As one of the busiest commercial towns of the Kaveri Delta, THANJAVUR (aka “Tanjore”), 55km east of Tiruchirapalli and 35km southwest of Kumbakonam, is often overlooked by travellers. However, its history and treasures – among them the breathtaking Brihadishwara Temple, Tamil Nadu’s most awesome Chola monument – give it a crucial significance to south Indian culture. The home of the world’s finest Chola bronze collection, it holds enough of interest to keep you enthralled for at least a couple of days, and is the most obvious base for trips to nearby Gangaikondacholapuram, Darasuram and Swamimalai.
Thanjavur is roughly split in two by the east–west Grand Anicut Canal. The old town, north of the canal and once entirely enclosed by a fortified wall, was chosen, between the ninth and the end of the thirteenth century, as the capital of their extensive empire by all the Chola kings save one. None of their secular buildings survive, but you can still see as many as ninety temples, of which the Brihadishwara most eloquently epitomizes the power and patronage of Rajaraja I (985–1014), whose military campaigns spread Hinduism to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Java. Under the Cholas, as well as the later Nayaks and Marathas, literature, painting, sculpture, Carnatic classical music and Bharatanatyam dance all thrived here. Quite apart from its own intrinsic interest, the Nayak royal palace compound houses an important library and museums including a famous collection of bronzes.
Of major local festivals, the most lavish celebrations at the Brihadishwara Temple are associated with the birthday of King Rajaraja, in October. An eight-day celebration of Carnatic classical music is held each January at the Panchanateshwara Temple at Thiruvaiyaru, 13km away, to honour the great Carnatic composer-saint, Thyagaraja.