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Kerala's marvelous mud haven

Soutik Biswas | 16:13 UK time, Monday, 22 February 2010

Wayanad mud resortGod's Own Country is in fine fettle. As I travel north from Kerala's brooding capital, Trivandrum, into more salubrious Malabar country my spirits lift. I drive past rustling coconut palms, simple homes, derelict madrassas and Communist party and Muslim League flags fluttering in the breeze. Women in designer burqas emerge from the mist. My car wheezes up the steep hill past the red and yellow passenger buses which merrily rattle down in the opposite direction. An empty bus topples into a deep gorge minutes after I negotiate the road, and both the driver and his assistant survive. All is well.

The air smells sweet in Wayanad, the sublime heart of Malabar country. Invest in Wayanad billboards promising ugly apartment blocks now dot the roads - rapacious real estate agents are threatening to invade this unmolested oasis. Poky shops selling honey, cardamom, tea, cashew nuts, figs and coffee line the narrow ribbon of tar.

Then, in the dappled light, I see her standing there.

A mud haven - India's only "earth" resort and possibly the largest of its kind in Asia - nestling in 35 acres of greenery stacked with pepper, coffee and tea plantations and ponds. The 20,000 sq ft two-storey structure in the Banasura hills is made entirely out of mud with bamboo and coconut palm leaf roofs: a paean to Mother Earth.

The 31-room resort is the result of talent and ingenuity. It is owned by a Virginia-based software engineer from Kerala, whose company straddles two continents. Shankar Thiruvillakat initially thought of setting the place up as a getaway for his employees. But fired by the imagination of Eugene Pandala, one of India's best known architects who works with traditional building technologies and is an enthusiast for mud buildings, it became an audacious architectural marvel.

Mr Pandala got his workers to scoop up mud from the site and used it to build the structure. Earth is immensely malleable, the softly-spoken, award-winning architect tells me. It can be moulded, shaped and pressed when wet. It hardens when exposed to sun, making it a durable building material. In this case, Mr Pandala used a mere 5% cement as an additive.Wayanad mud resort

When most of India's architects are designing energy-guzzling glass and chrome buildings that are supposed to mark the arrival of a new India, Mr Pandala offers a different vision - the Wayanad earth resort is elegant and utterly modern. Tourists have begun trooping in already.

"There are traditional mud buildings in India which date back to 100 years.They are still standing strong. We lost our "mud consciousness" in the last half century. It is time to revive it," says Mr Pandala, taking me around the place. He is doing his bit, building mud monuments and buildings and green projects for tsunami survivors. But the resort in Wayanad is a crowning achievement.

I come away with the feeling that if we only had more architects like Mr Pandala and sensitive entrepreneurs like Mr Shankar, India's architectural look could be so different. Mr Pandala's creation is a glorious return to tradition, deftly adapted to modern-day needs.

The thought hits me as I leave the departure hall of the airport in Kochi to catch my flight to Delhi. I get up from a hideous looking chair, and walk past a miserable aphrodisiac advert to step out into the tarmac. Wayanad's mud haven already seems like a dream.

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  • 1. At 6:53pm on 22 Feb 2010, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    Historically, the architecture of India has been more sculpture than architecture. The buildings of India have been to tell stories or elicit calm or religious understanding. The modern buildings create no feeling except that they are places of work and business. Using natural materials is less expensive and provides a natural tie to the surrounding environment. We should always look back before moving forward. The ideas in business today are to make all the parts interchangeable...including the humans. This means the end of cutlures as we know them and will only be seen in festivals and holidays. The price to be paid in the modern economies is to stand naked before the company and be willing to adopt language, clothes and a corporate culture. Even after the banks and big business have betrayed everyone people flock to thier doors wishing to be the ones who do the abusing rather than being the abused.

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  • 2. At 04:02am on 23 Feb 2010, Ananya78 wrote:

    A very beautifully written and informative post. I agree with Soutik about the "architectural defilement" of our cities. Real estate robber barons are hand in glove with local governments in buying vast tracts of land and building modern-day monstrosities. India will have to pay a heavy price for these urgly, energy consuming years very soon. The sad part is most people dont realise it.

