While recently watching S. Anwar’s fascinating documentary on the Tamil Muslims and his search for identity, mention by him of Mughal influences in the Tirumalai Nayak Palace in Madurai, “my Madurai”, as he describes his “favourite” city, had me deciding to explore his statement further. But first a brief history of the palace and its restoration.

Work on the Palace was completed in 1636, during the reign of Tirumalai Nayak (1623-1659) who had commissioned its construction. It was designed by an Italian architect, according to a publication by Dr. T.S. Sridhar, former Commissioner of Archaeology, and R. Naryanan, Assistant Executive Engineer, brought out by the Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu.

If the Italian designer is accepted, the vaults, domes and arches would be better described as Byzantine, that Turkish architectural form that greatly influenced Italy.

When Chokkanatha Nayak, grandson of Tirumalai Nayak, moved to Trichinopoly in 1665, much of the ornamentation in the Palace was taken there. Thereafter, the Tirumalai Nayak Palace gradually began to deteriorate. By the early 19th Century it was being used as a paper factory as well as by weavers. Heavy rains in 1857 brought down much of the uncared for building. That’s when Governor Napier began to take an interest in the building and sent Robert Chisholm to restore it; the restoration of walls, vaults, domes and “Gothic arches” cost Rs. 5,50,000. During the restoration, did Chisholm give a Mughal look to what had been described as Gothic arches?

After the Chisholm restoration, Government began funding regular maintenance. In 1971, the Palace became a protected monument of the Tamil Nadu State Department of Archaeology. Ten years later, just before the World Tamil Conference, some restoration was done by the Department, but it was not till early in the new Millennium that major restoration work was completed. It was in September 2009 that the completion of the work was celebrated. Was what Chisholm had done 150 years earlier only been freshening up? It would not appear to be so, to judge from what follows. But we are left with the question: Byzantine-influenced or Saracenic-influenced? Shanti Pillai, who discusses Chisholm and others in her book Imperial Conversations, suggests that several features of the architecture of the Palace could have “belonged to an older mainstream sub-continental tradition…(perhaps) sumptuous Buddhist architecture that pre-dated Islam.”

Be that as it may, by 1860 Chisholm had transformed the Madurai Palace for official use. But even as he did so, he considered it his “favourite building in India”. He wrote, “…. (whether it is) the flood of fierce light which pours down vertically into this courtyard and reflects in subdued brilliance through the long pillared aisles of the interior; or whether it is that the very memories of history itself, lend age to a building within historical times, I am unable to say, but whatever the cause I must confess that I feel, in common with most people who visit the place, those emotional sensations usually called into existence by the contemplation of a great work.” Addressing the Royal Institute of British Architects in London in 1876, Chisholm enthused over “the extreme beauty and flexibility of the general form of the arches….. (Their) lines so admirably expressive… are highly suggestive of that concealment of effort which is one of the chief attributes of great art.” Napier, who was present at the meeting, added, “ I believe it exceeds in dimensions the largest structure in the north of India,” its architecture drawing inspiration from that of the Delhi Sultanate that ruled Madurai from 1323 to 1371, long before the Mughals. Chisholm, however, insisted that the building was more Hindu than Saracenic. May the debate continue, but may the building also remain maintained.


Madras 375, San Thome ‘475’

Those interested in the heritage of Madras will before long start getting ready to celebrate the 375th birthday of Madras in the August of the year ahead. But few of them are likely to realise that San Thomé, now a part of Madras but once the first settlement of foreigners on the east coast of India, is at least 100 years older. In fact, San Thomé offers several dates that provide opportunities for remembrance.

A major earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 could be the reason for the absence of large numbers of Portuguese records dating to before that year. But with a few records surviving and many secondary Portuguese sources available, some sort of story of the first settlement can be pieced together.

