Agraharams: a historical appraisal
India is known for its temples - temples that stand as a testament to the might of visionary kings, the divine energy of a million gods, and the devotion of an entire nation. Life revolved around temples, and everything was built around it, including homes. Going back centuries, ‘Agraharams’ were the Brahmin neighbourhood of a village and consisted of row houses on either side of the road.
Also known as ‘Chaturvedimangalams’, these row houses were unique in their construction being spacious and very well planned. ‘Agraharams’ incorporated a way of life, which was cantered around temples and religion and was spread over South India.
Visit some of the prominent Agraharams including the famous ‘Kalpathy Agraharam’. They are located across Palakkad district including Chittur.
The original residents of these Agraharams were the priests who presided over the local temple and their families. The heritage of Agraharams is a study of the times, infusing typical Brahmin culture with traditional architecture. The name Agraharam denotes row houses laid out in the shape of a garland around the village temple. The layout was evidently designed on a very logical and scientific basis incorporating the topography, household needs, water supply and other critical factors. Every house was a microcosm of the community outside and fostered a culture of sharing within. Houses had shared walls and every village had a few wells that were meant for common use by all the residents of the Agraharam.
A typical Agraharam is divided into three parts - the ‘mudhal kattu’ or receiving quarters, the ‘irandam kattu’ or the living quarters, and the ‘moonam kattu’ or the utility and other sections of the house.
The center of the house would be open to the skies with a courtyard (with a sunken floor) for rituals, festivities or general gatherings. In some cases, the courtyard would be substituted by a high-ceilinged roof made of wooden rafters with big windows along the sides for better ventilation. Safety and security were provided with iron grilles that covered open spaces. At the entrance to each house would be a raised platform called ‘thinnai’. It ran all around the house acting as general seating for visitors while they waited to be called inside. A big awning would shelter people from driving rain and blazing sunshine, keeping the inside of the house cool at all times. In the ‘irandam kattu’ would be the bedrooms and storage rooms that held valuables, while the third section contained the kitchen, dining area, and the puja room.
A disappearing tradition
Today, Agraharams are fast disappearing to make way for bigger, swankier apartments and modern houses. With the younger generation migrating to cities or other countries across the world in search of jobs, Agraharams now stand alone with only memories of an interesting way of life. Urbanisation has made the performance of elaborate rituals shorter, reflecting a marked change in contemporary lifestyle that can no longer be adapted to the Agraharam and its community. Privacy is valued a lot more today, which means common walls are a source of discomfort and common wells are no longer in use with every household opting to have their own plumbing systems.
The unique charm of Agraharams is timeless. In all the southern states where Agraharams were once prominent, state Governments and independent heritage conservation bodies are driving efforts to preserve them through awareness and various incentives.
Visiting the few in the Chitur-Palakkad region may be the only opportunity left for one to experience them first hand before they fully pass into history.