Thanjavur – The Raja Gori Chatris

Tucked deep behind rows of tin roofed tenements a few kilometres from the centre of Thanjavur, sit a group of chatris (funerary temples.) Crumbling. Forgotten. Unknown even to some local guides.

It was the memory of a fleeting online reference that set me off in search of these historic relics during my visit to the temple town two years ago. I had misplaced that link and a random Google search on the way back from Darasuram yielded little more than a snippet from a gazetted government document. It referred to temple inscriptions that mention royal tombs within the Kailasa Mahal cremation grounds.

My guide, Mr. Iyer, had never heard of them and was horrified that I would even consider visiting such a desolate place. “There’s nothing there to see.” he exclaimed, “just a burial ground frequented by drunks.” I told him I’d take my chances.

We drove the length of a narrow road that ran almost all the way along the river Vadavar and stopped near a group of hutments.

Raja Gori, ThanjavurFunerary temple of Serfoji II in Kailasa Mahal, Thanjavur

A few curious locals we stopped to ask for directions, pointed towards a clearing to our right. There were two brick structures standing over partly exposed laterite foundations. One – that I now know is the funerary temple of Serfoji II – combined an eclectic mix of styles that included Islamic triple domes, chariot wheels (only one of what must have been a pair flanking the steps) and elephant shaped balustrades. The second was more Dravidian in style with a stepped tower sporting rows of sculpted details. Both were in a terrible state of disrepair.

“I know there are more.” I told a sceptical Mr. Iyer. By then we had a dozen or so women trailing us and I decided to seek their help. One of them suggested I speak to Kamala, an older woman who “knows everything about everything” in the area.

They were right about Kamala. “You want to see the Raja Gori? I can show you.” she responded cheerfully in Tamil. Gori, incidentally, is the vernacular term for tomb in many South Indian languages including mine. 

Kamala climbed into our vehicle and directed us to a group of hutments where she got out and sauntered off on a narrow path beyond the dilapidated houses, signalling for us to follow.

Raja Gori, Thanjavur
Funerary temple of Serfoji II in Kailasa Mahal, Thanjavur.

Raja Gori - Thanjavur

Raja Gori, Thanjavur
I owe thanks to this lovely lady.

Three brick temples stood within a rectangular enclosure. The largest of the group appeared to be that of the king. It was strangely flat roofed with brick walls stripped of all stucco plaster and detailing except for the pair of yali balustrades.

Two smaller temples facing each other on either side of the gate, were in a similar condition but had their domes intact. A faded plastic water pot sat on a threshold. A dirty rag hung over a lintel. I couldn’t tell for sure, but there might have been squatters occupying some of the temples!

Kamala giggled at my interest. “Oru kaalathle rombo alagha irundhuirku illiayamma?” (Must have been very beautiful at one time, no madam?).

Directly behind the main temple, a mid-sized shrine with a relatively elaborate tower (gopuram) appeared to be that of the chief queen. And arrayed in straight rows beyond a makeshift fence at the back, were at least nine more smaller shrines similar to those near the entrance.

They were most likely memorials to the minor queens of Sivaji Rao II: the last Maratha ruler of Thanjavur. Perhaps built over the spots they were each cremated on.

DSC_5325 copy

After the fall of the Chola Kingdom in the 13th century, Thanjavur repeatedly changed hands between the Pandyas of Madurai, the Rayas of Vijayanagara, their offshoot: the Thanjavur Nayaks an finally by the Madurai Nayaks (who had overthrown the Pandyas by then.). There was also an invasion by Malik Kafur, the eunuch slave (and loyal commander) of Allauddin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate, in between for good measure.

When the deposed (Thanjavur) Nayak Viajayaraghava’s son sought help from the Sultan of Bijapur to reclaim his kingdom from the Madurai Nayaks, the Sultan sent forth an army under the command of his (fuedatory) Maratha general, Venkoji, to assist him.

After defeating the usurping Nayak, Venkoji* (aka Ekoji), decided to strike out on his own and keep Thanjavur for himself. And so began the Maratha chapter of this Tamil heartland. A reign that stretched for nearly two centuries from 1674-1855.

While their influence on local architecture could never measure up to that of the Cholas, the Marathas of Thanjavur – Serfoji II in particular – are credited with being patrons of traditional art, music and dance and helping transform the region into a centre of culture and learning. The collection of the Saraswati Mahal library is one of their valuable legacies. And some say, even sambhar: that quintessential accompaniment to every Tamil meal and snack!