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  • 3. At 04:18am on 23 Feb 2010, snape911 wrote:

    "... as I leave the departure hall of the airport in Kochi to catch my flight to Delhi. I get up from a hideous looking chair, and walk past a miserable aphrodisiac advert ..."

    To mock at everything in India is typically Indian.
    While the author complains about the rampant real estate deals going around, he forgets that the above mentioned resort itself is an encroachment on the nature, catering only to the urban, western looking Indians.

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  • 4. At 05:02am on 23 Feb 2010, shonty wrote:

    I totally agree with the post.
    @snape911: It is a travesty that the holistic architecture and living are out of reach except the 'western looking Indians'. Being an architect myself, I totally would wish people rediscover what we've left: a healthy lifestyle.

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  • 5. At 05:50am on 23 Feb 2010, Abhishek Kumar wrote:

    great post Soutik.. Really loved it.

    @snape11; Why are you so cynic about us. I have seen new buildings in Goa and they are absolutely waste.. How can you say that this resort is an encroachment.. Please have some logic...

    Its great to see resorts and homes being built according to the climate of the country and not just by coping blindly. A great example is Hafeez contractor who has built the Hiranandani gardens in Powai.

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  • 6. At 1:21pm on 23 Feb 2010, vivek wrote:

    though this one is good on content but not-so-good on logic and balance, this one started as a travelouge (apparently to me) but went the same direction, world around, from new york to shanghai to tokyo to mumbai, the norms are pretty much the same, we have the same enrgy-consuming buildings, we have cities in mainland europe that have better-designed buildings but then we cant go around making 'mud homes' everywhere, and they too will need much the same lighting and energy, i agree with snape911, hundred percent, most in india still live in eco-friendly homes and many in cities too, our cities are way friendlier to environment than many places on earth...
    these resorts cater to a selcted few and themsleves use huge energy, being far from sources of resources, u invest a lot there, i have first hand-expereince...
    there has to be a balance and some feasibilty and some research too...
    u just cant go around blaming architectures, and chairs and buildings and everything indian...
    @soutik: do u live in a mud house (with of course 5% cement for the 'additional' strength)
    but yeah we need better architectures for sure and corrupt-free people in power who pass unfriendly town-planning schemes...
    and will anybody tell me what are we supposed to build to hearld our arrival???
    this seemed to be yet another nail on our head... why???

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  • 7. At 1:33pm on 23 Feb 2010, Biju Mathews wrote:

    The crux of our relationship these days are our communication over media like phones and internet. This does get a little tedious often, because meeting and spending time with each other is very important in a relationship. We usually stress each other out with the weight of our expectations. I and my Wife recently erased all other senses and took a trip to these resorts, truly, a world of its own. As Mark Knopfler once dropped a line. These resorts are truly the "Mist covered mountains of home." These resorts are the Banasura Resorts in Wayanad. www.banasura.com

    Our world of dreams can only find some cogency if we base it upon the solid foundations of everyday existence. The resorts are as if love was planted on earth, planted in common soil. It flourishes and breathes and lives and grows because it draws nutriment from the soil, which is reality.

    The Kitchen of the Banasura Resorts has found a niche of genuineness deserving of praise. Be it the shrimp and chili dish or the bountiful mound of noodles and chicken drenched in garlic, lime and chilly powder. Like many of the other dishes here, one should bask each bite. Although the aforesaid dishes certainly stand out in my memory, it is the red curry duck that sealed my loyalty to Banasura Resorts. The flavor of the duck propagated through the spice like water through a sponge. One would never think the taste of duck would be so unfathomed in a spicy curry sauce. The lush hunks of duck legs juxtaposed by the spices of the red hot local curry created a magic of princely flavors that overwhelmed our tongues with the complexness and depth we seek in a hot curry. Seldom do I get so carried away, so excited about a dish that leaves my mouth watering and my mind searching for words.

    My last sight of the Banasura Resorts on the review mirror, gently disappearing into white and then slowly fading to the last shot of the earth covered in mist with the hotel staff waving us farewell reminded me of home, sweet home. This place is must visit. I know that I'll be going back. That's for sure!

