It had been a rather uneventful journey from Kochi to Thrippunithura or Tripunithura in Kerala. As I pottered around, I realized that the nondescript settlement, located barely 8 kms from the capital city was wrapped in a deep afternoon stupor. The shops were closed, the temple was silent and the autos were parked in a corner with loud snoring drivers lounging on their seats. I stood alone at the crossroads and my reverie was interrupted by the loud gongs from a clock. I looked up to see a little puppet peering down at me from a tall imposing clock tower. Bright and sparkling in its fresh coat of paint, the 19th-century Manimalika was standing rather tall in the sleepy town. As the clock’s hands announced the top of the hour, I saw the neatly dressed soldier – a puppet looking out of the window saluting me. The Manimalika, built by Cochin Maharaja, Rama Varma was my second brush with royalty in the erstwhile capital Tripunithura, the first being the touristy Tripunithura Hill Palace which now houses a museum. Tripunithura palace along with flower palace along with forts and temples are some of the Tripunithura tourist places but I had a rather unusual tryst with the royal town.
It is not very often that you get to brush against royalty on the road. But in Tripunithura, you could, for almost everyone in this town had a royal connection. Besides, I learnt that every house was a small palace, housing descendants of the royal family. Walking around Tripunithura, I realized why the guide books called it a palace town. Apparently, there were 41 palaces here, besides the Tripunithura Palace, but most of them were old, crumbling, and are not renovated. Some had morphed into marriage halls while others had been demolished and converted into apartments.
Pic Courtesy – Kerala Tourism
Most of these houses may not be among the list of Tripunithura tourist places, but they have a charm about them. Wooden panels on roofs and windows, archaic staircases, quaint door handles, priceless antiques, and some regal memorabilia – these gave the royal touch. I realized that not all palaces had a name either – they were just known by a number. There was Palace no 13 on my left and then I walked past Kalikota Palace and gazed upon the charming Bungalow Palace, which was apparently the oldest with 250 years of regal history behind it.
I met a Kathakali performer, Radhika near Bungalow Palace, who had come to meet her elderly parents who lived here. She graciously invited me over, showing me how the base of the building was built several feet above the ground, as it had housed the kings at one time.
Being a matriarchal society, the palace had come into the custody of her grand-aunt and then to her mother. A narrow passage led to a staircase which, in turn, opened into a huge living room. Strewn with old furniture, curios, and family memorabilia, it seemed reminiscent of the royal lineage.
I went with Radhika to the bedroom where colourful walls told a story. The paint has faded, but the walls are filled with vibrant murals dating back to the 19th century.
Portraits of kings looked down at us. Europeans in their dandy costumes stared vacantly into our eyes. The room was filled with an assortment of furniture and as the sun streamed in, it created an air of nostalgia and lost glory.
Radhika’s friend Parvati joined us in a while and we explored the town together. They were all part of the all-ladies Kathakali group here, “the only one here” said Parvati as I watched them rehearsing for their next performance. While speaking to them about their lives and art, a reverent silence filled the room as their Guru, Fact Padmanabha walked in to watch them perform. The entire mood suddenly changed as the women transformed themselves into the characters. Jaws hardened, fists were clenched and the eyes widened as I suddenly saw hem breathing fire and passions took over. over. They are performing Nizhal Kuthu, a scene out of Mahabharatha when a black magician is asked to kill the Pandavas against his wishes.
“We are the only all women’s kathakali group here, “explained Parvati but her Guru adds that he hardly saw any difference between male and female performers. “The basha is all about mudra,” he added, breaking into a dance, setting the stage on fire while his eyes conveyed a whole gamut range of emotions.
Most of the performers here were passionate about kathakali as they juggled home, jobs, family, and their performances. Radhika joked that she had played almost all roles including the dark characters, but had never donned a woman’s role. I was told that they performed more than 20 shows a year, not just in temples but also in other cities and abroad. ” In Tripunithura, culture seeps down to every family and you can see women, children all performing all the time, “ she said.
In a moment, they were back to their rehearsals. Parvati’s eyes hardened, as she slowly transformed into the cold and ruthless Duryodhana wishing for the death of Pandavas. There were no masks or costumes, but the character came alive in her eyes. The entire mood suddenly changed. I quietly left them to their rehearsals and walked towards the Manimalika, one of the Tripunithura tourist places.
I was however soon distracted by some drum beats that are vibrating from the adjacent Poornathrayesa temple. I entered a huge hall, interrupting a chenda (a cylindrical percussion instrument) class. A group of young boys, bare-chested were hitting some wooden blocks with full force, practicing a beat as their tutor watched on. Soon the entire temple reverberated with the beat of the chenda. I watched them for a while and left silently, wondering how the erstwhile grandeur of the town was today lost to the world.