Cover Photo by Ramakrishnan Nataraj
On the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu lies a city that has witnessed the glory of the most prosperous kingdom in South India, the Chola Empire. Thanjavur, formerly known as Tanjore, is a true traveller’s delight as it is adorned with several places to visit and explore. The temples in Thanjavur happen to grab a lot of attention as the Dravidian architecture is simply beyond comparison. The city hosts the “Great Living Chola Temples” (designated by UNESCO) i.e. the Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur, the Temple of Gangaikonda Cholapuram, and the Airavatesvara Temple. While some might consider visiting Thanjavur to be a “religious” journey, the ones who truly appreciate art are in for a treat! As the former capital of the great Chola Empire, the city’s stature can still be felt as you walk around its bustling modern streets.
To make the most of your vacation, the ideal time to visit here is during the winter months between October to March. A Thanjavur tour package that offers an itinerary with the most popular temples should be chosen as it will help you understand the history of this city in the best possible way.
Along with this, these ancient temples might even inspire you to begin your spiritual journey! Here are the most famous temples in Thanjavur that you must visit on your next trip: –
1. Brihadeeswara or Rajarajeshwara Temple
A shiva temple in Thanjavur that has caught the attention of millions of travellers is the Brihadeeswara temple. Reputed to be one of the largest temples in this part of the country, it is a fine example of Dravidian architecture. Located in the southern bank of the Kaveri river, Brihadeeswara or Pragatheeshwar temple in Thanjavur has been linked with several mythological stories and folklore. Raja Raja Chola I, the king who commissioned this temple’s development is said to have a vision of Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur while visiting Sri Lanka (erstwhile Ceylon). The idea was to build a temple that showcases the grandeur of his empire. It is divided into five main sections, namely, the sanctum and Vimana (tower), the Nandi hall, the assembly hall (mukha mandapam), the gathering hall (maha mandapam), and the Prakara (pavilion). As one of the biggest temples in Thanjavur, it is best to take out at least a day from your itinerary for this particular tourist spot. Tiruchirapalli International Airport is 60 km away, so you can hire a private taxi and visit this temple as soon as you land in Thanjavur.
2. Shri Airavatesvara Temple
Shri Airavatesvara temple is a UNESCO world heritage site owing to its mesmerising ambience and spiritual significance in South India. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this temple in Thanjavur was constructed during the reign of Raja Raja Chola II. According to mythology, its name is derived from the white elephant that Lord Indra used as a vehicle. His white colour was restored by Lord Shiva after being cursed by Durvasa at the very centre of this temple’s grounds. You can still read about this legend written on a stone set on the premises. Although it is not amongst the biggest temples in Thanjavur, its beauty cannot be underestimated. Visiting hours are between 6 am to 8 pm every day without any entry charges. Our recommendation would be to visit it in the early hours of the day when the crowd is comparatively less. On your way back, do visit the small town of Kumbakonam that’s famous for its coffee. Make sure to try it out fresh out of the pot!
3. Ramaswamy Temple
While you are enjoying that hot cup of Madras kaapi or “degree coffee” in Kumbakonam, you should consider visiting a famous temple near Thanjavur called Ramaswamy temple. Dedicated to Lord Rama, the construction of this enchanting temple took place in the 16th century. This was during the rule of the Nayakkars and hence, the architecture is heavily influenced by their culture. The unique characteristic of this temple is that it has been carved out of a single stone. Yes, you read that right! The 64 pillars that surround the main shrine have stories from the Ramayana engraved on them. Reaching this temple is fairly easy as it located only 2 km from the Kumbakonam Railway Station.
4. Brihadeshwara Temple, Gangaikonda Cholapuram
As the namesake of the most famous temple in Thanjavur, this Hindu shrine is equally fascinating for visiting travellers. Brihadeshwara or Bruhadeshwar Mandir is located near Thanjavur in a quaint village called Gangaikonda Cholapuram. The reason behind the construction of this temple was to make it a larger version of the one located in the former capital of the Cholas. Constructed by the son of the Raja Raja Chola, it is considered to be the biggest temple near Thanjavur with almost the same architecture in the main shrine. As one of the “Great Living Chola Temples”, this should be a part of your itinerary as it is amongst the top Thanjavur sightseeing places.
