For a city steeped in the legacy of the Chola and Nayak kings of southern India, it is difficult to believe that it was also a Maratha kingdom. Hence this relatively modern history of Thanjavur (formerly Tanjore) is still a surprise to most.
Thanjavur (formerly Tanjore) located in the heart of Tamil Nadu, is best known for its 11th century Brihadeeswara Temple–inscribed in UNESCO World Heritage Site’s Great Living Chola Temples, and the legacy of Chola bronze sculptures. But located to the north of the temple is a palace complex–known variously as Aranmanai, Thanjavur Palace, Thanjavur Maratha Palace–which is mostly neglected or seen at a rush.
The Marathas ruled Thanjavur between 1676 (when Chhatrapati Shivaji’s half-brother Venkoji Bhosle or Ekoji occupied the kingdom) and 1855 (when Lord Dalhousie annexed the kingdom under the Doctrine of Lapse). Although built by the Nayak rulers in the 16th century, the Thanjavur Palace, lying to the north of the Brihadeeswara Temple, became the official residence of the Bhosle rulers, who expanded the then existing palace. There are several buildings within the complex, most of which have been renovated, and converted to museums and galleries.
The multi-storeyed Arsenal Tower or Indhira Mandhiram is 190 feet high. It is said that the Nayak kings used to sleep here, changing rooms frequently, as a safety measure. The Maratha rulers chose to make it their armoury and watch tower.
Now called the Bell Tower, the Madangopala Vilasa Mandiram of the Nayak rulers was a site where poets and other literary scholars met to discuss. According to some records, there used to be a clock at the top where a toy monkey used to sound the gong. Usually, visitors are allowed to go up to the top for an aerial view of the complex.
One of the most spectacular displays of art can be seen in the Durbar Hall. Adorned with pillars and arches, the hall was decorated with painted stucco images of divinities. Reminiscent of the Tanjore paintings, which gained prominence under the Nayak rulers, it became more colourful in the hands of the Marathas.
There is a gallery which displays some of the finest Chola bronzes. A statue of Maratha ruler Serfoji II stands in the middle of the hall. It is to him that the Saraswathy Mahal (also called Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji's Saraswathi Mahal Library) owes the majority of its collection.
If you do not have enough time on hand to explore the entire palace complex, the library is a must see. This too was started by the Nayak rulers and further enriched by the Maratha rulers. Here too you will find some interesting colourful art on the façade and inside. One of the oldest libraries in the country, it contains many rare palm leaf manuscripts and books among other things.
Note: There are three different tickets to see the various museums and galleries inside the complex. Some of the galleries do not allow photography and those that do usually charge a fee. If you intend to see the entire palace, it is advisable to seek directions or refer to the map. Carry drinking water. Usually the palace complex remains open between 10am and 6pm, with a lunch break in between. However, post COVID-19, timings may vary; so it is better to check with the Tamil Nadu tourism department for the latest details before planning your visit.