With the Supreme Court deciding a controversy over the management of Kerala’s Padmanabhaswamy temple, Lounge revisits another iconic structure named after the deity
In the summer of 1956, a Humber Pullman limousine appeared one day at the gates of the Padmanabhapuram Palace near Thuckalay. It was a Monday morning, and then, as today, the monument was closed to visitors as the staff took their weekly holiday. There was, however, an elderly caretaker available, and a young man emerged from the car to request access. At first the caretaker dismissed the intruder with an irritated brush of the hand, telling him to come back on a working day. But when the man told him who else waited in the Humber, the warden stepped out to look for himself. The results were instant. Bowing low to the lady in the car, he opened the gates, offering a personal tour of the complex. Her nephew took up the offer but the lady herself did not join—seated instead on a parapet where armed soldiers once stood guard for her ancestors, the last maharani of Travancore opened a picnic hamper and began to eat a sandwich.
By the time I heard this story, the youngster who startled the caretaker that Monday afternoon had become an old man, and the maharani was long dead. Reverence for royalty, still at a high in the immediate post-independence years, had waned into dignified respect for the royal name. Maps were redrawn, and the district around Thuckalay went to present-day Tamil Nadu, while the palace itself was retained in a compromise by the Kerala government. After all, Padmanabhapuram was the seat of Travancore’s maharajas, who by identity were Malayalis. They may have moved their capital to Thiruvananthapuram, which housed the temple to their deity, Padmanabhaswamy, but their dynastic selfhood was wedded to this ancestral home in Tamil territory. Other deities too would form an interest in the arrangement: Every year, for instance, Saraswati is escorted from the palace shrine with other divine companions to the great temple in Thiruvananthapuram for a nine-day festival. And like mortals on the road, the gods too cross a border.
My drive late last year from Thiruvananthapuram to Padmanabhapuram—a journey that is not overlong but includes a switch in language on signposts—did not feature any encounters with itinerant deities. It was, however, made interesting by my companions: Sharat Sunder, a conservation architect, and Ajith Kumar, the official in charge of the palace today. As we paused for coffee and idlis on the way, I wondered aloud why Travancore’s maharajas felt the need at all to desert Padmanabhapuram by the close of the 18th century and settle further north. Thiruvananthapuram, while home to the chief temple of the rulers, was a small place, and everything had to be started anew: residences for royalty, settlements for ordinary folk, markets for merchants, and much else. And though charming palaces mushroomed there in the 19th century, on the whole, the Kerala capital’s royal centre fails to impress in the way abandoned Padmanabhapuram does to this day.
The difference is stark and at once palpable to anyone who drives up to Padmanabhapuram’s outer gates. Ajith Kumar’s presence meant we were waved into the 6-acre compound, passing two colossal doors with iron spikes, and into a square bursting with tourists. Across this yard stands the inner padippura (gate) in the middle of a long white wall, topped by a gabled viewing corridor and a carved balcony: It was from here, Sharat informed me, that the maharajas once watched animal combat, wrestling matches, and other entertainments in the square. On the southern side stood a stable and ancillary buildings, while the northern end sheltered a mint. The stable was demolished and now houses a museum, while the mint has become the ticket counter. Meanwhile, at the inner gateway, near the policemen who regulate access, there is a little Ganapati in a miniature shrine, receiving priestly veneration besides oil, flowers and other ritual emoluments.
Ritual and religion did in many ways guide the fate of Padmanabhapuram and the maharajas who ruled from there, taking pride in the Sanskritic personality of their state. Till the 18th century, Venad (which later acquired the name of Tiruvithamkur, or Travancore) was a political backwater in Kerala. Its ruling house was divided by internecine squabbles and power was fragmented. The palaces of this period, when the kings were at best first among equals with the nobility and generally poor, reflect economy in taste and substance, and political chaos meant there was no fixed centre to the state.
It was under Martanda Varma (reign 1729-58) that modern Travancore as a proud, unitary realm came into being, and it was from this ruler’s day that kingship acquired distinct aesthetic manifestations in art, architecture and custom. Where his immediate ancestors were forgettable men flailing in a disorderly space, Martanda Varma transformed the way things were done in all of Kerala. And in more than one way, Padmanabhapuram (renamed as such from Kalkulam, to honour his family deity) stands testament to the king’s self-conscious glory and vision.
The man was, first and foremost, a conqueror. He destroyed dozens of noble houses that stood in his way, selling their women and children to fishermen. Indeed, as we walked through the palace halls, Sharat and I discussed how much of the wood that adorns Padmanabhapuram’s royal complex allegedly came from the demolished mansions of these slaughtered noblemen. The king then hoovered up territories, till his troops hammered at the gates of Kochi. Mercenaries were imported and a European prisoner of war elevated as Travancore’s military commander. The English sold the maharaja arms and Martanda Varma inflicted a sensational defeat on the Dutch. By the time he died, he was ruler of the most powerful principality in Kerala, and had established a new model of government.
But despite his patent ability and carefully constructed regality (including through this palace, the likes of which had never been seen before), not everyone bought the propaganda. Sardar K.M. Panikkar, the diplomat-historian, contemptuously described Travancore as “a Tamilian conception", its northward expansion from Tamil-speaking lands “the victory of Tamilian over Kerala culture".
