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Heritage Travel

Padmanabhapuram Palace – The largest wooden palace in Asia

Its the epitome of the stunning Kerala style architecture, that has stood the test of time, withstanding both natural and human onslaughts. This wooden palace manages to amuse many travelers from accross the globe, with the fine carvings that can be seen in the form of murals, floral engravings, and immaculate artwork.

Table of Contents:
The Palace at a glance
  1. How to reach
  2. Tickets and Timings
  3. Where to Stay

History of the Palace
My visit to Padmanbhapuram palace
  1. Mukhya Vatil – The Gate
  2. First Impressions
  3. Poomukham – The Reception Hall
  4. Mantrashala – The Council Chamber
  5. Ootopura – The Dining Hall
  6. Thai Kottaram – Queen Mother’s Chamber
  7. Upparika Mallika – The King’s Bedroom
  8. Aanthpuram and Ambari Mukaku
  9. Navarathri Mandapam- The Performance Area

Conclusion of the tour

The green Veli hills form the perfect backdrop, for this magnificent white and brown palace, that is often touted as the pinnacle of Kerala style of architecture. Padmanabhapuram palace is the largest wooden palace in Asia and is standing strong since centuries providing a glimpse into the golden past of the Travancore rulers.

The Travancore rulers belonged to Kerala, and hence even though the palace currently stand in Tamil Nadu, it is owned and managed by the govt of Kerala.

How to Reach:
By Air: Trivandrum International Airport is just 52 km away,which is well connected to the rest of the country.
By Rail: Nagercoil Railway Station, Tamil Nadu is the nearest railhead to Padmanabhapuram Palace.
By Road: The palace is a 3-hour straight drive from Thiruvananthapuram. It is also a 1 hour drive from Kanyakumari.

Tickets and Timings:
Adult: 35 INR, Child: 10 INR, Foreigner: 300 INR
Still Camera: 50 INR, Video Camera: 2500 INR
The Palace remains open from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM. Its closed on all Mondays and public holidays.

Where to Stay:
Most tourists prefer staying at Thiruvanantapuram, Kovalam or Kanyakumari while visiting Padmanabhapuram. All these locations have multiple budget and luxury accomodations.

History of Padmanabhapuram:

The palace has undergone a few changes over the centuries. The first iteration of the palace went by the name of Kalkulam Palace and was commissioned by Iravi Varma Kulasekhara Perumal. This palace which got completed in the year 1601, was built primarily using mud.

In the year 1750, the founder of modern Travancore, King Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, rebuilt this palace, using wood as the primary material and a larger granite fortress spanning 6 acres, was also built around this palace.

The royal family of Travancore were devoted to Lord Padmanabha, an avatar of Vishnu, which is why the king dedicated the palace to Lord Padmanabha and named the area surrounding it Padmanabhapuram.

My visit to the palace:

I have visited quite a few palaces in India, notably the marvelous City palace of Jaipur or the Amba Vilas Palace of Mysore, but none were as candid as the Padmanabhapuram palace. In its first look it gave me a homely vibe, and I felt like I could stay here forever.

May be it was the simplistic exterior of the building that had swayed me into this feeling. The white walls with a gabled roof covered with red tiles. From the outside it felt so much similar to many homes I have come accros in Kerala, this one however was much larger in size.

Mukhya Vatil – the gate:

Large doors mounted with metal spikes, known as Mukhya Vatil, let us into a spacious forecourt, followed by the magnificent palace. I was immediately transformed into the era of the Travancore kings, as I started painting images of competitions and festivities that could have taken place in that forecourt.

A patch of green grass stands infront of the palace, with rest of the forecourt largely barren. On careful observation, I noticed the patch of grass resembled a conch, which was the royal emblem of the Travancore kingdom.

First Impressions:

Standing on the forecourt I couldn’t help but marvel at the clock tower, which still shows time. It was built in 1750, by a local blacksmith who had learnt the art of watch making from Spanish priests.

The clock is named Mani Meda, and is strategically placed inside a protruding gable which protects the clock from natural elements. The two wooden pillars set on a balcony to support the gable has some fine filigree work to boast off as well. During the golden era of this palace, it is said that the gong of its pendulum could be heard from as far as three kilometers.

