Yamunambal Chatram, Needamangalam, Thanjavur
The Yamunambal Chatram is a beautiful piece of Maratha architecture. It is now used as a school for the less privileged and a makeshift storage space for bags of grain. It is one of the 18 chatrams built by the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur. Chatrams were not mere boarding places. They provided food, health facilities and space for the animals that accompanied travellers.
Each Chatram was separated from the other by a day's travel. Old resting places for travellers are found in other countries, but what makes these chatrams different from the caravanserais is that they cater to all kinds of travellers - not merely traders. In South India, trade and pilgrim routes coexisted and the inns served both pilgrims and travellers.
Endowing pilgrims and pilgrimage was considered important and special care and facilities were provided. The most important pilgrimage route in South India was the one that led to Rameswaram. Along this route, 18 chatrams were built and patronized by the Maratha Kings in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The most elaborate and ornate of them are the Muktambal Chatram at Orathanadu and Yamunambal Chatram at Needamangalam.
The Needamangalam Chatram is similar to Orathanadu in its arrangement. It is slightly scaled down in size, without the first floor. But, it is more ornate on the outside and the brick carvings are elaborate. This Chatram is a commemorative structure dedicated to Yamunambal, a pregnant woman who mysteriously gave up her life for the wellbeing of the King and his subjects.
Most of these chatrams were well endowed. When The British annexed Thanjavur, all the properties, temples and endowments became part of the colonial administration. A protracted legal battle saw the return of the temples to the legal heirs of the Maratha rulers. However, the chatrams and thousands of acres of lands remained with the revenue board. In 1871, the chatrams' administration was handed over to the local administration. Currently, the District Collector administers them.
Thanjavur is the only district to have a separate Chatram administration department to administer the many properties the chatrams still own. The chatrams no longer serve their original purpose. They are now rented out as schools or used as storage spaces. A few are locked and some virtually abandoned. These chatrams fetch meagre rents, insufficient for their maintenance. However, they are not without revenue. The many lands they own fetch them substantial funds. But, it is used for paying the staff and running a few schools and colleges. The architectural value of these chatrams is yet to be fully realised.
It is only now that steps are being taken to document and initiate conservation efforts. The Thanjavur INTACH chapter and the Chatram administration have undertaken a documentation of these heritage structures. The Collectorate has requested the Archaeological Survey of India to take over the Orathanadu Chatram & conserve it. Needamangalam and other structures await attention.