The first Portuguese to arrive in ‘Meliapor’ — which before long was to be pushed back from shore and Sao Thomé developed — were Diogo Fernandes and Bastiao Fernandes, both merchants who arrived between 1507 and 1509 as much to do business as to look for the tomb of Thomas Dydimus, Doubting Thomas, which they had heard was located in “ancient Meliapor”. They found a Nestorian Church and a tomb within it on the beach. When they took the news back to Goa, other Portuguese followed their trail and settled in the area, building a new church next to the old church Marco Polo had written about in the 13th Century. By 1540, the settlement was being called Sao Thomé. If we take 1539 as the year Sao Thomé, the township’s name, began coming into regular use, then next year will be the 475th anniversary of the founding of the Portuguese settlement. It was, however, to formally establish itself only between 1560 and 1580 when the rudimentary Fort Sao Thomé was built around the settlement, about 450 years ago.

To the Portuguese, trade as well as a military and religious presence were equally important. When Dom Duarte de Menezes, the Governor in Velha Goa, began to realise that the east coast of India could be even more profitable that the west, he appointed Caspar Correia Manuel de Frias in 1522 as the first factor and Captain of the Coromandel Coast, 492 years ago next year. Eight years later, the then Captain of the Coromandel Coast, Miguel Ferreia, made Sao Thomé his headquarters. It was, however, between 1635 and 1660 that the Portuguese expanded Fort Sao Thomé and pushed Mylapore back, about half a mile from shore, and established itself for almost a mile along the coast.

In this fortified settlement, the Portuguese built a church on the site where San Thomé Basilica now is. Consecrated in 1610, this small but elongated church became the first Cathedral of the Diocese of Sao Thomé (later Mylapore and now Co-Cathedral of Madras-Mylapore). Pushing this work forward was the first Bishop, Dom Sebastiao de San Pedro, who had arrived in 1608. This Church was demolished in 1894 and in its place there arose the towering Cathedral of today, consecrated in 1896.

There, then, are dates enough for anniversary celebrations in San Thomé.

When the postman knocked…

*G. Ramanathan wants me to include the following in my recently introduced ‘footnote’: E & OA. “It is Kazipet, not Kasipet (Miscellany, November 25). Kazipet, derived from the term for a Muslim law officer/judge, is the railway junction on the GT route from where the line to Hyderabad branches off.” In a search of the half a dozen atlases I have, including a couple of British era ones and others even more detailed, I have not been able to find either Kasipet or Kazipet. I look forward to a railwayman giving me a bit more information before agreeing to the spelling being an error or oversight accepted.

*Providing a little more detail on travel on the Buckingham Canal (Miscellany, October 28) in the past is K. Balakesari, grandson of Dr. K. Kesari, founder of Kesari Kuteeram. He quotes from his grandfather’s autobiography, Life and Times of Dr. K.N. Kesari: “After settling down in Madras, I quite often visited my village Inamavamellur. Before railways I had to cross the Buckingham Canal. It took 10 to 12 days to reach my village. The charge was one rupee per head. We had to carry the eatables. We were a group from Ongole who travelled together. The boatmen… would stop on the way for cooking. We would also get down at a place where there was a well and after having a bath, we used to cook rice under a tree. We used to bring… ghee and pickles (etc.) from home. After eating we used to carry the remaining food into the boat. At nights we used to enjoy the good breeze. Some used to sing, others told stories and thus we had a nice time in the boats…” Those were the days!

*Providing more information about Dr. John Shortt (Miscellany, November 4) Dr. A. Raman writes from Australia that Shortt was one of the few distinguished East Indians (Anglo-Indians) of the 19 Century. Starting life as one of the first Apothecaries trained by the Madras Medical School and then sent to Edinburgh by the Government to study medicine, he returned with a M.D. degree and joined the Madras Medical Service in 1854. He rose to be a Deputy Surgeon-General in the rank of Colonel. His career was marked by several scholarly contributions. His papers included ones on the botany and cultivation of the indigo plant, the coffee plant and the branched palms of South India. He also wrote on the anthropology of the Todas. And as a doctor who also practised as a veterinarian, he wrote, A Manual of Indian Cattle and Sheep: Their breeds, management and diseases. Besides having served as the Superintendent General of Vaccination, he was Secretary of the Madras Obstetrical Society. He died in Yercaud in April 1889.