History & Culture

Not mere rest houses

The View of Muktambal chatram in Orathanad, Thanjavur District Photo: M. Srinath  

Even the most enthusiastic traveller is beset by worries about where to stay, where to eat, and what to do if there is a medical emergency. One would imagine that if one were a traveller 400 years ago, the worries would have been greater. But that was not so for pilgrims travelling from Thanjavur to Rameswaram, for on this route the Maratha rulers had built chatrams, which catered for their every need. Food was free, there were doctors on call and if a patient needed a special diet, it was provided.

Most of these chatrams bore the names of the Maratha queens and were administered by them. The chatrams had Veda Patasalas and schools attached to them and their reputation had spread beyond the boundaries of Thanjavur. There is a record of a student who came from Penukonda in Andhra Pradesh to study in one of the chatram schools.

The chatrams were established between 1743 and 1837. A record dating back to 1814 says that reference books for students at the chatram schools were borrowed from the Saraswathi Mahal Library. The chatrams in turn made contributions to the library, by providing money to buy styluses.

Paddy fields, coconut and mango groves and sometimes entire villages were gifted to chatrams. Some of these land grants were tax free ( sarvamanyam).

Some people were given uluppais (groceries given gratis) by chatrams. Dr. Rama Kausalya, retired Principal of the Thiruvaiyaru Music College, says, “Later on, money along with rice was given as uluppai to destitute widows. This was perhaps one of the oldest pension schemes in the country.” She remembers women receiving such pensions even as late as the 1950s.

To ensure that there was no misuse of funds, no employee of a chatram was allowed to eat there.

The Maratha kings were reported to have built 96 chatrams and endowed them with 96 parcels of land. The chatrams spent the money judiciously and had to save one fourth of the income.

Some richer than others

While all chatrams had property, some were richer than others. The Muktambal chatram in Orathanad, had huge cash reserves and even the government borrowed money from it!

This chatram has an interesting history. Perianna is a name associated with the history of the Harikatha tradition. His real name was Muthukrishna Naidu. It was Perianna who gave succour to Krishna Bhagavatar and sent him to Ramachandra Bawa, from whom Krishna Bhagavatar picked up songs and the art of narrating mythological stories.

Later Krishna Bhagavatar came up with the art of Harikatha Kalakshepa. Perianna also wrote the nirupana for Radha Kalyanam. Perianna had a sister Muktambal, whose beauty caught the attention of Serfoji II, who married her through a custom known as kathi kalyanam. The tradition followed was that the mangalsutra was tied, not by the king, but by a sumangali and a sword was kept nearby to indicate that the woman was marrying royalty! When Muktambal was on her deathbed, she requested Serfoji to build a chatram in her name and that was how the Muktambal Chatram came into existence.

Serfoji performed many yagas in Orathanad. Most of the yagas were conducted by Jatavallabhas. Quite a few of the pandits at the chatrams' Veda Patasalas were also Jatavallabhas. Jata is a method of reciting the Vedas. It is a stage that comes after Krama. From Jata one progresses to Ghanam, and then to Lakshana.

In 1817, the chatrams were taken over by the British. An 1838 document refers to 15 chatrams and a 1908 document refers to 20. Since 1961, the Collector of Thanjavur has been the chatram administrator. Some of the chatrams in the current list with the Chatram Department did not find a place in the old lists such as the Kalyana Mahal in Tiruvaiyaru. The Thanjavur Kottai Anna Chatram was later called Sreyas Chatram.

The Chatram Department gets revenue from the agricultural land and also from rent on buildings leased out. It also runs rest houses, for instance the one in Thanjavur, where the rent charged is just Rs. 100 a day for a single room.

Kalyana Mahal, with its maze of corridors and well ventilated verandahs, is a delightful building. Among the chatrams this writer visited, the condition of this one seems to be slightly better than the rest. But the murals here are almost completely gone. One notices the growth of shrubs on the walls and peeling plaster.

The main door to the Sreyas Chatram, which serves as a hostel for 56 students, is kept barricaded, for there is the danger of the wall collapsing if the huge door is opened.

Both Muktambal and Yamunambal Chatrams present a sorry sight. One of the wooden pillars on the first floor of the Muktambal Chatram has disappeared. None of this could have happened in a short span of time. This is the cumulative effect of decades of neglect. The question is when will the buildings be restored, as befits their architectural and historical value?

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