September 14, 2018

Thanjavur: A Blend of Art and History

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 thegreat 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.

Food and Accommodation:

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.

September 11, 2018

The Great Living Chola Temples

One of the earliest and longest ruling dynasties of southern India, the Cholas ruled between the 9th century and 13th century even though there have been reports of their establishment much before in 3rd century BC. Cholas expanded their kingdom and it is believed they held sway over regions of Maldives, Sri Lanka and probably even Malayasia and Indonesia. The empire reached its peak around the 11th century when it was ruled by Rajaraja Chola I, the greatest of Chola kings and then by Rajendra Chola, his son. The dynasty also left behind a great legacy in the form of some stupendous temples adorned with magnificent sculptures and carvings. The Great Living Chola Temples which is a UNESCO World Heritage site is a prime example of this. The site constitutes of three temples- Brihadeeshwarar temple at Thanjavur, Airavateswarar temple at Darasuram and Brihadeeshwarar temple at Gangaikondacholapuram. Built in typical Drvaidian architecture, the three temples deeply signify the Chola style and ideology with regard to architecture and art. All the three temples are located in the Cauvery delta regions surrounding Thanjavur and Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu.

Brihadeeshwarar temple, Thanjavur

Also referred as the Big temple or Periya kovil locally, Brihadeeshwarar temple is the cynosure of all eyes visiting Thanjavur. Built in early 11th century by Rajaraja Chola I, the temple is located within Shivganga fort in the city and has a moat running around it. It was built and designed to represent a cosmic structure- the Mahameru (a sacred 5 peak mountain) and had granite blocks being brought from more than 50 Kms away for its construction. The two large entrance gates dedicated to Karalantakan and Rajaraja Chola I are extensively carved with beautiful sculptures of figurines and mythological characters. The second thiruvasal (entrance gate) opens into the sprawling courtyard of the temple with the intimidating 13 storeyed gopuram of the main shrine garnering all attention. Spread over 33,000 sq ft, the temple is dedicated to Shiva and has a large shivlinga as the main shrine. The vimana or tower above the main sanctum is extensively and intricately carved and also has an 80 tonne carved granite block atop it. While the inner walls are devoid of carvings, the outer façade of the main shrine is adorned with extensive chisel work. Apart from the carvings that depict various mythological stories and characters, there are also inscriptions of various rulers. The temple has a wide circumambulatory path which is lined with pillared pathways all along. The complex also houses numerous other shrines dedicated to Chandikesvara, Ganesha, Varaha, Karuvur Devar, Nataraja etc. However, the shrines of Subramanya, Amman and the colossal Nandi are the ones which have beautiful frescoes and sculptures. The temple underwent numerous repairs and renovations during the rule of later dynasties and even had a few shrines added in the same period. The temple looks gorgeous during sunrise and sunset when the backdrop is bathed in shades of yellow, orange and red.

Location: In Thanjavur city

Airavateswarar temple, Darasuram

Named after Indra’s vehicle, Airavat (elephant), the temple is dedicated to Airavateswarar and Shiva. Built in the 12th century by Rajaraja Chola II, the temple is located in Darasuram near Kumbakonam and is a part of a cluster of medieval temples in the same region. The temple is surrounded by a moat and is located inside a well kept garden with a nandi mandapa just outside the courtyard. It has a beautifully sculpted entrance gate and a pathway inside which runs all along with numerous carved pillars. The main sanctum which is extensively sculpted is on a raised platform which is in the shape of a chariot pulled by horses and is a smorgasbord of sculptures. The outer façade has intricate sculptures of mythological characters and the steps that lead up the raised platform too have carvings on them. The platform which leads to the inner sanctums has innumerable ornate pillars with astounding carvings and sculptures which are intricate and depict stories related to Shaivism and Vaishnavism. These sculpted pillars are magnificent and are truly one of the highlights of this temple. The ceilings too have beautiful carvings, most of which have worn out. The temple is also adorned with numerous small sculptures of various deities and has inscriptions on its walls. The extensive detailing is the stand out feature of Airavateeshwarar temple, which makes it at par or a notch above the big temple at Thanjavur with regard to the stone works. The complex supposedly had more courtyards and structures when it was built, but most of those got ruined over the years. 

Location: 36 Kms from Thanjavur and 4 Kms before Kumbakonam

Brihadeeshwarar temple, Gangaikondacholapuram

When Rajendra Chola I became the king of Chola dynasty, he shifted the capital from Thanjavur to Gangaikondacholapuram to commemorate his conquest up to the banks of river Ganga. Located in the nondescript village of Gangaikondacholapuram, the Brihadeeshwarar temple here is modeled on the big temple in Thanjavur. The complex is set inside a neatly maintained lawn with sporadic trees. The main shrine dedicated to Shiva has a square plan with a tower atop the inner sanctum. The tower has sculptures all over similar to the Brihadeeshwara temple in Thanjavur but is nine storeyed instead of thirteen. The outer façade has innumerable sculptures of gods and other mythological characters. There is a huge nandi sculpture in front facing the temple. Th premise also has a few other shrines dedicated to various deities. Though it is built similar to the one in Thanjavur, it fails to match up to the architectural extravagance of the big temple.

Location: 72 Kms from Thanjavur and 32 Kms from Kumbakonam


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 all the major towns in south India. Thanjavur and Kumbakonam are 40 Kms apart.

Food and Accommodation:

It is recommended to stay at Thanjavur and travel to all the three temples. Thanjavur has numerous hotels and restaurants. There are small make shift shops outside these temples.


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