Thursday, 11 February 2016

Agraharam, heritage shared space - Kerala government to preserve it

Agraharam Renovation Project to take off at palakkad, kerala.
A street in Kalpathy Village, Palakkad  district,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 and Tamil Nadu. Once there were numerous agraharams in the  Cauvery Delta areas of Tamil Nadu such as  composite Thanjavur District (now divided into Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapatnam districts), Trichy, Thirunelveli and Kanchipuram districts.  As for Kerala,  Thiruvanthapuram and Palakkad districts were quite well known.
well maintained agraharams atthe Udayalur
An agraharam consists of a row or cluster of houses with a common wall on either side of the houses  and also on the other side 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 dinning and meeting guests. This  space is also used for conducting family functions, ceremonies, etc.  All houses have raised platform (in Tamil ''Thinnai'') or pial with roof covered with country tiles.
In Tamil Nadu since 1960s such agraharams have started vanishing for many reasons like gradual migration of young Brahmin boys in pursuit of higher studies either in India or abroad, employment in northern states,  politics, etc. Further, introduction of land reforms impacted the Brahmins who held good spread of agricultural lands, besides, politically-instigated labor problems.

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. 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 decade are declining because of major architectural changes and introduction of modern homes and urbanization in the agraharam villages.

Hats off to the Government of Kerala, that has taken the right step to preserve heritage living spaces.  What the other state governments in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra  have failed to do, Kerala government has done it by taking  serious steps to preserve  and save the agraharams from further decline and degradation. The Kerala government has 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. To cap it all,  the Kerala State Welfare Corporation for Forward Communities (Samunnathi) has under taken  a major repair  project for which an allocation of Rs. four crores is made. Under this unique scheme, that aims at preservation of heritage living  'shared spaces of great antiquity,' ever undertaken by any other state governments, that I know of, 200 homes (a sum of Rs. 2.00 lakhs is earmarked for each unit) are selected in the agraharams of Thiruvanantha Puram and Palakkad districts. The highlight of this project is preference will be given to homes headed by single woman, physically handicapped people, kids living with poor protections and also trans-genders.

This unique project is scheduled to be implemented during the financial year 2016 and 2017. It will be well and good if  other southern states will follow suit and carry out the restoration and reconstruction of houses in the agraharams  in their respective states based on the model of Kerala, keeping in mind such heritage places need to be preserved for our progeny.  We are already loosing many monuments of historical importance  such as the Schwartz (Protestant) Church, built by Raja Serfoji, Maratha ruler in the heart of Thanjavur city (adjacent to Sivaganga park), gradually crumbling  moat and tall boundary walls around the famous Thanjavur Big (Bragadeshwarar) Temple both under the control of the ASI and the rocket (Mysorian rockets of Tipu Sultan of Mysore) launching site in the Fort of Srirangapatna, Karnataka. 


Centuries - old agraharams in Kerala to get facelift: The Hindu of February 09, 2016