Pimmanus Wibulsilp: The Majestic Red Building That Burned Down: Reconsidering the Indo-Anglo Cultural Encounters and Exchanges in the Late Eighteenth-Century Nawabi Karnatak Through the History of the Chepauk Palace

The Chepauk Palace—a red building on Marina Beach, Chennai— returned to public attention in 2013 when a fire reduced it into state of ruin. While its major restoration still awaits Indian government’s approval, this research wishes to bring further attentions of scholars and publics to this significant Indian-British share heritage by providing some new meanings and perspectives to its history. Built by the so-called “puppet” of the British, designed by a British engineer, and known as the pioneer of Indo-Saracenic architectural style mainly developed by colonial architects, unsurprisingly this building would have been seen as a British colonial heritage—a symbol of British politico-cultural invasion imposed upon the defenseless local Indian society. However, this research argues that its founder, Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan, was far from being a puppet. He was an active player who fought the British domination inch by inch using many “soft” policies. In this light, the Chepauk palace was not only the major theater site where many interesting scenes of Indo-Anglo encounters and contests can be observed. The palace can also be seen as one of diverse tools which the nawab calculatingly designed to fight against his British “ally.” Further, Chepauk Palace was also a witness of highly tolerate and pragmatic pre-modern South Asian society.


Pimmanus Wibulsilp is currently a lecturer at the Department of History, Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. After earning her BA in history from Chulalongkorn University, she moved to the Netherlands to pursue her graduate studies. She completed her MA in 2012 and received her PhD in April 2019 from the faculty of Humanities, Leiden University. Her doctoral thesis is titled Nawabi Karnatak: Muhammad Ali Khan in the Making of a Mughal Successor State in Pre-colonial South India, 1749–1795. It is aimed to re-write the history of an eighteenth-century South Indian state through the voices and perspectives of its local ruler, in order to bring it out of the old Eurocentric frameworks. Her main interests are the early modern history of South Asia and Thailand (Ayutthaya), especially on the aspects of cross-cultural encounters and transnational relationships. In 2017, in cooperation with a Thai historian Bhawan Ruangsilp, Pimmanus published an article on Ayutthaya history titled Ayutthaya and the Indian Ocean in the 17th and 18th Centuries: International Trade, Cosmopolitant Politics, and Transnational Networks (Journal of the Siam Society, 2017, vol. 105, 97-114).

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