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Resting in ruins

Author: M T Saju
Publication: The Times of India
Date:  March 24, 2020
URL:      https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/resting-in-ruins/articleshow/74789005.cms

A place of rest or a symbol of an era — chatrams (choultry) — were closely linked to the cultural and social fabric of Thanjavur. The Maratha rulers of the temple town had constructed more than 20 chatrams on the way to the holy site of Rameswaram during 1743AD to 1837AD.

The chatrams enjoyed star status residency across the country in those times. But today, only three remain standing, precariously. Each of them also bears testimony to the stylistic architectural amalgamations of the Maratha, Chola and the British patrons. Among them, the Mukthambal Chatram in Orathanadu, 25km from Thanjavur, is reminiscent of a tale of love of Raja Serfoji II Bhonsle (1777-1832), the last Maratha king of Thanjavur, and Mukthambal. Since she was not a Maratha, the king could not marry her, but he remained devoted to her.

“The king’s love for her was boundless. She had two children, and both died. Soon after, Mukthambal fell ill. It was she who requested the king to construct a chatram in her name,” said Ayyampettai N Selvaraj, president of the Chola Historical Research Centre, Thanjavur. But it was not a mere fascination for a building in her name that made Mukthambal suggest construction of a chatram. The idea was to help pilgrims to promote social welfare and education and help women and the destitute.

Keeping a keen eye on the details of the chatram, the king decided to model it like a chariot on a threeacre plot. “These chathra dharma were named after the first lady of the kingdom and were managed and controlled by the queens of Thanjavur,” said Selvaraj. According to a Marathi inscription found at the chatram, the establishment was opened to the public on November 1, 1869.

The Mukthambal chatram had a store room, kitchen, dining hall, gardens, resting rooms for pilgrims, a dispensary with trained doctors, a school and staff quarters with well-furnished rooms for members of the royal family and European officials. A large tank on the opposite side is still in use. Temples of Shiva and Vishnu were established on the banks of the tank. A tiny Shiva linga was installed in a separate room in the chatram in memory of Mukthambal.

A social space, the chatram could feed 4,000 people daily. It also gave free treatment to the ill and provided milk and nutritious food to children and pregnant women, said S K Hariharan, a historian based in Thanjavur.

“The golden period, however, didn’t last long. The properties were confiscated by the East India Company. After Independence, it was under the control of the district administration. The building was used as a government school and college, hotel and later a paddy procurement centre. Today, it is abandoned and has turned into a den for anti-social elements,” said Hariharan.

For 81-year-old Selvaraj, who has been campaigning for the preservation of the chatrams in Thanjavur for decades, it’s a long battle. “We have lost many good chatrams. Only three are left and Mukthambal is one among them and it may collapse any time. We have been campaigning for its preservation, but the district administration is not keen on it,” said the headmaster-turnedheritage activist, who has taken the initiative of preserving many ancient sculptures and slabs with inscriptions in the region.


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