Updated: June 10, 2011 19:09 IST

Timeless built heritage

Nita Sathyendran
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Architecture aficianado. Ashalatha Thampuran is a keen observer of buildings.
Architecture aficianado. Ashalatha Thampuran is a keen observer of buildings.

Ashalatha Thampuran pictorially catalogues the built heritage of the city in her book Thiruvananthapuram – Montage of Heritage Buildings

Thiruvananthapuram really is a treasure trove of heritage buildings. Everywhere you look you can see graceful old buildings that have stood the test of time. Some buildings such as Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple, VJT Hall, and the Old Secretariat are prominent landmarks, while others such as Rangavilasam Palace, Muttala madom, and Mithranandapuram temple, to name a few, are not so well known and are hidden amid the hustle and bustle of the city. In her book Thiruvananthapuram – Montage of Heritage Buildings, which will be released today, architect and academician Ashalatha Thampuran, Principal of Mohandas College of Engineering and former Principal of College of Engineering (CET), catalogues 80 such buildings that represent different facets of built heritage in the city. Commissioned by the Indian National Academy of Engineering Heritage – an association funded by the Central Government that aims to preserve engineering heritage in the country, this book is perhaps the first-of-its-kind work that focusses solely on the built heritage in this city of Kings.

Unique architecture

“The city has a number of unique architectural features. In most of the heritage buildings, the woodwork is pretty unique. Nowhere else have wooden elements been more successfully and spectacularly integrated on such a large scale than in the buildings in the city, most of which abound with intricate wooden sculptures and designs. Besides, large buildings that feature a confluence of architectural styles – Kerala with Dravidian, Kerala with British – are particularly unique to the city. For example, planning-wise the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple is traditional Kerala architecture, but construction-wise, it is a combination of Kerala style with Dravidian style, with the east gopuram and the nadavazhi constructed in the latter. Before the advent of the British there was nothing in our traditional architecture that resembled schools (for example Model school), banquet halls (at Kanakakunnu), churches (CSI church, LMS church), libraries (Public library), and so on. So in many colonial buildings we have Kerala artisans giving their own touch to what is essentially British architecture,” says Ashalatha.

“Original colonial architecture in the city featured unplastered red brick with corners of granite, and contrary to certain claims there is no evidence to suggest that they were edifices painted in white!” she adds.

It was only after King Martanda Varma of erstwhile Travancore moved his capital to the city in the 18th century that the city saw a proliferation of architecture, and it continued unabated for more than two centuries.

Almost all the buildings constructed in that period were within a two-km radius of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple, extending from Poojapura to Shankhumukham (some like the Kovalam Palace were built even further away).

“I am a keen observer of architecture and I have over the years become adept at identifying key elements from which one can classify buildings,” says the author.

As such she has divided the built heritage of the city into three broad categories – ancient, medieval and colonial. Ancient buildings are the ones that follow the principles of Vaastusastra, medieval are those that resemble the medieval buildings of England (such as LMS church) and colonial are those red brick structures (Vanchiyoor court, Public library) built by the British. “One can even easily identify the era when a particular structure was built by looking at the kazhukols (rafters). kazhukolsIf they are dense in the centre and slanting towards the corners, it's of a later period than the ancient Vaastusastra style. The kazhukols of the colonial period are the simplest in design,” explains Ashalatha.

Five sections

The author has included many such observations in Thiruvananthapuram – Montage of Heritage Buildings, which is styled like a coffee table book. It is divided into five sections, namely residential buildings, public buildings, religious buildings (temples and churches), institutional buildings, and common buildings.

Each building gets a two-page spread, with close-up photos of particular architectural details such as the intricately carved wooden ceiling of the Bhajanapuram Palace, the stone carvings at Poojapura mandapam, and the granary at the Panchajanyam building, to name a few, and each photo spread is accompanied by a brief history of that particular building. Ashalatha has also included a short history of the city as an introduction and also an appendix on the principles of Vaastusastra. The photographs have been clicked by Sudeesh Balan, her former student at CET.

“This book is actually 10 years in the making. As part of my doctoral thesis on the traditional architecture of Kerala, I had travelled the length and breadth of the State cataloguing its unique features. I had collected a lot of information and lots of photographs, especially of the architecture of the city. I hail from Thripunithura but the city has been my home for 46 years, and I wanted to show people the timelessness of built heritage that's right in front of our eyes,” says Ashalatha, who has also written the book Traditional Architecture forms of the Malabar Coast and Vastuvidya Vijnanakosham. Ashalatha's book will be released today at 5.30 p.m. at Levy Hall, Krishnavilasam Palace, Fort.

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