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Inspired by a house of 1,000 windows


Built in 1911, Medai Dalavoi House is a landmark in Tirunelveli.

A treat to behold: Medai Dalavoi House.

“I think this interest in architecture runs in the family,” says M.D.Shanmuganathan, as he shows me round Medai Dalavoi house. Built in 1911, the house is a landmark in Tirunelveli.

“My grandfather Medai Dalavoi Tirumalaiappa Mudaliar saw a house with a 1,000 windows in Karaikkudi. He wanted to build a house with at least some of the features of the Karaikkudi house. The result was this house,” explains Shanmuganathan who adds, “But this house doesn’t have 1,000 windows.”

Imposing structure

The carved wooden panels on top of the windows are a treat to behold. The first floor has a durbar hall, which looks imposing, with its high ceiling and stained glass panels.

During the days of the British, every new Collector to the district would first dine with the Dalavoi family in the durbar hall, before he took charge.

The manually operated lift in perfect working condition.

The walls of the house are covered with a plaster made of eggshells, lime and kadukkai. So smooth is the plaster that it would put to shame the modern day emulsion paints. “And the beauty is that all you have to do is wash the walls when they get dirty. No painting is required. Maintenance free walls!” exclaims Shanmuganathan.

“Another wing was added to the house in 1914. Here even the floor is of Burma teak. But the piece de resistance is a manually operated lift, installed in 1928. My grandfather, while bathing in the Courtallam Falls, slipped, and fractured his hip. But he wanted to continue his practice of meeting his accountants in the first floor. So a friend of his designed this lift for him,” he explains. The lift consists of a wooden platform made of teak wood, with iron meshes fixed to wooden frames on the sides. It is hoisted by operating a pulley.

There is a counterweight that provides the balance. When the counterweight goes down, the lift goes up, and vice versa. The lift still works!

Shanmuganathan points to a chair and says, “This was specially designed for grandfather. A wooden plank is tucked away beneath the chair, and it can be pulled out to rest one’s feet upon. The back rest can be adjusted so that one can recline at any angle one chooses! One can even lie supine in it! The carpenter had thought of everything!”

But none of these explained Shanmuganathan’s statement made earlier that an interest in architecture ran in the family. Shanmuganathan then tells the story of his ancestor Ariyanatha Mudaliar. “Ariyanatha Mudaliar was born in a poor family in Meippedu village, Kanchipuram district. A teacher in the village taught him mathematics and Tamil for free. Ariyanatha spent his spare time mastering martial arts like silambam, sword fight, and wrestling.

When Ariyanatha was 16 years old, a discerning soul persuaded him to go to Krishnadevaraya’s court and find himself a job there. At Vijayanagar, Ariyanatha soon rose to prominence, and became the chief accountant of the empire. Later when the Vijayanagar Empire fell, and Viswanatha Naicker became the ruler with Madurai as his capital, Ariyanatha became his minister and the general of his army. Dalavai means general,” clarifies Shanmuganathan.

It was Ariyanatha Mudaliar who built the hall of 1,000 pillars both in the Nellaiappar temple and in the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple. (Taylor’s Oriental History Vol II, page 90). According to the Madras District Gazette - Madurai Vol I, the statue of a man on horseback seen at the entrance to the hall in the Madurai Meenakshi temple is that of Ariyanatha.

Protective cordon

Ariyanatha built forts at Satyamangalam, Kaveripuram, Salem, Omalur, Sendamangalam, Anantagiri, Mohanur, Sankaridurg, Namakkal, Tiruchengode, Madurai, Dindigul, Azhagar hills, and stationed armies in all of these forts. Thus he threw a protective cordon around the Pandya kingdom. He built a total of 99 rest houses in pilgrim centres from Kasi to Kanyakumari. He streamlined the administration by dividing the kingdom into 72 palayams, with one palayakarar in charge of each. Ariyanatha’s son Kalathinatha Mudaliar built the seven-storied gopuram in the Meenakshi temple.

Ariyanatha’s grandsons, Nayina Mudaliar and Viraraghava Mudaliar, also added many structures to the Meenakshi temple. Incidentally, the house has starred in films. Director P. Vasu, shot the film ‘Velai Kidachaachu’ here. ‘Dum Dum Dum,’ and ‘Sundara Purushan’ were also filmed here.

As I take leave of Shanmuganathan and his family, my thoughts are of the 16-year-old boy, who walked all the way to the banks of the Tungabhadra and rose to dizzying heights of power. I turn for a last look at the house that his descendant built four centuries later. The house cannot be seen from the main road. Only the twin turrets of the house are visible, standing haughtily and aloof from the dust and the noise of the town.

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