The ancient corridors of the Hill Palace in Tripunithura are temporarily hijacked by a bunch of noisy school kids. A hapless teacher narrates tales of kings, wars and conquests, all the while pleading with them to be silent. In one of the adjoining halls, a few north Indian tourists cannot hide their admiration for the exquisite royal ornaments on display.

It has been 25 years since the Hill Palace Museum began drawing such curious visitors to its intriguing history. The first and the largest heritage museum of Kerala, this 146-year-old palace has witnessed opulence, decadence, popularity and controversy in equal measure.

Neglect

During the royal reign in the late 19th century, it flourished. But the years of majestic glory gave way to a period of neglect after the death of the last king of Kochi, Rama Varma Pareekshith Thampuran, in 1964. “The first time I visited the palace in 1982, the garden resembled a mini forest. Between 1965 and 1980, after the royal family moved out, the building deteriorated,” says K.R. Sylendranath, curator of the Hill Palace museum. The royal family had let out the complex to the Cochin University but that did not prevent the building from falling to ruin.

The Government's archaeological department, which took over the palace in 1980, spent six years trying to restore its glory. In May 1986, the museum was thrown open to the public, with 11 galleries showcasing objects sourced from the Cochin royal family and the department's own collections. Today, it has 17 galleries flaunting the historical treasures of Kerala: A gold crown of 1.75 kg, presented to the king of Cochin by King Immanuel of Portugal, and the Bible (Hebrew, Old Testament) written on goat skin are examples. The palace soon regained its status as an important landmark, another one of Kochi's historical beauty spots, and became a favourite location for many filmmakers. It was declared a protected monument in 2003. The Government's Department of Cultural Affairs has set up a Centre for Heritage Studies within the museum, which offers PG diploma courses and short-term certificate courses in archaeology, museology, conservation and archival studies.

The stories about the palace are glamorously varied. Some books say the palace was built for Prince Rama Varma, who did not like to be confined to the small chambers of the Valiyammathampuran Palace in Thripunithura and decided to have a palace all for himself. The work on the palace complex began in 1865. And the young Rama Varma, it is said, loved his spanking new abode sprawled over 52 acres, complete with an ettukettu (a traditional building with two courtyards), make-up-cum-prayer room, kitchen, temple, four ponds and a ‘kulapura' (a roofed area at one end of a pond, where women could have a bath). But the story soon changes. The palace was built by the Cochin royal family as a safe haven to protect its women and children from enemy troops, according to a department official. Some buildings were added even as late as 1956.

The later additions to the museum, the deer park, pre-historic park and children's park drew flak from traditionalists, as they felt these would dilute the seriousness of the museum. Also, as allegations of over-population of deer in the park spread, environmentalists protested, forcing the authorities to shift some animals out of the park. P.K. Gopi, former curator and documentation officer of the museum, however, feels the concept of having other elements helps prevent “museum fatigue”. “Being inside a museum for a long time could be mentally taxing. Entertainment options outside will be relaxing,” he says.

As you enter the main palace hall, you are struck by the coolness of the Italian and Victorian tiles beneath your feet. A pretty mosaic of Prussian blue, beige and yellow! It is said the royal family brought workers from the Bombay British Company in 1895. “The sheer antiquity of the materials makes the process of restoration all the more complicated,” says Sylendranath. The last renovation was undertaken at an expense of Rs 4.5 crore, in 2010, when it got a new walkway with 200 lamps. The walkway has become a favoured location for morning walkers in Tripunithura.

“There are hundreds of anecdotes about the palace,” says T.P. Vijaya, the museum's information officer. The museum now has around 20 gallery attenders, 22 part-time sweepers, six guides and 34 people to take care of its famed garden. However, some of the old charm has been lost forever. Back in the early 19th century, one could spot an enemy ship approaching, from the balcony of the grand old building.

Now, all you can see is a sea of skyscrapers.

Films shot at the Hill Palace

Moonnam Mura (1988), Manichitrathazhu (1993), Pingami (1994), Kaliyoonjal (1997), Dreams (2000), Documentary, Divine Love and Prince Painter (2003) Chhota Mumbai (2007)

Flora and fauna

The palace compound has a wealth of flora. About 90 species of trees were identified in the last enumeration conducted in 1994. Nature enthusiasts Sandeep K. Varma and Gokul Vinayan carried out a study of the faunal diversity in the Hill Palace compound. They recently published a book called “The Fauna of Hill Palace” in which they have identified 13 species of spiders, 31 species of butterflies, 7 species of amphibians and 16 species of reptiles on the campus.