The exquisite murals in Ramalinga Vilas palace in Ramanathapuram are in desperate need of restoration

The paintings done during the reign of Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathy occupy every inch of the palace

Updated - June 11, 2024 07:46 pm IST

Published - June 06, 2024 05:00 pm IST

The entrance to the Ramalinga Vilas Palace, in Ramanathapuram. It was built by Kizhavan Sethupathy, who ruled Ramanathapuram from 1674 CE to 1710 CE.

The entrance to the Ramalinga Vilas Palace, in Ramanathapuram. It was built by Kizhavan Sethupathy, who ruled Ramanathapuram from 1674 CE to 1710 CE. | Photo Credit: B. Kolappan

What captivates visitors at the Ramalinga Vilasam, the palace of Sethupathys, who ruled Ramanathapuram, are the mural paintings depicting scenes from the Ramayana, Bhagavatam, Sthalapuranams of temples, and events connected to the life of Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathy.

A view of Ramalinga Vilasam Musuem in Ramanathapuram.

A view of Ramalinga Vilasam Musuem in Ramanathapuram. | Photo Credit: BALACHANDER L

The 18th-century murals, however, have lost their sheen. The passage of time and and neglect have taken a toll. Though the walls are in good condition the paintings are in rack and ruin. They might disappear if efforts are not taken to preserve them.

Ramalinga Vilasam Palace Museum in Ramanathapuram.

Ramalinga Vilasam Palace Museum in Ramanathapuram. | Photo Credit: B. Kolappan

According to a senior archaeologist “Since dust has gathered on the surface they need to be cleaned before preservation work starts. Also, there is no need to redraw them as it will destroy the original paintings”. The palace today functions as a museum and is under the control of the Department of Archaeology.

Ramalinga Vilas palace in Ramanathapuram

According to S.M. Kamal, the author of Sethupathy Mannar Varalaru, the paintings were done during the rule of Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathy, who assumed the throne in 1713. Ramalinga Vilasam resembles a temple with structures such as sanctum sanctorum, artha mandapam and maha mandapam.

Painting for awareness

The faded murals that adorn the walls inside the Ramalinga Vilasam Palace Museum in Ramanathapuram.

The faded murals that adorn the walls inside the Ramalinga Vilasam Palace Museum in Ramanathapuram. | Photo Credit: L. Balachander

“The king wanted the paintings to create a social and political awakening among the people of the Maravar Seemai”,. explains Kamal.

Exquisite frescoes inside the Ramanathapuram Palace.

Exquisite frescoes inside the Ramanathapuram Palace. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

What make the murals of Ramalinga Vilasam special is that they cover every inch of the palace. “ They can be easily compared to the Ajantha paintings,” Kamal writes.

The palace in the middle of the fort was built during the reign of Ragunatha Kizhavan Sethupathy (1678-1710), and was constructed with the help of trader and philanthropist Seethakathi of Keezhakarai.

Noted Archaeologist R. Nagaswamy, who prepared an archaeological guide for the composite Ramanathapuram district, with writer N.S. Ramaswami, had mentioned that Ramalinga Vilasam is the only palace having extensive wall paintings of secular nature comparable to Pahari and other schools of northern India.

The panels are labelled both in Tamil and Telugu. Muthu Vijaya Ragunatha Sethupathy is portrayed repeatedly in various poses with his name inscribed in many places. “The arched ceilings portray Sethupathy in various dresses and poses. He is shown receiving the royal sceptre from goddess Raja Rajeswari in one panel. In another, he is shown listening to Rama Katha. In yet another, he is dressed like Manmatha and his wife as Rati,” according to the guide,” says the guide, commissioned by S. Narayanan, former collector of Ramanathapuram.

Ramalinga Vilas Palace Museum also houses panels that depict the battle between the Sethupathy and the Marathas of Thanjavur.

