Dodda Mane (Big House), located in the heart of Agumbe in Chikmagalur district, some 370km north of Bengaluru is an “architectural wonder.”
The wooden columns stand lightly, without betraying the fact that they are supporting a 20,000-plus square feet built-up area. Not a single drop of rain water goes down the drain here. Almost every nook and corner is illuminated by sunlight and fresh air is constantly in circulation. This is no creation of a new-age architect but a 150-year-old bungalow nestling in the Western Ghats.
No wonder, among those who have marvelled at the house is Sir M Visvesvaraya, the country’s earliest technocrat. After spending time at the bungalow and looking at how it was built, Visvesvaraya advised the occupants to pull down the third floor as it could have affected he base pillars. “The third floor which had 15 rooms was demolished in the late 1920s. The base pillars are still intact and all wooden material carved out of teak and rosewood is in a fine state,” says Kasthuri Jayanth Rao, 69, matriarch of the 10-member household.
Dodda Mane belongs to the Raos, who once owned huge tracts of farmlands in the region and cultivated areca palm and paddy. It was built as a small house in the 1860s by Vasudeva Rao and gradually expanded into a three-floor mansion. The process took three years, says Kasthurakka, as Kasthuri is called.
The house was built of stone and mud, with plenty of wood thrown in, Mangalore tiles provided for the roofing. It is what is commonly called in local parlance a “Thotti Mane” ——- built around an open courtyard. Rainwater which falls on the courtyard seeps into the ground via four pits.
The house has 28 rooms, seven foyers, two kitchens and a 20-seat dining hall. There is also a small coffee room, where a cuppa is not only savoured but also prepared. The foyers are big enough to feed at least 100 people at a time.
Even the niches built in the walls for placing lamps have survived. The house got an electricity connection in 1955. LPG stoves now keep the hearth burning. “It is 150 years since our ancestors settled down here. We have documents like Paani (Record of Rights, Tenancy and Cultivation) for 130 years,” says Kasthuri.
Dodda Mane played host to the Diwan of Mysore — Mirza Ismail in 1939. Jawaharlal Nehru visited the house twice. As has been the practice with the Raos, Dodda Mane’s doors are always open to visitors through the day. They are provided accommodation and treated to Malnad-style food. “Our ancestors made it a rule to serve food for visitors and guests. I don’t want to turn this into a commercial venture. I never take advance nor raise bills for food and stay. It is left to the visitor to contribute what he or she wants. But some of them vanish without a trace,” Kasthurakka says. The house receives 1,200 visitors every year. Ravikumar, son in law of Kasthurakka maintains the Heritage House.
Life in Dodda Mane is an unending serial of cheerful episodes, explains Kasthuri Jayanth Rao. It now houses the family’s fourth, fifth and sixth generations. Landlord Vasudev Rao built the house. He was succeeded by his son Subha Rao, whose son Vijayendra’s eldest son, the late Jayanth Rao, ran the family till his death, after which the mantle passed on to his wife Kasthuri. Jayant’s brother Sudhakara also lives in Dodda Mane with his wife. Kasthuri’s daughter Sujaya and son in law, businessman Ravikumar, help the matriarch run the household. Kasthuri’s two grand-daughters, Arundhati and Aditi are studying in a college nearby. Kasthuri’s mother JR Shrimathi Bai, 92, is the sldest member of the household. Kasthuri was married into the Rao famiy in the late 1950s.
“Malgudi Days”, the famous TV series on the works of R K Narayan, was shot in Dodda Mane in mid-1980s. Director Shankar Nag found the house an authentic prop to turn Agumbe into Malgudi Village. “Nag said the house provided the perfect setting to shoot the episodes of his serial,” Kasthurakka says.
Dodda Mane is possibly one of those rare houses where you can gaze at the sky from inside the house. It has the “cosmos” in it. It is not easy to maintain such houses, but this ” architectural wonder” has stood the test of time and turns 150 this year (2015) The Raos, who own the Big House, have done well to maintain the structure and let it open to the public, so that generations after generations can have a glimpse of our history and get inspired by it. The authorities should find such unknown “Heritage Treasures”, hidden in various parts of the state and take steps to protect and rejuvenate them for posterity.