Thanjavur – The Forgotten Cenotaphs

Tucked deep behind rows of tin roofed tenements a few kilometres from the centre of Thanjavur, sit a group of 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 of 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, ThanjavurRaja 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 followed 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 (Tanjavur) 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. 

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Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

79 thoughts on “Thanjavur – The Forgotten Cenotaphs

  1. Madhu! We’ve been missing you. 🙂 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 🙂

  2. 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 🙂

    1. Happy to be back Gilly 🙂
      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 🙂 The Jains are mostly north Indians who have settled here over the years. Karnataka has a larger native Jain population among the southern states.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.’ 😀

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

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

    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 🙂

  7. 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.

  8. 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. 🙂

    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 🙂

  9. 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.

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