Ramalinga Vilas Palace Museum also houses panels that depict the battle between the Sethupathy and the Marathas of Thanjavur. | Photo Credit: L. Balachander

“Some panels depict the battle between the Sethupathys and the Marathas of Thanjavur, waged north of Aranthangi. Even the names of the cannon are mentioned,” says the guide.

The mural depicting a war scene adorns the wall of the Ramalinga Vilas Palace Museum in Ramanathapuram.

The mural depicting a war scene adorns the wall of the Ramalinga Vilas Palace Museum in Ramanathapuram. | Photo Credit: L. Balachander

One of the panels show Sethupathy receiving three Europeans and welcoming a jesuit missionary.

An interesting assortment of murals - some depicting the battles while others, episodes from the Ramayana, add interest to the art buffs visiting the Ramalinga Vilas Palace in Ramanathapuram.

An interesting assortment of murals - some depicting the battles while others, episodes from the Ramayana, add interest to the art buffs visiting the Ramalinga Vilas Palace in Ramanathapuram. | Photo Credit: L. Balachander

This mural assumes significance since the missionaries had a tough time in Ramanathapuram, and John D Britto, a Jesuit priest, was exiled from Ramanathapuram after he converted Palayakar of Seruvathi. “The return of Britto to Ramanathapuram in 1692 infuriated Kizhavan Sethupathy, who ordered his execution, overruling the objection of the Palayakar of Seruvathi,” writes Kamal.

Ramayana on the walls

Nagaswamy had observed that the rear hall was held sacred by the Sethupathys. Paintings portraying the entire Ramayana adorn the walls.

The mural on the walls of the Durbar hall inside the Ramalinga Vilas Palace in Ramanathapuram.

The mural on the walls of the Durbar hall inside the Ramalinga Vilas Palace in Ramanathapuram. | Photo Credit: L. Balachander

An inscribed panel shows Madura Nayak Vijaya Ranga Chokkanatha Nayak performing Ratna Pattabisheka to Sethupathy. Kamal thinks that the paintings could have been drawn during the period of Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Sethupathy. The style, he feels, belongs to the painters of Andhra Pradesh since Madurai was under the rule of the Nayaks.

Valari and other weapons

A collection of Valari, the traditional instrument used by the Sethupathys and Marudu Brothers. It resembles a boomerang.

A collection of Valari, the traditional instrument used by the Sethupathys and Marudu Brothers. It resembles a boomerang. | Photo Credit: L. Balachander

The museum also boasts Valari, a boomerang type of weapon, used by the Sethupathys and Marudu Brothers, the rulers of Sivaganga. It became such a nightmare for the British army, that the East India Company banned it after defeating Marudu Brothers, and offered monetary rewards to anyone, who handed over the weapon. Colonel Welsh, a friend-turned-foe of the Marudu Brothers, was full of praise for the weapon. He learnt how to handle it from Chinna Marudu, the younger brother.

A collection of different kinds of swords with the British emblem engraved on it. Preserved inside a glass closet at Ramalinga Vilas Palace Museum, in Ramanathapuram.

A collection of different kinds of swords with the British emblem engraved on it. Preserved inside a glass closet at Ramalinga Vilas Palace Museum, in Ramanathapuram. | Photo Credit: L. Balachander

Weapons preserved inside a glass cabinet at Ramalinga Vilas Palace Museum in Ramanathapuram.

Weapons preserved inside a glass cabinet at Ramalinga Vilas Palace Museum in Ramanathapuram. | Photo Credit: L. Balachander

“It was he who first taught me to throw the spear and hurl the collery stick, a weapon scarcely known elsewhere, but in a skilful hand, [it is] capable of being thrown to a certainty to any distance within one hundred yards,” wrote Welsh in his reminiscences.

Maravar Seemai, as Ramanathapuram is known, has a special place in the Tamil history. Ramalinga Vilasam stands as a testimony to the valiant Sethupathys who ruled the area. The paintings and the history behind them will disappear forever, if steps are not taken to preserve them.

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