History & Culture

A Lady Hamlyn touch

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The over 300-year-old former residence of the Cochin Maharaja, Chittoor Kottaram, opens after specialised restoration

Lady Helen Hamlyn uses the French word douceur, meaning pleasantness, to describe the essence of Chittoor Kottaram, a former residence of the Cochin Royal Family. At the helm of the eponymous Helen Hamlyn Trust (HHT), the 84-year-old is the force behind the palace’s recent restoration.

Having acquired an insight into the complex and intricate art of preservation from years of engaging in conservation of heritage, in different parts of the world, she says, “I treat every building like a person.”

A Lady Hamlyn touch

In its over 300 years of existence Chittoor Kottaram, now, after restoration, wears its charm once again, with a feel of the times when the Cochin Raja graced it, coming down to attend the functions at the adjacent Krishna temple.

Beyond the padippura, the formal entrance, its majestic grandeur looms. Seated on the refurbished verandah, facing the serene backwaters, Lady Hamlyn relishes the quietness that envelops its two storeys. It is a reason she chose to associate with it, having fallen in love with its very private ambiance.

“Chittoor is perfect; it is a retreat,” she says, talking animatedly about the completion of her latest project.

“The important thing in restoration is that you take up a piece of heritage and restore it without destroying its essence,” she says.

Latha Raman Jaigopal whose firm had carried out major restoration works on the structure in 2005 at the behest of the owner from the royal family, Suresh Namboothiri, was engaged to do so again by Lady Hamlyn. Of the first restoration, Latha says that it was merely strengthening of the structure. This time, it was about taking it back to its original condition. Latha adds, “Lady Hamlyn took it back to the original flavour a little more.” For instance, she modernised the pond, converting it into a pool, but kept to the old and used material like laterite stone. It covers the concrete base making it both functional and antique.

A Lady Hamlyn touch

The only distinct change introduced was in widening of the veranda that now serves as a lounging space and in the construction of a waterfront gazebo, using natural materials. The final touches underway are sprucing up the private boat and changing remaining furnishing.

It was 30 years ago that Lady Hamlyn first visited Kerala with her husband, the publishing tycoon, Paul Hamlyn. In those early years the couple tried, in vain, to associate with the restoration of the Bolgatty Palace, but the efforts got mired in government procedures. The restoration of a few properties and old warehouses in Fort Kochi too met the same fate. Disheartened, she engaged herself with other heritage projects. In Khajuraho, which comes under the ASI, she cleared the ‘bunds’ and was instrumental in the shifting of a bus stop that hurt the heritage property. “World Heritage Sites by law have 500 metres of protection. Khajuraho had nothing of it then,” she recalls.

Reviving 100 fountains

Prior to her efforts here she fought a two-year battle with the Government of Goa over the restoration of the 16th Century Reis Magos Fort, that eventually resulted in the amendment of an archaic law that now permits reuse of a restored structure.

“When I get involved in restoration it is always for reuse, so that the structure can fulfil its role and be a part of the culture of the land.”

Before this, her collaborations with the Maharajah of Jodhpur to restore the Nagaur fort in Central Rajasthan brought about not only its glorious revival but also made it the much sought-after venue for the World Sufi Festival, now in its 11th year. She co-founded the event that brings droves of tourists to its doorstep.

Alongside, she revived the residences of old queens, small private dilapidated properties, suggesting they be converted to “nice little hotels,” and added modern amenities to the renovated structures.

Akbari Mahal, known for its water gardens that were introduced for the first time by Akbar, was undertaken by Lady Hamlyn for restoration. She brought back to life all 100 rusted and disused fountains, in period style.

“When I finish a project, it has to look as it looked when it was built. That nobody has touched it.”

Hence what has come to be Lady Hamlyn’s touch or trademark is one of sensitive reclamation, of no extra value addition and of using materials that were used in the initial construction.

A Lady Hamlyn touch

The personalised restoration of Chittoor Kottaram has given back to it, its temporarily missing character, accentuated its stillness, heightened its stateliness and beauty. Lady Hamlyn’s labour of love is clearly evident in the decor of the three bedrooms, living area, wooden stairway, verandah, common area, office and spa, dressed in art—Pichwais, wooden cages, Bengali hand-embroidered hangings, furniture—from her personal collection. It will now be used by her and by guests who seek a private and majestic getaway.

“The thing about Kochi is its extraordinary history of people from different lands settling down here. That has made it what it is,” she says, adding that it has been a privilege to contribute in a small way to preserve the heritage of India which is unique to the world.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 1:03:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-over-300-year-old-former-residence-of-the-cochin-maharaj-chittoor-kottaram-opens-after-specialised-restoration/article22917800.ece

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