P ublished in 1908, ‘Aristocracy of Southern India,' by A. Vadivelu made for fascinating reading and I was overjoyed when a friend promised to take me to one of the Zamindars written about in the book.
Ilayarasanendhal is a small village today between Kovilpatti and Madurai. One would find it difficult to locate it in the map but the efforts will be well rewarded. We snaked through the many small lanes and humble homes to some imposing walls and an entrance to the side. The entry got us abruptly in front of a splendid colonial facade, much like the garden houses of Madras from British times.
Passing through the fabulous doors we were transported in time, the Lakshmi Vilas (built between 1822 – 1854) was a large hall with fine marble flooring and furniture. The walls were painted with delightful parrot motifs and beyond this was the Kalyana Mahal (built between 1854-1869). The lady of the house Vasundaradevi was not available but we were able to talk to her over phone.
The Kalyana Mahal was a large well-lit room where each teak beam was elegantly carved in the corners. We paid special attention to the massive doors that once formed the entrance gates, tall enough for an elephant to pass through and the wall was thick enough for a cart to rumble across in the top.
The book and the family gave us the history. The family speaks Telugu and hailed from the times of the Vijayanagara kings. The first member of the family, Ravilla Veera Mallappa Naidu, was said to be a commander of King Krishnadevaraya. He seems to have had an extraordinary combination of diplomacy and military acumen. Though his military strength got him his first jaghir, his diplomacy with the Thanjavur and Madurai Nayaks and then on behalf of the Madurai Sultanate, earned him large tracts of land in and around Illayarasanendhal. Irrigation in the barren land was through complex rain water fed networks of ponds and lakes. The palace has a built-up area of approximately 30,000 sq. ft. and may have been larger in earlier days. Staff members included men whose only task was to draw water from the well or clean the many tin-Glass lanterns that festooned the rooms.
Passing through the Lakshmi Vilas, we entered a series of courtyards with stunning wood work that were in the middle of many rooms. Door frames had delicate carvings of peacocks and creepers. The courtyards had superb wooden mandapams in the middle that must have been used to conduct weddings. “It was never one wedding, many of our relations/officers, who cannot afford huge amount for the halls, used to get married in the same hall when a major wedding happened,” we were informed. The simple meal for us was sumptuous but the cook was not pleased, for the specialties of the house and the family were decidedly non-vegetarian. “In the old days it was game – deer, rabbits, quails, and partridge among others.” The large groups of youngsters polished off large meals after all the traditional pastimes of playing in the water, climbing trees and chasing peacocks for their feathers! Other recipes famous but long forgotten were crispy mutton podimas, briyani and of course many sweet varieties, some still made on auspicious days.
The highlight of the tour was the Ravi Varma connection. Family names that alternated between the zamindars was Kasturiranga and Venkatasami. One of them was a close associate of the painter and was helping the painter get a property in the family estate of Ilanji near Courtallam. The sale did not happen when the painter passed away but his painting of the Illayarsanendhal zamindar is a prized possession well preserved even today.
We spent a few minutes lingering in the second courtyard, stacked with painted palanquins and built around another splendid wooden mandapam that housed the tutelary deity of Murugan. The home, for at least three centuries, must have had so much of energy and activity but is now quiet and calm.
The Ravilla family always welcomes aesthetically minded and responsible tourists to visit their home. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The writer may be contacted at pradeepandanusha
In the olden days it was game – Deer, Rabbits, Quails and partridge among others.