We visited Padmanabhapuram Palace as a part of our trip through southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala, shown in this post.
Padmanabhapuram Palace was the home of the Rajas of the Travancore (1550 to 1750 CE) in southern Kerala. This was the center of power in Kerala from about 1600 to 1790, before it was moved to Thiruvananthapuram (also known as Trivandrum). The palace was constructed around 1601 AD by Iravipillai Iravivarma Kulasekhara Perumal who ruled Travancore between 1592 AD and 1609 AD. It is surrounded by a 4 km-long stone fort built at the same time. The area inside the fort walls was restricted to the Royals and their minions until Indian independence in 1947.
Padmanabhapuram Palace got its present name when it was rebuilt in the 18th Century, using granite in most of the parts of the outer fort, by Marthanda Varma, King of Travancore during this period, who named the palace Padmanabhapuram after the name of the prime deity of Travancore, Lord Padmanabhaswamy, a reclining form of Lord Vishnu.
The modern history of Travancore is said to start with Marthanda Varma who, during his reign from 1729 to 1758, transformed and grew the old kingdom of Venad into Travancore during his tenure. Marthanda Varma is acknowledged as the “Maker of Modern Travancore” and under his reign Travancore emerged as an independent realm of political, cultural and social activities. He conquered other Kerala rulers up to Cochin and was also able to crush foreign powers during his rule. He succeeded in defeating the Dutch East India Company during the Travancore-Dutch war, in which the most decisive engagement was the battle of Colachel where he routed the Dutch.
The buildings are constructed from wood and stone and the complex is unlike any other in India, built in Kerala’s indigenous style of architecture. The palace was built upon an earlier one, constructed in the 14th Century, as a mud palace in the Nalukettu style of architecture that prevailed in Kerala at that time.
Contained within the complex is a collection of 14 palaces and 127 beautiful royal rooms, many of which feature ornate wood carvings. The carved ceilings of the palace depict 90 varieties of flowers. Paintings, hundreds of years old, and stone statues, some over 1000 years old, are on display on the palace grounds.
Important buildings in the palace include:
- Mantrasala– King’s Council Chamber
- Thai Kottaram– Mother Palace (also known as Darbha Kulangara Kottaram)
- Nataksala– the Hall of Performance, or of Performing Arts
- Upparika malika– the King’s Quarters — a four-story building at the center of the palace complex containing the King’s Treasury, sleeping quarters, resting and study rooms, and the top floor serving as the worship chamber of the royal household. Martanda Verma built the King’s Quarters in 1744 A.D.
- Thekee Kottaram– the Southern Palace
- A ceremonial feasting hall, now bare, which can accommodate around 1000 guests
To reach the Palace, we took a taxi from Kanyakumari, about 80 km away. We passed by small mountains to our north. Our route was south of the Western Ghats.
When we got close, we drove inside the old stone walls. Houses like that shown in the photo below were built inside the walls shortly after 1947 when this land became public rather than royal property.
Here is the gate into the palace compound. We had to park the taxi outside.
A small sign welcomes us.
Across from the outer gate is the entrance into the palace. The clock tower can be seen. The clock is over 300 years old, and still keeps time.
The entrance into the palace.
The first building we see is the Kings Council Chamber. The actual chamber is on the upper floor.
We are only able to walk through the tour route set out for visitors. There are buildings and spaces we are not able to visit, so what is shown in this post are only those areas on the tour route. The tour is self-guided, though in key areas there are signs and attendants who will answer questions.
Already we can see the elaborately carved wood that plays such a big part in the beauty of this palace, and that was a key part of the old Kerala woodcarving tradition.
The clock tower again. The other thing I notice are the red tile roofs. It looks like some of the tiles are very old and pretty dark colored, but some have been newly replaced and are red.
Part of the structure to the right is being rebuilt, replacing wood that had rotted after hundreds of years.
Inside the lower floor of the Kings Council Chambers, the first thing that I notice is the carved ceilings.
Here is a sign telling the story of this building.
Here is the Chinese chair.
Looking again at the ceiling. Fantastic carving work!
Looking out towards the entrance.
Details of the roof. You can see the back of the red tiles, laid on crosspieces of wood. The diagonal support pieces have some ornamentation, but not much.
The wooden stairs up to the Council Chambers.
Next to the staircase was this glass cabinet with these objects. I do not know what they are, some kind of ornamental spear? They are wooden, and have carvings on the front side.
In the King’s Council Chamber. One thing to notice is the shiny floors. There are specially constructed floors throughout the palace, like this one in The King’s Council Chamber, which are made up of a mixture of burnt coconut shells, laterite, lime and sand, which shine to this day. This kind of flooring can no longer be made in this modern era. The formula that has maintained its shine for hundreds of years cannot be reproduced today.
Inside the chamber it is cool, with subdued light. A nice breeze comes in through the window slats.
