2015. Chennai floods. Ruthless rains devastated Singara Chennai. Routine life came to a stand sill with roads flooded with water; the city blacked out with irresolute power cuts and the consequent crisis due to ceased mobility and communication of people with external world. While this was truly dispiriting, there were so many heart warming things that transpired then which made the suffering look less painful; reaffirmed the existence of humanity and proved once again the strength of unity to the world. One such phenomenal thing that happened which will remain fresh in our memory forever is the way the people of Chennai came together to restore, revive and rebuild the city they love the most. It leaves me with goosebumps even at the very thought of it, every single time! If you wonder why do I talk about Chennai floods in a post about Thanjavur Palace; I have a reason for it. Allow me a minute to let you connect the dots.
One of the jokes that was circulating in social media during the time of Chennai floods went like a family man expressing his feelings, “Three days of power cut. No cell phones. No Television. With water clogged roads, no scope to venture out. Was forced to stay at home. Happened to have heartfelt conversations with the lady at home. She indeed is super interesting!”. While this was just a joke, we cannot wither away the wisdom that the wisecrack is meant to convey. Yes, as humans we tend to overlook the value of everyday things and the people around us and start missing them when they have gone too far from us.
Palace grounds, which is located close to the Thanjavur palace is the place I had visited on almost every single day for two continuous years during my higher secondary school days. But in all honesty, I neither had a strong desire to go and explore what is inside the palace complex nor did I allow myself perceive the beauty of the palace, its vibrant paintings, the priceless things of the past that the art gallery featured and the treasured knowledge collections that the Saraswathy Mahal Library possessed. So much so I missed my home town that during my recent visit to my native town, Thanjavur, I decided to experience the places like a first time traveller and visited the places like an enthusiastic tourist, listened to the stories with a twinkle in eyes as if I’m listening them for the first time and clicked pictures like a passionate travel photographer. At the end of it I have to admit that I have fallen in love with the rich heritage of my place far deeply than ever before!
The Thanjavur Maratha Palace which is located in the Aranmanai (Aranmani means Palace in local language) complex, features the residence of the Bhonsle family who ruled the princely state of Thanjavur between 1674 and 1855 AD. The palace was originally built by the Nayakas as a fort, with the name Sivagangai Fort and was taken over by the Marathas after their victory over Nayakas during the period of Venkoji Bhosle, half brother of Shivaji. If the word “palace” sets your mind with an expectation similar to the vast architectural grandiose of Rajasthan palaces, you are sure to be disappointed. Let me say it once again that this was built not as a palace but as a fort by Nayakas which was later refurbished into a palace by the Marathas.
The palace complex features the following attractions,
- Saraswathi Mahal Library
- The Royal Palace Museum
- Serfoji Memorial Hall
- Darbar Hall
- Art Gallery/ Arsenal Tower
- Bell Tower
- Sangeetha Mahal
- Sarjah Madi
The ticket you buy at the entrance will be good enough to cover all the attractions except for #2 and #3. However, separate tickets (for very minimal charges) have to be bought at the entrance of Royal Palace Museum which features the collections of old coins, kitchen utensils, weapons, old trunks and musical instruments and at the entrance of Serfoji Memorial Hall which also features artifacts, photographs, paintings and weapons of the past maintained in a mini museum kind of set up; thankfully these are in a better condition as opposed to the ones in Royal Palace museum . The main ticket has to be kept safe for it will be checked at the entrances of each of the places within the palace complex.
Once you come back to the entrance of Serfoji Memorial Hall after taking a glance at the museum exhibits, you will stumble upon the entrance to the Maratha Darbar Hall. The Maratha Darbar hall with a vast courtyard hallmarks an interesting combination of art and architecture. The tall pillars supporting the roof plus the vibrant paintings on the walls and ceilings with the splendid stucco figures and sculptures are quite captivating. The corridor of the Darbar Hall features some of the sculptures of past centuries rescued and preserved by archeology department. It is interesting to observe, compare, contrast and study, how time had an impact on the style of art and craft.
