Thekkae kottaram, a traditional south Kerala homestead

1 year ago Sharat Sunder Rajeev 0

Thekkae kottaram, the ‘Southern Palace’ in the Padmanabhapuram palace complex in Kanyakumari district, Tamil Nadu, is a fine specimen of a traditional homestead unique to the southern part of Kerala. The palace is a typical residential complex, which comprises three separate buildings and a neerazhi (pond) contained in a walled enclosure, located on the southern side of the complex but separated from the main section by a public road.

Though there are no records to reveal the true history and age of Thekkae kottaram, oral traditions place it as an integral part of the palace complex. One such prevalent tradition holds that a ruler of Venad, who happened to see a fine specimen of a noble’s house, had it relocated to Kalkulam, where it stands today. Another popular one associates it with Anizham Tirunal Marthanda Varma (1729-1758). It is said that Varma, after he vanquished the powerful madampis (nobles) who plotted against him, demolished their houses and used the excellent timber salvaged to construct the kottaram.

Even though the main section of the Padmanabhapuram palace got converted into a museum by 1935, Thekkae kottaram remained unexplored until 1937, when J.H. Cousins, the Art Advisor to the erstwhile Travancore government, rediscovered it. Thekkae kottaram is constructed almost entirely out of wood and, when Cousins found it, years of neglect had already had made an impact on the structure. Some of the richly carved timber elements were damaged by large borer beetles. Cousins and his team immediately set about restoring the building to its true glory. Once the beetles were eliminated, their holes were filled and careful restoration of woodwork commenced.

Intricate carvings in the palace

Intricate carvings in the palace   | Photo Credit: Sruthi Satheesan

The complex consists of a thai veedu, the core residential unit, which has three courtyards and a nilavara (subterranean chamber for storage). The habitable spaces are scattered around the two courtyards, whereas the kitchen and associated utilitarian spaces can be seen concentrated alongside the third courtyard on the northern side of the thai veedu. On the south side of the chief residence can be seen the thekkath, a simple rectangular structure, which served as a private temple. To the east of the thai veedu is the rectangular unit with a spacious thalam and an eastern balcony overlooking the large pond located to the east. A flight of steps beneath this structure leads to the bathing ghats. It is generally considered that this complex was used as a guest house for the distinguished native visitors.

The typical Kerala kitchen set in the palace museum.

The typical Kerala kitchen set in the palace museum.   | Photo Credit: Sruthi Satheesan

The intricate carpentry work is the most remarkable aspect of this complex. The entire complex, except for its plinth, is crafted in the ingenious architectural tradition, using timber. The elegantly carved gables, the pillars and the ceiling of the poomukham in the thai veedu bear testimony to the dexterity in carpentry achieved by the local craftsmen then. The detailing of lotus flowers seen on the ceiling, on close inspection, reveals that each piece is unique in its design. The lintel plates are also most tastefully adorned with floral ornamental carvings.

Since 1993, thekkae kottaram has been functioning as a heritage museum, showcasing the old household articles seen in a typical Kerala homestead of the olden days.

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