Trivandrum - Padmanabhapuram Palace

The Ancient Elegance of Padmanabhapuram Palace
Once the Ay Dynasty began to decline after 925 CE, constant feuds between the Chera and Chola dynasties transformed the sociopolitical structure of the several Kingdoms of South India. The Ays themselves merged with a branch of the Venad royal family, a process that saw the breakup of various principalities into smaller autonomous units called Swaroopams.

One such swaroopam was Padmanabhapuram, so named by Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma
(1712 - 1758 CE ), the legendary King of Travancore. For nearly two and a half Centuries, from 1500 to 1790 CE, Padmanabhapuram reigned supreme as the seat of royal power, and the pivotal point for the growth of trade, commerce, culture, art and literature throughout the region that today comprises Kerala and Southern Tamil Nadu.

And nowhere else can you feel the fingers of time rustling the pages of this history than at Padmanabhapuram Palace, a superb example of traditional Kerala architecture, replete with teak, granite and stone, all combining in a symphony of elegance and simplicity. Reputed to be the largest wooden palace in India, the Padmanabhapuram Palace is today administered by the Kerala government's Department of Archaeogy, even though it is located in Tamil Nadu - one of the quirky results of the 1956 reorganisation of Indian States along linguistic lines.

Originally, the area comprising the fort, the palace and its surrounds covered a total of 86 acres. Today the area administered by the Kerala Department of Archaeology is 6.5 acres. If you look very hard, you'll see a deep gutter on either side of the entrance to the Palace. That is all that is left of the moat infested with crocodiles, so it is believed - that once surrounded the fortress. A large courtyard separates the main entrance, called the King used to receive visiting dignitaries from over from overseas. At the centre of the hall, hanging from the carved ceiling,is a brass lamp, shaped like a horse-rider. Its beauty, as the guide will enthusiastically point out, is that whichever direction you turn it, it will return to its original position and remain absoultely horizontal, thus ensuring that no oil is ever spilled

Clockwise From Left
Chinese Jars, Brass lamp in the Poomugham, Carved Jackfruit - Wood Pillars Slats in the Viewing Corridor, Coloured Window, Shrine room

Such mastery od craftsmanship will be a recurring theme as you meander through the 127 rooms of the palace - most are large and airy, used for dwelling and administration, while the smaller ones are toilets and utility areas. Almost all the rooms feature intricate carvings in teak and the wood of the jackfruit tree, and narrow verandahs are common around most rooms.

The ceiling of the poormugham has carvings of 90 different flowers in full bloom, while on the behind the chinese chair- a gift from visiting Chinese traders - can be seen coloured wooden planks depicting the reclining figure of Lord Vishnu, also known as Padmanabhaswamy. The chair bears the inscriptions of 17th century Chinese art, and complements the other magnificent piece of furniture in the room, a glistening black bed made of seven pieces of granite.

A steep and narrow flight of wooden stairs leads to a trap door that opens into the first floor, which houses the mantrasala, or council chamber, where the king held his cabinet meetings. The narrow staircase and the heavy trap door are said to have been designed with the intention of warding off unexpected attacks- only one person can enter at a time. The black, highly polished floor here is quite special. It is made of a mixture of lime, burnt coconut shells, the whites of eggs, water from tender coconuts, sand, laterite and the juices of various herbs.

The exterior of the Padmanabhapuram Palace
The exterior of the Padmanabhapuram Palace

On the Southern side of the palace is the ootupura, 78m long double - storied building that houses two large dining halls, each of which can seat 1000 persons at a time. Here the rulers of Travancore used to exhibit their legendary charity by serving free meals to 2000 Brahmins each day. Beyond the dining hall can be found the large glazed jars, which the Chinese used to bring pickles and savouries fo the King of Travancore.

Past the bathing ghat are the four-storied king's quarters, called the upparika malika, built by Marthanda Varma in 1744 CE. The courtyard here was the testing ground for hopeful recuits into the royal army. The test? Lifting 38Kg stone on to the top of a pillar - not once, but a hundred times.

The centrepiece of attraction in the King's bedroom is the huge four-poster bed made of 67 different pieces of wood from medicinal trees. The bed, which has a symbol of serpents entwined around a cross over a pot of nectar is believed to have been gifted to the king by the Dutch East India Company during the time of Captain Adrian Van Goens, who complied the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus in the 16th Century.

The third floor of the King's quarters houses the puja room, perhaps the most captivating part of the palace, filled as it is with 8th Century murals in dull, earth colours, bathed in the yellow glow from the oil-wick lamps. Unfortunately, since 1990, this room has been closed to the public because of the weakening walls and the need to preserve the rare murals. All you can do now is stare at the closed heavy door at the top of the staircase and make do with the photographs in the official guidebook.

Adorning the ladies' quarters, called veppumoottu kottaram, are two large belgian mirrors that stretch almost from floor to ceiling, while on the walls are watercolours of Lord Krishna, the dark-skinned lover boy of 6,000 gopikas. The watercolours have since been shiffted to another room, but it requires a feat of imagination to conjure up visions of princesses gazing forlornly at the impossibly perfect images of the master of love, even as dancers performed at the navarathri mandapam below, all glimpsed through slats in the viewing corridor meant exclusively for the ladies of the Kingdom.

Adjacent to the palace is an archaeology museum that should not be missed. Built where the royal stable
and guard room once stood, the museum is a treasure trove of sculptures, carvings mural paintings, manuscripts, stone inscriptions, armoury, coins and metalware, dating from the 8th to the 18th Century.
Fairly well organised, the period, which were characterised by a simplicity reflected in a penchant for curvature in form. This can be seen in the copper manuscripts displayed in the epigraphy section that feature the script called Vattezhuttu (literally, round writing'), common in Tamil Nadu around the 13th Century and traceable to the pan-Indian Brahmi script.

If you have children in your group and you find their attention straying, show them the scariest exhibit - a
metal straitjacket designed to fetter those who were awarded capital punishment.

A cage-like contraption of iron into which the condemned man- shorn of all clothing - would be placed, it was meant to make sure vermin, as he was left hanging from a tree. a trip to Padmanabhapuram Palace is money and time well Spent.

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