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  • 8. At 4:57pm on 23 Feb 2010, Ananya78 wrote:

    @vivek - it is not a question finding faults with your country. these are real issues - are not the Indian cities among the ugliest in the world? Can anybody contradict that? If you do, you live in a fool's paradise like many of us. Criticising self takes a lot of courage, Vivek, and praising yourself requires none. Also it is juvenile to ask the writer whether he lives in a mud house. Dont make things so petty please. The purpose of this debate is not whether the writer lives in a mud house or not - it is to do with the importance of our indigenous architecture which serves India well. Some of the best buildings in our cities are the ones which are traditional. And traditional need not be old looking - you can be traditional and very modern. The problem with critics like you is that you cant understand nuances and the big, grey picture. You are looking for black and white, and with your jingoism you cant go very far apart from looking at everything through the pro-India, anti-India prism.

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  • 9. At 10:39pm on 23 Feb 2010, Vicky wrote:

    Thematic content of this blog post stands an odd man out as compared with this author's previous posts which are mostly on current affairs. I didn't like the sales pitch in this article. The author is rather lavish on the resort, its entrepreneur and its architect.

    Of course, the resort looks nice but what does the author want to convey? At the end of the day this is still an elite resort that represents 0.001% of India. Incidentally (and as frivolous as it may sound), BBC highlighted the sanitary crisis in India just a couple of weeks ago in their world news service. Their reporter was hailing the low cost toilets made out of Mud that is being marketed by a company (Sulabh toilet?) that could uplift the lives of millions of people. Architecturally this resort is wonderful.. No doubt. But any given day I would celebrate practical innovations on Mud that can make a difference to people's lives more. In other words, if this article was about the innovations of the architect on the Tsunami rehabilitation program, it could have been more meaningful.

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  • 10. At 07:49am on 24 Feb 2010, tt3045 wrote:

    Well said Ananya78. The resort in question could also have been made out of steel and cement concrete like many other resorts in the area. The fact that the promoters chose to preserve the ecological balance of the micro environment around the resort by going in for eco-friendly earth architecture using material taken from the very place it stands on, is truly commendable.

    And Vicky, the reason the author has as you said been 'rather lavish on the resort, its entrepreneur and its architect', could be because of the uniqueness of the structure and its gigantic proportions for a building made of mud. True, mud architecture that has relevance to the masses and makes a difference to people's lives should be highlighted. That however does not mean unique structures like the one in question should be ignored altogether. Incidentally, I did some digging on the architect and I learned he has done considerable amount of work on the Tsunami rehabilitation front as well.

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  • 11. At 08:11am on 24 Feb 2010, vivek wrote:

    @ananya78: that surely must have taken a lot of energy!! these are real issues, I understand them very well, but u don’t solve them by writing crude blogs pinning down on everything, right from the chair to the buildings, I was critical of the language and infusion of everything anti-india here, I am not a jingoist for god sake, u know people have different facets, the way I write abt my nation on a local platform wudnt be the same here, u will not understand, leave it!!! and u don’t need to be telling all of this, what I shud say and what I shudnt…
    and come on, most of what u said might be absolutely right, and i never said all of what u reprimanded me of, u got to re-read it once, i am critical of everything but i maintain a balance, our cities are better than hundreds and thousands of them (am sure u know of only a handfuls cities on earth) on earth and some are ugly not coz of our buildings but coz of poor town-planning…
    and its never about writing good or bad, its about what we ourselves (as individuals0 are doing in our own capacity…
    and u got to see to believe in it…
    And I seriously don’t see criticizing is taking any ‘courage’ here (a lot of that is effortless happening), am the courageous one to be righting ‘all good’ (have a laugh on that girl)…
    its high time we device a newer way of presenting Indian problems to the world, there are many posts I have written here and if u happen to read them u will understand if I live in a fool’s paradise or not…
    and I don’t see traditional buildings used for commercial purpose anywhere in my city at least, this time u are living in a fool’s paradise…
    they are meant for tourists…
    get real, we need better town planning and not mud-homes…
    ‘you can be traditional and very modern’ u wasted this line here, might have fetched u the miss world crown...
    and regarding going far away, only time will tell...
    stay in peace (nothing personal seriously)..amen...
    if there is anything i need to be sorry about (after much thoughts), it has to be my asking the blogger if he lives in a mud-house too, sometimes i get carried away :(

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  • 12. At 11:17am on 24 Feb 2010, vivek wrote:

    @tt035: sadly resorts made of 'steel' wudnt be a sell-out (nobody writes about steel resorts) in any case, i dont want to paint myself wrong, the concept (per se) is definitely great but a lot of buts are tehre which i will hold for the fear of being said a lot more which am not...
    cheers!!!

