An architectural wonder in wood awaiting its due
Padmanabhapuram Palace, an exceedingly outstanding example of South Asian wood architecture deserves a lot more attention and study on the part of archaeologists and researchers. Even after its finding place in the draft list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, the unique traditional knowledge system displayed in the wood architecture of Asia’s largest wooden palace is still to get its due.
The magnificent palace, which is located in Thuckalay, in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, at the foot of Velli hills which are a part of the great Western Ghats, is a monument protected by law and under the care of Kerala Department of Archaeology. Though well preserved by Kerala authorities, it however doesn’t attract any serious research when compared to the tourism value it commands and the hordes of visitors it draws everyday.
Padmanabhapuram Palace is one of the oldest, largest and best preserved surviving example representative of Indian traditional wooden architecture. The Palace is a product of the fusion of traditional building technology, exquisite craftsmanship and superior knowledge of material science. It bears living testimony to traditional timber architecture with strict adherence to the time-honoured building code, the Taccusastra, which has clear prescriptions for every aspect of a structure’s function, placement, direction, size and design, including specifications for the layout of designated spaces within individual structures.
A peek into its history
Padmanabhapuram Palace was constructed in 1601 by Iravi Varma Kulasekhara Perumal who was the ruler of Travancore from 1592 to 1609. But the whole structure of the palace wasn’t built in one go. It was constructed and renovated time and again in the course of history. Supposedly the Thai Kottaram (Mother Palace) was built in 1550, a lot earlier than the construction of other portions of the palace. The King Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma reconstructed the entire edifice in the year 1750. Later, King Marthanda Varma dedicated the whole city to his family deity Sree Padmanabhan, who is believed to be the incarnation of the Hindu god, Lord Vishnu. It is inferred that the king ruled the kingdom as the servant of Lord Sree Padmanabhan. That is how the palace got its name.
When the capital of the state was shifted from Thuckalay to Travancore the palace lost its former glory. However, it still stands as an exquisite example of traditional Kerala architecture. While the Thai Kottaram is the oldest building of the palace complex, the latest addition is the Nataksala (the theatre), built during the reign of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal who was a connoisseur of art and theater. He ruled the kingdom of Travancore from 1829 to 1846.
The 14 different buildings including palaces and other ancillary structures were gradual additions to the initial Thai Kottaram. The later additions showcase the changing styles in architecture including influences of the Portuguese and the Dutch styles of construction. The uniformity of style is maintained throughout, while variety is achieved in differences in the details of decorative motifs. The murals on the four walls of the topmost (3rd) floor of the multi-storeyed structure or the Uppirikkamalika of this magnificent palace display the styles of the 17th and 18th century architecture of Kerala.
The murals at the Padmanabhapuram palace are the best preserved in the State and are executed in the traditional style invoking rich and vivid realism and infusing grace and beauty of the figures.
The carved doors and pillars, the arching wooden grills along the veranda, the exquisitely carved brackets supporting the veranda, are some of the architectural features characteristic of this regional style resplendent at Padmanabhapuram. Special features like the large bay window called Ambari Mukhappu (or the Howdah shaped window), supported by elaborately carved Vyala figures (a Hindu mythical creature), the remnants of the semi-transparent shell decorations of the windows, later restored with coloured mica, the Manimalika or the clock tower with movement regulated by weights are some of the unique features of the Palace.
The Thai Kottaram is a double storeyed traditional nalukettu structure (a house with a central courtyard open to the sky, with rooms on all four sides), with a mortar-less chiselled granite base, timber superstructure and steeply sloping timber roof covered with terracotta roof tiles. The imposing Padippura or Main Gate, display exquisite wood work and leads to the Poomukham or the main reception with traditional gabled entrance and ornamentations. The wooden ceilings and carved granite pillars with floriated corbels are samples of excellent craftsmanship. The Mantrasala (Council Chamber) on the first floor of the reception hall has features like wooden louvers to admit air and light, that helps maintain a pleasant temperature indoors.
The Uttupura or the Dining Hall, adjacent to the Council Chamber has two floors, measuring 72 x 9 m each, large enough to accommodate 2000 people at a time on occasions of mass feast. The Uppirika Malika, the tallest building in the palace, constructed in 1750 CE, includes the treasury chamber on the first floor, Maharaja’s resting room on the second floor, and the revered prayer room on the third floor the walls of which are replete with traditional mural art work, so specific to Kerala.
A long corridor leads to the Indravilasam Palace, constructed in the 18th century for the reception of foreign dignitaries. More recently this long corridor was enlivened with the installation of historical paintings depicting important epochs in the life of Travancore king Marthanda Varma.The Thekkekkottaram (literally `the palace in the south’) is the most attractive building in the Palace Complex, with elaborately carved wooden pillars, doors, beams and ceilings.
Interestingly, the marvellously sculpted granite structures of the Navarathri Mandapam (dance hall) and the Saraswathy Temple, constructed in 1744 CE, with decorated pillars and graceful figurines is in stark contrast to the simplicity of the rest of the wooden structures in the palace complex. These are reminiscent of Vijayanagara style (14th– 17th century, Karnataka) of architecture. The flat sloping ceiling of closely fitted single piece granite cross beams supported by monolithic pillars is not common to this region.
One of the finest specimens of a dying cultural tradition
The palace complex is a masterpiece showcasing the peak of excellence in traditional timber architecture in South India, which is a well-documented process and unparalleled in the world for its design, craftsmanship and motifs. The structural detailing, austere ambience, exquisite carvings, extraordinary murals and several unique features bear exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition that may disappear fast from the region due to modern changes in building technology.
It showcases the unique features and building methods using locally available material as prescribed in the Taccusastra (science of `taccu’ or carpentry), a unique school of traditional timber architecture that evolved out of the Hindu religious and astrological principles and established a series of canons specifically for the region of Kerala.
One of the structures in the palace displays an outstanding example of the mural art form. Although murals are showcased in many of the temples and palaces of the state (its period ranges from 8th to the 19th century CE) the murals at Padmanabhapuram are exceptional. Besides the depiction of scenes and characters from Hindu mythologies, there are murals also on secular themes which reflect the socio political conditions, fashions and customs of the times.
Comparison with other similar properties
There are several properties on the UNESCO World Heritage List that are representative of wood architecture, such as the Imperial Palaces of the Ming and Qing Dynasties in Beijing and Shenyang (China), the wooden Churches of Maramureş (Romania), wooden Tserkvas of the Carpathian region in Poland and Ukraine, historic monuments of ancient Kyoto (Japan) and historic monuments of ancient Nara (Japan). Stylistically, these structures cannot be compared as they belong to different indigenous systems and skills.
Still, Padmanabhapuram Palace holds its own as an outstanding example of the unique wood architecture of South Asian region and as a testimony to Kerala’s unique traditional knowledge system of the Taccusastra that not only produced buildings pleasingly proportioned and in complete harmony with nature but also resulted in the creation of a well-defined style, exclusive to Kerala.
By Road: The palace is a bit out of the way, so public transit is not a viable option. Visitors are advised to travel by a private vehicle or to take a taxi.
By Air: The nearest airport is Thiruvananthapuram International Airport with flights available to a number of destinations, in India or abroad.
By Rail: Travelling by train in India is an exotic experience in itself. The nearest railhead is Nagarcoil, located 15 kms from the Padmanabhapuram Palace.