[Travel series] Thiruvananthapuram in a day
Thiruvananthapuram, formerly called Trivandrum, is the political capital of Kerala. While not without hustle bustle, it is much quieter and easier to navigate than the other much larger Indian cities and can serve as a gentler launchpad to backpacking in India. The city’s most famous hallmark is the Padmanabhaswamy temple, possibly the wealthiest place of worship in the world. The temple houses the idol of Lord Vishnu who is depicted here as being protected by the serpent Anantha –resulting in the city’s name ‘Abode of Lord Anantha’. With its proximity to beaches such as Kovalam & Varkala, and the mountains of the Western Ghats, many travellers view the city as a convenient stop over. I found the green and serene Thiruvananthapuram had its own unique charm and would certainly recommend a day to take in the city’s sights and soak in the various museums and temples.
Breakfast at India Coffee House
An ideal way to begin the day is by tucking into authentic local delicacies, washed down by some steaming hot filter coffee. India Coffee House, situated at the entrance of the Central Bus Station, serves up some delicious food, at pocket friendly rates. This iconic chain of restaurants is wholly owned and run by an employees’ cooperative. Started by the Coffee Board in the 1940s, the restaurants faced closure in the 1950s resulting in the loss of several jobs. That’s when, Ayillyath Kuttiari Gopalan Nambiar, a Keralite communist leader, organized the dismissed employees into a cooperative and took over the administration and ownership of the restaurants. To this day, the staff, proud of their heritage, wear crisply starched uniforms and turbans and welcome you with broad smiles and attentive service.
Praying at Padmanabhaswamy Temple
From India Coffee House, you can walk the 2 KM to the destination I next recommend, the Padmanabhaswamy Temple at East Fort. On my trip to Thiruvananthapuram, I visited the temple for numerous reasons. For one, the origins of the temple are lost in time and there are several myths and legends associated with it that appeal to my imagination. In 2011, several treasure vaults of the temple were opened revealing riches accumulated over thousands of years, estimated at approximately 19 billion dollars. One of the vaults remains shut and is under litigation. The custodians of the temple, the royal family of Travancore, are against the vault being opened. I was told that they believe that a forceful opening of the vault will lead to mass-scale destruction with the ocean flooding over the city. I was quite intrigued to be in the vicinity of so much wealth and mystery.
From the mysterious to the divine, the other reason I wanted to visit the temple was to see the deity. Here, Lord Vishnu is depicted as reclining in cosmic slumber on the five-hooded serpent, Anantha, meaning endless. The five hoods of the serpent represent the five senses or the five elements. The deity can be seen through three doors. Through the first door, you can see his face and Lord Shiva under his right hand. Through the second his torso, with Lord Brahma sitting on a lotus emerging from Vishnu’s navel. Finally, through the third, one can see his feet.
Do note that you need to be suitably attired to enter the temple and only Hindus are allowed. The dress code is mundu (length of cloth that needs to be wrapped around like a sarong, waist down) for men and a sari/long skirt/mundu for women. Bags and electronic items need to be deposited for a small fee at the lockers on the way to the temple entrance. The locker area also has a small shop from where I bought my mundu for INR 90. A polite request and a smile meant that the lady at the counter helped me wear the mundu over my clothes. If you pay for an offering at the entrance, you can fast track the queues and view the deity from closer.
The Treasures of Kuthiramalika Palace Museum
Just outside the temple’s East Gate – across the locker room – is the Kuthiramalika Palace Museum or Puthenmalika Palace Museum, and our next stop for the day. Named after the 122 wooden horses that adorn the eaves of an inner courtyard (Kuthiramalika means ‘Palace of Horses’), the Museum has exhibits of the treasures of the royal family. It was built in the eighteenth century by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Balarama Varma (1816-1846), the King of Travancore, a renowned musician, scholar and statesmen. Tragically, he lived in the palace only for a year, dying at the young age of 33. The palace lay disused after his death for two centuries, before parts of it were opened to the public in 1995.
The palace complex has a gallery for which tickets can be bought at the entrance. Once inside, a guide (price included in the entrance fee) will escort you through the museum and explain details regarding the exhibits and the architecture. My favourites were the two-hundred-year-old sculptures of Kathakali dancers, carved from single pieces of wood; the thrones made of ivory and crystal, quite reminiscent of Game of Thrones; and the intricate and varied wood carvings in every room. There is also a secret passage to the temple, that can only be used by the royals!
