The Traditional Kerala Manor: Architecture of a South Indian Catuhsala House. By HENRI SCHILDT. Institut francais de Pondichery / Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient, Collection Indologie, no. 117. Pondicherry: INSTITUT FRANCAIS DE PONDICHERY / ECOLE FRANCAISE D'EXTREME-ORIENT, 2012. Pp. xiv + 473, 436 plates. 1400 Rs., 60 [euro].
The "four-house" (Skt. catuhsala; Mal. nalakettu) manors of Kerala were, for centuries, the iconic abodes of the region's ruling classes. Catuhsalas are well known to greater South Asian architecture, deriving their name and basic architectural character from the placement of four halls (Skt. sala 'house') around a quadrangular courtyard (in distinction to "one-," "two-," and "three-house" types). In Kerala, catuhsala manors served historically as the residences of important Brahmana, Ksatriya, and Nayar families.
Closely tied to the cultural and economic lives of the families that inhabited them, these palatial houses have become increasingly obsolete in the face of dramatic social change in Kerala over the past century and more. Schildt (p. vi) reports that Kerala's catuhsala manors are being demolished or converted to other uses at an alarming rate. The primary goal of The Traditional Kerala Manor is, therefore, "to describe a certain palatial house type favoured by the Kerala ruling-class Hindus" (p. 1) before its "virtual disappearance" (p. vi). The author succeeds admirably in this task, and the painstakingly detailed documentation of the manors that are the heart of the text represent an academic achievement of tremendous worth to the scholarly community. As the first general study of its kind, The Traditional Kerala Manor is destined to become the primary reference for future studies on the architecture and ritual use of these important buildings.
For this study the author chose thirty-one houses from across Kerala still on their original sites (and many still inhabited by their original families). They vary by the class of the families that built them (Namputiri, Rajan/Tampuran, Nayar, and Ampalavasi) and their region (North Malabar, South Malabar, Cochin, and former Travancore) and range in age from perhaps as much as 500 to 150 years old. Between 1997 and 2002 the author and his assistants measured and photographed these houses and interviewed informants. The results of this undertaking are presented directly in 436 plates and collated in a number of tables (in appendix 3, mislabeled "Appendix 2"). The...