Madurai – the city always evokes a feeling that is native and makes me reminisce the glorious past I belong to. It was one of the most unforgettable days of my life! I had to take my father for an MRI Scan of the Spinal cord in Madurai. The scanning was over a little post noon and I was asked to collect the reports late in the evening. With a good 3-4 fours remaining, I thought of spending the time by basking in Madurai’s glorious past. Tirumalai Naicker Mahal was the first thing that came to my mind. I had visited there when I was my daughter’s age. A generation has passed since then! My father, me along with my wife and my daughter had all decided to visit Naicker Mahal.
Madurai is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in world and is authentically Indian. Unlike other cities in India, the Mohammedan and colonial pasts have not defaced the classic Indian traces. The street names are at least two millennia old and the city around Meenakshi temple still will make the contemporary town planners feel inferior. A fourth century literature goes like this… “In this rich, ancient town with tall mansions, where the wide and long streets appeared like rivers”. I still wonder how ancient this city is?
Madurai – An Ancient City
In the city of Meenakshi, the next best monument after her temple that celebrates its glorious past is Tirumalai Naicker Mahal. Built by the benevolent & brave king of Madurai Naicker dynasty, Tirumalai Naicker, the Indo Saracenic Dravidian Architectural masterpiece is really a cynosure to the eye. Believed to be designed by an Italian architect and this, to me, looks like a fusion of all best available architectural types at that point in time. When someone has more fat around the belly, people around Madurai would say that it looks like pillars of Thirumalai Naicker Mahal. The well-rounded Gothic-style tall pillars could be found everywhere in this palace and there are 248 in number as of now. The pillars are more than 50 feet tall, with smooth and glossy surface built using Chettinad plaster shell lime mixed with egg white.
I am not sure if the palace was painted with the same color during its hey days. But the simple colors which we could see now are quite different from either the multi-colored or grey tone South Indian architectures. The stucco work enriches the beauty of this palace and looks very much Indian. There are mural painting as well. With the little modern day lighting the palace would look celestial and we would have seen this in many India movies.
The palace originally said to be constructed in 20 acres, was estimated to have started at around 1629 AD and completed in 1636 AD. Whatever we were seeing now is not even one fourth of its original size. Chockanathana Naicker, the young king and the Grandson of Thirumalai Naicker dismantled many parts of the palace to build a palace in Trichy which, tragically, never happened.
Palace in Madurai
The palace was divided into two major parts – Swarga Vilasam (Celestial Pavilion) and Ranga Vilasam. The royal residence, theatre, shrine, apartments, armoury, palanquin place, royal bandstand, quarters, pond and garden were situated in these two portions. The courtyard and the dancing hall (Natakasala) are the main centres of attractions. The Celestial Pavilion (Swarga Vilasam) was used as the throne-room and has an arcaded octagon covered by a dome 60–70 feet high. The Throne Room leads to the Dance Hall, which now houses a display of artefacts. It was from the Natakasala that the king used to watch along with his spouses dances performed by beautiful damsels in the evenings. The dances were performed to the accompaniment of several musical instruments bathed in the light provided by burning torches. Two stairways to the upper storey are on the western side of the Dance Hall. There used to be a garden of repose on the northern side called Rengavisala. Kings used to pray Rajarajeswari and hence the northeastern side used to have a temple dedicated to Goddess Rajarajeswari.
I’ve always cherished the glories of Madurai Nayaks – their rise and fall. Coming out of the palace, I was thinking while sipping on the ‘Jil Jil’ Jigardanda, that every great kingdom has had similar fate but whatever they have achieved, live in the form of majestic ruins that trumpet their history as an inspiration to many in the future… and without an iota of doubt, Thirumalai Naicker Mahal is one such landmark, both in space and time!
I collected the medical report of my father which confirmed the he had cancer. He is no more and I know every great thing will have an end. My grandfather had me told stories about Mahal. My father always gets excited when we talk about Mahal. I have love for it. My daughter accompanied me in this visit. Hope this legacy will continue for generations… and one day, I hope we’ll all be talking about this Mahal as a creation ahead of its time… and a creation beyond time!!