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A Brahminical interlude in Kerala

Author: Anu Kuruvilla
Publication: The New Indian Express
Date:  March 1, 2020
URL:      https://www.newindianexpress.com/lifestyle/travel/2020/mar/01/a-brahminical-interlude-2109484.html

A 200-year-old home beside an ancient river in Kerala is a cultural pit stop for cruise travellers who will enjoy the sattvic side of an ancient culture

Thottuva is just another Kerala hamlet, a riverside postscript in the larger stream of history. Thani Illam, a heritage homestay here, sits beside the Periyar River and seeks to be more than a homestay by giving rare insights to life in Kerala 200 years ago. Then Namboodiris were on top of the caste heap; today the illam’s pitch devised by politically incorrect tour operators is “Spend a day with a Brahmin family”. Having said that, the red-tiled gabled building is the first heritage building to be included in the ‘grihasthali’ project of Kerala Tourism, which attracts tourists to ancient homes that package Malayali past with architecture and food. 

Tourists are enchanted by its low wooden ceilings, smooth wooden pillars—one of which is made from a single tree trunk—the aattukattil (swing-cot) in the entrance room, the traditionally paved floors and the conical roofs that point to the sky with proud nostalgia. The place was built by Tamil Brahmins, says Santhosh Thanikad, son of TSP Namboothiri, who owns the building. “It is constructed in the ‘agraharam’ style (agraharams were the colonies of Tamil Brahmins after they migrated to Kerala). A typical Namboothiri Illam is a ‘nalukettu’,” says Santhosh. A nalukttu is a Kerala house with four wings and a central courtyard.

Thottuva, which literally means ‘canal’s mouth’, is home to divine inspiration. The Dhanvantari Temple, a rare place of worship dedicated to the god of healing, is one of the four major temples here. Places of pilgrimage such as Shankaracharya’s birthplace Kalady and Malayattoor are close by.
The illam’s preferred guests are foreign cruise travellers and package tourists. Santhosh says the illam’s purpose “is to conserve the heritage building without investing a huge amount of money”. His parents bought the illam in 1993 to spend their retirement away from the incessant bustle of the city. But history and Santhosh had other plans.

He was in the tourism business and had won a Green Globe certification in 2003 for sustainable tourism. Well-versed in houseboat tourism, he knew the riverside house was an ideal stop for Westerners. He applied to enrol it in the Grihasthali scheme. Officials from the tourism department came to inspect its suitability. Its architecture and historical significance impressed them. Santhosh says, “They got my parents on board for their project. Their task was to rope in others.”When Thani Illam opened its doors, there were over 100 heritage buildings registered with Grihasthali. Today only eight remain. But Thani Illam is unconventional. Says Santhosh, “We are not a homestay.

Our guests are offered the same food the family eats, which is pure vegetarian Brahmin fare made with produce grown on the illam’s land.” Alcohol and smoking are a strict no-no here.Like so many ancient South Indian buildings, Thani Illam, too, doesn’t need air conditioning to keep its residents cool. The positioning of the doors and windows, and the wooden ceiling is responsible for the clement temperature. The extended roof prevents sun and rain from falling directly on the walls. In the beginning, the illam offered one-night stays, but now due to his parents’ health issues it hosts day visitors. “The tourists, especially from cruise ships, arrive here to spend a day with the family,” he says. Compressing two centuries into a single day is part of the illam’s magic.


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