Dwarfed by the monumental Thirumalai Nayakar Palace in Madurai

posted in: Asia, Heritage, India, Tamil Nadu | 38

“I stood there like a Liliput while the Giants hovered over me. There was nothing scary about them. In fact, they were just beautiful.” These giants that I am talking about exist. They are tall and magnificent. Except that they are not human. They are the towering pillars of the monumental Thirumalai Nayakar Palace in Madurai.

The gigantic royal abode - Thirumalai Nayakar Palace in Madurai

One of the key things to see in Madurai, the Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal had me in awe of its gigantic proportions, intricate ceilings, and the whole regal aura. The palace is a shadow of itself. Having seen the remains, I wonder – “If one-fourth of it made me feel so insignificant, what would it have done to me in its heydays.” I am sure you will be asking that question too after you are done with this tour of Thirumalai Nayakar Palace.

History of Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal

The name should be a giveaway as to who built this palace. Thirumalai Nayak was one of the well-known kings of the Nayaka dynasty. They were earlier, deputies under the famous Vijayanagara King  – Krishnadevaraya. Nagama Nayak was sent to Madurai to suppress some riots. Owing to the circumstances in the city, the general had to use different means to maintain peace. One of that had him declaring the Madurai Kingdom independent of Vijayanagar and installing himself as a King. Initially, this irked Krishna Deva Raya who ordered the capture of the Nayaka General. However, once the situation was explained, he pardoned him and announced him as an independent ruler.

An old picture of Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal, Madurai

Thirumalai Nayakar set about building the “grandest palace in South India” around the 1630s. Unfortunately, with a lot of wars, the structures got partly damaged. It was his grandson, who further stripped the place of its embellishments in a quest to build his own abode in Tiruchirapalli. The new palace did not hold a flame to the original palace in Madurai – which despite being razed to one-fourth of its size, still sparkled.

Current picture of what remains of the palace

It was the Governor of Madras – Lord Napier in 1866 who restored what was left of the palace – though not as living quarters, but as a garrison. The place fell into disrepair till the Madurai Tourism authorities took over. There is a fair bit that still needs repair. However, what is done is enough for you to enjoy and be awe-struck!

The architecture of Thirumalai Nayakar Palace

Your first step into the Thirumalai Nayakar Palace is enough to transport you to a Gothic heritage site in Europe. And yet, you will be grounded in India. The reason for this is the beautiful amalgamation of both these styles of architecture – the tall Gothic roofs embellished with Indian carvings. The stuccowork on the arches and the paintings on the ceilings reflect the Indian heritage. At the same time, the epic proportions of these structures remind you of Europe.

The Indo Saracenic Architecture of Madurai Palace

What is amazing is that none of these structures have been constructed using joints. The sturdy structure was created with a mixture of limestone and eggshell – chunnam. The material used for the construction of the palace is rumored to have created a land pit that has now become the famous Mariamman Teppakulam pond – where the current Madurai Meenakshi Temple festival of floats takes place.

Map of Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace

The Indo-Saracenic architecture was a characteristic of all the buildings of this palace in Madurai. The original layout as seen in the map of this palace included a large court area, a dance hall, harem, an armory, stables and granaries. Sadly. all that is currently left is the large court area and the adjoining dance hall.

Stepping into the World of Giants – the courtyard

The courtyard and its pillars as seen from the King's throne

Past the ticket window, upon entering the courtyard, I suddenly felt like someone had shrunk me! The gargantuan pillars lined the corridor around the entire courtyard. The only way I think I would have felt at home would be by sitting on an elephant in that open courtyard. Currently, the open space is filled with benches for the light and sound show. However, standing there, looking towards the throne at a distance, I could well imagine how the common audience meetings would have been.

The pillars of the Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal are the key feature of this Madurai Palace. They say that these pillars measure 82 feet in height and are around 19 feet wide.

Swarga Vilasam or the Celestial Pavillion

Admiring the ceilings of Swarga Vilasam

The entire courtyard along with the bordering corridors used to be the court called the Swarga Vilasam. The real beauty of this Celestial Pavillion lies in the high ceilings and the painted frescoes of the corridors. Every ceiling is a wonder. It starts with simple mono-colored flower designs and gradually moves to vibrant decor that can send you into raptures. I spent a considerable amount of time on the floor – and I mean like lying down to capture the artistic domes.

