The palace that Thirumalai Nayak built

The Thirumalai Nayak Mahal was the last monument our group visited in Madurai as part of a 3-day exploration of the city, its history and cultural heritage earlier this year. I was looking forward to visiting the Mahal as, apart from the Meenakshi Amman Kovil, this was the only other place in Madurai I was aware of prior to the visit.

Built by Thirumalai Nayak (r.1622-1655), arguably Madurai’s best known king, this almost 400-year old restored and renovated palace is considered to be one of a kind with rather unique design and architectural features. Thanks to the photographs I had seen online as well as this song, I had an idea of what the palace looked like before the visit.

Even then, nothing prepared me for the size and scale of the palace that Thirumalai Nayak built when I walked through its doors that afternoon in January. A large courtyard lay before me, open to the skies, with soaring columns, topped by arches, lining it.

But my first sighting of the palace interiors did not leave me awestruck (that came later); instead, it left me aghast !

Madurai, Thirumalai Nayaka Mahal, Thirumalai Naicker, Nayak, Naik, Travel, Palace, Architecture, Heritage Two columns had some information in Tamil pasted on it; marks left by previous notices were clearly visible as well. If that wasn’t bad enough, the courtyard had a raised platform in the centre with metal chairs fixed on it — seating for visitors attending the evening sound and light show. While I understand that the courtyard is the best place for the sound and light show at the Mahal, surely temporary chairs or benches could have been used instead of something so permanent.

Even though I am used to seeing the callousness of those who take care of our monuments, it never fails to shock me. I had to force myself to look beyond this abomination and focus on the other, better parts of the Mahal. So, after an initial struggle between outrage at the seating and pasted notices on the pillars, and awe at the architectural wonder in front of me, the latter eventually won.

Thereafter I ignored (or at least tried to) anything that offended the aesthetics of the palace. A 360 degree look around the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal helped enormously. 🙂

A quick look around the palace is enough to reveal that the architecture is a fusion of many styles and decorative elements and not just Indo-Saracenic as some accounts claim or South Indian and Rajput as some others do. While I’m no expert on architecture, I can say quite confidently that it is a mix of many styles, including European. In his book on Multiple Facets of My Madurai (2013: pg.128), Manohar Devadoss says that:

Scholars believe that apart from local Hindu and Muslim designers, Italian architects too were involved in the building of the palace.

Madurai, Thirumalai Nayaka Mahal, Thirumalai Naicker, Nayak, Naik, Travel, Palace, Architecture, Heritage

It is believed that only a fraction of the original structure of the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal survives today and that the palace used to cover a larger area when it was completed. Though the actual extent has only been estimated, the remains of 10 pillars or the Pathu Thoon (which I wrote about in my previous post) located about 600m from the palace, give an indication as to how big the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal could have been.

The Mahal is believed to have been built during the 32-year reign of Thirumalai Nayak and this has led to quite a bit of speculation. Some historians wonder if such a large palace or palace complex could have been built within that time period; others believe that Thirumalai Nayak extended, renovated and built upon a pre-existing palace on the site.

However and whichever way Thirumalai Nayak Mahal was built, and whether only a fraction of or the full palace remains, it is still an impressive edifice. The rows upon rows of pillars and the stucco work are breathtaking — stunning, delicate and intended to awe the visitor.

Like me. Like other visitors to the Mahal that day. Like visitors who came to meet Thirumalai Nayak himself.

A selection of photographs from the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal. Please click on any of the photographs to enlarge it after which you can use the arrow keys to see the rest of the photos. Do come back to read the post, for I’m not done yet !

With Thirumalai Nayak’s death, the dynasty began to decline and when his grandson Chockanathan came to the throne, the accelerated rapidly. It began with Chockanathan deciding to shift his capital to Tiruchirapalli or Trichy and build a palace there using material from the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal. Chockanathan never completed his palace in Trichy, but succeeded in damaging the Mahal and leaving it uninhabitable. By the time the famous landscape painters, Thomas and William Daniell, painted the Mahal in 1798 — nearly 150 years after Thirumalai Nayak’s death — the Mahal looked like this.

Madurai, Thirumalai Nayaka Mahal, Thirumalai Naicker, Nayak, Naik, Travel, Palace, Architecture, Heritage
“Tremel Naig”: Plate 17 from the second set of Thomas and William Daniell’s ‘Oriental Scenery.’ Please click on the picture for the source.

As you can see, the Thirumalai Nayak Palace was a vast palace complex, parts of which  were already in an advanced state of ruins. What happened between then and now is easy to guess — part of it was destroyed by Chockanathan, part of the material used for rebuilding other structures, and part of it left to fall and then cleared to make way for a developing and expanding city. As Sriram, our tour leader said, it’s a wonder that anything of the Mahal survived at all.

But part of the Mahal did survive, the part that I’m writing about. The credit for that goes to Francis Napier, the Governor of Madras. In the later half of the 19th century, Napier worked with John Blackburn, the Collector of Madurai, and Robert Chisolhm, an architect, to evict squatters from the Mahal and preserve and protect what was remaining. After India’s Independence, the Mahal was declared as a national monument and entrusted to the care of the Tamil Nadu State Archaeological Department.

Madurai, Thirumalai Nayaka Mahal, Thirumalai Naicker, Nayak, Naik, Travel, Palace, Architecture, HeritageThe Nayakas were the last dynasty to rule Madurai, a kingdom that encompassed present day districts of Trichy, Coimbatore, Tirunelveli, and more. They were prolific builders and Thirumalai Nayak was only carrying on a long tradition of contributing to both religious and secular structures. He left a mark on almost every public structure in Madurai by either building, renovating or enhancing it. According to Devadoss, Thirumalai Nayak is the

… one ruler that everybody in Madurai knows… — and this is largely because of the Mahal.

It was rather apt to end the Madurai trip with a visit to the palace. After hearing about Thirumalai Nayak and his influence on and contributions to Madurai during the course of the trip, the city and the King had become synonymous with and inseparable from each other.

Madurai, Thirumalai Nayaka Mahal, Thirumalai Naicker, Nayak, Naik, Travel, Palace, Architecture, Heritage


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.


Madurai Series:
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 |


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