Wednesday 16 August 2023




Window of the palace at Pulpanabhaporum from which the Ranees view the processions, albumin print, 1868, Royal Collection Trust

The ‘jharokha,’ the Indian equivalent of the ‘oriel window,' has been identified as a significant medieval architectural element ever since Islamic architectural trends amalgamated with the indigenous. Jharokhas were often placed on the façade of palatial structures, overlooking a street or an important open space. While the women in the cloistered harems of the palaces and havelis framed their gaze to the other side of the world through jharokhas, the same was associated with the kingly ritual—the jharokha darshan—when the architectural setup served as the point from which the ruler addressed the public audience. The Mughal courtly custom of the emperor appearing before the subjects at the jharokha made it popular amongst their feudatories. It is perhaps due to the infiltration of Mughal courtly customs into south Indian provincial courts that the jharokha also got assimilated into the regional architectural vocabulary.

In Travancore, the oldest specimen of a jharokha can be found in the sprawling Padmanabhapuram complex in Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu. The ambari mukhappu overlooking the processional street on the northern side of the palace complex is an exquisitely carved bay window, fashioned like an ambari or howdah, with five openings supported by rampant vyali (mythical beast) figures on the outside and crowned with a conical roof. The window inspired the European architect R.F. Chisholm, who incorporated four replicas of the same in the Napier Museum in Thiruvananthapuram, designed by him. A champion of the Indo-Saracenic architectural style, Chisholm would have found the ambari mukhappu a ready ingredient for his masterpiece work in Travancore.

Watercolour sketch showing the northern street and the ambari mukhappu, by R.F. Chisholm, RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collection

The jharokha window at Napier Museum, Thiruvananthapuram

A view of the forecourt at Padmanabhapuram, the jharokha atop the entrance gateway is seen on the right

That said, let us now look at a less discussed jharokha at the Padmanabhapuram palace complex. This window is strategically placed atop the grand doorway, overlooking the large forecourt in front of the palace, and connected to the other wings through secured corridors. During the eighteenth century, the forecourt would have been a happening place when the capital of Travancore was still based in Padmanabhapuram. The view from this elevated space makes one appreciate the ingenuity of the architects of yore who designed such a space from which the sentries could keep an eye on the activities both in the large quadrangle and also in the smaller yard in front of the poomukhamalika (entrance hall). On special occasions like navaratri, the kilivāthil (small windows) opening to the front quadrangle enabled the royal ladies to witness the celebrations and activities, seated comfortably, away from the teeming crowds below. Various recreational activities, like animal combats and wrestling, staged in the front quadrangle were witnessed by the king and his officials from the same bay window.

The jharokha window, Padmanabhapuram, a closer view.

(More on the other jharokhas in Thiruvananthapuram later).

Sharat Sunder Rajeev


Thursday 3 August 2023



The eastern gopuram of Padmanabhaswami temple, also known as the ‘Rajagopuram’, is undoubtedly one of the majestic edifices erected by the rulers of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom. Though the credit for constructing the gopuram is claimed by Anizham Tirunal Martanda Varma, the founder of the Travancore kingdom, the annals at Padmanabhaswami temple take us back to the sixteenth century, to the reign of Aditya Varma, when Thottathil Achari, a master craftsman, is recorded to have laid the foundation stone of the eastern gopuram in 741 M.E. (c.1566 C.E.). Subsequent chronicles shed light on the internal strife among the Venad rulers and the powerful madampis, disrupting the smooth conduct of the construction activities. 

The royal commission was destined to remain dormant until the eighteenth century when Marthanda Varma took matters into his own hands. Martanda Varma appointed Kesavan Vishnu Thrathan of Thycattu Illam as the Stapathi and went about a thorough renovation of the Padmanabhaswami temple. When Marthanda Varma passed away in 1758 C.E., only five out of the seven storeys of the gopuram had been finished; however, the work progressed through the reign of Karthika Tirunal Rama Varma. The gopuram, when finished, stood at a soaring height of about a hundred feet and had every inch of its exterior decorated with fine stucco figurines depicting episodes from the Hindu epics.