At this point I turned my gaze towards an intricately carved overhead bay window. Standing right above the entrance, this window looked like a small crown on the palace. This definitely would have been the place from where the King addressed his subjects, and witnessed festivities in the front yard.

The façade covering the gable has some very pretty carvings, of birds, flowers and various geometric shapes.

The wall of the bay was curved outwards in the middle, which added another dimension to the already awe inspiring design. The bottom end of the bay also featured heavily carved out designs thus completing the whole structure with finesse.

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Poomukham – The reception hall:

Climbing up a short flight of stairs we ended up in the reception hall otherwise known as Poomukham. This hall, as the name suggests was used to welcome dignitaries of the kingdom. As I set foot inside, the hall I noticed a 300 years old brass lamp hanging idly from the ceiling. The lamp had a exquisitely crafted knight on a horseback, which enhanced the beauty of the lamp manyfolds.

The roof of the reception hall was reddish in color with flowers engraved onto it, stone pillars supported the roof and the floors above. A granite cot finds place inside the reception hall and so does an armour and a few spears.

Mantrashala – King’s Council room:

A narrow flight of stairs took us from the reception area to mantrashala where the king used to hold meeting with his ministers. The most interesting part of this area was the shiny black floor, which I thought was granite, only to be bummed by a sign board explaining what was it actually made of.

Burnt coconut shells, egg white, jaggery, lime, charcoal and river sand. An interesting concoction that I had never heard before as part of anything, let alone for flooring. The floor was so shiny that it could give the surfaces of modern day shiny black cars a run for their money, so I guess the concoction works. Wanna go herbal anyone?! We could literally see our reflection on the floor, no wonder the palace needs you to walk barefoot once inside.

Within the council chamber we saw a few ornamental chairs kept in one side arranged in a way it would have been during the king’s time. Like the palace we had seen till now the chair here as well, seemed very down to earth and not overtly extravagant. The ceiling however had some impressive panels carved with lotus motifs, which were supported by perfectly cylindrical wooden pillars.

Oottupura – The Dining hall:

Moving on we came out of a small door on to a bridge. Looking around we could see the palace in all its glory, the various sections visible clearly from up there. I also noticed the dark clouds forming over the Veli hills, it would start pouring anytime now.

Palace sections as seen from the bridge

The bridge ended in a huge room, with numerous stone columns supporting the ceiling. There were no ornamentation in here and most columns seems roughly cut as well. The floor however was covered in terracotta tiles from edge to edge.

The hall is called Oottupura, the dining hall. It is said that this place used to hold feasts for almost 2000 people everyday. Looking at the structure it doesn’t seem like an exaggeration at all.

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Thai Kottaram – The Queen Mothers chambers:

I came out of the dining hall imagining what a sight it would be to be part of the 2000 strong contingent of people enjoying a royal feast, as a few drops of rain brought me back to reality. The dark clouds had descended from the Veli hills and were staring at my scalp right now. The stone pathway I was on led towards another impressive structure, and I knew it would be my only respite from the unavoidable rain for the next few minutes. I dashed towards it.

Once inside the two storied structure, we sighed a breath of relief as we had just dodged a pouring rain. The outside soon turned fuzzy with all the precipitation, as we stood on the door thanking our stars to have avoided it. We were inside the Queen Mother’s Chamber.

Thai Kottaram, also known as the Queen Mother’s Chamber, is the oldest structure in the whole complex. It is said to be part of the original palace upon which the rest of the expansion was done in 1750. Even with such downpouring, the ceiling wasn’t leaking, the walls were not wet, and the floor was not soaking which are all a testament to the great architects who built this structure.

While exploring Thai Kottaram we came across wooden ceiling which was decorated with carvings of lotus motifs. Pillars made up of Jackfruit tree trunks supported the ceiling. The pillars themselves were simple however the top half of the pillars showcased some magnificent wood work.

