A royal town revisited

While Fort Kochi managed to get its heritage conservation act together early, Tripunithura with a massive inventory of royal heritage remains floundering on this front. The reasons for the neglect are many but efforts go on beyond words and paper work. Young architect and member of the Cochin Royal Family, Krishnan Varma is giving the matter another big push in the hope to save the remainders of a past that belongs mainly to the family.

It dates back to 1791, when Rama Varma Sakthan Thampuran and his immediate matrilineal family consisting of an aunt, Chittamma Thampuran and her children moved to Tripunithura and settled down adjacent to Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple. This was the beginning of the Valiamma Thampuran Kovilakam, which eventually became an ettukettu, the cradle of the present Cochin Royal Family. Krishnan’s firm Meister Varma Architects and Cochin Royal Family Historical and Heritage Society (CRFHHS), founded by Dr. Kocha Varma of the family, are jointly putting up a three-day exhibition of architectural drawings, photographs and documents, on November 21 at Kalikota Palace, chronicling the built heritage of the royal town or kottakagam (inside the fort) that sprang up around Amma Thampuran Kovilakam. Most of the palaces that feature in the project are constructions that took place from the 1850s to the 1920s.

Two things go in Krishnan’s favour. During his early days in architecture he worked on urban regeneration projects including housing for the London Olympics, a training that encourages him to view subjects for adaptive reuse, a term that is the basis of his project, and the other that he belongs to the family. Using these aspects, the vantage of the outsider-insider view, the 33-year-old has worked for this exhibition with over 50 royal buildings, co-ordinating with 790 family members who are scattered around the world. It has been a massive task ferreting documents, stories and measuring buildings to produce architectural drawings.

The two main impediments Krishnan faced were lack of architectural documentation and identification of heritage structures coupled with lack of sensitivity about the historicity of the buildings.

“The problem with Tripunithura is that it is a dense residential area and there is acute demand for housing, a huge pressure for development from builders; besides it is difficult to maintain these structures,” he says, adding that the fort area has not been notified as a heritage zone.

Another sensitive issue that Krishnan has been able to circumvent, at least to a good degree, is negotiating with family members. “Ours is a conservative family and stakeholders were rightly apprehensive, and still are, about the restoration and future use of the buildings, the surety that they will not lose their homes.”

Dr. Varma talks about his ancestry, of Chittamma Thampuran’s granddaughter Ikkavu and her four daughters. “The present family are the descendents, four Thavazhis, branches of those four women. They settled down around the temple and that’s how the royal town came about. The Amma Thampuran Kovilakam was remodelled in 1864 under the supervision of a Thachu Sastra expert Vellinezhi Namboodiri. Some palaces that lead to the Kalikota Palace were built in 1937 after demolishing a Dutch building that was locally known as Devata Malika. Most of these have been replaced by modern structures,” he says.

Krishnan’s plans go beyond mere restoration and are aimed at finding revenue-generating and conducive uses for the structures.

“It has to be a soft approach knowing the fragility of such spaces,” he says. As part of adaptive reuse he foresees the structures as possible high-end family museums showcasing the history and life of the family. Another quintessentially Tripunithura facet that these conserved buildings could highlight is to turn them into cultural centres. “This is the heart of culture in the city. Dance and music performances take place in this area on a daily basis. All family members are inclined towards this and are part of cultural expositions here; hence the buildings could possibly be esoteric venues for that. I am only laying a table for discussion from which work can move forward. All the documentation, the math has been done,” he says. His overview includes open spaces and water bodies like the ponds that interlace the area and a tie-up of heritage zones with each other, like the royal town with the Hill Palace and Paliam Palace at Chendamangalam.

Krishnan is assisted in research by Simon Schmidt from Netherlands, a translator and expert in old South Indian scripts. Facts such as the Kalikota palace being built by the Dutch as a gift for Sakthan Thampuran are found in Anglebeek, memoirs of Dutch generals.

What remains of the past is the focus now and it stands along with living memory, memories of palaces that have been pulled down one after another. The list is long…Puthen Bungalow, the Eliya Thampuran Kovilakam and many more.

The exhibition brings hope for the surviving ones - one with murals on its walls, another with extensive use of glass and such. It resurrects old tales and characters, the romance of a time when life was slow and pious on the banks of the Poorna River. “Yes all that,” says Krishnan, “But you cannot be romantic about heritage. It needs to be preserved,” he concludes.

Tripunithura Architectural Heritage exhibition opens on November 21 at Kalikota Palace

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 12:43:54 PM |

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