Thirumalai Nayak Mahal of Madurai, a fine Indo Saracenic palace that inspired architect Robert Chisholm.

.Madurai Nayakkar mahal,

Thirumalai Nayak mahal, Madurai, TN

Thirumalai Nayak Palace built in 1836 by ruler Thirumalai Nayak of Madurai Nayak dynasty is architecturally one of the finest  old buildings in South India.  Many of us may not be aware that it  is also one of the finest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture in Tamil Nadu later pioneered by famous British architect Robert Chisholm who gave a specific charm  to the colonial skyline in Chennai.   The palace is also commonly known as Madurai Palace or Nayakkar (also Nayak) Mahal. 

Gov. madras Presidency. Francis Napier, 1819 –19  1898

Above image: Lord Francis Napier, Gov. of presidency of Madras. Lord Napier was instrumental in partially restoring Thirumala Nayak Mahal and the restoration work was done  between 1866 and 1872  under the direction of architect Robert Chisholm. It was the first assignment for Chisholm in the Presidency. Napier Bridge across the Coovum River  and the Surgical ward in Stanley Medical College Hospital in Chennai  were named in his honor. The surgical ward was originally built with the help of donations by the Governor Napier.......................

British archiect Robert Chisholm.

Robert Chisholm, a trained architect, native of London  joined  the EIC in 1859  at Kolkata (Calcutta)  and later came down to Madras (Chennai)  to join as a  ''consulting  architect'' with the government in 1866 under the administration of Gov. Lord Napier.  Over a period of time, they became close chums and Lord  Napier, a passionate imperialist, wanted Chisholm to design the ''Senate house'' in Chennai that would stand apart of  other European  styled buildings in Bombay. Before commissioning the work,  Gov. Napier assigned an interesting project  to restore the Tirumalai Nayak Mahal in Madurai (1866 and 1872). The government had a proposal to use the building for some other  purpose. Lord Napier was generous enough to allocate about Rs 5.13 lakhs in 1870 for the proposed restoration work on the Madurai palace. 

Not enthused about the trip to a strange place like Madurai with heat,  dust and of jumpy bullock cart ride on arrival when the saw the Thirumalai palace, he was literally tongue-tied. So inspiring and fascinating  he never thought that would find an impressive building in the interior part of the presidency. The trip to Madurai palace made him change his  perception of conventional building designs in India. At the palace, that was partly damaged, he fell in love with it.

Born in an age of revivalism, Neoclassical and Gothic revival were widely used  in Europe and even in the colonies in constructing public buildings. As for India,  the  diverse culture, tradition and building styles   provided an excellent opportunity for those who were innovative and ready to use improvised style of  building design without compromising on quality or appearance.  His later visit to Kerala and Bijapur in Karnataka made him take deep interest in the art and architecture of other civilization. Mogul and Hindu architectural designs impressed him very much. 

When he was in the process of carrying out the repairs and renovation work in the Nayakkar mahal, Chisholm studied very piece of  design work on the buildings. Particularly, he was impressed with the design of dome in the nave, ornamentation and mythological images on the capital of pillars, and the cornice.

What is quite interesting about the Madurai palace  is its impressive architecture, a combination of Indian and European style - blend of Italian and Mogul- Rajaput design elements. Though the exterior is  looking simple, the interior is just opposite - quite fascinating with tall arched ceiling,  columnated hall, large tall pillars with richly decorated entablature. Massive pillars are not ornate, but with simple base. Special mention may be made of the ornamentation on the capital and the cornice. In some places ionic columns are absent and in some sections  columns appear to be Corinthian. 

Taking inspiration from the design style of Nayakkar Mahal, Madurai, back  in Madras, Chisholm  had to redesign Senate House building  which was  completed in 1878  with incorporation of new elements never tried before - a  blend of  various impressive styles carefully chosen from Madurai palace. The Senate house building is on the Marina beach, Chennai  close to the Presidency college that was also designed by Chisholm. 

Architecturally pleasing  and aesthetically rich  the Senate House designed by Chisholm  won him laurels  globally.  The Chepauk place of Madras is a typical example of Indo-European design. The palace was seized by the British in 1801 and later in 1855 the residents the family of Arcot Nawab  were to leave as the EIC got the palace in a sham auction using the pretext of uncleared loans. Since then that part had been used by the Revenue and Public  Works Departments. The PWD department had an  independent wing fronting Chepauk Palace. it was  built by Robert Fellowes Chisholm in Indo-Saracenic style. .

