Nambudiri Brahmins' manas or illams of Kerala need urgent preservation - What is special about them? -

Olappamanna Mana Palakkad dist. image credit:

The subject of when  the organized Nambudiri settlements in Kerala began taking roots  has been a contentious issue and is a subject of debate. The general  assumption is it was in the 7th century AD roughly toward the end of Tamil Sangam period they started evolving across  Keralam-Chera Nadu.  Among the total of roughly 64 villages,  one half of them was in the  Malayalam speaking region, the rest were in the Tulu speaking region. Initially responsible for the temple lands or uralars  Nambudiris over a period of time  with skill established themselves as single landlords with hereditary rights - the jenmis' invariably, their tenants being Nairs. With the construction of so many temples across Kerala  at their initiative their knowledge of Shastras and Vedas, and their proximity with the Maharajahs or local rulers gave them almost an exalted status in the society. The historical legacy of their hegemony had a profound influence on the contemporary social and cultural  landscape

Front. elevation of a

side elevation of a mana

Namboothiri homes are commonly called an Illam (a Tamil word) or Mana (a Kannada word) . Those who had settled  down here from Tulu Nadu  frequently use Madhom (a Tulu word and  derived from the Dravidian language). Tharavadu refers to the ancestral homes of Nambudiris and Nairs. Perunjalloor in Thaliparambu is the largest village with more than 3000 manas. Today it is reduced to mere 43, struggling  hard to regain their past glory.

The architectural concept of a Nambudiri home is that of  mainly rectangular  "Naalukettu"  or Chathussaalas exclusively based on the ancient  principles of "Vasthu Vidya" (Thachu Saasthram) or Vedic design that is congruent with the natural elements - pancha boothas  ever acting upon the earth.  The architect blends the  technical aspects of construction with fundamentals of astronomy, astrology and science. They are eco-friendly and self-contained homes.   Granary - grain store-house), bathing pond well, dining halls (Kettu) and many other functional parts have specific location, size and plan in accordance with  Vasthu Vidhya.   

With respect to  specific house design and  its utility no compromise was  made on the  fundamental norms and long-held tradition. The concept of Vaastu shastra,  emphasizes that the building  design should incorporate five  basic natural elements - so that the resultant structure will be marching with the natural surrounding and it will help the residents get the natural benefits.  Humans rely on Akash, light, earth wind and water  for sustenance. (this is similar to the pancha bootha concept of God Shiva 

The concept of Thachi (carpentry) brings out the importance of harmonious relationship between the house and the nature. Timber tree, a living form, is grown on the soil (prithvi) which is nurtured by the water or rain (jal) from the sky (akash) and light (sun) to mature. The well grown trees also provide us wind (Vayu) and cool shadows and absorb the particulates in the air. It means it cuts down the air-pollution.. When matured   quality  wood with good life is used in the house construction, it promotes comfortable ambiance in the living space where all the natural elements are active.  This is the reason why  around the courtyard and Verandahs, thick wooden pillars made of  wild jack fruit tree  are used to support the  edge of the roof.  About he doors, windows and the wooden granaries, the preference was given to teak and anjili wood locally available in the wooded areas.

The "Nalukettu" design is ideal for traditional ancestral home - tharavadu, where  large families  of Nambudiris or Nairs live  under one roof.  This design allows large space for the family members with optimum benefits of light, good ventilation, cool indoors and privacy. The central courtyard  is an important part of this design style.  The entrance gateway to the plot (Padippura) is built on the western boundary in line with the Thekkini veranda.

The advantage  of tiled roofing roughly 25 degree  (in the past, much steeper 33 or 45 degree slopes were provided) is  the wooden framework (timber sections called joists, rafters and purlins)  below the tiled roof is well protected from moisture and rain and the extended roofing eaves over the junction of the roof with outer wall on the edge prevent  wetness on the walls.

Native to Kerala, this design  includes four large sections each with a set of rooms facing four cardinal directions  east, west, north or south  and the four halls are joined together with a central courtyard. The four halls in the house complex - northern block (vadakkini), western (padinjattini), eastern block (kizhakkini) and southern block (thekkini), are set for different purposes.  Thekkini is the living space of the family. Vadakkini is used to perform daily ritual, monthly tharpanam or the annual Thithi (srardham, etc). The Pooja or prayer room is set only in the eastern  block - kizhakkini.  Padinjattini (western side)  is exclusively set aside to receive guests.  As it is in many places across Tamil Nadu, the water resources like well, etc ar in the NE direction.

Each of four halls has several rooms built for a specific use cooking - -kitchen, dinning, sleeping, reading, etc. Many Theravadas have one or two stories above the ground floor. There is also space for storage of grains.

