The opening of Svatma, a luxury property in Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu) back in 2015 was a cause for celebration among high-end tour operators. Long famed for its art and culture, the city lacked a hotel suitable for upmarket tours encompassing some of South India’s great sights.
Today Svatma (which in Tamil means ‘one’s own soul’) is a well-established and highly-regarded property. Positioned between Chennai/Pondicherry and Trichy and Madurai, Thanjavur is now a regular halt on Tamil Nadu’s tourist circuit. Standing in a quiet neighbourhood a little south of the centre, the hotel’s motto is ‘heritage in residence’. The original heritage building, which today has seven unique rooms’, was built for European missionaries in the mid-1800s. Today the adjoining Millennium Wing, which stands in what was part of the original gardens, has most of the accommodation; although new it boasts a deft ‘heritage-chic’ style.
There’s a banqueting/function hall (which during my stay hosted a performance of Bharatanatyam – one of India’s famous genres of classical dance), two restaurants and a small enclosed swimming pool. Over and above the gym and yoga centre, Svatma’s spa specialises in treatments and therapies inspired by siddha, a form of traditional Tamil medicine.
Yet in all likelihood visitors will probably spend most of their time exploring the city and its hinterland. This region was the ancient heartland of the mighty Cholas, a dynasty which for centuries controlled much of the southern part of India. Perhaps their most outstanding legacy is a series of astonishing temples which today are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The so-called ‘Great Living Chola Temples’ showcase the extraordinary architectural skills of ancient India and Thanjavur’s 11th-century Brihadisvara temple is an utterly unmissable sight. Moated and enclosed by fortifying walls, the soaring masonry tower above its inner sanctum is a prominent landmark. Every day thousands of people – mainly Hindu pilgrims – throng its central courtyard exploring numerous subsidiary shrines before making offerings in the main shrine (which cocoons one of the country’s largest lingams).
Other well-known sights include the former royal palace of the medieval Nayak rulers (which includes a moderately interesting museum and a one-of-kind library of ancient manuscripts). Among the Cholas’ other famed legacies, the craft of bronze-casting for statues and idols continues much as it did a millennium ago. Plenty of workshops encourage visitors and will happily explain the entire process from initial crude-looking casts to the final beautifully-
Silk weaving is another significant craft though competition from cheaper machine-made cloth, and not necessarily silk, means many of the region’s long-established weavers are now struggling to maintain their trade. Several ‘vedic schools’ (which offer a more traditional education) also allow visitors to drop by and hear vedic chanting, a time when their young pupils practice reciting the Vedas, Hinduism’s timeless sacred scriptures.
Amar Grover, April 2019