Agraharam, heritage shared space - Kerala government to preserve it

Agraharam Restoration  Project palakkad, kerala.

A street in Kalpathy Village,Palakkad  dt, Kerala,

Agraharams  are  exclusive Brahmin  settlements that date back to several centuries.  Such agraharams are part of  numerous villages in  all southern states of India and, in particular,  Kerala, Tamil Nadu  and Karnataka.  Invariably most of the agraharams are close to  major rivers or  their  tributaries. Once there were numerous agraharams in the  Cauvery Delta  region  of Tamil Nadu such as the composite Thanjavur District (now divided into Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapatnam districts), Trichy, Thirunelveli  and Kanchipuram districts.  As for Kerala,  Thiruvanthapuram and Palakkad districts  have countless agraharams.

Agraharam houses, TN

well maintained agraharams at the Udayalur village,

An agraharam has   a row or cluster of  centuries old houses with a common wall on either side of the houses  and also on the other side of the street. The street may have a Shiva or Perumal (sri Vishnu) temple  or both at one end of the street.  Invariably all houses have similar appearance and plan. It is reported  that such agraharams existed even during the first Chola period - more than 1000 years. The compact cluster houses with common walls will maximize the use of space. The common features are the central court yard, which is a source of light, and the built up area around it is meant for sleeping, dinning and meeting guests. This  space is also used for conducting family functions, ceremonies, etc.  All houses in the front  have raised platform (in Tamil ''Thinnai'') or pial with  the roof covered with country tiles or Mangalore tiles.

In Tamil Nadu since late 1960s such agraharams have started vanishing on a rapid clip  for many reasons like gradual migration of young Brahmin boys in pursuit of higher studies either in India or abroad, employment  opportunities in big cities or in northern states, etc. Yet another reason is  politics and gradual introduction of reverse discrimination of Brahmins in the governments jobs and higher studies in colleges. Further, introduction of land reforms  was yet another blow  and impacted the Brahmins who had  held good spread of agricultural lands; besides, politically-instigated labor problems  had an added effect on the retention of lands by this community

The significant aspect of Agraharam is once it represented a shared space, peaceful community living where the people together could tackle  civil problems, etc., collectively and in an amicable way. When it comes to renovation of temples, etc.,  they  could address  the issue with equal participation by the entire community. Unfortunately,  such traditional shared community spaces - Agraharams in the last  few decades have declined   because of major architectural changes and introduction of modern homes and urbanization in the agraharam villages. 

The agraharams are being vacated   and changed hands for various reasons.  In many Brahmin neighborhoods the houses have been taken over by Muslims who pay better prices. The new buyers completely change the configuration of the Agrahara house.

The credit goes to the Kerala government that recognizes  the Agrahara houses as ingeniously planned heritage  shared living spaces and need to be preserved  for the progeny. A few years ago the Kerala government did what  other state governments in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra  had  failed to do.  They saved the  rows of heritage Agrahara houses in that state  from further decline and destruction. The  government   not only declared that  agraharams are historical, heritage sites that need preservation and restoration but also banned major architectural changes to the rows of houses that dot the streets of  Valiyasala, Karamana and Fort in the capital city of Thiruvantha Puram, Kalpathi and other places in Palakkad  district. 

 Besides, the Kerala State Welfare Corporation for Forward Communities (Samunnathi) had under taken  a major repair  project for which an allocation of Rs. four crores was made. Selected old   houses would  get  a  sum of Rs. 2.00 lakhs for repairs, etc. This project gives preference to homes   headed by single woman, physically handicapped people, kids living with poor protections and also trans-genders. This project was to be implemented in the year 2016 to 2017.  It will be nice if other states will wake up from slumber  and  preserve the tradition-bound homesteads  in the agraharams, following the model of Kerala.  Disappearance of traditional  settlements of ethnic Brahmin  community  across the Tamil Nadu landscape, particularly near Kumbakonam temple city, Mayavaram and Thanjavur  is a sad one under the  present caste dominated  political scenario. But it  means  loss of age-old tradition, customs, art forms and above all culture.  In Tamil Nadu, there is no such a heritage project to preserve the agrahara houses and it means preservation of the vestiges or the remaining houses in the agraharas to retain the ethnic tradition of Brahmin homes  is not possible.

Before 1960s Agraharams were centers of learning - vedas, music and mathematics. Now, the situation is altogether different. Caught in the grip of  ever changing time and onslaught of modern flashy buildings  most of the houses in the agrahara  in Tamil Nadu are either  put up for sale  or  on the verge of slow disintegration;  reason being   dwindling  Brahmin community  and exorbitant cost of repairing and maintaining their dwelling.  In some agraharams near Thiruvidaimaruthur (near Kumbakonam) many houses are in a dilapidated state, some already turned into a mound of broken fragments and rubbish.   The gradual disappearance of Brahmins' shared settlements  in many parts of south India  is a poignant story.

                                                       (Revised 15 Dec., 2021)