On a fine sunny morning, I took a local bus from Kanyakumari and arrived at the leafy environs of Padmanabhapuram Palace. The area around the palace is thickly covered with coconut groves on all sides, and sunlight hardly reaches the ground except where the landscapes are interrupted by tarmac.
The entrance to the palace is predictably surrounded by eateries and souvenir shops. Buying keepsakes is not something I am used to, but nevertheless, ingenious use of coconut shells to create monkeys and Ganeshas succeeded to garner my attention. A short inspection of the surroundings, and I zeroed in on an ancient looking eatery for breakfast.
The dosa at the breakfast place, served with a red chutney with plenty of coconut(do they ever make anything without coconuts in these parts?) was delicious enough for me to go for a second helping. And I was fed with another dose of coconut by a tender coconut vendor at the doors of the palace.
The palace dates back by 400 years, when it was built by the renowned Travancore king Marthanda Varma. But its glory days lasted less than a century, as his successor Dharma Raja decided to move his capital to Thiruvananthapuram. Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram? I think Travancore kings loved long names!
The first sight of the palace is unfortunately the least impressive. Soon after I walked through the entrance, I was beginning to doubt if the trip was worth the effort.
The first hall – a courtyard where the king met his visitors – has been praised to no end by palace guides on location as well as the guidebooks, but doesn’t leave a big impression. A lamp, a chair supposedly gifted by a Chinese visitor and a plain stone bed hardly make a mark.
But proceeding further, impressions of the palace change as quickly as it was built up. The mantrasala – the discussion chamber of courtiers has an impressive display of light and shade created by wooden window grills. The colorful windows have placeholders to store perfumes that spread in the room when the wind blows in. The dark and hard flooring of the room and rest of the palace have a superb finish that almost match marbles in their finesse.
The palace has an army of employees serving as tour-guides, whose services are included in the entry fee. A few years ago, a guide would escort each group of visitors through the palace and explain it all from beginning to end. That meant, in days when there are lot of visitors, people had to be rushed through the palace so that everyone can be attended to, and leaving most tourists unhappy. The Kerala archeological department worked on an ingenious solution to the problem: now they have placed two guides in every section of the palace, filling the palace with guides who stay put in their location and brief the tourists. Each section of the palace has clearly marked directions aiding the visitors to find their way through the maze of halls and rooms in the palace.
Walking further from Mantrasala, the arrow marks lead me to the long dining hall where Brahmins once dined in hundreds, thanks to the benevolent king. Huge jars and cauldrons stored at a corner of the hall tell the story of food that was probably cooked in tonnes.
First floor of the dining hall gives excellent view of sections of the palace towering with maroon colored tiled roof, sloping steeply. Walking down from here to a pooja hall called ‘mother palace’, I am once again impressed with ornate carvings of wood, smooth flooring and airy windows with wooden bars. A pillar with intricate woodwork charms me with its carvings of plantains and floral patterns.
Further ahead is Upparika Mahal – the four-storied tower that served as the king’s quarters. A narrow staircase leads up to the king’s bed room in second floor. Further up is a room with frescoes that is out of bounds to visitors. Kerala Archeological Department has closed this room to help preserve the paintings, but how-ever, tourists are always told that the rooms are under renovation. A few poor quality copies are kept in the palace museum, but they are barely good enough to indicate that the originals are excellent paintings, and leave you with a longing to see them.
I pass from here to the airy women’s quarters, and then to the long corridors of guest-rooms that now host some beautiful old paintings of the life and times of Marthanda Varma. The paintings – including coronation of the king, a plot to kill his majesty, war scenes – are well preserved, even when the brand new tiny wooden labels under the paintings have already fallen off!
Just besides the guest-rooms is a green open area with lush grass and tall coconut trees, and a pond at a corner of the palace. I spent a long time standing in a balcony overlooking the pond, observing the fish in the water and a cormorant feeding on them(Here is a separate story on the pond).
The signs helping visitors to find their directions lead me from here to Navarathri Mantapa and Saraswati Temple. These are carved from stone, a significant detour from the wooden structures in rest of the palace. The Mantapa, the place for performances in the palace, is adorned with carved pillars and a floor that is polished well enough to create reflections.
I had almost lost track of time and was engrossed in the impressiveness of the palace. I realized having spent many hours inside only when the signs leading out of the Mantapa took me back to the entrance, indicating end of my trip. Hunger pangs then lead me out of the palace, and further down the road for yet another helping of the delicious dosa.
Visit to the palace is best done as a day-trip from either Kanyakumari or Trivendrum.
How to reach: To get to the palace, take a Trivendrum bound bus from Kanyakumari(or the other way), and get down at Thuckalay town. You can hire an auto-rickshaw from Thuckalay to the palace, which is 3km away.
Nearest major train stations are at Trivendrum and Nagercoil, and the nearest airport is at Trivendrum.