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Kerala’s Padmanabhapuram Palace and Its History

February 22, 2023 | By

Kerala is a small state in South India but immensely rich in natural splendour, architecture, culture and crafts. NS Rajan writes about Padmanabhapuram, the small territory belonging to Kerala, which lies intriguingly ‘inside’ the state of Tamil Nadu. Rajan explores its riveting history — a king and his 400-year-old palace, built entirely of wood, its intricate and bewitching woodwork, antiques and the sylvan grandeur — all of which make an absorbing story.

Famously described as “God’s Own Country”, Kerala, the linear, tiny Indian state in the southwest corner of India is known as a tourists’ paradise. Kerala’s many attractions regularly receive rave reviews in leading print and TV media and magazines all over the world.

Kerala’s land area is only one per cent of the Indian territory and its population is only about 2.5 per cent of the country total. But blessed with a long coastline along the Arabian Sea, Kerala nestles within its land, a large portion of the Western Ghats, richly endowed with hill stations, abundant forest cover, numerous water bodies, wildlife sanctuaries, a huge and widely spread network of backwaters and innumerable natural wonders. Not surprisingly, it has a large number of Ayurvedic spas and treatment centers specializing in nature-based therapies.

Topping all this is an endless number of beaches of captivating beauty. A deep look at Kerala’s ‘Tharawads’ spread in thousands across the state will be rewarding. ‘Tharawad’ is the ancestral home of well-to-do to do families in Kerala, which usually served as the common house for the joint family system practiced in the state; “an ancestral residence of land-owners and kings”, and also, “a house chiefly of noblemen, which defines both the family and the family’s seat”.

A Kerala 'Tharawad'

A Kerala ‘Tharawad’

But Kerala also has many other wonders that attract visitors to it in large numbers, such as temples, palaces and splendid architectural structures with intricate wood carvings, murals, paintings, potteries, coir and coir-related products and handicrafts that craftsmen of Kerala alone can create.

One cannot visit any building of some age in Kerala without being highly impressed (awed even) at the craftsmanship in woodwork, not matched anywhere else. The state has a superabundance of coconut trees and produces roughly 45 per cent of India’s coconuts (a decrease from a nearly 80 per cent share it enjoyed until the late 1970s – a result of shrinking coconut groves in Kerala yielding to buildings). Even the name of the state in Malayalam, “Keralam”, is said to have derived from ‘Kera’ for coconut and ‘Alam’ for land. The tree is described by Keralites as “KalpaVriksham”.

It is interesting to note that ‘every’ part of the coconut tree is used to make something or the other; some are products of very high value like carpets made from coir while others are used in cooking, building and handicrafts.

One of the World’s Greatest Places to Visit

Kerala was listed at the 13th spot in The New York Times annual list of 52 places in the world to visit in 2023 and also was the only tourist destination listed from India. Kerala was named by TIME magazine in 2022 among the 50 extraordinary destinations to explore in its list of the “World’s Greatest Places”.

In 2012, National Geographic’s Traveller magazine named Kerala as one of the “ten paradises of the world” and “50 must-see destinations of a lifetime”. Travel and Leisure also described Kerala as “one of the 100 great trips for the 21st century”. In 2012, it overtook the Taj Mahal to be the number one travel destination in Google’s search trends for India. CNN Travel listed Kerala amongst its ’19 best places to visit in 2019′. (Source: Wikipedia).

Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple

No trip to Kerala would be complete without a visit to Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple (dedicated to Lord Vishnu) located in Thiruvananthapuram. The precise date when this temple was founded is lost in antiquity. Popular belief has it that it was established about 5000 years ago. But, although the exact date of construction of the temple is not known with certainty, the earliest mention of the temple dates to the 9th century.

The structure of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple represents an amalgam of the Chera (Kerala) and Dravidian style of architecture; an impressive 100-foot tall gopuram (ornate tower) built in the 16th century adorns the entrance to the temple, with a serene, sacred and scenic pond opposite, and to the side.

