The Brihadeeswara temple was built under the supervision of Chola emperor Raja Raja I
The Brihadeeswara temple was built under the supervision of Chola emperor Raja Raja I Wikimedia Commons

This Ultimate Guide To Thanjavur Is Perfect For A Short Trip

The erstwhile capital of the Chola kingdom, Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu, now stands as an important centre for south Indian culture and art. Check out this guide to Thanjavur and get planning

To be honest, it takes guts to say 'yes' to an invite to attend a festival of sacred south Indian music when you just about have a nodding acquaintance with the genre—but here I was, winging it to Chennai and then to Thanjavur to rub shoulders with aficionados of one of India's most enduring cultural legacies. Tamil Nadu not only gave us present-day Bharatanatyam, but also the incredibly rich tradition of Carnatic music. Thank heavens! I have an ear for music.

From Tiruchi airport, the country road unspools itself into the clutter of modern-day Thanjavur, about an hour away. Ugly residential blocks and a noisome jumble of ramshackle shops have muscled their way around the sacred spaces of the Big Temple at Thanjavur, the mighty landmark of this Chola bastion. Yet, there it stands -- an oasis of serenity, lovingly nurtured for over a thousand years since its glory days in the Chola era.

For representational purpose only
For representational purpose onlyWikimedia Commons

The unattractive tenements around may repel, but the bazaars are energetic and colourful with jasmine veni and garland stalls doing brisk business. A walk around the Old Quarter  with an Intach guide puts things into perspective. The grid structure of the royal enclave with its centre of fine arts brings us to Ponnayya Nilayam, the humble residence of the Tanjore Quartet -- the four brothers, Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Vadivelu and Sivanandam -- were music and dance geniuses who created the template of Bharatanatyam as we see it today.

Entering the pillared hallway of the house, we find a gaggle of kids learning the baby steps of this graceful dance form. A family member reverentially shows us the violin on which Vadivelu Pillai first learnt to play. Rukmini Devi, Vyjayanthimala, Alarmel Valli and many others came here to learn their craft. Someone needs to campaign hard to give this place its due respect as a historic cultural heritage site.

Ranvir Shah, the Chennai-based businessman turned culture czar, who is passionately involved in the revival of the Thanjavur region's cultural past, feels the work has just begun with the annual Festival of Sacred Music, organised by his Prakriti Foundation, in Thiruvaiyaru on the outskirts of Thanjavur.

Ancient Hub Of Classical Music

Nestled by the banks of the Cauvery, Thiruvaiyaru was an ancient hub of southern classical music. The sacred Cauvery has sadly dwindled into near non-existence in Tamil Nadu today -- we are lucky that here, in Thiruvaiyaru, we can still stand knee-deep in her waters. Later, on the road to Thiruvarur, I'm appalled by the massive, dry riverbed, which is our companion part way. It's criminal.

Like the Cauvery, Thiruvaiyaru's importance too has dwindled. The legendary poet-saint Thyagaraja penned many of his 7,000 compositions by the banks of this inspirational waterway. With sand filling our sandals, we find ourselves at his samadhi, close to the place where he lived in a one-room tenement near his beloved river.

The pilgrim town, with its ancient temple to Panchanadheeswarar (Shiva as the lord of five rivers, which flow past here, one of them being the Cauvery) or Aiyyaarappar, resounds with the revelry of Holi on the first night of the festival.

At the Amman temple festival near the bridge over the Cauvery, we watch in fascination as devotees undertake the fire-walking ritual, before we repair to the adjoining Diwan Wada for a concert. In the meantime, diyas flicker in the old pura koondu (dovecote), and in the night sky, Orion stands directly overhead while a full moon rains silver light upon us mortals enraptured with the music of Krishna's Temple Rock and the Filter Coffee Fusion Band, who perform from a raised platform under a spreading tree ablaze with green lights. Intermittently, the fireworks and patakas of the Holi revellers add their own interpretations to this rich repast.