Maratha rule ended in 1855 with the imposition of the doctrine of lapse when Sivaji II died without a male heir. The doctrine was a British annexation policy that mandated that kingdoms without direct male descendants in line to the throne would lapse to the East India Company. Adopted heirs were only allowed titular powers. Members of the erstwhile royal family continued to live in the palace as ceremonial figureheads. The palace and the Kailash Mahal cremation grounds remain under the custody of the current (senior) prince: Babaji Rajah Sahib Bhonsle.

It is remarkable that the 10th century Chola edifices survive intact while these 19th century monuments – possibly the only ones of their kind in Tamilnadu – languish in such a sorry state.

Back at Svatma later that afternoon, a repeat search threw up this ten year old report about the inauguration of a restoration plan by local authorities. This recent article on the Serfoji Memorial website indicates that at least one of the temples did eventually undergo restoration in 2016, even if it does not appear any different in the accompanying photograph.

*Venkoji was the half brother of THE Maratha king Shivaji Bhonsle. A third brother, Sambhaji, was Jagirdar of Bangalore under the Sultan of Bijapur.

THANJAVUR FAST FACTS

GETTING THERE

Thanjavur is just over six hours by road from Chennai via the Kanyakumari road. Add another hour and a half if driving from Bengaluru.

The closest airport is Tiruchirappalli, commonly referred to as Trichy. (58 km. Approx. 60 min. by road).

GETTING AROUND THANJAVUR

Private vehicles or taxis are easily organised by your accommodation once you get there. Request to be taken to the royal cremation grounds

BEST TIME TO VISIT

Mid December to mid March is ideal. Tamilnadu receives the highest rainfall during the north west monsoons between mid October and mid December. The roads to the temples can get damaged and the temples themselves can sometimes get inundated. I know of friends who returned without entering Airavatesvara when they found the sunken courtyard filled with β€˜dubious brown water.’ Summer months are hot across much of the lower plains of the state.

WHERE TO STAY

Svatma Thanjavur was a great place to stay. Read my reviewΒ here. OrΒ look for more options to suit your budget.

DISCLAIMER: My visit was made possible by Svatma Thanjavur. The Urge To Wander is part of the affiliate programs of some of the resources mentioned on these pages and will earn tiny commissions from qualifying purchases without any extra cost to you. Disclosure policy.

THANJAVUR ON YOUR RADAR? πŸ“Œ PIN FOR LATER

Raja Gori is a true hidden gem in Thanjavur. Also known as Kailasa Mahal, it is a complex of Maratha era royal funerary temples. Possibly the only one of its kind in Tamilnadu. A place few outsiders visit and that even some local guides are unaware of.

#IndiaTravel #SouthIndia #PlacesToSeeInIndia #TemplesOfSouthIndia #HiddenGem #TempleArchitecture

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

79 thoughts on “Thanjavur – The Raja Gori Chatris

  1. wow..this is awesome.sad to say that i had been living at thanjavur for almost 2 decades and didn’t know about this place.

    1. Even my guide had no clue KP! πŸ™‚ Pity, because it is such a remarkable piece of history that is being so callously neglected

  2. Madhu, it made me smile to see a post from you in the reader and what fun to discover this relatively unknown place with you. It was a grand adventure. I hope all’s well with you and yours.

    janet

    1. Such a pleasure to see your comment pop up too Janet πŸ™‚ I’m well. Hope all’s well with you too.

      1. I thought of your post earlier when I was reading a description of a collection of temples in my current read. 😊

    1. Thank you for reading Shubham. This was long overdue.

      Please do plan longer trips down south. Would love to catch up next time you are here. You’ll first need to tear yourself away from your stunning mountainscapes though πŸ™‚

  3. Lovely to see you back on WP, Madhu! I’ve missed your posts, you take me to some amazing places. And glad to see that you search out interesting, ‘off the beaten track’ places …my passion too!

    1. Thank you so much Sue, it’s lovely to be back. I was thinking of you while I uploaded these images…right up your alley πŸ™‚

  4. So nice to have you around again, Madhu, with this rather strange story. It makes you wonder how many more unknown relics of the past there must be, throughout India. Sending you hugs, darlin πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ Welcome back!