The main shrine deep inside the temple, has an 18-foot-long idol of Sri Vishnu, the principal deity, reclining on AdiSesha, the thousand-headed serpent. Lord Vishnu reposes on AdiSesha in ‘Vaikuntha’ (Vishnu’s abode) in the ‘Ananthasayanam’ posture (literally it means the Lord sleeping on the serpent).

The idol of the presiding deity, Sree Padmanabhaswamy, is noted for its composition, which has 12008 ‘salagramams’, brought from Nepal from the banks of the River Gandaki. The deity is covered with ‘Katusarkara yogam’, a special ayurvedic mix which is made of 108 natural materials collected from all over India and forms a coat-like protection that keeps the deity clean. (Source: Wikipedia)

Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Thiruvananthapuram.

Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Thiruvananthapuram. (Pic courtesy: NS Rajan)

The long building with a Clock Tower facing the pond and leading to the temple (see picture above) is the ‘Puthen Maalika’ palace (popularly known as ‘Kuthira Maalika’) so named for the 122 horses that are carved into the wooden wall brackets that support the southern roof (Kuthira is Malayalam for ‘Horse). This is a museum with 20 rooms (now open to public) full of intricate wood carvings on ceilings and beams, huge chandeliers, marble structures, antique palanquins, armoury and many other artefacts. There are also huge paintings, a Bohemian crystal throne, and the ivory throne used by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal.

Puthen Maalika

Puthen Maalika (Pic courtesy: Abhinishv (Trip Advisor)

The first floor contains a treasure house of artefacts in Venetian glass and paintings, besides Tanjore glass paintings using real gold and precious stones. Being so close to the temple, this is a museum not to be missed by anyone visiting the Padmanabhaswamy temple. (See picture below).

The 122 carved horses Picture credit: Dinakarr

The 122 carved horses Picture credit: Dinakarr

The Travancore Royal Family

The history of Kerala is unique in that, although it was a kingdom ruled by the Travancore royal family, in the first half of the 18th century, Raja Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, 23, who had succeeded his uncle Rama Varma as king, surrendered the Kingdom of Travancore at the feet of Lord Padmanabhaswamy (on 17th January 1750) and pledged that he and his descendants would henceforth only be vassals, or agents of the deity, who would serve the kingdom as ‘Padmanabha Dasas’. Before his passing, Marthanda Varma also clearly and explicitly laid down: “That no deviation whatsoever should be made in regard to the dedication of the kingdom to Padmanabhaswamy and that all future territorial acquisitions should be made over to the Devaswom.”

Thus, in a sense, Kerala is ruled by Lord Padmanabhaswamy, although it is the State Government of Kerala that rules it now through a democratic process. The administration and control of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple is being carried on by the erstwhile Travancore royal family. The titular Maharaja of Travancore, Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma, is the current trustee of the temple.

Thiruvananthapuram city has many delights alike for the tourist, the spiritual seeker and those looking for aesthetic beauty as well as for those desiring a spell of Ayurvedic health treatments for which Kerala is renowned. The much sought-after Kovalam beach (Malayalam for Coconut Grove) with a lighthouse standing on a huge tall rock and three crescent-shaped beaches close by, is only a short distance away (20 km) from the city.

“Asia’s Largest Wooden Palace Complex”

However, the real point of this article is not Thiruvananthapuram and all that it has to offer, or even the beautiful and scenic state of Kerala, but about a King who ruled the kingdom of Thiruvithamcode (Travancore) in the 18th century and an old palace that he rebuilt; a palace that is a spectacular monument, not only to the architecture of Kerala, having very intricate elements of woodwork predominating the construction, but also to the glorious traditions of its arts, wood carvings, its murals and to its precious artefacts.

Lonely Planet calls this palace: “Asia’s largest wooden palace complex.” (See picture below).

