Padmanabhapuram Palace Architecture, Kerala
The Padmanabhapuram Palace Thuckalay, is one of the old palaces in Kerala, once the residence of the royal family of Travancore, is located in Southern India adjoining the State of Kerala, in a region with high realm, fall and a tropical climate. Padmanabhapuram palace’s architecture is famous for many reasons, let’s start with its history first.
History of Padmanabhapuram Palace
The area, known as Malabar to ancient traders, was divided into small principalities ruled by local kings. Considerable amount of overseas trade took place here which led to a rich socio-religious mix even as the polyandrous local population retained its matrilineal social system.
Even though no records exist of its exact date of origin, the initial structures within the Padmanabhapuram Palace are dated around 1400-1500.
It grew incrementally over the years into its present form, developed by various rulers of the same dynasty. The palace was at its most splendid during the reign of Marthanda Verma Maharaja. A devotee of Padmanabhan he renamed the palace in 1744.
Architecture of Padmanabhpuram Palace
The variety of styles in the group of buildings which comprise the present palace complex reflects the socio-political background in which they developed. However, the inter-resting mixture of styles evident in the later buildings are dominated by the strong unifying characteristics of indigenous building practices lending cohesion to the whole complex.
The palace complex is set within a fort of 186.25 acres located strategically at the base of mountains and is defined by a high wall on the western side and by buildings and walls on the others.
Zoning and planning
The main entry to the palace complex is from the West, by a high door with a pitched roof structure abutting it, as found everywhere in vernacular architecture in Kerala. The first court is large and consists of an old mint and stables on its sides.
From here on, a series of courtyards are established using building blocks and walls, incrementally increasing in privacy as it moves to the core of the complex known as thai kottaram (literally, the generic mother) palace of the complex.
This is credited to be the oldest structure and is a two-storeyed building with a courtyard and a tank attached to it.
The structure of this wooden palace in Kerala attains the status of ‘the Mother’ by virtue of the fact that it forms the center piece in the Vaastu purusha mandala (the ancient Indian diagram representing the cosmos) which forms the basis of the design of the entire palace compound.
The brahma sthana, or the central crossing point of the two main axes, falls immediately outside of this structure, in line with the main entry and the side entries punctured in the buildings on all sides.
Thus, this structure forms the basic reference point in relation to which the location and openings of other structures in the complex are axed.
At first sight, the palace complex appears to be without any rationale in its layout and disposition. But it gains focus instantly one discovers the esoteric rules that are implicit in the design.
Even though it was built over a few centuries, the builders did not deviate from the rules laid down in the then prevailing science of building known locally as thachu shastram.
Like other pre-industrial systems Kerala’s vernacular building sciences did not have any tangible physical determinants, but encompassed a complex combination of astronomy, astrology, mathematics, building technology, religious values, social mores and magic.
It is the strict adherence to the principles of this traditional building code that lends cohesion to the palace complex which is spread over 6.5 acres of land.
Use of Spaces inside The Padmanabhpuram Palace complex
Padmanabhapuram palace architecture can boast of great usage of spaces. The palace complex houses various independent structures at the ground level which are however interconnected at upper levels.
The central zone of the palace houses the basic residential and official functions of the king and his family, and the peripheral structures – often long in shape and defining the boundaries of the complex – accommodate various ancillary functions such as the mint, weapons storage, charity feeding halls, the palace offices etc.
Traditionally, the pattern of using the upper floors as the main living quarters is common in most upper class homes in Kerala. The rest rooms of the kings and other members of his family do not show any centralized planning concept as the matrilineal social system demanded that the king himself remain single and the children of his sisters succeed him.
The palace was occupied during the day by various functionaries and servants in attendance. Hence, at the ground floor level were storerooms, kitchen, performance halls for dance and theater etc.
The official meetings of the king took place on the first floor of the structure, to the front of the palace. This was known as the mantra shala (audience hall) and was interconnected with the king’s rest rooms and the charity feeding halls by bridges and narrow verandahs.
This structure forming one end of the long building used as the palace offices – with balconies from where the king gave audience to the general public – defines the northern boundary of the palace compound, and abuts on a long public thoroughfare.
Here, as on the western and southern sides, an edge is clearly established by linear building blocks serving subsidiary functions in which outsiders and the palace staff interacted at the ground level.
Except for the charity feeding hall, the structures are not connected at the upper floors to the inner group of buildings.
The scale and form of the structures within this defined edge change to proportions of a much smaller and intimate nature, producing varying sizes and shapes of incidental open spaces in-between.
Uppirikka malika (the king’s rest rooms), which houses most of the activities of the king, forms a visual focus by its height since this is a four-storeyed structure.
The uppermost floor of the structure is the personal prayer room of the king and is decorated with frescoes depicting mythological scenes and pictures of gods. Vertical linkages between floors are through narrow wooden staircases and horizontal linkages at upper floors are often through small bridges.
The link between the rest rooms and the audience hall skirts around a clock tower which forms another visual focus. This tower faces the entry with a typical tile roof – a feature that reflects European influence in the region.
Lakshmi Vilasam, a later addition to the palace compound, also reveals some Western influences in its building style.
