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City Focus: Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu

Just like Chhatrapati Shivaji for Marathas, Akbar for Mughals and Krishna Devaraya for Vijayanagara, the rule of Rajaraja Chozhan is considered to be a golden period for Tamil Nadu’s Chozha empire (also spelt as Chola empire). Thanjavur or Tanjore was the capital of the Chozhas for a long time and it flourished particularly during the rule of Rajaraja Chozhan. After a short period of uncertainty, the city underwent another cultural renaissance during the rule of the Maratha king Serfoji II. While Rajaraja Chozhan’s time was good for Tamil literature and Chozha architecture, Sanskrit was the main focus of Serfoji II.

Let’s learn more about one of India’s most ancient cities.

Geography of Thanjavur

Thanjavur is the headquarters of the district of the same name. The city is to the south of the five rivers that diverge from Cauvery river to the east of India’s oldest dam — Kallanai or Grand Anicut. The rivers are Kollidam, Cauvery itself, Kudamurutti, Kuruvadi and Vennar. The southern-most of the five, Vennar river is the closest to Thanjavur city.

Thus Thanjavur is part of a very fertile plain. Along with neighbouring Trichy (Thiruchirapally) district, Thanjavur district is one of the biggest contributors to Tamil Nadu’s agriculture sector. For this, both the districts have Cauvery river system to thank.

The land around Thanjavur is flat and one can see no hills or even undulations for several kilometres.

People of Thanjavur

The majority of Thanjavur city is populated by Tamil-speaking Hindus, mainly belonging to the Paraiyar and Vanniyar castes. Most of the people are employed in agriculture, government jobs, medicine, teaching and in private industries that mostly cater to agriculture, such as production of fertilisers, production of irrigation pipes, sugar extraction, husking, etc.

A small section of people in Thanjavur city are descendents of the Maratha rulers and their subjects. While fluent in Tamil, among their own they speak a dialect of Marathi which sounds significantly different from the one spoken in Maharashtra, north Goa and north Karnataka. But because of this option, several contractors from Maharashtra take up temporary work in Thanjavur.

Here are the best places to see in Thanjavur city.

Brihadeeshwara temple

Brihadeeshwara temple is the crowning glory of Thanjavur. It is one of the largest temples in India. The temple is one of the main reasons for Thanjavur to flourish as a tourist centre in Tamil Nadu. Brihadeeshwara temple is a UNESCO world heritage structure.

Brihadheeshwara temple

The temple was built during the time of Chozha emperor considered to be the greatest in the dynasty — Rajaraja Chozhan. The temple is also referred to as Rajarajeshwaram. The temple was finished in 1010 AD.

The vimana (main dome) of the temple is an extremely tall 16-storey tapering structure reaching a height of  66 metres (220 feet). The base of the vimana sits on an massive 30 sqm or 100 sqft base. Inside the vimana is the largest monolithic Shiva Linga in the world, measuring 8.7 metres (29 feet) in height. Hence the name Brihadeeshwara (the huge Lord).

The temple sits on a massive courtyard, thus making it the largest temple complex including only temple facilities, in the world. It ranks second behind Srirangam temple of Trichy in terms of area inside temple perimeter, but Srirangam includes the town and the residential area itself inside the temple gates.

Please note that similar to many major Tamil Nadu temples, the main sanctum is closed to public for darshan from 12 pm to 4 pm. So plan a visit either in the morning or in the evening. The temple gates and the courtyard complex remain open during those 4 hours.

Thanjavur palace

Thanjavur palace is the palace of the Maratha kingdom that ruled Thanjavur. The palace was built during the rule of Venkoji, who started the southern Maratha kingdom. Venkoji was a half-brother (brother through another mother) of Chhatrapati Shivaji, the most influential Maratha ruler. After an uncertain period for the Marathas which including plenty of turmoil with the neighbouring kingdoms and foreign invaders, king Serfoji II signed a peace treaty with the British, that forfeited all of Marathas’s conquests to the British, except for Thanjavur district remained under Serfoji II. With peace restored, Thanjavur was able to focus on literature and art yet again, and was peaceful until the annexation by the British in 1800.