Padmanabhapuram Palace

Padmanabhapuram Palace (Pic credit: Dept of Archaeology. Govt of Kerala)

Leaving Thiruvananthapuram, and driving 97 kms south on Highway NH 66, takes one to Kanyakumari (called ‘Cape Comorin’ during the British rule of India) also known as: ‘The Land’s End’, as it lies at the southernmost tip of India. The town of Kanyakumari has many places of interest and draws a huge influx of tourists all the year round. (summers are hot).

The most prominent of them are:

1. A 3,000-year-old shore temple dedicated to Goddess Kumari Bhagavathi Amman, believed to have been established by Sage Parasurama and regarded as one of the 108 Shakti Peethams. The temple has been mentioned in Ramayana, Mahabharata and Purananooru (an anthology of four hundred poems in the ancient Tamil Sangam Literature), and also in the accounts of Ptolemy and Marco Polo;

2. The very impressive Vivekananda Rock Memorial, built in 1970 in honor of Swami Vivekananda, who is said to have attained enlightenment while meditating on the rock.

Vivekananda Rock Memorial and Thiuvalluvar Statue. Kanyakumari.

Vivekananda Rock Memorial (left) and Thiuvalluvar Statue (right) in Kanyakumari. (Pic credit: Native Planet)

3. A giant, 95 feet tall statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar standing on a 38 feet high rock. Both the memorials stand on high rocky islets 500 meters off the coast and regular ferry services are run between the town and the monuments.

There are many other attractions as well in Kanyakumari.

The Lighthouse Beach, Kovalam

The Lighthouse Beach, Kovalam (Pic courtesy: Georgeumartin, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Kerala’s southern border is crossed on NH 66 at a place named ‘Vellarada’, 42 km from Thiruvananthapuram. Only 22 km further up the highway from the border lies the small town of ‘Thuckalay’, which is a part of ‘Padmanabhapuram’, once the capital of the historic Indian state of Travancore. A short distance away from the highway as it passes through the town of Thuckalay stands Padmanabhapuram Fort and Palace, from where the legendary Raja Marthanda Varma ruled Travancore as ‘Padmanabha Dasa’.

Located inside Padmanabhapuram Fort, an old granite fort around four kilometers long, spread over an area of 186 acres, Padmanabhapuram Palace is actually a complex of fourteen palaces. The palace complex itself occupies an area of 6.5 acres within the fort, representing the quintessential architectural features of Kerala. With the Veli Hills to the east guarding it, the palace was strategically located, shielded by hills and with an abundance of fertile farmland and water. Over 400 years old, it is considered to be the largest palace built with wood in all of Asia.

Padmanabhapuram Palace. (picture Credit: Cyril's Diaries)

Padmanabhapuram Palace. (Pic courtesy: Cyril’s Diaries)

The old historical town of Padmanabhapuram was the capital of the erstwhile Travancore State from about 1600 AD to the close of the 18th century. It was a small palace, to begin with, and rose to its present eminence by the middle of the 18th century.

Raja Marthanda Varma (1729-1758), the sculptor of modern Travancore, gave the palace and its surroundings the present name Padmanabhapuram, or ‘The Abode of Padmanabha’, in 1744. It was earlier known as ‘Kalkulam’ Palace (Kal is ‘Stone’, and Kulam ‘pond’, in Tamil). The roofs held up with triangular gables; carved wooden pillars, beams and screens; latticed wooden windows; cool and ventilated rooms and corridors; intricately carved wooden walls and panels; unique lamps; gleaming floors; steep and narrow staircases and conspicuous murals — all these enrich its interior.

Front courtyard. Note: the Lawn is shaped like a Conch. (Credit: Aviatorjk/wikimedia).

Front courtyard. Note: the Lawn is shaped like a Conch. (Pic courtesy: Aviatorjk/ Wikimedia).

The original palace was constructed around 1601 by Iravi Varma Kulasekhara Perumal who ruled Venad (Venad was a medieval kingdom lying between the Western Ghat mountains and the Arabian Sea on the south-western tip of India with its headquarters at the port city of Kollam/Quilon) between 1592 and 1609. Raja Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the founder of modern Travancore who ruled from 1729 to 1758, rebuilt the palace around 1750. The Raja dedicated the kingdom of Travancore to his family deity Sree Padmanabhaswamy, and ruled the kingdom as Padmanabha Dasa, or servant of Lord Padmanabha. Hence the name Padmanabhapuram or the ‘City of Lord Padmanabha’.