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  • 13. At 1:58pm on 24 Feb 2010, tt3045 wrote:

    Do you mean to say the guys who put up this mud resort did it just so somebody from the media would come and write about it? And why would a mud resort be more of a sell-out than a steel one? The way I look at it, what the author wanted to convey is that there are a lot of eco-friendly ways to go about building resorts and other such structures - like using earth architecture for instance - which are currently being overlooked by the industry. Instead they go ahead and use cement concrete and steel to build 'monstrosities' that not only look incongruous in their surroundings, but also wreck considerable damage on the environment. Cement production accounts for 5 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/26/business/worldbusiness/26cement.html).

    Earth structures use material borrowed from the earth itself for the life span of the building. It can be reused and recycled indefinitely as a building material or returned to the earth. Cement on the other hand has no viable recycling potential; each new structure needs new cement. The energy used to dry the earth is solar energy because the earth used in construction is sun dried through evaporation. The thick earthen walls provide effective thermal insulation, warding off the heat during the day and conserving the warmth during the night, obviating the need for air-conditioning and saving vast amounts of energy. I believe these are the things that the author wanted to highlight.



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  • 14. At 05:32am on 25 Feb 2010, vivek wrote:

    #13 'he author wanted to convey is that there are a lot of eco-friendly ways to go about building resorts and other such structures'
    point taken sir..

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  • 15. At 08:08am on 25 Feb 2010, Mariane wrote:

    Just to say thank you for a beautifully written and informative post: will definitely follow your blog from now on;)

    I am also writing to share some experiences from living in a house like this.

    I am fortunate: I live in the African bush since some years back and I do actually live in a similar type of house for many years (althought the amount of sement used is sligthly above 5%...)

    My experience is that the feeling of well being and rapport with the surrounding area is enhanced on a daily basis. No poisonous substances surround us and as a long time city dweller previously I can really notice the difference.

    Knowing my home blends in unobtrusively visually as well as ecologically without suffering from restrain in modern comforts is fantastic. We get our power from solar panels - "The Choice" in Africa as well as other equatorial places - and it covers abt 90% of our energy needs (the rest 10% is generator backup for the occationally clouded and rainy days). As an avid gardener I have found great use of grey water and by composting all degradeable matters I have a neverending source of mulch - all without a "big sweat" or feeling of guilt nor arrogance - it is fun, it works, sometimes I make mistakes but it is an incredibly safe and rewarding haven for fear management;)!!The amount of wildlife attracted to our garden and patio is an endelss source of edutainment as well as a no-lying token that at least some, if not all of the things we do is working well, and that is no small feat;)

    hope you get inspired!
    Mariane, Kenya

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  • 16. At 7:24pm on 25 Feb 2010, Elke Cole wrote:

    May I remind you all of the important work of Sir Laurie Baker in Kerala. While the resort is a beautiful showcase on an "elite" level, Baker's work was all about creating affordable and beautiful earthen architecture.
    And that, for me, points out one of the core values of building with earth: accessibility.
    In North America we see a strengthening movement towards natural building. I personally have been involved in a volunteer project (http://www.buddhasmiles.in/) in Tamil Nadu. What is most fascinating and curious to me is the global exchange of knowledge and skill. Folks from the West are called to bring interest to areas of the world where earthen building traditions are much deeper rooted.

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  • 17. At 09:29am on 26 Feb 2010, archerian wrote:

    Indian cities suffer from poor planning. I agree that most are truly ugly.
    I think we can blame the city planner and politicians more than the architects for that.

    This place looks beautiful. I'd like to see it next time I'm in Kerala.

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  • 18. At 4:42pm on 19 Mar 2010, Raj Neo wrote:

    This building is not a traditional architecture in Wayanad. The proximity to forest area shows the building removed many trees and destroyed the natural ambiance of the Wayanad forest area. These types of buildings are aimed to woo the tourists and destroying beautiful Wayand.I will say these are men raping my beloved Wayanad for profit.

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