Chronicles The architecture of Padmanabhapuram: Ethic or Aesthetic?
It used to be common to hear the Indian woman complain of being trapped inside the four walls of her home, protected from public streets where men roam freely and man-made moral corruption lurks at every comer. Today's women scarcely need envy their mates, for the world outside is peopled by disgruntled violators of innocence, and creatures worth avoiding. Little wonder, then, that modem Indians are withdrawing from the public sphere, behind walls and barbed wire fences that enable new rituals of screening, selection, and exclusion. Our most popular activities — TV watching, beautifying, dressing, undressing, partying, gaming and eating — are best performed indoors. Our wary forays into nature and society are so disarmingly packaged that they may as well be the extensions of our custom- made privacy.

Tough situation for architects! The client dreams of lands unending and rivers never dry, of plush vegetation, exotic birds and bountiful seasons. Of houses that are palaces in disguise. While there is admittedly an upper crust in India which can afford to lead imperial lives, it is a thin crust. Most of us make do with four walls. No cause for despair, for we may find that houses need not be fantastical or faux. Visit the palace built by the kings of Travancore, and you will discover that magnificence and taste can indeed be founded on basic values like the fear of god, and respect for the materials of life and customs of society.

When Marthanda Verma Maharaja renamed his ancestral palace Padmanabhapuram, he was devoting to his favourite god a residential complex that had evolved over three hundred years. It was 1744, and the natural resources of the Malabar coast had made the Travancore empire one of the richest in South Asia, with a lively international trade, flourishing local industries, and a cohesive society with strong traditions of arts and crafts. The empire had taken time to attain its prosperity, and the action of time is fully evident in the incremental architecture of this 6.5 acre complex, comprised of twenty-nine detached and semi-detached structures. The action of time is not limited to the age of the different buildings, but is an essential part of the architectural experience. The functionally determined relationship of each building to its neighbour compels the visitor into a wondrous journey through pathways, corridors, passageways and hallways. Guided by a sensitivity to the movements of light, air, vision and sound, it is an architecture of sensual experience, comparing well with Fatehpur Sikri in North India, and the Katsura Palace in Kyoto, Japan. Here was a lifestyle far removed from our ersatz world of intercoms and wireless communication; where architecture accommodated functions of life and enhanced their quality.

There is a lot lo be learnt from the builders of Travancore. Perhaps the most controversial issue today would be the subservience of architectural layout to the rules of the vastu purusha mandala. This cosmic diagram gives Padmanabhapuram its basic spatial structure, axially relating the entrance forecourt on the west with the main audience hall, and further to the emptiness of the centrally located brahma sthana, around which are organized the king's residence, the matriarch's residence, and the main dining and ritual spaces. Yet, the mandala is only notional. It allows for the life-functions to be organized on the basis of experience and practice, rather than whim and fancy, and aptly demonstrates the freedom possible within the seemingly strict confines of tradition.

More than the mandala, the building practices of this hot and wet coastal region have been privileged in the architecture of Padmanabhapuram. Unlike today, when we can avail of an enormous range of materials, most of them supermarket-style variations on a theme, the builders of Travancore were bound by the thachu shastram, local treatises which drew from religion, mathematics and cosmology to create a holistic tradition of building. The architecture triumphs in the use of timber, which was obviously plentiful in Travancore. Above the granite and laterite ground floor level, the structural frames of timber support a most wonderful play of sloping roofs covered in ceramic tile. Balconies and gable window projections arc ornamented with intricately carved perforations. A characteristic feature of this style is the curved screening wall which makes the transition between projecting eaves of the roof and the wall surface. This is a masterfully detailed element whose almost woven curves impart a sculptural finish to otherwise stark building blocks plastered in white-shell lime. Padmanabhapuram abounds in such masterful solutions to the hot and humid climate, where priority must be given to maximizing air movement and blocking direct sunlight, but the first floor projections are more crucial as safeguards for the privacy of the palace women.

It might interest the modern visitor to Padmanabhapuram to know it as the palace of a matrilineal society. The constant presence of women who seldom had to descend to the ground made the upper floors of the palace into a complex private zone with clearly delineated service corridors and ritual routes, and the one-way visual access from inside to outside which so characterizes the privacy regimes of traditional eastern societies. But the devices of privacy must be understood in combination with the spaces of gathering, for they are mutually significant. It is remarkable that the spaces reserved solely for the royal family were fewer and smaller than those where access was given to courtiers, ministers and, on occasion, the public.

Architecturally, the private quarters are Spartan, while the private spaces are replete with iconography, valuable works, and the sublime beauty of scale, especially visible in the Navratri mandapam and the Natak shola, where the king indulged his love for the traditional performing arts. While the buildings are only moderately more grandiose than the homes of wealthy landowners, money was lavished on rituals and on essential objects like beds, thrones and storage chests. Precious crafted objects from abroad — including rare gems, furniture, mirrors, and lamps — were gifted by foreign visitors who, thanks to Travancore's flourishing trade links, included the Chinese and sundry spice-starved Europeans.

Padmanabhapuram was not a pleasure palace, at least not the kind that we recognize today in the bungalows and mansions of the rich and famous, marked by a disregard for moderation in the use of materials and things. The inherent symbolism of this ensemble of buildings is more convincing of this difference. The public facade is primarily the continuous precinct wall, accented with a few balconies and terminated by the ubiquitous tiled shade. This wall is a simple gesture of separation from the world. It is interesting to note that the entrance forecourt, where one would expect a demonstration of private wealth a la moderne, is bounded by the state mint on the north, its eastern walls giving entry into the audience halls and the feeding hall. Off to one side of the entrance axis stands the clock tower, an eminently public gesture that we now describe as civic. One gets the feeling that the palace was both a residential complex and a symbolic administrative centre. It is evident that the lines between private domain and public realm were constantly being crossed in order that the king may perform his dharmic duties as beneficent ruler, protector of his people and upholder of their faith.

Dharmic duties are far in excess of what our wealthy elite is called upon to perform today, and perhaps accounts for why the tired opulence which abounds in their canine controlled compounds has to be hidden away behind walls that allow no passage of gifts or sharing of values. The architecture of walls, as we learn from Padmanabhapuram, is best when accompanied by an architecture of openings.

Jagan Shah



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