Inside Thanjavur palace

The period of peace was a good one for the palace, especially for the palace’s main highlight, the Saraswati Mahal. This is the royal library that has nearly 50,000 volumes, some of them older than 1000 years. The library has collections from the time when paper was not used as a medium. There are collections in palm leaves and papyrus. The majority of the collection is in Tamil, followed by Sanskrit. The rest are collections written in languages no longer used in India, such as Pali, Magadhi, etc.

Saraswati Mahal library inside Thanjavur palace

Besides the library, the palace has other points of interest, such as the durbar hall with a statue of Serfoji II, open terraces, a central courtyard and a couple of museums. The museums show traditional Thanjavur artefacts such as the Thanjavur dancing doll and Thanjavur decorative plate.

A Thanjavur dancing doll. The neck keeps moving from side to side.

Mani Mandapam

Rajaraja Chozhan Manimandapam, which is also Rajaraja Chozhan museum

Towards the southern end of the city is a triangular park with a tower dedicated to Rajaraja Chozhan. The tower is 5 storeys high and tapering. The park itself has a statue of Rajaraja Chozhan sitting on a prancing horse. At the base of the tower is a museum showcasing Chozha architecture and their lineage.

Also around Thanjavur

It takes a complete sight-seeing day or even two to explore the Brihadeeshwara temple, Maratha palace and Mani Mandapam. But while you are staying at Thanjavur, you can take the opportunity to see some other places of interest, all of them within 50 km of Thanjavur, but in various directions.

Kallanai / Grand Anicut: is India’s first dam built on a river. The dam was built with stones during the time of Karikaalan Chozhan, the king who ruled the dynasty around 0 AD. The dam was built using the strength of several elephants.

Grand Anicut, one of the world’s first dams.

The dam is on the highway between Thanjavur and Trichy. So if you are headed to Thanjavur from Trichy (like we were), then you get to see this dam before reaching Thanjavur.

Thiruvaiyyaru: The name Thiruvaiyyaru can be broken down as ‘Thiru ai aaru’, which means the ‘five holy rivers’ in Tamil. Read the geography section of this post to learn more about the 5 rivers. This village itself is famous as the town where the Carnatic song composer Thyagaraja sat by the Vennar river and wrote Telugu songs mostly as a devotee of Lord Rama. Every year on Thyagaraja’s birthday as per the Hindu calendar, Carnatic music’s most famous practitioners assemble at the hall of what was once Thyagaraja’s house and recite the songs composed by him. These songs are referred to as ‘Kriti’s.

Swami Malai: On the highway between Thanjavur and Kumbakkonam, just 8 km before the latter, is the temple of Swami Malai, a temple dedicated to Lord Murugan. Swami Malai is one of the six ‘Aruppadai Veedu’s or ‘the six abodes of the Lord’. An interesting thing to observe in Swami Malai is the sixty steps on the stair case that lead to the sanctum. Just like the Chinese calendar repeats in a cycle of twelve years, each year dedicated to an animal (e.g. the pig year, the dragon year, etc), the Tamil calendar repeats in a cycle of sixty years, with each year given a name. Each name repeats once every 60 years. One complete cycle involving sixty years is known as a ‘Sangamam’. In Tamil Nadu, a person who turns sixty is celebrated with a ceremony, since he/she has seen one complete Sangamam.

The Tamil Sangamam year names are written beside each step. From top to bottom in this photo are: Bramhadi, Vegudhanya, Ishwara, Naadhu, Yuva, Bhava and Shrimukha.

Kumbakkonam: is a city about 50 km from Thanjavur, known for its various temples. Almost every locality in the city has one major historic temple. The city was built during the time of Rajaraja Chozhan and several temples were later added by successive rulers. At the centre of the town is a pond called the Mahamahan tank, where a festival happens every 12 years. During this festival, people from around Tamil Nadu take a bath in the holy pond to wash off their sins.

Dharasuran: is a village near Kumbakkonam and is home to the Airawateshwara temple, another temple with Chozha architecture. Of particular interest in this temple is the staircase of seven tunes or the ‘Sapta Swara’. Tapping or stomping on the stairs makes sounds, each of them in tune with the Indian musical scale ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Ni’. Unfortunately, due to structural damage, these stairs have been fenced off and are now closed to public.

The musical steps, sadly fenced off from the public.

