Kerala heritage and architecture

Kerala architecture is a testament to the rich cultural heritage and artistic traditions of the region. Characterized by long, steep roofs built to withstand heavy monsoons, the architectural style follows Thatchu Shasthra, an ancient science of carpentry, and is governed by the principles of Vasthu, an ancient Indian science that guides building and construction nuances. The most prominent feature of old traditional houses in Kerala is the sloping roof, with the overhang suspended very low to protect the mud or timber walls from rain and other elements of weather.

Traditional Kerala architecture evolved as an adaptation to the local climate, socio-economic relations, and the availability of materials such as bamboo, mud, lime, timber, stone, bricks, and thatch. The layout and planning of the old courtyard houses depended more on social and religious customs, resulting in a unique blend of Indian and European influences, with Indian styles being more dominant. This cultural heritage of Kerala architecture attracts numerous visitors each year, drawn to its magnificent monuments and buildings, and its rich history can be traced back to early texts like Thatchu Shasthra, Vastu, Manasara, Mayamata, Tantra Samucchayam, Manushyalaya-Chandrika, and Silparatna.

Historical Evolution of Kerala’s Architecture

The historical evolution of Kerala’s architecture can be traced back to ancient times, with the earliest known constructions dating from approximately 3000 B.C. to 300 B.C. The state’s architectural development showcases high human achievement and social equality despite low economic development. Early texts on architecture in Kerala include:

  • Thatchu Shasthra
  • Vastu
  • Manasara
  • Mayamata
  • Tantra Samucchayam
  • Manushyalaya-Chandrika
  • Silparatna

The prehistoric era saw the emergence of various architectural elements such as:

  1. Tomb cells
  2. Megaliths
  3. Hypaethral temples
  4. Folk arts
  5. Cult rituals
  6. Worship of trees, serpents, and mother images in kavus

The evolution of Kerala temple architecture can be divided into three distinct phases:

  1. Rock-cut temples (3rd century BCE – 8th century CE)
    • Mainly located in southern Kerala and associated with Siva worship
    • Best example: Kaviyoor rock-cut temple
  2. Structural temples (8th century – 10th century)
    • Built using wood, stone, and metal, with wood being the dominant material
  3. Final phase (1300 A.D. – 1800 A.D.)

Hindu and Buddhist architecture in Kerala were influenced by Dravidian architecture, featuring large temples with sloping roofs and stone cores below timber superstructures. Jain monuments, such as the Chitral Jain cave, Kallil rock-cut temple, and remains of structural temples at Alathoor and Sultanbathery, showcase the community’s architectural contributions.

Traditional buildings in Kerala were constructed by local craftsmen using locally sourced materials, keeping climate and socio-economic relations in mind. The composition of these structures includes circular, square, or rectangular plain shapes with ribbed roofs, steep sloping roofs with eaves, stone core, and timber superstructure. Materials used in Kerala architecture include granite, laterite, timber, clay, and palm leaves.

Over time, Kerala’s architecture has evolved, incorporating foreign influences while preserving its vernacular styles. The state’s role in the global spice trade attracted international powers, bringing new architectural elements. Despite these influences, Kerala’s architecture remains a distinct style, characterized by the use of stone and timber, intricate carvings, and sculptures. Today, architects in Kerala work towards combating changing conditions with indigenous solutions, blending traditional and modern styles to create a unique architectural identity.

Influence of Geography and Climate on Kerala’s Architecture

Kerala’s architecture is significantly influenced by its geography and climate, particularly the monsoon season. The region’s heavy rainfall has led to the development of unique architectural features that protect buildings from the elements while maintaining a comfortable living environment.

Some key features of Kerala architecture that have been shaped by the local geography and climate include:

