Brush with royalty

The Hill Palace in Tripunithura, the administrative seat of the erstwhile Kingdom of Cochin, which became a museum in 1984, was never short on material artifacts — the tangible records that help us connect to our past — but only a few of them had a direct connection with the Perumpadappu Swaroopam. Most of these objects were till recently showcased based on classifications like inscriptions, weapons, and jewellery in separate rooms.

When tasked with curating a thematic narrative of the origin, life, and contributions of the Cochin royal family, Prasanna K Varma, faced a unique dilemma. She herself was a member of the family born and brought up in Tripunithura and was familiar with its stories because of her involvement with the work of Cochin Royal Family History and Heritage Society (CRFHHS).

“I had to look at it from different perspectives. It was a publically-funded museum and not a family property. I knew that it should not become the wall to write down my family history,” says Prasanna, a poet and translator of Ivory Throne by Manu S Pillai.

A rigorous process to cross-check the historical references was followed with help from experts at the department of archeology and works of historians like A Sreedhara Menon. “What we depict could be the truth but silences are poignant and could hurt others. You could always be asked why you did not tell it. That’s a tricky thing,” says Prasanna.

Though Prasanna feels that there was nothing wrong with a display based on the classification that the museum followed earlier, she says the percentage of objects on display connected with the Kingdom of Cochin was less. “It was Venu V, additional chief secretary in charge of departments of archeology, archives, and museums, who suggested utilizing the spacious Hill Palace to tell the story of the royal family through a thematic narrative,” says Prasanna. A key facet of the narrative is the equal position and respect women of the royal family had with the men. Both female and male members were entitled to the title of Thampuran and many women earned a name for themselves by climbing academic ladders because of the importance given to education. The stories of women like Ikkavu Thampuram, who was the first graduate, Ashalatha Thampuran, the first women engineer, and Sumathi Thampuran, first lady doctor from the royal family come alive through the panels.

The history of the family is also intrinsically linked to the modernity of the state. ‘Rajarshi’ Rama Varma XV, the king who abdicated his throne helped build the first rail line by selling off gold caparisons of elephants in his stable. The Cochin royal family, Prasanna feels, was inclusive, democratic, and down-toearth.

“They did not look for personal gains, they did not amass wealth and gravitated towards democracy smoothly and were the first family to join the Indian union without any demands,” she said.

For the first time, the museum has also attempted to depict the rich biodiversity of the 52-acre campus and the beauty of the exquisite architecture through dedicated panels.

“I have proposed narrating stories outside the building with nature as a setting. Some people may not have an interest in history or archeological objects, but the beautiful nature outside would attract everyone,” says Prasanna.

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Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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