Thiruvarur: was the capital of the Chozha empire during the time of Kulothungan I. It is famous for the Thyagaraja temple, a Shiva temple. The holy trinity of Carnatic music, the three composers, Shyama Shastri, Thyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshithar, were all born in Thiruvarur. An annual temple chariot festival is held at Thiruvarur every April. The chariot is the largest and heaviest in Tamil Nadu.

Gangaikonda Chozhapuram: Rajendra Chozhan I defeated the Pala dynasty in present day Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. In victory, he collected some water from river Ganga. After his return, he constructed another Brihadeeshwara temple in a town about 70 km north-east of Thanjavur and to the north of Kollidam river, the northern-most of the five. The new temple was also called Brihadeeshwara temple, and the new town, that served as a capital, was named Gangaikonda Chozhapuram or ‘the town of the Chozha who won over Ganga’. Similar to Thanjavur temple, Gangaikonda Chozhapuram temple is also a UNESCO world heritage.

At Gangai Konda Cholapuram

Reaching Thanjavur city

Air: Thanjavur has an airstrip used by the Indian Air Force, but there are no commercial flights. The nearest airport is at Trichy with flights to major cities all over India, the most connected of them being Chennai and Bengaluru.

Rail: Thanjavur Jn is a railway station in the Southern Railway zone’s Trichy division, but is not on a frequently used route. There are two train routes on the route Chennai – Villupuram – Trichy – Madurai. One of them, the ‘main’ line is actually no longer the preferred route. Between Villupuram and Trichy on the main route, we come across several towns such as Neyveli, Chidambaram, Mayiladuthurai (Mayavaram), Kumbakkonam and Thanjavur before reaching Trichy. But because of dense population and the presence of several towns, the speed limit on the route is restricted.

Another route between Villupuram and Trichy is the the chord route, which is straighter, shorter and faster, with only one town, Virudhachalam on the way. Super fast express trains like Pandian Express, Vaigai Express, Duronto and Sampark Kranti prefer this route. The running time is two and a half hours shorter than the main route.

The main route, that passes through Thanjavur, is less favoured by the railways and used by slower trains and passengers. It’s advisable to check the train timetable to decide between a train that covers Thanjavur or rather a super-fast train from which you can alight at Trichy and take a bus to Thanjavur (40 km bus trip). The latter may actually save you time.

Road: Thanjavur is a major bus depot in Tamil Nadu. It is connected to all major cities, with the frequency of buses being particularly high for Trichy and Chennai. One can reach either of the two cities by air or rail and take a bus to Thanjavur.

Self-drive: If you are driving from the east of India, e.g. from north-eastern states, Assam, West Bengal, Odisha or Andhra Pradesh, then you should reach Chennai by joining the Kolkata – Bhubaneshwar – Vishakhapatnam – Rajahmundry – Vijayawada – Nellore – Guduru – Chennai coromandel route. Thereafter, you should use the GST (Grand State Trunk) highway via Chennai – Tindivanam – Villupuram – Ulundurpettai – Perambalur – Trichy highway. From Trichy, take the Trichy – Thanjavur highway.

If you are driving from Kerala, then take one of the following routes: Palghat – Coimbatore, Thrissur – Athirapally – Valparai – Pollachi – Coimbatore, Munnar – Theni – Dindigul. Trichy is about an hour from Dindigul, with both cities being part of Grand State Trunk Chennai – Madurai highway. From Coimbatore, you can use the Coimbatore – Tiruppur – Erode – Karur – Trichy highway. Having reached Trichy, you can drive to Thanjavur on the highway connecting the two cities.

From anywhere else in India, you should join the NH4, i.e. Mumbai – Pune – Satara – Kolhapur – Belagavi – Hubballi – Bengaluru – Hosur – Krishnagiri – Vellore – Kanchipuram – Chennai highway. E.g. People from north India / Delhi / Chandigarh can join at Pune or Mumbai. People from Karnataka can join at Hubballi or Bengaluru. The highway ends at Chennai, but you needn’t go there. Instead, take a detour from Hosur to take the following highways one by one: Hosur – Dharmapuri – Salem, Salem – Namakkal – Karur, Karur – Trichy, Trichy – Thanjavur.

