It is our last evening in Madurai and our group has just finished touring the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal. We have one more halt to make before dinner — a shop selling the local Sungudi sarees — and then board the overnight train to Chennai.
Since I am not interested in buying sarees, I decide to wait outside the shop. A couple of others from the group join me as well and we get chatting about that and this. When Sriram, our group leader, comes up to us and asks if we would like to see something interesting a short walk away we are only too happy to say yes.
Sriram leads us down the street and then through a narrow alley or two before turning into another narrow lane. He stops, points at something (see photograph below) and says, “See this !”
I see and stare with a touch of the disbelief. In front of me or rather towering above me is an unexpected, and a rather bizarre, sight — a row of pillars lined up in the lane and hemmed in by shops and houses on both sides. The pillars, which appear to be the remains of some structure, appear to have sprouted from earth. What did the pillars hold up, I wonder — palace or temple or fort?
These pillars are the only things that remain of a palace built by Thirumalai Nayak, not the one we visited earlier today, but another one, says Sriram. These pillars are known as Pathu Thoon in Tamil or 10 pillars.
Were the two palaces separate or part of the same complex, asks one of my group members.
Not sure, says Sriram. If it was part of the same complex, it would have been unimaginably huge. And even if this was a separate palace complex, it would still have been huge. Just look at the size of the pillars !
The pillars are so tall and the lane so narrow that I can’t get all 10 of the rather helpfully numbered pillars to fit in one frame. With telephone and electric cables criss-crossing the pillars, they look more like some ancient electric/telephone poles rather than remnants of a 300-year-old palace !
One of the pillars has become a shrine as well, with red and while stripes at the base, a shiva lingam and a niche for lighting a lamp carved on it. A dhoti to cover the lingam and a brass donation box ‘chained’ to the shrine completes the look !
An information board (which I have reproduced verbatim here) placed at one end of the lane had some additional information to give the Pathu Thoon:
The 10 pillars in this lane formed part of the Thirumalai Naicker Palace. The main Palace at Madurai was constructed of two portions namely Swargavilasa and Rangavilasa. This portion is called the Rangavilasa, where Muthiyalu Naicker, brother of Thirumalai Naicker lived. The pillars are similar to those we can find at Courtyard in Thirumalai Naicker Palace. The pillars are of 12.00 metre height and are of 1.20 metre diametre and constructed with stone blocks placed one over the other. Now these pillars are preserved and protected as a monument by the State department of Archaeology.
I don’t know what the State Archaeology Department means by ‘preserved and protected’ for you can see how the pillars are placed vis-a-vis present-day buildings. Hopefully, it means that there constructions won’t get any closer and also that the pillars won’t disappear.
I try very hard to imagine what the palace would have looked like when it was built and inhabited, but find it difficult to do so. Perhaps the incongruous setting of the pillars discourages imagination of any kind. Instead, my mind is full of questions about the pillars.
How did these pillars survive?
Why did only 10 pillars survive?
What happened to the remaining pillars?
How many pillars were there?
What would the palace have looked like?
When did the palace disappear?
Why did it disappear?
As we prepare to leave and join the rest of the group at the saree shop, I catch sight of this policeman looking at the pillar. I wonder if he, too, is thinking the same questions that I am.
Disclaimer: I was part of a Chennai Pastforward group led by V. Sriram, that toured Madurai in the first week of January 2016. This was NOT a free, sponsored or discounted trip, and I paid the full fees.
MS Subbulakshmi’s House | The Meenakshi Amman Kovil | Memories of Madurai: A photo essay | The two Azhagar Kovils | Pathu thoon or the 10 pillars | The palace that Thirumalai Nayak built | Tyagaraja’s tambura |