There is no tourist board in Ramanathapuram that announces the presence of the palace. Nor is it located atop a hillock or beside a lake. It is on a busy road adjacent to hardware shops and hotels. A petty shop selling everything from tea to cigarettes is in fact its next-door neighbour. The portals, however, stand tall amidst the clutter, almost touching the sky, reminding passers-by of its erstwhile glory. The pillars are strong and a deity stands poised at the top. I cross the road avoiding the vehicles that whiz past me as I try to get an uninterrupted view of the gates, only to see electrical wires criss-crossing them.
A cyclist enters the gate and he is followed by two boys still in their school uniforms. The silence inside the palatial compound is in marked contrast to the busy traffic on the roads.
The board finally announces, in Tamil, that this is the Ramalinga Vilasam. I am the only visitor. The caretaker tells me that this palace, built between the end of the 17th and early 18th centuries, has weathered many a storm – both nature’s fury as well as battles lost and won in this terrain.
Ramanad Palace is the home of the Sethupathy kings who ruled this region in the 17th century and were considered the guardians of the Sethusamudram near Rameshwaram. Pilgrims and travellers were protected by these rulers. The kings ruled parts of southern Tamilnadu for more than 300 years and it is believed that some parts of the palace complex precede even that era.
The palatial complex includes private royal rooms – the present residence where the present Sethupathy Maharaja stays with his family. Besides the many buildings, one can visit the temples and the durbar hall, which is today a museum.
Built during the era of Kizhavan Sethupathy in the 17th century, the durbar hall transports you into a visually colourful period of that era. With white pillars holding the foundation rather strong, the hall is a veritable storehouse of weapons and daggers. Walking along the dark corridors of erstwhile power, I am unable to take my eyes off the murals on the wall. Besides gods and goddesses and stories from epics and puranas, the murals depict war and peace treaties with kings and queens.
The Sethupathy kings are immortalised in the world of murals as they are shown being rewarded and honoured by the Nayaks. The Marathas, the British, the Nayaks – the tableau of paintings takes you into a world of various dynasties and stories of their flimsy friendships and power struggles. Decked in layers of costumes and bold jewellery, these rulers sit either at each other’s table for signing treaties or to forge new conspiracies. The Europeans are here, too, flattering the king and enticing them with gifts or demanding that they pay tribute to them. Eventually, it was the British who deposed of the rulers here.
Almost every inch of the palace is coated with paint – from the ceilings to the walls. The lifestyle of the era is painted here in bold strokes depicting dances, sports, bringing alive the romance of the era in the panels.
As I turn to leave, light filters through the dark corridors. Silhouettes of young schoolboys, who probably found the palace more interesting than school, appear against the pillars. I stop at the temple of Rajarajeshwari, the principal deity of the Sethupathy kings. The bells ring out loud as I am told that the idol was gifted by the Nayaks to the Sethupathys. The goddess stands watching over the palace, which has withstood many calamities over time.
The current queen lives in Chennai but her cousin and his wife live in these premises and they even run a school here. My curiosity gets to me when I hear that the royal scion Sethupathy does meet guests and I try my luck. A narrow arch adorned with a carving of the Goddess Lakshmi welcomes me into to the town. In bright blue and white paint is a blessing that says “Long Live the King.” I walk around, seeing old monuments in various stages of ruin and restoration. And that is when I see another board that has the crest of the kings and their names. The school is further away but the entire complex is filled with monuments. An old man walking along the arch shows me around but I hear that the royal patrons are away in Madurai for the day.
The world inside these gates and arches is a far cry from the chaos outside it. Stately and poised, they stand in regal splendour taking one into the bygone days of the past. Palaces are purely symbols, reminding one of erstwhile glory that has crumbled over the passage of time. Yet they stand there to tell you their story – if one is willing to listen.
Ramanathapuram is less than 60 km from Rameshwaram and is well connected by road and rail from Chennai, Pondicherry and other cities. The palace is in the heart of the town and remains open from 10 am to 5 pm with Friday being a holiday.