Of grace and grandeur

Guttu Mane, a traditional manor house popular in coastal Karnataka

Homes, as everyone knows, are more than just walls that accommodate people; homes are the establishments in a society that mirror the spirit of the very civilisation that builds them. The traditional manor houses in Tulu Nadu (coastal Karnataka comprising Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts) are the best possible substantiation for that argument, as they stand tall and large even today as the pride of the land. These houses are called Guttu Mane, a term used to indicate a household that was on the top layer of the administrative, social and religious hierarchy in a village. While Beedumane were royal residences that resembled these homes in architectural essence, Guttu Mane housed administrative officials who were right next to royalty in the hierarchy.

These families supervised agriculture, safety, religious practices, taxing procedures and even documentation of key events. It worked like a federal structure, with one household sharing responsibility with another Guttu Mane within the same village. Though their hierarchical importance has diminished over time, the houses still hold a great heritage value.

Reflection of society

The Guttu Manes are awe-inspiringly large in size, the eye-catching architecture being notably same across the land. While the Bunt and the Jain communities own most of the Guttu Manes, Brahmins, Konkanis, Billawas and Koragas are also known to own them. As per estimates, there are more than 300 Guttu Manes across Tulu Nadu. Some of the oldest surviving Guttu Manes are Thodar Guttu near Moodbidri, Kodiyala Guttu in Mangaluru (from which the city got its name Kodiyal), Padyarabettu Guttu near Belthangady, Chelyar Guttu at Mulki, Bangara Guttu, Angadi Guttu, Palipadi Guttu and so on. These Guttu Manes have a history of over 500 years. While some are renovated to fit contemporary necessities, others are left to ruin owing to expensive maintenance. Regardless, these heritage houses enthral a visitor with their sheer size and a sweep of nostalgia, as they embody the exact lifestyles, thoughts and traditions of previous generations of Tulu Nadu.

Guttu Manes were built using mud (burnt clay), a mixture of molten jaggery and limestone that acted as cement, a great amount of wood, and strong stone pillars to support them. The walls of these houses are as thick as one foot. Right in front of the house would be a large patch of agricultural field where the traditional sport of ‘Kambala’ used to be observed every year before the monsoons begin. The practice is still followed by some households. This patch of land is also said to have a number of tombstones of the members of the family.

On entering the massive wooden front door called aane baagilu, I found myself in a quadrilateral space built within, which has either no flooring or rough flooring, and, no roof. One can note that other than the main door, all other doors are smaller in size though equally strong. They are placed over a high threshold and one has to bend to pass through them. The central open space, which is believed to be constructed for purposes ranging from worship to storage and play, is unique for each Guttu Mane.

The pillars of Guttu Mane are of equal aesthetic value. A pillar is situated on a square base with a danda, which is a stem with decreasing width from bottom to top. Then come the kalasha, padma, palaka and bodhige, which are decorative structures designed according to the religious values of the house. The pillars are topped by tole, a structure made of highest quality wood that supported the roofing. Now the roofing is usually tiled, but dried grass and other clay material were used before Mangalore tiles were introduced. Sooralu Aramane, a heritage house situated near Bramhavar, still has clay roofing.

These houses are grand in appearance, but grandeur was never the purpose. They were constructed according to the needs of the residents. The size of these houses depended on the number of family members — a few of them are even known to have housed over 500 members! The Kolkebailu Mane located at Shirihara near Miyar, that was built over an area of two acres, is said to have housed that number of people.

Matrilineal descent

Since the families were invariably from an agricultural background, storage space for utilities and agricultural produce was also a necessity. Festivals of the village, including the famous ritual of Bhootaradhane would be celebrated here, making them the central infrastructure that united the village. The Daivasthaana, a room that accommodates materials of Bhootaradhane, is situated within the Guttu Mane if the house is owned by any other community except the Jains, who placed the Daivasthaana outside the house premises.

The material used in the construction was important to build a strong structure. The techniques used are fine examples of architectural ingenuity of the time. For instance, the ancient builders would stuff sand and leaves in wooden planks used for roofing to protect them from termite attack. The doors and windows faced the direction from where sunlight and air would flow in easily. Dining halls were long corridors that facilitated simultaneous dining for all the family members. The thick doors and walls were an obvious necessity considering the assets stored within. 

“In the various divisions observed among Guttu Manes based on administrative purposes,” says Shreekanth Shetty, an expert, “some are Paradi, Nelya, Aranthade, Barke, Beedu, Balike, Guttu, Swattuguttu and Aikala Baava. A notable factor is that many of these administrative positions were managed by women, which is a tradition specific to Tulu Nadu. There have been noted women administrators such as Laxmimane Heggadati from Marakada Guttu and Badu Madedi from the Mattar household, who ably governed the villages. With factors like these, Guttu Mane legacies have proved to be exceptionally unique to Tulu Nadu.”

Living treasures

Amongst the many Guttu Manes that have been sustained in full glory till date, the Nalikedabettu Guttu situated near Nitte is arguably the most beautiful. The house obtained its name as it was constructed over a piece of land that was originally inhabited by the ‘Nalike Jananga’, a Dalit community that plays the key role in the ritual of Bhootakola or spirit worship. It has been renovated a number of times and today owned by the successors of the family. Arvind Hegde, the current joint-owner of the Guttu, says, “The house was constructed to perfectly facilitate all aspects of human life such as agriculture, festivities, joint family system, sense of security, spirituality, etc. Its utility value is greater than heritage value. Even after centuries, the house brings the entire family together during festivals and annual events that are still observed in the same way as ages ago.”  

Located at the foot of the famous tourist destination Jamalabad Fort at Belthangady, Nada Guttu is yet another heritage house that is more than a century old. Nada Guttu is said to be the largest Guttu Mane when it was constructed — with two open quadrilateral spaces within the house. However, it has now been renovated but still holds a museum-like collection of antique utilities from its time of construction. This house has been a popular shooting destination and the antique collection gives the place an unmatched heritage value.

A typical example of a Guttu Mane constructed out of mud is Deroddu Guttu Mane, situated in the remotest interiors of Nitte. This house is renovated moderately, but the establishment that houses the deities of spirit worship is still a beautiful ruin. Owing to prototyped norms that restrict renovation, this establishment is kept in its old form which was constructed nearly 100 years ago. Guttu Manes are a treasure that Tulu Nadu cradles with pride. The kind of construction and usage of wood or stone are no more relevant today, hence maintenance of these households is no short of a challenge. These house owners, though very few now, do all they can to sustain the ancient glory of the house and the traditions associated with it; no matter how expensive it gets.

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Of grace and grandeur

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