Wednesday, 23 September 2020


#AuthorIndumatiRaman Today is the 243rd birth anniversary of Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji II . My humble and grateful homage to this dynasty of erudite scholars whose rule saw the Golden Era of Carnatic music, Classical Bharata Natyam, Bhagavata mela, Literature, Painting, Sculptures and monuments.

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An appreciation of the contribution of the Maratha kings of Thanjavur to music, dance, opera  literature, science , temples and monuments.

(Image courtesy serfojimaharjamemorial museum)

Every now and then, the subject of Maratha rule in Thanjavur, in the deep south of India, pops up in connection with the once magnificent palace, temples and monuments which are now in ruins, the one-off reports about Bhagavata Mela natakams  or dance compositions. There is more to this dynasty than is commonly known.
Ekoji I, son of Shahaji Bhonsle, was sent to Thanjavur to aid the Nayaks who were fighting to retain their hold but he established his own supremacy and Maratha rule in Thanjavur. In 1676, the Maratha kings gained control over the rich, fertile and culturally active Thanjavur region and till 1855 contributed prolifically to the dance, drama and literature of classical languages, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu and Marathi. The region was comparatively well-protected from Mughal and foreign invasions, so hundreds of artistes sought refuge in these lush lands.
Maratha soldiers had earned a fine reputation in the armies of the Deccan as they specialized in military tactics, cavalry and administration. They were dependable and fearless.
Thanjavur was then the richest region in the south at that time. The Kaveri delta ensured that the granaries were overflowing and water was available in plenty. The kings left the administration of the land to their elected representatives while they indulged in their scholastic and artistic pursuits. Deeply religious, they regularly went on pilgrimages. Towards the end of their life, Ekoji II and Shahji II renounced the world.
Ekoji I  did not introduce any major changes in the administration and Telugu continued to be the court language. Tamil, Telugu and Marathi were common languages spoken and understood by most of the population. Even today, Thanjavur is the cultural crucible of Tamil, Telugu and Marathi culture which flow freely in the region.

Literature, poetry, music and musical dance-theatre became the focus of the artistic activity during the Maratha regime.  Maratha kings were patrons and were themselves multilingual scholars who contributed to the corpus of the arts. The kings welcomed artistes of all languages. Western music and new instruments were introduced by the royal scholars.

Shahji II is revered by the theatre fraternity in the country as the first to write and stage a formal Marathi play and is honoured as pioneer of Marathi theatre. He gifted land to musicians and Brahmins where they could continue to practice and teach their art and knowledge. He wrote on the science and theory of music. He was a staunch supporter of Brahmin Bhagavata Mela. A chatram in the name of his wife Muktambal, in the form of a chariot, is well-preserved even today.

Tulaja I was a master in astrology and ayurvedic medicine besides being a prolific composer of music and plays. He built a temple to the Varaha or Boar, the third incarnation of Vishnu. Tulaja I’s great contribution to the musical history of our country is the text on musicology, Sangita Saramritam.  Tulaja I’s eldest son Ekoji II succeeded him to the throne. Although he ruled for just a year, he earned everlasting fame and honour with his Marathi Bhagavata Mela natakams like Sakuntala and Kamalambal Parinayam. Ekoji’s wife Sujanbai, who ruled after his death, gifted them a village Ekojirajapuram where the Bhagavatars could live in comfort.  
Tulaja I’s son Pratapasimha’s composed twelve dramas on mythological characters. His son Tulaja II continued the good work by his predecessors.
Amarasimha was a composer of plays in Marathi, and although he was embroiled in the political wars as a ruler, he continued his forays into literary accomplishments.
Sarabhoji II, or Serfoji II, had the benefit of education in western languages and culture. He set up a printing press with Devnagari font in 1805. Printing paper was manufactured in Kumbhakonam, Pandanallur, Tirukattupalli and Mannargudi. Astrology was high on the interest list of the Maratha kings. An almanac was printed every year by the palace. The printing press maintained the special symbols and signs used by astrologers in a separate trunk. The material for the binding and the cloth cover came from the court.
Their inclusive nature and catholic attitude was demonstrated during Moharram for the Muslim population to order a series of bells to ring hourly during the night. This served as an alarm to help the religious followers rise early.
A University was started where students could be taught Arts and fine arts like painting, sculpture and music. Astronomy, Philosophy, and languages like Persian, Arabic, Telugu, Sanskrit and English were introduced. All these came under the common umbrella institution named Nava Vidya.

Sarabhoj II was fascinated by the western violin and introduced it to Indian music for the first time. He studied western music from a London School which sent him lessons regularly. He became adept at composing pieces for the music band which had musicians play rare western instruments.
Classical music and dance was at all time high during this time when artistes were welcomed and honoured at his court. He encouraged sports like wrestling. He encouraged and allotted lands for the sport in the eastern and western suburbs of the region. He enjoyed the trust and faith of the local population and could have easily raised an army to oust the British.
Sarabhoji II was sensitive to the cultural treasures he had accumulated in the Library. They would have been the first targets of the inimical armies and they would be lost to posterity. His love and respect for the arts, native science and literature overruled thoughts of war.
His most significant achievement was the expansion of the Saraswathi Mahal Library, the largest collection of medieval manuscripts and books acquired from all over the world. The Library was the centre of knowledge dispersal and the staff were highly qualified and trained to develop their departments. One section of the staff specialized in law and justice. A formal court dealt with four levels of hearing beginning from the petty cases to the Supreme court for serious cases.
Medical studies were a favourite with Sarabhoji II who was an expert healer of eye infections and diseases.  He ordered for books on the subjects from all over the world and preserved them in the Library. His payments were mostly through barter of his gold and ornaments as he had no princely funds to pay for them.

Tulaja established a Dhanvantri Mahal to manufacture and preserve native medicines. Unani and Ayurvedic systems of medicine were followed. The best quality camphor was manufactured for the use of temples which funded and supported the factory.
Veterinary specialists oversaw the healing and health of horses and elephants.

Effective water management by building dams to save water and open them at regular periods ensured that the farmers never suffered drought.
 As a vassal of the British, Sarabhoji II built a small fort to commemorate the victory of the British at Waterloo in 1815. The Bhonsle rajas built new temples and renovated old ones. The entire pilgrimage route from Thiruvaiyaru to Rameswaram is lined with chatrams or choultries which are rest houses for pilgrims and provided health care facilities. Pigeon-house towers dot the landscape. The pigeon houses were cleaned every day and the droppings were collected as rich manure material.
The splendid royal palace at Thanjavur was built during the previous Nayak’s reign. Spread over a hundred acres, the unique architectural features of the buildings reflect the Nayak’s sensibility with a touch of Roman influence. The Maratha kings expanded the structure, modifying it to suit their needs.
A richly decorated palace at Thiruvarur was built for the royal family’s convenience during their frequent visits to the temple. The kings applied a scientific bent of mind to fine arts and native medicine.
The last Maratha king of his dynasty, Sivaji II, encouraged Tamil and Telugu poetry. He was attracted to Lavanis, a Marathi folk form with catchy rhythms. He honoured artistes and was a talented composer. Besides chatrams, Sivaji II built four road bridges across the river Kaveri which are in use today.
The Thanjavur court had become the nucleus from which Bhagavata Mela, Sadir (classical dance), vocal and instrumental music reached the pinnacle of excellence. Literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, bronzes dance and music were of the highest standards and have been nurtured in this region from the times of the Cholas, the Nayaks and the Marathas.