5 Best Things To Do In Thanjavur, India

It was 12:20 am (right in the middle of the night) when my train from Rameshwaram finally reached Tanjore. According to the schedule, it was supposed to arrive at 11:25 pm, so it was more than 45 minutes late. This concerned me a bit, since I preferred to do solo travel in Tamil Nadu and would have to negotiate the dark and unfamiliar railway station by myself.

Normally, I'd take an auto rickshaw from the station to my hotel. However, to be on the safe side so late at night, I'd arranged for my hotel to pick me up (cost 300 rupees). I was staying at Hotel Gnanam and paying 2,000 rupees per night, plus tax, for a single room. It was at the upper end of my budget, and I really didn't want to pay so much.

However, I figured (hoped!) that since it was one of the best hotels in town, it would be reliable and not leave me stranded. Fortunately, the driver was waiting patiently for me. I didn't have great expectations of the hotel, as it receives mixed reviews on Tripadvisor, but was pleasantly surprised. The photos on the hotel's website were an accurate reflection of what my room looked like and it was attractive, clean, and comfortable.

I even woke up to find that I had a spacious balcony and that was an unexpected bonus! Check in and check out was smooth, there was free wireless Internet, and the staff were mostly friendly. The only thing I wasn't too pleased about was that the buffet breakfast was vegetarian, meaning no egg.

things to do in thanjavur

Since it was after 1 am when I got to sleep, I spent the morning relaxing and planning my day before heading out to do some sightseeing after lunch. The main attractions in Tanjore are the Royal Palace and its museums, and Brihadishvara Temple (affectionately known as the Big Temple). Both were situated around a kilometer from the hotel, in different directions.

I decided to walk, using Google Maps on my smartphone. I had resisted getting a smartphone until earlier in the year but was fast beginning to realize how useful it was. I would be able to roam the streets without getting lost or having to ask for directions, wonderful!

1. Thanjavur Royal Palace

Sadly, I found the Royal Palace compound to be really badly maintained (although some renovation works were going on), and it was frustrating that multiple tickets and camera fees were required to enter different parts of it. For foreigners, tickets cost 50 rupees plus 100 rupees for cameras, which gave the impression that they were trying to extract money. The highlight there is the painted ceiling of the Palace's Durbar Hall.

2. Saraswati Mahal Library

The Saraswati Mahal Library, with ancient texts from the medieval period, was dark and airless. Neither lights nor fans were on, so maybe the electricity wasn't working. It made it uncomfortable and difficult to see the exhibits, so I didn't linger.

3. Thanjavur Art Gallery

The Art Gallery contained Chola bronze statues and stone sculptures, and in another section some odd bones of a whale. There was also a bell tower, which could be climbed. If you're interested in handicrafts and Tanjore paintings, there are plenty of shops selling them in the streets next to the Palace.

The attractively restored blue Tanjore Hi boutique heritage hotel is also located there. However, according to many guests, street noise is a problem, as it's situated on the roadside (it's worth grabbing a bite to eat at its rooftop restaurant though).

4. Brihadeeswara Temple

The real masterpiece, of course, was the Big Temple (open from 6 am to noon, and 4 pm to 8:30 pm). It's more than 1,000 years old and the crowning glory of Chola dynasty temple architecture. My first impression was, Is this really real, and if so, how can it be possible?

Not only is the temple HUGE, it's constructed solely out of stone and has intricate sculpture work on it. It's hard to comprehend how it could've been made. The temple is a Shiva temple, with a large black 12-foot lingam inside and a similarly large Nandi outside. There are many smaller shrines in the complex as well.

It is worth spending a few hours there and seeing the puja at sunset. I enjoyed simply sitting on the grass in the temple's sprawling grounds and soaking up the atmosphere. It was after dark when I made my way back to my hotel, around 10 minutes’ walk away along busy roads and through a market area.

It didn't take me long to realize that a youngish man was taking the same route as me and at a similar pace. Some of the way I walked very briskly, and at other times slowly so I could check the directions on Google Maps and get my bearings. Every time I looked, he always appeared near me. He remained with me all the way to my hotel.

