THE CITY OF THANJAVUR, or Tanjore, lies in the fertile Kaveri Delta, a region often referred to as the “rice bowl of Tamil Nadu”. For nearly a thousand years, this great town dominated the political history of the region as the capital of three powerful dynasties the Cholas (9th-13th centuries), the Nayakas (1535-1676) and the Marathas (1676-1855). The magnificent Brihadishvara Temple is the most important Chola monument, while the Royal Palace dates to the Nayaka and Maratha periods. Today, Thanjavur’s culture extends beyond temples and palaces, to encompass classical music and dance. It is also a flourishing centre for bronze sculpture and painting.
The quadrangular Shivaganga Fort, southwest of the old city, was built by the Nayaka ruler, Sevappa Nayaka, in the mid-16th century. Its battlemented stone walls, which enclose an area of 14 ha (35 acres), are surrounded by a partly rock-cut moat. The square Shivaganga Tank in the fort was excavated by Rajaraja I, and later renovated to provide drinking water for the city. The fort also contains the great Brihadishvara Temple, Schwartz Church, and a public amusement park.
The 18th-century Christ Church or Schwartz Church, a legacy of Thanjavur’s colonial past, stands to the east of the Shivaganga Tank. This church was founded by the Danish missionary, Reverend Frederik Christian Schwartz, in 1779. When he died in 1798, the enlightened Maratha ruler, Serfoji II, donated a striking marble tablet to the church. This tablet, made by John Flaxman, has been placed at the western end of the church. It depicts the dying missionary blessing his royal patron, surrounded by ministers and pupils from the school that he established.
Resembling the shape of a flying eagle, this palace was built originally by the Nayaka rulers as their royal residence, and was subsequently remodelled by the Marathas. A large quadrangular courtyard leads into the palace complex, at one end of which is a pyramidal, temple-like tower. Outside the palace complex stands the seven-storeyed, arcaded observation tower, now without its capping pavilion.
The splendid Maratha Durbar Hall, built by Shahji II in 1684, has elaborately painted and decorated pillars, walls and ceiling. A wooden canopy embellished with glittering glass pieces and supported by four wooden pillars stands above a green granite slab on which the royal Maratha throne once stood. The other buildings include the Saclir Mahal, which is still the residence of the erstwhile royal family, and the Puja Mahal.
The Rajaraja Museum and Art Gallery, in the Nayaka Durbar Hall, was established in 1951 and has an impressive collection of bronze and stone idols dating from the 7th to the 20th centuries. Particularly noteworthy are the images of Shiva, such as the Kalyanasundaramurti, which depicts the wedding of Shiva and Parvati and the Bhikshatanamurti, which shows Shiva as a wandering mendicant, carrying a begging bowl and accompanied by a dog.
Next to the Rajaraja Museum is the Saraswati Mahal Library, constructed by the Maratha rulers. This is one of the most important reference libraries in India, with a fine collection of rar palm-leaf manuscripts and books collected by the versatile and scholarly Serfoji II. An adjoining Museum displays some of these valuable works. The Royal Museum occupies part of the private quarters of the Maratha Palace, and exhibits the personal collection of Serfoji II. Nearby is the Sangeeta Mahal (Music Hall), built by the Nayakas, and specially designed with acoustic features for musical gatherings.
ENVIRONS: Lying 55 km (34 miles) east of Thanjavur, Thinwarur is famous for its Thyagaraja Temple dedicated to the Somaskanda form of Shiva. The temple has four gopuras, and a hall with a striking ceiling, covered with 17th-century paintings depicting scenes from the Shiva legend.