If you are in southern India please do not miss this most beautiful palace. I fell in love with it in many ways. Its shape, colour and structure are sublime. Palest peach, vanilla, apricot, and cream combine to impart an ethereal quality. The vast rectangular quad surrounded by decorative colonnades give it a solid framework and the whole complex has strength and power reflected in the gigantic columns.
Built by King Thirumalai Nayak circa 1636, with the help of an un-named Italian architect, it is said that there is nothing else like it in the world. In 1921 it was declared a protected monument, but it was only last year that the Archaeological Survey of India started restoration work, when the local courts finally vacated the building . It has recommended that the palace be included in the tentative list of UNESCO’s world heritage sites.
The exterior holds little promise, with rather bland looking walls showing signs of endless neglect. We paid the usual ‘foreigners’ high entrance fee plus more for Jamie’s camera and entered through an unprepossessing doorway. It was like walking through the looking glass into another world. The carefully planned feeling of space and light hits you as soon as you enter the court-yard where you cannot stop yourself from gasping at the stunning sight for which you are unprepared.
Here you can see that restoration has begun; the smooth-stoned floors are gradually being put back together. The decorative ceilings looked vibrant when we visited, encrusted and painted with intricate designs. Pale creamy backgrounds are picked out in maroon, blue, emerald green, pale pink and white. We had no guide, so I just wandered around staring at the ceilings getting a stiff neck. I have subsequently found out that we were looking at a court-yard measuring 50mts east and west, by 32mts north and south, “surrounded by arcades supported by columns of stone 12mts high that are joined by elegant foliated brick arcades carrying a cornice and entabulature rising to 20mts in height.” Yup, that’s what we were looking at.
Inside the complex the Swarga Vilasa (celestial pavilion) is even bigger, measuring 75mts from north to south and 52mts across. At the centre is a dome rising to 25mts, reminiscent of both an Islamic and Italianate place of worship. It is a stunning area I now discover was built to “cause it to be said that in no other country [will there be] a court equal to it by reasons of its splendid ornaments, their excellence, number, extent, curious workmanship and great beauty.” In my humble opinion they were not far wrong.
I am gutted we did not make it to the sound and light show in the evening, but hope we will return to Madurai before we leave India so that I can have a proper look at this magnificent palace.
OI! UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE! What are you waiting for?
The short slide-show, below, illustrates some of the architecture of Madurai. Just click on it to start an automatic display and, once started, go full-screen by clicking the four-arrowed button in the bottom right.