Welcome to the illam, an experience beyond compare. Want to stay? Conditions apply. No fags, no booze and no room service. The food is totally vegan. This is a homestay. But why so many conditions? Wait… the no's are not over. No fridge, no air conditioners, no exotic menu and no overt show of hospitality. But you will be made to feel comfortable and your stay will be fulfilling. You can have quality food to your fill and your stay will be the experience of a lifetime.
Welcome to this special homestay… Thani Illam… in Thottuva, Perumbavoor, in Ernakulam district. Thani Illam will not disappoint. It’s a new thought in everything that’s Kerala, its renowned hospitality, great food and its famed architectural splendour. Over and above all this is the feeling that one is in a home, a real home. It could almost be yours.
A traditional, heritage building
The illam is the dream home of a couple who wanted to live their life to the fullest in pure environs, breathing in fresh air and drinking fresh water. Hence, T S P Namboodiri, a former teacher and wife Sharadammal, a former employee with the Electricity Board, bought a small house and thirty cents of land in the small hamlet of Thottuva on the Perumbavoor-Kodanad route.
Thottuva has a special significance in Hindu tradition and practice as it’s renowned for being the sole place where a temple is dedicated to Lord Dhanwanthari, the god of medicine. In many ways a hallowed place, the place is deified by the presence of the Periyar which flows by closely. Quite near Thottuva are famous centres of pilgrimage like Kalady and Malayattoor. The old house thus has an uncommon pull.
The house is almost two centuries old. Now comes the interesting fact. It was the ancestral home of Malayalam's man of letters, Malayattoor Ramakrishnan. The house forms the backdrop of some of the finest scenes of Malayattor’s epic work Verukal. With Namboothiri buying the house, it ended a hoary history of the abode’s Tamil Brahmin ownership.
A two-hundred-year-old tradition
Thani Illam’s architectural style is not vintage Kerala. It looks more like an agraharam, with the main entrance leading straight to the next till all the doors are in one symmetrical line. There are stories which say that the original structure which had a straw roofing had to be redone with roof tiles after the devastating floods of 1899. As the roof juts out of the main structure, not a drop of water or spray runs down the walls of the verandah. Nor does the harsh sunlight spoil their texture. This could also be the reason why the building could easily withstand the ravages of time.
The jutting roofs keep the insides dark and cool, as they block direct sunlight from streaming in. The wooden ceilings also heighten the cooling effect. A layer of bamboo leaves, caked with cow dung cover the wooden ceiling from atop. Therefore, all the rooms enjoy the effect of natural air conditioning. Later on, Namboodiri, extended the illam by attaching a portion of his ancestral house that he had inherited.
Malayattoor loved his home
The civil service officer that he was, Malayattoor wanted to come back to his ancestral home after his retirement.
The writer, in his memoirs, Ormakalude Album, makes an emotional note of how he once upon on an Onam went to the new “matom”, to see his beloved grandfather Ramanatha Iyer and grandmother Bhrahanayaki Ammal. It was somewhere around this time that Namboothiri Mash bought his favourite haunt and Malayattoor was naturally apprehensive about the sale. However, his fears were allayed when Namboothiri himself went to Thiruvananthapuram to meet Malayattoor and assure him that he had no intention of pulling the grand old home down. On the contrary, he would keep it intact. A very relieved Malayattoor, then presented Namboodiri a photo which to this day is showcased in the illam’s drawing room. Later on, Malayattoor, went down to the illam on several occasions to enjoy the joy of being in his old home.
The illam roots
Malayattoor’s masterpiece Verukal recounts the mental trauma of a government employee Reghu, who comes to the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram for work and is forced to sell his ancestral home out of several compulsions. His home evokes a heap of memories from which an escape is painful. Those who are familiar with Thani Illam will know for sure that the house is the protagonist of the narrative.