Museum Timings: 9 AM to 12:30 PM and 2 PM to 4:45 PM. Mondays shut. Entry fee: INR 30 (for the palace) for Indians
Watching Kathakali at Margi Theatre
I stumbled onto the Margi Theatre experience by sheer serendipity, courtesy spending the day with my Asian dorm-mates. One of them was visiting India with the express purpose of learning Indian classical dance, and she suggested a visit to the Margi Theatre. Barely a kilometre from the Padmanabhaswamy Temple and Puthenmalika Museum (very walkable from these stops, with some help from Google Maps or locals for directions), the institute is dedicated to the revival of Kathakali and Kuttiyattom, traditional Indian dance forms. Kathakali, with its elaborate costumes and make-up, and plot lines from Ramayana and other Indian mythological epics, has long been my favourite. Luckily for me, Margi Theatre throws open its doors for visitors to sit in on the practice sessions in the morning. And that’s how I found myself sitting on the cool floor of the school, as the room swelled with live music from various instruments while the performers practiced their art. I found that I gained a more intimate appreciation of the subtle nuances of the art form, seeing it being performed without the usual make-up and costume. I highly recommend that you make time to visit the theatre in the morning, especially if you are interested in Indian classical dance forms.
Timings: Practise sessions are held from 10 AM to 12 noon, Monday to Friday. Entry fee: Free
A Date with Richard Parker at the Zoological Gardens
From the Fort Area, head to the Museum compound in the Northern section of the city. An auto-rickshaw will take you there for INR 30 to 40. Within the quiet greens of the compound, is one of the oldest zoos in the country. It was established in 1857 by the Maharaja of Travancore. When reading up on Thiruvananthapuram, I had discovered that the zoo’s animals were the inspiration behind Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and that’s where the attraction lay for me. Yann Martel drew from his observations of the zoo animals, to write the fascinating tale of a sixteen-year-old boy, Pi, who is stuck on a life-boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The book went on to win the Booker Prize in 2002, and the movie based on the book won several awards including an Oscar for its director.
Outside the entrance of the zoo, there are a couple of eateries where you can catch a bite to eat, and some ice-cream if you want to beat the heat. Once inside, plan a couple of hours to stroll along the shaded green paths to absorb the zoo’s delights, saying hello to the kissing hippos, making faces at the Langurs and hissing noises at the snakes. I had a wonderfully peaceful time, but am sadly no closer to writing a prize-winning book.
Timings: 9 AM to 6:15 PM, Monday closed. There is a small entry fee (INR 10) and plastic is banned inside the park. I paid a refundable deposit to carry my plastic bottle of mineral water inside.
Museums of Thiruvananthapuram
The compound with the Zoo also has several museums that can be next on your itinerary. The Napier Museum is famous for its multi-coloured tiled exterior and distinctive interiors. It has a natural air-conditioning system which keeps it cool even when the sun is beating down outside. On display are some fine sculptures in bronze and stone, exquisite carvings in wood and ivory, and a set of Japanese shadow play leather figures. Harry Potter movie fans will recall how shadow puppets were used to narrate the Tale of the Three Brothers, and relate to my desire to see the shadow play figures!
Next on my list was the Sree Chitra Art Gallery that has a collection of paintings by Raja Ravi Verma and other artists such as Nicholas Roerich. Raja Ravi Verma (1848 to 1906) is one of the finest artists in Indian history and is known for his depictions of characters from the Indian epics and for incorporating European techniques into his work. As an impressionable teenager, I reproduced, to the best of my rather limited abilities, one of his paintings, the Milkmaid. I practically danced in delight when I discovered that it hangs in the Sree Chitra Gallery. Nicholas Roerich – the Russian painter, writer and theosophist – has also long been a subject of wonder for me. I was introduced to the concept of Shangri-La courtesy a long-ago visit to Roerich’s estate in Kullu up in the Himalayas, and was quite looking forward to seeing his art in the Gallery in Thiruvananthapuram.
Your last stop can be the various galleries of skeletons, birds and mammals at the Natural History Museum. Of note are the exhibits of the one horned Indian Rhinoceros set in a display of Kaziranga National Park and the petrified fossils that are over twenty million years old.
Timings: 10 AM to 4:45 PM on all days except Monday (closed) and Wednesday 1 PM to 4:45 PM. There is an entry fee of INR 10 to INR 20 for each museum and gallery.
For an early dinner, head to the vegetarian Arya Nivas, close to the Central Bus Station. You can also opt for the rather eclectic mix of the Arabic flavours of Chicken Shawarma and Kerala Parotta along with multi-hued desserts at Zam Zam at Palayam. If you are celebrating a special occasion or are looking to splurge, head to the heritage restaurant of Villa Maya for the most flavourful, albeit expensive food in town. Or you can do what I do, and follow the locals to the closest crowded road-side eatery for some authentic, fresh and cheap food.
• The Thampanoor or Central Bus Station and Central Railway Station are very conveniently located across each other and are in the heart of the town
• The Kochuveli station is a fair distance away and is the last stop for some trains reaching Thiruvananthapuram. I was tipped off by a kind co-passenger to avoid the exorbitant fee that the autorickshaws charge for a ride into the city. Instead, I made my way to the bus stand just outside the station exit and took a bus into town
• If you have only a Monday to spare in the city, you could visit the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, the Margi Theatre and take a bus to Kovalam for a day trip. Trekking in the Ponmudi Hills or visiting the hill station of Ponmudi is another great option
• A few references
This travel post is a part of Aao hostels fellowship travel series.