The light and sound show guy calls it Thirumalai Nayak Mahal, as though colloquial Nayakar Mahal is tough to say. Maybe that is his way of a stylish english slang, Nayak! Whether it is pronounced as Nayak or Nayakar Mahal, this grand palace of Madurai is a must visit. Introduced to me by none other than Mani Ratnam in the movie "Bombay", I was this young wide eyed kid looking at awe at those pillars. With Manisha Koirala standing in a white and white ghagra choli amidst the white massive pillars and Chitra singing the sweetest in Rahman's music, Kannalane from Bombay needs no introduction.
Within the next few years when we went on a family trip to Madurai, I promptly wore a ghagra choli and stood amidst those pillars. There were many college students standing around the pillar trying to measure the width. At least ten guys had to stand around it to cover the width. Many years later on my recent Madurai trip I did not want to miss the visit to Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal. So on fine morning when I was done visiting Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple and came out through the Pudhu Mandapam, there was an auto guy ready to take me to Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal. He warned me that renovation is on and might be closed. Still I embarked on the ride.
But before that he stopped at a traffic signal and said, "please try the Famous Jigarthanda". Such is the hospitality of Madurai people. Even if you don't ask, they will tell you the best places to eat, the history of the place, their life story, everything! So I hopped out while he parked a little away. And this was the first time I was having Jigarthanda. Oh man! It is a sight to watch him make it. Mixing flavored milk with jigarthanda ice cream, nuts, some honey like topping! Absolute yumm. I noticed people buying just the ice cream or sometimes took the parcel. But I would say stand there and have the yummy drink + ice cream. The Special Famous Jigarthanda to be precise. And this is the only original Famous Jigarthanda shop about 500m from Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal near a traffic signal.
The auto dropped me at the massive entrance gate. I got my ticket which is ten or twenty bucks as entrance fee andI think I paid a camera fee too. Though mine is a small point and shoot. The security let me in after a temperature check and copious sanitiser in my hand. Covid times. The grand hall of circular pillars opened up in front of me. Let me take you through the legacy of Thirumalai Nayakar and the palace architecture
Legacy of Thirumalai Nayakar
I learnt a lot about Thirumalai Nayakar during the light and sound show. From kids to adults, everyone landing in Madurai would start singing his praises. For not only is the palace famous, there are many more public buildings he has constructed. He ruled Madurai between A.D 1623 and 1659. The many parts of the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple was built by him. The pillared pudhu mandapam was built by him. And so is the Theppakulam. Apparently he took the soil from around Vandiyur Mariyamman Teppakulam for the palace construction and then converted it into the biggest artificial lake. If I remember it from the show, he constructed it as a leisure place during summer where he spent with his queens. His love for his queen is also something they vividly explain in the show. It is kind of warm to watch :).
Not just Thirumalai and his legacy is spoken about, his ministers in the court are also spoken about for their wit and knowledge. One such is Neelakanta Dikshitar. He is the author of innumerable works like Sivalilarnava, Shanti Vilasa, Nalacharitra Nataka, Gangavatarnam, Nilakantha Vijayachampu, and Kalividambanam. Even now his birth and death anniversary is celebrated in his village Pallamadai regularly. Pallamadai was gifted to him by the Nayakar. The story behind it goes like this.
Neelakanta Dikshitar was asked to supervise the construction of Pudhu Mandapam. While one of the sculptor was sculpting a sculpture of the Nayak's consort, a chip broke off from the thigh. He scraps it and starts making another one but here too it chips off. So Neelakanta Dikshitar feels this is not a mere coincidence and lets it stay. The king is aghast when he sees the chip in the thigh, for the queen actually had a scar in her thigh. The minister afraid of the king's wrath, plucks out his eyes to prove his innocence. The minister then sang to the Goddess Meenakshi, to restore his eyesight if he was innocent. He gets his eyesight and the king feels bad. He gifts the minister a village called Pallamadai where he settles. Madurai is filled with such miracle stories.
You also get to know more about the wars, valors and victories he had over Bijapur kings and Mysore kings. His capital was originally in Trichy. But then Lord Shiva appeared in his dreams and asked him to move to Madurai and he promptly did that. But his grandson wanted to build a bigger better palace in Trichy and moved the base again. Took the jewels and gems embedded in the palace. Well, against Lord Shiva wishes and obviously the palace we have not heard of.
It is also said that Thirumalai Nayak ate his breakfast only after the pujas were performed at Srivilliputhur Andal Temple. Apparently, right from Srivilliputur to Madurai there are mandaps built and they would ring bells from one mantap to another to pass on the message. One day should go on a trail looking for these mandapams from Madurai to Srivilliputhur.
Let us look into the palace now.
Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal Architecture
Thirumalai nayakar mahal architecture, with its vibrant colors, is sure to keep you spellbound. The architecture has a blend of Islamic, Dravidian, Rajput, and an essence of European influence. It is said that he brought an Italian architect as well to construct this palace. Well the domes make you wonder if it is Islamic influence or the Vatican influence. It makes a grand and royal impression with stately pillars and grand arches, combined with glass windows and stately motifs on ceilings. One count says that there are about 200 pillars in the palace. That statistic in itself exudes royalty.
Construction work is still going on. Which also meant a fresh coat of paint all around the palace. The colors on the ceilings are more vibrant. You gasp every time you look up. For it is not so prominent from outside but everytime you stand under a dome that is when the colors deigns get exposed. It is a fabulous place of royalty and pride. There are a lot of Thirumalai nayakar mahal images circulating on the internet. However, whatever photos and pictures available cannot compare to the actual grandeur of this place.
