India

Thanjavur Palace

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The Thanjavur Maratha Palace Complex, known locally as Aranmanai, was the official residence of the Bhonsle family who ruled over the Tanjore region from 1674 to 1855.

The palace is a mixed bag of ruin and renovation, superb art and random royal paraphernalia. The maze-like complex was constructed partly by the Nayaks who took over Thanjavur in 1535, and partly by a local Maratha dynasty that later ruled the region.

The palace stands surrounded by walls in the middle of the old city. Architecturally the highlight of a visit is likely to be the audience hall, which faces east onto the  main central court. It’s massive circular piers support broad lobed arches and a pointed vault with ribbed and fluted surfaces, all highly decorated. A large plaster composition depicting the coronation of Rama adorns the walls at the rear of the chamber.

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Occupying part of the palace is an art gallery, also referred to as the Rajaraja Museum. This houses a vast array of stone and metal sculptures, assembled from many sites in the Kaveri Delta. The highlight for me was the bronzes that are shown in the audience hall, where depictions of Shiva predominate in the early Chola art. The level of craftsmanship is outstanding, especially considering the age of many of these pieces on display.

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Visiting the palace complex is a little confusing, with limited signage you are very much left to explore as and where you can. The ticketing system doesn’t help either, access to different parts of the complex require specific tickets, and it didn’t take me long to realise I wasn’t able to visit all areas of the palace. With limited time for my visit, I had to resign myself to missing out some of the areas I was keen to see, in particular the Durbar Hall.

One random explore took me to the upper levels of the palace, where clearly no restoration has yet occurred. Some early faded murals and spectacular ceilings gave a hint of just how this palace must once have looked, but sadly the condition of these spaces was poor. The level of damage and graffiti surprised me, I probably haven’t seen anything like this since my visit to Tulja Lena Caves in Maharastra. I’m not sure if this site is under the protection of ASI, but clearly it warrants some attention in the near future.

A seven-storeyed tower with arcades on all sides stands freely outside the north-west corner of the complex. Sadly I didn’t have time to visit this.

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The complex is also home to the Saraswathi Mahal Library or Tanjore Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library, one of the oldest libraries in Asia.

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The Cholas came to power in the late 9th century, and until the late 13th century they ruled most of south India, Sri Lanka, the Maldive Islands, and even parts of the Indonesian island of Java from their homeland near Thanjavur (Tanjore) on the southeastern coast. They also maintained diplomatic ties with countries as distant as Burma (Myanmar), China, and Malaysia. Chola rulers were active patrons, and during their reign, poetry, drama, music, and dance flourished.

They also constructed enormous stone temple complexes decorated inside and out with painted and sculpted representations of the Hindu gods. However, some of the best-known artistic remains from this time period are the bronzes that were commissioned for each temple.

After visiting the Palace I dropped by one of the many establishments still creating bronzes in much the same way the Cholas did. The demonstration of the process was fascinating, well worth an hour out of my travels to sit in the shade and watch the process unfold.

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The Chola period bronzes were created using the lost wax technique. It is known in artistic terms as “Cire Perdue”. The Sanskrit Shilpa texts call it the Madhu Uchchishtta Vidhana.

Beeswax and kungilium (a type of camphor) are mixed with a little oil and kneaded well. The figure is sculpted from this mixture fashioning all the minute details. This is the wax model original.

The entire figure is then coated with clay made from termite hills until the mould is of a necessary thickness. Then the whole thing is dried and fired in an oven with cow-dung cakes. The wax model melts and flows out, while some of it vapourises.

The metal alloy of bronze is melted and poured into the empty clay-mould. This particular bronze alloy is known as Pancha Loham. When the metal has filled all crevices and has settled and hardened and cooled, the mould is broken off. The bronze figure thus obtained is then cleaned, finer details are added, blemishes are removed, smoothened, and polished well. Hence each bronze icon is unique and the mould cannot be used to create copies.

Naturally there were opportunities to purchase a bronze afterwards, and if you think the prices are high just remember the time it takes to create each piece, and that every mould can only be used once !

 


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