Kerala: City of the Sacred Serpent

Kerala: City of the Sacred Serpent
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Thiruvananthapuram is a quiet and charming state capital that's big on heritage

Latha Anantharaman
January 28 , 2017
10 Min Read

It’s a city that shies away from being a city. There are no skyscrapers here aiming for the clouds or touristy wows, no fast cars racing down glitzy lanes, no night clubs where you can swing to hip hop or trance. Its name itself speaks of a rich slowness that some would say is rather unbecoming of a capital. But having a lolling moniker that visitors struggle to pronounce is one of the joys of being Thiruvananthapuram, a capital city content donning a small town cloak.

Of course, there’s no mistaking the scent of power in its clean streets. This is where politicians rave, rant and deny having built private swimming pools with public funds. This is where secretive space research goes on behind walls that do not have ears, where pretty palaces are often smaller than the bungalows that have come up with Gulf money. But thankfully, for the most part, Thiruvananthapuram is all about lovely tree-lined avenues and crimson sunsets by the sea.

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The city’s most defining feature is the Padmanabhaswamy Temple of Lord Vishnu, canopied by the hooded serpent Anantha. It was at the altar of this temple that Marthanda Varma (1729-1758), the ruler who made Travancore a powerful political entity, dedicated his kingdom to the lord and ruled as a dasa or slave.

Centuries down the line, Thiruvananthapuram continues to wear its princely statehood on its sleeves. For many, an abiding memory of the city is not just that of the temple, but also that of the present-day king paying homage to the deity. It’s truly a royal treat, one of those moments that make you thankful that some things never change.

Things to See & Do

Thiruvananthapuram has earned itself the Pacific Asia Travel Association Gold Award for Heritage Conservation, not to mention the appreciation of tourists. Autorickshaws are the best way to get around the city. Buses are also available.

The Padmanabhaswamy Temple is located just south-west of the railway station and the Thampanoor Bus Stand in the East Fort area. The 30-metre gopuram above the entrance, built in the Dravidian style, and the 365 carved granite pillars in its inner corridor set it apart from other temples in Kerala.

The deity is the family deity of the early kings of southern Kerala as well as the kings of Venad (Travancore was once a principality of Venad). Control of the temple meant control over the state. The Maharaja of Travancore, to date, pays daily homage to the deity and has to pay a small fine if he misses doing so.

The earliest structures in the temple date from the 11th century, but the gopuram was completed by Marthanda Varma in the 18th century. Among the many legends associated with the origin of the temple is one about the sage Vilvamangalam, who while seeking Vishnu’s darshan saw an enormous tree crash down his path and transform into Sree Padmanabhaswamy reclining on a five-headed serpent. At the behest of the sage, the lord shrank to his present size.

Capture the details of the reclining idol from three separate doors. From one, you can see the lord’s feet, from another the lotus and from the third, the face. Buy an archana (a short puja) ticket to get on the platform in front and have a close view of the golden idol. Other interesting features in the temple complex include the shrine of Lord Krishna, with an elaborately carved japamandapa (prayer hall) and the shrine to kshetrapala or the temple guardian, which has lively geometrical forms on its ceiling and bright murals on the inner walls.

For ₹5, you can walk into the rather haunting 1,000-pillared hall, just outside the inner sanctum. You can also, if you don’t mind the bats, climb up into the gopuram for a bird’s eye view of the city.

Entry fee ₹5 (1,000-pillared hall), ₹10 (sanctum sanctorum) Timings 4.15-11.15 am, 5.15-7.30 pm

Buy tickets only from temple officials. Women must wear saris or mundus. Men must be bare-chested and wear a mundu as well. Mundus can be rented from the cloakroom. Cameras, mobiles and large bags have to be deposited in the cloakroom. Non-Hindus not allowed.

Face masks at Swathi Thirunal's 19th-century Kuthiramalika Palace

The Kuthiramalika Palace, just outside the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, is a complex of several palaces and buildings. As you approach the entrance to the inner palace, the slanting wooden beams in the upper galleries, carved in the form of grinning kuthiras (horses), immediately catch your attention.

The palace was built in the 19th century by Swathi Thirunal, the composer king who, along with Thyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar, makes up the ‘Carnatic music trinity’. The palace displays the king’s collection of musical instruments as well as a variety of arms, their beauty and artistry symbolising the Travancore kings’ preference for settling disputes by treaty.

Entry fee Indians ₹10, children ₹3, foreigners ₹20 Timings 8.30 am-1 pm and 3-5.30 pm, Mondays closed Cameras ₹15 (only for the exteriors; no photography allowed inside)

Visitors must remove their footwear and be accompanied by a guide, who waits for a batch of at least five tourists to assemble

Napier Museum houses 11th-century bronze and stone sculptures

NAPIER MUSEUM

The museum, located in the north of the city, is named after Lord Charles Napier, the governor of Madras (1866-1872), who famously said about sati, “When men burn women alive, we hang them.” The museum was started in the 19th century and houses a good collection of 11th-18th century bronze and stone sculptures. Some visitors may find the exteriors of the museum more interesting, with its multi-coloured bricks. The zoological garden in the complex represents the diverse floral wealth of South India.

