(A version of this was in National Geographic Traveller India’s May issue. The story’s not on the Nat Geo website, so there’s no link.)
One afternoon soon after I turned 21, I found a stack of black and white photographs on the desk in my neighbour’s study. Noticing my very obvious interest in the pictures, my neighbour gave me the whole bunch. Riffling through, I found an image that made my heart race — an alluring, mysterious black pool, its surface alive with oddly-shaped patterns of light. I was smitten.
Later, Sushil Pillai, my neighbour and a retired army officer with a diverse portfolio of interests, explained that the mysterious black pool was actually the glistening black floor of the ‘hall of the princesses’ in the royal ladies’ wing of the Padmanabhapuram palace. And the patterns that so enthralled me were created by sunlight falling through the carved wooden screens that run along one wall of the room. This matter-of-fact explanation, however, did nothing to douse my interest in Padmanabhapuram, which from around 1550 to 1790 was the capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore.
And so, I set out to dig up as much as I could about the palace, which when I look back, wasn’t very much. Using the ‘Automobile Association Map of South India’ I figured out that it was located about 55 kilometres south of Thiruvananthapuram in a village called Kalkulam in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district, close to the town of Thuckalay. Another discovery was that though geographically in Tamil Nadu, Padmanabhapuram palace is an archaeological museum maintained jointly by the governments of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but run by Kerala’s archaeology department.
Historians, as they often are, are divided about when the palace was built. Some say 1335,others 1550. Either way, by the middle of the 14th century a mud fort and a palace of some sort existed in Kalkulam. The palace, called Darpakulangara, was probably little more than a large house built in the traditional Kerala nalukettu style, with four wings around a central courtyard.
It was only in the 18th century that substantial changes took place. Marthanda Varma, one of Travancore’s greatest rulers, rebuilt the Darpakulangara palace and the fort that guarded it. In 1744, he renamed the fort and the palace Padmanabhapuram in honour of Sri Padmanabhaswamy, the tutelary deity of Travancore’s royal family.
Fascinated as I was by the palace and its story, I actually got around to visiting Padmanabhapuram only a few years later. But that first visit and the several that followed over the years were, strangely, whistle-stop affairs which I remember little of.
Then almost a decade later, I stumbled upon a story in my wife’s family: R. Vasudeva Poduval, my wife’s great-grandfather, who was director of the Travancore State Archaeology Department was supposed to have been involved with efforts made in the late 1930s to restore the Padmanabhapuram palace. A stone plaque in the palace’s forecourt apparently recorded his association with the restoration.
That’s when I knew I really had to return to Padmanabhapuram — to spend some quality time exploring the palace and to hunt for the plaque. So early one weekday morning last December, I set off on the two-hour drive south from Thiruvananthapuram.
As my car makes its way through Kalkulam’s narrow streets, there is little to show that the palace is around the corner except for some remnants of the fort’s walls. A turn or two later I am at the palace gate.
I enter the palace’s forecourt. And what immediately catches my eye are the Veli Hills, as the Western Ghats are called here, that loom over and guard the palace’s eastern flank.
I spot a few plaques cemented into the walls of the antiquities museum nearby, but none of them say anything about Vasudeva Poduval. It’s still pretty early in the day, there’s no one in the palace’s administrative offices. So I decide to defer my quest for the plaque. Instead, I buy a ticket, stow my shoes in a rack and head off barefoot to rediscover Padmanabhapuram palace.
One of two cavernous oottupuras
or dining halls in the palace.
Like every visitor, I climb several steps and enter the palace through the poomukham or entrance hall with its carved pillars and wooden ceiling. This is where the king met and, perhaps, entertained guests. A granite cot and an ornate throne-like chair, adorn the poomukham, but it is upwards that my eyes go. For the poomukham’s real treasure are the lotuses carved into its ceiling — 90 of them, each carved in a different design establishing the craftsman’s mastery over wood.
From the poomukham I scramble up a narrow staircase, through a trapdoor, to the mantrasala or council chamber. Easily one of my favourite rooms in the palace, this airy hall with its red- and ochre–stained mica windows was where the king met his ministers and special visitors. A broad wooden seat with a receptacle beneath it runs along one side of the room and wooden louvers set in the seat let air in, helping to keep it cool. On hot summer days, this receptacle was filled with aromatic herbs and sandalwood sprinkled with water, filling the chamber with a fragrant breeze.