Conclusion

Thanjavur is one of the most ancient cities in India, with its glorious days being during the rule of the Chozhas. After some turmoil, a second innings happened during the rule of the Marathas. Thanjavur continues to be an important city today, with high quality engineering and medical colleges and an Indian Army airstrip. But no other time was greater than the one with the Chozhas. You can travel back in time with just one look at the Brihadeeshwara temple.

Thematic Trips: Following the Cauvery river

While there are some really huge rivers in north India, such as Indus, Jhelum, Chenab and Beas, south India does not have perennial rivers or those with high volume of water all year long. Cauvery river is one such important river to both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Let’s take a tour of the river starting from its source at Tala Kaveri upto the point where it joins the sea — at two different places!

Tala Kaveri, Coorg, Karnataka

Stunning view of Mallalli waterfall, Coorg.

Chelavara waterfall, Coorg

Cauvery’s journey starts in the coffee district of Coorg in Karnataka. The monsoon brings heavy rain to the Western Ghats of Coorg. Several waterfalls such as Abbey, Mallalli and Chelavara can be found in the hills around Coorg’s headquarters Madikeri. All these waterfalls join forces to form the course of Cauvery river. Tala Kaveri is a Kshetra which is worshipped as the official source of river Cauvery as Kaveri Mata or Kaveri Devi.

Harangi dam, Coorg, Karnataka

Harangi dam, Coorg

Harangi dam, Coorg

Cauvery’s length is not even 10 km long before it is obstructed by a dam. Harangi dam near Kushalanagara in Coorg district is the first dam of several on the course of Cauvery river’s 800 km run to the Bay of Bengal. While Harangi is the first dam by distance from the source of the river, it is not chronologically the first dam to be built on Cauvery. That credit goes to a ancient dam built 2000 years ago in Tamil Nadu, possibly India’s first ever dam. Nor is Harangi the most celebrated dam on Cauvery. We’ll travel to the outskirts of Mysuru to see such as dam.

Nisargadhama, Coorg, Karnataka

The rope bridge that crosses the Cauvery river and gets us to Nisargadhama nature park, Coorg.

The rope bridge that crosses the Cauvery river and gets us to Nisargadhama nature park, Coorg.

On the southern bank of Cauvery, also near the town of Kushalanagara, is a nature park built by the government of Karnataka. This park is a green lung, nature trail, tourist centre, vacation stay (in cottages set up by Karnataka tourism), mini zoo and handicraft centre, all rolled into one. It is worth spending a day and a night in Nisargadhama.

Mysuru, Karnataka

A pelican sits at the top of a tree at Dr Salim Ali bird sanctuary, Ranganathittu near Mysuru

Brindavan gardens on the leeway of the Krishna Raja Sagara dam

Brindavan gardens on the leeway of the Krishna Raja Sagara dam

While the river does not flow right by Mysuru city, it is just 16 km away. Two points of interest can be found at the location where the Cauvery river comes as close to Mysuru city as possible. The first one is a township built around one of India’s largest and most important dams called the Krishna Raja Sagara, which has been functional from 1938. It was commissioned by the ruling Wodeyar monarch Krishna Raja Wodeyar, one of the most progressive rulers Mysuru has ever seen. On the leeway of the dam is one of India’s first and most expansive botanical gardens famous throughout India as the Brindavan gardens.

About 10 km downstream from the dam is one of India’s first river-side bird sanctuaries. It is called Dr Salim Ali bird sanctuary and is in Ranganathittu village. In this sanctuary, one can take a boat ride to see various birds like cranes, cormorants, storks and even pelicans. Besides, you can see an occasional crocodile swimming in the river, so don’t stick your hand into the water.

You can read more about touring around Mysuru city in the post: City Focus: Mysuru, Karnataka.

