Restoration work on the 17th century Paliam Palace and the more ancient nalukettu is reaching completion. These structures will open up as two museums exhibiting the history of the erstwhile Cochin kingdom, and on the lifestyle of an ancient Nair family

There’s a sudden buzz of activity around the Paliam Palace, Chendamangalam, almost 40 kms north of Kochi. Part of the Muziris Heritage Project work, the palace and the more ancient nalukettu (traditional mansion) are being renovated into museums, which will open to the public once the work is complete. Conservation and renovation work on the 17th century palace built by the Dutch and the nalukettu is on at a hectic pace after deadlines were overshot.

More than preservation of historic monuments the Paliam project is significant as it is the only family-owned property, this side of the State at least, that has handed over invaluable holdings and possessions to the Government, to be preserved for posterity. Both these buildings are owned by the Paliam Eswara Seva Trust, which also manages the affairs of the Paliam family. The revenue generated from the two museums will go to the trust that owns the buildings, and for its upkeep. Major maintenance works will be taken up by the Government.

The Paliam Kovilakam, one of the two museums, will exhibit the history of the erstwhile Cochin kingdom, a temple gallery, the Paliam family and its prominent members who served as the hereditary prime ministers to the Cochin maharajas. And the nalukettu will focus on the lifestyle of an ancient Nair family.

Convincing the members of the family was no easy task. “There was a lot of opposition in the family when we mooted this idea. It took us so many sittings to finally convince them of the need for such an understanding. The palace building was in very bad shape and we could not have maintained it anyway. Look at it now; look at the nalukettu and the whole three-acre property. The work is not complete but it looks so beautiful even now,” says Krishnabalan Paliath, Manager of Trust.

Frustrating delay

But Krishnabalan is quick to add that the delay has been frustrating. “This project was the brainchild of Thomas Isaac, the former Finance Minister and backed up fully by V. D. Satheesan, MLA. The first meeting was held in 2008. Soon, 80 per cent of the civil work was over. Then there was the change of government. With so many government agencies involved there was delay. ”

Benny Kuriakose, Conservation Consultant of the project, feels otherwise. “It’s hardly four years since the master plan for the Muziris project was made. I don’t think any project of this magnitude would have progressed as fast as this one. Of course, expectations are high and there have been hiccups. But this project needs a lot of care. We did not have any models to go by and it is an integrated, holistic endeavour. The work involves bringing together so many departments, so many people. Around 30 sites in the Muziris area are almost ready. A few more things have to be done; most importantly the 14-odd boat jetties in this route are at different stages of completion. Though it is not strictly official, we have tentatively fixed September for inauguration as I believe the Prime Minister will be in the State for two days during this time.”

“The conservation work is almost over. The display panels will have to be set up and other exhibits got ready. A final coat of paint and the cobblestoned path at the entry will make it complete. Work is pending on the boat jetties and the information centre at Kannankulangara (North Paravur) from where tourists can buy entry tickets to the different sites and take the boat ride to these venues,” informs P. Vijayan, Special Officer of the project.

If there is one hurdle that seems to pull this project back, it is the delay in forming a company that will overlook the maintenance, employment of staff and other allied activities of the Muziris project. “I think all the papers regarding formation of a company on the lines of the Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) were prepared sometime in March this year. Even after all these months we have not gone a step ahead. We have insisted that we also be a part of the company. Nothing final will come about unless this is done,” says Krishnabalan.

For a State that depends heavily on the tourism industry it is time that the department concerned decides to evolve and look for new avenues rather than just the backwaters and Chinese nets. The Muziris project with the Paliam museums and the other historically important sites can give the State tourism a new impetus.

Unique architecture

Originally the Paliam Kovilakam was the ‘kalari.’ It is said that once the Maharaja of Kochi who was pursued by the Portuguese stayed here in disguise as advised by the Paliath Achan, the prime minister of the Cochin State. Later, in the 17th century this structure was renovated by the Dutch as a token of appreciation to the family. The Paliath Achan had helped the Dutch dislodge the Portuguese from the Malabar Coast and secured their trading interests.

The architecture of the palace is very different from the other buildings in this area. The Dutch influence is evident for it is not planned around an inner courtyard, the roof is steep and the wooden beams heavy. The sash windows also make this three-storey building unique.

The Nalukettu is a typically traditional structure and stands in contrast to the Dutch architectural style of the palace. It is built around a courtyard and it has many of the traditional elements like the ‘Ara,' or the strong room, and ‘Purathu Thalam' (entrance foyer). It was mostly used by women and children. This building is nearly 400 years old and the Paliam family is supposed to have stayed here when they migrated from Vanneri.

Vallarpadam church

In 1676 when a flood destroyed the Vallarpadam Church, built by Portuguese missionaries in 1524, the then Paliath Achan, (senior most member of the Paliam family) donated land where a new, beautiful church was built. They also helped retrieve the picture of Our Lady that was found floating in the backwaters. He also gave the church a sanctuary lamp that is supposed to have been perpetually lit for over 300 years.

The oil for the lamp was provided by the Paliam family until 1947. This tradition was revived in 1994. Even today members from the family go to the church and light the lamp and candles there. And, recently, when the Paliam family needed funds for renovation for some of its temples the Archbishop of Varapuzha offered a sizable amount as assistance.