    1. I imagine there are countless neglected monuments begging for attention while we cry ourselves hoarse over disputed religious sites. Thank you Jo, hugs right back πŸ™‚

    1. The construction is obviously not as fine as the older ones, but I thought they were beautiful too. Hope they are restored fully. Thanks for reading Dhara. Have a great day πŸ™‚

  5. Madhu welcome back. You were missed. Your report naturally was most interesting to me after spending so many of my working years travelling up and down the countries of Southern Asia while residing in beloved Bharat Mata. πŸ™‚

    1. Feels good to know…thank you Ian πŸ™‚ Yes, I knew the Indophile in you would find this interesting.

    1. Aww, many thanks dear Riba! Great to see you are onto your 60 at 60 series. Shall be over to catch up with it soon. It’s a milestone year for me too πŸ™‚

      1. I see you already popped over. You are always so sweet to comment on my posts, Madhu! And do I get to ask which milestone? (Or do I vaguely remember we are the same age?!? πŸ˜‰

  6. Madhu! We’ve been missing you. πŸ™‚ So nice to see you back! These funerary temples, despite their condition, are definitely such a nice find. They remind me of how in Indonesia structures dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries are often less durable than those constructed in the eighth or ninth centuries. By the way, you were really lucky to have Kamala, the one who knows everything about everything, show you around the otherwise forgotten ruins.

    1. Ha yes, finally! I just get into this blank phase when I take too long a break. Never know where to begin.

      These were fascinating finds indeed Bama, even if not up to the standards of the great Chola trio. The disparity in quality probably reflects the diminished wealth and power of later dynasties. And yes, Kamala was a Godsend considering my guide was so discouraging. He did get animated after we found them and wanted copies of the photos. I conveniently misplaced his visiting card πŸ™‚

  7. Well what a return! This history is fascinating, the names are difficult to remember but I love them, well done for persisting and finding the goris. Tamil Nadu has people with all the main religions doesn’t it? And which is your language? Questions, sorry but you know how I love the culture. I’m so glad you’re back πŸ™‚

    1. Happy to be back Gilly πŸ™‚
      The majority are Hindu of course, but there are sizeable Christian and Muslim populations. My language is Tulu, only spoken in the costal region of Karnataka bordering Kerala. We use the Kannada script.

        1. Haha, many Indians wouldn’t have heard of it Gilly πŸ™‚ The Jains are mostly north Indians who have settled here over the years. Karnataka has a larger native Jain population among the southern states.

  8. Just an incredible set of photos Madhu, I love your absolute sense of adventure. Finding those places where there is so much history, as you say the crumbling and forgotten places, are often the ones that hold the most mysteries and stories. It seems you’ve rediscovered a history almost forgotten ~ such a rich history in India that something like this can be overshadowed.

    1. Generous words Randall, thank you very much. it is exciting always to stumble upon India’s forgotten stories but sobering too to realise how little effort is put into preserving them. Have a great day Randall.

  9. A new lesson in History. Thank you, Madhu.
    Trying to get my tongue around some of those names.
    I marvel at the research you do before you set out and then share it all with lovely pictures that make your travels come alive!

    1. Glad you enjoyed my history lesson dear Ashu. Many thanks for taking the time to let me know. Take care πŸ™‚

  10. So lovely to see you again, Madhu. Thanks for checking me out too. These are very impressive temples that you discovered. I’m sure that any squatters who found them before you, must have been very grateful for somewhere to live. ‘Any port in a storm.’ πŸ˜€

    1. Haha I have no doubt and from their point of view these spaces are at least being put to good use πŸ™‚ Lovely to reconnect Sylvia….have a great day.

  11. Helloooo. πŸ™‚ Welcome back Madhu. I had dropped by a coupla times but to no avail. I hope whatever kept you away is now under control. πŸ™‚
    Those brick structures ressemble (or the other way round) some temples in Angkor. I love that. πŸ™‚
    Again, welcome back. We missed you.
    Take care
    Brian

    1. All well Brian. Thank you very much for the welcome and the concern. Means a lot.

      The brick construction of these mausoleums does resemble some of the Angkor temples. Stone was the preferred material for older temples in India. I imagine carting stone from quarries must have been beyond the scope of impoverished nineteenth century dynasties with limited pensions and manpower at their disposal.

      Thanks again Brian. Have a great day πŸ™‚

  12. Hello again, my friend. As always you explore unexpected places with panache. I love the fact that you persisted and found wonders. It was lovely to see you prowling round my neck of the woods too.

