Chennai houses several historical buildings and forts built by the British. Most of them are perfectly functioning even now as government buildings, universities and museums. Even the current state secretariat itself is located within the fort St. George built by British. One such heritage structure surviving into the 21st century is the Amir Mahal. It is situated in Royapettah and spans around 14 acres. It was built in 1798, designed in Indo-saracenic style and serves as the residence of Prince of Arcot since 1876.
The Carnatic region and the Prince of Arcot
The Carnatic region is the area south of Deccan plateau, major portion of it lies within present Tamil Nadu. Towards the end of the Mughal era, Carnatic Empire was formed with Zulfikhar Ali Khan as the first Nawab appointed by Aurangazeb in 1692. Their capital was at Arcot, Tamil Nadu. With the decline of Mughal power, several other empires dominated and the Carnatic region finally gave way to British.
From 1867 onwards, the title was changed to Prince of Arcot and it continues till now. The present prince of Arcot is Muhammad Ali, who gained the title in 1993. Amir Mahal is the official residence for Arcot prince and his family.
Indo-saracenic architecture – Chepauk Palace and Amir Mahal
Amir Mahal is one of the finest examples of Indo-saracenic architecture. Built in 1798, the palace still stands high, serving as a witness of transfer of power from Mughal to British Raj. The palace was designed in Indo-saracenic architecture, which is a blend of Mughal, Arab and Indian architecture.
Many similar buildings can be found across Chennai, such as the Madras High Court, Central station etc. Some of the prominent features of this design include onion shaped bulbous domes, arches and contrast colours, mostly red and white.
Before moving into Amir Mahal, the Nawab family lived in Chepauk palace, which is also one of the heritage structures in Chennai worth mentioning. The palace gained its name due to the six gardens flowering within its premises. The Hindi term for ‘six gardens’ is ‘Che Bagh’, and it eventually became Chepauk. Later it still got Tamil-ised into ‘Cheppaakkam’.
The Chepauk palace served as a residence for Prince of Arcot from 1768 to 1855. Spread over 117 acres, the Chepauk palace has two parts – Kalas Mahal and Humayun Mahal. Chepauk palace was built in 1768 by Nawab Muhammad Ali Wallajah.
In 1855, when the Carnatic rule came to an end, their province was taken over by the British and the title of Prince of Arcot was first given to Azim Jah. The Chepauk palace was sold off and the Arcot Nawab families moved to Amir Mahal.
Amir Mahal – A symbol of communal harmony
Amir Mahal provides shelter to around 600 people, including the Nawab’s extended families and the staffs of the palace. People from different religious and cultural background live together in Amir Mahal peacefully. Festivals and weddings are celebrated in grand fashion.
Visitors of this palace include great political leaders, foreign ambassadors, governors, art and music celebrities. Many historical moments are photographed and displayed in the palace gallery. The palace also preserves cannons, and several other war related weapons dating back to a couple of centuries.
The Nawab family is also associated with many charity activities and the beneficiaries come from various backgrounds. They are greatly committed towards uniting people amidst social differences. They enjoy a special status in the state and they remain neutral towards all political parties. Their donations have benefited people across all faiths and they are respected by everyone. Though many of the Chennai dwellers itself do not know about this palace, many historians wish that the palace and its history be preserved forever.