The Nayakas played an important part in Tamil history since the 16 centutury. They followed the Vijayanagara empire and restored / re-invigorated many great Temples originally built by the Pandyas and Cholas that were damaged by the invasion of Delhi Sultans.
The Madurai and Tanjavur Nayaks made great contributions to architectural style, the main characteristics of this period being the elaborate mandapas of the `hundred-pillared` and `thousand-pillared` types, the high gopurams with stucco statues on the surface, the long corridors.
The main temples representing this style in various portions are:
-The Ranganatha temple at Srirangam for its increase in the number of enclosures
-The temple at Rameswaram for its long corridors
-The Subramanya temple at the Brihadisvara Temple court at Tanjavur for its fine vimana with ardha and maha mandapas
-Meenakshi Temple at Madurai - for the great splendour of its gopuras, its `thousand- pillar` mandapam, and the Mariamman Teppakulam (`water tank` / reflecting pool).
The Madurai Nayaks or Nayak Dynasty of Madurai were the rulers of Tamil Nadu with Madurai as their capital, in India, from 1559 until 1736. They were originally governors belonging to Balija social group from the Vijayanagara Empire. Telugu was their native language. The Nayak reign marked a new era in Tamil Nadu, one noted for its vast administrative reforms, the revitalization of Temples previously ransacked by the Delhi Sultans, and the inauguration of a unique architectural style.
The reign consisted of 13 rulers, of whom 9 were kings, 2 were queens, and 2 were joint-kings. The most notable of these were the king Tirumalai Nayak and the queen Rani Mangammal. Their foreign trade was conducted mainly with the Dutch and the Portuguese, as the British and the French had not yet made inroads in the region.
Prelude: The Decline of Pandya Rule and the Muslim Invasion, 1310
Early in the fourteenth century a dispute arose over the succession to the Pandya throne. One claimant appealed for help to emperor Ala-ud-din of Delhi, who dispatched his general Malik Kafur. Malik Kafur marched south, ransacking kingdoms on the way and causing enormous changes in the political configuration of central and Southern India. He marched into Madurai, sacking the town, paralysing trade, suppressing public worship, and making civilian life miserable. The great Meenakshi temple with its fourteen towers was pulled down, destroying the nearby streets and buildings, and leaving only the two shrines of Sundaresvara and Meenakshi intact. The events are controversial: as another account describes them,
`...the Deccan was soon to feel the force of Islam, which was already the master of Northern India. In the reign of the able sultan of Delhi, Ala-ud-din Khalji (1296 1315), a series of brilliant raids, led by the eunuch general Malik Kafur, a converted Hindu, crushed the Deccan kingdoms, and for a time a Muslim sultanate was set up even in Madurai, in the extreme south.`
Malik Kafur then returned to his own country. The Pandyas protested the invasion, which nevertheless continued for a few years in spasmodic fashion. This prompted the neighboring Chera ruler to invade and defeat the Pandya ruler, and he crowned himself in 1313.
Muslim dynasty at Madurai
This Chera occupation of the country was transitory, for once again a Muslim dynasty was re-established at Madurai, ruling Madurai and Trichinopoly and even South Arcot, for about the next 48 years, first as feudatories of Delhi and later on as independent monarchies. In 1333, while Muhammad bin Tughlaq was ruling Delhi, Ala ud din Ahasan Shah declared independence in Madurai. He was killed by one of his officers in 1339.Alaud din Udauji Shah (AD 1339-1340) took power in 1339, but met with the same fate with a stray arrow shortly. Qutb ud din Firoz (AD 1340) took over in 1340 and was killed in about forty days. Giyaz uddin Muhammad Damghan (AD 1340-1344) ascended the throne in 1340 and later married a daughter of Ahasan Shah. Ibn Batuta visited Madura during his reign and he testifies to his atrocious behaviour. He was defeated by the Hoysala Veera Ballala at first, but later managed to capture and kill Ballala. He died in 1344.Nazir ud din Mahmud Damghan (AD 1344-1356), Adl Shah ( AD 1356-1359), Faqr ud din Mubarak (AD 1359-1368) and Ala ud din Sikandar (AD 1368-1377) followed him in succession. Sikandar was defeated by Bukka and the sultanate thus became part of the Vijayanagara Empire in 1377.