Sannidhi-Vaasal, the eastern entrance to Padmanabhaswami temple, c.1868, The Royal Collection Trust. Note the absence of the finials in this photograph.

The gopuram, though it maintained an irrefutable presence in the skyline of the capital city, was to remain incomplete for the next hundred years. The earliest photograph of the gopuram from 1868 shows it without the seven golden finials—the kalashas—atop the ridge. The task of completing the project was taken up (c.1872) by Dewan Sir. Sashiah Sastri K.C.S.I. during the reign of Maharajah Ayilyam Tirunal Rama Varma (r.1860-1880). 

Sir A. Sashiah Sastri, Dewan of Travancore.

The following details regarding the completion of the eastern tower can be gleaned from the biography of the Dewan:

The tower of Sri Padmanabha Swami temple at Trevandrum, which had been long left incomplete, was completed. Finials plated with gold were set up over the topmost storey of the tower and the gilt spires of Sri Padmanabha became a landmark amid the green fields and verdant groves for forty miles around.”

The eastern gopuram with the finials, c.1900 (attributed to D’Cruz, the Govt. Photographer), The British Library collection.

Sharat Sunder R
July 2023.

Monday 17 October 2022


A Nair Wedding 

Recently, when I called on Suseela Bayi, granddaughter of the famed author C.V. Raman Pillai, she narrated several interesting anecdotes about her ancestors. Sitting in the hall of the famed 'Rosscote Bungalow', adorned with portraits of her ancestors she recalled the details of her parent's wedding. "My mother Gowrikutty being the eldest of C. V. Raman Pillai's daughters, the wedding was planned on a grand scale," she said. "My father wore a fine suit and gave a ring to the bride, which was unheard of in those days." Suseela’s father, Aiyappan Raman Pillai, alias, A.R. Pillai (b.1879-d.1938) was an Indian expatriate who, while stranded in Germany during WWI, worked for India's freedom. Before venturing to Germany, a young A.R. Pillai had made a name as a merchant in Trivandrum. He worked as a journalist, writer and book publisher in Germany. Pillai was a grand-nephew of Punnakkal Easwara Pillai Vicharippukar, a famed Kathakali artiste and a prominent courtier of Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma, the Rajah of Travancore.

B. Gowrikutty, alias Gowri Amma (b.1892), on her wedding day, 1904 (aged 12, according to Suseela Bayi) & Punnakkal A.R. Pillai, c.1904, photographed soon after the wedding. Image courtesy: Late Sri Rosscote Krishna Pillai.

A detailed report of the wedding ceremony at the Rosscote Bungalow came in ‘The Madras Weekly Mail,’ 1904.

A Nair Marriage

The Cloth Giving Ceremony

From a Correspondent, Trevandrum, 24th August

"The public of Trevandrum were invited by Mr C.V. Raman Pillay, Superintendent of the Travancore Government Press, to witness the cloth giving ceremony - a Malayalam Sambadham marriage - by which Mr A.R. Pillay, one of the most enterprising merchants of the town, married Mr. Raman Pillay’s daughter Miss. Gavari Cooty (Gowrikutty). The ceremony took place at 8:15 o'clock last night, and among those present were the Diwan, Mr. Nanaswamy Rao, Mr. Raja Ram Rao, Mr. A.J. Vieyra, Dr. Poonen, Mr. Justice and Mrs. Hunt, Mr. Keshava Pillay, Mr justice Govinda Pillay, and very many others well known in Trevandrum.

