Thanjavur rediscovered

A. SRIVATHSAN
The spotlight is on the city’s emergence as a cultural centre, thanks to the patronage of the Nayaks and the Marathas.

Thanjavur A Cultural History, Pradeep Chakravarthy, Niyogi Books, Rs. 1,250
Among cities that either appear like an amorphous ink blot or a rigid chess board, Thanjavur, with its almost perfect circular shape, is an impressive contrast. It has the best of both worlds — the beauty of a geometrical order and seduction of an organic maze. Four straight main roads carve a square in the centre of this circular city, and simultaneously a labyrinth of narrow lanes is let loose to fill the space in-between. Thanjavur is an unusual city in many other ways too. There are not many historic towns that have retained their political and cultural importance for long years and played a significant role in the making of the modern cultural institutions as Thanjavur has done.

This is partly due to it being politically and culturally reinvented at regular intervals. Last year was another landmark moment in the city’s history. The Brihadisvara temple, the icon of the Thanjavur, built by Rajaraja I to symbolise the imperial power of the Cholas completed its 1000th year in 2010. Celebrations of many kinds were held to mark the millennium year of the temple and showcase Thanjavur as an important cultural centre of Tamil Nadu. A torrent of books was published alongside and a few more are expected soon. Many of these publications focused on the architecture of the temple and the history of the city. Only a few, such as the one by Pradeep Chakravarthy entitled Thanjavur: A Cultural History , set out to look at other important aspects of the city.

Chakravarthy’s book provides a larger overview and lists the city’s contribution to the field of art, crafts and musical traditions. Though it appears to cover a large span of 900 years, starting from 10th century, the focus of the book is more on the Nayak and Maratha phase of Thanjavur.

Ever since E. Hultzsch, the remarkable German epigraphist, published the copious inscriptions found at the Brihadisvara temple in the late 19th century, attention of scholars and public alike has been riveted to the temple and Chola history. Nilakanta Sastri’s magnum opus The Cholas, Burton Stein’s radical thesis of the Chola State and Y. Subbarayalu’s meticulous delineation of Chola geography, have provided scholarly insights and helped popularise the connection between Thanjavur and the Cholas. Despite the fact that much of what one now sees in Thanjavur is from the Nayak and the Maratha period, they have not been celebrated.

Pradeep Chakravarthy’s work needs to be placed in this context. It spotlights the rich contribution of the Nayaks and Marathas to the emergence of Thanjavur as the cultural centre. The patronage extended to arts, the “zest for good life” that was prevalent in the place, and the creative dancers and musicians who made Thanjavur their home are briefly portrayed.

Material culture

Attention to the material culture of the city makes for interesting reading. Details such as rubies being imported from Burma to make nath or nose rings that is uniquely Maratha in origin; export of gold snuff boxes to Southeast Asia; one litre of milk being priced at about 10 paise while equal amount of liquor was at about 80 paise in the 18th century abound. Interesting information such as payments to temple dancers and the almost impossible love story involving a Brahmin and a married non-Brahmin woman are also documented. The bountiful illustrations and charming old photographs are a treat.

As a result, the tone of the book is more anecdotal and descriptive. It is like a concise dictionary with brief and swift accounts of ideas and moments that actually need more elaboration. Readers who want to know more may have to seek other works.

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