Thanjavur (Tanjore) - The Ancient Capital of the Chola Empire
Legend has it that the city of Tanjore is named after a demon by the name of Tanjan - who was causing havoc and was destroyed by Sri Neelamegaperumal. Tanjore or Thanjavur rose to glory during the Chola reign between the 10th and the 14th Centuries and became a centre of art, music and culture. The Chola rule over Tamil Nadu spanned four hundred years and has left an incessant influence on its history. Besides the Cholas, the kingdom was also ruled by various other dynasties like the Pallavas, Pandyas and Cheras. The imperial city of the Cholas, Nayaks and the Mahrattas, Tanjore has a rich and distinguished cultural heritage and is renowned for its exquisite handicrafts, bronzes and South Indian Musical Instruments. Tanjore is located in the exceedingly fertile delta of the Cavery River on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu and is also called the rice bowl of the state. The fertile, abundant land blessed its rulers with enough affluence and prosperity to support the construction of exquisite temples and stunning palaces. The land around the Cavery is so fertile that it has been able to provide upto 3 harvests of rice in a year.
The birth of the new kingdom of Tanjore also saw the construction of a magnificent temple built to invite Lord Shiva to reside in. Rajaraja Cholan, the Great Chola king built The Rajarajeswaram or Peruvudaiyar Temple in A.D 1010. The structure is acclaimed to be the Chola dynasty's pre eminent contribution to the Dravidian temple architecture. The temple is unique in its architecture and unlike other South Indian temples; the Brihadeeswara temple has an elevated vimana and a dwarfed gopuram. This architectural splendor was constructed from a single piece of rock weighing an estimated eighty tones. The temple also has numerous pillared halls, shrines and lingams.
The focal point of this temple is defenitely the colossal Lingam dominating the prayer room, the ‘Brihadeeswarar’ which is the prime deity of the shrine. The massive Lingam is has stairs leading to the top thus enabling the preists to worship it. Another noteworthy characteristic is the great Nandhi that figures at the entrance. A huge Nandi, created from a single rock piece faces the inner sanctum. It is said to be one of the largest statues of Nandi bulls in India and a popular belief has it that it is growing by the day. Periya Nayaki is the Goddess deity to be worshipped here.There is also a Murugan sanctum and a Ganapathi sannadhi. The frescoes decorating the walls and ceilings of the inner courtyard have been dated to Chola times and were painted using techniques similar to those used in the European way of art. The temple is stunning in its design, the vast enclosure within it proudly displays age old inscriptions on the pillars, walls, and podium, in which has been recorded the entire history of the temple and the story of contemporary society that has made it easy for historians and sociologists to learn about the social structure and culture of the 11th and 12th century Indian society. Another fascinating feature of the architectural wonders of this temple is that at any time of the day, the shadow of the temple tower never falls on the ground. The wonderfully preserved temple gives one the feel of living through the history and the grandeur of bygone eras. This grandiose of this temple is well celebrated for its flawless architecture and has even been given the status of a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
The Royal Palace near the massive Brihadeeswara temple is an impressive structure built partly by the Nayaks in 1550 AD and partly by the Marathas. Architectural features include vast corridors, large halls, shady courtyards and observation and arsenal towers. The Durbar Hall of the palace still retains the brilliance of the ancient dynasty. It also houses an Art Gallery, the Saraswati Mahal Library, the Royal Museum and a music hall. A section of the palace has been converted into a Royal Museum housing an exotic collection of royal remnants, dating back to the early 19th century, like the king’s slippers, head dresses and hunting tools, the entire Ramayana written on palm leaves, manuscripts, weapon dresses, Utensils and musical instruments used by the Royal Family of Thanjavur.
The Art Gallery is an interesting place to browse around. It has a varied collection of two hundred and fifty Chola Bronze statues and a hundred and fifty stone statues dating from the 9th to 12th century. These statues belong to the many groups like the Bhairava, Umasahita Shiva, Kali and the Rama Lakshmana. Besides these it also displays paintings, sculptures and manuscripts from the imperial era.
In another section of the palace lies a library, built in 1700 AD where over thirty thousand palm leaves and paper manuscripts in Indian and European languages are preserved. It also has some Tamil literature on medicine and works from the Sangam period, poetry and prose written in Tamil and various manuscripts detailing the life of the common man or glorifying the king’s achievements.
The influence of history, religion and culture in temples and palaces is a primary attraction in Tanjore. Tanjore is essentially a centre for the art connoisseurs and history buffs, the temple architecture and history behind these magnificent monuments is unequalled. During their reign, the Cholas made significant contribution to the various fields of art, culture and architecture. The Chola dynasty is honored with the birth of many arts which are still very much a part of life in different parts of Tamil Nadu. The Tanjore School of painting flourished during their rule. These decorative paintings, exquisitely ornamented in relief, are famous all over the world. The famous Thanjavur style of painting was developed by Serfoji and Trace their roots back to the golden era of the early 18th century, Tanjore artwork is one of the many aboriginal art forms for which India is famous. Originating in Tanjore, the then capital of the Gupta Empire, this form of art flourished as the kingdom evolved culturally under the patronage of the powerful rulers.
