Today Pabla and I leave for Thiruvananthapuram; entering Kerala at its southernmost tip. But first we halt at Padmanabhapuram Palace – the architectural miracle from where the Tranvancore dynasty ruled for 65 years.
But none of this before I stroll down the street at 8 a.m. to take a walk across the rock studded Muttom beach and up a dirty narrow back alley into the fisherman village. Past a big black water tank, I’m on a clean cement road that’s lined on both sides with houses. A little ahead I see a cluster of women have occupied space outside their homes. A girl of late teen oils and then combs an elderly and robust woman’s hair while she eyes me all along the length of the road.
There’s another middle aged woman sitting next to them and talking to an old woman across the streets who’s sitting on her front porch, cleaning rice from a plate. Her daughter (I suppose) sits next to her. All of them looking at me.
When I reach the robust woman asks me questions with a frown that I cannot comprehend. So I am pointed back to the road in a rather assertive manner. I do as I am bid. Return back to where I came from but stopping midway to marvel at a small reptile that scurries out from beneath dried banana leaves and across a dust trail. I hear clamor behind me and turn to find robust akka angrily waving at me to keep going.
She clearly doesn’t like me walking up her street with my sorry face. She doesn’t even like me lurking around nearby. And I have absolutely nothing that I can do about it because no matter how bad I want to interact, I am tongue tied. Useless syllables of Hindi and English float in the crevice of my mouth before settling down like tea leaves in water.
Further up the road, I see policeman on blue scooter with a pillion rider hanging at the back, slow down to a stop. He points to the settlement behind me and says “that place is torture place.” Then after thinking how to articulate this best, he adds “safety first.” I need explanation for this and the best Stella Mary can offer is “local boys from the village are drinking and fighting near the beach.”
She has made appam and chole with curry patta for breakfast. It’ll keep us full till 3 p.m. But by then we would have travelled far from James Nagar, Muttom. First on the auto anna hailed for us, to Ammanvillai and then on a bus he ushers us into like a protective father, to Manavalakurichi (a short distance away from Ammanvillai) and from there waiting over the sound of Azaan, watching trucks deliver eggs and a few CPI flags fluttering at the dusty and busy corner of the road we wait patiently before a saree shop, because the bus to Thuckalay takes its time.
Anna waits too, standing the whole time, rushing ahead to check if the approaching bus will take us to our destination. This one is a 30 minute journey and he won’t accompany us any further. But he’s explained it all. Get down at the Thuckalay bus depot and catch the one heading to Padmanabhapuram palace, just 5 minutes away.
The Padmanabhapuram Palace, nestled at the foot of the Veli hills with the Valli river flowing nearby, served as the capital of the Travancore dynasty from 1729 to 1795 before it shifted 60 kms away to Thiruvananthapuram from where they continued to rule till 1949. The palace was built around 1601, surrounding the Thai Kottaram constructed way before in 1550 in the traditional Kerala household style with an inner courtyard (nalukettu), during the reign of the Venad Kingdom.
Today it stands, long after the Travancore rulers left and robbed it off its glory, having found new meaning with tourism. Hundreds throng to the palace every day to marvel at the beauty of traditional Kerala architecture with its Dravidian and Indian Vedic science influences.
We too along with the rest have waded past a busy market street, depositing our backpacks at the street side ladies tailor shop (which is counter-intuitively run by a lady) and found ourselves standing before a brilliant white wall. The road here splits and runs parallel to the fort walls on the left and right.
Stepping in through the massive archway, we enter a sandy courtyard. A pathway to the right leads us to the ticket counter and then to the footwear deposit room. From here, we walk in through a corridor at the right that has displays of ancient sculptures of shiva and Vishnu, but are immediately ushered out.
