It is a busy day at Thanjavur. Scores of tourists make a beeline to the showstopper of the town – the thousand-year-old Brihadeshwara temple. However in the heart of the erstwhile Chola capital, where Raja Raja Chola’s Big Temple, true to its name, towers over all and sundry, is a palace, which has very little to do with the Cholas, historically speaking.
Everything about Thanjavur is larger than life. Besides the Big temple, is the Periya Kottai or the Big Fort, built by the Nayaks who took over the reins of the kingdom from the Cholas. The Aramane built by them in the 16th century became the official residence of the Bhonsle clan of the Marathas, the next dynasty who ruled this region for over 200 years from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
I walk along the streets of Thanjavur taking in the culture amidst the clutter. The lanes are an open art gallery – you see them glitter with paintings. The town has lent its name to the art and artists who are well versed in Tanjore paintings, in which the deities come alive. Elsewhere are clay dolls, moulded as dancers or like roly-poly couples nodding their heads, as I walk past the crowds and make my way to the palace. The Marathas were not just rulers of this Tamil heartland. Their legacy has seeped much deeper into the town and the present day king lives today within the palatial complex.
Sculptures greet you the moment the step in to the palatial compound. Colourful deities peer at your from niches of monuments. A courtyard spread in the centre is flanked by towers and temples. There is the Arsenal Tower, the Bell Tower, the Sadar Mahal Palace, the Saraswati Mahal Library, the Sangeet Mahal and the Durbar Hall amidst several other monuments in the palatial complex. If you look closely, you’ll spot an underground passage in the corner. As with the trend of palaces being converted into museums, there is a Royal Palace Museum and an art gallery here as well. An entire hall is dedicated to Nataraja here as well as rare carvings from the Chola era.
I cross the recently restored courtyard to see the tall tower looking down at me from about 200 feet. The staircase is narrow but less crowded and we decide to go all the way to the top, only to find a film crew busy setting up equipment and warding off visitors. Standing at the top, I take in the scenery for a few seconds until the cameras roll.
Amidst the chaos, I head down to the palace, which was the residence of King Serfoji, the foremost custodian of culture amongst the Maratha kings. The Sardar Mahal is about 200 years old and is the home of all the performing arts. The Durbar Hall, which wears a fresh coat of paint, greets you with portraits of kings and mural paintings. The palace opens into the Memorial Hall of Raja Serfoji, the Maratha king whose legacy is seen in the Saraswati Mahal Library.
Set up initially by the Nayaks and later patronised by the Marathas, the library, one of the largest in Asia boasts of rare collections of palm leaf manuscripts. About 250 of them are in Tamil and 180 records are in Sanskrit. Raja Serfoji, one of the most learned and widely travelled among the Maratha kings, has been the foremost patron of every form of art that he took over the refurbishing of the Saraswati Mahal Library. While some of the works date back to the Sangam era, the library is full of eclectic material that includes details on Chinese torture methods.
Walking along these palatial corridors, I can feel the winds of change in these monuments. Some of them are in various stages of restoration while others wear a new coat of paint. However, as several dynasties and kings have come and gone, their patronage to art and culture has never diminished. Thanjavur will remain forever the cultural capital of India. And, yes, it will always remain larger than life. As I leave the palace premises, a lady in a bright blue saree with a golden blouse, wearing a dainty crown on her head nods at me in agreement, as I buy my first souvenir of the day – the quintessential Thanjavur doll.
Thanjavur, located very close to Tiruchirapalli, is accessible by road and rail from Chennai, Bangalore and other key cities. While most monuments in the palatial complex have different timings for visitors, they are usually open from 9 am to 5 pm with a lunch break in between. Most monuments charge a nominal entrance fee.