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The town... the house... their spirit

Robert Dulau

The house

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1The house is the special place where one lives. No matter what its dimensions, its beauty or its value, home is never a neutral, ordinary house. The place where "I live" maintains its character because each day, each night, I invest it with my presence.

2In the chapter on the street, we tried to clarify certain characteristics of both Tamil and old colonial houses. We purposely restrict ourselves here to the perception of houses that may be gained from a walk along the street. At the present moment we want to continue our exploration and enter into the intimacy of a house. Our attention is drawn most particularly to the traditional Tamil house. Thus, we will identify the different rooms and analyse the divisions, to see what the totality of this information tells us about the idea of adaptation to an environment and what it teaches us about specific elements of a culture.

3The traditional Tamil house in Pondicherry can be described according to whether it’s a simple village house transplanted to a totally urban setting or a much more elaborate house with two or even three interior courtyards and sometimes two storeys.

4Accordingly we shall focus here on a simplified view of the ordinary single-storeyed Tamil house such as can still be found in Pondicherry. These houses, as we already know, are built of bricks and lime mortar. The roof is composed of canal tiles of baked earth, the terrace is of bricks, the supports of the "tiṇṇai", verandah and interior courtyard of wood.

5The division of space is according to protection and function but these two ideas must be seen in relation to three other criteria: society, family and nature.

A Brief Description of the House

6After having passed the "tiṇṇai", and the threshold, thus crossing the first boundary between domestic and public space, we go along a corridor which leads to the interior courtyard.

7In the area between the front door and the inner courtyard are one or two rooms off the corridor whose use is not strictly defined. They may serve as a place to welcome strangers, as a study, or sometimes as a vantage point for watching the street. We note that only these two rooms have windows, narrow ones that open onto the street.

8None of the other rooms ever receives direct light. They are lit only by the overhead light coming from the inner courtyard or, additionally, by the light from the uncovered rear courtyard, when the kitchen door is open. The corridor leads to the inner courtyard, the "muṟṟam", which is interior space but open to the sky. Usually square, it is supported by wooden columns. Sometimes the "muṟṟam" may have a kind of protective canopy made from bamboo and designed to prevent birds from getting in. The level of the ground of the "muṟṟam" is lower than the level of the house so that it collects rain water which comes directly into this area. On both sides of the "muṟṟam" the rooms, generally without windows, are meant for relaxation and sleep.

9From the "muṟṟam" and towards the kitchen and the store room, is another corridor on the same line as that leading from the front door. Nowadays, cooking is increasingly done with gas but originally the fuel was cow-dung cakes, wood, and later kerosene.

10The kitchen opens directly onto a closed courtyard, bordered by a wall that usually encloses a well, toilet and bathroom.

11The division and definition of space in the Tamil house reflects the subtlety of relationship and customs that exist in ordinary community and family life.

12Three areas can be defined. First there is a semi-open space which serves as a reception area for visitors to the house.

13This first area is made up of the verandah, the "tiṇṇai" and the one or two rooms off the first corridor. This space which opens to the exterior is most especially reserved for relations who can be entertained with the passing show of the street. It is the perfect place for meetings with neighbours and for professional activities such as tailoring and the practice of medicine; it is as well a place of rest and coolness from where older family members can see what is going on in the street. The passerby is free to rest on the "tiṇṇai", but depending upon the degree of intimacy between him and the family, may or may not be permitted to cross the first boundary which is marked by the threshold.

14The passage from one area to another is indicated by various thresholds which form sensitive marks: the threshold of the main door, the steps separating the inner courtyard from the kitchen, the distance separating the front rooms facing the street from the inner courtyard. These limits constitute various zones which are characterised by a difference in ground-level; the thresholds demarcate stages, degrees, and fine limits between the different kinds of space.

15The "muṟṟam", an inner courtyard, also called the region of Brahma, is the focal point of the house. An interior space open to the sky, it allows the light to penetrate into the house and acts as a link between nature and man. It creates a relationship with the sky, and also provides an anchor for the ordinary life of domestic occupations. In a sense the "muṟṟam" seems to be an ambivalent space, at the same time open and closed.

16The "muṟṟam" is situated in line with the entrance of the house. To get as far as the "muṟṟam", after having removed one’s shoes, is to enter into a close relationship with the rhythm of the life of the family in its house. The "muṟṟam" seems to be a point of equilibrium between nature, the environment and the family.

