I had always longed to visit God’s Own Country, Kerala, and savour its rich heritage and temple culture besides having a spectacular view of its sun-kissed beaches fringed with swooping palm trees which are almost seductive.
When we emerged from the Thiruvananthapuram airport, the tiniest airport that I had ever seen, the smell of Kerala beckoned us and so did the driver of the prepaid taxi with his warm smile. He promptly picked up our luggage. And raced to his cab that was parked a little away.
Since he was a little conversant with Tamil and English we managed to understand his running commentary throughout the drive to Kovalam, a distance of 12 km covered in nearly 45 minutes, meandering through broad and narrow roads with scanty greenery on either side.
A long stretch of muddy road with small hamlets consisting of fishermen’s huts led us to KTDC Samudra, nestled snugly in the middle of three palm-filled covers facing the world-renowned Kovalam beach. A glimpse at the bluish green still waters of the sea through the tall palm trees presenting a picture perfect sight made me realise why tourists considered Kovalam as being synonymous with the state of Kerala.
We decided to visit the famous Thiruvanthapuram Museum complex located in the heart of the city first as it closed at five in the evening. Though it was end-August, the monsoon season in Kerala, we found the weather very warm for our comfort.
The museum complex housed the Napier Art Museum, Sri Chitra Art Gallery, Sri Chitra Enclave, Natural History Museum, K C S Paniker Gallery, Reptile House and the zoo.
Napier Museum is one of the oldest museums in India, established by the Maharaja of Travancore in 1855. The old museum building was pulled down in 1874 and the foundation for the new building, named after Lord Napier, the Governor of Madras Presidency, was laid. This brick and white architectural masterpiece with Gothic roof and minarets was designed by Chisoin, the consulting architect of the then Madras government, and the construction completed in 1880.
A tour of this museum takes you far into the state’s cultural past, dating back to the 8th century with its array of sculptures in bronze, and stone, carvings on wood and ivory, lamps, textiles, Kathakali models, handicraft items, kuftgiri works, traditional musical instruments, besides a treasure of numismatic collections of the Chera, Chola, Pandya dynasties.
The oldest sculpture here is the bronze image of Vishnu with four arms, out of which three are broken. You also find the emblems – the conch and the discus – missing.
In contrast to this, a 57 cm Vishnu image is its well-preserved (though a little crude) smaller version belonging to the 9th century with curly tresses at the back with the conch and the discus in place. Another rare exhibit belonging to the 18th century that caught our attention was the16 cm image of Vishnu on Garuda with Sree Devi and Saraswathi, a tradition found in north India.
The section on ivory carvings is a visual treat surpassing wood and metal sculptures. You find time standing still here and you reluctantly move on.
Sri Chitra Art Gallery has a large collection of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, the famous Roerich paintings, besides miniatures from various parts of the world, manuscripts of great archival significance and mural paintings unique to Kerala. Connoisseurs of art can spend days here admiring the brilliant works in their original.
The zoo, spread over 50 acres of lush green lands, fascinates the young and the old alike with its different species of animals from all over the country and some from other regions of the world.
Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple, the main landmark of Thiruvananthapuram, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, is a blend of Kerala and Dravidian styles of architecture.
There is a little history behind this temple and the reason why Kerala is called God’s Own Country. Marthanda Varma, a great warrior and statesman, became the ruler of Travancore in 1729 A.D. He launched a campaign of territorial expansion by waging wars against recalcitrant and petulant local chiefs. He annexed territory after territory, liquidating even the most powerful of them, and by 1750, the state extended from a tiny area near Nagercoil in the south to the backwaters of Cochin in the north.
The same year, for the atonement of his “sins of war” he made over all his rights and possessions, the sceptre and the orb, the “pada” and the “praja” to Lord Padmanabha. As a token of abject surrender he symbolically placed the royal sword on the steps of the sanctum sanctorum and receiving it back, he returned to the palace.
The outer walls of the central shrine are covered with mural paintings depicting various scenes from the Puranas. In the sanctum sanctorum is Lord Vishnu having His yoganidra reclining on the great serpent Adisesha. The darshan of the Lord is through three doors in a row – the face on the southern side, the sacred feet on the northern side and the nabhi (navel) in the middle from which appears Brahma.
We were overawed by the sheer majestic form of the deity with Diwakar Muni, a great devotee of Vishnu in a sitting posture at His head and Kaundinya Muni at the feet. Sree Devi and Bhoo Devi are seated facing each other on either side of the utsava vigraha. (Those who have not visited this antique temple can see its replica in Chennai .)
Another must see temple in Thiruvananthapuram which is patronised especially by the women folk of the state is the Attukal Devi Temple. Resplendent with jewellery and a Trishul in one hand, the deity is supposed to be an incarnation of Durga. Women believe the worship of the Goddess will empower them.
Several finely decked women were seen lighting lamps and their glow made the whole place acquire a festive look. Very few men were found in the men’s queue.
The well-planned Techno Park in Trivandrum, the tallest structure housing many corporates is an architectural delight which is worth a visit for its sheer ambience and design.
A visit to Kerala is not complete without visiting the Padmanabhapuram Palace, Suchindram and Kanyakumari (in Tamil Nadu). Padmanabhapuram is about 60 km from Thiruvananthapuram, on way to Kanyakumari.
Spread over an area of 6.5 acres, the palace complex consists of 14 palaces, of various sizes, all having different names, like Poomukham, Thaikkottaram, Navarathri Mandapam, etc. The whole complex looks very simple and deceptive from outside but once you enter the Poomukham, exquisite wood carvings greet you. One of the wooden pillars is carved from a jackfruit tree and lotus medallions hang down from its four sides. There are 90 flowers carved on the ceiling, which appears rather low. The other attractions here were the shining and solid granite cot made of seven pieces of granite and the Chinese model throne with its arms turned outside.
In another part of the complex is the Uppirikka Malika, which means a multi-storeyed building. This palace, built in 1750 by Maharaja Marthanda Varma, for dedicating it to Lord Padmanabha is considered sacred. In the first floor there is a separate place for washing one’s feet before entering the rooms. The building consists of four storeys but visit to only two storeys is allowed. The ground floor was used as the royal treasury.
On the first floor is the medicinal cot made up of 64 pieces of medicinal wood. Its intricate workmanship just took our breath away, it spoke volumes of the skill of Kerala’s craftsmen.