I am beginning to wonder if I was destined to have a boring time at Thiruvananthapuram. When I arrive at the famous Padmanabhaswamy Temple I see that its magnificent gopuram is all wrapped up in green sheets. There is a scaffolding all around the gopuram. So the most important thing to see in this city has been denied to me. I’ll come back to the temple in the morning but right now I’ve come to visit the palace next door. It is Sunday afternoon. I learn that it is closed from 1 pm to 3 pm for lunch. It is just five minutes past one. It is yet another disappointment. I can’t come back tomorrow since the palace is closed on Mondays. I learn to content myself with the palace facade, its sloping roofs, little gables and beautiful woodcrafted brackets.
From the Puttan Malika Palace, I return to the main road. It is a hot day. The bus stands are busy. At a Ganesha temple by the road, sacks of coconut are being loaded up into a truck.
‘Is this for the Ganesh Chaturthi?’ I ask one of the priests at the temple.
‘No. We get lots of coconut offerings from devotees on a normal day,’ he replies. ‘These are kopra.’
Kopra is nothing but dried coconut used for oil extraction.
I get a bus and arrive at the Napier Museum. It is suprisingly easy to get from one part of the city to another. Thiruvananthapuram, previously known as Trivandrum, is a world apart from Bangalore. Traffic is smooth. The roads are wide. Pedestrians paths are well-maintained. Perhaps, it is as bad as Bangalore on a weekday. One thing is for sure. Bangalore’s climate is unbeatable. Single-handedly it has contributed to Bangalore’s progress.
The Napier Museum is truly worth a visit, not just for its wonderful collection but also for its architecture. The building comes from British colonial period. It is in a style named Indo-Sarcenic. The tiled roofs, gables and bracketed eaves are traditionally Keralan. Five-faced oriel windows crafted in woodframes project out of walls with elephants and yalis forming wonderful brackets. They are inspired from stone windows of the north. I am reminded of those I had seen many months ago at Bhuj in the Kutch. The walls are covered with patterned brickwork in black, red and salmon. The facade exhibits Islamic elements in arrays of cusped arches. Two square towers rise high in the manner of European castles. As if taken from a leaf out of Landseer’s book, a pair of lions lie languidly on their marble pedestals. Neat lines of decorative palms frame the building from a distance. The dominant colour is red and the building stands out against a blue sky on this bright day.
Inside, I can hardly concentrate. My attention is divided between the exhibits and the interiors. The rafters supporting the roofs make a wonderful study. Little high windows let in natural light. Narrow balconies at a higher level lead to windows. These are only decorative and for good reason: this is a museum and not a living space. I give credit to the architect for using many elements of traditional Indian architecture in this museum.
The exhibits on their own merit admiration. Wood carvings and metal sculptures take away the show. There is a miniature model of the temple of Guruvayur. A miniature model of a oval kootambalam is displayed. I don’t know if such a space really exists. The kootambalams I have seen on this tour of Kerala were all rectangular. A temple chariot has wonderful details sculpted into its wooden frame. Ivory carvings are masterpieces of art in miniature. A couple of Chola bronzes of Nataraja are wonderful.
I skip the zoo next door. I am looking forward to visiting the Sri Chitra Art Gallery but I am informed that it is closed for renovation. That’s one more disappointment at Thiruvananthapuram. I walk along the streets admiring the architecture of this state capital – mosques, churches, temples, government offices. I amble amongst the shops at Connemara Market where flower sellers are busy. The petals are freshly sprinkled with water. The sun catches the colours in all their vividness. The flower sellers are artists in their own way. They have perfected the art of making garlands and flower discs. Their fingers work deftly moving from one petal to the next.
‘Onam bumper. Last day,’ shouts a vendor selling lottery tickets. I have been travelling through Kerala for more than a week and all over the state people have been trying to sell me lottery tickets. A handful of people are going to get richer in a couple of days. Many more will continue with their normal lives.
For dinner, I have chappati. I find that meals are not really that common at dinner time. It is customary in all restaurants in Kerala to be served a tumbler of warm water. Except that it is not really water. They add some herbs and spices into it. Sometimes it looks like water but at other times it is pinkish. Apparently, the drink is to aid digestion.
Back at the hotel I ask about cultural performances in town. The receptionist flips through the pages of the local newspaper. He says there’s nothing nearby. So I drop the plan of going out and have an early night.
In the morning, I return to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The temple has just too many restrictions and the priests are bent on making money for every little thing. I change into my dhoti and deposit a whole lot of stuff in the cloak room. The cloak room bill comes out to Rs. 23. I am not allowed to carry anything into the temple. I cannot even hold my shirt in my hands the way it is allowed at Guruvayur. The priests at the entrance are a hard-sell. They almost push into my hands a plate of little oil lamps and make me cough up twenty rupees for the same.
There are many wonderful murals on the walls of the inner temple. The main deity is Vishnu reclined on eternal Sesha. Three doors open into the sanctum. Through the first I see the Lord’s head, the body and navel through the second and finally a glimpse of His feet through the third. The interior is dark to make out details of this large stone idol except in parts which are wrapped in golden sheets. Nearby, an old priest is seated cross-legged on the floor. He is reciting slokas from a modern print while an old bundle of brown palm leaves bound in strings lie on his writing desk. His recitation mingles with those of priests in the sanctum but each sound is in its own space and defines its own completion.
I come out and walk the cloisters that surround the temple. As I walk many rounds I begin to realize the vast proportions of this temple. The pillared corridors stretch in long converging perspectives. The sculptures on these pillars are magnificent if at times they are just as bold with their vulgar eroticism. A group of temple volunteers offer devotees free rice payasam and bananas. Elsewhere, heart-shaped temple cloth fans in bright colours stand in dark corners. Drums hang from ceilings waiting for a festival, of which I am sure there are many at this temple. Lamps stand with their multitude of flames. Palanquins upholstered with fine embroidery and silk cloths wait to carry the deities into procession. It is these little things that set up the ambience of this great temple. It is for these that I will remember this temple.