The much-neglected, but historically important, Ariyittuvazcha Kovilakam gets a fresh lease of life

Heritage structures that outlive their utility often face the risk of falling prey to the needs of urban development. One such building was the dilapidated Ariyittuvazcha Kovilakam (coronation palace) in Mattancherry. It was the palace where the coronation ceremony of the Maharajas of the erstwhile Cochin State was held, the last of which was of Parikshit Thampuran in 1948. Since then the edifice lay idle, except for a part of it functioning as the village office. The compound grew unkempt, the roof rafters began to decay, parts of the building caved in. In 1994, plans were made to demolish it and build a shopping mall.

Puroshottam Mallya, 84, a Konkani historian and activist, recalls with pride of how he helped save this precious piece of heritage. When he got whiff of the plan, he together with senior advocate the late Balagangadhara Menon met Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer and alerted the authorities. The Archaeology Department acted swiftly and posted the notice ‘Protected monument’ at the site. Today, this small, albeit historically significant structure is being repaired after a mango tree fell on it recently.

“In 1995, when I moved in to conserve it, a tamarind tree had fallen over the structure,” recalls former ASI curator, P. K. Gopi. “The village office functioned from there. The place was very run down. We allocated six cents of the roughly 30 cents compound for the village office, cleared the premises and brought the edifice back to life,” he says, adding that there were plans to have a well laid-out garden.

Cottage-like palace

About the structure Mallya says, “The Ariyittuvazcha Kovilakam is a cottage-like palace. There was a cot in a locked room of the palace, which was used during the coronation ceremony. It was said that the Zamorin of Calicut had an eye on the palace. He sent his troops to seize it but they were defeated at Pallipuram by the Portuguese (1557). The Maharaja, pleased by the efforts of the Portuguese, gave them the Immanuel kota (Fort Immanuel) and the Portuguese, in gratitude, built the palace in Mattancherry for him. Later, the Dutch enhanced the structure and since then it has been called the Dutch Palace.”

Currently work is on at Ariyittuvazhcha Kovilakam. A walkway has been built along the compound wall. One of the two ponds has been closed “because it was not required,” says K. R. Sona, curator ASI, adding that the mandate is to preserve the structure. Omana, who supervises the work, points to the cleaned well attached to a room, the restored nalukettu and the repaired nilavara. A row of rest rooms at the end of the structure has been constructed for tourists.

Gopi says that all structural conservation has to be done using materials that are as close to the ones originally used in the structure. Hence, care has been taken to use materials like wood, brick and the style of finishes and textures that match those in the existing structure.

Mallya says that he witnessed three coronation ceremonies. He was a curious teenager at the time of the coronation of Parikshit Thampuran and recalls the event. The coronation ceremony, according to him, began with a procession from the Dutch palace and moved down the straight road to reach the Ariyittuvazcha Kovilakam. “The maharaja would then take a dip in the pond. The locked room was opened and he sat on the cot with an olakkuda (umbrella made of palm frond). History has it that one of the rajahs, Rama Varma (1698-1722), had taken a vow not to wear the crown till he had reclaimed Vanneri, the land he lost to the Zamorin. So, during the coronation, the crown was placed on his lap. The priests performed the Vedic rituals and rice was showered on the king in blessing. I remember the English Resident being present at one of the coronations and there were shouts of ‘hip, hip hurrah’ from the crowd present on the occasion.”

Part of heritage walk

After the coronation the Maharaja would go to the Paliyarakavu Temple, opposite to the palace and pay his obeisance to the deity. “He then proceeded to nearby houses or madoms of the Tamil Brahmins and received their blessings. The coronation ceremony ended at the coronation hall of the Dutch Palace where the Maharaja would hold a formal durbar,” says Mallaya.

With the coronation ceremony complete and with Cochin getting a new Maharaja, the Ariyittuvazcha Kovilakam would then revert to its days of inactivity till the time when the kingdom needed a new king.

Former mayor K. J. Sohan talks animatedly about the importance of the palace and its pivotal role in the history of Cochin. He suggests that the place be put on the map of the Fort Cochin-Mattancherry heritage walk. “It is of significant importance in the history of the Cochin Royals. The coronation march can be recreated as a heritage walk, following the same route as that of the kings of yore,” he says.