Here are the chairs for the Councilors. The King’s chair is in the center, with a red pad. Nice carvings, but not much of a place to rest one’s arms.
Mica windows let in colored light.
Details on roof supports, quite decoratively done in this special room.
Overall view of the King’s Council Chamber.
Carving detail outside the windows here.
Now along the path to another part of the palace.
This is the large dining hall.
We are inside it now. We are on the higher floor, so can see the beams that support the roof. The wooden beams are overhead. I have gotten so used to the brick and cement construction style in Tamil Nadu that this seems quite extraordinary to me now.
The sign says that 2000 free meals were served every day. What generosity! This is over 3/4 million free meals each year.
The repairs, from inside the building.
Looking out a window onto a nearby courtyard, and a tree with red blooms.
Looking back from near the end of the dining hall. This photo gives a good idea just how big this hall is. Imagine it filled with people, sitting in rows, dining off banana leaf plates. Imagine the work in the kitchen each day, preparing meals for 2000 people.
More views out a window of the dining hall.
Now we are in the courtyard previously photographed out the window. Notice the curved sections of the walls filled with slats. These slats let in some light and breeze, while keeping the area cool in the hot Indian sun.
The courtyard is quite pleasant, with fully grown trees.
The next building we entered was the Thai Kottaram, whose literal meaning is Mother Palace (meaning “the first building” or “the mother of the buildings,” not “the Mother’s palace”) Some sources say that the Thai Kottaram is believed to have been constructed before AD 1550, though other sources say it was built up to 50 years later.
We went into the southwest corner of the Mother’s Palace, into a relatively small room called the Chamber of Solitude or ‘Ekantha Mandapam’. The Chamber of Solitude has very beautiful and intricate wood carvings all around.
Of particular interest is a pillar carved from a single piece of jackfruit wood, called the Kannithoonu, with very detailed and beautiful floral designs. Ceremonies for the appeasement of the goddesses were performed in this room.
A sign in the chamber, giving more information. Key items:
- The Thai Kottaram is the oldest part of the palace.
- It was built during the reign of Ravi Varma Kulasekhara perumal, 1592 – 1620 CE.
- A secret tunnel over one kilometer long from this building provided the royal family with an escape route in times of war.
The ceiling of the Ekantha Mandapam.
In the center of the building there is an open courtyard.
These are typical views from within the building, in a darkened space, looking onto the brightness outside.
Ornamental carvings on the brackets that hold the outside slats. Notice that newly replaced brackets are done with the same kind of carving. The restoration and repair work is done here with great care to preserve the original beauty.
Another courtyard. There are many such spaces interspersed within the palace complex.
This is a stone oil-lamp built into a wall.
Many times as we walked through the palace we were directed through halls built behind the slatted outside walls.
Another courtyard view. We see a stone object on the left.
I am not sure what this is. The central feature is a carved stone pillar with a rock sitting atop it.
Here is a close up. Maybe someone can tell us more about it?
Another view in this courtyard. Red roofs surround us. Each is over another palace building.
Between buildings there are narrow spaces for walking.
I think that the servants used these. You can see above the raised walkways that would have been used by the royals and other ‘important people’.
Now up a stone and cement stairway into the top level of the Mother Palace. Notice the crossbeam and its carving.
This bed is made with 64 different kinds of medicinal woods.
The ceiling has more exquisite carvings.
I am not sure who used this room and bed, but it must have been one of the royals, probably the Raja himself.
We walk through another hall. The slats here are of a different design, still keeping the space cool and dimly lit even with the bright day outside.
Below is a bed, made of stone, that hangs from the ceiling. Not very soft, but the stone inside the darkened building is cool to the touch, so this bed is cooling. Maybe not very comfortable to Western tastes. It dates from the 17th century, and is made of seven granite pieces.
Paintings on the wall here, probably from the 17th century, show many scenes of Krishna.
Looking out of a window.
Light and breeze enter, but the space is again kept cool by these slats that make up the hall here.
Another royal bed, I think the Queen’s bed.
Here are two toilets in the Queen’s quarters. The one in the top photo must have been for the Queen. It is the most highly designed.
This toilet has a much simpler design, so I would guess it is for lower ranked people.
We walk down another hall.
And look over a series of red roofs, to the main four-story Upparika malika – the King’s Quarters.
Another courtyard view.
Another view looking to the four-story tower in the center of the palace complex.
In a wall that we pass by are several holes in the middle of a nicely carved piece of wood.
They look down on the Navratri Mandapam, with its reflective flooring and carved pillars, where dance performances take place. Maybe this is a private viewing place for the royals?
Another outside view with the red roofs. The dining hall reconstruction is in the distance.
Here is a good view of the King’s Quarters, with the stone roofed dance pavilion below.
Next we enter into the Armory.
The Armory is a long narrow room without any ventilation or windows, with only two entrances.
