Bodinayakanur is picturesquely situated at the foot hills of Western Ghats in the Theni district, of Tamil Nadu. It is often referred to as India’s cardamom capital and is a thriving market town. Ubiquitous lush green stretches of cultivated lands and mesmerizing blue mountains with rocky peaks kept us company as we drove into the town. The town was abuzz with activity as the then deputy chief minister of Tamil Nadu, O Panneerselvam was filing his nomination papers for the Assembly elections (which he eventually lost!). There were hordes of people milling around with party flags and the crowd came alive when he rode into the town on an open vehicle. We managed to deftly make our way through throngs of people and reached the palace.
The zamindars of Bodinayakanur claim to be the descendants of Rishyashringa maharishi and belong to the Rajakambalam Nayakas, a Telugu speaking group who fled from Bellary in Karnataka when the troops of Alauddin Khilji invaded that region. The palace in the heart of the town was reportedly built by Bangaru Tirumalai Bodi Nayaka.
The first look of the palace which is in a sorry state of disrepair, made me immensely sad. It was a crumbling edifice, though remnants of its glorious past were visible in some intricate tiles in the balustrade. We climbed the stairs and went up to meet the current residents of the palace, who were delighted to receive us. Over tea and biscuits they briefed us about the history of the place and its troubled legal legacy. Beset with many claimants to the property, the entire property has been divided into many small pockets over time. The ageing couple who were currently living in the main building were hopeful of retaining their hold on it in spite of many legal tangles.
The main section of murals was in the basement of the main building and we gingerly made our way down guided by torchlight. I was totally unprepared for the sight unfolding in front of me. Much like Alice I found myself in a wonderland ablaze with murals of vibrant hues the likes of which I had never seen before. Understandably I was getting “curiouser and curiouser” as more and more murals unfolded before my eyes. With the help of a torch light, I started following the narration in the murals which depicted various scenes from the Ramayana. Fortunately since the murals have been painted above the lintel level they were in relatively good shape. Each of them had an explanatory caption in colloquial Tamil. From balakandam to the coronation of Sri Rama, entire episodes have been carefully portrayed using primarily herbal colours. These two hundred year old murals are a glowing testimony to the skills and creativity of the artisans of the period.
After savoring these priceless treasures for a long time, we reluctantly made our way up. I was aware that there was another section of murals in the palace. When I enquired about it, I was told that it was in another part of the property which had been partitioned and belongs to a different member of the family. I could sense a bit of hesitation, but having noticed my interest, the couple said that they would try and secure the key to open it.
The key was obtained and we made our way to the place. Once we were there, we understood why the couple was reluctant to show it to us. The dark and grimy place was being used as a godown. Stacks of paddy and fertilizer bags were heaped all over and the entire place was dirty. The murals were decomposed and in various stages of decay, probably due to the fumes emanating from the fertilizers in that closed space. The majesty of the fading murals was still visible in spite of swathes of cobwebs and dust covering them. I was greatly perturbed and dismayed at this savage neglect of priceless murals.
We thanked the couple for their generous hospitality and made our way back to Madurai, wondering as to how long these murals would survive the vagaries of time and human neglect. The prospects seem bleak unless the government or other agencies wake up from their slumber to preserve these invaluable, precious remnants of our artistic heritage.
In the decrepit mansion
Recede in dark corners
Whispering stories of yore
Holding onto their memories
Like resilient leaves
On withered branches…
It was an arduous task to photograph the murals in darkness as I was keen not to use the flash. Moreover the paintings were above lintel level, closer to the ceiling and required climbing on a ladder (which wasn’t available) to photograph them. Hence it was a challenge to focus on them and the clarity may not be as perfect as I would have desiredL
This time around I have made a video from the pictures which makes it easier to have quick glimpse of them, rather than scrolling through scores of photos!
The link is: youtu.be/k0tDaN5kSm0
Looking forward to your reflections here!