The Napier Museum building, with its unique architectural style, stands apart from all the other heritage structures in and around Thiruvananthapuram. Set in the sprawling grounds of the Public Gardens, the majestic structure is a fine specimen of Indo-Saracenic style in architecture.
The advent of Indo-Saracenic style in erstwhile Travancore can be dated back to the time of Ayilyam Tirunal Rama Varma. His reign (1860 to 1880) witnessed construction activities on a grand scale. The growing fondness for Neo-classical (colonial) style of architecture amongst Anglophile rulers and aristocratic nobles reflected in the new edifices constructed during his reign. The Huzur Cutcherry building (the Secretariat complex), constructed in 1869, under the supervision of Chief Engineer Barton, was a remarkable architectural contribution. However, the Indo-Saracenic architectural style remained alien to Travancore until Lord Napier set foot in Travancore.
Lord Napier, the Governor of Madras, his wife, and a retinue of officials landed in Thiruvananthapuram in 1868. During their course of the stay, the Governor visited several institutions and places of interest in the State. Nagam Aiya observes that Napier was pleased with Ayilyam Tirunal, ‘who took particular interest in the promotion of western culture among his subjects’. A fine collection of photographs, documenting Napier’s visit to Travancore is preserved in the Royal Collections, London. According to popular history, Lord Napier, after his visit to Padmanabhapuram palace complex, was greatly impressed by traditional Kerala architecture and disapproved the native trend in discarding the indigenous architectural style for the Colonial. The Huzur Cutcherry building with its pronounced western classical architectural features became an easy target for Napier’s criticism.
It is in this context that Robert F. Chisholm (1840-1915), an accomplished architect, who, according to Napier had ‘set the first example of a revival in native art,’ arrives in Thiruvananthapuram, in 1872, to design a museum for the State. It is clear that the architect was instructed by Lord Napier to visit the ancient palace in Padmanabhapuram, to derive inspiration for his works. Chisholm made detailed study sketches of the palace complex and its ambari mukhappu, the bay window, and other related structures. He also studied the mani-meda, the clock tower in front of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple, the elements derived out of these clearly visible in Napier Museum.
The design submitted by Chisholm introduced to the residents in Travancore the novel Indo-Saracenic style, with its Indo-Islamic, and Indian elements, in harmonious unison with Gothic architecture. As an architect, Chisholm had to defend his design and articulate to the officials, the need to propagate the indigenous architecture and artistic practices. Shanti Jayewardene-Pillai in her book Imperial Conversations observes that Chisholm ‘found himself in the incongruous position of having to instruct an erudite Travancore elite on how best to foster and extend their own art.’
Chisholm’s design for the Napier Museum, strategically placed on top of a hill, cleverly incorporated the sweeping sloping roof and intricately carved gables, majestic bay windows supported on six finely crafted vyalis (mythical beasts) – typical Kerala elements – alongside multi-foliated and pointed arches. Stained glass was also used to enhance the quality of the light falling inside the building. All the corners of the structure are lined with carefully hewn stone bricks, whereas the walls are constructed using burnt bricks. The geometric brickwork pattern on the wall lends a touch of elegance to the entire composition.