residents who ruled Malabar. They had to be wined and dined, but the sanctity of the house had to be defended. Hence another cottage, right next to the main entrance.

A gabled window on the cottage meant for entertaining the sahibs

The family temple with my friend's mother in front

The turret on the temple  
The common dining room: note the system for rainwater harvesting

Some of the utensils used in the kitchen

This family tree is almost four hundred years old

The old faithful. Doesn't his body language tell you that he is the "puratan bhritya" of the family?

The Karnavar's parlour overlooks the entire property

Looking back: In the Karnavar's bedroom

This lamp glows 24x365. May it glow for centuries! And may the KTs all over the world prosper and be in peace.


  1. Thank you. Someone seriously interested in cultural anthropology, and being a Nair myself, i had a good read. The photographs were higly supportive as well. Nair’s are still matrilineal, but mainly when it comes to naming and usage of the surname. My name is Manoj Nair C, C being initials of my mothers Taravadu Name. My dream is to live in such a Taravadu, but its extremely rare these days. I remember my brief vacations( during childhood) when our family stayed in Taravadu of my Father. It used to be a large joint family consisting of all my uncles and aunties(paternal) staying together. A large family of around 25-20 members. I still have fresh memories but sadly the tharavadu has long been abandoned, rebuild into a modern concrete terraced, but much smaller dwelling. And is owned by one of the uncles after the partitioning of the property. This one which you mentioned is a huge Taravadu, an archetypal one, which is as i said extremely rare to find. But interestingly, there seems to be a reappearances of similar architectural styles and people are showing much more interests in the materials and style used by our fore fathers. I guess thats the realisation that blindly mimicking western styles doesn’t necessarily lead to restful living.The style used by our forefathers are much more suited to our environment and climate.

  2. BTW, i had commented earlier as Manoj in your previous post, just went through a name change. Cheers :)

  3. Loved it...you have a lot of patience to write such long posts and being so meticulous.

  4. Thank you both. I am happy that you liked it.

    The power of the Net never fails to amaze me. I could share my experience of visiting a Tharavadu with a Malayali whom I don't know and possibly will never meet, who lives in the Middle East, and my little photo essay reminds him of his childhood, wakes up his memories of his father's ansestral home! Haven't you made my day, Mr. Zillionbig?

    You are spot on re the traditional architechture of Kerala. I have lived in a few of them. They not only look beautiful and graceful, they are also great to live in. They are so airy and bright inside, and rainwater almost never comes in. It is good that people are going back to the traditional Kerala Architecture.

  5. Richness :-) That is what these pictures remind me of :-) And in the nicest way possible. Somehow glossy pictures found in an architectural magazine do not quite make the cut. It was such a beautiful post. I am not from Kerala but I am a big admirer of Keralite architecture. This post took me down this path where I was imagining all that culture and all the history associated with the house :-) It has reminded me about how I need to take a closer look at old houses near my native :-) Some of the houses in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu are steeped in culture and history. And they are beautiful too. You have a nice blog here and your style of writing rocks :) I'll definitely be back :)

  6. Santanu

    Thank you for the tribute to my home - not mine till I become the Karanavar myself!


  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Thank you sir for visiting our house and also for the nice presentation.I am K.T.Pradeep Kumar from Hyderabad member of Koodali Thazhath Veed.I am proud to say that in my school days I stayed for almost 8 years,in that building you mentioned "cottage meant for entertaining the sahibs".That was a time when one of our" karanavar" in his eighties whose children were staying away want us to stay with him.Now,when I say about the experience during the stay over there to my daughter who born and brought up in Hyderabad looks me in surprise,but the notes like this and her participation to "Theyyam" twice, made her to know the value.Sir please find time to visit our house once again during Theyyam rituals.

  9. Thanks, Pradeep, for your kind invitation. It would be great to visit your your house once again during Theyam. It is nice that you like my narration. - Santanu

  10. Santanuda (I hope you will pardon the familiar term),

    Thanks for your very complimentary mail and recommendation.I have read and enjoyed this long wonderfully-detailed anecdote-and-research-filled post immensely. And the pictures are wonderful.

    I also echo your stand about the Left leadership and Mamata Banerjee (in a previous post - I have gone through quite a few). It takes courage to be so bold about your political views and I admire your unbiased clear-sightedness.