Two spacious and artistically decorated pavilions formed an annexe to the main building, where the actual ceremony took place, and were used for the accommodation of European and Indian visitors. Such marriage ceremonies must take place in the house proper, and in a typical Nair house of the old fashion, there would ordinarily be plenty of room. Many Indian gentlemen have given up their style of house architecture and adopted the European bungalow style of residence. In the main room of Mr Raman Pillay’s house, at its southern end were seated many of the Indian and European visitors. At the northern end of the room facing the east a red cloth was spread on the ground on which was placed a white cloth, and on top of that a coloured (purple) cloth on which, just a few moments before the auspicious time, 8:15, the bridegroom sat down cross-legged. Before the bridegroom came in a young man read portions of the Ramayanam allowed relative to the marriage of Rama and Seeta.

Before the bridegroom was a figure of geometrical patterns drawn with rice flour like a chess board, and the signification of which I could get no one to explain. It probably had some astrological significance. On the right and left of the bridegroom stood two primitive brass lamps with coconut oil and five or six wicks which were in marked contrast to the brilliant Western chandelier overhead. On the right of the bridegroom, too, stood a para of clean paddy raised up in a cone, and in the mixed of which was a spring of coconut blossom. The para of paddy stood on sand spread on a plantain leaf. The paddy, etcetera, were significant of prosperity and plenty - a kind of cornucopia. By the side of the para was a subverted brass teapot like utensil of some size. Why it was overturned this deponent cannot say, but the utensil itself, and the coloured cloth over the white, on which the bridegroom sat, indicated that both the bride and groom were persons of consequence. Only Tambis and Chembagaramans and one or two other castes are permitted these privileges. Lower castes must use only a white cloth, and no brass vessel of the kind is permitted to appear on such occasions.

Just opposite to the bridegroom sat a Brahmin on a board for the receipt of the usual Deshnai. At the auspicious time the native music sounded, and the clothes to be presented on the occasion were handed by the Brahmin to the bridegroom. A moment later, the bride, a comely maiden of sixteen, dressed in a cream coloured cloth, heavily braided with gold, and wearing handsome jewels, stepped in from a side door and made obeisance to her intended, bowing with both hands folded. The bridegroom then leant forward and placed the cloth in her hands. Making obeisance a second time she turned to the Brahmin and did the same, and lastly bowed to the company and rapidly withdrew.

In the meantime the Nair ladies inside the house kept up the ululation called the Norava cry. The ceremony over, the guests strolled off to their respective pavilions, where they were treated in different styles. In the European pavilion cake (from M. D'Angelis) was handed round and wine. As soon as the glasses were charged the bride, leaning on the arm of her husband, and accompanied by her father, entered and seated themselves, and Mr Justice Hunt, by special request, said a few words congratulation the young couple and wishing them all happiness. The bridegroom responded in a few words and the guests were then rose watered and garlanded, the sandal paste also being handed round to be touched. In the Indian pavilion the Indian guests were treated in Indian fashion.

It may be observed that it is only very lately that Europeans have been invited to such functions. There were several departures from the time-honoured custom in the giving of a ring with the cloth; in the bridegroom being dressed in a white suit with a collar and wearing a cap, instead of in his national costume of two plain clothes, and in the bride's dressing up with jacket and jewels instead of in the more primitive garments usually worn and in the wearing of the hair. It was altogether a most interesting function."

Sharat Sunder Rajeev


Sunday 17 July 2022


The King's Craftsmen 
 History of the Ivory Carvers of Thiruvananthapuram

Sharing the link to the recording of the KCHR webinar 'The King's Craftsmen' where I discuss the history of ivory carving in Travancore.


Sharing the link to the live recording of the Fort Area Thiruvananthapuram Heritage Awareness Programme conducted in collaboration with LSGD Planning and Art & Heritage Commission.

For more information on the building regulations (focused on the Agraharams) you may visit › ...PDF FORT AREA HERITAGE ZONE to download the handout prepared in collaboration with the Department of Architecture, College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET), Thiruvananthapuram.

