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Testimony to a rich past

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Magnificent: The durbar at Rani Mangammal Hall (museum) in Tiruchi.
Magnificent: The durbar at Rani Mangammal Hall (museum) in Tiruchi.

KAUSALYA SANTHANAM

The Mangammal Mahal is a part of the palace which Chokkanatha built in 1666.

The Mahal today houses an assortment of objects… stuffed animals, shards of pottery, valuable bronzes…

“The Audience Hall of Rani Mangammal of the Naik dynasty who ruled Madura country, circa 1700,” says the plaque at the entrance. The Mangammal Mahal is located near the magnificent Rock Fort in Tiruchi. Historian F.R.Hemingway referred to it as “a robust structure with beautiful pillars.”

The Audience Hall or Kolu Mandapam functioned as the meeting place for the Town Hall Committee from the 19th to the 20th centuries and the façade contains a tablet commemorating its centenary celebrations in 1982. The Mahal now houses a museum of the State Department of Museums.

Rani Mangammal who wielded power from 1689-1706 was one of the few women rulers the Tamil region has had. She left her imprint on both Madurai and Tiruchi. The widow of Chokkanatha Naik, grandson of the great Tirumalai Naik, was known for her administrative acumen and initiated many development and charitable works.

When her husband died in 1682, he was succeeded by Muthu Veerappa Naik. But he soon succumbed to an attack of small pox and Mangammal became the regent for her infant grandson and spent the greater part of her reign in Tiruchi. Chokkanatha had shifted his capital from Madurai to Tiruchi fearing invaders from the North.

Those who have visited the awe inspiring Tirumalai Naik Mahal in Madurai may feel angered when Chokkanatha’s name is mentioned. For he dismantled portions of the beautiful Mahal to enable him to construct the palace in Tiruchi. You feel slightly pacified when P. Raja Mohan, Curator of the museum, says that Chokkanatha did this because Tiruchi was then in the grip of a severe famine and he wanted to avoid levying taxes on his people to build the palace. The Mangammal Mahal is a part of this palace which Chokkanatha built in 1666.

Assortment of objects

The Mahal today houses an assortment of objects. “This is an offspring of the Madras Museum which is a multipurpose museum; it is not an archaeological museum. We get around 30 visitors a day,” says the curator.

Stuffed animals, shards of pottery, household and agricultural implements, valuable bronzes, Theru-k-koothu costumes, musical instruments, duplicate coins belonging to various eras and contemporary paintings make up the medley; labels and information are rather scarce. Inside the building, the beauty of the multiple arches is marred by wires crisscrossing between the fans.

The building provides a fine example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. The dome resembles a multi-petal flower and on the pillars and cornices are birds in stucco with wings poised for flight. Mellow vegetable paintings are visible everywhere. The Mahal however is not very presentable. “This is because we are in the midst of renovation,” says the official.

“If we were not occupying the building, it would have been in a worse state. Multistoreyed buildings have come up where Mangammal’s beautiful park once stood and there are Naik buildings nearby which are being used as various government offices. If they are handed over to us, we can maintain them well. In fact it was because of former Collector K. Rajaraman that the Mahal is now in our possession. It was handed over by the Revenue Department to the Department of Museums in 1998.We are now in the midst of a crisis. We are paying Rs.7 lakhs as Corporation tax and have already paid Rs.60 lakhs in seven years. They refused exemption saying this is not an educational institution.”

Despite the feeling of let down at the neglect of a rich heritage building, your spirits are lifted when you meet a member of the staff. “See that container in that corner? It was used to make idlis centuries ago,” he says. Sure enough, the terracotta container has scoops of regular sizes very similar to the stainless steel idli containers of today. “By the way, I’m the taxidermist who has stuffed all the birds and animals displayed here. I am very interested in archaeology and artefacts. I collect them from the villages around. I have donated this terracotta artefact to the museum,” Kamaraj says in an offhand fashion.

You gape at him with a mixture of admiration and disbelief. Instances like these restore your faith as passion for the past lurks in the most unlikely places. If only the same passion drove all those concerned with preserving our heritage…


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