An ode to Kerala’s Tharavadus

Ancient wooden mansions once dotted the sea-fringed, wind-swept terrains of Kerala. Today, they are being dismantled, piece by piece, to make way for concrete structures that have no cultural context. Niraamaya Retreats Surya Samudra, Kovalam is submerged in the luxury of ancestral homes and secluded beaches, a sanctuary for the senses and a tribute to Kerala’s architectural heritage.

The old and the new, the traditional and the modern—co-existence characterises cities in ancient civilizatons such as India. However, we are rapidly dismantling our architectural heritage, which was rooted in our cultural norms and informed by our climatic conditions, in favour of modern architecture.

Tharavadus, or Kerala’s ancient mansions and homes belonging to rich landlords and the elite, was one such architectural gem that has been eroded by transforming aesthetic norms. Author and linguist Hermann Gundert, in his Malayalam-English dictionary, published in 1872, described tharavadus as “ancestral residence of land-owners, or a house, chiefly of noblemen.”

Wrapped in beautiful wood—with verandahs and courtyards that are conducive to free flow of wind that ensures the homes stay cool even the harshest of summers—tharavadus evolved in sync with the local weather and topography. In these beautiful ancestral mansions, you will glean several design features that are unique. Wrap-around balconies; eaves and gable ears; sloping tile roofs on which Kerala’s torrential monsoon rains leave no trace, the water sliding down to meet the many rivulets and streams; the portico or charupadi to watch the world go by on a lazy evening; brass handles on heavily carved doors.

Tharavadus have always been about the ambience, the character and their ability to personify imperial beauty and elegance. Modern juggernaut, however, has ensured that tharavadus have been dismantled, bit by heartbreaking bit, and replaced by modern concrete clones. A few individuals and organisations have tried to preserve a modicum of this ancient architectural traditions, and the aesthetic and artistic norms they embody.

Niraamaya Retreats Surya Samudra’s tharavadu recreation

The retreat, nestled in a cliff-top coconut grove, is a beacon to traditional Kerala architecture.  

Though fitted out with luxury and conveniences for global luxury travellers through discreet interventions, the tharavadus occupy centre-stage at the property, which traces back its origin to 1982 when a barren hill was transformed into a heritage property.

The retreat stands on a stunning promontory, flanked by two isolated, wind-swept beaches. The dramatic natural setting is complemented by the distinctive heritage architecture from Kerala’s past. Tharavadus, which were being dismantled and sold by families of erstwhile noblemen and landowners, facing bankruptcy, were brought to the site from different parts of Kerala. Today, these restored tharavadus dot Niraamaya Retreat Surya Samudra, Kovalam’s sprawling 31-acre property. The mansions are now cottages; some even host public spaces such as the restaurant and the spa, a soothing space reminiscent of understated traditional Ayurveda spas to which people have been going for rest and rejuvenate for centuries.

This, even as the retreat boasts an ultra-luxurious demeanor. Contemporary comforts and luxury elements have been seamlessly married to traditional architecture. The cliff-edge, palm-shaded retreat, with enviable views over the Arabian sea, spreads downhill, over steppes and has a tropical charm that is heightened by a verdant landscape.

The Suites and Rooms

The historic tharavadus are punctuated by carved picture windows for panoramic ocean and palm tree views. The cottages have been immaculately restored to maximise privacy.  Among the tharavadu cottages is the Banyan Tree Bungalow—discretely luxurious with a private sit-out and a bath garden, which burrow within the shade of a 200-year-old banyan tree. The heritage premium rooms are characterised by ornate doors, terracotta roofs and carved pillars.  The ceilings are low, as in old Kerala homes. In some cottages, a wooden door with brass handles divide the living space from a verandah that straddles the outdoor bath area. The indulgent cottages are a nature lover’s delight, with views of either the landscaped gardens or a burst of ocean blue.

Niraamaya Retreats Surya Samudra is submerged in the luxury of ancestral homes and secluded beaches, a sanctuary for the senses and a tribute to Kerala’s architectural heritage.

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