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 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, 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 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 (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..


Raja Gori -Funerary temples of the Maratha kings in Thanjavur

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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 Raja Gori Chatris

  1. 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 🙂 Have a lovely Sunday.

  2. 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 🙂 I was amazed that neither my guide nor the driver were aware of these monuments.

    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 🙂

  3. 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 🙂

      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. 🙂

        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 🙂 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.

  4. 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.


    1. Haha yes way more 😀

      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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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! 🙂

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

      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.

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