Heritage of Jaffna Heritage of Jaffna - Traditional Buildings of Jaffna

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Introduction gr_sdi.gif (96 bytes)
Village Houses gr_sdi.gif (96 bytes)
Coutryard Houses gr_sdi.gif (96 bytes)
Colonial Houses gr_sdi.gif (96 bytes)
Miscellaneous gr_sdi.gif (96 bytes)
Conclusion gr_sdi.gif (96 bytes)

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  Court Yard Houses

The houses with central court yard had been in use as a popular house type in Jaffna for several centuries till around the mid 20th century. As the early houses were built with temporary or decomposable materials, no houses of these types are survived to this date anywhere in Jaffna region. During the period of Jaffna Kingdom, possibilities are that, only a few big temples and some royal residences would have been built out of permanent materials. The stories confirm that the Muslim settlement and the Mosque, which were burned by Portuguese, were constructed of temporary materials. Sketches drawn during Portuguese period and early Dutch period show that  many of the early churches, which had been built with the help of local people, were of temporary construction. After the construction of the fort and the Dutch town of Jaffna, during the the second half of  The Dutch rule, many local officials may have ventured to build their houses with permanent materials. It is logical to think that these officials who derived their authority from their affiliation with the colonial government, may have allowed some characters of the Dutch buildings in their houses, to reflect the newly gained status. However the traditional proto type plan, with the central court yard, had not been entirely dropped. This trend had initiated a new direction in the development of Jaffna houses. 

During the later period of Dutch rule, by taking advantage of the leniency in the government policies, several Hindu groups started building temples in Jaffna. Among the earliest, the "Perumal" temple built among weavers community and the "Vaitheeswaran" Temple at Vannarponnai are noteworthy. One of the notable aspects are both of these temples were built by communities recently migrated from South India. They still had contacts with their home country. They brought builders ("sthpathis") from Thamilnadu. It seems that some of them, who came for the construction of temples, had found more work and settled in Jaffna. They would have played an important role in building the houses in the "Chetti" community settlement near "Vaitheeswaran" Temple.

  Court Yard Houses of Vannarponnai

  General Planning

A basic court yard house of Vannarponnai consists of rooms and open halls, arranged around an open court yard in such a way that all these spaces are looking towards the court yard. Courtyard House - Plan Window-less rear walls, of these rooms and halls, form a solid enclosure around these spaces. This enclosure has an entrance door towards the road side and a back door to the rear compound. These houses have raised platforms ('thinnai')  between the front wall and the road. A walk way, a few inches above the level of the road, provides access to the main entrance door from the road, divide the front "thinnai" into two parts, one on either side of the entrance door.  This walk way is called a "Nadai" in Tamil, which means walk. This walk way runs through the entrance and divides the raised floor of the interior to form "thinnais" on either side, until it reaches the central court yard. Two more walk ways are usually provided from the court yard, one to the main room and the other towards the back door. Out side the back door, a verandah is provided along the rear wall. The kitchen is usually provided on one end of this verandah. 

The portion in front, which consists of the "thinnai" and the walk way, is covered by a roof which is an extension of the roof of the interior. This roof, always slopes towards the road, is supported by short wooden columns. Front Thinnai of a Courtyard House The eaves at the entrance is usually lower than a person's height. The elders of the locality explain this feature as a system to make, those who enter the house, to bow down in respect. However, technical shortcomings also can be attributed to this situation. 

Around the court yard which is open to the sky, there are wide open spaces. These are multi-purpose areas and accommodate most of the day to day  and occasional activities. Rooms, which are generally not very big, arranged in a row of three on one side and open to this multi-purpose space. The main room is generally located in the middle and one of the other two is designated as a shrine room. Additional rooms are provided depending on the size of the house at other locations within the house. All these interior spaces are covered by the roof, which is designed in such a way to slope towards the central court yard on all four sides and supported on short wooden columns located along the edges of the court yard, to protect the open living spaces from heavy rains. 

Cultural Influences

Small sizes of the completely covered rooms are notable features in these houses as well as in the village houses. Interior View Courtyard House The provision of small rooms in this type of houses, where lager rooms could have been affordable, can only be attributed to reasons pertaining to the cultural priorities of the community. Someone spending most of his or her time in a private room was unheard of. High level of interaction and bond between members of the family and close relations were valued high. Large, common, multi-purpose spaces could have been more suitable than fragmented private spaces. Rooms may have been required mainly to keep the valuables safe.   

During the days of these houses, loose furniture such as tables, chairs, beds etc. were not used in houses. "Thinnais" were used as built-in seats as well as beds. This also is a common feature, in both village houses and the court yard houses of Vannarponnai, which again is attributable to the culture of the people.

The front "thinnai" was open to the public road. This space was used for several purposes including business related activities, receiving and entertaining guests who were not close to the family, leisurely informal conversations etc. Apart from the usage  by the owner this space provided much needed rest for a passer-by for a short while and some times for an over night stay for a long distance traveler.

Considerations related to Astrology And "Vastu sastra".

"vastu sastra" and astrological considerations were reflected in the planning of most of these these houses exactly the same way as it was in the village houses. As the main room is considered as the "veedu" or house, for all requirements related to orientation and location the corresponding attributes of the main house was taken into consideration. In many houses, one can very clearly recognize a village house arrangement. However these considerations seem disregarded in some other houses. The reason for this is not clear. Possibly a more sophisticated set of rules may have been followed in planning those houses.

Houses with two internal court yards

Some larger houses of more affluent members of this community had two court yards. 

A Double Courtyard House The front "thinnai" had been completely separated from the inner house and the second court yard was provided between these two areas. The front structure was expanded by adding one more set of "thinnai" and rooms inside the main door. This arrangement introduced a new semi-private space probably for better business dealings and completely separate the family spaces for more privacy.  The planning of the inner house is similar to the basic court yard house which was discussed earlier. 

A Double Courtyard House As a variation another type of court yard houses also found in Vannarponnai area, where the second court yard was added out side the back door. The kitchen and other related spaces and rooms were arranged around this court yard. This court yard was entered from out side through a separate door.

The reason for these two different types of concepts in expansion of the houses is not very clear. Specially the two court yard house type referred later need further studies to understand the logic behind the importance given to the kitchen department.

Construction and Building Materials  

Most of the load bearing walls were built out of random lime stone rubbles with lime- sand mortar as a binder. Materials needed for such wall construction was abundantly available in Jaffna region. However it has been noticed clay bricks too had been used in wall construction in a limited way, in many places mixed with random lime stones. Clay bricks found here were not manufactured to standard size. Clay for making bricks was very scarce in Jaffna peninsula. It is said that only in the village of Irupalai, bricks were made in limited quantities. Elders say a few decades back bricks were imported to Jaffna from South India. The logic behind the use of bricks in small quantities mixed with lime stone is not clear. Does this indicate the use of salvaged bricks from older buildings which were replaced by the new ones?

Another local material extensively used in the construction of these houses are timber from palmyrah palm. This provides almost entire roof frame work of these houses. Heavy hard wood timber had been used for columns and beams. Timber had been used for thick decorated doors and heavy door frames,  exposed ceiling frame work, ceiling boards and column capitals. 

Originally the roof cladding of most of these houses were half round tiles which were imported from India. These types of tiles had been replaced later by flat "Calicut" type tiles which also was imported from South India.    

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Last updated on 04 February 2005