Next door is the oottupura or dining hall. The two cavernous halls, one on the first floor and another on the ground floor, were designed to feed 2,000 people at a time. As I walk through, I can almost see rows of hungry diners feasting on mounds of steaming rice, vegetables and curry, all washed down with buttermilk and water drawn from one of several large stone troughs positioned across the halls.
Across from the oottupura is the thaikottaram or mother palace, the oldest part of the palace. At its south-western end is a pillar that has been carved from a single jackfruit tree. A deep coffee brown, it is believed to be the first pillar to have been erected when the palace was being constructed.
Like many buildings of the time, Padmanabhapuram was built mostly of local material — chiefly wood, laterite bricks and stone. Its gleaming black floors I first fell in love with, are built on a base of brick or laterite stone, plastered with a mixture of lime, egg white, tender coconut water, burnt coconut shells, sand and the juices of several herbs.
What I find striking — and appealing — about the Padmanabhapuram palace is that it almost never overpowers. There seems little desire to dominate or demand attention. Instead it exudes a quiet confidence, possibly born from the subordination of the kingdom to a higher, divine force — Sri Padmanabhaswamy.
Once these stone troughs in the oottupura held
water and buttermilk. A tradition that seems to
continue, in part at least, today!
If there is one part of Padmanabhapuram that proclaims ‘palace’, it probably is the four-storey upparika malika, which was the king’s turf. From his bedroom on the first floor, the king could look to the courtyard below and watch men being selected for Travancore’s army. In the courtyard, mounted on a pillar, is a round stone that supposedly weighs 38 kilograms. Young men aspiring to join the army had to be able to raise the stone one hundred times to even be considered for selection.
Elegant austerity is the leitmotif of the king’s bedroom that is dominated by a four-poster cot supposed to be made of 67 different medicinal woods. A flight of stairs leads up through a trapdoor to the second floor bedroom, which the king used when he was fasting or performing other austerities. Further up, on the third floor, is the prayer room, its walls decorated with murals and a cot for Sri Padmanabhaswamy. It is believed that the Lord still uses the room, and lamps are lit and prayers offered in the room every day. Entry to the upper two floors though is now restricted.
From the first floor of the upparika malika, a corridor leads off to the vepumootu kottaram or the palace of the neem roots where the royal women lived. Airy and spacious, with wooden swings and large Belgian mirrors, this ‘hall of the princesses’ has floors that still glint like a pool of black water.
By this time, I’m feeling very hot and thirsty with all the walking and climbing. I’ve forgotten to bring a bottle of water and ask one of the palace’s staff if there’s any way I can quickly slip out to get a drink. However, she says I need to finish the tour if I want to leave. So I press on and quickly head to the navarathri mandapam.
Arguably the most beautiful part of the palace, the pillared navarathri mandapam came alive with dance and music during the festival of the nine nights or navarathri. And though the glistening floor of the mandapam or hall has been scarred by the ravages of time and human effort, it still retains some of its original allure.
I’m tempted to linger, but lose the battle to thirst and head out. Once I’ve had a couple of tender coconuts I head back to the administrative offices and meet R. Jayashree, the museum assistant. I explain my mission — the hunt for the plaque — and she’s as helpful as can be. She takes me into an adjacent office where there’s a plaque hidden behind a stack of boards; but it has no mention of Vasudeva Poduval. Sensing my disappointment, Jayashree reassures me that she has seen his name in the palace’s files and departmental correspondence. My quest for the plaque ends right there, but I decide to stay a while longer, anyway.
Back out in the forecourt, I watch the crowds of visitors, the symphony of the palace’s roofs and the ever-present Veli hills in the near distance. It strikes me that the master builders who designed and built the Padmanabhapuram palace have achieved a deft balance between material, space and light to create a very sophisticated yet self-effacing building.
As Sushil Pillai tells me later, Padmanabhapuram palace represents a very unique Kerala sensibility; an innate sense of proportion and elegance and the subordination of the individual architect. What, I ask, is it about Padmanabhapuram that draws him. He pauses for a second or two and says: “It’s a bit like falling in love.” I can’t but agree.