Was he following me? I'm not sure. Was I scared? Not really. Although I was alarmed enough to notice, I didn't think there was much he could do in a very public area. Regardless, I was glad to reach my hotel! (I have been followed by men before in India, both in Kolkata and Mumbai, and based on experience they move off promptly when aggressively confronted).

5. Kumbakonam

The region of Kumbakonam has been inhabited since the third century BC. During that time the powerful reign of Chola dynasty rose and this town was always a military and religious reference point in the region of Tamil Nadu.

In Kumbakonam and its surroundings there are almost 200 temples, in spite of their recent size, and for this reason it is known as the City of Temples. We chose the following: Nagesvara Swami, Sarangapani, Kumbersvara and Ramasvami. I grabbed a map and observed the position of the different temples.

We reached the kumbakonam market and asked a rickshaw to leave us in the most western temple of all to continue the journey in the direction of the bus station-my final destination in the city-while visiting the other temples that are disseminated by the interior of Kumbakonam.

As usual in this escapade in Tamil Nadu, hardly anyone came to harass me with their persuasive arts to sell me something or propose as a guide. Of the three that I visited the one that surprised me the most was the Adi Kumbeswarar Temple.

I sit in my favorite dosai place, somewhere in a dusty, sunburnt village with spiring coconut palms and sprawling mango trees. It’s small, so small, that they alternate chutneys—one day coconut, the next tomato. There’s an open kitchen, and thick slabs of kadappa, a local stone ranging in color from slate-gray to obsidian, serve as table tops.

Neem trees, twisted and curved in response to the erratic monsoon seasons, grow outside the fence that separates the place from the street. Their bark is like fine crocodile skin, and their saw-edged leaves, summer-green and abundant, provide much needed shade from the scorching sun.

I’ve had dosai outside of Tamil Nadu and I feel self-conscious eating with my hands. It never tastes right. Maybe it’s the flavor South Indian soil imparts the vegetables, or the superabundant sunshine that ripens the produce just so. Or maybe it’s because the food outside Tamil Nadu is made to cater to local palates. I’m not saying it’s bad, but it’s not the same.

From inside the kitchen, I can hear mustard seeds sizzling and popping, and see curry leaves sprinkled to the chiming of glass bangles. A heavy ladle bangs against a deep, wide pot as potatoes, tomatoes, lady fingers and other vegetables swim around in a sea of lentils.

A smiling woman in an aquamarine-colored sari brings a stainless steel plate to my table. I remove a mean-looking red chilly from my chutney bowl, place it on the rim of the plate, and then, pinning the dosai down with ring and little fingers, tear a piece out with thumb, index and middle fingers. I dip it in the bowl—avoiding a curry leaf—placing the warm, chutney-coated piece of fermented rice in my mouth.

The chilly burns, the ginger zangs, and the garlic stings. A burnt, smoky mustard seed explodes, and the mild bitterness of turmeric in the background reconciles all of these tantalizing flavors into a glorious harmony, the sourness of the dosai a perfect medium for this culinary gospel.

As I finish chewing and swallow, the tangy-salty tartness of tomatoes lingers in my mouth like the last trill of a violin virtuoso after the rest of the orchestra had fallen silent.

I’m away from Tamil Nadu now, and although there are a couple places here that serve dosai, I think I’ll be better off waiting until I'm back, sitting at a kadappa table outside, shaded by neem trees, salivating and knowing that I'll feel perfectly at ease eating with my hands as a sari-clad woman clangs down a steaming, stainless steel plate with dosai and whatever chutney they're serving that day, smiling and wobbling her head at me as she says, "Sappadu, sappadu..."

The town is quiet taking into account the standards in Tamil Nadu and I have a well deserved night of rest. Tired after another extensive day of walking, I went to bed early, ready to get the train to Chidambaram the next morning and get to Tranquebar, 35 kilometers from Chidambaram, a port built by the Dutch.

The rickhaw who had to come looking for us has not appeared. By chance another stood at the door of the hotel, where we waited. It leaves us at the bus station. We bought breakfast, a maaza and some cookies. We left on time, with the music at full volume. We went through Sirkali.
Kalyan Panja