Walking through I reached a small courtyard with a stone base, inside the palace. Rooms radiated out from this courtyard in all directions. This kind of arrangement was quite popular in India since long, as houses preferred having an open area inside their boundaries for household chores, for kids to play and for sleeping under the stars. The prices of real estate now a days have made sure no body can afford such a luxury, otherwise I am pretty sure there would be many like me who would like a piece of open sky within their homes.

Uparika Mallika – Royal Treasury, Kings Bedroom and Meditation Chamber.

The rain stopped as we commenced our exploration of this magnificent piece or art and architecture. Next up was Uppirikka Malika, a grand multi storied structure that symbolizes wealth, royal power and the realization of God.

Said to have been constructed in 1745 Uppirikka Malika stands apart from other structures with its unique pagoda-style roof and thick walls. The ground floor of the structure housed the royal treasury; above it was the king’s bedroom.

The second floor was used as a hall for meditation and religious fasting, whereas the third floor was dedicated as the abode of Lord Padmanabha himself, the tutelary deity of the Travancore royals.

The King’s bedroom had an ornately carved bed made from a combination of 64 different timber samples, each having a medicinal benefit. The light was low however I could chart out a few European and Indian mythological features carved on the foot/head board. This Indo-Western furniture is said to have been presented to the king either by the Dutch or the Portuguese.

The King’s bedroom had an ornately bed which is supposedly made from a combination of 64 different medicinal timber samples. The light was low however I could chart out a few European and Indian mythological features carved on the foot/head board.

These curious Indo-Western furniture is said to have been presented to the king by either by the Dutch or the Portuguese, who were into spice trading with the state of Kerala during the early 17th century.

The timber beams in the ceiling of this room are also embellished with floral motifs so as to emphasize the importance attached to the space. A narrow stair from this room leads to the topmost floor, the abode of the Lord Padmanabhaswamy, which unfortunately is off limits to visitors.

Ananthapuram and Ambari Mukhappu:

The king’s chamber on the first floor of the Uppirikka Malika connects to a spacious hall, the Anthapuram or the ladies’ quarters. The relaxed ambience of the space is enhanced by two large swinging cots suspended from the ceiling using iron chains. A set of 39 paintings, all depicting episodes from the life of Sri Krishna adds charm to the space.

The space also features an ornate bay window resembling an ambari or a howdah. A flight of steps adorned by two beautifully carved elephant heads lead to a raised platform at the edge of which rests 5 exquisitely carved windows, raising up to meet at the conical roof. These windows opens to the road skirting through the palace and was used by the royal family as a viewing gallery for the religious processions that pass through the street below.

Navarathri Mandapam:

Coming out to the open I was welcomed by a small drizzle and multiple puddles of water on the ground. Walking through the stone pathway, I noticed a stone structure appearing on the left. It was the Navarathri Mandapam, the place for Navarathri celebrations.

In a stark contrast to the rest of the palace, the Mandapam was carved in stone and not wood. The rectangular performance hall also features a temple dedicated to Goddess Saraswati. The performance hall is defined with ornately carved monolith pillars carved in the popular Vijayanagara fashion with bands of floral and geometric patterns and adorned with human figures in various gestures.

During its heydays, the Navarathri Mandapam was the most active section in the palace complex where renowned artists from the south India came and performed. As the capital was moved to Thiruvananthapuram the shine of this Navarathri Mandapam also got dim, as the Navarathri Celebration started taking place in the new abode of the Travancore rulers.

Conclusion of the tour:

Navarathri Mandapam was the last section of the palace, and this brought me back to the forecourt from where I had started my tour. It was time to say good bye to one of the best wooden structures history has to provide.

Palaces in India can either be ornate magnificent edifices or humble structures; both of which are symbols of their past glory. While some have managed to transform themselves for use as heritage hotels, and some as tourism magnets, most languish in obscurity hoping for tourists to grace them with their visit.

Padmanabhapuram palace has carved out a niche for itself, thereby cementing the belief that palaces can be beautiful without being overtly extravagant. It might be the largest wooden palace in Asia, but still manages to instill a feeling of warmth, and for me that’s the crowning glory of this magnificent piece of architecture.

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