In some houses the Kitchen is built  with a well for cooking and drinking purpose only. The rooms surrounding this courtyard are used by the ladies of the family.

Big house owned by rich people may have "Ettu (eight) kettu", "Panthrandu (twelve) kettu" or "Pathinaaru (sixteen) kettu" illams. The size of the home has a direct bearing on the status and wealth of of the families. The larger the size of the house, the more the people are needed to maintain it.  

One open well and a bathing pond are part of the Illam. Nambudiri Brahmins give due importance to cleanliness and bathe regularly in the pond. 

The location of the Illam is an interesting one. Illams were always built in places of natural beauty providing serene ambiance  far away from the urban chaos  and close to their lands or groves and particularly good source of water. So the builder chose  a place where copious supply of  groundwater was  available year round.  

With a view to maintaining their purity as part of their orthodox life style, Nambudiri Brahmins prefer isolation and had their home constructed  away from other settlements. 

A rich Nambudiri's illam is a big house complex with  other sections  meant for  people associated with the family and their estate work.

The onus is on the Nambudiri family to provide accomodation for a group of  servants etc., who are entrusted with various responsibility. to maintain the house on a daily basis. Besides the main house, there are additional buildings where the employees are  are allowed to stay.

There are separate rooms for the priests or pujaris and others associated with the temple on the same campus. They are in charge of pujas and  other rituals. Many illams  had one or two temples near the main house.

Pursuit of knowledge, education and fine arts is part of Nambudiri community's culture.  Pundits who teach Sanskrit and Vedas to the young boys are allowed to stay in the house alloted for them; so are the staff members who run the administration and manage the assets.They are to live in the  separate quarters or rooms. 

To meet the needs of he visiting guests and their privacy there are here are bungalows ("Maalikas") for the prospective guests.

Close to the main house are located "Pathaayappura'' -  granary to store paddy, etc.  The padippura may resemble a gopuram / pagoda in some structures.

Many illams had well aerated cow shed with good water sources and storage space for podder. 

With the decline of  fortune and wealth,  countless Nambudiris' ancestral homes - tharavadu  are not well taken care of due to paucity of funds. Many have become decrepit and damaged and many   have been demolished.

 Since the implementation of the Land Reforms Act of 1971 the disintegration of the joint family system into nuclear family units in the Nambudiri community had become imminent in the wake of it and it had led to  the sale or  demolition of many Illams. Reason: severe financial stress

Such Nambudiri Illams  represent the culture and ethos of their  past glorious days and these heritage structures should not be left to rot or remain in a poor dilapidated state.  They need to be preserved for the posterity as they act as a link  between  the present modern society with the past conservative era of caste-ridden society. Well versed in ancient scriptures, astronomy and literature, they were instrumental in introducing different art forms with  deep understanding.  Their  patronage various forms of indigenous arts and culture and their  aesthetics keep them what they are today.. You may call them the guardians of Kerala's age old distinctive and colorful culture and the thread continues even to day. 

The Kerala state government in the recent past officially recognized  several Agraharam settlements - the living space of Brahmins near Palakkad and Thiruvananthapuram  These people centuries ago migrated from Thanjavur and other Cauvery delta districts of Tamil Nadu  on the request of the past rulers. I am glad these agraham settlements in Kerala carry the heritage tag.  In Tamil Nadu with a few exceptions most of the Brahmin settlements are either in shambles or left behind to rot by the  younger Brahmin families in search of new pasture. 

Some parts of the Nambudiri's Illam: 

Parts of a Nambudiri Illam.Mana, Kerala

Many parts of a mana or Ellam:

01.Vadukkini' (The north section) - Place to do rituals like 'Oupaasanam', 'Sraadham', etc.

02. Padinjattini or Padinjattithara' (western section of quadrangular type of house) - Place to receive guests and serve them food.

03. Thekkini: The living space of the family. 

04. kizhakkini:The Pooja or prayer room is set only in the eastern  block.

05 'Adukkala' - Kitchen; a. Morakam' - Kitchen store room to keep buttermilk, etc.

06. 'Oottupura' - Place to prepare feast on special occasions.

07. 'Kizhakke Kett' ('Thekketh') - Dinner hall for Namboothiris on special occasions.

08.'Meladukkala' - Day-to-day dinner hall for Namboothiris.

09. Natasaala' & 'Poomukham' (Drawing Room) - Place to receive persons of all castes who have no 'Theendal'

10. a.'Kalavara' (Store room) - to store Rice, Coconut Oil, Coconuts, etc. b. 'Paathrakkalavara' (Vessel store room) to store vessels which are not in daily use. c. 'Puthanara' (New chamber) - Room to store pickles and keep luggage of Antharjanams.

