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This treasure trove in the heart of Trivandrum is a reprieve from modernity

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Curiosity may truly kill the cat. Legend has it that anyone who tries to penetrate the hidden inner sanctum of Trivandrum’s Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, an architectural delight in the heart of the city, will meet a not-so-happy fate or even a catastrophic one. This has prevented priests, followers, caretakers, public functionaries and even the royal family from attempting to reach the much-talked-about treasure trove that many believe is held in this innermost chamber.

As I enter the inner sanctum of the 112-year-old Ambika Vilas, also in the heart of Trivandrum city, 20 minutes from the airport and not far from the temple, I have no such fear or dread as there are no old wives’ tales surrounding this sanctuary in the middle of this otherwise bustling city. I find myself standing in the prasava muri or birthing room where over one hundred infants of the family of the “durbar” physician to the royal family of Travancore were born over the last century, including the one who is regaling me with the tales of an era gone by. Next to the birthing room is the waiting room, which would typically be full of eager, expectant family members: the father-to-be, the mother-in-law-to-be and others closely associated with the soon-to-be newborn. The air would be filled with excitement, and ears pricked for the first shout, often revealing the sex of the newborn to those waiting in anticipation.

As I try to visualise even one home birth – it sounds so prehistoric in today’s urban day and age of fancy maternity birthing boutiques – my attention is diverted by the ray of golden sunlight that glows from the anganam (courtyard), drenches its four pillars and lights up its tiny patch of greenery. The July rain when I visit is furious and hugs the four thick locked iron chains that hang down from four ends of the square-shaped space, leading it in a disciplined manner to where it belongs. Built using the principles of Thatchusastra, an ancient science of carpentry, these noble family homes in were typically built using local materials and techniques and based on the premise that every man-made structure has a life and personality of its own, derived from these inputs. A paste of lime-based mortar, vegetable extracts and egg is applied to coat the walls to keep the rooms cool even in the hot summer months. Long, sloping roofs, supported by wooden rafters and plinths, protect the inhabitants from the incessant rains during Kerala’s famed monsoons. Preservation of the most precious of resources is also at the core of it; almost everywhere, the structure’s design ensures that rainwater heads where it is most needed to replenish the groundwater reserves.

A beautiful well at the back of the property and a couple of lion heads at the entrance captivate visitors to the villa (including me), which has been lovingly and painstakingly restored over almost a decade and opened to outsiders since 2019 by its present owner Krishnambika Nambiar. If you are fortunate and your visit coincides with her presence, you’ll get a bird’s eye view into the how, what, where, why and when of the villa, its construction and restoration. It is an experience through which those interested will learn a lot about the traditions and values of how the state’s nobility went about living their lives back then.

The simplicity yet mindfulness of her grandmother’s daily routine keeps me rapt, although there’s nothing revolutionary about it. Yet the rhythms and flow of their daily lives are so diametrically opposite to what we encounter today, it is enough to keep one engrossed.

Perhaps the most confounding and delightful aspect of the house is pinpointing where exactly one is, since the exterior or the garden and the interior of the rooms are meshed in a unique way that makes it one holistic space.

Bits of the garden and golden sunlight surprise a visitor in many unexpected corners, always drawing in sharp intakes of breath as one ingests the harmony between the two.

Over my three days, I discovered the best way to spend one’s time on a day when the pelting rain makes any outdoor explorations unviable was lolling in the Nalukettu. In this central courtyard, at least four of the main rooms of the structure open and served as a place for the family in the old days to gather for meals and festivities. A bit like today’s TV or family room, without the accompanying trolleys on which lazy meals often arrive!

But if Ambika Vilas is an ideal haven for the students of architecture, those wanting to dwell upon and delve into Kerala’s cuisine might enjoy a meal or several here. From light, fluffy appams and neer dosas (borrowed from the neighbouring Karnataka) to mildly flavoured stews and delicately flavoured fish, vegetable, and meat preparations, the chef at the property will ensure guests hardly venture out into the city for a meal. I’m convinced the sadya the chef serves us for lunch on the second day is designed to ensure we never leave the premises, having burst from gluttony. However, we decided to try the much talked about Villa Maya nearby, housed in a restored 18th-century Dutch manor with a range of well-curated offerings from Italy, Morocco, and the rest of India.

Palace of Maharaja of Travancore

Palace of Maharaja of Travancore

But Villa Maya is just one of many gems the city offers. For art lovers, the Napier museum nearby is a delight, much more for its unique Gothic style and minarets than the display of artefacts, which suffers from the usual lacklusterness that envelopes state-run museums across the country. Equally entrancing in terms of is the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, with its 18-foot Vishnu as the main deity in an “eternal” sleeping posture on a serpent. For non-believers, I’d suggest skipping paying one’s respects to the deity to avoid getting crushed amongst the frenzied devotees and priests whose primary job appears to be shouting at the hordes to move on quicker. With its architectural brilliance at every step and corner, the temple is worth a visit regardless.

Napier museum

Napier museum

But for the more sprightly and spirited, I’d highly recommend three mini-adventures, all a few hours drive from Ambika Vilas. A long day’s drive transports you a few centuries back to the Maharaja of Travancore’s exquisite wooden palace in Padmanabhapuram, located in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu but meticulously maintained by the government. Another day’s drive is worth the effort to the Chittar dam, an area peppered with beautiful Scotland-like water bodies, surrounded by rubber trees and plantations.

Chittar dam

Chittar dam

And for those who don’t feel a holiday is complete without a beach or two, skip Kovalam and head straight to Varkala, Kerala’s inimitable answer to Goa’s numerous beaches. With its strip of lively spots peppered into the cliff and an edgy walkway that overlooks the vast, stunning, frothy ocean beneath, don’t give in to the temptation to take the plunge, even for that Instagrammable selfie!

Wooden palace of Maharaja of Travancore

Wooden palace of Maharaja of Travancore

Disclaimer: The author availed of the hospitality of Ambika Vilas, Trivandrum, at the time of writing of this report, with the expense borne by the hosts.

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