Padmanabhapuram, now in the Kanyakumari district of Tamilnadu is about 65 kms to the south of Thiruvananthapuram. A slight detour from the national highway running through Thiruvananthapuram and Nagercoil will bring you to this old palace enclosed within the four-kilometer perimeter of a huge granite wall. The reign of Marthanda Varma (1729-58), the most powerful of the Thiruvithamkur kings, was also the most glorious period in Padmanabhapuram’s history. It was Marthanda Varma, the maker of modern Thiruvithamkur, who gave the palace and its surroundings the present name of Padmanabhapuram, or the Abode of Padmanabha. This was around 1744, before which the place was known as Kalkulam.
The construction of the palace is typical of the native architectural idiom except for the protruding balcony in the northern wing and the clock tower near the main entrance. The tiled saddle-backed roofs with triangular gables ensconcing carved wooden screens, latticed wooden windows, cool and ventilated rooms and corridors, black floors polished to a glistening smoothness, pillars of beautifully carved wood, intricately carved wooden beams and wall panels, steep, narrow staircases, all of these add to the quaint charm of Padmanabhapuram.
The Thai Kottaram, or Mother Palace, is almost central to the complex. Near this wing is the three-storeyed Upparikamalika, the tallest of the structures here. On the top floor is a rectangular chamber, the walls of which are enriched by well-preserved murals. This chamber was designed for meditation and retreat of the king and the heir-apparent.
Murals decorate the inner walls of the room. These paintings depict gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon and are intended to create a congenial atmosphere for meditation.
On the western and eastern walls, the two paintings of Anantha Padmanabha form the central theme. And both these paintings were held in reverence since they were believed to be sanctified by the presence of the particular deity. The mural on the eastern wall is only a re-painting of the original which was destroyed when the wall was struck by lightning sometime in the past.
The lines of the painting conform to all the specifications desired by the verses sung to invoke the deity. The Lord reclines on the serpent Anantha, attended by his consort Sridevi, and surrounded by several Rishis and numerous celestials including the other important gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. And idol of Siva Linga is pictured near Vishnu’s right hand from which he drops flower offerings.
The mural on the eastern wall measures 224-cms by 152-cms. One feature that sets this mural apart from others of the same theme elsewhere is its capacity for creating a three-dimensional illusion. On the top right and left hand corners of the panel are paintings of the Sun and the Moon personified as gods. The Sun is personified as Soorya Narayana sitting on a lotus, engulfed in his own iridescence. The Soorya Narayana is painted in golden yellow colour, while the Moon is painted in white. They are shown worshiped by sages and celestials and are in turn worshipers of the Supreme Being. At the bottom of the panel are two Dwarapalakas flanking the deity. As we turn to the northern wall paintings of the ‘Dasa Avatara’, the ten incarnations, of Lord Vishnu, and the Saiva celestials, the eleven forms of Rudra can be distinguished easily. Apart from these, there are paintings of Siva Tandava, Ganesha Pooja, Vettakkorumakan, Krishna as Parthasarathy, or Arjuna’s charioteer, the Master of masters – Veda Vyasa, Sankara Narayana – a composite of Saiva and Vaishnava energies, Mahisha Mardhini Durga, Dakshinamoorthy or Siva as the interpreter of the Supreme Truth, Siva as Bhairava, a painting of Sastha as a hunter on horseback, Krishna being showered with pots of jewels, Vishnu with his two consorts in Vaikuntha and a picture of Siva accepting the hand of Parvati.
The central theme of the eastern wall is a repainted version, as mentioned earlier. Palace records show that an Iranian mural painter Saris Katchadourian was commissioned to repaint the mural in the early forties of this century. In this painting, at the bottom-middle portion, there is a small painting of Vishnu flanked by his consorts, bearing a close resemblance to icons. The wall also includes paintings depicting Krishna-leela, or the antics of Krishna; Balakrishna confronting Kamsa’s murderous envoys like the demoness Poothana and the asura Baka, who came disguised as a huge bird, Krishna dancing on the hood of Kaliyan after vanquishing it, Krishna as Damodara giving salvation to two celestials who were turned into trees.
The most beautiful painting on the southern wall is the picture of Krishna playing the flute to an entranced audience of gopikas in the woods of Vrindavan. While this is an oft painted subject, this particular painting can also be ranked among the finest murals of the typical Kerala style. Krishna stands with crossed feet playing his flute surrounded by an enraptured audience that consists of gopikas, cows and the birds and beasts of Vrindavan. The entire subject is contained in a frame 128 cms by 100 cms. The mural stands out by virtue of its harmony in the application of colours. Green, white, ochre, golden yellow and dark blue blend and match with each other. Another remarkable feature is the converging effect of the lines of vision of the gopikas and Krishna, the central figure. Yet another noteworthy mural on this wall is that of the coronation of Rama.
Other paintings include a painting of Subramanya, Siva in his Ardhanariswara form – half male and half female, Vishnu’s main weapon – the Sudarshana Chakra personified as a human being, Vishnu holding Mahalakshmi, a couple of pictures of Vishnu with his consorts, Rama’s Veera Raghava, the personification of courage and daring, Bhadra Kali, a Siva Linga and the Siva family, a picture of Narasimha in a yogic stance, Siva with Parvati, and twelve Vishnu Purushas.
One can easily distinguish three individual styles in the wall paintings of Padmanabhapuram. Most of the paintings on the upper halves of the walls and on the western wall were done by a master-artist, while a large part of the lower halves were filled by a lesser artist. The entire re-paintings on the eastern wall were done by another person, whose style reveals a marked post-Vijayanagara influence.
It is not incorrect to assume that the murals except those on the eastern wall were painted during Marthanda Varma’s occupation of the palace. The style in general resembles the original paintings of the Padmanabha Swami temple of Thiruvananthapuram. The elongation of the face and body of the figures, pouting lips, and sharp aquiline noses are the salient features of this style. Above everything else, what radiates through these pictures is the absolute reverence of the Thiruvithamkur royal family to Vaishnavism.