The Wooden Paradise

Twenty years ago when I visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace, I remember being struck by its understated magnificence. I remember walking into the palace and hearing in the silence of the empty wooden chambers voices and imagery from King Marthanda Varma’s time, and feeling as if I was in some sort of dream space. The ethereality of that experience for me, somehow, converged in the 18th century murals on the topmost chamber of the palace. It was as if my mind had decided to train the spotlight on this lost art form, preferring to keep the rest of the palace largely in darkness. The forty-five murals spread across 900 square feet of wall space, depicting largely Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna in their iconic forms, was a revelation in colour and technique. Images of the gods, such as the frontal seated icon of Chandraswami or Krishna as Venugopal, sit alongside lively depictions from the contemporary lives of musicians and devotees. The decorative patterns of clothes, jewellery and garlands take up the entire space, along with the introduction of plant life and fish swimming in the river below. These create such vivid patterns of colour that the room vibrates with green and red, black and cream. In these wall murals the assertion of hand gestures, bodily movements, head gear with exaggerated eyes, at times rounded and fierce, share strong affinities with performances of Kathakali. The inspiration for these paintings was clearly derived from local folk idioms of theatre and also from the ritual floor patterns of kalamezhuthu made of coloured powder. Its aesthetic appeal was undeniable, as was the distinct echo of King Marthanda Varma’s own devotion to Lord Padmanabha (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and his unconscious need to emulate the paintings at the Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. It was as if dedicating an entire city, a palace and a fortress was not enough; they had to find further credence in a physical image.

So when the opportunity came up to visit the palace again, I was looking forward to revisiting the murals and wondered if time that played with the mastery of the artists of yore would have altered my own memory of it.

Padmanabhapuram was a changed city. Back then, as you drove into Padmanabhapuram from Thiruvananthapuram, the roads were uncluttered, with enough space for the mind to wander through its meandering streets. Now, it was teeming with roadside shops and restaurants, a sign of the city’s growing importance as a tourist destination.

The palace itself, however, had remained unchanged. Built over a period of time by successive rulers of Travancore (although it was King Marthanda Varma who renovated and made expansions to the original structure during his reign), it is situated right at the centre of the Padmanabhapuram Fortress. The river Valli stretches languorously nearby and the Veli Hills sit like a throne, holding the palace and the fortress together.

Even though the palace holds power over you the minute you set eyes on it, I was itching to see the murals. Sadly, that was not meant to be as that section of the palace had been closed to the public and no amount of persuasion moved the authorities to make an exception. In retrospect, though, I think it might have been a boon in disguise. It forced me to actually ‘see’ the palace for the first time and truly understand why its historic and cultural significance is buried deep in its wooden structure, and not so much in the murals, as my memory would have me believe.

The palace of Padmanabhapuram is set apart from the opulence of Mughal durbars and the grandeur of Rajput palaces. Its distinction lies in the elegant austerity of its stark interiors that subtly exhibit the exquisite craftsmanship in metal work, wood carvings of pillars and ceilings, and gleaming polished floors. The palace, despite its size and scale, offers a different ethos. It is built in the traditional Nair style of the nalukettu: a residence with four wings around a central sunken courtyard called the nadumuttam. For three hundred years Padmanabhapuram was the capital of Travancore; it was the seat of power. Today, Padmanabhapuram is part of Tamil Nadu, although the palace itself is still maintained by the Government of Kerala.

The palace complex represents the best of the indigenous architecture of Kerala: slatted windows in wood, slanting gabled roofs, narrow staircases, and smooth black polished floors reflecting kaleidoscopic patterns of light. Unlike the soaring gopurams of the Dravida style which link man to God, the Kerala style offers a horizontal plan ‘which enabled one to reach the centre of one’s being’. The complex is designed like a yantra (a mystical diagram said to possess occult powers), which is believed to correspond to the nava grahas (nine celestial planets). Each of the nine functional areas is linked by a connecting path of gravel. To me the entire structure felt a lot more sculptural in nature, as if an artist had simply chipped away the unnecessary, allowing the magnetic charm of the palace to emerge.The palace of Padmanabhapuram is set apart from the opulence of Mughal durbars and the grandeur of Rajput palaces. Its distinction lies in the elegant austerity of its stark interiors that subtly exhibit the exquisite craftsmanship in metal work, wood carvings of pillars and ceilings, and gleaming polished floors. The palace, despite its size and scale, offers a different ethos. It is built in the traditional Nair style of the nalukettu: a residence with four wings around a central sunken courtyard called the nadumuttam.