Friday 29 April 2022


                                         Uma Amba Tampuratti of Kilimanur

                    Previously unseen excerpts from C. Raja Raja Varma's Diary

 Uma Amba Tampuratti, Raja Ravi Varma's mother 
 Image courtesy: RajaRavi Varma, Portrait of an Artist: Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma

For me, Raja Ravi Varma's birthday is an occasion to celebrate the artistic contributions of the members of the Kilimanur clan over the generations. Kilimanur family's tryst with art starts with two sisters, one of whom was Ravi Varma's maternal grandmother. Bharani Tirunal Rajaraja Varma (Ravi Varma's uncle), C. Raja Raja Varma and Mangala Bayi, the painter's siblings and descendants, kept the tradition alive.

Uma Amba Tampuratti, Raja Ravi Varma's mother (seen here in a reproduction of a posthumous portrait by the Varma brothers, painted around 1887) was also an artist. It is said that she taught art to the younger members of her family and possibly contributed to her own children's early artistic training.

In his diary, artist C. Raja Raja Varma says: "My mother was born under the star Makayiram in the month of Medam 1007 M.E. She was the youngest of my grandmother's eleven children. She had a very fair complexion. She was rather below medium height and was very delicately formed. She was endowed with musical and artistic tastes though she had no opportunity of cultivating them. She had an extremely kind and tender heart and could never see any suffering in others. I had seen her crying when she listened to tales and accounts of human suffering and misery. She was attacked with a  sort of eye disease from which she suffered, but she took advantage of the illness to learn Ophthalmology or the science of treating eye diseases from the various physicians who treated her and notably from a Thirumulpad of Naikunnam. She knew also to treat ordinary ailments of children. She appears to have given certain medicines to Her Highness the late Senior Ranee, C.I. The Ranee had cherished a great regard for the lady as some of the letters from the former to the latter testify. She had such self-sacrificing heart that she treated poor women and children gratis giving them medicines and clothing. She composed in Malayalam verse a Thullal called Parvathiswayambaram and several stray verses. Parvathiswayambaram has been published by my second brother Goda Varma at his expense. She was a great devotee of Siva and Parvathi, and when the disease (consumption) laid its icy hand on her about the latter part of her life, she devoted most of her time to prayers and worship. A melancholy circumstance connected with her death was that she had not her eldest son (Raja Ravi Varma) by her side when she died in the month of Makaram 1062. When her last illness took a serious turn we all gathered around her bed, but a day or two previous to her death urgent business compelled my eldest brother Ravi Varma to go to Trevandrum. From the next day she began to sink, and she used to ask, until she became unconscious, if he had returned. When we saw that she had not many hours to live, a man was sent post haste to Trevandrum to give him information of her condition and he arrived to his deep sorrow an hour or two after her death. Her obsequial ceremonies were celebrated in a grand style by my brother  Ravi Varma. When the year of mourning passed away he and myself took a pilgrimage to Benares with the urn containing her ashes which we duly consigned to the holy Ganges. So let her soul rest in peace. We regretted very much that we neither painted her portrait nor even photographed her while she lived. Her portrait was painted... From memory and yet it is a fairly accurate likeness."

 The previously unseen excerpt is taken from an article by R. Kulathu Iyer, dated 1907.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev


Sunday 12 December 2021


 Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma's Ivory Skeleton

It was great fun working with the staff of the Natural History Museum, Thiruvananthapuram, for this short film on the ivory skeleton currently on display at the museum.

Saturday 24 July 2021


Life Around the Temple - Urban Form of Trivandrum Fort | SPACES 2021

Ar Sharat Sunder R & Dr Bina Tharakan

The Kerala Architectural Festival, popularly known as SPACES, supported by the D.C. Kizhakemuri Foundation, DC School of Architecture and Design (Trivandrum & Vagamon) and co-promoted by D.C. Books, the makers of the Kerala Literature Festival commences on July 15, 2021.

The festival will be conducted online Live via YouTube & Facebook platforms due to the current pandemic restrictions. It will be held every week on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 7pm to 9pm, till 31st July, 2021.