  13. So good to see you back Madhu. How exquisite these temples must have been before they fell into disrepair. Thank you for sharing a part of the world that is virtually unknown to me. I love living vicariously through you. πŸ™‚

    1. Pleasure to reconnect with friends on WP LuAnn. It was great fun hunting down these forgotten gems. Thank you for the pleasure of your virtual company πŸ™‚

  14. Glad to know about these treasure troves. Missed this during my visit last month. Hope these structures would be taken up by the ASI soon.

    1. Hope so too Niranjan. These tombs weren’t featured in any travel article until recently. I only found one feature in the Hindu besides that on the palace blog I’ve linked to above.

  15. Nice to see you back (I seem to be on a bit of a hiatus myself); I felt like I was on a treasure hunt with you as you led me with you on the search for these temples!

    1. Feels good to be back Lex, although returning to a regular schedule after too long a break is always hard. Pleasure to have your virtual company on my treasure hunt πŸ™‚ Have a lovely Sunday.

  16. Kamala sounds like quite a character and how lovely to have the company of a local to show you around. Definitely worth persevering to find these hidden tombs

    1. Ha yes, Kamala has a career in the local tourism industry πŸ™‚ I was amazed that neither my guide nor the driver were aware of these monuments.

  17. Amazing! Its true, it must have been beautiful around the time when it was made (not that it isn’t now, but with all the fresh decorations etc)

    1. Indeed, the Serfoji II memorial especially. Wish we had more regard for our built heritage.
      Appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment. Have a lovely Sunday πŸ™‚

  18. So good to have you back, Madhu! I too have not been very good at updating the blog… with the work situation these days it seems I can only churn out one post a month. I hope all is well with the family – especially that your brother-in-law and father-in-law are doing better. It sounds like Mr. Iyer was not much of a guide; I’m sure the other, more famous Mr. Iyer (Pico Iyer) would have done what you did to track down these neglected tombs! Thank you for publishing this fascinating entry on a forgotten chapter of Tamil Nadu’s history.

    1. Oh what I wouldn’t give to go on a treasure hunt with Pico Iyer πŸ™‚

      Yes all well, thank you James. The father in law is as well as can be at 96 and the BIL is on a slow but steady path to recovery, we hope. But the distractions haven’t been conducive to blogging.

      I noticed you’ve been blogging less too, but from your updates on Facebook you seem to be enjoying your work and loving your life in Jakarta, and that’s what’s important.

      1. You’re welcome Madhu. I’m glad to hear about the progress of the BIL and your father-in-law’s good health. πŸ™‚

        Actually I would have liked to post more in April but there was just too much traveling! First up was a short jaunt to Borneo and then to Seoul less than a week later (both at Bama’s behest), after that six days in the Philippines to write a story for work, and finally a two-night trip to Hong Kong last weekend to see family and attend the wedding of a friend I’ve known since early childhood! With all this behind me I am quite happy with staying put in Jakarta for the next six weeks…

        1. Not having time to blog because you were busy travelling does not seem like such a bad thing πŸ™‚ Wonder how Bama manages to stick to his schedule…..admire his discipline. Here’s wishing you both more amazing travels in the coming months. Shall try to catch up with your posts soon.

  19. Wow Madhu; seems like a little more than a burial ground frequented by drunks LOL. Amazing spot! I loved visiting Chennai by the way when I stopped by in 2013. Mentioning because I found you on Twitter with this as your hometown. I have a handful of readers in this rocking city too, and a few even met up with me there which was a blast! Thanks for sharing this fascinating place with us.

    Ryan

    1. Haha yes way more πŸ˜€

      Pleasure to connect here on WP Ryan. Sincere apologies for the much belated response. Pity we didn’t know each other when you visited Chennai. Be sure to keep me in the loop in case you pass by this way again.

  20. Thanks for sharing this important information about this temple. One of the most famous, architectural marveled and historically significant Shiva temple known to all the Hindus is the Brihatheeshwarar temple, located in Tanjore.

  21. This is the first time I am hearing about Thanjavur and I’ve been obviously missing a lot, Madhu! This place seems so peaceful and charming. Such hidden gems are a real treasure. So happy you’re back! πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you so much Lydia. Happy to be back…although staying around is still proving a challenge πŸ™‚

      I live in Tamilnadu and it took me decades to get to Thanjavur! You should plan a trip, UNESCO temples apart, the city’s a repository of Tamil culture and traditions.

    1. So glad you do Rabirius. Many thanks for your lovely comment. And sincere apologies for the much belated response.

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