The fertile town of Thanjavur or Tanjore in the Kaveri delta region of Tamil Nadu, is well known as the capital of the glorious Chola empire. It is home to the breathtaking Brihadeeshwara Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts hordes of visitors each day. However, a lot of them end up skipping a little piece of Thanjavur’s post-Chola legacy - the Thanjavur Palace.
After the decline of the Chola empire, Thanjavur was under Pandya rule for a few decades, and then controlled by the Delhi Sultanate. In the late 14th century, it merged with the growing Vijayanagara empire. The Vijayanagara rulers appointed governors or viceroys called Nayaks for the administration of the different parts of their kingdom. In the 16th century, after Vijayanagar suffered a huge defeat at the hands of the Deccan Sultanates, many of these Nayaks declared independence. The Nayaks of Thanjavur were among these, and they ruled the region for more than a hundred years. The Thanjavur Palace was built by them in the middle of the 16th century.
In 1674, a Maratha general called Venkoji (also known as Ekoji I), conquered Thanjavur at the behest of the Bijapur Sultanate, but ended up occupying it and declaring independence. He was the first ruler of the Thanjavur Maratha kingdom that lasted for nearly 2 centuries, until it was annexed to British India. Instead of building a new palace, the Maratha rulers used the existing one as their residence. To suit their needs, they made many additions and modifications to the complex. Between those and the somewhat confused restoration work that has been carried out in recent years, the Thanjavur Palace is quite a potpourri of structures in various styles.
The Maratha Darbar Hall
The most beautiful of these is the Maratha Darbar Hall. It is an absolute delight with its colorful murals depicting various Hindu deities, portraits of Maratha rulers, intricate stucco images of Gods and Goddesses and magnificent pillars.
The Maratha Darbar Hall
Many parts of the palace have been converted into galleries, and the most fascinating exhibits are the exquisite sculptures and bronzes, several dating all the way back to the Chola era. The gallery where the bronzes are displayed was formerly used as an audience hall by the Nayak rulers. Today, a statue of Serfoji II, probably the most notable of the Maratha rulers, stands in the middle of it. The Raja Serfoji Memorial Hall in the residential wing of the palace showcases an assortment of artefacts from the royal household.
The eight storeyed Arsenal Tower, that resembles like the pyramidal vimana of a Dravidian temple, served as an armoury as well as a watch tower. It is said to have had only two floors when the Nayaks built it, and was expanded to its current form by the Marathas. An interesting oddity on display in this tower is the skeleton of a gigantic 92 feet long whale that was washed ashore in Tranquebar, a seaside town ninety odd kilometers away.
A part of the whale’s skeleton
The seven storeyed Bell Tower or ‘Manikoondu’ almost looks like a modern skyscraper. It is believed that it was fitted with a bell in the past, that would toll every hour, giving the structure its name.
Restored structures with the Bell Tower in the background
The Saraswati Mahal Library in the palace complex looks deceptively small, but is in fact one of the oldest libraries in Asia with over 60,000 books. It was commissioned by the Nayaks, but its biggest patron was Serfoji II. He had books brought from all over India to add to its collection. The library’s priceless treasures include dictionaries, scientific works, historical letters, ancient maps, administrative records, palm leaf manuscripts and several rare books.
Admittedly, the Thanjavur Palace is not the most stunning palace around, as it is said to have been built to serve as a fort as well. However, set in the heartland of the Cholas, this eclectic complex offers us a glimpse into what became of the region after the empire faded away.
(Madhumita Gopalan is a photographer, blogger and history enthusiast who loves photo-documenting travel, culture and architecture. She blogs at www.madhugopalan.com)