11.'Nadumittam' - Inner courtyard or quadrangle.

12. Sreelaakam': Worship Room

13. Vadakke Akam' - Labour Room

14.'Deenamuri' (Sick Room): - Room for sick male members.

15. Room for ladies during periods (in the Agrahara houses of Tamil Nadu there is a separate self-contained unit for this purpose called Baistai(?) room. 

Given below are some of the Illams owned by the Nambudiri families of Kerala:

Poonthanam Illam:

Interior Poonthanam Illam, Malappuram dist. Kerala

Poonthanam Illam, Malappuram dist. Kerala

Above images: Poonthanam Illam, built in traditional native style is in  Malappuram district  and was once the home of the legendary poet, Poonthanam Namboothiri, an ardent devotee Guruvayurappan (Lord Krishna) and a preacher of Bhakti Movement like Bodhendra Saraswathi, a 17th-century Hindu pontiff and the 59th Jagathguru (head) of the Kanchi matha, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, He spent his later life in Govindapuram,near Kumbakonam, T.N preaching  Bhakti Movement. This  mana is under the  the Guruvayur Devaswom.

Varikkasseri Mana (Palakkad): 

Varikkasseri Mana (Palakkad)

Above image: Varikkasseri Mana (Palakkad) - Located in Manisseri near Ottapalam in Palakkad district this Illam is a typical Naalukettu.100 years old  tharavadu  built by legendary "Perunthachan" of the "Parayi Petta Panthirukulam''.


Manayahtattu 'mana,' Kottayam dist., Kerala:

200 year old Kottayam Mana,

Above image:  A 200-year-old Manayahtattu 'mana' (a Namboodiri homestead) on the banks of the tranquil Muvattupuzha with 8 halls (ettukku), it is more or less well-intact. Steeped in tradition and located in a hallowed place with lots of trees and chirping birds in Midayikunnam near Thalayolaparambu in Kottayam district, the Nambudiri family members of this mana have the right to conduct  puja and other rituals at  about 100 temples.

Eettisseri Mana (Kannur):

Eettisseri Mana (Kannur),

Above image: Eettisseri Mana (Kannur)- A 500 year old mana with  rice granaries is  set in a 5 acre spread in  Narekodu, Kundamangalathu .The illam is  not well protected, and  is struggling to survive

Suryakaladi Mana (Kottayam): 


Above image:  Suryakaladi Mana is an age-old family bestowed with the responsibilities of conducting Tantric rites and Mantravadam (Science of Mantra) by lord Parasurama.  Mana, the abode of Brahmins was  usually the center of culture, education and fine arts. It is also the abode of Sree Maha Ganapathy, who resides in the  Nalukettu. Maha Ganapathi is at the center of Sun God (Surya Mandala Madyastham), hence here Ganapathi Homam can be performed only after sunrise whereas same is performed before sunrise elsewhere.  Standing with majestic, but simple local architecture on the banks of the Meenachil the house is just a kilometer from Chavittuvari. Swathi Thirunal, the King of Travancore, is believed to have built this quadrangle in the native design tell and given it as as an offering. The Yakshi pala tree  near the Mana is a  mysterious one and there are mystifying stories linked with this mana though the tree is gone.. 


Olappamanna Illam (Vellinezhi):

Olappamanna Illam

Above image:  Olappamanna Illam (Vellinezhi) was the home of a Nambudiri Brahmin family  native to Kerala. It was in this mana  the most popular form of Kathakali - Kalluvazhi Chitta originated  nearly 150-200 years back. This 300 year old heritage home was the cultural hub in many fields such as  Kathakali (classical dance form), Carnatic Music, Melam and Thayambaka (classical percussions).  The Illam was originally a Naalukettu, which was subsequently expanded into an Ettukettu. Lots of rosewood, teak wood and jackfruit tree wood (pala) went into part of  construction work. The design of the house is such that with adequate ventilation surrounded by lush green open yards,interior parts are cool durin the hot summer period. A popular practicing venue for Kathakali, the hall attached to the Kanthaloor temple, is  close to the mana. The Kathakali Yogam, it is said, came to an end in 1938. A portion of the house is now being used for home stay for tourists.


Pomully Mana, Palakkad: 

Poomully Perincode, Palakkad

Above image: Poomulli Mana set on a spread of   5.5-acre of land was said to be the largest and richest among the aristocratic Illams in Kerala. This sprawling "Pathinaarukettu" a symbol of opulence  is in  Peringode, a a scenic and picturesque village blessed with rustic serenity, near Koottanad in Palakkad.When part of it was demolished, 15000 cb ft of wood, teak, rosewood, etc was recovered.