    I could not find a FOLLOWER'S section here in your blog, but I will go to my dashboard and try to paste your blog's URL so as to follow your posts regularly.

  11. That was an enriching read. Your posts always have a different taste and I like that. I got to see a face of Kerala that the stereotype Bengali can never give. The pictures are good documentation and very much to-the-point. In all, this was a pretty good read. Most important of all, it added many things to my knowledge.

  12. Dear Santanu,

    Magnificent pictures and a fitting narrative on my tarwad.

    I am looking forward to my retirement (still two years away) when I would revisit many memories and legends on this ancestral home which evokes mixed feelings - some, of an a feudal lordship that became an anachronism and some of a familial bondage that still run in my arteries.

    Your notes inspire me to return to some musings I had started years back (on life in Koodali in the dim past)and gathering dust somewhere. Maybe I will share them with you when I am done.

    Thank you for the pics and write-up.

    K T Radhakrishnan
    (Your friend's brother)

  13. Dear Radhakrishnan,

    Thanks for your comments. I am happy to be able to reach out to you through this little post of mine. It was a wonderful experience visiting your Tharawad, and so was meeting amma, and the trip in general. As I wrote to KTR yesterday, the delight of our visit to Kerala still lingers on ...

    Pl do complete your reminiscences. I will look forward to it.

    Best wishes,


  14. interesting read - particularly since i know your friend and his wife.
    'There is also a plot of agricultural land earmarked for maintenance and upkeep of the property. Income from this land is used for this purpose alone'
    am surprised. thought agricultural land was no longer a dependable source of income in kerala unless, of course, it's rubber - - -

  15. R Adm K Mohanan25 June 2009 at 15:45

    I am Rear Admiral K Mohanan. I am the son of Sri KT Kunhanandan Nambiar, the KT tharavadu Karanavar till two years ago.My father, who believed in the system did stay in the Thazhathh Veedu house for the last 12 years of his life till he breathed his last about two years ago. We still maintain the tradition of the Karanavar staying in the tharawad house. the present set up may be just an abberation.

    I welcome you to koodali from 27 to 30 Jan to witness theyyam.

    Regards........... R Adm K Mohanan

  16. Thank you both, Ms. Kochuthresiamma and Admiral Mohanan. I am delighted that you have read this post and jotted down your comments.

    And thanks for clarifying a point and of course, for your kind invitation, Admiral Mohanan.

    Best wishes to you both.

  17. I had recommended this post to some of my friends who in turn had referred it to several others. They had questions which neither the author nor my friends would be in a position to answer.

    Considering that FAQ is among the buzzwords these days, I have consolidated the questions and attempted to provide answers to them.

    I see that the structure is maintained very well. When you say the premises belong to everybody, it means that it belongs to nobody! Then who maintains it? Who pays for it?

    Yes, the K T Veedu is indeed maintained quite well. It would not have been possible, save for the munificence of the members which supplements the income generated by the assets earmarked for the upkeep by the prescient forefathers.

    Agricultural land earmarked for meeting the expenses for maintaining the headquarters? Agriculture yielding a surplus in Kerala? You must be joking! Unless, of course, you are talking of rubber.

    It is not paddy or rubber. It is mostly cashew forests. As you know, cashew grows even on arid and rocky terrain. Once planted, it needs no care, no fertilizer or water.

    Can you become the Karanavar?

    Theoretically, yes, I can 'ascend' to the position of Karanavar. The present incumbent is over 88 years and there must be over a score or more seniors between him and me. (The situation might be quite like the coronation of Samoothiri Kings in Calicut: when one dies, the next in seniority has to be coronated, but he would so hopelessly old that he would succumb to the strain! So they have to look for the next! This story certainly is apocryphal, but I believe the coronation caused the death of five Samoothiris on the same day and the sixth had to be coronated! Constable to IGP in one day!)

    Who were the Sahibs entertained in the Guest House? British bureaucrats?

    Yes, the sahibs were the British bureaucrats based at Tellicherry (which was the capital of North Malabar. It was post Independence that Kannur edged past Tellicherry.) Some of the male members of this and similarly placed ones in other localities were made 'adhikaris' (Village officers) with the responsibility for collection of revenue, maintenance of law and order and limited judicial powers. Continuance in this influential assignment in British Malabar was naturally at the pleasure of the British bosses. So one needed to keep the bosses in good humour (This is so in the 21st century, things haven't changed!) but they drew a clear line between the womenfolk and the bosses - hence a separate guest house.

