It was renowned artist Raja Ravi Varma who first piqued my curiosity about the Travancore region, once a princely state. I have been an admirer of his work for many years, enamoured especially of his beautiful models, in their elegant saris and ethnic jewellery. But all I knew about him was that he was born in Travancore and was related to the royal family. So when I got the opportunity to explore the region that had been his home base, I grabbed it.
Until 1949, Travancore was a vast kingdom, located somewhere on the border of present-day Tamil Nadu and Kerala. My starting point was the Padmanabhapuram Palace, the erstwhile home of the Travancore royal family. I set up base at Anantya Resorts, off Thiruvananthapuram, a veritable gateway to the region. Though the property technically falls in Tamil Nadu, it felt more like rural Kerala—with its waterside location by Chittar lake, lily and lotus ponds, and villas with sloping, red-tile roofs. The highlight: The resort was nestled within 1,000 acres of lush rubber plantation, the Vaikundam Estate. From there, the palace is less than an hour away by cab (26km).
At first glance, the structure’s simple façade—white walls and red tiles—did not resonate with my mental image of a “palace”. It was only when I went in that I could appreciate its unique aesthetic appeal.
As I discovered, the Padmanabhapuram Palace is actually a wooden palace complex of 14 smaller palaces contained within what was once a 4km-long fort. The original structure was built in 1601, although it owes its present form to King Marthanda Varma, who rebuilt it in the mid-18th century. I was amazed at the tasteful potpourri of tall granite pillars, intricate wood carvings, hanging brass lamps and beautiful Chinese jars. Every chamber and building had its own set of guards, who doubled up as guides.
It took me a couple of hours to walk through the warren of palaces—I was a bit dazed, for I was unprepared for the sheer size of the royal home. The top floor (Upparika Maliga) of the king’s quarter contained several murals, mostly depicting motifs such as the Hindu god Krishna with gopis, and Nataraja in the dance pose. Although none of them were by my favourite artist, they were enchanting nevertheless.
I went back to the resort for a lavish Kerala vegetarian lunch and learnt that the Vaikundam Estate was one of the first rubber plantations in India, established by the British in the early 20th century. That nugget alone warranted a tour early next morning.
My first stop was atop a hillock, after a bumpy Jeep ride over red soil, to witness a spectacular sunrise. The countryside sprawled around us for miles. Back at the plantation, just a short drive away from the hillock, we could see workers tapping rubber from trees laid out in straight lines. We watched the men and women at work, their swift and decisive cuts to collect the latex in small cups hitting the right spots on the trunk every time.
I then walked along the uneven trails for an hour, listening to the local manager of the estate share trivia about rubber that I would have not known otherwise—he told us, for instance, that a single rubber tree could be profitable for more than 25 consecutive years.
Later that day, on my way back home, I stopped at the Sree Chitra Art Gallery in Thiruvananthapuram. This was established by the king Sree Chithira Thirunal in 1935. I headed straight to the upper floor in search of Varma’s stunning rendition of Damayanti, as graceful as the white swan she is shown staring at.
The 40-odd Ravi Varma paintings in the gallery had finally given me a glimpse of the great artist’s work. It was enticing enough to plan a second visit to Travancore.
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The author tweets from @charukesi.