Like the classical civilisations whose golden ages we celebrate, the Thanjavur valley has shown how prosperity fuels high art, but here good living has also led to right living. In this season, after plentiful rains, the legacy of ancient good governance is particularly visible, in the tanks and the wells and the Chola-era Grand Anicut Canal that make the most of the five fingers of the Cauvery River. The fields are all planted with rice, some just germinating and some yellowed and ready for harvest, and elsewhere the sacred grain is being dried on the roads.
The day after Pongal, some families are continuing their rice worship, making little balls to feed the crows before cooking three types of rice for lunch again. In the afternoon the cows will be washed in the river and their horns painted afresh. They will be hung with garlands and marked with a tilakam before being shown to the gods at night.
I get into a wide-bodied, large-windowed bus that would please the Chola kings, distracted by the fragrances from a flower seller in my wake, and prepare for a ride into the heartland. The driver puts on ‘Poomaalayil Ormalligai’ (a jasmine in the garland says I am the nectar ...), stirring the hairs on my scalp and perhaps a long-diluted race memory in my blood. Having squirmed out responses to “You are originally from which place?” all my footloose life, I would claim an ancestral toehold in Thanjavur if I dared, but its reputation rises sheer and formidable against such presumption. The people here are learned, well-spoken, musical, discriminating, and capable of unstinting but just criticism. Or, depending on your point of view, they hold their noses in the air and make a virtue of having lived here always.
But continuity, after all, is the essence of Thanjavur culture. The Chola, Nayak and Maratha rulers who used it as their capital gained and lost territory, picked up and dropped alliances, but their devotion to the arts was faithful.
Every year, the hamlet of Thiruvaiyaru, 15km outside Thanjavur town, buzzes with preparations for the Thyagaraja Aradhana, a musical homage started by aged disciples of the 18th-century composer-saint. The devadasi Bangalore Nagaratnammal started an alternative festival in the 1920s to accommodate women performers and others who were in those days not allowed on the main stage. By 1940, the two events merged and this is the 159th year of the Aradhana. The music Thyagaraja composed crowned centuries of bhakti poetry that gradually acquired a system and a grammar, the whole process sheltered and sustained by generous kings.
The composer’s house is rubble, but the musical ethos of the place lives on. On the same street, students stop at their teacher’s house to seek a blessing before singing the inaugural song at the Aradhana. The white-haired musician sits in a vast, arched hall supported by fat Nayak pillars and furnished with the barest essentials. He discusses matters musical and administrative with a friend. As his guests move on to the festival tent on the sands of the Cauvery, he voices a soft lament for the Utsava sampradaya kirtanais of Thyagaraja, which he rarely hears these days.
Music flows around the bathing, cooking and telephone- answering at the home of Professor R. Kausalya, principal of Thiruvaiyaru’s music college, scholar of Tamil, documenter of folk arts, and all-purpose source of cultural history. While a patient student waits to continue a veena lesson begun two hours ago, a neighbour drops in for an earful of Mohana ragam from a visiting niece.
On this inaugural day, silks and diamonds are less evident than the spirit of homage. Everyone sits on the bare sand here, the VIPs up front but as sandy as the rest. The locals own the festival and yes, they take it for granted, coming as they are, answering calls on their cellphones, feeding their infants dinner from a dabba. While the main artiste sings, the percussionist winks at his granddaughter, who is making funny faces at him. Neighbours catch up on chitchat and talk of who showed up and who didn’t. But the atmosphere is far from casual, and musicians actively seek to perform here. N. ‘Manna’ Srinivasan, talent-spotter, music critic, and Aradhana regular since his childhood, says this festival “has come to represent the state of the art of Carnatic music”. He also talks feelingly of the vibrations of the place, before shooting off to catch up with the eminent mridangam artiste who just gave a speech on the subject of continuity.
The more obvious monument to continuity stands in the heart of Thanjavur town, enclosed by high walls and a moat. The Brihadeeswara temple is a thousand and two years old. Originally called Rajarajeswaram, it was built in six years under the supervision of Chola emperor Raja Raja I. The emperor endowed it with lands for income, as well as 400 dancing girls, 100 instrumentalists, 50 hymn singers, Tamil and Sanskrit musicians, and actors of Sanskrit drama, according to the Old Tamil inscriptions at the base of the temple walls. He roped in his ministers, his army and his villagers to maintain it all. But many of the ornamental carvings were left unfinished when the emperor died. Centuries later, the Pandyas added the Devi shrine and Nayak rulers added several others, including the gigantic Nandi, variously described as the largest, second largest, third largest, and one of the largest in India. The Marathas added a Ganapati and tinkered with some steps. They all painted the walls lavishly. The sculptures of the Cholas are a dialectic of restraint and power. The monolith dwarapalakas hold up one finger to show that devotees are to leave behind other thoughts as they enter and keep their minds on Shiva. Most of the figures are prayerful, and it is the lord who dances. Inside the upper story of the sanctum are sculpted 108 dance poses of Shiva, visible for centuries only to the dancing girls who tossed down flowers from here and the kings who patronised them. Now they are reproduced and displayed in the temple’s museum, as are the enchanting Chola frescoes that were hidden from the public first by Nayak paintings and then by authorities concerned about their deteriorating state.