    Could you tell us more about the association with the Sahibs?

    Lord Murdoch Brown who established the cinnamon plantation in 1767 at Ancharakandy a few kilometers away was believed to have been a friend of one of the ancient Karanavars (though I am as clueless as you are about the language His Lordship and the Eshmaan - corrupt form of Yajamaanan - the master - used for communication.)

    When the sahib announced his intention to visit Koodali (or when they deigned to accept the invitation extended by the Karanavar) a palanquin (That reminds me, I remember to have seen a palanquin (rigged up with yellow festoons and red seats) there in my childhood, but do not find it there anymore. The next time I go there, I must ask someone about it.) carried by four well-built men (and two extras) would be sent to him. He would also be dropped back after an evening of conviviality and bacchanalia.

  18. Tell me something about the Dutch connection.

    I am told it is Dutch influence (as in the Mattancherry Palace in Kochi). It could have been Portuguese (because of the well-known historical factors) or French (because of the proximity to Mahe) but the arches, the elements used for beautification
    and the construction of the newest structure in the complex point to the Dutch connection, according to the well-known Delhi based architect and INTACH activist K T Ravindran. A lesser-known historical fact is that the Dutch, who were one of the first colonisers in the Western Coast, defeated the Portuguese and became the new rulers of the Malabar coast in 1663, a privilege they enjoyed for 130 years. Please see the link http://www.colonialvoyage.com/malabarD.html

    When is Theyyam festival?

    It is in end Jan. During this season, the otherwise sleepy village becomes active.

    For a write-up on Theyyam, go to the link http://wannabewodehouse.blogspot.com/2007_08_01_archive.html

    Anything else of interest in the vicinity?

    Do not miss the newly done up Arakkal Museum on the beach near the Headquarters Hospital where history and legends come alive.

    There is the Pazhassi Irrigation Project, a study in serenity. The meadows there remind you of Switzerland.

    Sorry about the more-than-a-mouthful name Muzhappilangad, but this is supposed to be the only drive-through beach in Asia. The sand is so fine that with the moisture from the sea, the beach gets as hard as a macadamized road.

    Another interesting destination is the Parassinikadavu Temple where the deity is a pagan god called Mutthappan who cocks a snook at all of us: he has a stray dog for companion (like the lion for Durga or the peacock for Kartikeya/Subrahmanya). The offering Muthappan likes most is meat and toddy!

  19. Thank you. Although I heard bits and pieces of this from you earlier, it was a good idea to consolidate the information. I am sure many will find this slice of history interesting.

  20. I happen to stumble on it. On a friday afternoon, tired of the work at office, all of a sudden i just thought of googling for Koodali(my little village 12,000 miles away). Second page of the search i found this blog and was very happy to read it. Right now i am in NY, my home back home is probably 2 km from Thazhathu veedu. Been there many times in the past specially during theyyam.
    As some else said here, it took me back to my good old days in Koodali and around!

  21. Thanks, Sujith, for your kind comments and also to see you as a "follower" of my blog, although I am not a leader at all. The Net is God's gift to the 21st Century. It feels great to reach out to a complete stranger ... I can almost feel the warmth of your handshake! Keep well.

  22. Its an amazing world isn't it? Thomas Friedman wrote a book called World is flat, explaining how technology is making man made boundaries of the world!
    By the your writings style have an elegance in it. Nice!

  23. I'm a Nair and I loved reading this piece. We're still matrilineal. I hail from Kodungallore, in Trichur district------my mother's 'tharavad' is there. My father belonged to North Parur. You seem to be a Keralaphile!

  24. Thanks Sujith and Courtjester. Let me repeat what I wrote in response to another comment on this. It's great to relate to a perfect stranger through my blog in particular and through the Net in general. It's wonderful that you liked the story. BTW, I spent over ten years in Kerala, on the whole, a very happy ten years.

  25. I always did feel that Bengalis and Malayalis would get along really well. Not just because of the Left rule or the immense love for fish!

    On a more serious note, you must read Naalukettu by M.T. Vasudevan Nair. It has an English translation and the book tells the story of the decline of the old matrilineal families of Kerala. These pictures reminded me of it.

  26. I have heard about the book from my Malayali friends. I will surely read it. Thanks for the suggestion.


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