Srirangapatana, Karnataka

Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple at Srirangapatana

Sri Ranganatha Swamy temple at Srirangapatana

Outside Mysuru, the river on its west-to-east course splits around an island and then rejoins at the east of the island. This is not an unknown island. For several centuries, the island has been hosting an important temple for Vishnu devotees of south India. It also served as an Agrahara or a learning / publishing centre for Vaishnavite Hindu literature. The temple is home to Lord Ranganatha Swamy. The island is hence named Sri Ranga Patana or the ‘city of Sri Ranga’. For a brief period in history, between the middle and the end of the 18th century, the town lost its Vaishnavite identity. Muslim rulers Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan took over Srirangapatana and made it their capital. Along came a Jama Masjid, a palace complex, Mughal-style gardens and Muslim mausoleums. The Muslim supremacy ended with the death of Tipu Sultan in 1799 and the town was annexed by the British, who mispronounced it as Seringapatna. The combination of Mysuru and Srirangapatana became an important military advantage for the British to pick off and defeat all the princely states along the bank of Cauvery, all the way upto Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.

A history of Srirangapatana during the rule of Tipu Sultan has been described in the post: Revisiting history: Tipu Sultan.

Somanathapura and Talakkad, Karnataka

Pataleshwara temple at Talakad. This temple sunk under the silt deposited by the Cauvery river when it changed course and flooded. The villagers believe that it was due to a curse.

Pataleshwara temple at Talakad. This temple sunk under the silt deposited by the Cauvery river when it changed course and flooded. It was later excavated. The villagers believe that the sinking was due to a curse. Pataleshwara in Sanskirt means the ‘Lord of the world under the ground’.

These are two villages on the bank of Cauvery in Karnataka’s Mysuru district, where the different dynasties built temple complexes. While Somanathapura’s Chennakeshava temple is typical of Hoysalas, Talakkad has a unique story. Talakkad is said to have had 30 temples, but many of them were swallowed and buried by the Cauvery river when it changed course and caused floods. Archeologists are still excavating and discovering new temples in the area.

Shivanasamudra falls, Karnataka

Bharachukki waterfall, Shivanasamudra

Gaganachukki waterfall, Shivanasamudra

If you want to see the equivalent of Niagara falls in India, then look no further than the Shivanasamudra group of falls halfway between Mysuru and Bengaluru. There are waterfalls at two locations and they are called Gaganachukki and Bharachukki. The Gaganachukki falls also drive a hydroelectric project that powers Bengaluru city. Beyond this point, the river turns to take a north-south flow instead of west-east.

Hogenakkal, Tamil Nadu

Cauvery river plunges into the gorge at Hogenakkal

Between Chamarajapuram district of Karnataka and Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, the Cauvery river forms a natural border and flows calmly for a while before it plunges into a lengthy gorge from all sides. The gorge is in the village of Hogenakkal in Tamil Nadu. While the plunge is violent during monsoon, it softens during the winter and summer months, allowing you to take a coracle ride along the length of the gorge while the river streams in from all the sides.

Mettur, Tamil Nadu

Bridge over Cauvery river at Mettur

Bridge over Cauvery river at Mettur

A view of Mettur dam

South of Hogenakkal, in the district of Erode is the village of Mettur, where we see the third dam on Cauvery river. This dam is built at the area where the Cauvery river’s course broadens significantly after getting fed by the waters from the streams of the mountains bordering Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. These mountains belong to the eastern Ghats.

Erode, Tamil Nadu

Erode is an industrial town that has grown around the Cauvery river, with the urban area situated on the western bank of the river. In Erode district, there are several temples on the banks of the Cauvery river.

On the eastern bank of the river across Erode town is the Seshasayee Paper mill, a factory that has been a pioneer in the manufacture of paper & paper products since the 1930s. Due to the presence of Cauvery river and the abundance of wood, it was easy to set up a factory that processed paper right from pulp to finished products at the same location.

From Erode, the river once again takes a west-east flow, continuing in that direction upto the sea.

Tiruchirapally, aka Trichy, Tamil Nadu

A view of Trichy from the top of Rock Fort. The two bridges are over the Cauvery river.

The capital of the Pallava dynasty has always had Cauvery river close to its heart. Trichy is spread towards the southern bank of the river. Near the bank is a small hill with a hill top fort. The hill fort is called Rock Fort. It has many historic temples all the way from the base to the peak. One can get a complete view of Trichy city and the Cauvery river from the top of Rock fort. The British used the geographical advantage of Trichy to set it up as an industrial and educational hub. Highways and railways were developed. Even today, companies like BHEL and institutions like NIT flourish in Trichy.

