It is just 6 a.m. but the sun is already shining brightly and the temple town of Thanjavur in eastern Tamil Nadu is rapidly waking up. Sipping filter coffee in a tiny eatery, I look out to find streets that were silent just minutes ago now brimming with traffic. Autorickshaws and motorcycles race past each other, bullied by bus drivers. An old man drags a pushcart filled with Thanjavur bommai, multi-hued terracotta dolls with heads nodding, their flowing skirts wobbling. I finish my coffee and head out to explore.
The first thing that meets my eye is the 216-foot tower (vimana) above the sanctum of the Brihadeshwara Temple. Rising like a pinnacle, it dwarfs every man, monument, and tree in sight. The 11th-century temple was built by the legendary Chola ruler, Raja Raja I. Its 80-tonne cupola is carved out of a single block of granite, which was placed on the top with the help of elephants. It also has the second- largest Nandi in the country, and an 8.7-metre-high Shivalinga, one of the tallest in the world. Almost every bharatanatyam dance posture is depicted on its walls, and the corridors and ceilings are covered with frescoes. Everything about the Temple oozes magnitude.
This landmark, now part of the Great Living Chola Temples UNESCO World Heritage Site along with two other temples in nearby towns, is Thanjavur’s showstopper. But when I set out to explore, I discover there’s more to the town than Raja Raja I’s magnum opus.
The 400-year-old Thanjavur Maratha Palace next to the Brihadeshwara Temple was the residence of the Bhonsles who ruled Thanjavur for over 200 years. The courtyard is flanked by the arsenal tower, a smaller bell tower, and the 190-foot watchtower, goodagopuram.
The Sangeet Mahal, one of two durbar halls here, provides an insight into the Nayak era, when it used to echo with performances. All I can hear now is the laughter of children as they run around the pillars. There’s a palace museum, an art gallery, and the six-storey madamaligai that was the kings’ private prayer hall.
The palace lacks the grandeur of the temple but is a testament to Thanjavur’s dynasties (daily 10 a.m.-5.30 p.m.; entry ₹10 for Indians, ₹50 for foreign nationals).
Saraswati Mahal is located in a silent corner of the palace complex. The 400-year-old royal library has rare palm leaf manuscripts and volumes in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Hindi, Urdu, and Persian. While some of the works date to the Sangam era (100 B.C.-A.D. 250), a golden period in Tamil and Dravidian literature, the library also has treatises on Chinese torture and Ayurvedic therapy. There are maps, ancient atlases, and globes, and an 18th-century edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, the pre-eminent resource until the Oxford English Dictionary came 170 years later. There’s a museum where visitors can see some of the ancient manuscripts and artefacts (Thur-Tue 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 1.30-5.30 p.m.).
Outside the palace, there’s a muddle of shops and markets, selling everything from terracotta dolls to brassware. I’m fascinated by the shop windows of the many painters in town. There are ornate images of deities adorned with semi-precious stones and gold leaf. They are made in the traditional style of Thanjavur painting that was patronised by the Nayaks and Marathas and is kept alive by these anonymous artists.
Each shop is like a mini-gallery. In one frame, a gilded baby Krishna glows in the sunlight. Next to him are Radha and Krishna, the coronation of Rama, and the wedding of Meenakshi. Most painters still use the same techniques and natural colours used by their ancestors.
The journey to Thiruvaiyaru, a town on the bank of the Kaveri River, 15 km/25 minutes north of Thanjavur, is lovely. Fields border the road which crosses five bridges over the rivers that give the town its name—the sacred land of five rivers. Most visitors head to the Shiva temple but this is also where legendary Carnatic composer and saint Thyagaraja spent his last years. The priest guides me to the one-room house next door where the saint composed his devotional songs. A statue of him stands at the entrance.
Thyagaraja’s Samadhi is a short walk away. Every January, the site reverberates with music as artists perform live at the Thyagaraja Aradhana festival.
Appeared in the August 2014 issue as “In The Shadow of the Temple”. Updated in January 2017.
Thanjavur is about 320 km/6 hrs south of Chennai and 170 km/3.5 hrs south of Pondicherry. It is well connected by bus and train. The closest airport is in Tiruchirapalli 60 km/1 hour west of Thanjavur.
Lakshmi Sharath is a travel writer and blogger from Bangalore who quit her corporate career in media to travel. Her passion is all about exploring the nooks and corners of the world and telling stories.