My wife and I arrived in Thanjavur on a hot afternoon in May. The drive through Tamil Nadu state in southeast India had been more pleasant than expected, and I daydreamed as the lime-green rice paddies and lotus ponds breezed by our car window. Indian roads are among the most dangerous in the world, but our driver and guide had adeptly navigated the hazards to bring us to the Brihadisvara Temple of Thanjavar, one of the Great Living Chola Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Direct flights from Mumbai and Chennai to nearby Tiruchirappalli (often abbreviated to Trichy) have made Thanjavur more accessible, so we felt it merited a visit. I was looking for a new hideaway to recommend, but the temple had our attention for the afternoon.
This thousand-year-old Hindu structure is a relic of the Chola empire (300 B.C.-1200 A.D.), the most powerful in a long line of Tamil dynasties that influences southern India to this day. The Tamil people defended themselves well against foreign invaders, so their distinct language and culture remain mostly intact. Despite having some of the largest Hindu temples in India, the area, like much of South India, has also evaded the tourist hordes.
Upon arriving at the temple, the Pradosham festival was in full swing, so we removed our shoes to join the throngs of barefooted worshippers, congregating around huge bull in the center of the complex. The combination of colors, sounds and stunningly ornate Dravidian architecture created a sense of euphoria. At the climax of the ceremony, milk and bright turmeric water were poured over the idol and later collected to be shared with the less fortunate.
After hours of festivities in the 90-degree heat, we were eager to dust off and relax at our hotel. Svatma, our accommodation for the next few nights, was a short drive from the temples of central Thanjavur. On arrival at the hotel we were greeted by the staff in an open-air entrance hall flanked by flowing fountains that drowned out the noise of the city. There, we were presented with cold towels, sandalwood paste for our foreheads (for a cooling, calming effect) and freshly squeezed melon and tamarind juices.
Svatma comprises a seven-room century-old family residence with a 31-room modern annex that was faithfully constructed in the style of the original home. All rooms are unique, and the proprietor, an antiques collector, has decorated it in period-appropriate furnishings. Her personal collection is on display throughout the hotel, creating a museum-like environment.
Fortunately, our suite proved to be comfortable, with a king bed and plenty of bottled water. Our bath was somewhat small, yet it was spotless, and the rain shower was satisfyingly hot and strong — a luxury in India. Hotel prices in Tamil Nadu are reasonable, so upgrades are affordable.
Refreshed from our showers and a change of clothes, we returned downstairs for dinner. The hotel’s main dining area is directly adjacent to the pool and serves strictly vegetarian cuisine. Over the course of three nights, we ate both à la carte and buffet-style meals. Unsurprisingly, the local dishes were consistently good, though I fear they dialed down the spice level for tourist palates. The idli (small rice pancakes) with a variety of vegetable sauces were especially enjoyable. Another favorite was the made-to-order breakfast dosas (pancakes). Try the gunpowder dosa, filled with a spicy blend of lentils, sesame and curry.
Most afternoons were spent cooling off by the pool and browsing The Times of India. It wasn’t the most impressive pool, but I found the small space to be intimate and relaxing. My wife was equally enamored of the spa, saying her massage was one of the best she’s ever had.
Our evenings were spent enjoying Tamil music and dance performances put on by the hotel. There is also a rooftop bar with expansive city views and basic cocktail service. While not the peak of luxury, I found Svatma to be an extremely relaxing hideaway and an ideal base from which to explore the city of Thanjavur.
The tranquil garden atmosphere and authentic spirit of the place.
The bath in our suite was rather small.
The hotel restaurant is strictly vegetarian.
Streets are chaotic in Tamil Nadu, so those unfamiliar with the region should hire an experienced guide to get you safely from place to place. In addition, the streets can be dirty, with huge drifts of plastic trash. I was often struck by the dissonance of great beauty and great squalor in a single glance. Despite this, we found many things to enjoy about the city, often catching a tuk-tuk with our guide to experience them.
There are two other Living Chola Temples near the city, Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Airavatesvara, in addition to innumerable smaller temples and shrines dotting the landscape. Aside from these, visitors can explore the many markets and antiques shops for bronze work produced by local craftsmen. I found Tanjore Collections near the palace to be a satisfying stop for both metal and fabric works, but be prepared to haggle. Watch the video below to get a feel for the town.
Thanjavur may not be an ideal place to start for a first-time visitor to India, but it will reward the experienced traveler with delicious food and mesmerizing architecture. A visit to the city is often part of an itinerary that includes other places of interest in the Tamil Nadu, such as Pondicherry, Chettinad and Madurai. It would also be a fantastic place to start a road trip across the wild Western Ghats to the beaches of Kochi on the Kerala coast. The monsoon rains fall from June to September, so plan accordingly.