''Chatrams'' - road side inns built by the Thanjavur Maratha rulers are crumbling fast

Mukthambal Chatram, near Thanjavur TN timesofindia.indiatimes.com

''Chatrams'' are  something like way side  inn built by the rulers centuries ago - 18th and 9th century  in this land  now known as Tamil Nadu  to cater to the basic needs of travelers between towns. Travelers were mostly pilgrims and traders. Built on the frequently used caravan routes,  the care-takers of chatram  would offer  free food and stay  for the night to the pilgrims. This would give them respite, relaxation and   rest before their on-ward journey to their destination.  

Mukthambal Chatram, Orathanad near Thanjavur TN ndpaedia.com

The Maratha rulers of Thanjavur, it is said, once ran more than  80 to 90  chatrams with landed properties in the form of endowment across the land and the expenses were met from the land  revenue . Judicious use of income was the hall mark of such chatrams,  Immensely useful for the people undertaking long journey, the chatram structures - mostly with just  ground floor  were well built displaying a blend of Maratha, Chola and British style of design.  They  were constructed with locally available well- burnt bricks and lime-sand mortar. In some places they were  close to the water tank - source of water for the locals as well for the travelers.  Some of the structures  had fine inner portions with high ceiling to cut down heat and radiation supported by a series of arches native to this place and  the Roman volutes in columns. Added advantage is most of them were surrounded by lush green lawn. Some of them would feed more than 3000 guests a day and this might give you some idea about the size of chatrams and   revenue from large holding of  fertile lands in this delta region.

Thanjavur  Maratha rulers ( reign: 1674 to 1855; closely related to Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj clan)  had the distinction of  introducing  charitable institutions for the first time  to help the travelling public. Their munificence  had a sort of  distinct social ramification in terms of  community oriented services and social welfare. 

Why did the chatrams or choultrys come up in this region in the past?  In those days  there were no well -paved all weather roads connecting various towns, particularly pilgrim centers. Pilgrims from the northern states  to Rameswaram and other places  either on foot or with  carts, had a tough time to meet the basic needs -  morning ablution to bath and food to good rest at night. Knowing their travails of long journey under the hot sun in the tropical land, the Marathas, being socially conscious as they were,  built numerous chatrams and water tanks near by to serve the travelers. 

Some reports point out that apart from providing temporary shelters to the travelers, chatrams were also known as  educational and cultural centers where students, irrespective of caste, etc., could learn various subjects and broaden their knowledge. Besides chatrams  offered health facilities for the people and also provided accommodation  for accompanying domestic animals brought by the travelers. 

With the advent of modern facilities hotels,  quick transport, etc  most of the chatrams - about 20  fell into disuse and are now in dilapidated condition. Presently only three choultrys barely exist. Reason:  Apathy on the part of officials under the ruling government. There are no periodic checks of the structures welting under age, lack of repair work or mere white washing once in a while. Many of the  decrepit buildings that have historical significance and cultural ethos  need to be repaired and conserved to past glory. This will be helpful to the posterity.  Already we have lost the agraharam houses - series of houses of similar style  and plan meant for Brahmin community.  In Kerala ''Agraharam'' houses near Palakkadu, etc come under the heritage tag.  

That our past rulers gave importance to  charity, social welfare and community services  is  true. This is the reason why they built countless water tanks and bunds across the land including less rain fed areas to secure potable water and water for agricultural purposes Way side rest house facility  along the pilgrim routs  was also part of  social obligation of past rulers;  cultural and social fabric of this region.  Such chatrams  kept the long distance - travelers  far away from the dangers of wild animals and robbers. 

The East India company and the English administrators at one stage became greedy and grasping and were on land grabbing spree. When moved into this delta region,  their eyes were glued on the chatrams and their vast landed properties. In 1817 the British took over the control of chatrams for their administrative purposes.   Government records of  1908 and  1838 refer to 20  and 15 chatrams respectively that were managed by the Maratha dynasty.

 Chatrams have lost the charm and utility values decades ago when railroad was introduced. Some are now used to run  government schools and as go down  to store paddy bags, etc. Vast lands under the chatram are controlled by the government and the income is used to run the chatram department. After India's independence since 1961 the chatram administration has come under the  Collector of Thanjavur. Thanjavur is the only district to have a separate  chatram department to administer the buildings and the lands.  The Raja rest House in Thanjavur city  being run by the tourism department, is part of chatram administration.  '

As mentioned earlier the  overall condition of the existing chatrams is not good. some are in bad shape surrounded by wild plant growth, weeds and shrubs on the walls, etc and they no longer serve the purpose for which they were built. The social changes and modern life  have impacted them - that  once enjoyed a special status. 

  Some of the chatrams in the current list with the Chatram Department did not find a place in the old lists such as the Kalyana Mahal in Tiruvaiyaru. The Thanjavur Kottai Anna Chatram was later called Sreyas Chatram''.The following are some of the chatrams 

Kalyana Mahal: According to  the media report it is a fine structure with well ventilated verandahs and several rooms. It shows signs of poor upkeep,  plaster on the walls is peeling off slowly. Murals on the walls have faded beyond restoration. Wild growth of plants poses a big menace.

 Sreyas Chatram:  This barricaded structure  with weak huge door  is in danger of collapse. It seems part of the safe side of the building is serving as a hostel for students. 

Muktambal  Chatram, Orathanad, near Thanjavur city:  This surviving chatram is in bad shape in some places. No semblance of any repair work in the recent time. Because of decades of negligence and poor maintenance decadence has already set in.   Named after Muktambal, one of the queens of Maratha ruler Raja Serfoji II, this chatram was built by the ruler in her memory and honor. 

Yamunambal Chatram, Needamangalam : The less said the better; it  presents a sorry sight. A school is being run there and part of the building is used to store food grains.

Needamangalam chatram: Partly ruined  structure with ground floor   built by the Marathas is similar to the one at Orathanad and has ornate fa├žade made of fine brickwork. I understand the local INTACH and the chatram administration 've come together to restore the remaining chatram buildings that are crumbling fast. Getting past the NE monsoon rains is a challenge for these old structures. 




 architectural and historical value?