  1. Sloping roofs: The steep, sloping roofs covered with clay tiles are a common feature in Kerala architecture. They are designed to drain away rainwater quickly and prevent damage to the house, while also creating a temperature control effect inside.
  2. Woodwork: Woodwork is extensively used in Kerala architecture for doors, windows, pillars, and ceilings. The wood provides natural ventilation and helps maintain a cooling atmosphere within the building.
  3. Locally sourced materials: Kerala architecture heavily relies on eco-friendly, locally available materials such as wood, clay, and laterite stone. These materials adapt well to the local climate and help maintain a comfortable living environment.
  4. Temple architecture: Kerala’s temple architecture is largely dictated by the region’s geographical location and climate. The temples feature steep, pointed wooden roofs covered with copper sheets, which are suitable for the coastal and rainy environment. The slanting roofs extend beyond the walls to protect them from rain and sunshine.
  5. Nalukettu: This traditional homestead of upper-class families in Kerala is designed to withstand heavy rains and hot summers. It features sloping tiled roofs, thick walls, and verandas that provide ample protection from the elements.
  6. Passive cooling techniques: Kerala architecture incorporates various passive cooling techniques to maintain a comfortable indoor environment. These include:
    • Juxtaposition of open and closed spaces to allow continuous air flow
    • Courtyard spaces to induce air movement
    • Openings in opposite walls and internal partitions for cross-ventilation
    • Use of vertical louvers and large window shutters
    • Verandas to avoid direct exposure of walls to the sun
    • Tall trees in south and north directions for shading
  7. Insulation and heat reflection: To prevent heat gain, Kerala architecture employs various techniques such as:
    • Highly insulated walls (filler slabs, cavity walls, double roof, composite walls)
    • Light-colored walls to reflect heat
    • Concrete and clay tiles for thermal insulation
    • Limewash coat on the terrace as a reflective surface
    • Green roofs with plants to absorb rainwater and keep the roof cool
  8. Rainwater management: Given the heavy rainfall in the region, Kerala architecture incorporates features to manage rainwater effectively, such as:
    • High plinths to prevent water from entering the building
    • Sloping roofs to avoid accumulation of rainwater on surfaces
    • Rainwater harvesting systems to collect a significant amount of rainwater

In summary, Kerala’s architecture is a testament to the ingenuity of its people in adapting to the region’s unique geography and climate. By incorporating locally sourced materials, passive cooling techniques, and rainwater management systems, Kerala architecture has created a built environment that is both functional and sustainable, while also reflecting the rich cultural heritage of the region.

Kerala’s Temple Architecture: A Testament to Religious and Cultural Fervor

Kerala’s temple architecture is a testament to the region’s deep-rooted religious and cultural fervor. The central sanctum of a Keralite temple, known as the Sree Kovil, is surrounded by a cloistered prakaram with gopuradwaras at one or more cardinal points. The earliest temples featured a unitary shrine or srikovil, with a detached namaskara mandapa built in front.

The sandhara shrine has a unique design, with twin wells leaving a passage between them and four functional doors on all cardinal directions, along with pierced windows. The concept of the storeyed temple emerged in the final phase, with the shrine’s tower rising to the second storey, forming a dwitala (two-storeyed) temple [6]. The vilakkumadam, a palisade structure with rows of oil lamps, is added beyond the nalambalam as an outer ring.

Kerala temples are fully enclosed in a massive wall (prakara) with gate houses or gopuras, and a theatre hall called Koothambalam for dance, music, and religious recitals. The temple plan’s nucleus is the shrine containing the garbhagrhiha cell, with its width serving as the basic module for the dimensional system. The decorative elements of Kerala temples include:

  1. Mouldings
  2. Sculptures
  3. Painting [6]

Kerala’s religious architecture follows guidelines from various ancient texts, such as:

  • Thantrasamuchayam
  • Silpiratnam
  • Thachu-Shastra
  • Manushyalaya Chandrika
  • Silparatna

The state’s temple architecture boasts over 2000 varieties of temples, with key elements and features including:

  • Sri-kovil
  • Namaskara Mandapam
  • Nalambalam
  • Balithara
  • Chuttambalam
  • Ambala-Kulam
  • Thevarapura

This rich architectural heritage showcases the immense skill and devotion of the artisans who created these magnificent structures, which continue to inspire awe and reverence among visitors and devotees alike.

The Role of Vastu Shastra in Shaping Kerala’s Architectural Identity

Vastu Shastra, an ancient Indian design philosophy, plays a significant role in shaping Kerala’s architectural identity. This ancient science of architecture and construction aims to align buildings with natural elements to promote the well-being, happiness, and prosperity of inhabitants. By balancing the five fundamental elements – earth, water, air, fire, and space – within the built environment, Vastu Shastra optimizes the flow of positive energy through the design and positioning of rooms, doors, and windows.

The principles of Vastu Shastra are deeply ingrained in Kerala’s architectural heritage. The use of the divine proportion, also known as the Golden Ratio, creates aesthetically pleasing and spiritually harmonious structures. This ratio is evident in the proportions of rooms, the placement of doors and windows, and the overall layout of traditional Kerala homes and temples.

Adhering to Vastu principles, Kerala’s architects and builders align spaces with the five elements to enhance the well-being, success, and fulfillment of those who inhabit these structures. This alignment is achieved through:

  1. Proper orientation of the building to maximize natural light and ventilation
  2. Placement of rooms according to their function and the elements they represent
  3. Use of materials that correspond to the five elements
  4. Incorporation of water features, such as courtyards with water fountains or ponds
  5. Strategic positioning of doors and windows to facilitate the flow of positive energy

By incorporating these Vastu principles, Kerala’s architecture not only creates visually stunning buildings but also fosters a sense of harmony, tranquility, and spiritual well-being for its occupants.

