Easy Trip: Art and culture in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu

One tap and you can have Thanjavur’s pretty bobblehead dolls dancing to your tunes
Photographer: VINOBHA NATHAN



GREAT FROM Chennai, Bangalore, Tiruchirappalli
GREAT FOR Culture vultures

What do Lord Shiva, the Buddha, weapons of war and childbirth have in common? Absolutely nothing. But Thanjavur’s Brihadishwara Temple throws them all together anyway.

Historians believe that this 11th-century Chola temple wasn’t designed to be a shrine to the Destroyer of Worlds. Whispers abound that the master architect of the temple, King Rajaraja I, didn’t have a single spiritual bone in his body. Which is why it’s believed that the structure, with its 61m-tall vimana (tower), acted as a watchtower and weapons storage facility. Adding credibility to this theory are the rather arbitrary carvings of warriors scattered around the complex, and one of a rather buxom woman giving birth atop one of the gopuras. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temple today sees thousands of devotees, all unaware of its bizarre origins. In awe, they offer prayers to the 3.6m-tall shivling, which could have just been the perfect smokescreen.

Thanjavur shone under the rule of the Cholas, before being taken over by the Nayaks and, in the 17th century, the Marathas. All of these dynasties played an important role in making Thanjavur the cultural epicentre of its time. It was during the Maratha rule that many of its arts found an outlet, thanks to Serfoji II, possibly the land’s most beloved ruler.

Sambaji Rajah Bhonsle, a direct descendant of Serfoji II, is perhaps the most humble royal you will encounter. He makes Tanjore paintings and resides in a neglected portion of the Thanjavur Royal Palace Complex, the family having bequeathed most of its land to the government. Step in and gasp as you take in the splashes of gold and red on wooden frames throughout the length of a cavernous corridor. A rotund Krishna peeks out at you, while a formidable Shiva strikes 108 Bharatanatyam poses. Bhonsle is only keeping an ancient art form alive, one he fears might soon die out.

Making a Tanjore painting is no piece of cake. Tamarind seed paste and limestone is applied, layer upon layer, onto a cloth base. Once this is dry, he draws divine beings, after which gems are inlaid to make a pattern. The detailing of form and face is followed by the laying of 22-carat gold foil. Herbal colours are then filled in to bring the image to life.

Explore the rest of the labyrinthine complex and you’ll find that the Saraswati Mahal Library houses Serfoji II’s collection of surgical equipment, palm-leaf paintings and manuscripts, while the Art Gallery is home to 10th-century bronze sculptures.

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) organises a whistle-stop tour of the town on foot. Begin at Christ Church, better known as Schwartz’s Church, built by Danish missionary CF Schwartz, Serfoji II’s mentor, and move on to Ponnaiah Nilayam, a Bharatanatyam gurukul that has given us gifted danseuses such as Vyjayanthimala and Hema Malini. After a few more halts, head to the south, where you can walk into a workshop run by M Narayanan, a fifth-generation veena maker, to watch how the ancient musical instrument is made. If he likes you, he’ll show you the Ekantha veena, fashioned out of a single piece of wood, with intricate carvings inching across its entire wooden surface. Amid sounds of workers scraping away at veenas, he’ll tell you that the once-illustrious profession is now on its last legs, much like all of Thanjavur’s art forms. So, go to Thanjavur now, before the flaming torch of tradition dies out with its current keepers.

Find all the practical information you need to plan this trip now – in LPMI’s October 2015 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.