HERITAGE OF JAFFNA - TRADITIONAL ARCHITECTURE
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Village Houses gr_sdi.gif (96 bytes)
Coutryard Houses gr_sdi.gif (96 bytes)
Colonial Houses gr_sdi.gif (96 bytes)
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  Introduction

On studying the various civilizations of the world we come to know their architectural  heritage their temples, tombs, palaces, and other public buildings which can be considered as the products of high civilizations. Although these buildings reflect the technological developments and the economic and social power of the ruling elite of the respective periods, they rarely have any relevance to the culture and the economic realities of the majority common masses. Domestic houses and other smaller buildings of the ordinary people reflect the soul of the common man's culture, as these building types had evolved in the respective communities for longer periods through trial and error and generally retain the basic characteristics unchanged for longer time . The above characteristics make these buildings as potential sources for information relevant to longer period back in history. They also may provide valuable information related to the origin of various sections of the community, composition, migration patterns, social structure etc. Above all, these buildings  contain ideas and  solutions for design and planning problems to suit the local culture and climate which can be useful in designing future buildings. Further it is very important to strengthen the traditional elements of the unique culture of any community in all its aspects, if we want to maintain and improve the bond between the community and its members.

Building Types of Jaffna

We can categorize the traditional buildings existing in Jaffna region into the following types.

  1.     Domestic houses.

  2.     Resting houses or 'Madams'.

  3.     Buildings of religious worship.

  4.     Other miscellaneous buildings.

This site will present some information mainly on domestic houses and to a lesser extent about the resting places.

Domestic houses of Jaffna can be grouped  into the following categories.

  1.     Village houses or huts.

  2.     Traditional Court yard houses or 'Natsar' houses.

  3.     Court yard houses with colonial period influences.

  4.     Houses built by Dutch.

  5.     L - Shaped Houses          (added on 30 December 2004)

  6.     Houses of modern period.

Only the first three types will be discussed here for now. The other two will be kept for another discussion later.

Historical Background

Majority of the Jaffna population have their origins in Southern India. The earliest migration may have taken place a couple of thousands years back. Since then there had been inflow of people time to time from various parts of old Tamil country which included the modern Indian states of Thamilnadu and Kerala. Some groups had come to Jaffna in recent times during European occupation. They were mainly traders, artisans, musicians and similar categories. Almost all of them seems to have come from various parts of Thamilnadu. Apart from the movement of people as permanent residents in Jaffna, there would have been continuous exchanges of cultural ideas between South India and Jaffna, since the time of  establishment of  the early Tamil settlements. Therefore the developments of Jaffna in complete isolation from South Indian influence could not have been possible. 

However there are other conditions which would have affected the development of Jaffna different from that of South India. one of the main factors would have been the large number of Sinhalese population which is said to have lived in this regions mingled with Tamil people for a long period. Further the influence of Singhalese kingdoms of Southern Srilanka, longer period of colonial rule under three different western powers would have had their share of impact on the cultural developments in Jaffna.

In the olden days village houses were built using locally available material mostly by the would be occupants themselves with the help of the neighbours. This practice is still in existence in remote villages. Therefore the early settlers in Jaffna would not have had any problems in building residences and other buildings exactly the same way as they had in their former land.   The well to do families among them would have had their houses built by the other settlers. In the course of time when the settled community acquired the necessary sophistication and more and more wealthier sections such as trader communities from South India decided to settle in Jaffna they would have brought in professional builders from their home land. There are evidences in the recent times for such practices. 

Considerable number of people belonging to a section of Chetty community were living in Vannarponnai in Jaffna, mostly concentrated along present Kankesanthurai road. A portion of this road had also been called as "Chetty Theru" (Chetty Street) a few decades ago. Their settlement in Jaffna seems to have been there since at least from the later part of 18th century. A considerable number of houses and at least four temples along this road had been built by them. Whether Vaithilingam Chettiar who built the well known Vaitheeswaran Temple in Vannarponnai in the later part of the Dutch occupation, belongs to the same Chetty community or not is yet to be varified. The Kathiresan Temple in Jaffna which is well known for its elaborately decorated wood work also built by a Chetty community. An elderly builder in his sixties in 1974 who was still continuing as a builder claimed his decendency from "sthapatis" (traditional builders) came from Tamilnadu who built many houses for chetty community in Jaffna. 

According to traditions some of these houses were built about 200 years back. In all possibilities these houses would have been built based on South Indian proto types used by chetty community in their former home land. However we can easily reject the notion that this houses were of an entirely new type unknown to the Jaffna people at that time, because the concept, the design principle and most of the major design elements are surprisingly similar to the traditional village houses which are found almost everywhere in the Jaffna region. Martin, John. H. in his book  'Notes on Jaffna; Chronological; Historical; Bibliographical etc.', included a note on Thissaweerasinghe Mudaliyar who was an official under the Dutch government in Jaffna during the later half of 18th century. 

"Thissaweera singhe Mudaliyar lived in an old fashioned stone-built four sided, tiled house with an open yard in the centre, letting in plenty of light......A stone built four-sided, tiled houses was the best form of the rich or respectable native habitation. Similar houses of mud wattle covered with coconut or palmyrah "olas" and built by the middle class was numerous."    

This statement indicates that the court yard houses were known and popular among Jaffna people even before the later part of 18th century. The above houses made out of temporary materials can be considered as a predecessor to the house types built in Vannarponnai, on the time line of evolution of Jaffna houses. It also is not difficult to recognize an evolutionary relationship between the type mentioned earlier and the village houses of  Jaffna. 

Therefore the development of Jaffna buildings would have taken place simultaneously with the development of similar buildings in South India in the same direction, at least until the beginning of  European rule. 

                                                                                              

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  Last updated on 31 December 2004
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