Outside the Armory is a narrow hall.
Then we move into another set of halls. We were told that this was an administrative portion of the palace.
The ceiling and roof construction is like in other places in the palace, but without as much ornamentation.
But there are still wonderfully carved cross pieces going over the room.
Then through a door (and a wooden wall).
Light and ventilation get in through the openings.
Through another set of doors.
Another long administration room. Notice how the shiny floors are throughout the palace.
These carved elephants are beside the short stairway that leads to the Ambari Mukhappu (explained below).
This Indian woman, nicely dressed in her saree, will answer questions here.
Here is a sign explaining the Ambari Mukhappu.
Ambari Mukhappu – Built for King to view the holy chariots during festivals. The structure built in the shape of Ambari, the seat put on the elephant’s back for safaris
Looking back at the King’s Quarters through the trees.
Below is a painting of Maharajah Karthika Thirunal Dharma Raja, successor to Marthanda Varma. Karthika Thirunal ruled from 1758 until his death in 1798, during the continuation of Travencore’s golden age that started under his predecessor.
Many such paintings hang from the walls here.
Out the window is a very old Peepul tree …
…next to a temple for a goddess. Which one, I am not sure.
We then walk into yet another section of the palace.
The sign tells us we are entering the Southern Palace, the Indra Vilasom.
It is constructed not in the Keralan style but in their idea of European architecture, designed for their foreign visitors. This balcony is on the outside of the palace, looking onto nearby streets. This is the only place we saw today that faced the outside of the palace.
Stairs leading to the lower level.
Columns, like one might see on a European building, so the guests might feel more at home.
The view from within the palace grounds.
Palace grounds near the Indra Vilasom.
Looking back towards the central palace area.
We enter another building, this one stone and cement.
It is the main kitchen for the palace.
It features three built-in stone grinders. You can see the grinding stone in the closest one. Grinders are a most important part of the South Indian kitchen, used to prepare many dishes.
Inside the kitchen area. The stone grinders are on the other side of the wooden slats.
Next to the kitchen is the palace water tank, now overgrown with algae, since it is not kept up properly anymore.
A male attendant took this photo of Carol and me. It turns out he was a bit creepy, and wanted to take a photo of Carol sitting in very close physical contact with him.
The four-story tower again, probably the best view we got this day.
We walk more through the grounds.
Past more carved stone elephants.
Then get to one of the finest parts of the palace, the Navratri Mandapam, which we saw through a peephole earlier.
This dance hall has brightly shiny floors and is surrounded by stone pillars.
On the left is a private viewing room for the royals.
They can see out, but cannot be seen.
The stone pillars feature some buxom Indian woman (or goddess) figures that are lamp bearers, “Deepa Lakshmi.”
Near to the dance hall is a Sarasvati temple. Sarasvati is, among other things, the Goddess of Music.
Side view of some pillars …
… and of the Sarasvati temple. This stone construction almost looks out of place in the wooden palace.
We see another of the finely carved entrances to a palace area.
When we enter it, we see a row of stone carvings.
These are very old, some from the period 700 CE.
Here is a Goddess figure.
A stone Trishul, Siva’s trident. These are usually seen in metal. I think this is the first stone one I have seen.
Two Nagas (snake gods, cobras) entwine about a lingam.
An ancient cow (I think). Not a Nandi, which is how they are usually seen.
Here is another cooking area, with a stone grinder. In the foreground is what looks to me like another toilet area, right next to the food preparation area. This is not how I would design it. Also notice that there is not a hole beneath the toilet, rather just an opening in back of it. So after using the toilet, the waste has to be washed out. I see places to set your feet, and two round raised knobs in front. Maybe the user puts his or her hands on the knobs to squat? Or maybe this is for some entirely other function?
This is the last stop inside the palace. We now go back out to the entrance.
To our left, as we exit the palace, we see a museum.
Statuary and fancy wood carvings are at the entrance.
Inside there are many statues and murtis.
There are also these square stone columns, rows of them. What are they? I have no idea.
There is also a room with painted bas-relief sculptures.
We do not know the story behind the next four painted bas-relief sculptures. Maybe someone can help us with it. What I say is just a guess.
This is a Raja. He is big, the subjects are small.
Some people are surrendering to the Raja: the Dutch, Eustachius De Lannoy’s Surrender at the Battle of Colachel, 10 August 1741.
Not sure what this shows, maybe some kind of meeting with Councilors, maybe it is a man holding a whip?
This doesn’t look good, whatever it depicts. There is blood on the sword, and the woman on the right has blood dripping from her mouth.
Here is the car we took today, a conventional Ambassador taxi, like have mostly been used for the last forty years (or more, I don’t really know).
Wow! What a place! I had never even heard of this palace, and yet it is one of the most interesting and beautiful places we have seen in India.
This is a must see!
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