Saturday, 4 May 2013

All alone at the Shivappa Nayak Palace

At the centre of noisy, dusty Shivamogga city in Karnataka is a deserted palace occupied only by parakeets and bats. Don’t be fooled by its desolation, for it is a reminder of a sagacious ruler and a battle hard-won, as the legends say. LAKSHMI SHARATH visits Shivappa Nayak Palace

<p>The Shivappa Nayak Palace in Shivamogga, Karnataka.</p>

The fog is a constant companion on the road. It veils and unveils rivers and backwaters on our journey towards Shimoga – or Shivamogga, as the town built on the banks of the river Tunga in the Malenadu region is called locally. We almost have the roads to ourselves but for an occasional truck that speeds past us. It is afternoon when we reach the town and it seems to be in a bit of a hurry. Buses, cars, bikes and cycles are jostling through one main street. Most seem to be in a haste to leave the town and drive towards the mountains and forests. We are, however, in a mood to stay. We go around in circles looking for a pit-stop for a cup of coffee when we chance upon this little board. And that is when I hear that Shivamogga is home to a 16th century palace.
A short detour takes us to the monument. At first glance it hardly looks like a palace. Beautiful and restored with a lovely lawn in front of it, it looks like an exquisitely designed home, carved in rosewood and decorated with sculptures. A huge bell lies alongside it. The Mangalore-tiled roof slopes towards us. We see an open courtyard with wooden pillars supporting the structure. Two narrow staircases lead to a hall flanked by rooms and a balcony. Parakeets screech at our entry and we look up to see a cloud of bats, disturbed in their afternoon siesta. 

We happen to be the only tourists in this quiet palace. The staircase leads us upstairs and we enter the main durbar or the balcony of the palace. It seems like it was just a part of a larger monument and probably the rest of it was destroyed. Looking out into the vast expanse, we see that the well manicured lawns have turned into a veritable art gallery with ancient sculptures scattered around them. 

We wait patiently for the watchman to finish his lunch and take us on a guided tour. It turns out to be a bit of a history class, which I refresh later with some reading from texts. The palace has changed several hands from the Nayaks to the British. It had even been converted into a sawmill until the Indian government decided to restore a bit of its former glory. 

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The original palace was built by Hiriya Venkatappa Nayak of the Keladi Dynasty in the 16th century. The Vijayanagar Empire was declining and the Keladi Nayaks, who were ruling as chieftains under them, had slowly emerged on their own. A local battle fought here between the Nayaks and the Palegars resulted in the former’s victory and hence a fort and a palace were built here. The victory, however, was temporary. Adil Shah of the Bijapur Sultanate destroyed it after a bitter battle and it was later rebuilt by Shivappa Nayak in the Indo-Saracenic style. With Shivappa Nayak being one of the formidable rulers, the palace took its name after him. 

The story does not end here. When the British took over, they converted the palace into a sawmill and logs were stored here. Finally, the monument was restored by the Archaeological Survey of India, although it had lost major portions, probably during the wars. Today, the palace is a museum and showcases weapons in addition to sculptures unearthed from this region. 

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I hear another interesting piece of history trivia connected to this palace. Legends say that the Maratha ruler Rajaram, son of Chhatrapati Shivaji, was hidden in this palace when he was pursued by the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. The story dates to the later 16th century when the dynasty was ruled by Rani Chennamma, wife of Somashekara Nayaka. Rajaram, along with his confidants, apparently entered her court dressed as a monk, seeking alms. They were passing through her kingdom and sought refuge. The queen, against the advice of her officials, hid Rajaram in this palace for a few days until he carried on with his journey. While Rajaram escaped, an infuriated Aurangzeb sent his army to defeat the queen, but in the battle that followed, the queen’s forces defeated the Mughals, forcing them to sign  a treaty with the Nayaks. 
As the watchman finishes the story, the parakeets screech, announcing their displeasure at our prolonged presence. The palace may have undergone a sea change from its former glory, but here it stands glittering in the sun, oblivious to the passage of time.