With the demolition of Rani Mangammal’s palace, a part of Madurai’s past is irrevocably damaged

Parts of the city’s 17th century Rani Mangammal palace were pulled down most insensitively last Thursday. It was an outrageous attempt to erase history though the miscreants claimed that they mistakenly demolished the palace while working in the adjacent site. It was followed by protests on social-networking sites and demonstrations. The culprits have been booked. But what is surprising is the audacity of the people behind it and the sorry state of lesser-known heritage structures in the city.

“If we call ourselves ‘the sons of soil’, we should also own our city.” says A.R. Ramalingam. “Ignorance is no excuse. Regard for heritage should be inculcated among everyone.”

“Insensitivity comes from lack of awareness,” feels Aravind Sankar of INTACH, Madurai. “The attitude of people should change. An advisory board should be set up and the possibility of keeping old structures in tandem with modern developments explored.”

Writer and environmentalist Muthukrishnan asserts that students and the younger generation have to be sensitized to heritage. “We learn about the Eiffel tower but hardly know about the monuments on the local streets of our towns.” He advocates compulsory chapter on regional history in school text books in every district. “In Western countries, people take pride in whatever little heritage available. And here, we have history in abundance but the value is not realized.”

Sadly, not many of the city’s denizens knew much about the palace. “Until, reports came out in the media, I hardly knew that such a palace existed,” says Malar, a government employee. Kathir, a businessman, says, “I come shopping here often. Yet, I never noticed the structure or paid attention to it.” But shopkeepers and vendors in the vicinity are aware of the 300 years old edifice.

Damaged chamber

The back portion of the palace has suffered extensive damage. In place of the age-old granite pillars are mounds of rubble, ruined walls and wrecked windows now. There is a gaping hole in the lime-mortar ceiling of a small chamber at the rear end of the palace. “Looking at the damaged ceiling, it feels like history has been hurt in the head. This is a lesson for all of us as citizens and guardians of our city,” says a PWD official, who was present at the time of demolition.

Palani, a construction labourer working nearby, recalls, “The demolition happened slowly over a week. The pillars were felled first and then they started demolishing the ceiling of the chamber.”

Inside the chamber, a broken stucco mural with elephant motifs sits on the wall on top of a carved arch. A faint floral painting peeks out off the peeling whitewash. The illustrious queen of the Naick dynasty, it is believed, was kept under house arrest in this room. The space behind was a horse stable where animals were tethered to the stone pillars.

Retired Archeaological Officer, C. Santhalingam, says, “In a city like Madurai dotted with century-old structures, protection and maintenance is a major issue. Either these buildings should be declared as monuments or private trusts should come forward, adopt and take care of them.”

“Though Rani Mangammal’s palace is not a marvel like that of the Tirumalai Naick Mahal, it is a typical Naick architecture built in an inimitable style and technique,” says Santhalingam. And hence, whether the damage caused can ever be restored remains a question. Architects and historians believe that though repair works can be undertaken, restoring the palace back to its full glory is impossible.

“Naick period is special as it introduced arches and round pillars in the region. And the technique of lime-mortar construction cannot be followed today,” says A.R. Ramalingam, Chairman, The Indian Institute of Architects, Madurai Centre. The palace is built with a kind of flat bread-like bricks called ‘Chitthukal’. He points out the wooden awnings and large windows in the building ensured ample light and air. “It’s an example of how sociological and climatic factors were considered during construction those days.” “Heritage structures such as these can be suitably readapted for practical use or can be converted to places of tourist interests.”

The front elevation of the palace remains with a bell-shaped dome adding a peculiar charm to the city’s skyline. The circular staircase is a highlight. Its narrow spiralling passage leads to the terrace from where a picturesque panorama of the temple towers is visible. There is an open space in the centre of the palace and also a small Ganesha temple believed to be there since the time of the queen. A number of cells and chambers are found at the back side. The old jail (current parking lot) and the adjacent Girls Corporation School are also said to be parts of the palace, which according to a plaque at the entrance was constructed in 1689.

“Steps are being taken to declare the palace as a monument. Over the years, portions of the palace area have been let out to a school and market and hence there is no record of the original details. maintained. We plan to do a photo-documentation of the place and do a search for facts from revenue records,” says N. Ganesan, Assistant Director, Department of Archaeology, Madurai. “The protests and media attention have created awareness. We will plan to meet the have planned for a dialogue with the District Collector to bring upon bringing the building under the Archaeology department.”

In Madurai district, 16 monuments are under the maintenance of the Department of Archaeology.

History of Rani Mangammal

“There is negligible documented evidence of Rani Mangammal’s life and regimeis not much,” says writer Su.Venkatesan. “But, in Tamil Nadu’s history, she was the first queen to attain such name and fame.” Brief references to the queen can be found in Aa.Ki. Paranthamanar’s ‘Naicker Varalaru’.

“Rani Mangammal belongs to Chandragiri palayam, which is currently the Tirupati region in Andhra Pradesh,” says Venkatesan. “Since, she came to power only in her 50s, she focussed after her fifties; she concentrated on developmental activities and led a simple life and probably that explains the modest look and feel of her palace.”

The Rani was the first one to lay an extensive road network in the entire south Tamil Nadu and the trade routes were named after her. The queen is also known for construction of inns on highways.

Of the 15 rulers of the Nayak dynasty, she is one of the three important ones, the other two being Vishwanatha Naick and Tirumalai Naick. After ruling successfully for 15 years, the Rani was jailed in the palace by her grandson. towards the fag end of her life.