A walk from the padippura to the portico and then to the main room is an exact picture of what one reads in Verukal. The cement-paved floor and a huge wooden pillar bang in the middle of the room figure prominently in the novel. Two soap calendars as described in the book still adorn the walls of a room inside. As one moves on to the well side to wash one’s feet, there stands the wooden pulley just as it is in the novel. It still makes that “kada-puda” racket as the bucket is lowered and pulled up.
The matom becomes an illam
The homestay concept popped up when Namboodiri’s son Santhosh Thannikkat, was working with the tourism sector in Alappuzha in the nineties. He then realized the beauty of houseboat tourism. Tourists were caught up with the beauty of the backwaters, the silent glide through the gentle waves, the country sights on either side of the lake, the enticing food served and the general hospitality extended. It suddenly dawned on him that this would be a fine distraction for his parents who had just retired from active service. That was the genesis of the Thani Illam homestay service.
In 1999, the Kerala Government initiated an innovative homestay scheme called Grihasthali for preserving ancient and traditional homesteads and keeping them intact to lure in tourists to enjoy vintage Kerala. Thani Illam soon became a member of the scheme. Thannikkat went a step ahead and registered his homestay in several “responsible” tourism web portals which catered to the concept of people-to-people travel. With this, tourists started calling and pouring in. This fetched the illam the Kerala State Government award for “Most Innoative Project” in 2002. Those days, the illam had to play host to more than a hundred people during the peak season.
Thannikkat who was by now fully into tourism, went in for complete training in sustainable tourism and won a Green Globe certification in 2003, after which he won a British scholarship in responsible tourism.
Thani Illam today stands for sustainable tourism, financial viability and ecologically responsible stay. These are the foundations on which the homestay has been moving forward.
A day with a Brahmin family
With the senior Namboodiri and his wife Sharadammal finding it difficult to keep pace with growing tourist needs, Thani Illam has moved away from its traditional homestay concept. It has come up with the novel plan of showcasing traditional traditional Kerala living in miniature form. The illam has tied up with tour and cruise ship operators for bringing in visitors who can enjoy a full day’s stay at the illam. It’s the operators who decided to sell the idea with the catch phrase “A day with a Brahmin family”.
By 9 am, the illam is open to visitors who are received in by T S P Namboodiri, his children and grandchildren. What makes visitors gush with joy is the sight and coolness of the two-century-old grand building and the reality of three generations moving together in unison.
Breakfast is usually idli and sambar or any other traditional Kerala dish. And visitors can have as much as they want. Those who shy away from eating are gently and lovingly prodded to have more. From then, it’s to attire. Visitors can try on the Kerala mundu and shirt and relax in them. They can then walk around the village to the famed Dhanwanthari temple and back for lunch served in traditional sadya style. Guests are treated to the history of each dish and how they are served. The dishes apparently have a pecking order while being served. No forks, spoons or knives. Hands are the best tools.
The famous Tamil tradition of Kolam still finds a place in Thani Illam. As the illam belonged to Tamil Brahmin owners for years and since Sharadammal knew how to draw the kolam, the tradition is still followed here. Post lunch, tourists are told all about the history, folklore and mathematical symmetry behind the fine art of kolam.
For a taste of herbal tattoo, there’s Santhosh Thannikkat’s wife Sreeja Santhosh who comes up with her tattoo designs in henna. Those interested in percussion concerts and kathakali display can ask for them in advance.
So far, there have been more foreign footfalls than Indian, at the illam. And a lot of them still keep in touch with Santhosh and family. There have been tourists who had booked for a four-day stay, but who stayed on for months. There were yet others who lingered on for weeks. Among the more enterprising were visitors who stayed for a mere five days and went back with the secret of cooking up 35 dishes!
The one-day stay has been bringing in tourists aplenty. Among them are students who come in to take in the style and construction of the structure. Whoever comes back, takes with them memories of a “cool” home set amidst pastoral settings holding with it the tales and traditions of two centuries. In all, Thani Illam is an indescribable piece of homestay.