Though technically in the state of Tamil Nadu, this palace is the traditional home of the Travancore royal family of Kerala. The palace is one of India's best specimens of secular building and of the distinctive wooden architecture of the west coast. Kerala is a state with lush green paddy fields stretching to the horizon, watered by a network of backwaters, and dotted with lovely small villages. Local laterite pink stone is used for village huts and sloping tiled roofs offer the best protection against the heavy monsoon rains that come cascading down from the heavens in the months of May, June, and July. It is today one of India's most densely populated states and one where literacy levels have reached almost a hundred per cent.
On the road from Trivandrum (Thiruvanathapuram), the state capital, down to Kanyakumari, the tip of the Indian subcontinent, is Padmanabhapuram. The meaning of the name goes back to the great Ananta-padma-nabha-swamy temple in Trivandrum. In the sanctum of the temple lies a long stone image of reclining Vishnu. According to mythology, Vishnu lies on the sea of eternity resting on the coils of a gigantic serpent called Ananta, the endless one. This symbolic bed refers to a region of quietitude and divine grace where Vishnu reclines and rests in the intervals between creation. From Vishnu's navel (nabha) grows a lotus flower (padma) on which is seated Brahma. This deity meditated for many god-years and ultimately was granted a boon to begin creating the universe. So while Brahma creates, Vishnu rests, preserving and sustaining the world. It is Ananta who upheld the entire universe on his multi-headed hood 'as if it were a mere mustard seed', and the region where Ananta reigns is associated with Kerala. This is why Vishnu is called the lord (swamy) who lies on Ananta, from whose navel (nabha) the lotus (padma) creation is born: Ananta-padma-nabha- swamy. The royal family of Travancore were considered to be the consecrated appointed regents of the Anantapadmanabhaswamy deity of the temple at Trivandrum. To this day they perform their ritual obligations to the deity and their palace home is called Padmanabhapuram.
The fort walls surround Padmanabhapuram, and nearby there is a little village from which a long driveway leads up to the ornamental wooden gateway of the palace. The building created over many generations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has richly carved doorways and windows, sculpted brackets and lovely sloping tiled roofs. There is certain delicacy and richness in wooden architecture that can never be attained when working with any other material.
From the entrance gate a path leads to a steep stairway up to a large hall, completely covered from ceiling to floor with dark warm wood. This hall, which used to receive important visitors and to hold ministerial meetings, is a perfect example of classic Kerala secular architecture. Huge seasoned wooden beams form a chequered patterned ceiling, the central squares studded with wooden floral motifs and rosettes placed on every cross beam. The sloping roof is incorporated into the design of the interior walls of the hall that slant dramatically downwards. The slanting wall blocks out the brilliant sunshine and heat, preventing the glare from entering the room. at the base of the slant is a line of windows with wooden shutters that filter the light and diffuse its intensity. Around the room are regal benches and wooden thrones for the distinguished family and visitors. Where bare feel is a climatic necessity, not a fashion, the highly polished floor of the council room is soft to the touch and smooth under the royal feet.
From this relatively public area, where important visitors were entertained, one comes into the private royal living quarters. It is a maze of lovely open corridors and pillared verandahs leading into rooms and chambers. Open courtyards and little garden areas are incorporated into the plan of the buildings to offer areas of warmth and sunshine, since the living areas and rooms are always cool and dark. The kitchen, the dining hall, the royal bedrooms with minimal furniture are part of the traditional Kerala domestic style. In wooden architecture it is the beams and pillars, joints and brackets that receive special attention, and this palace every minute detail is carefully designed and beautiful carved.
Central to the plan of the palace are the four-storeyed Royal Apartments, and the kings bedroom (on the second floor) with a medicinal bed of 64 different types of wood and a beautiful prayer-room right on top. This room is decorated with murals with a lovely one of Vishnu as Padmanabha Swamy.
At one end of the palace is a large stone Natakshala or performance hall for dance, music, and theatre. This relatively new structure in quasi-religious style has a mandap with carved stone pillars. It was built by Maharaja Swathithirunal, a great music composer and patron of the performing arts. South of the dance hall is a little granite temple (similar to the style found in Tamil Nadu) appropriately dedicated to Saraswati, the goddess of learning, music, and the arts.
From this beautiful royal home the Travancore family shifted their capital to Trivandrum in 1934 and the Padmanabhapuram palace was restored and opened to the public.
What's In The Neighborhood
From Padmanabhapuram one can travel south to see Kanyakumari, the very tip of the Indian subcontinent, where the three waters meet: of the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea.
Padmanabhapuram is 55 kilometers south of Trivandrum, the capital of the state of Kerala. Trivandrum is also called Thiruvanthapuram, the abode of the sacred serpent Anant, the endless one. It is a great religious, cultural, and administrative center. The religious center is the great Anantapadmanabhaswamy Temple. This temple, unfortunately open only to Hindus, attracts thousands of pilgrims and is one of the finest examples of religious architecture in Kerala on a grand scale. The temple has a tank in front for rituals, a pathway lined with shops selling ritual items and flowers, souvenirs for pilgrims, and a place where the local people can meet and chat. Once inside the temple there are great halls with ornamental pillars and carved wooden beams that support typical tiled sloping roofs. Within the sanctum (never seen completely, only partially), viewed through three doorways, is the reclining figure of Vishnu supporting creation from the lotus that emerges from his navel.
There are several European-style colonial buildings in Trivandrum. The Napier Museum was constructed in 1880 and is set amidst a huge formal garden with an Art Gallery and the Zoological Gardens at one end. The building is a cheerful pink and yellow structure, and the wooden beams that support it are incorporated in the overall exterior design. The interior of the museum building is equally impressive and houses a wonderful collection of bronzes, wood and stone sculptures, and musical instruments.
Not far from the Zoo is the Maharaja's Palace, now converted into government buildings. Other buildings like Parliament House with its European stylistic features were built in the mid-1930s.
The tourist department is making a great effort to provide visitors with an interesting agenda sprinkled with cultural programmes of dance and music. Kerala has a rich and very ancient tradition of music, dance (dance drama like Kathakali and the lyrical Mohiniattam), and the martial arts (Kalairipettu).
Most attractive and certainly one of the loveliest beaches on the west coast of India is Kovalam. The calm aquamarine sea waters of the small cove of Kovalam is a safe and lovely place in which to swim. To the south is a rugged hill with boulders gently lapped by the sea from where you can watch the little fishing up and down with the waves.
How To Get There
Trivandrum has an international and domestic airport. Road and railways connect this southern city with most parts of India. Large and small, expensive and inexpensive hotels are available in Trivandrum and at Kovalam from which a day trip to the palace of Padmanabhapuram can be made. The winter months between October and March are a pleasant time to travel in Kerala, and the beaches are then calm and serene after the turbulence of the monsoons.