Stepping into Khalas Mahal at one end of Wallajah Road, feels clinical. The building, a two-storied structure part of the larger Chepauk Palace complex, now houses the National Green Tribunal, parts of the Public Works Department (PWD) and a host of other Government offices. Today, the space is busy with the clatter of keyboards and the dull buzz of tube lights. But the domes and minarets are a giveaway to what once was.
The world’s first Indo-Saracenic structure built in 1768 — the Chepauk Palace — is an amalgamation of the well-lived lives of the Nawabs of Carnatic, its subsequent British undertaking, and the day-to-day workings of today’s Tamil Nadu Government.
“Do you know that Chepauk receives its name from ‘Che baag’ meaning six gardens in Hindi?” asks Dewan of Arcot, Nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali, speaking of his ancestors. “The palace once had six gardens with two each in the East and West wing and one each in the North and South. The British then made it ‘Chepauk’”.
Much has been written about the palace’s history but only the few who work here, interact with its lasting magnificence. Here, we take a look at the history and the last two remaining portions of the palace — Khalas Mahal and Humayun Mahal.
A quick lowdown of the palace’s past shows that Muhammed Ali Khan Wallajah who became the Nawab of the Carnatic (1749-1795) after the British won the Carnatic War, sought to make Madras his capital to remain close to his colonial counterparts. This ally of the British government, preferred to live within the walls of Fort St George. It was instead suggested that he build his residence near the fort on the shores of Marina beach due to space constraints.
Nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali says that a special gate — the Wallajah gate — was constructed at the fort to ensure that the Nawab could enter and exit the fort as he pleased.
Late historian S Muthiah, in his book Madras Rediscovered, says that by 1770, the palace grounds were 117 acres in extent. It is likely to have been built by East India Company engineer Paul Benfield who later became a building contractor. “In its heyday, the grounds of the Chepauk Palace stretched from what is now Bell’s Road to the beach, from Pycroft’s Road to the Cooum River! Music once used to be played of an evening on the top storey of this Naubat Khana,’‘ he says.
Twentieth century writer Glyn Barlow in his book The Story of Madras writes an imaginary account of what the palace could have looked like. “…Chepauk is something more than ‘one of the Government buildings on the Marina”….when it was enclosed within the walls that are now no more, it was the home of the Mohammedan potentates – sometimes a scene of gorgeous festivity – sometimes a scene of desperate intrigue.. We may wonder at which one of the tiled windows on the upper floor the bright eyes of the Lalla Rookhs and the Nurmahals of Chepauk are shyly peeping at the spectacle.”
However, with the annexation of the Carnatic, the abolishment of the ‘Nawabocracy’ by the British and the death of the last male heir Ghulam Ghouse Khan Bahadur in 1855, led the government to apply the Doctrine of Lapse. Chepauk Palace was then permanently occupied by the British. The auction amount set at ₹5,80,000 by the government could only be afforded by the State. In 1870, Amir Mahal on Pycroft’s Road was given to the Arcot family aside from the titles of ‘nawabs’ sans powers. Madras’ famed architect Robert Chisholm took over the Chepauk residence.
In 1871, he transformed Humayun Mahal into the Revenue Board Building. On the other hand, the Khalsa Mahal incorporated the Engineering College and the offices of the Public Works Department, both of which do not function from here any longer, according to Madras: The Architectural Heritage (An INTACH Guide).
Khalas Mahal with ‘two handsome, minareted entrances in the South and the West’ and an octagonal bathing structure, and the Humayun Mahal, a single storey building with a dome towering over it, remain the last vestiges of the palace’s opulence. “That dome when constructed must have been a remarkable feat of engineering, given that it was in the 18th Century,” writes Muthiah.
The Chepauk of today
Today, as we enter a near-empty yet restored Humayun Mahal that was almost consumed by a fire in 2012, we find construction workers adding the last touches of paint to brand-new walls, buffing Athangudi tiles on the floor and wiping the dust off the stained-glass windows. The building, with its high ceilings and tiki-taka-sized meeting rooms, is getting ready to open to the public and house exhibits.
The most recognisable part of the building, the dome adjacent to the mahal, now wears a fairly bright, perhaps even off-putting coat of brick red and off-white. There is only one way to enter this structure — an unsteady white ladder. “Don’t go up there. It isn’t very safe. But even if you do, you will not see much. The view of the sea is blocked and there are pigeon and bat droppings inside. We will be refurbishing this soon too,” says a supervisor.
Over time, the palace grounds have become the face of the PWD building, the Presidency College and Ezhilagam, the seat of power for several Government offices in Tamil Nadu.
The windows here hold over 250 years of history, but much has changed. With restoration over time, we can choose to hold onto portions of the past that we like. However, it is unlikely that we will know which bright-eyed Lalla Rookhs and the Nurmahals of Chepauk were shyly peeping at this spectacle. The only thing that we can perhaps do is try asking the Madras terrace about the secrets it has weathered and hope we will get the answers.