No, we must walk across the courtyard and in through the gate next to the clock tower with its 300 year old dial that’s still ticking away. Entering from a wooden doorway, we climb up half a dozen stone steps into the Poomukham. This was where the king addressed his subjects. A chain attached to a figurine of a knight riding a horse balances a brass lamp. It’s special because no matter how hard the wind, the lamp won’t sway, explains the guide for this section of the palace.
Each room has a different guide. As we walk around, they tell us important details and then leave us alone to contemplate. From the Poomukham, we clamber up a narrow wooden staircase up to the Mantrasala. This is where the king held his council meetings. The hall is dark and cool, yet bright and breezy. The black floor is made in traditional style with a mixture of various natural ingredients like burnt coconut shells, egg white and more which keeps the temperature down. The front of the room is lined with small wooden windows with coloured mica that keeps the heat and dust away.
Many photographs later, I was climbing down a staircase that led me into a huge rectangular empty hall with many wooden pillars supporting the beams across the ceiling through the length of the hall. This is Oottupura (the dining hall), we are informed. It has the capacity to feed a thousand people at a time and that’s how it used to be back in the days. There’s another similar floor above this which can feed another 1,000 people at a time. At the back here, behind metal rails, lies a display of gigantic pots that served as pickle containers.
From here, the Thai Kottaram, another earthy quarter with a maroon colored floor that feels cool beneath my feet. The room is enclosed, like the Mantrasala, with wooden window frames on the two front sides that allows light and air to stream in freely. This like the black floored council room, makes both Pabla and me very comfortable and we sit on the floor, legs stretched out and chat with the guides. They tell us they make their way to the Padmanabhapuram Palace everyday by 9 a.m. all the way from Trivandrum, making a two way 60 kilometer journey daily to tell guests why the Thai Kottaram is important. This was where the queen mother prayed and meditated. This room sure is suitable for that.
Reluctantly moving on from there, we enter the inner courtyard, and are guided out through a door on the opposite side, through cool black floored corridors all the way lined with those neat windows. You can stop, open one of the frames and look out at the courtyard outside.
From here, we are taken further and further into the inner recesses of the private lives of the Travancore ruler Marthanda Varma. Past his intensive bed made of 68 medicinal plants known to keep ailments at bay. This bed was gifted to the king by a Dutch merchant.
Eventually I lose track of the rooms and the corridors and the overall map which I had been keeping a tab of up till now has gone topsy-turvy and I really don’t know how so much space would have been disguised from me at the entrance. The style of architecture, with its wooden exteriors, carvings, low roof doors, small windows and narrow wooden stairs give off a very compact look but actually the Padmanabhapuram Palace is almost endless. It goes on and on, from one room to the other till eventually you forget time exists outside this place. This when numerous doors, trap doors, secret passages ways etc. have been locked and are inaccessible to the public. Really, I just want to play hide and seek here.
I catch up with Pabla at the Ambari Mukhappu (Ambari is the seat that’s put on elephant backs before going for a ride). This room has a raised wooden platform rom where the royalty looked out on the road at chariot races. The platform looks really inviting, offering a seat with a view after two and half hours of bare feet strolling through the palace. Just as I think this, an old woman who is visibly fatigued after all the walking, places herself on the edge of the raised platform. But of coure she isn’t royalty and is quickly nudged away.
The glimpse of the road outside reminds me we are still in the era of traffic. And also that it’s late afternoon because the shadows are really slanted and neighborhood kids are all returning home after school. The world outside also reminds me that I’m starving and parched.
But I am not to leave before witnessing the mundanity of the Indra Vilasom – a part of the palace facing the road outside, that was built for the foreign guests and dignitaries. Designed in European style these rooms are plain rectangular structures with tall windows, high roof and pillars, all coloured white with lime wash. And then on to witness the splendor of the Navarathri Mandapam – the only part of the palace that’s completely made of rock and houses sensual and intricately carved statues of nartakis.
I would probably not have visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace had it not been for Pabla who was absolutely determined to do this. But I’m glad she dragged me along. This palace was definitely the most beautiful household I have ever walked in.