Please go to this link to see the recorded session:

Thursday 11 March 2021



G. Nilakantan B.A. (Retd. Asst. Excise Commissioner, Ex. MLA, Honorary Magistrate, Municipal Councilor)- my great aunt's grandfather was the first graduate from the Viswakarma community of Travancore. Nilakantan was born in 1874, in Perinadu, Kollam, but later relocated to Trivandrum on entering government service.

'Kamalavilas,' Nilakantan's palatial bungalow in Kunnukuzhi had been the venue to several crucial meetings and discussions involving top brass officials and social reformers during his lifetime. Some of the frequent visitors to the house were Ayyan Kali, 'Silparatnakara' N. Veloo Achary FRSA, Pichu Aiyar (Inspector General), Changanasherry Parameswaran Pillai, Rao Bahadur 'Rajyasevanirata' N. Kunjan Pillai, the Govt. Chief Secretary to name a few.

Even though Nilakantan commenced his career as an Inspector with the Excise Dept., the testimonials of his good conduct soon reached the ears of the Maharajah Moolam Tirunal, who summoned him to the capital and placed him under the mentorship of Van Ross, the Excise Commissioner.

In the 1930s, G. Nilakantan was identified as a prominent leader of the Viswakarma community and he became a staunch fighter for the 'Kammal Bill' in the Sree Moolam Praja Sabha, intended to regulate the social customs of the Malayalam speaking Viswakarmas. He encountered firm resistance from a faction headed by N. Veloo Achary, the mastermind behind the 'Viswakarma Bill'. Achary argued the Kammala Bill was flawed since it turned a blind eye towards the Tamil speaking Viswakarmas of southern Travancore.

The arguments by both parties continued for a long time, and eventually, the bill remained unsettled and finally got lapsed.

As for G. Nilakantan, he passed away on August 9, 1948, while attending a session of the Legislative Assembly.

Thank you MyHeritage Deep Nostalgia for giving us a feel of what our long-gone ancestors may have been like!

Sharat Sunder Rajeev


Saturday 12 December 2020



Attoli Sree Haritripura Kulangara Devi temple, Malayamadhom, Ponganad, Kilimanoor.

temple overlooking an expansive sweep of paddy farmland is so typical a sight in rural Kerala.
 Kilimanoor, the birthplace of Raja Ravi Varmais a place where one still finds vestiges of an untouched agrarian culture. The old mansions of local chieftains, ancient temples, sacred groves, water bodies and lush paddy fields are reminiscent of a long lost lifestyle.

Sree Haritripura Kulangara Devi temple in Ponganad is a small - rather inconspicuous structure - one among the numerous temples in the region. Butit is the story of this temple that makes it special and weaves it into the plethora of oral traditions around the legendary painter and his family.

The old temple was revamped in the 1970s, by the 'AttoliNamboothiri family, its custodians. According to Attoli Govindan Namboothiri, who resides in a house adjacent to the temple, his family's association with Kilimanoor aristocracy could be traced back to the early eighteenth century. "We were originally based in Payyanur, in Kannur, but a few members of the core family had accompanied the royals of Thattari Kovilakam, in Beypore, to southern Kerala. When the royals settled in Kilimanoor, we too chose to remain here," he said.

Uma Amba Thampuratti of Kilimanoor royal house.

Attoli family shares a strong bond with the Kilimanoor royal house, and it was a 'Attoli Namboothiri,' a famed tantric, who, in the late 1840s, exorcised a 'Yakshi' from Uma Amba Thampuratti of the royal house. The Yakshiappeased through special pujas and offerings, was given an abode in the palace. The benevolent Yakshi is said to have blessed the childless Thampuratti, who gave birth to three boys and a girl, all abundantly blessed with creative talent. Uma Amba's eldest son, Raja Ravi Varma, went on to become the most renowned painter of his times. Among Ravi Varma's younger siblings C. Raja Raja Varma and Mangala Bayi too were talented artists. Goda Varma, another son of Uma Amba was a gifted musician and scholar.
As for the Attoli family, they are still the chief priests at the Yakshi shrine and remain in Ponganad, in the precincts of their family temple - not far from the Kilimanoor palace.