17Around the "muṟṟam", on the raised area ("tāḻvāram") that surrounds the inner courtyard, revolves all that is essential in community life. It is a place to meet, relax and talk.

18Around the "muṟṟam" too are the rooms that are usually kept closed and are without windows. One of these rooms usually serves as a prayer room, "Cāmi-aṟai", the chamber of the god worshipped by the family. This god may or may not be related to the family’s caste. The other rooms allow for at least momentary isolation, and become places of reinforced intimacy.

19The second corridor which leads to the kitchen and the store room is a strictly female space. It reveals a division of tasks and makes this the main area of female influence. In more elaborate Tamil houses there are separate inner courtyards, some primarily for women and others for men.

20The back courtyard is the farthest point of the Tamil house. It is bounded by a wall which may have a door opening on to the Street, if the plot is transversal. This space, adjacent to the kitchen, is closely linked to the female space, without however being exclusively reserved for women. It is here that they prepare meals, wash clothes and peel vegetables. A well and some trees may structure the area. It is neither a flower garden nor a kitchen garden, but rather a functional space closely linked to domestic needs.

Some Historical Aspects

21The house, like the mother tongue, reflects a culture. It is not just a simple shelter that offers us protection but rather recounts a history that is our own. The origin of the design of the Tamil house goes far back in time. The word "muṟṟam" appears in literary texts of the 2nd century. In the commentary of Viśvakarma Vāstuśāstram by M. Vāsudeva Śāstrī which makes reference to the inner courtyard, it is clear that "every habitation should possess an inner courtyard". This courtyard, called "catvara" in Sanskrit, symbolises "the eyes of living beings ". A house deprived of the inner courtyard is compared to a blind man. It is also said that the inner courtyard may have a sort of canopy built into the roof if appropriate.

22The word "muṟṟam" originally designated the space in front of the house; we may see how the house has changed by tracing a change in meaning whereby the "muṟṟam" has become the inner courtyard.

23A Tamil house is above all functional. Adaptation to the environment is often one of the priorities when a house is being built. There must first be protection from particularly taxing climatic conditions. The battle against heat results in the search for shade and air, especially in Pondicherry where the variation in temperature between summer and the rainy season normally does not exceed 8°C. The Tamil house is therefore conceived in such a way as to make use of cool and shady space as much as possible. Aside from the main facade of the house, very few openings are made in the walls. The "tiṇṇai", prolonged by the roof of the verandah, offers a retiring space which is protected from the direct light of the sun. Across the inner courtyard, the corridors and wide-open doors allow circulation of air and natural ventilation that creates a feeling of coolness. The presence of a canopy over the inner courtyard makes the interior even darker.

24Construction materials here particularly express the influence of the environment from which they are taken. Bricks of baked mud, in Tamil Nadu, are part of a living cultural tradition. This tradition has, in modern houses, been largely abandoned in favour of a superstructure of cement and concrete; bricks are now used only for the walls. Brick walls, roughly three feet thick, retain only a little of the exterior heat. Such a wall directly exposed to the sun takes as much as four or five hours to absorb the heat. The traditional roof was generally covered by canal tiles. This kind of covering is in the process of disappearing from the urban landscape.

25The traditional Tamil house is a fine example of an intelligent structure, ideally adapted to an environment. This adaptation is particularly remarkable because the constraints of climate have in no way prevented the invention of specific forms which must be recorded in a typological analysis.

26Tamil houses in an urban setting are witnesses to a particularly elaborate and codified popular art. To recognise them and try to preserve them is to give meaning to a place and to reclaim its heritage.


27Is the house that you live in traditional, modern, or another type of house?

28What, in your view, are the respective advantages of the traditional house and the modern house?

29What essential differences can you recognise between these two kinds of habitation?

30What construction materials are used in the Tamil house, in the modern house?

31What differences can be discerned between the facade of a modern house and that of a traditional house? Is the organisation of external and internal space the same in both types?

32Do you think that the traditional Tamil house can be adapted to conform to the owner’s demand for comfort?

33Do you feel that the modern house, as it is presented in advertising, truly corresponds to an "ideal" dwelling?

34How far can we say that the traditional Tamil house tells us something about the history of Tamil culture?

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 1993

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