Private audience

At the northern corner of the Swarga Vilasa, a small door connects to an ornate room called Natakasalai. The name seems to imply a theater, but the information that you can read on your way in implies that Thirumala Nayak lived in this area. Other areas in the now vanished palace complex had uses which would need a theater. I could steer a middle step in guessing, and say that this could well be a private audience chamber. It is ornate enough to befit one of the richer kings of the south, whose kingdom encompassed a large part of modern day Tamil Nadu, and some portions of Kerala and Karnataka. The featured photo looks eastwards down the length of this hall.

The center of the room is sunk a little below the level of the Swarga Vilasa, and on the east the space resembles a raised stage. It reminds you of a modern theater with its raised stage and low seating. But in the 17th century the king would not have sat at a lower level. If this was used for dance or theatre, then the performers would have been in the center, with the king seated to the east. If this was an audience chamber, then again the king would have sat on the platform in the east.

The decorations here are finer than those outside. There were the usual winged lions rampant on the finials of the pilars, but below them the ornate leaves and vines were much finer and more delicate than the beautiful work I’d already admired in the outer chamber. I have not seen such fine work in clay before.

This area is used as a somewhat haphazard museum. Some of the sculptures on display are interesting, but perhaps the most interesting are the pillars with epigraphs which are kept in a small and bare side chamber.

At the court

My first sight of Thirumal Nayak’s palace knocked the breath out of me. When I recovered I walked along the side gallery of the audience chamber, called the Swarga vilasa. When you do this you cannot help noticing how closely the thick pillars are set. If I hadn’t known it already, this would have been my first realization that the palace does not use stone. Stone pillars could be more slender. These pillars are made of clay, excavated from the teppakulam of the Vandiyur Mariamman temple.

I walked down the corridor and looked up at the cupola in the corner. Using clay as a building material has its constraints. Walls and pillars are thick, and getting enough light into a space requires different solutions. The syncretic architecture that had grown after the incursion of the Delhi sultanate into Madurai offered the beautiful solution which you see in the photo above. A cupola in the roof allows space for a whole series of windows which let in light. I admired the technicality and the beautiful design on the roof.

The light filters easily down, lighting up a large pride of lions which looked down their noses at me. This was more work in clay. Madurai is not very far from mountains, and transporting stone would not have been out of the question. A professional historian would be able to shed more light on the choice of building material: was it economics, or familiarity with the material which led to the use of clay here? After all, the Meenakshi temple, rebuilt during the preceding century uses stone. Why not this?

I walked down the side gallery to the space behind where the king would make his appearance. The space is vast, but broken by pillars. The vistas that greet you inside the Meenakshi temple are absent. The pillars are said to be coated with a plaster made from powdered sea shell bound together with egg protein. The smooth white finish has attracted a generation of people to express their thoughts in pencil and ball pen, in defiance of notices which request people not to do so. If you thought that the internet is where you see the most interesting opinions, you could be wrong.

The largest dome on the roof lies over the center of this space. Every tourist stops below it to gape up at the interior of the dome. I decided to go with the flow. It is worth it. The ceiling is beautifully decorated, and there is enough light to admire this by. The complex is maintained by the state archaeology department. Typically departments such as this are starved of funding; even more so than health and education. In spite of that, I thought that they have done a fair job of maintenance.

Next to the central dome there seems to be a smaller cupola. I looked up at the painted ceiling; it looked coffered. Was it trompe l’oeil? I walked around below it and saw from the change is perspective that it really was coffered. I didn’t see any structural reason why this part of the ceiling needed strengthening. Perhaps it is something that is only visible from above. The design was spectacular, what ever the reason.

The area where the king would have sat is architecturally interesting. A series of cupolas and domes let in a lot of light, so the king would never be in darkness. The central cupola and the arches could also have been designed for its acoustics. I could not test that, but it seems possible given the shape of the area. Just in front of this is a vestibule and steps leading down to the courtyard. The vestibule is crossed by rods which could have held fans meant for ciruclating air through this whole area.

At the bottom of the steps were two beautiful stone sculptures which at one time would have shown horses with riders. The riders had been cut off quite expertly. It looks like planned plunder. The balance of probability is that the busts of the riders are gracing a collection somewhere in the wider world.

Heaven’s Court

After the fall of the Vijayanagar empire, their viceroy in Madurai, Vishvanatha Nayak declared himself king of Madurai in 1529 CE. Thirumala Nayakkar became king almost a hundred years later, in 1623 CE. His palace is one of the stops on a tourist circuit of Madurai. It didn’t look like much when we came to it. So our first view of what we saw when we entered the door (see the featured photo) was a shock.

That wonderful soaring facade stood at the end of a large courtyard. The place felt like a court, a place where a king can make a ceremonial appearance. My guess was not incorrect. This part of the palace is the audience chamber, known as Swarga Vilasam, which one can loosely translate as Heaven’s Court. One reads that the rest of the palace was destroyed in the 18th century CE. I could not find the circumstances in which this destruction took place, but it would be interesting to read more about it.

There is a sound and light show every evening in this palace, and the courtyard was filled with rows of chairs for the show. I sat in one and admired the clay images which decorated the facade. During this trip I began to realize that a common cultural thread which runs through medieval and modern Tamil society is the wide use of these decorative clay images. Th winged lion, whose photo you see above, is a particularly nice example.

I was initially a little surprised to find a representation of an angel in this court. But on a little reflection I remembered that the first Christian churches were built in Madurai with the permission of Virappa Nayak, Thirumala’s father. Since I’d seen the cathedral decorated with clay images, it was clear that local artists had already learnt to use Christian symbolism. A winged human is not so different from other imaginary winged creatures after all.

The Makara recurs throughout the palace. This one caught my eye because of the two parrots which float in its beard. The decoration on top of the arch and the supports above it are incredible. I was astounded by the wealth that this symbolized. A pity that a large part of the palace is gone, taking much human ingenuity and artistry with it. I must remember to try to find out when and why the rest of the palace was pulled down.

Finally I shifted my attention from the arches and pillars to the decoration in the top layer of the facade. These are equally complex. Lions and snakes separate groups of three warriors. In our machine age we fall into an assumption that if a pattern is repeated, then every repeat is identical. But in the early modern age, when this palace was built, this was not true. Every bit of the pattern received individual attention. So the groups of three warriors are all different. In these two groups, see how individualized each warrior is. Even the stances of the warriors are slightly different, somewhat individual.