Located at the foot of the Veli Hills, which forms a part of the Western Ghats, the palace has undergone some changes over the centuries since it was originally built when mud and granite were primarily used in the construction. The river Valli flows nearby.

In 1956, when the States Reorganization Commission was constituted, it was decided to transfer the five Southern Taluks of Travancore to the then state of Madras, and “Kanniyakumari District” of Tamil Nadu with Nagercoil as its headquarters came into being, with Padmanabhapuram too becoming a part of Madras state (now Tamil Nadu). Interestingly however, in a compromise, the Padmanabhapuram Palace itself was retained by Kerala and is now owned as a Protected Monument by Kerala, controlled and maintained by a curator of the Archaeological Department of Kerala Government. The Fort belongs to the Tamil Nadu state. Thus, we have a tiny, yet highly significant part of Kerala, and Kerala’s glorious history, lying within the state of Tamil Nadu 65 years after Padmanabhapuram itself became part of Tamil Nadu, but still owned, maintained and run by the Kerala government. ‘This’ is what makes ‘Padmanabhapuram Palace’ unique.

Poomukham (reception area)

Poomukham (reception area) (Pic courtesy: ‘Travel Triangle)

The palace complex comprises fourteen purpose-denoted structures including

  • Kottarams (palaces),
  • Pura (House or structure),
  • Maalikas (Mansions),
  • Vilasams (Mansions) and
  • Mandapams (large Halls).

These mandapams are:

  • Poomukam (reception hall);
  • Plamootil Kottaram (living quarters);
  • Veppinmoodu Kottaram (living quarters);
  • Thai Kottaram (Mother’s Palace, and the oldest);
  • Uttuppura (kitchen and dining hall);
  • Homappura (rituals and prayer hall);
  • Uppirikka Maalika (multi-storeyed building);
  • Ayudhapura (armory house);
  • Chandra vilasam (entertainment hall);
  • Indra Vilasam (entertainment hall);
  • Navarathri Mandapam (dance hall);
  • Lekshmi Vilasam (mansion);
  • Thekke Kottaram (palace) and,
  • Padipura (Entrance porch), besides other smaller ancillary buildings.

In 1993, a museum building was set up in the southwest corner of this palace complex housing numerous invaluable stone and copper plate inscriptions, intricately designed sculptures in wood and stone, armory, coins, paintings, and household objects pertaining to the history and heritage of the region.

The Thekke Kottaram structure within the palace complex houses a Heritage Museum, with a display of household articles and utensils, showcasing the life and living of a bygone generation in Kerala society. {Source: UNESCO World Heritage Convention. 15/4/2014. By Permanent Delegation of India to UNESCO}

The Heritage Museum.

The Heritage Museum (Pic courtesy: Kanyakumari Tourism)

There are five major structures of the palace complex:
1. Mantrasala — the King’s Council Chamber: This is on the first floor of the reception hall and has features like wooden louvres to admit air and light, which help maintain a pleasant, even temperature indoors. It has Chinese carvings on the chairs.
2. Thai Kottaram: This is the Queen Mother’s Palace, constructed before 1550.
3. Natakasala — Performance Hall: The shiny black flooring is made from a combination of charcoal produced from burnt coconut shells, whites of eggs, lime, jaggery and various other vegetable extracts.
4. A four-storeyed mansion at the center of the palace complex.
5. Thekke Kottaram: This is the Southern Palace.