The morning after, en route to Mangala, the heritage homestay in Thirupugalur where lunch awaits, we make a detour to the massive Thyagarajaswamy temple complex in Thiruvarur. The lively V.R. Devika, scholar extraordinaire of Tamil culture, who is taking us around, recalls a visit here when her friends and she found themselves surrounded by streams of frightened villagers taking shelter, and the boom of the tsunami at Nagapattinam shook the earth of Thiravarur from 20 kilometres away.

Mangala Heritage Retreat
Mangala Heritage RetreatTrip Advisor

The 6th-century Sri Agneeswarar Shiva temple, with its sacred tank, kisses the blue skies above the 800-strong village of Thirupugalur. The custard yellow walls of the verandah at the Mangala Heritage Home are a pleasing contrast to the surrounding foliage and the green gleam of the tank, a stone's throw across the road. Slipping off our shoes, we enter the cool interiors of the inner courtyard and sink against the cushions to dig into a traditional Tamil lunch served on banana leaves in the wraparound verandah. A discreet, satisfied burp acknowledges the simple but delicious meal whipped up in the kitchen by a smiling Mani, the local village woman who comes in to cook.

The evening finds us gathered once more by the banks of the Cauvery in Thiruvaiyaru. The setting sun reflects kindly on its greatly depleted flow. Hundreds of students from schools and colleges, the local bureaucracy and temple administrators, have been roped in to clean up the riverside near the Kalyan Mahal Ghat there are plans to make this an ongoing process. As we watch the reflection of the floodlights bounce off the Cauvery's waters, 45 Manganiyar musicians tune up their instruments, on the opposite bank from where we are seated, to transport us from the Cauvery's sands to the desert sands of Rajasthan. Our last evening is spent at one of the many mandapams of the Panchanadeeswarar temple, where Guru Kadri Gopalnath treats his rapt audience to Carnatic music on a sax.

Nothing beats the taste of a traditional filter kapi
Nothing beats the taste of a traditional filter kapiWikimedia Commons

The next morning, I'm back at Mangala for a more leisurely sojourn. It's a rural idyll for writers and artists, but also perfect for a gathering of family and friends who want a taste of the Tamil countryside. Discovered by chance, this traditional Tamil village home has been transformed by Ranvir. There are five air-conditioned guestrooms, which are roomy and, simply furnished, with modern loos featuring hand-beaten brass washbasins crafted in Pune. Natural light finds its course throughout the house. Near dinnertime, I slip into the kitchen and teach Mani how to make homemade paneer, cooked Punjabi style. Later, she smilingly sees me off to bed with a thimble of filter kapi.

Early the next morning, I greet the ancient woman who comes in from the village to draw the kolams around the house. All is quiet except for birdsong and the clatter of the breakfast dishes. Mangala doesn't feel like a tourist trap guest house. Rather, it melds in beautifully with its natural surrounds. Its ambience is one of rural Tamil comforts, vegetarian home cooking, and the sounds of silence. For the restless, the lovely seaside retreat of Tranquebar is just 40 minutes away. The museum in the Dutch fort here transports me to a world of sailing ships and local rajas. Before dawn, we can hurtle to Nagore, 10 kilometres away, to watch fishermen pulling in the night's catch. It's just another day in this lovely corner of the world.

The Information

Getting There 

Tiruchi's international airport is about 60km from Thanjavur. Several trains, both day and night, connect Thanjavur directly to Chennai.

Where To Stay

The conveniently located Hotel Gnanam (www.hotelgnanam.com) is a decent place to stay, with helpful staff, and tidy rooms and bathrooms. Dune Eco Group's Tanjore Hi (www.duneecogroup.com), situated near the palace, is a quirky alternative with charming interiors and mixed reviews. Tariff for an AC Deluxe room here is INR 3,950.

What To See And Do

The Thanjavur delta is home to one of the finest collection of temples in the world, three of which are Unesco heritage sites (the Big Temple, Gangaikondacholapuram, and Darasuram). The city of Thanjavur is a good place from which to explore the region nearly all villages and towns in the delta can be reached in less than two hours on good roads with excellent connectivity by frequent buses.

This article is from our archives. It was first published in July 2015.

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