Mono-Colored 3D ceiling

Single colored ceilings of Swarga Vilasam

The single color outline of the designs enhanced the 3D design of the ceilings in this section. What is amazing is when you see the outline, it is not the usual border lines. There are smaller intricate patterns that make the border. These are possibly the Islamic infusion to the Nayak architecture.

Notice how the borders have a pattern - mono colored ceilings of Swarga Vilasam
The mono-colored ceilings giving a break in the line of colored ceilings

I noticed how each of these mono-colored ceiling sections enhanced the adjoining multi-colored ceiling. In some cases, they even drew your attention to the arches and the small windows that somehow give you a feeling that there is possibly an upper level in the court.

Painted Frescos and Ceilings

Painted ceiling through an arch of the Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace

Rectangular floral ceilings, round lotus ones and octagonal beauties – there is just a lot to admire. I suggest, take a mat, lie down under them and catch the intricate details. I bet some of the Indian fabric designs came out of these colors and combinations. In some way, they did remind me of the embroidered mirror work of Gujarat.

The ceiling that seemed like the Persian Carpet
The Swarga Vilasam ceiling that reminded me of Gujarati Mirror Work
The octagonal floral ceiling of Thirumalai Nayakar Palace
close-up of the floral ceiling of Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal

My favorite one is the octagonal flower. Notice the way the whole 3D effect comes through. Check out how the borders of the flowers are filled with patterns and finally how they all culminate into windows.

Then, there is this rectangular one with the green and red design. That one reminded me of the colorful doors in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In fact, one of my family homes had something like that. Pity I do not have a picture of those doors! But I do have that of the ceiling 🙂

The ceiling that resembled the doors of Rajasthan and Gujarat

Arches and Plinths

Simple arches that tell a story at the Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal of Madurai

Every arch had a story of its own. Even the simple ones had a certain beauty when viewed from one end of the corridor. There were a few sections within the corridor where the brackets around the arches had these Ganas (dwarves) carved as if they were holding up the roof.

When it comes to the plinths, you have to not just see the ones inside the corridor but also the ones around the exterior arches. They sure have some stunning carvings for you to see.

Carved arch of the Swarga Vilasam
The carvings on the exteriors of the arches
The stucco art around the arches of the Nayak Palace of Madurai
Arch with the Ganas and the windows in the Swarga Vilasam
Close up of one of the stucco art

Windows and little jharokhas

One of the windows at the eye level

A little of the Rajput style of architecture comes through when you look at the arched windows around the corridor. They are positioned such that they allow the sunlight to fall through but are out of reach for you to get a view of the outside. They sure treat you to a lovely play of light and shadows in the corridors.

A few of them have been covered by colored glass. Though these seem recent, my guess is that they emulate the original Gothic design of stained glasses.

Windows to allow natural light into the palace of Nayakar
Colored glass window in the Swarga Vilasam

The Throne Pedestal of the Thirumalai Palace

The throne pedestal, right in the center of the Swarga Vilasam

Technically, this is a part of the Swarga Vilasam but for this virtual tour of Thirumalai Palace, I would like to address it separately. A central octagonal section makes the throne area of the court. This is where the king sat and address the people of the court. If someone were to stand in the open courtyard and look, they would be in awe of the man on the Golden throne. It is the whole aura that those high arches, windows and tall inverted ceilings cast on that area.

The intimidating approach to the throne pedestal of Thirumalai palace
The horse that lines the stairs to the throne

That powerful aura does not end there. It is also, the approach to the throne that would make one feel intimidated. The stairs are regular sized but guarded by lions that are human-sized. Somehow, the mixed proportions of the colossal pillars, the stairs and the lion guards just add to the daunting royal splendor of the court of Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal.

Ranga Vilasam

Ranga Vilasam of Thirmalai Nayakar Palace

The Ranga Vilasam of Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal was used a theatre and dancing hall. The two storeyed-hall carries forward the same architectural brilliance of the Nayaks – with its high ceilings and intricate arches. The major difference here is the absence of those painted ceilings from the Swarga Vilasam. Instead, there are more of the stained glass windows. The ribbed construction – a characteristic of Gothic architecture is very evident here when you glance at the roof.