The courtyard itself covers about 40,000 sq feet. The original palace is said to be four times larger than what is seen now. Initially, the palace had two parts. The Swarga Vilas and the Ranga Vilas. Unfortunately, only one remains today that is Swargavilas or the celestial Pavilion. It used to be the throne room. Initially, the palace consisted of the King and queens' residences, durbars, banquets, temples, theatres with attached gardens, and ponds. The audience hall in the place is believed to be the largest hall to be built around that time. This is because the Nayak kings had more than 70 provinces and had to meet their representatives daily. So, a huge audience hall was built.
The extraordinary corridors hold a charm of their own. These were built on elevated platforms so that the royal family members could watch the processions from their galleries. During the Navaratri festival time, processions were held, and all festivals were celebrated with much pomp and enthusiasm. The Watchtowers' architecture is praiseworthy. On the other hand, the gardens reflect the Mughal influence and have a great deal of European and Moorish styles. The stately pillars stand as a mute spectator to the passing of the time without losing their grandeur. They are so overbearing that the visitor will feel like a dwarf. The size of the pillars is around 80 feet high and 20 feet wide. It takes around 6-8 adults to circle one pillar.
The motifs on the ceilings range from peacocks, parakeets to lions, elephants, and snakes. There are also the mythical yali, dragons, and beautiful flowers such as lotus carved exquisitely. Seashell motifs in the domes and other places draw you to them. The south Asian style's influence can be seen from the carvings of the dragons.
The King's Throne is placed under an octagonal dome (about 60 feet in diameter) commands respect and exudes power. I hope the original throne was very ornate and grand. Now one funny chair is placed mostly to visualize scenes of the King sitting during the light and sound show. Like other similar kings, King Thirumalai Nayak was a patron of fine arts, as seen from the Dancing Hall, filled with various sculptures and paintings. Tales are replete with details saying that not a day passed without a concert or a dance recital.
Time, however, has taken a heavy toll on the Thirumalai nayakar mahal architecture. Some of the buildings have crumbled due to the rough usage. During British rule, some of the rooms served as granaries and garrisons. The British also stored ammunition. A part of the palace served as a judicial court, and another had a paper mill. So extensive was the palace property. However, the British did try to renovate some of the palace premises, especially the then Governor of Madras, Lord Napier. But negligence of the government ought to be seen.
Just look up in google maps and follow the route to ten pillars. Little away in one of the lanes lies ten dilapidated tall pillars, encroached around with shops and houses. These must have been preserved by ASI. It also shows how far and wide the palace must have been. Unfortunately these pillars are just left to crumble.
The palace is not just about architecture. For shopaholics, the streets surrounding the palace are tempting indeed. Silk and traditional sarees are sold along with other textiles and fabrics. Each street has a story connected with the palace. For example, Navabhatkana street got its name because the 19 musical instruments were played to welcome the various dignitaries to the palace. Another street named Kizha Vasal is famous for its markets. To have a feel of ancient times, it is suggested that a rickshaw ride or best a walking tour be taken.
Light and Sound Show Timings
The light and sound show takes place during the evenings. For this, the central courtyard is chosen. Thousands of well-placed lights, carefully coordinated sequences accompanying audio makes it a worthwhile show. The historical details surrounding the King, queen, and various commanders are very well narrated. It is a great show which takes the visitor back in time. The clear profound male voice narrating the story keeps you hooked. The mosquitoes though eat you up. The show is 50 minutes long.
The English show starts at 6.45 pm, and the Tamil shows starts at 8 pm. I wish the guy issuing the ticket gives this information before hand. People who did not understand english were stuck in this show and were noisy and left midway. The fee for this show is very nominal, being around Rs.50/-for adults and Rs.25/- for children. The fees are the same for international tourists as well. No separate fees are charged for cameras.
Note: It is suggested to enter the place a little earlier. At the same time, there is still daylight to capture lovely images before the show starts.
Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal Museum
Museums are love for me. But when I went it was closed, maybe due to renovation. But it has a lot more information about the original palace layout and artefacts. Do check it out in my friend Meenakshi's blog about the museum.
By the time the light and sound show got over, it was about 8pm and I decided to walk around in search of Burma Idiyappam Kadai. It is a super small shop, where you can only get parcel and keep moving. But it is pretty crowded. It is about 400m by foot in the adjacent lane. Just a small stretch was isolated but I walked. They had the rice variation as well as millet idiyappams. They were steaming it freshly and was selling like hot cakes. It comes with mouth-watering accompaniments such as coconut sugar or jaggery or opt for salna. I loved the salna and idiyappam combo.
Opening Time, Entrance ticket fee
The Thirumalai Nayak palace timings for the public are from 9 am to 5 pm on all days of the week. The lunch break taken is from 1 to 1:30 pm. Entrance ticket fee is around 10 INR for Indians and 50 INR for non-Indians
How to Reach Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal
The palace is located very close to the Madurai Meenakshi Temple, precisely about 1.2 km. It is easily accessible by various forms of road transport and is close to the railway station. The Madurai Airport is about 10 km away. Tourists can hire a taxi or locally-run rickshaws. The best time to visit the palace and explore it is during the Maargazhi Masam, mostly cos the weather is bearable in winters. I did it in December too. So plan between October to March.