A Gem of a Palace

The beautiful 19th century Puthe Maliga Palace Museum, popularly called Kuthira Malika or Horse Palace, is designed in traditional Kerala architecture and has prized collections of artefacts of the royal family of Travancore

Along the ‘Pedestrian Only’ street leading to the main entrance of the deeply venerated Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, is a small quiet gem of a palace. A simple board stating – Puthe Maliga Palace Museum, marks the discreet entrance to this 19th century palace, set in a long wooden facade that suggests little of the world beyond. Yet, past the unassuming portal, one steps into a beautiful world, a section of a royal complex that speaks eloquently of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (1813-46), the king of Travancore state, who commissioned the palace and the royal family of Travancore.

A TRADITIONAL KERALA PALACE

The royal Travancore family had traditionally lived at Padmanabhapuram Palace (built in 1601), located at Padmanabhapuram, about 50 km from Thiruvananthapuram. In 1795, the capital was shifted from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. A few years after Maharaja Thirunal ascended the throne, at the age of 16, in 1829, he decided to build a palace near the revered Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. It is said that 1,000 artisans worked for 4 years to create a vast wooden palace complex as per the tradition of Kerala architecture. The palace was graced with eighty rooms, carved wooden pillars, brackets, ceilings, sloping roofs, overhanging eaves and curved slatted brackets below the roof. It had long-pillared verandahs and inner courtyards. The floors were ingeniously made with a unique mixture of egg whites, charcoal dust, river sand and limestone that creates a smooth glossy finish and stays cool even in the summer months. An unusual element, a series of 122 brackets carved in the form of horses, set below the roof, bestowed the palace its popular name – Kuthira Malika or Horse Palace.

A BEAUTIFUL WORLD WITHIN

Accomplished in several disciplines and languages, Maharaja Thirunal was an acclaimed poet, musician, social reformer and ruler who initiated several rectifications and measures for the progress and development of Travancore. The regal interiors and the objects displayed within the palace speak volumes of the attributes of the gifted young ruler, his interest in writing poetry and musical compositions, dance, arts patronised by the royal family and the history of the royal family.

The impressive centrally located library, lavished with decorative motifs and leading to the different wings of the palace, speaks of the ruler’s interest in reading, study and being connected to the happenings of the world. Among the other charming rooms is the rosewood dance hall that has a special seat for the king. From a window of this hall, one can see the stretch of horse-shaped carved wooden eaves that give the palace its name. The king met his minsters at the council hall, that is marked by eight exquisitely carved pillars and a dome designed in the form of a jewellery box. The meditation room has a raised alcove where there was a pendant chair for the king. Through a window in this room he could see the entrance gopuram of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. The sight inspired him to write poetry in praise of Lord Vishnu. Musicians also used to play here.

PRIZED COLLECTIONS

Several rooms of the palace have prized displays of art and objects commissioned by the royal family or gifted to them. A portrait of Maharaja Thirunal, old photographs of the Travancore palaces, the royal family tree, paintings depicting the Travancore rulers and family, a row of teakwood Kathakali statues, a Bohemian crystal throne with the Travancore state emblem of a conch shell on the head of the throne’s back, another throne carved from 25 elephant tusks, palanquins, crystal chandeliers from Belgium, Venetian mirrors, arms, marble idols and statues, sandalwood carvings, lamps and jars are among the objects displayed. Among the paintings is the famous standing portrait of Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma (1912-91), the last ruling maharaja of Travancore, by renowned Russian artist Svetoslav Roerich and which is like an illusion; while moving from one side of the painting to the other the king’s eyes seem to continually meet those of the viewer. While the palace vows visitors with its beautiful craftsmanship, unfortunately Maharaja Thirunal passed away within just a year of residing here, in 1846, at the age of 33. His untimely death led to the view that the palace was inauspicious. As a result it was closed and a new palace was built. Yet, in 1995, after 150 years of being away from the limelight, a section of the palace comprising twenty rooms was reopened bringing its beauty to public domain. Its architecture, interiors and exhibits offer a precious glimpse of the life of a gifted king and the royal history of Travancore.

Written By: Brinda Gill

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