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For three hundred years Padmanabhapuram was the capital of Travancore; it was the seat of power. Today, Padmanabhapuram is part of Tamil Nadu, although the palace itself is still maintained by the Government of Kerala.

So we begin with the imposing wooden gate, the padippura that opens into the poomukham, where guests of the royal family would be entertained. A narrow staircase from here leads to the mantrasala, the council chamber, where the king and his ministers would have their meetings. The wooden ceiling is inset with recessed squares, each carved with 90 different varieties of flowers. There is no ostentatious display of royalty, no distractions. In this spacious chamber one might imagine the gravity and depth with which discussions took place between the king and his ministers. Following the mantrasala is the oottupura (the dining hall), an incredibly spacious two-storeyed structure occupying the entire southern wing, where more than two thousand people were given free meals every day. Large Chinese pickle jars in brown earthenware remain in a corner today, serving as a reminder of Kerala’s trade with China.

At the southwest end is the thaikottaram, the Mother Palace. Its cool dark interiors were planned to create a sense of openness and tranquility. And this is where you will find the famous ekanthamandapam, or chamber of solitude, where a single pillar carved out of the hardest wood of the jackfruit tree rises from the cool terracotta floor. This was the first pillar to be built on the premises. It is so wide that the girth of this pillar is almost half in proportion to its height. The base and head and sides of this solid singular column are carved as though draped with garlands and the ceiling is exquisitely carved with lotus medallions. In stark contrast to the gleaming black floors so typical of the rest of the palace, the ekanthamandapam has a polished red floor.

A long and narrow corridor leads to the majestic upparika malika, or chamber of worship, a multistoreyed building comprising the royal treasury, the private chambers of the king, his consorts, princesses and the regent queen, the king’s study, resting rooms and the royal worship chamber (which houses the famous murals and is now closed to the public).

The queen’s chamber preserves the only items of feminine interest including two large 350-year-old Belgian mirrors, and a swing for the princesses. The walls are covered with early glass paintings in the Tanjore style worked in vegetable dyes on the favourite theme of Krishna. I was surprised by the modesty of the king’s bed chamber, which is devoid of furniture except for a colossal bed with four posters. With lavish carvings of European cherubs and entwined grapes, and made from the wood of several medicinal herbs, the bed was a gift from the Portuguese to the Maharaja.

A few feet away is Indra vilasom, a section of the palace built exclusively for the king's foreign guests, mainly the Dutch, French and the British. This section of the palace had a direct access to the road and the environment was made familiar for them with a grand colonnaded hall in colonial style, with accommodation for interpreters and staff on the ground floor. This difference tells us that the builders were conversant with colonial architecture, but they were deliberately assigned to build in the native Kerala style.

Close to the Indra vilasom is the dance hall called the navarathri mandapam, an open hall used for all-night music and dance performances, built with carved pillars in stone. Originally in wood, the mandapam was rebuilt by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal (1829 – 1846), a great patron of arts, with the shrine of Goddess Saraswati appropriately installed beside the dance hall. The final chamber is the thekke kottaram or southern palace with its carved wooden doors, walls and teak beams, which houses the ayudhapura or armoury, the ambari mukhappu or the window where the king showed himself to the public, the puthen kottaram or the ‘youngest of all palaces’, and the homapura, where religious offerings were done.

When I finally step outside, the afternoon sun creating sharp shadows around me, it occurs to me that 20 years ago, what I had considered an empty shell holding the murals, was in fact a blindingly surreal testament to the beauty of the murals. Without the palace, and its abounding intricacies, the murals would have lost their precious inimitability. For, as I see it now, it derives all its energy from the quiet dignity of this ‘wooden paradise’.

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