5. Kampaheswarar Temple
By now, you must have caught up with how important temple culture is in the state of Tamil Nadu. Another marvel that was constructed near Thanjavur is the Kampaheswarar Temple. It is located in the town of Thirubuvanam, very close to Kumbakonam. So, if you are planning to visit either one of these places, it is suggested to visit its temples on the same day itself. Just like the Brihadeeswara or Rajarajeshwara Temple in Thanjavur, its architecture is primarily Dravidian. However, there is a slight deviation. The Vimana or tower of this Shiva temple is very high, a feature that cannot be found in any other shrine.
6. Vellai Vinayakar Koil
Kabartheeswarar Temple also known as Vellai Vinayakar Koil is dedicated to one of the avatars of Lord Ganesha. Set in Thiruvalanchuzhi, a village near Kumbakonam, this Hindu temple is famous for having several shrines within its complex. Along with this, there are seven-tiered gateway towers known as gopurams that enhance the magnificence of this temple. According to folklore, Lord Ganesha’s white idol has been created out of kadal norai or sea form by Lord Indra! Temple rituals are performed five times a day so you are bound to witness at least one of the pujas upon your visit. Make sure to carry water bottles, caps, and food as exploring the entire complex can take a few hours.
7. Punnai Nallur Mariamman Temple
The temple dedicated to Goddess Mariamman in Thanjavur is a place that you will not forget for a long time to come. This is mainly because of the breathtaking deity placed in the shrine and the story behind its installation. Venkoji Maharaja Chatrapati, the Maharashtrian king of Tanjore dreamt of Mariamman while visiting Samayapuram who told him that her idol was lost in a forest 3 km from the capital city. It is believed that the king rediscovered this idol and installed it in the temple, and named it Punnainallur Mariamman. The location of this temple is 20 km from the main city, therefore, it is recommended to hire a taxi or rent a car while enjoying a beautiful drive to this temple.
8. Swamimalai Swaminathaswamy Temple
Known as the fourth abode of Lord Murugan, Swamimalai Temple welcomes thousands of devotees seeking the blessings of the son of Shiva and Parvati. It is one of the only two temples that maintains the iconography of showcasing the elephant as the original mount of the deity. It is also called Arulmigu Swaminatha Swamy Temple as the idol is installed atop a 60 feet hillock with three gateway towers and sixty steps leading up to the temple. Visitors are allowed to attend the rituals that are actively performed six times a day. Flowers, fruit, and other offerings are available right outside the temple.
9. Thyagaraja Temple
As one of the biggest temples in India, Thyagaraj Temple in Thanjavur is a tourist destination that should not be missed out on. Spread across 30 acres of land, this Shiva temple was constructed by the Pallavas in the 7th century but the actual expansion was done during the reign of the Cholas two centuries later. Reputed to be a dedicated centre of learning, several inscriptions can be found across the temple even today. The best time to visit the Thyagaraja temple is during the chariot festival held in the month of April every year. It is open to the public from 5 am to 12 pm during the day and from 4 pm to 9 pm in the evening.
10. Thanjai Mamani Koil
Thanjai Mamani Koil or Thanjapureswarar Temple is a set of three Hindu temples located in Thanjavur. Set on the highway that connects Kumbakonam with Thanjavur, reaching these temples is not difficult as state buses, taxis, and other modes of transportation are available. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, these three temples are located within a 1 km radius of each other. The importance of these temples in Hinduism is significant because they are collectively termed as a “Divyadesam”. This means that these temples belong to 108 Vishnu temples revered across India. The timings are from 7 am to 12 pm in the daytime and 5 pm to 8.50 pm during the evening for all three temples.
The ancient heritage of South India can be witnessed in these majestic temples located in Thanjavur. For that reason alone, your vacation to this part of Tamil Nadu can be an enlightening experience for sure!