Soma Basu revisits history at the nearly three-centuries-old palace in Sivaganga

A short drive from Madurai to Sivaganga and you knock on the doors of history. The 273-year-old palace, mostly in ruins and partially restored, draws attention thanks to the many myths and legends associated with that period.

At the entrance is a bronze statue of Rani Velu Nachiyar. The walls whisper many a story of battles fought, lost and won by the Marava kings in the 18th Century. The palace was built in 1730 by Sasivarna Thevar, the first king of the Sivagangai kingdom. The architectural style of the palace borrows elements from Thirumalai Nayak’s period and also showcases Rajput art. It is said the palace fell into ruins after Rajah Doraisingh Thevar (1898-1941), vacated it citing bad luck. Plunder during British rule further destroyed it.

Upon entering the Sivaganga Palace, which is now maintained by the eighth-generation descendants, I find the ‘Nadai Kinaru’ or the zenana pond to be the most interesting feature. It is a miniature swimming pool believed to be constructed in such a way that clean water could be filled everyday for the queen’s bath from the teppakulam through an underground duct, which is now closed. Near the pool is a staircase that leads to a dome-shaped balcony.

I walk around inside the palace accompanied by a retired headmaster and Madurai Kamaraj University scholar Prof. M. Balakrishnan, who has authored A Struggle for Freedom in the Red Soil of South and explains the layout of the palace spread over five acres.

To the west of the open space within the compound is the royal temple of Shri Rajarajeshwari, the family deity of the kings. All the functions of the royal household were celebrated here. This portion of the palace, also called the Gowri Vilasam, remains intact. It is open to the public in the evenings and on all auspicious days. The other intact part is the compound wall, the Grand Wall, 18 feet high and five feet widethough one portion of it has been demolished to construct shops. There is a palanquin in a decrepit condition in front of the palace.

At the back is a small hall supported by ‘black marble squares’. Inside the hall was a seat of stone carved entirely out of black marble and the coronations took place here. Now, a large portrait of Rani Velu Nachiyar along with a valari kambu (a wooden weapon like a boomerang) and some swords and weapons are kept in this hall.

Prof. Balakrishnan says that Velu Nachiyar was married to the second raja of Sivaganga, Muthu Vaduganatha Thevar, who was killed in 1772 by the combined forces of the Nawab of Arcot and the East India Company. But the queen with her daughter fled to Dindigul and was joined by the Marudhu brothers who then entered the Sivaganga palace and took on the Nawab’s forces. There is also an interesting account of a Dalit woman Kuyili, who applied ghee on herself and jumped into the armoury of the British securing victory for Velu Nachiyar. However this is legend with no documentary evidence.

The palace also had many secret passages which have all been buried. Much of the architectural splendour is in a shambles though the palace gets occasional visitors. Rajalakshmi Raguraj of the Sivaganagai samasthanam is the custodian of this precious piece of history.

GETTING THERE: The Sivaganga Palace is on Madurai-Thondi road, 45 km from Madurai. Buses and taxis are available from Madurai

WHAT NOT TO MISS: Also visit Rani Velu Nachiar’s birthplace, Sakkandi.

WHERE TO STAY: There are plenty of hotels in Madurai.

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