Mantrasala — The King's Council

Mantrasala — The King’s Council Chamber (Mantrasala pictures courtesy: Dept of Archaeology, Govt of Kerala)

Mantrasala

Mantrasala

 

Padmanabhapuram Palace is an outstanding testimony to the traditional architectural craft of Kerala, a manifestation of wood architecture not matched anywhere else in the world. The Palace has many intricate carvings and fine finishing on rosewood and teakwood, carved columns holding oil lamps, huge earthen urns, columns made from single Jackfruit trees, coloured mica on the windows, Chinese carvings on royal chairs, 17th and 18th century murals, Belgian mirrors, and intricate paintings on the ceilings. A 300-year-old brass lamp hanging from the ceiling has an exquisitely crafted knight on a horseback, enhancing the beauty of the lamp.

The Manimaalika, or the clock tower, in which the movement of the clock is regulated by weights, has a 300-year-old clock, which still keeps time. The chime of the clock striking time can be heard over a 3 km radius. Every part of the palace, varying from dance halls, museums, council chambers, dining halls, Queen Mother’s Palace and inner courtyards to the king’s room, presents a creative interior with admirable artwork and murals.

The audience hall of the palace, which is comparatively its latest addition, was built between the years 1829 to 1846. There is a secret passage in the palace (closed to the public) that was built to enable the royals to escape to another palace located 2 km away, in case of an attack on the palace.

The four-storeyed building is located at the center of the palace complex and its ground floor houses the royal treasury. The first floor houses the king’s bedrooms. The ornamental bedstead there is made from 64 types of herbal and medicinal woods and was a gift from Dutch merchants. A large hall known as Ottukottaram (dining Hall. now closed) with a capacity to seat 1,000 people has, next to it, an entire room filled with old large Chinese jars, all gifts by Chinese merchants.

The ornamental Bed made out of wood from sixty-four medicinal trees

The ornamental Bed made out of wood from sixty-four medicinal trees (Pic courtesy: NS Rajan)

300-year-old brass lamp

A 300-year-old brass lamp with an exquisitely crafted knight on a horseback (Pic courtesy: NS Rajan)

An intricately worked wood panel

An intricately worked wood panel (Pic courtesy: Aviatorjk CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Southern Palace, known as Thekke Kottaram has an archaeological museum displaying a wide array of artifacts, furniture, coins, ancient armaments, granite and wooden sculptures and copper plates with inscriptions, etc. Goddess Saraswati’s shrine is a long stone structure with several wood carvings.

Adjoining this shrine is ‘Navarathri Mandapam’ a magnificent dance hall with its black floors polished to perfection. These were built by Raja Marthanda Varma in 1744. On the southeast side of this dance hall, stands a chamber made entirely of wood, having screens with fine wood carvings containing attractively designed peepholes, specially made for the female members of the royal family to enjoy watching the performances from the screened chamber in privacy.

The screened Chamber

The screened Chamber (Pic courtesy: NS Rajan)

Navarathri Mandapam was used for cultural performances, and prominent dancers and musicians from across South India used to perform in this hall until the 1830s, when the Navaratri festival that attracted these professionals here was moved to Thiruvananthapuram.

This hall, and many other spots in the palace, were used during the filming of the famous Malayalam film, Manichitrathazhu in the early 1990s. That ‘screened chamber’ with its peepholes, played a very significant part in the movie. Manichithrathazhu was highly successful and was remade in many languages, such as, in Tamil and Telugu as Chandramukhi (2005), in Kannada as Apthamitra (2004), in Bengali as Rajmahal (2005) and in Hindi as Bhool
Bhulaiyaa (2007).

A visit to the Padmanabhapuram Palace is not merely a deep and close look at the history, arts and crafts of Kerala, but is also very satisfying to the aesthetic sense of the visitor.

Dance Hall

Natakasala — Performance/Dance Hall with the shining, polished floor. The ‘Screened’ Chambers are on the far left. (Pic courtesy: NS Rajan)

Heritage Museum

A few figurines in the Heritage Museum (Pic courtesy: NS Rajan)

In his foreword to the Outlook Traveller Getaways book on Kerala, Vinod Mehta, its then Editor-in-Chief, wrote: “It’s difficult to describe Kerala in just one book.” Here, I am writing only about a territory of Kerala, small in area, yet one of the most significant locales in its history, traditions and culture. One may imagine the rest!

