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Thanjavur – City of Ancient Art, Literature and Temples

March 10th, 2022

Thanjavur (or Tanjaur) in Tamil Nadu was once the capital of mighty Cholas. It is said that the kingdom was so fertile that elephants used to thrash paddy here. To this day, one can see stately ancient buildings and their ruins on almost every street of the city. Tamil Nadu is known for nurturing literature, classical music and arts for hundreds of years. Thanjavur is not untouched by the sophistication, culture and knowledge that Tamilians are so proud of. Thanjavur paintings use semi-precious stones and gold foil to create deities in a style unique to the region. Since genuine antique Tanjore paintings are extremely rare, you will find only newer ones (perhaps with antique finish) in the market.

Thanjavur is also famous for its Tanjore plates – brass places with silver inlay work, Indian musical instrument known as Veena, and colorful papier mache dolls known as Thanjavur thalayatti bommais which nod their heads like Bharatanatyam dancers. There is an interesting story about how the city of Thanjavur originated. It is believed that Lord Vishnu slew a demon or asur named Thanjan on the banks of River Cauvery. Just before dying, Thanjan prayed to Lord Vishnu that a beautiful and great town named after him rise on the spot of his death and his wish was granted. Thus, Thanjanasur (which later became Thanjavur) came into being.

Though some of the temple sites claim to be thousands of years old, the earliest of the present structures date back to 7th century CE. Home to some of the world’s finest temple architecture, Thanjavur has as many as 24 ancient temples that are worth a visit. However, three most celebrated and revered temples at Thanjavur are:

o Brihadeesvara Temple: Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the name of the temple literally means ‘Big’. The massive temple precincts have an enormous entrance arch and are surrounded by a moat that looks awe-inspiring. The grand temple does not have loud colored frescoes and has been purposefully given a sandstone-color finish to keep it unobtrusive and low key. The 13-tiered entrance tower to the sanctum carries a single block of granite stone weighing 80 tonnes on its top. Other notable features here include a 4-mile long ramp that was built to set the cupola in such a manner that its shadow never falls on the ground; the 12-foot tall monolithic idol of Nandi; and a 12 ft high lingam with a circumference of 54 ft. The beautiful frescoes of the shrine of Goddess Brihan Nayaki; the cave-like temple of Saint Karuvurar; and the Murugan shrine built like a chariot are a must-see at this temple.
o Bangaru Kamakshi Amman Temple: 2 kms from the Big Temple, this temple of Goddess Bangaru Kamakshi has an idol made in real gold, which is believed to have been brought here from Kanchipuram during Muslim invasion.
o Mariamman Temple: Goddess Mariamman, a manifestation of Mother Goddess, is believed to have curative and healing powers. Though the temple was built in the 18th century, the goddess was worshipped here in the form of an anthill since times immemorial. Descendants of the royal family of Thanjavur maintain the temple to this day. Devotees believe that goddess provides relief from measles, chicken pox and skin sores and that drops of moisture appear on the face and head of the idol from time to time.

Besides temples, Thanjavur has some beautiful architectural specimens at the Sivaganga Fort such as the 18th century Schwartz Church and the Royal Palace. The Rajaraja Museum and the Art Gallery are known for their rich collection of Chola bronzes and stone sculptures while the Saraswati Mahal Library in the palace complex has a large collection of rare manuscripts. You can also see panoramic views of the city from the ornamental balconies of the six-storey Sharajah Madi and the biggest cannon in India – Rajagopala Beerangi – at the fort.