As I explored the 14-part complex with Sharat, the rise of Travancore from a petty principality to a significant south Indian kingdom became visible even through the buildings within. While the oldest unit, the Thai Kottaram, or “mother’s palace", is the core, the structures around it reflect the new concerns of Martanda Varma’s freshly forged modern state. Indra Vilasam, for instance, is a European-inspired palace, with high ceilings, stone and plaster walls (as opposed to wood) and pillared verandas, used as a guest house for Western visitors. With direct access to a processional street outside, the location of Indra Vilasam meant that guests from overseas could enter the complex without defiling more sacred spaces. For example, near the principal entrance is the ootuppura, or dining hall, which seated up to 2,000 men: during times of religiously significant Brahmin-feeding here—an age-old means to buy legitimacy—the “polluting" entrance of a European could cause outrage. So, foreigners came in through their designated gate, while the Brahmins had “undefiled" points of entry for themselves.
The most sacred area, however, is the Uparika Malika, a three-storey tower, its name derived purportedly from the Hindustani word upar (“upstairs"). It is an architectural representation of the very edifice of power: The palace treasury was at ground level, with the royal bedchamber on the first floor. The next level was a space, Sharat points out, for spiritual pursuits, while the top contains the “presence" of Padmanabhaswamy, the royal deity. Both temporal and spiritual ideas of the state are represented in a single structure, with the king occupying the world between the material riches below and that of god above. With permission, we climbed a narrow staircase to the top, ordinarily closed to visitors given its religious import. And under police surveillance, Sharat and I studied the “eternal lamps" maintained there, a carved canopy bed for the deity’s repose, and the state sword of the maharajas. The walls are covered with exquisite mural paintings in rich colours—works which were studied by artist Amrita Sher-Gil in the 1930s and which inspired one authority to exclaim, “This is (Kerala’s) Ajanta!"
Each of these buildings, naturally, has tales attached to it. One story tells how, during an early 19th century rebellion against the English East India Company, troops of the latter broke into the treasury. What they walked into, however, was resounding emptiness, save for one silver coin left as a taunt.
Martanda Varma’s bed, made of 64 medicinal woods, bears European motifs and is believed to have been a present from the Dutch—before the maharaja defeated them in battle, that is, coolly having told their chief that he might one day consider invading Europe with his country boats. Different parts of the palace were also repurposed over time. Corridors were added to connect buildings—for instance, one linking a women’s section to the armoury. Once divested of weapons by the Company following the rebellion, this wing had lost its function. Indeed, rifle barrels were later converted into grills for the Kuthira Malika palace in Thiruvananthapuram, visible even today in its windows.
Sharat and I eventually found ourselves outside Saraswati’s shrine, a stone structure amidst piles of carved wood. Attached to it is a magnificent dance hall, its floors polished to perfection, though bearing scratches left behind by the 1990s film crew which produced the Mohanlal and Shobana blockbuster Manichitrathazhu. At one time, dancers and musicians from across south India performed here, till somewhere in the 1830s the Navaratri festival that attracted these professionals moved to Thiruvananthapuram. It was then that the goddess too commenced her annual sojourn northwards, instead of the maharaja travelling south to his ancestral home.
The floor, despite the damage, is extraordinary. Seen elsewhere in the complex too, it is said to have been developed by local experts using burnt coconut shells, lime and other ingredients, creating a mix that reflects a mirror-like blackness. I posed for pictures by the pillars—a hopeless enterprise when centuries-old carved stone surpasses in grace even the most practised Instagram stances.
As Sharat and I wound our way around the sprawling complex—through Martanda Varma’s council chamber, by a pillar so ornate that it seemed almost overdone, past a gallery of historical paintings, and under a beam carved into which is Narasimhi, an obscure female counterpart to part lion, part human Narasimha of Hindu mythology—I wondered what it must have meant to even envision such a palace in Martanda Varma’s day. Like great warrior kings of his time, he was violent and unbeloved. Tales of his adventures circulated, but tinged always with stories of treachery, ruthless ambition and a vindictive fury. And yet, crowning all that bloodshed, was the beauty of Padmanabhapuram, as though the maharaja deliberately sought to stamp out fearsome memories of his advent to power by stunning everyone with a monument like none other. That this most striking palace in the Kerala style sits today on Tamil soil is an irony the Malayali king could not have foreseen.
On our way back, after bidding goodbye to Ajith Kumar, Sharat and I drove to a forgotten palace in the town of Eraniel nearby. A cow was grazing inside, and nothing but the husk of an old structure remains: stone pillars and a collapsed roof, the rest having slowly been stolen or crumbled over the years. A king before Martanda Varma is believed to have ascended straight to heaven from there and his granite “bed" survives, intact so far. It was a depressing sight after the splendours of Padmanabhapuram. But then, that was the secret of Martanda Varma’s success—a secret men of politics have tapped into even in our time. He was not merely a feared man who ruled over a mass of people. His kingship was wedded closely to renaming and reimagining places, wedding his dynasty to gods, and to the fates of temples. As long as these shrines existed, with their rituals and festivals, the maharaja’s memory would hold. And so long as Saraswati travels every year to Thiruvananthapuram, the story of Padmanabhapuram too will continue to be told.
Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).
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