The car came to a halt, and all I could see ahead was a small, local school. “Where is the palace?” I asked and the driver pointed to a compound wall on the left. I had been expecting an impressive structure, fit for kings. After all, this was once the retreat for the royal family of Coorg! The surroundings were impressive enough, situated as it was amidst forests, quite dense even today, but the school was all that was visible from where we had alighted, and I decided to hold on to my thoughts till I actually saw the palace!
The Nalknad Palace, as a board informed me at the entrance, is picturesquely located at the foot of the Thadiandamol peak, the highest peak in Kodagu. It was the last refuge of Chikka Veerarajendra, the last king of Coorg, before he surrendered to the British in 1834. However, the story of the palace is much more than that. It was built between 1792 and 1794, to commemorate the victory of Dodda Virarajendra over Tipu Sultan, a victory gained with the assistance of the British.
At first glance, it is a simple, two storied structure, resembling many of the houses in the area. It is only when we go inside that we see the intricate details which proclaim its royal connection.
I have already written about the figures of snakes depicted on the pillars of the palace. The Nagamandalam pattern of the snake twisted in a geometric pattern is a common thread which crosses the boundaries of religion and culture across India. We see these patterns in Hindu, Jain, as well as Buddhist temples and shrines, and are believed to be a sort of protection, against the forces of evil and negativity.
|A Nagamandalam pattern on one of the pillars. (Thanks Sudha for the name)|
The interiors, especially the main hall, and the king’s and queen’s rooms on the first floor, are almost completely covered by murals, which, in spite of their age, manage to capture and hold our attention even today, almost 500 years after they were first made. The most impressive among them is this scene depicted in the hall – it is a victory procession, showing the king make a triumphant return, probably after defeating Tipu.
The murals in the queen’s room are completely different, though no less impressive. The attention to detail, and the intricacy is amazing!
Interestingly, the women are dressed more in the North Indian style, pallu covering their head! Is that how the royal women dressed? I wonder. Can anyone shed some light on this depiction?
|This intricate work is on the ceiling of the queen's room!|
This is even more impressive when you realize that these murals were forgotten and covered with plaster over the years, and what we can see today are through the efforts of INTACH, which have managed to restore much of the original work. There are still parts of the wall left bare, under which probably even more paintings lurk, awaiting their turn.
|And this is another part of the ceiling too. If you look closer, you will notice that even the gaps have been painted!!|
Meanwhile, there are other parts covered with more recent paintings, the result of a film shoot here. While I can understand the attraction such an impressive site can have for film locales, I cannot understand the concept of covering ancient paintings, even for the aesthetic sense. It’s a pity that we don’t value our ancient heritage enough to even want to preserve it.
|Most of the paintings you can see here are recent ones, painted on plaster which covers the original paintings|
However, coming back to the palace, there were a couple of interesting things about it.
Firstly, while the upper floor was for the king and queen, the lower floor was for the staff. A kitchen on the ground floor suggests this. Besides, there are also 4 completely dark rooms, with a trap door hiding the staircase to reach them from the top. We were told that these were for hiding purposes, but I wonder if it is actually possible to hide in a room where there can be no air? Or was it meant for prisoners? What do you think?
Secondly, the presence of just two rooms on the first floor – for the king and queen, suggests that this was a private retreat, meant for them alone, and not for the family. Considering that Dodda Virarajendra had 4 daughters, I wonder where they lived! The location of the palace, amidst the dense forest, also seems to point to this being either a hunting lodge or a sort of retreat, meant for the king to spend time alone with his wife!
Giving credence to this second thought is the story of Dodda Virarajendra, the king who had it constructed. He is almost a legendary figure in Kodagu, his heroic exploits remembered even today. He is most well-known for his escape from Periyapatna, where he was held by Tipu Sultan, after Kodagu was annexed by the Mysore ruler. He managed to escape with his entire family, and signed a deal with the British, at present day Virajpet, to support them against Tipu. Eventually, with their help, he managed to win over Kodagu, and built this palace to commemorate that victory. However, during his long military campaigns, he lost his entire family, and was married again, in 1796, to Mahadevamma, with whom he fell deeply in love. They had 4 daughters, and, it is said that after she died in 1807, he went mad with grief, turning into a paranoid tyrant.
Little remains to remind us of the heroic and romantic king, but if the walls of the palace could speak, what tales they could tell us! For it was here that Dodda Virarajendra married his beloved wife. Right in front of the palace is a pavilion, constructed especially for the king’s marriage. Covered with carvings and sculptures of gods and couples, it must have been a beautiful structure once. While the pavilion still stands, most of the carvings on the pillars have given in to time and the weather, and remain but shadows of their erstwhile self.
|An odd shaped arch in the pavillion. Wonder what it originally looked like!|
|This was probably Krishna, going by the posture.|
|An interesting one.. two figures on a tree!!! Wonder who they depict!|
The Nalknad palace is today simply called the ‘aranmane’ – the palace. The other palace in Madikeri is now a government office, and we can’t enter it. This is the closest we can get to the family which ruled over Kodagu for centuries. Yet, the palace sees few visitors. After all, in terms of sightseeing, “there is nothing much to see here”. An old caretaker is the only soul who sits here all day long, and takes visitors like us around, proudly showing us the paintings and the hidden rooms, insisting I go down the trapdoor, even holding my hand when I am afraid of tripping. He moans the lack of interest people show in the paintings. It has taken so much to get them restored, and there is so much more work to do, but money, as well as interest is lacking. He points out patches where parts of the mural have been covered with concrete, ruing the fact that it can never be removed, and we can never see what lies underneath.
The sense of gloom we felt is not unique to this palace. This is a feeling that permeates through most of our heritage spaces, a gloom which has its roots in possibilities lost, in opportunities wasted, and above all, in stories forgotten.
However, where there are organizations like INTACH, there is a still hope. Taking one last look at the restored mural in the hall, as we readied to leave, I wondered if the king was looking on from somewhere, happy that his legacy was being remembered at last!