The Khalsa Mahal formed the core of the Chepauk Palace
A piece of history was lost when a major portion of the 244-year old Khalsa Mahal, the earliest example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, was damaged in a fire on Monday. Located inside the Chepauk Palace, it formed the core of the palace that was once home to the Nawabs of Arcot. The last such incident in this complex was in the Ezhilagam building in June 2010 when a fire broke out on its third floor.
The Palace complex, spread over 117 acres, consisted of a variety of buildings, many water bodies and gardens. The two distinctive blocks, the single-storey Humayun Mahal on the northern side and the Khalsa Mahal on the southern side were linked together by a tower designed by Robert Chisholm, the renowned British architect. It is believed that Paul Benfield, the East India Company engineer and contractor, designed these buildings and construction was completed during the later half of 1760's.
In 1859, the buildings were modified to accommodate public offices after the British took over the palace. “The Khalsa Mahal was originally knows as Khalas Mahal to indicate the small dome on top of the structure. It was used as the women's quarters and the private quarters while the Humayun Mahal was the durbar hall,” says historian V.Sriram, about the structure that currently houses the offices of the Directorates of Social Welfare and that of Industries and Commerce.
In August 2011, as part of the Madras Day celebrations, when documentary filmmaker S.Anwar led a group to the Chepauk Palace, he found the first floor of Khalsa Mahal locked. “Though officials who inspected the building some years ago said that the building can be maintained, if the wooden beams are replaced, the recommendation was not implemented. These beams have a life span which needs to be monitored,” he says.
The State government in the 1960s added to the existing structures by constructing the Ezhilagam building at the north-eastern corner of the plot to accommodate more government offices and the campus takes its name from this building. Many more buildings have been added in an ad-hoc manner.
The Chepauk Palace has not undergone any major restoration work like the Senate House or the Ripon Building has, observes S.Suresh, Tamil Nadu State Convenor, INTACH. “Khalsa Mahal has always been under government control and it has been restored as and when the need has arisen. There is extensive use of wood in heritage structures and they have long passages and high ceilings,” he says, adding that this calls for a specific fire fighting code. “The code which is adopted is designed for modern buildings. Heritage buildings have false ceilings to accommodate air-conditioning facilities which increases the fire risk,” he adds. G.N.Venkatasiva Subramaniam, honorary safety consultant, TNFRS says it is time for an audit of safety norms in public buildings. “Many offices are old and do not have hydrants or fire extinguishers. ” he says.
(With inputs from A. Srivathsan)
Keywords: Chepauk fire accident