Summers can be ‘hot as Hades’ in Thiruvananthapuram in God’s Own Country, except in one place in the city—the Napier Museum with its natural air conditioning. Right then, though, standing in the middle of this landmark building in the city, I could hear my friend’s voice in my head: “Don’t forget to look up at the ceiling,” he had said.
When you think of overwhelming ceilings, you think of the Sistine Chapel or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul or the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo. Museums usually do not feature on the list. The only deviation is the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne: its 200-foot-long ceiling is made of 10,000 pieces of hand-cut glass in 50 different colours. At Napier, I find myself with my mouth agape at hand-painted frescoes on the coffered ceiling of one of the oldest museums in the country.
Situated inside a garden spread over 55 acres, the Napier Museum was established in 1857, and in 1880 the old building was demolished and a new structure built by Ayilyam Thirunal Maharaja of Travancore. It was designed by the English architect Robert Chisholm who was sent to ‘Trevendrum’ by Lord Napier, the Governor General of the then Madras Presidency.
Chisholm conceived a museum based on the local architectural style. However, Kerala’s native architecture has for long been influenced by the cultures of its trading partners—Chinese, Japanese, Arabs, Europeans and so on. Hence Chisholm’s ‘native design’ was, in fact, a combination of Kerala, Chinese, Italian, and Mughal architecture. It can be seen in the Gothic roof, minarets, hand-painted frescoes and extensive ornamentation of the museum.
This dreamy, romantic, and fusionistic style is known as Indo-Saracenic (Saracenic is derived from the word Saracen, an archaic name for Muslims given by the British). Also known as Indo-Gothic, it was the style of architecture used by British architects in late 19th century India. It drew elements from native Indian architecture and combined it with the Gothic revival style favoured in Victorian Britain. But even with so many styles and influences in play, Napier Museum did not end up a mish-mash of a museum. Only to the destitute of vision, the museum might be a garish amalgamation.
Aeons ago, a visitor told a curator of the Napier Museum: “I suggest you remove all the artefacts from this building. Because the building itself is an elegant object d’art and should be viewed singularly without any distractions.” I concur. For the next couple of hours, the rare artefacts, idols, carvings, coins, and paintings in the museum became invisible to me. Craning my neck upwards, I walk around the museum to discover art and history in nooks and corners, arches, balconies, and ceilings. It was like finding forgotten ancestral treasures in the attic. Riches wrapped in fables and fantasies, waiting to reveal themselves to those who come looking.
The museum has three massive halls connected by long corridors. The walls are striped—in pink, blue, yellow, and cherry red. They augment the scalloped arches in banana yellow colour with red, white and pink latticework. It is a cornucopia of colours; as exciting and eye-popping as a chilled glass of falooda on a hot summer afternoon. Wide balconies flank the central hall at both ends, and they are supported by wooden corbels that have intricately carved yalis or dragons. Stained-glass windows stipple the walls throwing up magnificent play of light. The ledge above the doors carries the statues and carved figurines of goddesses. Floral motifs embellish the friezes on the walls. These are interspersed with the design of Valmpuri shankhu or the conch shell of Lord Vishnu—the deity of the royal family of Travancore and also the royal insignia.
By now, there should be a crick in my neck. But I don’t feel it as I get caught up in all the action above. The museum’s vaulted ceiling has hand-painted panels, beams, and cross-beams in teakwood with muted gold-coloured inlays that sparkle in the light. Oriental frescoes of flowers and leaves in yellow, red, green and earthy colours contrast the wooden braggers of dragons supporting the painted beams. The colours on the frescoes seem to change with the light of the day. The frescoes, which have been painted using natural vegetable dyes have withstood the test of time and remain, one of the chief attractions of the museum.
I wind my way up the dusty, neglected narrow stairway to the top of one of the four watchtowers. At the end of it is a breathtaking aerial view of the museum and the city beyond. The roof resembles a well-constructed abstract work or an exciting board game. A closer look reveals the ornamental stone projections of the gable roof. It is truly an artisan’s labour of love.
Otherwise, how does one explain the decorated railing or cresting along the ridge of the roof where it is bound to go unnoticed and unappreciated? From this vantage point, I could see the extensively decorated pediments of the gable roof. There are also bargeboards or decorative woodwork on the rafters projecting from the roof. The soffits are in terracotta, stone, and wood. The building is dotted with oriel windows, supported by richly carved corbels and tassels in the form of mythical horses. This is a characteristic feature often seen in Victorian and Arab (mashrabiyya) architecture.
It is blazing hot outside, but I am yet to break a sweat while walking up and down inside the museum. The famed natural air cooling of Napier Museum is at work. The museum has double walls with ventilators, which trap the hot air, tempering it before allowing it to flow into the museum, providing a cooling effect without any modern air conditioners. Understan-dably, footfalls to the museum increase during the summer season, I am told.
The Napier Museum with its Gothic structure, high arches, intricately carved balustrades, hand-painted frescos and stone ornamentations stands testimony to a cultural sharing from aeons ago. I have always wondered why some of the most famous artworks in the world were high up on the ceilings of monumental structures. What was the purpose? I discovered that the act of looking up could lead to an uplifting experience. I am glad I listened to my friend and “looked up”.
Getting There The Napier Museum is on L.M.S Vellayambalam Road in Thiruvananthapuram’s Kanaka Nagar. It is 3 km away from the Thiruvananthapuram Central Railway Station and 9 km from the airport.
Open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesdays 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.; closed on Mondays.