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Tanjore

The vast delta of the Kaveri River is a fertile rice-growing region, and Tanjore is its busiest rural centre. Once serving as the capital of the powerful Chola dynasty from the 9th century, perhaps the most remarkable civilisation of Dravidian history, Tanjore was historically the most important city in central Tamil Nadu. The Cholas left behind a dizzying historical legacy and were one of the few kingdoms to expand Hinduism beyond India. It was later subsumed into the Vijayanagar Empire, which appointed governors, known as the Nayaks to rule the southern parts of their territory. With the fall of the Vijayanagar Empire, the Nayaks swooped in to form their own dynasty which lasted until 1675. The city changed hands once more before the British took control of the city in 1855. Today Tanjore is a crowded, hectic, modern Indian town, but the past is still very much part of the present; it is an important centre of South Indian religion, art and architecture, with the Brihadishwara Temple, an outstanding example of ancient Chola architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, at the forefront.

The sheer size and magnificence of the temple is in itself an expression of the Chola’s self-confidence. The 62-metre high vimana is topped by an 80-tonne granite dome, and somehow the unpainted ochre foundation blocks makes it all the more beautiful; the stone, with its restrained carvings, glows in the sun, and the shrine entrance is guarded by a six-metre long Nandi. The temple courtyard has stone colonnades decorated with frescoes and tranquil bas-relief figures - the perfect place to shelter from the sun and watch the busy Hindu temple life unfold. We recommend heading there for early evening, as the temple grounds are simple spectacular in the setting sunlight. The Cholas were great art patrons and commissioned exquisite bronzes, and there is a large collection in the Tanjore Museum, located in the city's labyrinthine royal palace. One room in particular houses the Nataraja collection, a group of beautiful bronzes devoted to Shiva as Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance.

Tanjore is perfectly located in between Chettinad and Pondicherry, and is a must visit for anyone who is interested in south Indian history and culture. We recommend spending a few days here, staying at the ultra-luxe Svatma, and from here you can use it as a base from which to explore other Dravidian highlights, such as Trichy and Kumbakonam.

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