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Padmanabhapuram Palaceis a remarkable 16th Century CE wood palace of the erstwhile Maharajas of Travancore (1550 to 1750 AD) in the state of Kerala. Replete with intricate wood carvings and ornate murals, the Palace is an exceptional example of indigenous building techniques and craftsmanship in wood, a style unparalleled in the world and based on historic building system, Taccusastra (the science of carpentry) unique to this region.
Padmanabhapuram was the ancient capital of the erstwhile Travancore (Venad or southern region of Kerala State, India) State from about 1555 CE to the latter half of the 18th Century. The region of ancient Travancore, extended from Marthandom (in present day TamilNadu State) in the South to Cochin (in Kerala State) territory in the North, covering an area of 2600sq.km. This land is rich in timber and traditionally all constructions were done in wood, with laterite stone used very minimally for plinths and selected walls. The roof structure would be constructed in timber, covered with thatch and subsequently clay tiles camein use. The region is characterised by superior quality of building skills and great craftsmanship in timber pertaining to the southern regional style. Constructed primarily of wood, these buildings were erected with relatively strict adherence to the canons of Taccusastra which were formulated over the years of experience obtained in building construction crystallised into a number of formulae, governing proportions, dimensions, orientation, location and procedures, thus creating a genetic code for timber architecture.
The 6.5 acres of the Padmanabhapuram Palace complex is set within a fort of 185 acres located strategically at the foot hills of Veli hills, Western Ghats. It is located 52 km from the capital city of Trivandrum, Kerala State and 2 km east of Thuckalay, Tamil Nadu State. As per the state reorganization settlement in 1956, the 6.5 acres of Padmanabhapuram Palace complex was retained under the custodianship of the Kerala Government. The Palace is a Protected Monument of the Department of Archaeology, State Govt. of Kerala.
The Palace structure isconstructed out of wood with laterite (locally available building stone) used very minimally for plinths and for a few select walls. The roof structure is constructed out of timber, covered with clay tiles. The Palace was the oldest seat of power of Travancore, the erstwhile princely kingdom of Kerala. The palace complex, spread around an area of 6.5 acres, consists of a number of function specific independent structures that were built between 1590’s to early 1800’s CE.
The fourteen purposes denoted structures include Kottarams (Palaces), Pura (House or structure), Malikas (Mansions), Vilasams (Mansions) and Mandapams (large Halls). These are1. Poomukam(reception hall) 2.PlamootilKottaram (living quarters) 3.VeppinmooduKottaram(living quarters) 4.ThaiKottaram(oldest palace) 5.Uttupura (kitchen and dining hall) 6.Homappura (rituals and prayer hall) 7.UppirikkaMalika (multi-storeyed building) 8. Ayuddhapura (armoury house) 9.Chandravilasam(entertainment hall) 10.IndraVilasam(entertainment hall) 11.NavarathriMandapam(dance hall) 12. LekshmiVilasam (mansion) 13. ThekkeKottaram (palace) 14. Padipura (Entrance porch) and other smaller ancillary buildings.
In 1993, a Museum building was set up in the Southwest corner of this Palace complex, and houses numerous invaluable stone inscriptions and copper plate inscriptions, sculptures in wood and stone, armoury, coins, paintings, and household objects pertaining to the history and heritage of the region. The Thekkekkottaram structurewithin the Palace complex houses a Heritage Museum, with a display of household articles and utensils, showcasing life and living of a bygone generation in Kerala society.
Padmanabhapuram Palace is the oldest, largest and well preserved surviving example representative of the traditional wooden architecture in India. The Palace is a product of the fusion of traditional building technology, exquisite craftsmanship and superior knowledge of material science. The Palace bears living testimony of traditional timber architecture with strict adherence to the traditional building code, the Taccusastra, which has clear prescription for every aspect of a structures function and placement, direction, size and design, including specifications for the layout of designated spaces within individual structures.
The 14 different features including palaces and other ancillary structures were gradual additions to the initial Thai Kottaram or Mother Palace. The later additions showcase the changing styles in architecture with the influence of the Portuguese and the Dutch. 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 3rdfloor of the multi-storeyed building or the Uppirikkamalika of this magnificent palace display the stylistics 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 AmbariMukhappu (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, of which the movement is regulated by weights are some of the unique features of the Palace.
The Thai Kottaram, the first structure to come up in this palace complex is a double storied 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 Padipura 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 or the 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 free feeding. The UppirikaMalika or the four-storeyed building, 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 delegates. More recently this long corridor was enlivened with the installation of historical paintings depicting important epochs in the life of Travancore king Martanda Varma.The Tekkekkottaram (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.
Criterion (iii): The Padmanabhapuram 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.
Criterion (iv): Padmanabhapuram Palace 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 is 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.
Padmanabhapuram Palace is a monument protected by law and under the care of Kerala Department of Archaeology. Hence, all aspects of Authenticity and Integrity of the property are well maintained. This is further aided by the prevalent traditional building systems in Kerala that support building restoration, and the complete system is followed as in the documented in the Taccusastra.
Though the land has witnessed continuous building activities of varied styles from 1590’s to early 1800’s the built forms exhibit consistency of indigenous building techniques and grandeur of excellent craftsmanship in wood.
Traditional timber buildings preserve a history of their construction. They should not be regarded as mere isolated objects worthy of preservation, but as sources of inspiration and living evidence of different methods of sustainable building practices and deep understanding of material science, developed by earlier generations. The Padmanabhapuram palace complex is an exceptional testimony to the traditional architectural knowledge of Kerala, which is a spectacular manifestation of wood architecture in the world.
There are several properties on 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.
Padmanabhapuram Palace is an exceedingly outstanding example of wood architecture of South Asian region, which has no representation at all either on the World Heritage List or the Tentative Lists. The wood architecture displayed at Padmanabhapuram Palace is testimony of Kerala’s unique traditional knowledge system where there is strict adherence to the principles laid out by 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, unique to Kerala.