Nestled in the Cauvery belt, Thanjavur was always a favourite land of the rulers such as Cholas, Nayaks and Marathas since the 9th century. Brimming with Tamil culture, Thanjavur is known for its dance, art, music, paintings, temples and literature. Once referred as the granary or rice bowl of the state due to its rich agricultural prosperity, Thanjavur has slowly over the years turned into another Indian town with all the hustle and bustle. However, despite that, Thanjavur has refused to part with its love for art which is evident in the form of dance festivals, paintings and Chola architecture that can be seen even today. All these art and architecture have also been testimony to Thanjavur’s glorious past which one can notice while strolling through its sculptures, art galleries and temples.
Brihadeeshwarar temple is synonymous with Thanjavur and is undoubtedly the biggest attraction in the town. Built in 11th century by the Chola king Rajaraja Chola I, the temple which is a part of the great living chola temples and is a UNESCO world heritage site is a majestic creation detailing the Chola temple architecture. Located within Shivganga fort, the temple sprawls over 33,000 sq ft and has two grand entrance towers with beautiful carvings. The large courtyard houses the main shrine with a shivlinga and a colossal nandi sculpture facing it. What takes all the attention here is the massive tower over the main shrine with intricate carvings and an imposing frame. Atop the tower is a beautifully carved granite block which was rolled up a ramp by many elephants during those days. The extensive sculptures on the outer facade of the shrine is a sight to behold. The courtyard is surrounded by a pathway lined with numerous carved pillars. The premise also houses numerous other shrines dedicated to Subramanya, Amman, Ganesha, Chandikesvara, Varaha, Karuvur Devar etc. While visitors throng the temple through the day, the ideal time to visit is early in the morning or in the evening when the temple gets bathed in myriad shades that the sun splashes over the gorgeous sculptures.
Built in the 16th century by Vijayanagara empire and later by the Marathas, the Shivganga fort spreads over 35 acres and has most of its outer wall in shambles. A moat can still be seen near the entrance of the temple. The shivganga fort which encircles the Brihadeeshwarar temple also houses a park for children, a small zoo and shivganga tank which provides boating facility.
Swartz church next to the shivganga park was built in 1779 CE by a Danish missionary, Christian Swartz. He was quite close to the then Maratha ruler, King Serfoji II and the church even has marble sculptures of the King and the missionary on the walls inside. The church has quite a simple setting with writings and carvings on marble slabs. Rajagopala beerangi, a canon located near the eastern gate of the fort is believed to be one of the largest in India. Less than a kilometer from the canon is Ranees tower, a historical clock tower built in 1883 during the rule of Serfoji II which later became a war memorial during the First World War.
The Thanjavur Palace complex is a stroll back to the times when the place was ruled by various dynasties. Built by the Nayaks and later renovated by the Marathas, the vibrant Durbar hall with its magnificent carvings is the major highlight here. Along with beautiful arches, the colourful pillars and ceilings accentuate the charm of this hall. Both the colours and the carvings are quite intricate and have terrific detailing. However, the art work and scribbles by the modern visitors have taken the sheen off it to an extent.
Adjoining the durbar hall is a gallery which displays numerous stone sculptures of various gods and mythological characters, some of which dates back to the Chola times. Maharaja Serfoji II memorial hall which is pretty much in a dilapidated state is now a museum and houses collectibles of the royal family. There is a also a royal museum which has a few displays of the royal family such as utensils, weaponry, coins etc.
The art gallery with a bell tower adjacent to it has a huge collection of stone and metal sculptures of gods and various mythological figures. The 17th century Nayak’s durbar hall is a pretty impressive one with wall art and a magnificent display of bronze statues. There is also a gallery that displays exclusive bronze statues of Nataraja (the dancing form of Shiva). These displays have a great influence of the Chola, Nayak and Maratha dynasties and are reminiscent of the glorious past of Thanjavur. Saraswati Mahal is a library inside the palace complex that houses innumerable texts, manuscripts and writings on palm leaf which have been carefully preserved over many centuries.
Apart from the music and dance festivals, Thanjavur is known for its paintings, referred as Tanjore paintings. Made on glass or wooden surfaces, the use of vibrant colours, gold foils and precious stones makes it unique. The bronze statues and thalayatti bommai (head nodding dolls) are the other shopping delights here. The dolls are made of clay or paper and brightly coloured. While the dolls can be bought from shops outside the palace complex, the paintings and bronze statues can be checked out at the shops on Gandhiji road or South Keezha Veedhi.
While the Brihadeeshwara temple garners all the attention, Thanjavur also has a few other prominent temples such as Bangaru Kamakshi Amman temple and Punnainallur Mariamman temple. The main shrine at Bangaru Amman temple is made of pure gold and is believed that it was brought here from Kanchipuram. Punnainallur Mariamman temple is by the highway and the 18th century temple is dedicated to Kali, worshipped in the form of an anthill.
13 Kms away from Thanjavur is the town of Thiruvaiyaru, the birth place of Thyagaraja, the 18th century Carnatic composer and saint, a revered figure across Tamil Nadu. An annual carnatic music festival, Thyagaraja Aradhanai is held here every year during his death anniversary when a host of carnatic singers and composers perform. The town is located by the Cauvery river and is also known for its Panchanatheeswarar or Aiyarappanar temple dedicated to Shiva. Colourful towers, broad pathways and mural art on its walls make this temple an attractive one.
Swamimalai is a detour on the road that connects Thanjavur with Kumbakonam. The place is popular for the temple dedicated to Muruga which is located on a rock. A flight of 50 steps leads past small shrines shrouded by carved pillars and colourful ceilings to the main shrine. The inner sanctum too has wonderful art work and paintings all across. Swamimalai is also the place where the Thanjavur bronze statues are manufactured. One could purchase and also see the making of these statues here.
Thanjavur has more to it than the Brihadeeshwarar temple and takes you through its glorious past from the 9th century to the 18th century when it was at its prime under the rule of various dynasties. From temple architecture to sculptures at galleries and Thalaiyatti bommais, Thanjavur reeks of art, culture and history.
Thanjavur is 59 Kms from Tiruchirappalli, 190 Kms from Madurai and 346 Kms from Chennai. The nearest airport is at Tiruchirappalli. There are frequent trains and buses connecting Thanjavur with major cities across south India.
Thanjavur is a fairly big town and there are numerous restaurants serving various cuisines, South Indian cuisine being the predominant one. The town also has quite a few popular biriyani places such as Thevar’s, Mohal etc. There are a wide range of hotels in Thanjavur and I stayed at Hotel Valli, which is well recommended.