The original name of Thanjavur Palace is Sivaganga Fort, which is rarely used these days. If you observe carefully, there is even a small moat around it which provided security against enemy access. Often mistakenly called the “Thanjavur Maratha Palace” was not built by Maratha Kings, but by Thanjavur Nayaks. However, the Marathas made some enhancements to suit their needs. It is more popularly called “Thanjavur Aranmanai” by the people of Tamil Nadu. Today, the Thanjavur Palace Complex is a tourist attraction which houses 3 separate venues: the palace, the art gallery and a manuscript library (Saraswathi Mahal). This article is just about the palace, as there are many interesting and intriguing features that are worth exploring.
After the fall of Cholas in 1279 A.D, and a few centuries of Pandyan occupation, Sevappa Nayak captured Thanjavur and became the King in 1532. The construction of Thanjavur Palace began in 1534 and was completed in 1535, thanks to plenty of local prisoners of war who provided manual labor. The Palace was officially called “Sivagangai Fort” and was held by the Nayak family until April 1674, when the Maratha ruler Venkoji captured it. The Marathas enhanced the original structure and expanded the palace complex. It was used by them until 1799 when British finally annexed the Thanjavur Maratha Kingdom.
Palace or a Fort?
Plenty of tourists expect a gigantic, luxurious and ornamented interior and get disappointed. The complex was built as a fort, not a palace. The Nayaks chose the site carefully and there is even a moat around the complex to protect it. Another intriguing feature is the extremely narrow staircases with short steps, sharp turns and low ceilings. Why would a palace have such primitive staircases? This was a measure to prevent enemies’ rapid advance. Cavalry advances would be impossible through the stairs, and the foot soldiers cannot climb up with great speed. The enemy foot soldiers would be easy prey to the men waiting for them above. Again: this was built as a fort, not a palace.
There are at least 3 hidden chambers with secret, interconnecting doors. These were used as torture chambers and to have discreet meetings. One hidden chamber, located at the base of the Arsenal tower is acoustically designed in a way that you can hear even the smallest whisper from 3 floors above. This must have been used as a way for sending secret voice signals over multiple floors. Sadly, the Government has completely prohibited all access to these hidden chambers.
There are two underground passages in the palace, only one of them is partially accessible by tourists. This is a relatively short passage and the Government is renovating it as of 2014. Another secret tunnel which is a mile long, connects the Brihadeeswara temple and the palace. It is wide enough to ride 2 horses in parallel, and was designed as a getaway route by Kings during war times.
Arsenal Tower (Koodagopuram)
This is a 192 feet tall pyramidal structure with eight floors. The initial building was constructed by Nayaks in 1645 with only 2 floors. The Marathas later renovated and finished the tower in 1855, and used it for various military purposes. The top floor was used as a watch tower, and the remaining floors were used to store arms and ammunition. The second floor was exclusively used for the King’s martial arts training.
Bell Tower (Maadamaaligai)
This is another interesting building with a construction style exactly opposite to the Arsenal Tower. A rectangular construction resembling the modern day skyscrapers. Maadamaaligai in Tamil describes it accurately – Rectangular Mansion. This building is shorter than the arsenal tower and has 7 floors. It once housed a mechanical bell which rung every hour from the top. The people of Thanjavur used it as their time teller. For this reason, this building is also called as “Manikoondu”.
Maratha Durbar Hall
This is the royal court hall, which currently houses the Thanjavur Art Gallery. There is plenty of interesting information about this place, which can take up a whole page. Please read more about the Art Gallery here. You can also see the photographs of Bronze Sculptures and Rare Coins in the art gallery. An ancient burial urn called Mudhumakkal Thazhi is also exhibited.
Royal Family’s Temple
A very modest temple is located on the ground floor, inside the palace. This is the Chandramouleshwara Temple, which was constructed by the Achuthappa Nayak in 1589. The temple has a lingam on the floor with two Nandhis (Sacred Bulls) in front. Two small decoratedenclosures are kept with locked doors, suggesting some more deities may be present inside them. Royal families held their worshiping sessions here every morning.
Baleen Whale Skeleton
A 92 feet skeleton of “Whalebone whale”, commonly known as Baleen whale is housed in the Arsenal tower. The dead whale washed ashore on 26th February 1955 in Tharangambadi beach, and the bones were brought into the palace soon after. The skeleton is an interesting sight to see, although it has not been well preserved.
On the ground floor of the palace, plenty of stone sculpture are placed all around. These sculptures range from 8th Century A.D to 18th Century A.D. You can capture some very interesting details, if you have the eye for it. Most sculptures are well labeled and the most interesting carvings were done during the Chola period
A few centuries ago the walls of the palace were covered with rich paintings. However, most of them have been completely destroyed due to lack of preservation. Even today, some faded paintings remain and unscrupulous visitors continue to destroy them with graffiti.
Located outside the palace, it is one of the very few medieval Manuscript libraries in the world. It is considered as one of the oldest and the best historical libraries in India. There is a museum inside Saraswathi Mahal which displays only selected books. The library houses more than a million manuscripts in various languages like Tamil, Sanskrit, Marathi, Telugu and Manipravalam. A survey conducted by Encyclopedia Britannica shows that Saraswathi Mahal was voted as “the most remarkable library of India”.