Srirangam, Tamil Nadu

Inside Ranganathar temple, Srirangam

Very similar to Karnataka, the river splits around an island in Tamil Nadu too. The distributary to the north of the island receives a new name: Kollidam or Cooleron. Guess what! There is a famous Ranganathaswamy temple on the island. The temple is called the Sri Ranganathar temple and the island is named Srirangam. Deja vu! Just like Mysuru is a big city to the southern bank of the river across the island of Srirangapatana, Trichy is a big city to the southern bank of the river across the island of Srirangam. Double deja vu! Want more deja vu? Krishna Raja Sagara is a dam near the twin cities of Mysuru – Srirangapatana. Yes, there is a dam near the twin cities of Trichy – Srirangam too. But that’s where the similarities stop. KRS is a modern dam built by a 20th century ruler and with 20th century engineering. Not so for the dam near Trichy, which is 2000 years old. Read the next section to know more.

Kallanai / Grand Anicut, Tamil Nadu

Grand Anicut, one of the world’s first dams.

The Cauvery river swerves around the island of Srirangam to rejoin into a single course. But 2000 years ago, a forward-thinking king from the region’s Chozha dynasty, Karikala Chozhan, wanted some of the water from the northern tributary, Kollidam, to maintain its original course for irrigating the fields to the north of the river. Using the power of elephants, a bank of stones with wide sluices was built to retain some of the water as a seperate river, while the rest of the water was allowed to rejoin Cauvery through narrow sluices. Kallanai was a state-of-the-art dam for the time. In the 19th century, the British noticed changes in the course of the river and some ineffectiveness in the original dam in channelling water to the Kollidam branch. The plan was updated and fresh dam gates were built on top of the original dam. The British made sure that they preserved the original 2000-year old dam in the process. Today you can seen the 2 millenia old bunds along with the modern dam from the road on top of the dam. The road connects the city of Trichy to the Chozha capital city of Thanjavur.

Thanjavur district, Tamil Nadu

Brihadheeshwara temple, Thanjavur

Brihadheeshwara temple, Thanjavur

Thanjavur city and some towns around Thanjavur flourished under the Chozha dynasty, especially Rajaraja Chozhan and Rajendra Chozhan. Thanjavur’s Brihadeeshwara temple, the temples of Kumbakkonam, Gangaikondachozhapuram, the Chidambaram Thillai Nataraja temple and the Thivarur temple were all built under the patronage of the Chozhas. Lesser known in the district is the village of Thiruvaiyar on the southern bank of the river, where Telugu composer Thyagaraja wrote most of his work and was also buried. The most famous Carnatic music singers assemble at Thiruvaiyar on his birthday and recite his works in a huge assembly hall.

Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu

Chidambaram Nataraja temple campus

Chidambaram is not directly on the bank of the Kollidam river, but it isn’t very far. This town is the home of Lord Nataraja or Nata Raja, the king of dance. In the temple you can see the murals of the 108 steps of Shiva Tandava. The priests are this temple are a specific sect of Brahmins called the Dikshitars or Dixits.

Poompuhar, Tamil Nadu

The southern branch of the Cauvery river, still named the Cauvery, flows into the sea at the ancient port of Poompuhar. Poompuhar used to be the port for Chozha rulers, from where they sailed into south east Asia and established territory in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. You can still see the old structures at Poompuhar. But the majority of the glorious port has been swallowed by the sea.

Pichavaram, Tamil Nadu

South-east of Chidambaram are the mangroves of Pichavaram. The Kollidam river splits into several distributaries, all seeking the sea. The deltas between the distributaries are home to several species of mangroves, bird life and marine life. One can take a boat around the islets of Pichavaram, seeking migratory birds and sholes of aquatic life. Beyond Pichavaram, the various distributaries and rivulets join the Bay of Bengal.

Conclusion

Any major river in the world creates an entire ecosystem and gives rise to civilisations wherever it flows. Cauvery is no different, creating an ecosystem and supporting several civilisations like the Kodavas, Pallavas and Chozhas. As with all major rivers, Cauvery has suffered at the hands of industrialisation and pathetic waste management. But following the river from the forests of Coorg to the mangroves of Pichavaram and parallely through the ancient commercial port of Poompuhar is a fascinating experience.