 Vijayanagar Domination, 1365
The Muslim rule was overthrown in 1365 by the new Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, which had been founded at Hampi:
`Within a few years of Malik Kafur`s raids, in 1336, an independent Hindu kingdom was founded at Vijayanagara, on the Tungabhadra river. This kingdom, after desperately resisting the Bahmani sultans of the Northern Deccan, established its hegemony over the whole Peninsula, from the Krishna river southwards. Learning something of military strategy from their Muslim enemies, the kings of Vijayanagara maintained their independence until the middle of the 16th century and, in a reduced form, even later. Of the splendour and affluence of their capital we have European accounts, from the Italian Nicolo dei Conti, who visited India in the early 15th century and from the Portuguese travellers Paes and Nuniz, who made contact with the kingdom of Vijayanagara about a hundred years later from the recently established Portuguese settlement of Goa. All were impressed by the splendour of the capital and the wealth of the court.`
For the next two centuries this empire stemmed the tide of Muslim invasion from the north. Kampana Udaiyar, a prince of this line, drove the Muslim sultan out of Madurai and set up a dynasty of his own, one subordinate to the court of Vijayanagar.
The immediate effect in Madurai of this victory was the reopening of all of the Siva and Vishnu temples. Kampana Udaiyar`s dynasty lasted until 1404. The rule was continued by Vijayanagar-appointed governors who had the titles, such as `Nayaka`. King Krishna Devaraya (1509-1530), the greatest ruler of the Vijayanagar dynasty, exercised a close control over this particular part of his possessions.
 King Achyuta`s campaign, 1532
In 1532 the king of Travancore overran a large part of the Pandya country and defied the authority of Vijayanagar. In response, Achyuta Deva Raya, king of Vijayanagar from 1530 to 1542, organised an expedition into the extreme south of India. The campaign was successful. He exacted tribute from the king of Travancore, suppressed the two troublesome chieftains there and married the daughter of the Pandya king. Thenceforth the Pandya country was held more firmly and directly by the representatives of the Vijayanagar Empire.
The native chronicles continued to confuse the authority of these suzerains, their governors, and the Pandya rulers, treating each as though it was supreme. In 1547 and 1558 the Madurai country was ruled by one Vitthala Raja, a prince of the Vijayanagar line who had invaded Travancore a second time in 1543.
 The Nayak Dynasty (1559 1736)
In 1559, the famous Nayak dynasty of Madurai was founded by Viswanatha Naidu. It held the country for nearly two centuries, until in a chaotic situation Muslims took it in 1736 for a brief period, and finally the British took it during the 1780s.
At the close of Vitthala Raja`s administration the Chola ruler invaded the Madurai country and dispossessed the Pandya king. The latter appealed to the court of Vijayanagar, and an expendition under Kotikam Nagama Nayaka was sent to his aid. Nagama easily suppressed the Chola ruler and took Madurai, but then suddenly he threw off his allegiance and declining to help the Pandya, usurped the throne. The Vijayanagar emperor demanded that someone cure the defection: Nagama`s own son, Visvanatha, volunteered, and the king sent him with a large force against the rebel. Interestingly, Viswanatha is also recorded as a ceremonial betel bearer for the king. Viswanatha defeated his father, placed him in confinement and at length procured for him the unconditional pardon which doubtless had been the object of his action from the beginning.
Visvanatha obeyed the orders of the Vijayanagar king nominally, in that he placed the Pandya on the throne. But both secret policy and his own interests deterred him from handing over the entire government of the country to the old and feeble dynasty. He set out to rule on his own account. This was in 1559.
 Viswanatha Nayak (1559 1563)
Viswanatha Nayaka became the first ruler of the Nayak dynasty. Viswanatha is said to have set himself immediately to strengthening his capital and improving the administration of his dominions. He demolished the Pandya rampart and ditch which at that time surrounded merely the walls of Madurai`s great temple, and erected in their place an extensive double-walled fortress defended by 72 bastions and he constructed channels from upper waters of the Vaigai river perhaps the Peranai and Chittanai dams owe their origins to him to water the country, founding villages in the tracts irrigated by them.
Introduction of the polygar (palayakkarar) system
In his administrative improvements Viswanatha was ably seconded by his prime minister Aryanatha Mudaliar (or, as he is still commonly called, Aryanatha), a man born of peasant Vellala parents who had won his way by sheer ability to a high position in the Vijayanagar court.
This officer is supposed to have been the founder of `the polygar (palayakkarar) system`, under which the Madurai country was apportioned among 72 chieftains, some of them locals and others of detachments which had accompanied Vishvanatha from Vijayanagar. Each was placed in charge of one of the 72 bastions of the Madurai fortifications. They were resp...