Raja of Art

Kilimanoor Palace

Published: July 11, 2013 16:59 IST | Updated: July 11, 2013 17:27 IST

Etched in history : Nita Sathyendran

The Hindu The padippura, the entry way to Kilimanoor Palace Photo: Nita Sathyendran

The Hindu View of the courtyard from Raja Ravi Varma’s studio. Photo: Nita Sathyendran

The Hindu The Natakashala at KilimanoorPalace. Photo: Nita Sathyendran

The Hindu Commemorative plaque at Kilimanoor Palace. Photo: Nita Sathyendran

The Hindu The Puthenmalika that Raja Ravi Varma built for his 60th birthday. Photo: Nita Sathyendran

The Hindu Inside Raja Ravi Varma’s studio at KilimanoorPalace. Photo: Nita Sathyendran

The Hindu Raja Ravi Varma’s studio in KilimanoorPalace. Photo: Nita Sathyendran

Nita Sathyendran wanders around historic Kilimanoor Palace, the birthplace of royal artist Raja Ravi Varma

Kilimanoor Palace is painted in shades of the past and present. The palace, a protected monument of the Kerala Government, tucked away in the quiet hamlet Kilimanoor, off the busy M.C. Road that connects Thiruvananthapuram to Kottayam, is better known as the birthplace of Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906). It’s easy to imagine Ravi Varma working in the studio that he himself designed — paintbrush and palette in hand, giving colour to a new vision of Indian art. Such is the serenity, and the understated grandeur of this once royal household, the hearth of an autonomous state that functioned within the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore.

That none of Ravi Varma’s original works of art are to be found anywhere in the palace, not even in the restored studio, which is instead crammed with reprints of some of his works, is another matter altogether — a pity considering that at one time it is said that the artist’s paintings and those by other artists in the family such as his sister Mangala Bai Thampuratty, used to adorn every wall of the palace. Yet, there lingers in every stone its past glory — in the grand old trees, the warren of one-storied residential buildings, a handful of which are still occupied, the two ancient sacred groves, large country ponds and deep wells and, of course, the dilapidation that has just about crept into each nook and silent cranny of the palace.

“Records show that the original palace and fort used to be at nearby Kunjukoyikkal. No trace of it exists now. After Marthanda Varma, king of Travancore, granted autonomy to Kilimanoor, the palace was built circa 1753,” says Biju Rama Varma, secretary of the Kilimanoor Palace Trust that maintains the palace and its extensive acreage.

Entry to the palace is by way of a proud stone archway that opens into the main courtyard. A moss-covered slippery brick path flanked by an overgrown lawn leads to Ravi Varma’s studio and a series of residential buildings on either side. Standing prominently to the left of the studio is the ‘Puthenmalika’, one of the more recent buildings in the complex, designed and built at the turn of the last century by Ravi Varma, said to be funded out of the sale of his art work. “Apparently, he had it built to host royals from other states, including his friend the Maharaja of Baroda, for what was to be the grandest of all parties for his 60th birthday. It is believed that Ravi Varma wished to later turn the space into an art gallery,” adds Biju, who is one of few family members who reside in various apartments in the palace. “Up until the mid-1980s it was a thriving homestead, a joint family with around 300 members,” says Biju.

Now, as we soon discover, there’s nary a soul to be found save for a couple of old timers. Much of the palace is deserted, has been boarded up, is in disrepair or has fallen into complete ruin. Apart from the buildings up front and the adjacent ‘Pazhayamalika’ (said to be Ravi Varma’s living quarters), the ‘Natakashala’, where Kathakali and Koodiyattam were once staged, the ‘Madapally’, the great dining hall (nearby is the ‘Kochu Madapally’ where Velu Thampi Dalawa is believed to have partaken his last supper while fleeing from colonial forces), and a few other residential buildings that have been given a bit of TLC over the years, not much seems to be well preserved. As we gingerly traipse the maze of overgrown pathways that meander all around the complex, keeping an eye out for creepy-crawlies, we see many a fine building overtaken by creepers, spider-webs, and more eerily, by bats! Deep inside the western part of the complex, by the buildings that used to be the living quarters of the women in the family, we dig (literally) around for the commemorative plaque, etched in stone, which marks Ravi Varma’s architectural legacy to Kilimanoor. Eventually we find it, buried under mud and dense weeds, a statement of glory lost to time — just like the palace itself.

Getting there : : Kilimannoor is 39 km from Thiruvananthapuram. At Kilimanoor Junction take a left. The palace is around 2 km away.

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