Ramanathapuram, formerly known as Ramnad, lies 117 km southeast of Madurai, on the road to Rameswaram Island, one of the most important pilgrimage places in the whole of India.
This town rose to prominence in the late 17th century as the capital of the Setupatis, one of the minor polities that emerged in the latter half of the 16th century and the early 17th century following the decline of the Vijayanagara Empire.
The palace was established by Kilavan Setupati (r. 1674-1710), though little of this period survives. The Ramalinga Vilasam was constructed around 1700 to serve as the rulers’ audience hall. This two-storeyed structure has four rooms of different size –three on the ground and one on the upper floor.
The murals on the south wall of the front hall deal with the political, diplomatic, and religious activities of Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Setupati (r. 1710-1725). Those in the second room illustrate in detail the life of Krishna as narrated in the Bhagavata Purana. The narrative concludes on the north wall of the front hall, along with depictions of the avataras of Vishnu, and of Vaishnava holy places. The walls of the audience hall, at the back of the building, are adorned with a detailed depiction of the Balakanda of the Ramayana. The undersides of the arches which spring between the hall’s sixteen columns depict religious and courtly themes.
A narrow staircase leads from the audience hall to what is commonly known as the ‘King’s bedroom’ on the first floor of the building. This room is described in the diary of George Paterson Secretary to the British Government, who visited the Ramalinga Vilasam in 1773, as: “ornamented all round with numberless paintings on the walls, all of them representing amorous combats in a variety of most voluptuous attitudes…”
The murals decorating the walls and ceilings of the Ramalinga Vilasam, generally dated to the reign of Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Setupati, are of pivotal importance for the study of 18th century mural tradition and material culture in the extreme south of India. It is known that they have been repainted at regular intervals, as recorded by Paterson and, unfortunately, some of them have been crudely painted over at a later date.
These extraordinary murals are a celebration of the power, wealth, and piety of Muthu Vijaya Raghunatha Setupati, and convey an impressive picture of his royal status.