A Library to marvel at
Year 2010 marks the 1000th. anniversary of the consecration of Rajarajaeshwaram, the magnificent temple built by the much lionised, much adored King Rajaraja Chozhan who had brought unprecedented expanses of land ( Orissa to SriLanka and beyond the sea upto Cambodia ) under his reign , between 985 and 1014 CE.
Rajarajeshwaram, also called Peruvudayarkoil , Brihadeeshwaram or simply, Periyakovil ( Big Temple) , the crown jewel of Thanjavur, pride of the Chozhas, has the distinction of being the world's first fully granite temple. It is built without mortar, with a system of interlocking slabs. Situated within a huge fortress , the temple complex, containing many shrines of different periods, is listed as one of the three architectural wonders that constitute the " Great Living Chola Temples ,UNESCO World Heritage Site " ( the other two, also in the same district, are Gangaikondachozhapuram and Darasuram). The massive Vimana ( 216 ft. tall) with the amazing capstone is a well recognised example of the dravidian style of temple architecture.
Thanjavur, the capital of the Chozha land, is a district in today's political map of Tamil Nadu and considered the Rice Bowl of the state, as it lies in the fertile Kaveri Delta . The HQ of the district is of course Thanjavur city.
Thanjavur is a lively town which always looks chaotic ! It resembles a perpetual fair ! Trying to locate an address can hurtle one into a bewildering jumble of narrow lanes, crowded squares , unkempt gardens, ancient doorways and modern blue glass buildings, all strewn about in haphazard fashion .If any town planning was ever done, it's certainly not evident !
The central piece is no doubt the "Big Temple", to do justice to which one would need ,at the very least, three whole days. "Big" it really is in all aspects ! Rich in sculpture, murals and inscriptions, the well maintained temple attracts thousands of pilgrims and lay visitors. Contrary to the popular myth, the 80-ton capstone is not a monolith, but, as Archeologists now agree, a composite. Another myth is that the shadow of the capstone never falls on the ground.
The temple was in a constant mode of extension and rebuilding through the ages, as it changed hands from Chozhas to the Pandyans, the Vijayanagar Empire, the Madurai Nayakas, The Thanjavur Nayaks, the Thanjavur Marathas and the British successively. Consequently, the sculptures and murals too show differences in style and content.
A couple of kilometers away from the Big Temple, stands The Fort complex built by the Madurai Nayakas in 1550 and modified by the Marattas. This complex called The Sivaganga Fort, contains The Royal Palace, museums, theArt Gallery, Sangeeth Mahal, Saraswathi Mahal and Shwartz church.
The RoyalPalace fascinates with its high ceilinged halls and wonderful, intricate stucco decorations. Its 190-ft. tall arsenal tower, called Koodagopuram, is a peculiar structure that looms above the museum halls which house the collections and memorabilia of the Maratta rulers, particularly, the much loved Raja Serfoji II. Beside it is the Sangeeth Mahal a great experiment in acoustic engineering, where a pool of water is used to reflect sound.
The Art Gallery, housed in the Maratta Durbar Hall is a treasure house of Chozha Bronzes which captivate with their unbelievable intricacy and loveliness.
Shwartz church, near the Fort Tank, is a modest edifice built by Serfoji for his Teacher, the Danish Missionary, Rev. Shwartz.
My most fav. haunt in Thanjavur is The Saraswathi Mahal Library .It is one of the very few medieval libraries still existing in the world. Started by the Thanjavur Nayakas in 1535 CE as a repository of royal manuscripts, the library was nourished and developed by the Marathas who captured Thanjavur in 1675. King Serfoji II, a multilinguist and patron of arts and sciences, added a great collection of French, English,German, Danish and Arabic manuscripts and publications to the existing treasures in Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, Urdu, Telugu, Tamil ,Marathi and Manipravalam. A rough estimate says, the library contains 40,000 manuscripts on palm leaf, paper folio, cloth, bark and leather, and 4500 books in all languages. And this is the manuscript division alone. There are other divisions like Art( Painting , Drawings,engravings) and Cartography. Some curios found here : a mini palm leaf book ( 3" X 1") ; a commentary on Advaitha written in 1468 on thin handmade paper ; reverse written couplets ( i.e. filling up ink on a sheet leaving out the letters in white !), the complete Valmiki Ramayana written on a set of 9" long palm leaves, with letters so small that a magnifying glass is needed to see them ; a 40 ft. long painting showing the Ghats of Varanasi . And some pills, kept with the medical books , made for Serfoji, with the name of the drug and year of manufacture embossed on each pill !
The library has departments dedicated to publication, conservation, reprography ( micro-filming) , cataloging, Transcribing and Transliteration, and Consultancy by Experts and photocopy facilities( for bonafide researchers only) .
This library is like Ali Baba's cave to anyone who loves the written word ! No wonder at all that it was labelled by Encyclopedia Brittanica's Survey of World Libraries as "the most remarkable library in India" !
At the Eastern gate of the fort stands a HUGE cannon named Rajagopala Beerangi. Manufactured during the reign of Regunatha Nayak ( 1600 -1645), this canon is the fourth largest Forge Welded Iron Cannon in the world. 25 ft. long, weighing 22 tons. Inner diameter of the barrel is 22 inches. Capable of firing a 1000kg, cannon ball. And of course, it never rusts. It is a marvel of medieval Indian metallurgy.
In addition to these , certain modern day "attractions" are also pointed out to visitors by the ever friendly citizens. There are some memorials for Rajarajan , for Tholkappiyam ( the earliest Tamil Grammar treatise) etc. which, in my personal view, are poor gilt for the ancient riches.
"Thanjavur" has lent its name to a whole raft of specialities. The "Thanjavur Bani" in classical music and dance is the pure, unaltered traditional variety. Of musicals instruments, the Veena and the Mridangam are native to this place. "Thanjavur Painting" is the highly ornate craft of decorating devotional paintings with gold foil and gems. The name"Thanjavur Work" denotes utility objects decorated with mirror and coloured glass pieces and golden foil. "Thanjavur Plates "are large copper or brass salvers embellished with finely tooled, raised, silver motifs.
"Thanjavur Bommai" is the name given to bobble- head clay dolls and dancing dolls that have springs in the neck and waist to enable swaying movement. The term is also used as a metaphor for spineless yes-men ! Another kind of Thanjavur Doll is the non-toppling one ( clay) with heavy rounded base. "Thanjavur Kadambam" is the marvelously fragrant lengths of closely strung jasmines interspersed with certain aromatic leaves . "Thanjavur Marathi" is a dialect of Marathi, quite different from the language spoken in Maharashtra today. It is spoken among descendents of the the Marattas who followed Venkoji ( Chatrapathi Shivaji's half brother) to settle in Thanjavur when he became an independent king of this region. It is doubtful if Thanjavur Marathi and Mumbai Marathi are mutually comprehensible !