An epitome of understated glory
Lacking the ostentatious bejewelled façade common to most Indian palaces, particularly those built by the Mughals and Rajputs, Kowdiar Palace, one of the lesser known palaces in Southern India, reflects clearly the influence that Chinese traders had on the community. RITZ takes a closer look.
Kerala, the most fertile state in India, with its abundance of spices, coconuts and backwaters has been a melting pot of cultures from times immemorial. History has chronicled few fierce battles on these fecund soils. Its rulers haven’t stained the consecrated land with rivulets of blood. In fact, most royals from Kerala played passive roles in a majority of the country’s historical battles and wars, thereby throwing little light on a state that is the quintessential artistic hub of India.
Chinese explorers like Ma Huan used the port of Travancore (modern day Thiruvanathapuram) as an entry into India in order to practice trade. Foreign influences in this calm backwater community greatly altered the culture, architecture and cuisine of this southern state and its impact is evident even today, given the numerous synagogues, churches, and Chinese gabled roofs that are visible across the town.
Kowdiar Palace, one of the lesser known palaces in Southern India, reflects clearly the influence that Chinese traders had on the community. Unlike palaces that were built by the Mughals and Rajputs, this palace lacks the ostentatious bejewelled façade that is predominantly seen in most other Indian palaces. The gabled tiled roofs of this imposing edifice tower above many structures in town, having weathered more than a century of gales, torrential rain and scorching heat.
Built in the early 1900s by a Brahmin gentleman, Maharaja Shri Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma purchased the house from him and converted it into a summer abode for his nephew Maharaja Shri Chitra Thirunal, who was a delicate child and had been advised to live amidst country environs. Being direct descendants of Kerala’s most popular king Raja Ravi Varma, the Thirunals have since resided at this summer palace and continue to live in it to date.
The present day Princess, Her Royal Highness Pooyam Thirunal Gouri Parvathi Bai resides at Kowdiar Palace with her sister and their respective families. The endless corridors that once bustled with servants, soldiers and royals now stand vacant, echoing the hollow thud of the Princess’ high-heeled slippers as she makes her way down a massive rosewood stairway.
More than seventy hand-crafted wooden shutters, which screen windows lining the three levels of the palace structure, now remain permanently shut as the royal family in residence does not employ the number of staff required to maintain a home of such considerable proportions. Built along the traditional Keralite concept of the ‘naluketta’ or central space into which four rooms open, this palace, the Princess says, is a very unplanned and inconvenient home for a family with modern needs.
“In the early days the main house consisted of only sleeping areas, a kitchen and a common seating area. Toilets were outside the house and people had to bathe at wells and streams. My grandmother, who was the first member of the royal family to move into this house, employed a man named Joe to build additional rooms to the existing central structure,” she explains. Recalling stories narrated by her grandmother of how Joe took a sheet of paper and drew the plan for renovation within a matter of minutes, the Princess explains that the palace, which encompasses more than 30,000 square feet of enclosed living space, is nothing more than two parallel rows of rooms that open into long corridors.
The palace, she says, was completed to its present form in 1934 at the time of her mother’s marriage. “I recall my mother telling me how she had to walk very carefully as the paint was not yet dry on the day of her wedding,” tells the Princess. The extensive garden that was painstakingly planned by the Princess’ grandmother has been designed along the lines of the famed Brindavan Garden of Mysore. An ornate fountain is constructed at the centre of the garden and beds of flowers and shrubs have been planted in concentric circles around it. After years of neglect, the dried remnants of the garden are now being restored, bit by bit, to some semblance of order.
With floors of Italian mosaic, timber work in rose wood, authentic brass latches and hinges, this rambling structure is much too large a house for a family of eight members. “There are too many doors to the house, in fact I have lost count of the exact number as we have kept them locked for years,” says the Princess. Though the floors have sunk in a few places, some of the window screens are sagging on their hinges and the general external façade of the palace (despite having been painted a just a year ago) is grey and coated with mould in certain places, the structure itself is sound and has had to undergo few major repairs over the years.
The interiors of the palace – the large, airy halls, eight foot wide stairways and the pale blue walls are lined with priceless artefacts – all collected by the royal family over centuries. There are more than twelve original works of Raja Ravi Varma that occupy a place of pride on the walls of several chambers in the palace. “Raja Ravi Varma was my grandmother’s maternal grandfather. She was just a little girl when he passed away and I remember her talking to us about ‘Chitra edutha Appupan’ (grandfather who used to paint),” recalls Princess Gowri Parvathi Bai.
Now in the process of restoring these priceless works of art to their former glorious condition, the Princess explains that each painting costs more than 5 to 8 lakhs to be restored in a proper manner. So far three of the twelve paintings have been refurbished and now hang proudly on the walls of the main living room in the palace.
Closets are filled with rare ivory artefacts that were gifted to the royal family by Chinese and Tibetan traders who visited them. French porcelain vases that are more than 150 years old stand in mint condition, on tall corner stools, in the palace living room. Hand embroidered wall pieces that were gifted to the Queen by missionary nuns are more than 100 years old. Yet, the threads hold their colour and the white fabric, though slightly yellowed with age, hasn’t torn or lost its tautness. “The embroidery is so elaborate, each knot looks like a velvet petal and every stitch adds detail to the pattern reproduced in the piece,” says the Princess, marvelling at the precision of the exhibited hand work.
So steeped in history is this palace, that even the first shields and swords used in battle by the soldiers of the royal family, have been preserved by mounting them on the high walls of the inner stairway. Kowdiar Palace also holds the distinction of having the first elevator in Kerala installed on its premises. The 90-odd year old elevator, with ancient iron pulleys and heavy collapsible shutters, is still in full working condition.
Though Kowdiar Palace lacks the arches, pillars and gilded mirrors that are common features in most of the palaces found in northern India, this century old structure is brimming with remnants of Kerala’s illustrious heritage. The palace stands strong, a monument that is a testament to the simplicity and bucolic beauty of this region. From Namboodiri brides who chose to adorn themselves with flowers instead of jewellery, to the traditional white mundu-veshti that is preferred over garments of heavy silk, the beauty of Kerala lies in its simple, abounding history and diverse culture; not in the number of pillars, arches and turrets that epitomise a king’s penchant for grandeur.