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Fit for a king

Maria Louis learns how a mansion became an exclusive homestay resort

The lounge has traditional jhula and colonial-style furniture.
The lounge has traditional jhula and colonial-style furniture.
The landscaping puts emphasis on local plants and trees.
The landscaping puts emphasis on local plants and trees.

Maria Louis learns how a 400-year-old mansion that once belonged to the Maharaja of Cochin became an exclusive homestay resort.

Overlooking the serene backwaters of Chittoorpuzha from where it gets its name, is a 400-year-old semi-colonial structure with a small outhouse. Just 6km away from Ernakulam city, it makes a peaceful retreat from the stress of urban life and has been attracting guests who want to get away from it all.

Since it was built as the summer palace of the Maharaja of Cochin, to accommodate His Royal Highness for only short spells of time, the elegant bungalow had just four large rooms flanked by spacious semi-open verandahs.

After years of use, and misuse, the palace was slowly surrendering to age – until the charming ‘prince’ Suresh Namboothiri rescued it. His wife Jayasree Varma, who hails from the royal family, inherited it from her mother; and it will eventually become the legacy of their daughter, since theirs is a matrilineal society.

Sensing the promise of the place, Namboothiri decided to give up his career as a chartered accountant and
invest time and money in transforming this royal retreat into a heritage home for guests who could afford the luxury
of living like a king.

His idea began to take shape when he brought architectural firm, Inspiration, into the picture. “A person with infectious enthusiasm and cheer, Suresh was clear about what he wanted,” commented Latha Raman Jaigopal, co-founder and director – project implementation – of Inspiration.

“His dream was to restore the old-world charm of the palace in order to bring in exclusive guests who could enjoy being the raja, rani, princess or prince, at least for a few days of their holiday,” she continued.

The task was not an easy one, as the once rich woodwork had acquired several coats of paint and patchwork after years of use by different owners.

“Though it was still reasonably stable, the structure had several members eaten by termites, the roof tiles were broken and dampness had affected many of the walls,” recalled Latha.

“The walls of laterite in mud mortar finished with lime plaster had also been coated with several layers of white cement, lime wash and paint.”

Having already completed over 20 renovation and adaptive reuse projects, Inspiration was well equipped with the knowhow and methodology required to tackle the job.

The first thing they did was to document the existing structure – a laborious exercise that called for measured drawings of every detail of the building. It also meant a complete photo documentation of the place, with a listing of specifications for each part of the building, its exteriors and interiors.

Once this was done, the architects drew the conclusion that their first priority had to be the roof structure.

So, after removing the tiles, they began the repairs of the roof – replacing the broken and termite-eaten members, adding structural members where necessary, providing protective coating for the wood, and so on. After that, they attended to the attic floor and ceilings.

“The first floor had an elaborate wooden ceiling. In the verandahs where the ceilings were in a rundown state, the entire ceiling was redone with wooden planks. The doors and windows were intact; however, since they had wooden plank shutters, there was very little light inside the rooms once the windows were closed – so we introduced plain glass selectively for the shutters,” Latha continued.

The glass also permits a magnificent view of the backwaters from the top of the house.

The upper verandahs had wooden railings and windows, but most were in bad shape, with asbestos panels inserted in several places. These had to be dismantled and replaced with wooden panels.

This was a monumental task that was successfully undertaken thanks to Inspiration’s team of highly-skilled artisans who were experienced in traditional Kerala architecture.

Attention shifted to the walls and interiors after the roof structure was redone. The lime wash and several layers of paint were painstakingly peeled away to expose the original rich lime plaster surface of the walls.

The electrical and plumbing works were totally redone and air-conditioners installed, without tampering with the old walls.

The flooring was removed, a fresh base of concrete was applied after termite treatment, and over it was laid Athangudi tiles with polished red oxide borders and skirtings. Built-in seating on the ground floor was added.

The rooms are furnished with replicas of furniture from the Maharaja’s other palaces – except for a teak bed which His Royal Highness used in Chittoor.

Its design has been replicated in all the beds in the palace, so you can even sleep like a king! The toilets are done up with contemporary fittings and finishes, so you have all the modern-day comforts within a traditional ambience.

The small outhouse, which originally served as a kitchen cum caretaker’s room, was converted into the dining room and kitchen, with a wide verandah all around.

Other interesting features are the ‘padippura’ (entrance gatehouse) and the ‘kulam’ (pond) lined with laterite stone with a traditional ‘kulappura’ (sheltered entrance).

These were worked out strictly as per Vaastu guidelines and built with laterite stone that has been neatly pointed and finished. An old wooden door leading to the beautiful granite steps was moved here from another royal home.

Amidst the confusing myriad choices of architectural and construction technology, one is often left wondering what is genuinely useful, what is possible within spatial and budget constraints, how to integrate them all and yet retain or enhance the aesthetics of an existing building or landscape – especially when it is a traditional building that is being completely overhauled.

The restoration of this palace is an attempt to address these issues in a sensitive manner. The icing on the cake is that it’s a good economic proposition for the owners too.

At dusk, when the setting sun casts a golden glow on the bungalow and its lawn, the verandah overlooking the backwaters is the place to be.

The landscaping in the garden is subtle, with an emphasis on local plants, trees and shrubs. A small boat jetty lends access to the palace and permits special guests to arrive in complete privacy.

This jetty is also used to transport martial artists, dancers or singers for private performances in the garden.

This small haven of peace and tranquillity makes a statement about recreating the traditional grandeur of the palace, but with all the comforts of a contemporary resort. The target audience is the crème de la crème of discerning travellers, who cherish their solitude while holidaying.

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