Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram (still widely known as Trivandrum), is set on seven low hills just a couple of kilometres inland from the Arabian Sea. Despite its administrative importance – demonstrated by wide roads, multistorey office blocks and gleaming white colonial buildings – it’s an easy-going state capital by Indian standards, with enclaves of traditional red-tiled gabled houses breaking up the bustle of its modern concrete core, and a swathe of parkland spreading north of the centre. Although its principal sight, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, is closed to non-Hindus, the city holds enough of interest to fill a day. Foremost among its attractions is the splendid Puttan Malika Palace, one of the state’s best museums, and a typically Keralan market, Chalai Bazaar.
Both the palace and bazaar are in the oldest and most interesting part of the city, the Fort area in the south. At the opposite, northern side of the centre, the Sri Chitra Art Gallery and Napier Museum showcase painting, crafts and sculpture in a leafy park.
In addition, schools specializing in the martial art kalarippayat and the dance/theatre forms of kathakali and kudiyattam offer an insight into the Keralan obsession with physical training and skill.
Beemapalli airport Connected to most major Indian cities, as well as Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the Middle East, Beemapalli airport lies 6km southwest of town. You’ll find a Kerala Tourism information booth (in theory 24hr), ATM, Vodafone stand (where you can buy an Indian SIM) and a foreign exchange facility just before the exit of the arrivals concourse.
The long-distance KSRTC Thampanoor bus station is opposite the railway station in the south-east of the city, within walking distance of most of the city’s budget accommodation. This is the place to catch services to Varkala as well as long-distance buses heading north up the coast (to Kollam, Alappuzha, Ernakulam or Thrissur).
Local buses (including those for Kovalam) depart from City bus stand, in East Fort, a 10min walk south from the KSRTC Thampanoor and railway stations. Services to Kovalam leave from the stand on the roadside – be prepared for a crush if you attempt this journey in the late- afternoon rush hour.
Kerala’s capital is well connected by train with other towns and cities. Although you can buy a ticket just before departure, getting seats at short notice on long-haul journeys can be a problem, so make reservations as far in advance as possible from the efficient computerized booking office at the station (24hr). There’s a handy prepaid auto-rickshaw counter on the arrivals concourse.
Accommodation is a lot cheaper in Thiruvananthapuram than at nearby Kovalam Beach. That said, this is one city where budget travellers should consider spending a bit more than they might usually.
Freshly cooked dosas, idli-vada-sambhar, biryanis and other traditional snacks are available at street-side cafés across town, including the perennially popular Indian Coffee House chain, which runs several branches in the city centre – most famously the circular Maveli Café next to the KSRTC bus stand in Thampanoor.
Padmanabha, the god Vishnu reclined on a coiled serpent with a lotus flower sprouting from his belly button, is the presiding deity of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, a vast complex of interlocking walled courtyards, shrines and ceremonial walkways in the south of the city. The iconic image of the temple’s seven-tiered, Tamil-style gopura gateway, reflected in the waters of the adjacent bathing tank, graced the front pages of many newspapers across the world in June 2011 when it was discovered that a vast horde of treasure had been discovered in vaults below its inner sanctum. Sealed inside the secret chambers were sacks of diamonds, a thousand kilograms of gold, thousands of pieces of gem-encrusted jewellery and, the pièce de résistance, an exquisite 1m-tall gold image of Vishnu shimmering with precious stones. Experts are still debating the value of the items, with estimates ranging from US$40–200 billion. Either way, the find makes this by far the richest place of worship in the world.
Non-Hindus are unfortunately not permitted inside, but the main approach road to Sri Padmanabhaswamy, with its stalls full of religious souvenirs and offerings, makes an atmospheric place for a stroll, particularly in the early morning when worshippers take ritual baths in the tank.
The Puttan Malika Palace immediately southeast of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple became the seat of the Travancore rajas after they left Padmanabhapuram at the end of the nineteenth century. The cool chambers, with highly polished plaster floors and delicately carved wooden screens, house a crop of dusty royal heirlooms, including a solid crystal throne gifted by the Dutch. The real highlight, however, is the elegant Keralan architecture itself. Beneath sloping red-tiled roofs, hundreds of wooden pillars, carved into the forms of rampant horses (puttan malika translates as “horse palace”), prop up the eaves, and airy verandas project onto the surrounding lawns.
Around 500m southeast of the temple in East Fort, the redbrick CVN Kalari Sangam ranks among Kerala’s top kalarippayat gymnasiums. It was founded in 1956 by C.V. Narayanan Nair, one of the legendary figures credited for the martial art’s revival, and attracts students from across the world. Every morning except Sunday you can watch fighting exercises in the sunken kalari pit that forms the heart of the complex. Foreigners may join courses, arranged through the head teacher, or gurukkal, although prior experience of martial arts and/or dance is a prerequisite.
Thiruvananthapuram’s main source of fresh produce and everyday items is the kilometre-long Chalai Bazaar, which runs east from MG Road in East Fort, from opposite the main approach to the temple. Lined with little shops selling flowers, incense, spices, bell-metal lamps and fireworks, it’s a great area for aimless browsing (most shops open daily 10am–8pm). On your left (north side) as you enter the street, look out for United Umbrella Mart, which sells brightly coloured temple parasols used in elephant processions. Further down on the opposite side of the road, the delightfully old-fashioned Ambal Coffee Works is another source of authentic Keralan souvenirs.
Thiruvananthapuram has for centuries been a crucible for Keralan classical arts, and the Margi School, at the western corner of the Fort area, is one of the foremost colleges for kathakali dance drama and the more rarely performed kudiyattam theatre form. Most visitors venture out here to watch one of the authentic kathakali or kudiyattam performances staged once each month in its small theatre, details of which are posted on the school’s website.
To reach Margi, head to the SP Fort Hospital on the western edge of Fort and then continue 200m north; the school is set back from the west side of the main road in a large red-tiled and tin-roofed building, behind the High School (the sign is in Malayalam).
A minute’s walk east from the north end of MG Road, opposite Kerala Tourism’s information office, brings you to the entrance to Thiruvananthapuram’s public gardens. As well as serving as a welcome refuge from the noise of the city, the park holds the city’s best museums. Give the dusty and uninformative Natural History Museum a miss and head instead for the more engaging Napier Museum. Built at the end of the nineteenth century, it was an early experiment in what became known as the “Indo- Saracenic” style, with tiled, gabled roofs, garish red-, black- and salmon-patterned brickwork, and a spectacular interior of stained-glass windows and loud turquoise, pink, red and yellow stripes. Highlights of the collection include fifteenth-century Keralan woodcarvings, terrifying Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) masks, a carved temple chariot (rath) and Chola and Vijayanagar bronzes.
You pass through the main ticket booth for the city’s depressing, faded zoo to reach the Sri Chitra Art Gallery, which shows paintings from the Rajput, Mughal and Tanjore schools, along with pieces from China, Tibet and Japan. The meat of the collection, though, is made up of works by the celebrated artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906), a local aristocrat who achieved fame and fortune as a producer of Hindu mythological prints – forerunners of India’s quirky calendar art. Varma’s style was much criticized by later generations for its sentimentality and strong Western influence, but in his time he was regarded as the nation’s greatest living artist.
Also on view at the Sri Chitra, in rooms to the rear of the main building, are a couple of minor Tagores, and some striking, strongly coloured Himalayan landscapes by the Russian artist-philosopher and mystic, Nicholas Roerich, who resided in the Kullu Valley for two decades until his death in 1947.
Top image: Thiruvananthapuram, India © alionabirukova/Shutterstock