The stained glass windows of Ranga Vilasam
The first floor of the Ranga Vilasam, possibly used by the royal ladies for viewing
A mystical creature as a plinth in the Ranga Vilasam

My guess is that the first floor was covered by curtains through which the ladies of the Nayak family enjoyed the musical performances. Currently, the hall has been converted to a museum. Look out for this ancient stone inscription from the time of the Cholas. Personally, this was the only significant exhibit here. There are palm-leaf inscriptions, ancient books and old sculptures but the lack of description makes them uninteresting.

Chola inscription kept in the museum
A sculpture kept in the museum. However, it has no description as to how old it is or where it is found.

Light and Sound Show of Thirumalai Nayakar Palace

Even though there is not much left of the rest of Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal, you might end up spending an hour here – especially if you like art and architecture. Hence, make sure you go well before the light and sound show of the Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal. I thought it would be great to combine the show and the sightseeing and my first visit was a literal fiasco. For one – the light is almost dim and you cannot enjoy the interiors of the Swarga Vilasam. The Ranga Vilasam is shut and cannot be seen.

This is why when I got a second chance during my Golden Chariot journey, I set off at noon to catch the best of the palace. In fact, the 2nd time I chose to miss out on the light and sound show. This was largely because the first time I saw the show, I almost fell asleep. The show uses the lights to tell you the history of the palace – of how the Nayaks got to be the kings. The narration is very flat and the effects not so great. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Plenty of people walked out midway.

Best time to visit Thirumalai Nayakar Palace

Madurai is warm throughout the year. Winters – October to February- are a tad bit better. Hence, in terms of season, these are the recommended months.

If you are looking to attend the light and sound show, make sure you are there early to catch the tickets. The timings for the Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal Light and Sound show are –

  • English show is from 6.45 PM to 7.35 PM
  • Tamil show is from 8 PM to 8.50 PM

The adult ticket for the light and sound show is priced at INR 50.

The palace opening time is at 9 am. It closes at 5 pm. No one is allowed in between the palace closing time and the start of the light and sound show.

Personally, if you ask me – ditch the show and go in during the day to see the marvels of this Madurai palace. The architecture tells you a better tale than the show and it is worthwhile being a Lilliput in this giant’s world. And that precisely is the reason why you must not miss this Madurai attraction. Pin this up and share the virtual tour around.

How to reach Thirumalai Nayakar Palace?

Madurai is well connected by flights, road and rail. If you are heading to Madurai from Bangalore by road, then the best route is via NH 44 as below
Bangalore – Hosur – Krishnagiri – Salem – Dindigul – Madurai
This takes around 7 hours and you will be covering around 430 km. The road conditions are excellent.

From Chennai, you can go through NH 38 as below
Chennai – Villupuram – Trichy – Madurai
The road conditions are good and you might take around 7 hours 15 minutes to cover 460 km. You can even plan a quick stop at Trichy to see the famous Srirangam temple. If you have a little more time, a diversion to Thanjavur will allow you to visit the famous Thanjavur temple or the Thanjavur Palace.

The Thirumalai Nayakar Palace is just 2 km from the famous Madurai Meenakshi temple. It is best to hire an auto and get to the palace. This will save you the hassle of looking for parking. There are not many places for a car park around the palace.

Where to stay in Madurai?

Plenty of hotels of all budgets are available in Madurai. During my personal visit – our stay was just a night, we chose one of the mid-priced ones in the main city, close to the Madurai temple. The Golden Chariot accommodation was anyway on the train.

If you are picking a mid-priced or budget hotel in the city, make sure that it has a parking space and a few restaurants around it. These hotels can sometimes be in the business areas that are full of hardware shops. Consider using the booking resources below to reserve your hotel in Madurai.

Travel Tips

  • The entrance fees for the palace are different from the light and sound show. They are INR 10 per Indian and INR 50 for a foreigner. Cameras are charged extra at INR 30. Video cameras cost INR 100.
  • As suggested earlier, try getting there during the day to see the best of the palace. I do not really recommend the light and sound show.
  • Flat shoes and comfortable cotton clothing is advisable. Carry a light shawl for the evening show as it might get a little nippy, especially in the winters.
  • There are no guides available at the palace. A little reading beforehand will help you enjoy the place better.

Booking resources

  • Consider reserving your hotel in Madurai through Booking.com
  • You might want to use Amazon to shop for your travel or general shopping needs. Consider clicking through this link and buying.
Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this. 
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