The region boasts an ancient tradition in the performing arts and two halls at Padmanabhapuram are set aside for them. The nataka shala (a hall for dramatics) is built using a simple local idiom and is directly interlinked with the mantra shala or halls for special audiences on the ground floor and the pilamoottu kottaram (the residence of women).
The other performing arts hall for religious celebrations is built in stone in a style imported from neighboring Karnataka. This structure is roofed with stone slabs and contains a small shrine and a large hall.
A small structure with wooden screens and peep windows is believed to be for seating the royal women. The pillars of the mandapam are in stone and are carved with symbolic figures and other decorative motifs in relief.
The hall is not enclosed by walls but its proximity to the two-storey linear structures provides it with a sense of enclosure. There are a number of smaller structures serving auxiliary functions within the compound, such as kitchens, bathing rooms etc, which are also located strategically as prescribed in the shastram.
Incorporation of Rules of Vaastu Shastra in Padmanabhapuram palace architecture
The general slope of the land is towards East and North-East (considered auspicious according to local traditions) and all water tanks are located to the east of the structures.
Surface water drainage and sewage disposal through an underground system are also laid towards the South-East. All toilets are located on the first floor with the closets carved out in stone, since the main bedrooms and rest rooms always occupy the upper levels.
Another significant structure which forms an annexe to the palace complex by virtue of its location is the thecke kottaam or the southern palace. As the name implies, it is located south of the main palace building and interestingly falls outside the Vaastu purusha mandala – like hall where foreigners were received.
This structure has a tank of its own, its superstructure being built entirely of wood with a small side structure in wood further south of it. The internal courts are rather small and serve mainly as ventilation zones as also the ritualistic function of being the griha nabhi or navel of the house.
The annex is said to have remained unoccupied throughout history. Today, it offers one of the finest examples of wooden architecture in Kerala region. Kerala is rich in timber and fine clay – the latter being used for tile and brick making – laterite stone, granite and shell lime. Padmanabhapuram Palace Architecture is a masterpiece of Kerala’s wooden architecture.
The walls are made of laterite, granite or bricks or a combination of them. As in the case of planning principles, strict rules also exist for the use of materials and structural design.
However, carpentry is the most developed of building sciences and plays a major role in construction. The type of wood, their relative positions to each other (depending on the leaf and the root-end of timber), the various use/functions, each related to a particular type of wood, the types of wood as related to the social standing of the user etc, were all specified in the shastram.
The historic uniqueness of Padmanabhapuram Palace Architecture lies in the fact that in its building these principles were faithfully adhered to.
The walls form only a small portion of the total visible structure, and the roof-forms dominate all other elements. Wood and stone pillars support the wooden roof structure, and the walls are infilled with brick or laterite and, in some cases, with non structural wooden screens.
These screens filter the light inside, provide privacy and allow, unhindered breeze to flow at habitation level. The carpenters worked out the most complicated angles of rafter positions, holes for interconnecting members in changing positions on the ground.
Metal nails are seldom used and in most cases, the members fit each other so precisely that they form a stable framed whole. Decorative wooden false ceilings are provided in some important rooms which help to insulate them.
The roofs are however ventilated at the ridge with the use of decorative wooden screens. All the older structures in the Padmanabhapuram Palace have roof systems based on varying angles of rafters, except for the Lakshmi Vilasam Palace which was built in semi-colonial style.
The main walls are finished in lime plaster and white-washed with sea-shell lime, also in abundance in Kerala. The sober white-washed walls are relieved by intricate wooden screens which are often projected out as balconies or seating, while the smaller windows are shuttered in wooden frames and fitted with mica sheets.
The effect in the interior is a dramatic play of light and shadow, with the occasional mica-paned window adding color. One of the most significant elements in the design of the Padmanabhapuram Palace, kerala is this sensitive handling of light and the ambiance of sensual repose it creates.
The flooring – using shell lime, charcoal and other indigenous ingredients – is finished in black. The aesthetic quality of this palace might be described as a subtle combination of sophisticated understatement in design and a tactile celebration of the material used.
Other Important Features
In the interior, the seats are built into the wooden-screen structures with porous side walls on the periphery of rooms or in balconies specially meant for seating purposes. The mantra shala on the first floor, where the king met his ministers, is an example of this.
A number of decorative elements are also used in the palace, especially wood and stone carvings of animals and birds in various positions. Vyali, a mythical animal which can take changing forms of different animals, is used traditionally as a supporting bracket to overhanging eaves and columns.
The auspicious symbol of a flowered banana tree is also used extensively in a some-what stylized form. However, the main impact is not achieved by these purely decorative elements but by the clever use of walls, rafters, windows and other building elements.
Certain features like the threshold are not merely functional at decorative elements, but are symbolically charged with meaning. Apart from the inherent values attributed to direction in the positioning of doors, the elements on the doors are also symbolically important.
The hardware used on doors is usually in brass and is highly stylized and decorative. In most cases, hinges are avoided and a pivoting system embedded in the wood is used.
Architecturally, the quiet sense of repose, which architecture of Padmanabhapuram Palace evokes in spite of its massive scale, and the understated dignity of its structures to provide for its varied uses and functions, makes this palace complex a unique achievement in design.