Sainath says he was motivated to set out on such a journey after he saw several posts on social media that lamented the vanishing of Kerala’s vernacular architecture, landscape, sacred groves, ponds, rituals and customs
Rambling, traditional homes with mossy tiled roofs, laterite bricks, gabled windows and fat wooden pillars in the midst of red earth, pouring rain and green vistas are Sainath Menon’s muse.
“That is why every Sunday and every holiday, without fail, I travel to see those places, gather information about the buildings and experience living in some of those houses in Kerala’s northern districts,” says Menon.
Documenting the treasure trove of Malabar’s natural and built heritage has been his passion for the last five years. Thirty-two-year-old Sainath, a sales executive in a private company, says he was motivated to set out on such a journey after he saw several posts on social media that lamented the vanishing of Kerala’s vernacular architecture, landscape, sacred groves, ponds, rituals and customs.
A resident of Kongad, a village in Palakkad district, Sainath was surprised by the plethora of nostalgic posts, many written by non-resident Indians, yearning for the greenery and villages of their youth and childhood.
“When I looked around, I could still see the bush-lined dusty paths, green fences, narrow country roads and muddy ridges snaking through paddy fields. Large ponds ringed by intricate geometric embankments, houses with large inner courtyards and festivals still existed all around my neighbourhood. I decided to photograph those and post the snaps, to remind homesick NRIs how the villages of their memories are alive and thriving in many places in northern Kerala,” he says.
Gradually, in addition to Palakkad, he enlarged the areas of his interest to include Kozhikode, Malappuram and Kasaragod districts.
Over the years, Sainath has covered many well-known ancestral homes, temples and sacred grooves in these places. He also unearthed many interesting places that were not so well known.
“For me, it has been a journey of discovery. In fact, members of some of the illustrious families that have roots in these districts themselves had no clue about their great ancestors or the kind of work they had done. They contacted me to thank me for having gathered the information for them so that they could pass it on to the next generation,” he says.
Many are the stories he has to narrate about the houses, its residents and the surrounding areas. For instance, while writing about a mana (as the residence of Namboothiris are called in Malayalam), he talks about the food, the customs, the way of living and so on.
Supported by superb photographs and evocative writing, Sainath’s Facebook page has followers from around the world. Not all the homes he visited were in the best of conditions. Quite a few were crumbling while some had been shuttered and locked up for many years with all the heirs settled abroad or in different states in India.
Inspired by his posts, there were owners and descendants who came forward to take the initiative and fund the upkeep of their ancestral homes.
“I feel that a tharavad becomes well known not because of its wealth but on account of its patronage of fine arts or scholarship. These families became famous because of the good deeds their ancestors did to help a particular region or the people around them,” insists Sainath.
He says it would be a pity if descendants of those families forgot their roots in the midst of pursuing their dreams.
Sprawling mansions like Olappamana at Vellinezhi and Varikkasseri mana at Ottapalam have been the location for Malayalam blockbusters like Devasuram, Aaramthamburan, Narasimham, Madambi, Elavamkodu Desam, Naran, Drona, Rappakal, Aakashaganga, Thoovalkottaram and so on.
Of the many homes he visits, Mundanchery Tharavad at Kongad, home to a large joint family, is one of his favourites. Another was Modappilappalli mana and its kavu (sacred grove) at Manjeri in Malappuram district.
Sainath falls short of words to describe the kavu that has been allowed to grow wild (as kavus are supposed to be) for years.
“ I have stayed in stately mansions, in the homes of Vedic scholars, powerful feudal families of yore and in palaces of erstwhile ruling families. Most were welcoming and gave me a peek into their homes. But I ensure that I respect their privacy and never plan to monetise those visits,” he asserts.
Although he has had requests from vloggers to take them along on his travels, he feels it would be an intrusion into the privacy of the residents. He cites instances when visits by students from engineering colleges created problems for the elderly residents.
On the move
However, frequent requests by fans of his posts motivated him to form a travel company, Mamangam, two years ago.
“Our first trip after the lockdown is on February 7. The route and schedule are a surprise for participants of our one- or two-day trips. We stay in some of the houses, have food there, enjoy impromptu recitals in the inner courtyards of these houses… It is sure to be a unique experience for all our participants. But we insist that they respect the customs in the houses we visit. Some of these residences have hallowed places inside, and we are respectful of their beliefs,” he elaborates. The trips have participants from all across Kerala.
A book, Parambariyamey Pranamam, is also in the offing. It was litterateur Akkitham who encouraged him to turn his photographs and writings into a book.
A select compilation of his writing and photographs have been included, and it is likely to released in the first half of 2021.
“Now people from places in Tamil Nadu are inviting me to document their built heritage. That has really been a motivation and confirms that I am on the right path,” believes Sainath.
“I have not finished seeing the wonders of Malabar. Seven days are not enough. I hope I have the health to chronicle all these places,” he concludes.