The Courts of Pre-Colonial South India: Material Culture and Kingship

By Jennifer Howes | Go to book overview
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Unlike the palaces examined so far at Vijayanagara and Madurai, the old palace at Ramnad is in relatively complete condition. Not only are many of its original, pre-colonial buildings still intact, it also contains an audience hall full of paintings illustrating the ideal lifestyle of the Setupati king. The architecture, planning and painting traditions found at Ramnad provide a rich record of the Setupati court. Ramnad Palace also has a strong stylistic connection with the courtly remains at Madurai. The palace's preservation is partially due to its continuous use as the central household of the Setupati family from its construction in the seventeenth century right up to the present day. Although the functions of Ramnad Palace's buildings and the lifestyles of its residents have changed considerably since the seventeenth century, most of the buildings in the compound were standing long before the advent of British colonial rule in 1772.

The purpose of this chapter is to introduce some of the circumstances which led to the construction of Ramnad Palace. During the seventeenth century the military strength, material wealth and courtly rituals of the Setupatis rapidly expanded. The most glaring evidence of this expansion is found in the buildings and paintings which constitute the palace. Other evidence of these elaborations is found in Setupati court poetry, copperplate inscriptions and records of the Dutch East India Company documenting trade along the Coromandel coast. When viewed together, these sources suggest that construction of Ramnad Palace may have started as early as the 1650s, only fifty years after the first Setupati chief was appointed by the Nayaka of Madurai, and only a few decades after Madurai's palace was built. Ramnad Palace's construction relates to the development of its court, and by extension connects with the setting up of ritual sovereignty.

Although inscriptional evidence suggests that Setupati rule commenced no sooner than the early seventeenth century, two historical documents collected by Colin Mackenzie in the early nineteenth century describe the Setupatis as ruling chiefs in the south of India several centuries before. Both manuscripts attribute the coronation of the first Setupati to Rama, the god-king of the Ramayana. The coronation was performed in the puranic past,


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