Think Madurai and the ancient Meenakshi Temple, one of the most famous temples in South India, comes to mind. But 2 km south-east of this towering shrine is another marvellous structure. It’s the Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal or the Madurai Palace, a marker of the city’s history. Although only a quarter of the once fabulous palace survives, this 385-year-old structure still speaks to the glory of the ruler who built it.
The palace represents one of the most significant phases in the city’s history, and it unfolded under the rule of the Madurai Nayaks, who started out as Governors of the Vijayanagara rulers. These governors rose to prominence in the 16th century CE, after the Vijayanagara Emperors, with their capital at Hampi in present-day Karnataka, captured Madurai in the 14th century CE and incorporated the city into their Empire.
A key part of the Vijayanagara administration by the 16th Century CE, was the Nayankara system, under which the Emperor distributed territories to their Governors or Nayaks, who lorded over them. The Nayaks, who first served as viceroys to the Vijayanagara rulers, later rose as governors. They paid a fixed annual sum to the Vijayanagara Emperor and enjoyed considerable freedom over these territories. Their power and influence in regions such as Tanjore, Madurai and Gingee grew even stronger after the death of the great Vijayanagara Emperor, Krishnadevaraya in 1529 CE.
The Nayaks established their rule in Madurai in the 16th century CE, under Vishwanatha Nayak, who is said to have founded the Nayak Dynasty in Madurai. He was an able ruler, who enhanced the administration, added fortifications to the city of Madurai and even contributed to the improvement of the Meenakshi Temple. But one of the most powerful rulers in the history of Madurai is Tirumala Nayak, who is credited with building the Madurai Palace.
After he succeeded Muttu Virappa Nayak in 1623 CE, Tirumala Nayak switched the capital from Trichy (present-day Tiruchirappalli) back to Madurai and carefully organised the defences of the kingdom. His reign was marked by a large number of military campaigns, which included successful wars against the Kingdom of Mysore. He also forged alliances with kingdoms such as the Sultans of Bijapur.
Tirumala Nayak was a master-builder and he made significant contributions to architecture and art. His endowments and donations to the Meenakshi Temple were immense. He also built the Pudu Mandapa at the temple. Tirumala Nayak also built many structures, both religious and civilian, not only in Madurai but also in places such as Tirupparankunram, Alagarkoyil and Srivilliputtur.
But if there was one structure that truly defines his legacy in Madurai it is his palace, the Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal, which is named after him. The palace was built to mark the shift in capital from Trichy to Madurai and, to signify the Nayak’s might. It was an enormous structure.
– Built between 1629 CE and 1636 CE, this spectacular palace was originally four times the size of the present structure.
What remains today is believed to be the portion where Tirumala Nayak lived and held court.
The Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal is an architectural marvel and one of the most beautiful palaces in South India. The original palace is said to have been spread over an area of 20 acres. It is believed that Tirumala Nayak appointed an Italian architect to design his palace, which is a fine blend of Islamic, Dravidian and Rajput architectural styles.
The main area of the palace is divided into two sections: Rangavilasa and Swargavilasa. The Celestial Pavilion or the Swargavilasa housed the Nayak’s throne. These areas also housed the royal residence, shrines, apartments, a theatre, a pond, a garden, the armoury and the royal bandstand.
The complex also has a Darbar Hall or Assembly Hall, Natakasala or Dancing Hall, Women’s Apartment, Rajarajeswari Shrine, gardens, fountains and residential quarters for ministers and officials. The palace boasts exquisite carvings and other embellishments and is also known for its majestic pillars, of which there are 248.
But the glory days of the palace didn’t last long; it started to fade soon after Tirumala Nayak’s death in 1659 CE. Chokkanatha Nayak (1659-1682 CE), grandson of Tirumala Nayak, moved the capital back to Trichy in 1665 CE, and he is said to have dismantled large parts of the palace so that he could incorporate parts of the once-grand structure into his new abode.
Nayak rule ended around 1736 CE, after which Nawab of Carnatic, Chanda Sahib established his rule on Madurai. The period between the decline of Nayak rule and the establishment of the British rule, is a checkered one in the history of Madurai. For about 60 years, Madurai was under the nominal rule of the Nawab of Carnatic. In 1801, Madurai came under the rule of the British administration. During this time, the palace was used for various purposes including army barracks, a paper factory as well as a hub for local weavers. During heavy rains in 1857, what was left of the palace suffered extensive damage.
– It was Governor Francis Napier of the Madras Presidency who took an interest in the palace and is said to have allotted Rs 5.13 lakh in 1870 for its restoration.
Post-Independence, the palace was used as the Madurai-Ramnad District Court till 1970. Thereafter, it was declared a ‘Protected Monument' by the State Archaeology Department.
Today, tourists visiting Madurai throng this once grand monument. Although the palace has seen rough days, it still stands proud, reflecting the legacy of its builder, who left an indelible mark in the history of the city and the region.
Cover Image: Ruins of the Madurai Palace, British Library