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Glorious Travancore

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in the Sunday Herald Travel, Deccan Herald on February 17, 2013

Serene backwaters, streets lined with spice shops and splendid wooden architecture — Poovar and Thiruvananthapuram hark back to an era of tasteful opulence. Sudha Madhavan traces the history of this picturesque region

The day began with the heavens coming down literally upon the earth. It was indeed an amazing downpour. The rains lashed and the ocean roared with renewed force and vigour. The water gathered close to the resort and all was glory.The rains, I realise, cannot mean the same everywhere. By the ocean side, it is like a cosmic force, fully unleashed, uncontrolled and fiercely liberated. With the ocean so close, the rain creates a sweeping and dramatic effect. It carries you in its sway, transports you to another place, and makes you a part of the elemental world, shorn of any identity of your own. You belong only as an infinitesimal part of the magnificent whole and you revel being there.

When it leaves, you are dropped back unceremoniously into the world of limitations, but it has altered you nevertheless. That was the joy of the morning that put new energy into me. The clock was onto 11 am already, and chided by my consciousness for not making good use of time, I went off to board the boat at the jetty. Oh yes, I had also spent sometime reading about Poovar and its history, and found that there was an old dargah some distance into the town. The jetty area, by the way, is known as Attupuram, which in Tamil means ‘by the side of the river’. The river itself is called Neyyaar, and I am not sure about the origins of the name Poovar (seems to have originated because the waters are dotted with fallen flowers).

Walk in greenery

Crossing the backwaters on the boat, I had decided to walk up the road to Attupuram village and then to Poovar town. A walk till the checkpost was around a kilometre, and then I entered the lane that leads to Poovar, which after a distance, spans a bridge with pretty sightings of backwaters below, with their own little cluster of tourists and boats. After a kilometre’s walk, I spotted a smaller bridge and smaller lanes with an autorickshaw stand and rows of shops selling all sorts of daily use items. As I followed the route, (not many diversions) I came upon a couple of old dargahs, and one of them is supposed to be built some 1,400 years ago by Malik Ibn Dinar, an Arab missionary.

In the ancient times, Poovar traded in timber and spices. In those days, the trade was carried out almost entirely in the backwaters on handcrafted boats called vallams. And if you take a look at the rare photographs of the area dated around 100 years old, you can see these beautiful boats, open as well as the covered ones, with intricate bamboo and wicker work plying on the waterways, which are of course remarkably clean. And as you wind down the roads towards Thiruvananthapuram, you will still find spice shops lined along the way.

Wood craft, going by the splendid work in the palaces in Thiruvananthapuram, must have been of excellent quality and still have their traces in the days of cement and mortar. Much as I want to explore that aspect, I do not find the opportunity.

Further down, the road winds through settlements, and then turns along the seashore, leading to an old abandoned building. After the heavy downpour of the night and morning before, this place was quite deserted. The aforesaid dargah was undergoing repairs and therefore after having followed the route to its logical end, I turned and walked back to the resort.

A little further from Attupuram is Pozhiyoor, a fishing village that marks the end of Kerala. Situated on the estuary, Poovar, during high tides, connects to the sea. River Neyyar flows into the Arabian Sea here.

Golden period

The next morning, which had a leisurely sluggish start, was suddenly galvanised into activity. After a quick bath, picking up some sandwiches, fruits and juice, and calling for a taxi, I was out, and got held up, as usual, a little at the jetty. The plan was to visit Padmanabhapuram Palace, the original palace of the Travancore kings in their former capital of Padmanabhapuram some 40 km away from Thiruvananthapuram. Built by Ravi Varma Kulasekhara Perumal at around 1601, it was later extended and reconstructed in 1750 AD, by Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varman, the founder of the Travancore kingdom, who started out as a little-known chief of a small fief. He dedicated the structure to his family deity Lord Padmanabha Swamy, called himself Padmanabha Dasa, and named the capital Padmanabhapuram.

Varman was the first to start the tradition of the king being the representative of Lord Padmanabha and ruling the kingdom on his behalf. It was therefore imperative for the kings who followed to pay their respects to Lord Padmanabha every day before commencing their duties.

Called the kottaram in Malayalam (word for palace), the complex has several structures to it, viz, the Thai Kottaram, the Mantrasala (where the king held his meetings with his ministers), the Thekkee Kottaram (the southern palace), the four-storeyed central structure, called the Uppirikka Maligai, the Natakasala (where performances were held) being a later addition at the time of Maharaja Swathi Tirunal (1829-1846), who was a great lover and patron of arts.

Tirunal’s rule was termed the ‘golden period’ for the Travancore line of kings. He was himself a poet and composer (in addition to being a linguist) and has left a rich legacy of compositions (kritis) to Carnatic music. I was able to visit the Kuthirai Maligai built by Tirunal. The diminutive entrance of the structure opens into a world of treasure of rich and varied assets that belong to the Travancore royal family and is worth a visit. I felt that in these uncertain times the security arrangements of these invaluable treasures need a looking into.

Architect’s delight

Coming back, the Padmanabhapuram Palace had taken my fancy for some time now. Seeing it in actuality was a tremendously satisfying experience.

The entire structure, built of wood, is a magnificent combination of artistic excellence, sturdy elegance and rustic simplicity.

The palace is replete with paintings of incidents from the life of King Marthanda Varman. King Anizham Tirunal Marthanda Varman, born into a tumultuous political situation, upon ascending the throne, had to face the rebellion of subversive elements within the kingdom. After an initial period of a life in hiding, he successfully quelled the uprising. He also expanded his kingdom of Travancore by subduing and conquering the neighbouring districts.

A collection of old Tanjore paintings depicting scenes from the life of Lord Krishna can also be seen within the dressing chambers of the queen.

The wise use of environment-friendly methods, combined with artistic beauty and innovation that are subtle and lyrical in their execution, without being opulent, is evident at every step. It takes a keen eye and understanding to appreciate the architecture.

A trip to Thiruvananthapuram means a mandatory visit to the famous Padmanabhaswamy temple, the Kuthirai Maligai and the Chitira Art Gallery, which is home to an entrancing collection of some of Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings. Again, my concern is that these priceless pieces of art have to be safeguarded and preserved better.

Incidentally, the Kowdiar Palace, which houses the Travancore royal family, has also some of the famed artist’s paintings, but the public is not allowed in without special permission. The erstwhile Travancore kingdom (1729-1947), whose emblem was the illustrious ‘conch’, was spread over and along the lower western coast and was fringed by the Cochin, Calicut, Tirunelveli and Ramnad districts.

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