Thanjavur is a unique South Indian temple town, in that it is the home of The Big Temple. It evokes a flavour of South India as she was hundreds of years ago and still is essentially, even today. A flavour so strong it can only be compared to the aromatic experience of South Indian degree coffee that leaves no room for allusions to other brews.
This is the cradle of the Golden Age of the Cholas where artisans, as Fergusson the art historian aptly stated, ‘conceived like giants and finished like jewelers’; the seat of knowledge and literature evident in the Maratha Maharaja Serfoji Saraswati Mahal Library a tradition of learning manifest today in the modern day Tamil University; Carnatic music immortalized by Thyagarajah, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Shastri among others; Bhartanatyam and the Natyanjali Festival; a unique school of art alive and evolving even today.
Take a sip of Thanjavur, South India’s pride!
Thanjavur is a municipality and the capital city in the district of Thanjavur in the State of Tamil Nadu. The city lies on the south bank of the Cauvery River, 200 miles south of Chennai the capital of Tamil Nadu in South India. Situated east of Trichy also in Tamil Nadu it is reputed to be the rice-bowl of Tamil Nadu. It is the 8th largest city in Tamil Nadu state and has an average elevation of 6 feet. Thanjavur has an area of 36 km².
The city is divided into two main parts by a flyover - one being the downtown area known as Old Town or simply “Town” and the other, the residential area. Town is the business district and the residential area is a comparatively newer. Some of the more important neighborhoods are Palliagraharam, Karanthai, Old Town, Vilar, Nanjikottai Road, Manabuchavadi, Pookkara Street, New Town, Medical College, Old Housing Unit, New Housing Unit and Srinivasapuram. There are extensions to the city which include Mariamman Koil, Gnanam Nagar, Pillaiyarpatti etc. The city extends east to west from Vallam to Mariamman Koil and north to south from Vayalur to Nanjikottai. Inclusive of its extensions the city spans over an area of 100 km² approximately.
How to get there
Thanjavur is situated 65km east of Trichy, 200km from Madurai and 350 km from Chennai. The airport closest to the city is at Trichy and the next at Madurai. The International Airport at Chennai is well connected by domestic flights flying to and from major cities in India, well as international flights from most parts of the world.
The main railway junction in Thanjavur is well connected with Tiruchi, Chennai and Nagore in the Nagapattinam district.
Travel by road from Thanjavur is comfortable and well developed accessing most places in Tamil Nadu state as well as Kochi, Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala state and Bangalore in Karnataka state.
Thanjavur - as the city is known in the local tongue Tamil - is also referred to by its anglicized version Tanjore. The city derives its name from the legend of the demon or asura Tanjan-an. The ferocious demon caused much havoc and devastation and was slain by goddess Sri Anandavalli Amman and Lord Vishnu, Sri Neelamegapperumal. Tanjanan requested the gods that the city be named after him. He was granted his wish and the city came to be called Thanjavur.
The three powerful South Indian dynasties The Cholas, the Cheras and the Pandyas were said to have been ruling Tamizhagam or the Tamil nation even before the period of the great epic Mahabharata. Amongst the three, the Cholas were reputed to be the greatest patronisers of literature, art, science and religion. The Cholas constantly moved their capital. Thiruvarur, Uraiyur, Pazhaiyarai, Thanjavur and Gangaikonda Cholapuram were all successive capitals of the Chola Kingdom. Historical records reveal that in the period between AD 846-880 Thanjavur was captured by Vijayalaya Cholan who built a temple for his favourite goddess Nisumbhasudani in the city.
Kanchipuram was also made subsidiary capital though Thanjavur maintained its position as the premier city. The rule of the Chola kings from Thanjavur continued until in the 13th century A.D when Rajendra Cholan son of the great Rajaraja Cholan, moved capital to Gangaikonda Cholapuram. This move marked the end of the Chola rule.
The Pandyas captured Thanjavur for a brief spell soon after which a viceroy of the Vijayanagar Empire brought about the independence of Thanjavur and founded the dynasty of the Thanjavur Nayaks.
The Nayaks held sway for the next 125 years. When the last prince of the Thanjavur Nayaks Vijayaraghava was killed in a tragic accident his General Alagiri assumed control and ruled for the next 14 years. After this period of 14 years there arose serious dissension amongst the Nayaks when Vijayaraghava’s son Sengamaladas laid claim to the Nayak throne. This made it easy and relatively effortless for the Marathas- the Bijapur King and his General Venkaji (the half brother of Sivaji the Great) to defeat Alagiri and seize the throne in 1676. The Marathas made Thanjavur their capital and ruled for 179 years.