Thus Chisholm pioneered a new genre in architecture called Indo-Saracenic. When he went to Baroda on assignment  to design building for Maharajah Sayajirao Gaekwad  many  of his structures  included many ideas and styles that he observed in places like Nayak Mahal, Madurai, Bijapur, Ajantha, Mahabalipuram and Kerala.  Across India he designed 27 buildings all exhibiting a blend of Indo- European style.   Chisholm was "one  of the most versatile architects to work in British India" (Davies, "Chisholm, Robert Fellowes"), and able to design in a variety of styles.'

Madurai  Tirumal Nayak’s Palace

Above image:  Interior of the Dance Hall of the Tirumalai Nayak’s Palace at Madurai, originally erected in 1636 CE. The image on the left shows the sketch by the Daniel's in 18th century and the one on right shows the renovated hall. (Image Source: Passages to India-Yesterday and Today. Aquatints Thomas and William Daniel. Photographs Antonio Martinelli. 5 Continents Editions. Pa.

.Thirumalai Nayak Mahal, Madurai,

Above image:  Nayakkar Palace, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. part of rich ornamental  entablature..........

Madurai Nayakkar mahal,

Above image: Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal, Madurai. Mythological figure below  the ornamental  cornice on the capital. You can see it at many places including on those columns lining along the open court yard...........

.Madras Senate, Chennai

Above  image: Senate house designed by British architect Robert Chisholm. Yakshas or nature spirits, holding the arches at Senate House as depicted on one of the capitals. Also notice the arabesque pattern in between the moldings on the rising arches............

Madurai Nayakkar mahal, TN

Madurai Nayakkar mahal,

Above image: Thirumalai Nayakkar Palace;  Indo-Mogul style of building design;  an arcaded octagon covered by a 60 to 70 ft tall dome  supported by stone ribs and is held up by massive circular columns topped by pointed scalloped arches with an arcaded gallery opening into the nave above the side aisles. ( ............ 

Madurai Nayakkar mahal,

Above image: The Department of Arts and science, MS university, Vadadora (Baroda), Gujarat. Double layered dome in the hall. Work began in 1878 and completed in 1882.  One of the first public buildings in Baroda  designed by  Robert Chisholm, he got the inspiration from the Madurai  Nayak Mahal. that he repaired and restored.  (Source: Creative Commons)..........

Madurai nayyakkar mahal,

Above image: Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal, Madurai; There  are 250 massive tall pillars supporting the high ceiling with decorative arches. The massive pillars rise to a height of 82 feet and the width in some place is 19 feet. 

Madurai nayyakkar mahal,

Above image: Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal Madurai. Richly ornamental  entablature and decorative arches with mystical, strange images near the cornice. 

Mythological images below the

Above image: Mythological images below the cornice, Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. 

Madurai nayyakkar mahal,

Above image; Naykkar palace, Madurai, TN:  The pillars are made of bricks and limes-and mortar mixed with egg white to give good finish. The are 43 ft tall and support the foliated  brick arches. The foliated brick work portion  carries a valance and an ornamental entablature rising up to a height of 66 ft.  
Madurai nayakkar Mahal, Madurai, TN

Madurai nayyakkar mahal,

.Thirumalai Nayak mMahal, Madurai,

Above image:  Nayakar Palace, Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Madurai nayyakkar mahal,

Above image: Interior of Thirumalai Naikkar mahal, Madurai. An arcade of foliated columns made of bricks and ground lime. Behind them are   cloisters carved in triple rows of columns.

Madurai Nayakkar mahal,

Madurai nayyakkar mahal,


Indo-Saracenic architecture,  a sort of  revival design  style was widely followed in the later by the British architects for the public and government buildings in colonial India. The  so called Indo-Gothic, Mogul-Gothic, and formerly  Hindoo Style was preferred in the 19th century because the buildings design would match  the Indian landscape. The rich rulers of the princely states gave a preference to this style to build  their palatial palaces  and other public buildings  and no doubt they stood apart among other structures.  The nice blending of  Indo-Islamic features like onion domes, chhatris with European elements like  sharp spires, gables, Doric or Corinthian columns in the buildings made the natives feel at home.