Zoo and gallery entry fee Adults ₹10, children ₹5 Timings 10 am-5 pm, Wednesdays 1-5 pm Cameras Still free, video ₹750

A model of a nalukettu at the Natural History Museum

Apart from the little zoo, the museum complex also houses the Sree Chitra Art Gallery, a building containing a fine collection of paintings by Raja Ravi Varma and his sister, Mangalabai Thamburatti, as well as works by Svyatoslav Roerich and other artists. Ravi Varma’s portrayal of Maharani Lakshmi Bai is a powerful one and his painting of Ravana abducting Sita still strikes as blasphemous and daring. Also drop in at the nearby Natural History Museum.

Entry fee to zoo and gallery Adults ₹10, children ₹5 Timings 10 am-5 pm, Mondays closed Cameras Still ₹10 (for zoo only)

ROYAL HOMES

Kanakakunnu Palace, across the road from the museum, is an elegant pastiche with tiled roof, apsidal wings, French windows and a portico with columns. The best view is from the outside, so don’t sweat it if you aren’t allowed in. Apart from the Kanakakunnu Palace, there is the Kowdiar Palace, where the royal family lives, visible at a distance from Kowdiar Avenue. Pattom Palace accommodates another branch of the royal family, and Belle Haven, opposite Raj Bhavan, now serves as an RBI guest house.

SHOPPING

The shops inside the East Fort compound offer varieties of mundus, gold jewellery and brass lamps. Karalkada in Kaithamukku Junction is a great place to buy traditional Travancore saris and mundus. Kairali Handicrafts, near Statue Junction, and Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan, closer to the Ayurveda College Junction, sell straw bags and mats. For handicrafts, you can also try SMSM Handicraft Emporium on YMCA Road, Kairali near the Secretariat or Natesan’s Antiq Arts on MG Road. Pick up bronze items or unusual souvenirs such as the traditional old locks. Other beautiful items on sale are Thanjavur paintings, statues made of sandalwood, miniature snake boats and Kathakali masks.

Near the Ayurveda College Junction are two good bookshops, DC Books and Current, where you can pick up lesserknown titles on Kerala. You can also roam through an old market that sells kitchen tools and clay pots. Check out the 200-year-old Connemara Market in Palayam, more popularly known as the Palayam Market. You can pick up everything from bangles and clothes here. Chalai Market in Chalai is where you can buy anything from vegetables to jewellery. For Kerala saris, head to Parthas on MG Road and Ayappas near the Overbridge.

Where to Stay

Among the high end hotels, try Vivanta by Taj (Tel: 0471-6612345; Tariff: ₹7,000-14,000), the best here. Located in the heart of the city, The South Park (Tel: 2333333; Tariff: ₹5,000-9,200) is a convenient stay option on MG Road. The pub and the bookshop here are a bonus.

The Muthoot Plaza (Tel: 2337733), located on Punnen Road, is one of the best hotels in town but is currently under renovation. A stone’s throw from the railway station lies the distinctly South Indian hotel and restaurant, Arya Nivaas (Tel: 2330789; Tariff: ₹750-1,600). Look for Raja Ravi Varma’s reproductions and Kerala murals on its walls. If you want to stay near the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, try Saj Luciya (Tel: 2463443; Tariff: ₹6,000-10,000) in Eastern Fort.

The Grand Central (Tel: 2471286; Tariff: ₹2,100-4,100) and Hotel Highland Park (Tel: 2338800; Tariff: ₹800-1,300) are good affordable places.

Hotel Oasis (Tel: 2333223; Tariff: ₹600-1,500) on Vaniya Street, Palayam, and Amritha (Tel: 2323091; Tariff: ₹800-1,500) in Thycaud are fine budget range hotels, with great food to boot. The YWCA International Guesthouse (Tel: 2477308, 2463690; Tariff: ₹560-2,830), near the town hall on MG Road, is another cheap option.

Jas Hotel (Tel: 2324163/ 881; Tariff: ₹995-4,000) at Aristo Junction in Thycaud has two restaurants, a bar and offers laundry services.

Or try the homestays: Graceful Homestay (Tel: 2444429; Tariff: ₹1,500-2,500), set in a very elegant villa; Odese (Tel: 2351755; Tariff: ₹750-1,200); Sankar’s (Tel: 2444444; Tariff: ₹4,400); and Gouri Homes (Mob: 09895850505; Tariff: ₹900-1,800), set on the banks of Vellayani Lake.

Where to Eat

The Regency in South Park serves an array of Keralite specialities. Here you can dig into meen pollichathu and kappa meen curry. Arya Nivaas is a good place to grab some dosas, idlis and idiappams. They also serve a tasty Keralite thali.

Saj Luciya has a restaurant called Zodiac that serves a good Keralite breakfast. Their karimeen varathathu or pearlspot fish fry and karimeen curry, a fiery curry red with spices, cooked in an earthen dish and served with rice, are very popular.

Amritha Hotel has a multicuisine restaurant where you can have your fill of typically Keralite dishes. Their naimeen (sear fish) fry is also very popular. For Chinese, head for the hotel Oasis’ Roof Garden Restaurant. Try the mouth-watering Oasis specials. Their sister concern in Kedaram Complex is an excellent multicuisine restaurant, with a kids’ play pen.


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