A palace for a scholar and prince

Saraswathy Vilasam Palace in the Fort area was the home of Kerala Kalidasan, Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran

February 03, 2017 04:19 pm | Updated 04:19 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

Saraswathy Vilasam Palace

Saraswathy Vilasam Palace

The Northwest quadrant of the historic Fort area in Thiruvananthapuram has a rich collection of several heritage structures. The ancient Thevarathu Koikkal and Valiya Koikkal palaces, established during seventeenth century, the Moovidathu Madhoms, the Puja Nelpura (granary, now part of Panjajanyam Auditorium) and the old Fort hospital and Government Archives are neatly tucked inside the strong fortification in stone. Here, every nook and corner comes alive with stories going back to the hoary past of Thiruvananthapuram.

As we pass through the Arattu road, towards the Western Fort gate, an imposing valachu-vathil (arch gateway) with a graceful pediment and two lion figures flanking a conch catches the eye. The recently renovated gateway, which carries the insignia of the erstwhile Travancore royal family leads to the Southern side of the Thevarathu Koikkal royal estate. Walk in and you will soon get the glimpse of a majestic mansion sporting an intricately carved gable. Step inside the compound to see a handsome palace, Saraswathy Vilasam, built in the colonial architectural style. This stately home was once the home of Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran (1845-1914), better known as Kerala Kalidasan .

Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran

Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran

Kerala Varma needs no introduction to literary enthusiasts. In 1859 A.D., after his wedding to Attingal Mootha Thampuratti, Bharani Tirunal Lakshmi Bayi, the Rani of Travancore, Kerala Varma was stationed in the Thevarathu Koikkal palace, the traditional seat of the Ranis. A record of the early days of Kerala Varma in Thiruvananthapuram indicates, besides his growing reputation as a scholar, his skill in hunting and passion for wrestling.

In 1875 Ayilyam Tirunal, the then reigning Maharaja, accused Kerala Varma of conspiring against the crown.

The King ordered his arrest and for several years Kerala Varma had to remain under confinement, first in Alappuzha palace and then at Ananthapuram palace, at Harippad. Kerala Varma returned to Thiruvananthapuram in 1880, when Visakam Tirunal Rama Varma ascended the royal throne as Ayilyam’s successor. It is not known exactly when the Saraswathy Vilasam palace was constructed. Some historians attribute it to the last decades of the nineteenth century, to the reigns of Visakam Tirunal Rama Varma (reigning from 1880-1885) or Sree Moolam Tirunal Rama Varma (r.1885-1924). As mentioned before, the design of the palace follows the popular colonial tastes. Instead of a traditional courtyard house, the double storied mansion comprises spacious halls. The high ceiling and large windows and louvered doors accentuate the spacious feel of the interiors. Stained glass of various colours set a unique mood when the sun falls on the door and window shutters.

To the rear of the chief residential unit is a octagonal room, called ‘Moon Beam’, where it is said that Kerala Varma set up his library and workspace. The extraordinary room with oval openings, stained glass, ornate cornice, and the pediment with the royal initials is connected to the mansion by means of a pillared walkway.

The interior of Moon Beam in Saraswathy Vilasam Palace, which used to be a library and study of Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran

The interior of Moon Beam in Saraswathy Vilasam Palace, which used to be a library and study of Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran

“The royals sold the palace in 1989. That was when Hindi Prachar Sabha bought it,” says Krishna Kumari, Principal of Mahatma Gandhi Public School that functions in the building. The structure was occupied by the Anti-corruption Court for 10 years, from 1989-99. The palace finds a place in the heritage list maintained by the State Archaeology Department.

(The author is a conservation architect and history buff)

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