Attacks on Thanjavur were made by English in 1749 AD and later in 1758 AD by the French. The French were soon ousted by the British in 1773 AD. Thanjavur then became one of the protected regions under the East India Company and in 1799 AD a British principality. The then ruler Sarafoji II was given the fort in Thanjavur. His successor, Sivaji the Great died without an heir in 1855 A.D. Thanjavur then passed, peacefully without incident or struggle, under British rule mirroring the time the Marathas took control from the Nayaks.
The Big Temple or Brihadishwara Temple
Thanjavur is often spoken of in the same breath as the Brihadishwara Temple.
The Great Nandi
Every Hindu God and Goddess has a vahanam or vehicle manifest as an animal or bird that they ride on. Lord Shiva’s vehicle is the sacred Nandi bull. This temple’s great monolithic Nandi constructed so that it faces the main idol is 6 metres long, 2.6 metres broad and 3.7 metres high and weighs about 25 tons. Legend states that the Nandi at the Big Temple grows a little every year, which accounts for the stupendous size that arrests your attention making the story oh so believable!
The Sivaganga fort that surrounds the Big Temple is attributed to Sevvappa Nayak. There is yet another bigger fort North-East of the Big Temple that surrounds the city precincts. This fort is partially in ruins. The big fort and a palace called the Thanjavur Palace within the fort was built by Vijayaraghava the last Nayaka prince. These two forts could be the Nayaka renovations of earlier Chola fortifications. The Martha kings later expanded the palace. The two towers flanking the palace serve twin purposes- one serves the purpose of the King’s offering of prayers to Lord Rangaswamy and the other to check the movements of the enemy.
Within the palace is a library, a museum and an art gallery. The Royal Museum has on display royal clothing, hunting weapons, head gears and crowns amongst an abundance of royal memorabilia; as well as ancient manuscripts, books, old prints of historical importance. The two Durbar halls within the palace is where the rulers of the day gathered for daily meetings. The Art Gallery occupies the Nayak Hall. On display at the gallery are artifacts from the Chola Dynasty in the 8th and 9th century- elegant statues made in bronze and granite.
The Bell Tower, which has been renovated in recent times probably, accounts for the fact that it looks different from the rest of the structure. The view of the lay of the land surrounding from atop the tower is spectacular and worth a look!
Serfoji Saraswathi Mahal Library has an amazing collection of palm leaf manuscripts. The library has in its possession an extensive collections of oriental manuscripts in India - over 44,000 palm leaf and paper manuscripts in Sanskrit, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu and European languages; including treatises on medicine and critiques and commentaries on Sangam period works. The Maratha Maharaja Serfoji II was a man of expansive knowledge and an intrinsic love for learning. He was well versed in English, French, Italian, Latin and Arts, Science, and Literature. He enriched the library with personal contributions, sourcing books from remote areas, and commissioning copies of rare Sanskrit manuscripts. After his time his descendants handed over the library to the Government. It was a fitting tribute to Maharaja Serfoji that the library was named after him. The library is not open for the public, but go and have a look at the fascinating handwritten ola or palm leaf manuscript of the complete Ramayana.
The Sangeet Mahal or Hall of Music also built by Maharaja Serfoji is wonderful for its acoustics and a must see and must experience!
Arts and Culture
The Thanjavur Paintings are a unique school of art developed during the reign of the Maratha kings during the 16th century. Typically a Thanjavur painting would comprise of a figure of a central deity characterised by its form, which is well-rounded, endowed with almond shapes eyes. This central figure would usually be framed in an arch or curtain. The paintings adopt the gilded and gem-set technique – where gold leaves, ivory, precious stones like diamonds, emeralds and rubies and semi-precious stones were used to embellish the paintings. Today the materials have been replaced by wood, glass, and mica. The paintings of yore would glow in the dark and evoke a sense of great beauty. Initially the central deity was Lord Krishna and later other gods and goddesses came to be represented. Today the form of the central deity is no longer rounded but elongated and slim. The tradition of Thanjavur paintings is not just alive today but evolving and commercially very rewarding as well!
Thanjavur is a centre for political, literary and religious activities in Southern India. Thanjavur’s contribution to Carnatic music is unforgettable. Perhaps the greatness of Carnatic Music is its myriad cross lingua-cultural influences. Tamil in the land of the Cholas, Nayakas and Marathas and hence is bound to borrow Telugu, Kannada, and Marathi metaphors of expression, inflexions not to mention the language itself in its entirety!
Carnatic musicians like the path-breaker ‘margadarsi’ Seshaiyengar, ‘alippauyude’ Uthukadu Venkata-kavi, ‘ramanatakam’ Arunachala-kavi, ‘nandanar caritram’ Gopalakrishna Bharati and the exalted trinity - Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. Legendary Bharathanatyam dancers trace their roots back to Thanjavuras well. It is today the second most important region for Natyanjali Dance festival held every year.
Where to Stay
Hotel Oriental Towers