Thus, you may not go all the way to Kerala to see only the Padmanabhapuram Palace. But, if you do happen to go to Kerala, you must not fail to see this grand palace.

Padmanabhapuram Palace Complex

Padmanabhapuram Palace Complex (Picture Courtesy: Shintil TK)

There are no professional guides in the palace but the staff scattered all over the place will help by answering questions. Or you can do as I did — buy a Handbook (Rs 100) from the office on the premises, and go around the palace guided by the book. It is replete with pictures and narration of all that is of importance about the palace. The palace is open to visitors from 9 am to 4.30 pm with a break from 12.30-2 pm. One can reasonably cover the entire place in the morning session.

The progress through the palace is one way and a visitor may not go back and forth but only proceed from the entrance to the exit. If you want to study and pay closer attention to the objects inside, you may return at 2 pm, but will have to get a fresh entry ticket (Rs 35). You may have to pay Rs 50 extra for the camera even if you only use your cell phone. (Rates mentioned may change from time to time).

Front courtyard. Note: the Lawn is shaped like a Conch. (Credit: Aviatorjk/wikimedia).

Front courtyard — the lawn is shaped like a conch. (Picture Courtesy: Shintil TK).

REFERENCES: (and picture credits)
1. Padmanabhapuram Palace
2. Life on Weekends
3. Padmanabhapuram Palace: A Monument to Malayali Pride
4. Neelstoria

More Must-Reads in LnC Travel

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Kanyakumari: A Voyage Into Spirituality

Thousand Islands of New York – Where Glamour Embraces Penury

The Charms of San Francisco

The Goa Diaries: When A Pleasant Surprise Went Unpleasant

 

NS Rajan is a retired senior IRS Officer. He is an avid reader and a sports lover, particularly cricket, having watched many greats in action from the late 1940s (he has played cricket at a fairly competitive level). He loves listening to music of all genres, is fascinated by Hindi film music of the ‘golden era’ and has written many essays on composers, lyricists and singers. Rajan loves to sing and spends some of his time singing on his karaoke system. He likes to write and has contributed articles, short stories and letters to newspapers and magazines, some of which have been published in Silhouette Magazine and LnC. Rajan is very fond of travelling and learning about new and fascinating places and is a keen observer of all that he sees, hears and observes during his travels. Travel and photography usually always go together and Rajan has been interested in photography from his teens, weaned on a German Zeiss Ikon. His abiding love for travel and photography inspired him to write an illustrated book on his trip to the USA, Go West Odyssey: How I Saw America in 19 Days, including in it a number of pictures taken by him during the trip. He works actively to keep himself engaged in some mental pursuit or the other and to keep himself mentally and physically fit at the ripe old age of 87.
All Posts of NS Rajan

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4 thoughts on “Kerala’s Padmanabhapuram Palace and Its History

  • Anuradha Warrier

    A very interesting and informative article, Mr Rajan. I have only ever been to the Padmanabhapuram temple; now, thanks to you, I must put Padmanabhapuram Palace on my itinerary. 🙂

    Thank you for a very interesting read.

  • N.S.Rajan

    Thank you, Anuradha.
    Bacon said: ‘Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.’
    Kerala, a state that richly merits the epithet “God’s own Country” conferred on it, also needs to be chewed to savour all its delights and to fully appreciate its many treasures.
    I have spent weeks there traveling and discovering its richness and marveling at the kindness that God has bestowed on it.
    I love to keep going there.

  • Rachna Rajesh

    Amazing read .. I visited Kerala twice for its backwaters and found it green, beautiful . I guess I have seen nothing ! I need to really explore all that you have described . Your essay can find a place in history books , as well as in the hands of a tourist 🙂

  • N.S.Rajan

    Thank you, Rachna.
    Kerala has a lot to offer if one takes the trouble to seek it. One needs to go deeper than the typical ‘Tourist fare’ that is popular. It will be an ‘Education’ in Arts, Culture and Craft.

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