It is a 375-year-old monument that stands testimony to the glorious years of the Nayak regime.
Now, only one-fourth of its original structure remains intact, and yet the King's palace, popularly known as Thirumalai Nayak Mahal, here continues to enthral tourists and historians alike.
Widely considered as the most illustrious of the Madurai Nayak dynasty, King Thirumalai Nayak constructed the palace to mark the shift of his capital from Tiruchi to Madurai, which was supposed to have been done for strategic and administrative reasons.
The building was constructed with methods and techniques that were considered very novel in those years and its architecture is a confluence of three major cultures, says C. Shanthalingam, a retired Archaeological officer who was posted at Mahal for 18 years in various capacities.
While no record exist, he says that the King was said to have utilised the services of an Italian architect to design the Mahal. While the palace's arches and domes were inspired from Indo-Saracenic Architecture, the massive pillar columns reflect the Gothic (German) style.
The construction of the Mahal was estimated to have commenced at around at 1629 and completed at 1636.
“Originally, the palace stretched for 20 acres spanning a huge area. Even now, some houses in the western side of the Mahal have small arches and domes resembling those at the Mahal,” he says.
The main reason for the palace's decline, he says, was the decision of King Thirumalai Nayak's descendants to shift the capital back to Tiruchi. Towards this, many parts of the Mahal were dismantled and taken to Tiruchi. However, the palace was never constructed at Tiruchi and with the capital shift the Madurai palace fell into disuse.
“That this much of the palace remains intact was only because Lord Napier, Governor of Madras Presidency allotted Rs.5.13 lakh in 1870, a princely amount those years, for restoration of the Mahal,” adds Mr. Shanthalingam.
During British rule, the palace was used for various purposes including as army barracks and as manufacturing hub. Post-Independence it was used as Madurai-Ramnad District Court till 1970, after which it was declared as a ‘Protected Monument' by the State Archaeology Department.
N. Ganesan, Assistant Director (in-charge) of State Archaeology Department posted at the Mahal, said that based on the ticket sales, around 5,000 domestic tourists visited the Mahal every day. Weekends and holidays sees an additional 500 to 1,000 visitors as school and college students arrive as part of tours.
During the peak tourism season between November and June, 1,500 to 2,000 foreigners visit the Mahal. However in the rest of the year, the foreigners flow dwindles down to a trickle.
According to Mr. Ganesan, a total of Rs.4.70 crore has been spent on restoring and maintaining the palace over the years.
In the first major works to be taken up, a sum of Rs.76.31 lakh was allotted in 1995-96. During 2003-04, Rs.1 crore was allotted by the 11 Finance Commission for strengthening works and fixing the cracks.
In 2007-08, Rs.3 crore was allotted for major renovation works, providing a facelift to the palace. This sum was used to change the flooring of galleries in the Mahal besides to strengthen and re-paint its massive pillars. The floorings of the music theatre, ‘Naadaka Salai' and ‘Palli Arai' inside the Mahal were changed to granite floorings.
To the extent possible, State Archaeology Department officials said, all the renovation works were carried out using the traditional Chettinad construction materials to ensure that the original heritage of the Mahal was retained.
The officials added that this sum was utilised to carry out much-needed strengthening work inside the Mahal besides some landscaping and decorative work outside the Mahal.
Following several incidents of the palace being damaged during film shoots, the State Government has now completely banned this practice.
However, despite several major efforts taken up by the Archaeology Department, Tourism Department and bodies such as INTACH, scribbling on the pillars continues to take a toll on the Mahal.
“There are 248 pillars in the Mahal,” Mr. Ganesan says, “and it is impossible to watch all of them. The people have to change by themselves. It is the only solution.”