Thanjavur's chatrams were more than just rest houses. They became effective institutions in the local community to safeguard and promote the health, education and social welfare of the community around them in addition to their main purpose of offering shelter to the traveller.

Long before management gurus spoke volumes about the need for leaders of organisations to do their bit for social development as an obligation to “give back”, kings in various parts of the country did their mite to contribute to charity thanks to an Indian tradition of revering hospitality as a virtue. Different kings have different track records. Among the better ones are the Maratha kings who ruled Thanjavur from 1676 to 1855. They established chathrams or rest houses in different parts of their territories. Interestingly these rest houses are mostly on the road that leads to the pilgrim spot of Rameswaram that was used by devotees across India.

Providing security

The chathrams were more than just rest houses. They became effective institutions in the local community to safeguard and promote the health, education and social welfare of the community around them in addition to their main purpose of offering shelter to the traveller. Serfoji II (1776 - 1832), the penultimate ruler said, “Although these charitable institutions did not originate with me, I considered these as attached to my house and essential to my reputation and happiness. The Thanjavur country is celebrated all over the world for its charities”.

The social relevance of the chathrams have long gone and most of the buildings themselves crumbled, or were dismantled for their excellent wood work. The few that remain are in various stages of disrepair but hark back to halcyon days. Leafing through old records written in the Modi script that the court used, one can recreate the day-to-day life in these chathrams since the records have every miniscule administrative detail including provision supplies and grander events of mass-feeding.

Records list at least twenty chathrams with the oldest dating back to 1728. Many chathrams mentioned in records are not traceable but all extant chathrams have records stored in the Sarasvati Mahal Library, Thanjavur. The chathrams were always in the name of and administered by the queens of the palace. One theory is that chathrams, since they were endowed with land, became compensation that avoided succession disputes.

Chathrams were primarily for travellers, but being large buildings with permanent staff, they also offered free service to the community around them. For indigent families, they were venues for conducting all rituals from birth to death and for families which preferred to cook their own food, provisions with firewood were given. Chathram accounts mention detailed price lists of provisions. Prices were usually benchmarked against the staple food, rice. Significantly in one instance of a span of 80 years, the price of rice rose by just 50 per cent! Chathrams as a whole owned as much as 40,000 acres of land, according to a 19th century revenue survey.

Many records are correspondences from the chathram to the Dhanvantri Mahal, a hospital that Serfoji had established in Thanjavur. Chathrams, even before the time of this king dispensed free medical care. In some of the larger chathrams like those in Orathanad or Thanjavur (Raja's chathram), you could get options of Western and traditional medicine. At this time, medicine for animals such as cows and goats were also available. The palace records indicate detailed medicinal records for elephants, camels, ostriches and falcons as well, though it is unlikely they would have been maintained in the chathrams.

Educational facilities were also offered by chathrams, this was exclusively religious in nature for the Brahmin community. Though many other facilities were extended to this community, some chathrams had the obligation to light lamps in the local mosques. The lands of some chathrams like the Draupadambal Chathram rented lands to several communities.

Archictectural wonders

Among the remaining chathrams, three are superb examples of Maratha architecture, particularly stucco and wood craftsmanship. The Kalyana Mahal Chathram, that was renovated by Serfoji II after his Varanasi pilgrimage, is in a stunning location on the Kaveri river bank and is currently the premises of a music college. This chathram once housed many of his wives. The balusters in the roof are remarkable stucco work, and mimic the gooseberry in the finial designs. Though rapidly degenerating, one can see faint traces of frescoes on some walls. These frescoes in their heyday must have been gorgeous sights since they are large and inset with mirror pieces that reflect the muted light that fall on them.

The Orathanad Chathram was constructed in 1802 and was called the Muktambal Chathram. This chathram also functions as an educational institution today. The chathram has the best extant stone work. The façade plinth is designed like a chariot and has wheels crafted in stone. The balustrades have minutely carved elephants and the front pillars have graceful ladies playing the veena. The roof of the chathram also has excellent plaster work of geometric design. The artistic marvel of this chathram is well hidden by sacks of salt, since one part of it functions as a godown. The inset bricks in the wall are carved to replicate the gopuram or temple towers. This was done with a special brick with minute tools over a long period. This craft of sculpting bricks, once popular in Thanjavur and Kumbakonam has now completely disappeared.

The chathram from Needamangalam dates from 1761 and has excellent examples of wood and plasterwork. The pillars in this chathram are similar to those in the Thanjavur palace today. The tragedy of the chatrams was their exclusive dependency on the palace for sustenance. The collapse of the rulers to the British government in 1855 and the assumption of control of chathrams by the government led them to become just buildings. Their relevance in society is today limited since other institutions provide their services, but the buildings are wonderful examples of days gone by. Despite unsuitable use and apathy, they still stand. In an age when many historic buildings have been sensitively and profitably converted into spaces for modern use, perhaps the time for chathrams will come. The question is though, when the time comes, will they still be worth saving?

The author's book on the cultural history of Thanjavur will be released later this year. He can be contacted at pradeepandanusha@gmail.com