Next comes the Saraswathi Mahal Library. Thanks to the interests of Raja Serfoji towards literature and art, the library features more than 65,000 books and 50,000 palm leaf manuscripts in Indian and European languages. Photography is not allowed inside the Saraswathi Mahal Library museum, nonetheless there are quite a few interesting manuscripts, atlases, portraits of Maratha Kings, various forms of paintings like glass painting, wooden painting, mural painting, Thanjavur style painting, physiognomy charts of Charles Le-burn, etc, which you can capture with your natural pair of lenses. There is an audio visual show with duration of twenty five to thirty minutes, screened at every hour on all working days in an AV room inside the library. This documentary movie apart from explaining the history of Thanjavur also gives a lot of information about the places to see around Thanjavur for a curious traveller.
The building next to the library which has the pyramidal shaped tower is the Art Gallery and the tower of the building is called the Arsenal tower. The tower is 192 feet tall with eight floors and it is said that the Nayakas initially constructed the building with only two floors and the Marathas later extended it to eight floors. But essentially both the rulers used the place for the same purpose, to store arms and ammunition and also to train the people on martial arts.
The art gallery has a Darbar Hall with the statue of Raja Serfoji and features weapons, coins, copper and brass idols and preserved sculptures of the past. There is also the skeleton of a blue whale kept at the first floor of the building which was supposed to be that of a dead whale that got washed ashore at Tharangambadi beach on 26th Feb 1955. The most fascinating part of the art gallery personally to me was the Nataraja room where we get to see the bronze statues of the God of Dance from various centuries. It was quite a wholesome experience to have visually perceived and reflected in mind, how the art forms transcended from one century to another.
Adjacent to the art gallery/ arsenal tower stands a seven storeyed rectangular shaped building. This is called Bell Tower or Madamaaligai. It is said that the bell tower had even more number of floors in the past which got destroyed over the decades and it hosted a mechanical bell which rung every hour and so it was also called Mani Gopuram meaning clock tower in Tamil.
Opposite to the art gallery is Sangeetha Mahal which has the legacy from the days of kings for being the place where all the music and dance events take place. The acoustic features of the Hall and the stage dimensions are believed to be so perfect that it continues to be most sought after venue for dance programmes at Thanjavur till date. The first floor of the Sangeetha Mahal has an exhibition cum sales running on all days except Wednesdays where one could buy various handicrafts of Thanjavur like Thalaiyatti Bommais (the famous roly polly dolls of Thanjavur), Dancing Dolls, Thanjavur art plates, Thanjavur paintings, Navratri Golu dolls and many other hand made arts and crafts.
Thanjavur, being an UNESCO world heritage site, there is a light and sound show in the evening which is played only when there are adequate audience to consume it. You need at least five number of persons to ask the library admins to play the show for you. I would highly recommend this show to Tamil speaking audience for I have had the opportunity to watch similar shows outside Tamil Nadu at other UNESCO sites. But the one I watched at Thanjavur is by far the best because of the excellent story telling coupled with dialogues, Carnatic and Bharatanatyam music. It gives you a feeling of having listened to a marvellous historical period drama.
All in all, the Thanjavur Maratha Palace may not entice the casual tourists as there are no cosmetic aspects at the place but sure is a place of treasure for history lovers and art admirers.
- If you would like to see, observe, take pictures and watch the AV show at Saraswathi Mahal Library, you will need atleast two to three hours at the palace complex.
- Please keep the ticket bought at the entrance safe for you need to get that punched at the entrances of various places inside the palace complex.
- The AV show which is screened every hour at the library is something that is not to be missed. No special tickets needed for this.
- The light and sound show is quite an interesting one which I would certainly recommend to the Tamil speaking crowd. You need a group of atleast five people to ask the officers to play the show for you and a nominal entrance fees of ₹50 per head is being charged for the show.