Ancient and medieval society in Tamil nadu was dominated by the Brahmin community who were leaders in terms of learning and social standing. The traditional architectural styles of their houses were shaped by parameters such as climate, occupation and the prevailing socio-economic and socio- cultural factors.
The Brahmins lived in a separate settlement of houses known as the agraharam, a word of Sanskrit origin used to describe two rows of houses facing each other built around the street of the temple complex. These usually developed around the temples to facilitate the work and life of the priests in performing temple rituals and disseminating the knowledge of the Vedas. These were usually built on lands donated by the kings to the Brahmins as Brahma deyam.
A typical example of the agraharam or Brahmin settlement can be found in Rengarajan street of Kanchipuram, near the Varadaraja Perumal temple. In this case, the agraharam was constructed in the year 1765 on land donated by Rengarajan, a Brahmin, for the exclusive use of Brahmin families. These seven houses are constructed in an identical manner. Each house revolves around and open courtyard flanked by several rooms. The builders made full use of the local material available which was brick, chunam and wood. These houses were also designed in such a manner as to minimize the harsh glare of the sun by providing deep verandahs that shielded the rooms. The kalyana koodam or marriage hall, which is typical in agraharam house, is absent from the Rengarajan street houses.
The open courtyards provided natural light and ventilation and were especially useful for the chanting of the Vedas in the early morning. The open space also acted as a natural conduit for the smoke from the homam to escape. The windows were strategically placed so as to catch the natural sun light. The roofs were usually sloping and tiled so that the rain water could run off and be harvested in the open courtyard at the centre of the house, from where stone culverts channeled the water to a well behind the house. The doors were all aligned in a straight line from the main entrance till the back of the house so as to provide for natural cross ventilation. Hence they made full use of the forces of nature for cooling, ventilation and lighting purposes.
Traditional structures were naturally sustainable with elements such as wind tunneling and solar path being adopted. These enabled the building to breath naturally. It is apparent that the planners of these buildings took into account the available conditions for both the designs as well as the materials, thus building ecologically friendly houses well before cement and concrete took over.