Tanjore paintings are traditional and centuries old and yet innovative within boundaries. An extraordinary marriage of both art and craft, Tanjore paintings mainly consist of paintings revolving around Hindu gods and goddesses. The main features of the Tanjore paintings are its dazzling color combinations, embellished jewelry with semi precious stones and cut glasses. Figures of Lord Krishna in various stages of his life are one of the most popular themes. The paintings centre on Gods and Goddesses because this art of painting flourished at a time when grand temples were being constructed by rulers of several dynasties to showcase their strength and prosperity. The theme for these paintings is predictably that of gods and goddesses, but the precision with which the cherubic faces, rounded figures are drawn and the attractive ornamentation makes each painting a collector’s item. However, with the rebirth of this art in the twentieth century, artists in addition to recreating the original Tanjore figures are also experimenting with slightly radical figures such as birds, flowers, animals, etc but the style that has captivated people for centuries is still the same. What sets the unique art apart from Indian paintings in general are the decorations made over the basic drawings with precious and semi-precious stones, pearls, glass pieces and gold. The rich vibrant colors, dashes of gold, semi-precious stones and fine artistic work are characteristics of these paintings.
Tamil Nadu offers visitors with a wide variety of delicious and spicy food catering to both vegetarians as well as non-vegetarians. Spices are added to dishes to give them a distinctive taste. Specialties include idly or steamed rice cakes, dosa, a pancake made from a batter of rice and lentils crisp fried on a pan, vada, deep fried doughnuts made from a batter of lentils, pongal made of rice and lentils boiled together and seasoned with ghee, cashew nuts, pepper and cummin seed, uppuma, cooked semolina seasoned in oil with mustard, pepper, cummin seed and dry lentils eaten with coconut chutney, sambar or seasoned lentil broth and mulaga podi, a powdered mix of several dried lentils eaten with oil. Chettinad cuisine is a delight for those who like hot and spicy non-vegetarian food. The meat dishes are tender, fragrant and full of flavor with several variations of fish, mutton, and chicken dishes of which the Chettinad Pepper Chicken is a must try. Coffee is very popular in South India. The South Indian food is a brilliant blend of flavors, colors, seasoning, nutritional balance, fragrance, taste, and visual appeal.
Thanjavur is well known for its culture of education. Currently, Thanjavur has two universities, the Tamil University and the SASTRA Deemed University, and several colleges including the acclaimed Thanjavur Medical College. Tanjore’s fertile land and sprawling paddy fields have made it possible for the city to have many research centers such as the Paddy Processing Research Centre, Soil and Water Research Centre.
As the centre of cultural development Thanjavur also housed master craftsmen, and it still continues to produce intricate handcrafted products. Even today in the day and age of technology Thanjavur remains a center for classical arts and music. The performances by the classical musicians, percussionists and the Bharatnatyam dancers will not fail to impress and inspire. Its heritage as a centre of learning, culture and craft is reflected in the variety of handicraft work that goes on here. Thanjavur is still famous for its bejeweled, gold leaf Tanjore paintings, fine silk carpets, bell metal work, musical instruments, pith work and bronze sculptures. Being part of different kingdoms, gave Tanjore a rich diversity in culture, literature and arts.
The visit to the Gangaikondacholapuram temple, Nageswaraswami Temple and the Airavateswara Temple is part and parcel of your journey to complete the trip to Thanjavur. The Gangaikondacholapuram temple lies right next to Kumbakonam. The son of Chola king Raja Raja, Rajendra Chola, had built the temple drawing inspiration from the Rajarajeswaram temple of Thanjavur. The ruins of this temple are still visited to view the splendid architecture and outlay of the Chola sculpture. Similarly the sculptures at the Nageswaraswami temple of Kumbakonam and the temple of Airavateswara of Darasuram are equally impressive with intricate carvings adorning the walls and life like sculptures, the artistic appeal of which is unparallel.
Located at a distance of thirteen kilometers from Tanjore is the town of Thiruvaiyaru inter linked with saint Thyagaraja. A place worth visiting at Thiruvaiyaru is the stunning Panchanatheswara temple, which has been dedicated to Lord Shiva. Thiruvaiyaru also hosts the eight-day long annual Thyagaraja Aradhana music Festival in the month of January as a tribute to saint Thyagaraja. The period is celebrated with pomp and festivities with a special emphasis on reviving music and folk lore.
From Thanjavur one can plan a trip to Kumbakonam that is at a distance of thirty six kilometers. At Kumbakonam the semi erotic sculptures at the Sarangapani, Kumbeswarar, Nageswara and Ramaswamy temples attract many tourists. Kumbakonam is the venue of the magnificent Mahamaham festival that is celebrated once in every twelve years much like the famous Maha Kumbh mela of Alahabad.
How To Get There
The nearest Airport Tiruchirapalli is 58 kms. and is connected by Indian Airlines and Air Lanka to Sri lanka. Indian Airlines also be connects Trichy with Madurai and Chennai directly.
Thanjavur is connected by rail with Trichy, Madurai, Nagore and Chennai directly. The excellent road network links Thanjavur with the major towns in Tamil Nadu and the neighboring states of Kerala and Karnataka.
Thanjavur is by a good network of roads with all major cities.