Traditional Kerala Homes: Nalukettu and Ettukettu

The traditional Kerala homesteads, Nalukettu and Ettukettu, are architectural marvels that showcase the region’s cultural ethos and ingenious design. Nalukettu homes are rectangular structures composed of four blocks connected by an open courtyard called nadumuttam. These homes are built using locally sourced materials such as granite, wood, clay, palm leaf covers, and laterite stone bonded with shell lime mortar. The main entrance, typically facing east, is beautifully decorated, and the walls are constructed with laterite stones held together by a mixture of mud and cow dung . The roof features clay tiles supported by wooden beams and columns, while the flooring is made of compacted earth or a blend of cow dung and sand.

Ettukettu, an extension of the Nalukettu design, is an eight-hall structure with two central courtyards, developed to accommodate larger joint families or to signify wealth and social status. The largest of the three styles, Pathinarukettu, consists of sixteen blocks arranged around two central courtyards and was reserved for the wealthiest families and local rulers. These homes were designed for large families of the traditional tharavadu to live under one roof and enjoy commonly owned facilities, inspired by ancient Chinese house architecture due to Kerala’s long history of trade with China.

The main elements of Nalukettu include:

  1. Padippura
  2. Poomugham
  3. Chuttuverandah
  4. Charupady
  5. Ambalkulam
  6. Nadumuttom
  7. Pooja room

The roof features gabled windows on the top for cross-ventilation and to let in light into the attic. However, due to socio-cultural changes, education gaining prominence, women migrating from kitchens to the outside world of work and independence, and the evolution of nuclear families, Naalukettu houses have faded into oblivion. Today, only a few original Naalukettu houses remain, mostly as museums or heritage homestays. Modern constructions now incorporate some features of the Naalukettu style, such as sloping roofs, small verandahs supported by tall pillars, and mini courtyards, which are used not only in houses but also in restaurants, ayurvedic spas, and other traditional Kerala establishments.

Contemporary Kerala Architecture: Blending Tradition with Modernity

Contemporary Kerala architecture seamlessly blends traditional elements with modern design principles, creating a unique aesthetic that pays homage to the region’s rich architectural heritage while embracing innovation. Architects skillfully incorporate traditional materials like wood and terracotta tiles alongside modern elements such as glass, steel, and concrete. This harmonious fusion results in striking spaces that showcase the best of both worlds.

Key features of contemporary Kerala architecture include:

  1. Minimalist design: Clean lines, simplicity, and clutter-free spaces are hallmarks of modern Kerala architecture. This approach creates a sense of tranquility and spaciousness.
  2. Traditional accents: While the overall design may be modern, traditional Kerala elements are often incorporated through furniture pieces or decorative accents. This adds a touch of warmth and character to the space.
  3. Open spaces and natural light: Double-height ceilings, skylights, and open layouts are common in contemporary Kerala homes. These features promote airflow and allow an abundance of natural light to flood the interior.
  4. Striking decor: The use of wood with strong fixtures and detailing in metal creates a visually stunning decor feature in modern Kerala homes. Hand-picked, Mediterranean-styled oak furniture can further enhance the unique aesthetic.

In recent years, there has been a revived interest in traditional Kerala architecture, with architects striving to incorporate its merits into modern buildings. By using locally sourced materials and traditional building techniques, contemporary Kerala architecture successfully merges the region’s architectural heritage with modern innovation. This blending of ethnic or traditional styles with modern architecture could be a possible solution for the present crisis in architecture, resulting in uncommon, relaxed, livable, and economical homes that cater to client preferences.


Kerala’s architectural heritage is a testament to the ingenuity, adaptability, and artistic prowess of its people. From the ancient rock-cut temples to the traditional Nalukettu homes and the contemporary fusion of styles, Kerala’s built environment has evolved to reflect the region’s unique geography, climate, cultural ethos, and spiritual beliefs. The principles of Vastu Shastra, the use of locally sourced materials, and the incorporation of passive cooling techniques have resulted in structures that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

As Kerala continues to embrace modernity, it is heartening to see architects and designers striving to preserve the essence of the region’s architectural heritage. By seamlessly blending traditional elements with contemporary design principles, they are creating spaces that not only pay homage to the past but also cater to the needs and preferences of modern society. This harmonious fusion of tradition and innovation ensures that Kerala’s architectural legacy will continue to inspire and captivate for generations to come.