The Lost Homes of Madras


Ask someone in Chennai who remembers the city as 'Madras' and you will hear stories of the people and places that have lent not just character but also soul to the city. Celebrating Madras Day and the city's 377th birthday, we walk you through the streets of Mylapore, exploring glorious old mansions and homes that are slowly being replaced by skyscrapers.

Madras in every pillar and every tile

Back in the day, narrow streets and row houses were a common sight in Madras with vividly patterned and coloured 'Kolams', beautiful courtyards and tall wooden pillars being a trademark. Traditionally called 'Agraharams', these homes were a cluster of houses that abutted the temple wall and served as a colony for the temple priests and their families. Well over 100-years old, these houses and their occupants are today an anomaly in a neighbourhood which was once dominated by them.

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Agraharam architecture is distinct to Madras, containing unique styles such as country-tile roofing, Burma teak rafters and lime plastering. You could divide the layout of these houses into three parts with the first being the 'Mudhal Kattu' where you receive guests, the second being the 'Irandaam Kattu' which contain the living quarters and the third being the 'Moondram Kattu' which is the kitchen and backyard. Most of these houses had an open-sky space in the centre called the 'Mitham' and large platforms lining the outside of the house called the 'Thinnai' which also served as a free place to stay for those visiting the temple town. Each house also had a private well in the backyard.

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These homes were always cool, irrespective of the sweltering Madras heat. Their secret? A tiled roof, 15-inch walls and the Mitham, which allows free flow of air throughout the house. In modern times, an Agraharam would be the equivalent of a gated community and many of their aspects can easily be adapted into today’s homes. Ideas like the Mitham can be replicated on a smaller scale in independent houses, while the use of wooden doors and windows have a charm of their own. Use skylights in your home to conserve electricity and allow natural lighting into your home. You can also do your bit for the environment by laying a Kolam with ground rice that is food for ants and even build small bird nests in your balcony.

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The case of the vanishing homes

Unfortunately, these homes are slowly being replaced by multi-storey apartments, which block out the steady breeze and eat into a neighbourhood's charm. Making matters worse, there is no body to recognize private property as heritage structures and preserve and document their stories. How long will these beautiful buildings from another era survive? Only time can tell.

Edited by- Nikhil Narayan Sivadas

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