More parts of the Nayak palace in the old town are now open to public view. A royal museum has been added to the many sights here, but the most impressive of sights is still the Art Gallery’s superb collection of over 300 Chola bronzes and stone sculptures. Curator S. Venkatraman recounts the origins of the gallery. When a visiting curator of a Calcutta museum sought permission to acquire a 12th-century stone Brahma he found lying around, the locals strenuously objected. The collector of Thanjavur then worked to start a gallery in the town, in which such finds could be preserved and displayed. Many of the artefacts here were donated by temples, but many were brought in by people who unearthed idols when digging wells and foundations.
Everyone here seems to be a curator of something. K. Raju, a dadari, stops at each house after Pongal to collect a small baksheesh and give a blessing in turn. The dadans are “appointed by the gods,” he says, to sing throughout the night in the streets during the Tamil month of Margazhi to drive away evil spirits. They accompany themselves on a small gong, beat a rhythm on a dasarithappattai and blow a conch. Raju says he has a day job ringing bells at temples and he also acts in street theatre, but he hopes to pass on his real vocation to his grandson.
A hardy fossil is the Thanjavur veena, an instrument little changed since ancient times. It is a vexatious medium of music, dropping its sruti with every change in the breeze. Getting a fluent melody out of it takes years of practice, and purists demand that it should sound as smooth as the human voice. Such melodies are heard, usually in closed rooms rather than in concert halls, and sometimes you can hear the voice of God.
The proper way to buy a veena is to place an order in Thanjavur and come back after a month. P. Jagadeesan is a fifth-generation veena-maker in a lane off South Main Street. He and his brother do the carving, drying out and assembling themselves, and all the finishing work of laying the wax base and the brass frets, even to the carving of the dragon’s face at the end. Jagadeesan can also repair any kind of damage at all and has restored many long-neglected veenas and tampuras.
One family on Varagappiar Lane off West Main Street has preserved the Pattabhirama idol worshipped by Thyagaraja himself in the 18th century. Some years ago a posse of famous musicians offered to build a suitable temple for it, but the family declined to hand over their sacred charge. Rama will survive quite well on the same kanji that we drink, they said.
By air: Thanjavur has no airport. The nearest is in Tiruchirappalli (54km/1.5hr). Indian Airlines flies to Trichy from Chennai (fares begin at Rs 1,765); Thiruvananthapuram (from Rs 1,765); and Kozhikode (from Rs 1,875).
By rail: There are few direct train connections to Thanjavur, unless you’re travelling from Chennai, in which case take the overnight Rockfort Express from Egmore station (Rs 744 on 2A).
Where to stay
The best stay option in terms of service, location and economy is Hotel Gnanam (04362-278501, Rs 600-2,250), but book early. The costlier Hotel Oriental Towers (Rs 1,100-2,700; 230850, 231467, www.hotelorientaltowers.com) has more rooms but poor service. TTDC’s Hotel Tamilnadu is a bit tatty, but it’s centrally located and rooms are large (AC rooms for Rs 550; 231325).Upmarket options further away from the temple are Sangam (236695, Rs 1,800-2,900) and Hotel Parisutham (Rs 1,700-5,400; 231801, www.hotelparisutham.com).
Where to eat
Thanjavur has excellent vegetarian and non-vegetarian eating options. On Gandhiji Road, have vegetarian meals at Ananda Bhavan. Swagath is good for mutton fry and parottas. Outstanding coffee is to be had at the Coffee Palace (on Eliamman Kovil Street), and at New Coffee Palace (Kasi Kadai Street). Most of the hotels listed earlier have reliable restaurants.
What to see & do
The Brihadeeswara temple and its newly renovated and expanded museum are stunning. Catch a guide at the east gate (Rs 150 and up).
In the Palace complex nearby are several places of interest, including the Art Gallery with a stunning collection of bronzes and stone sculptures (Rs 5 adults, Rs 2 children, 9am-1pm, 3-6pm) and the Sarasvati Mahal Library (entry free, 10am-1pm, 1.30-5.30pm; www.sarasvatimahallibrary.com).
Visit R. Govindarajan, on Kuthiraikatti Street, who has a house full of antiques and collectibles from the area; and Swaminathan’s, opposite Thanga Sarada Nursing Home, to see the craft of Tanjore paintings
The Thyagaraja Aradhana is held in the third week of January in Thiruvaiyaru (15km from Thanjavur). Entry is free and the ride offers lovely views of the Cauvery.