If an elderly co-traveller had her way, the travel group I was part of would have spent all day in the sweltering heat of the bronze gallery, listening to her eloquent speech on the mighty Cholas. Granted, the Cholas dominate every narrative on Thanjavur. Masters of conquest. Builders of lofty temples. Veritable rock stars of their era.

The only hitch—we were at the Thanjavur Maratha Palace, on a heritage tour themed after the Marathas, during a weekend break from Chennai. And I was getting riled because my Maharashtrian ancestors were from Thanjavur. It seemed only fair that the Marathas got a share of the spotlight on this tour.

Compared to the Cholas, the Thanjavur Marathas are a modest blur in the background. Chhatrapati Shivaji’s half brother, Venkoji Bhonsle, set up the kingdom in Thanjavur in 1676, and the Marathas ruled Thanjavur for 179 years, until 1855, when the kingdom was annexed under Lord Dalhousie’s doctrine of lapse policy.

During our visit, we spent the warmer hours of the day indoors at the palace complex, and hung on to the archaeologist’s words as he led us through the rich heritage of the palace associated with the Marathas, pointing out an amalgam of styles and techniques.

Entering the Durbar Hall was like stepping into the 3D version of a Tanjore painting—its pillars, arches and ceiling had stuccos of well-proportioned gods and their mounts, painted in extravagant colours. Although Tanjore painting itself originated during the Nayak era, the Marathas introduced indigo to the palette.

From the musty confines of the library, we drove 65km south-east to Mallipattinam, where Serfoji II built an eight-storeyed, hexagonal pagoda-like tower called Manora Fort. This was built to commemorate the British victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

As the afternoon heat began to take its toll, our group voted to travel back to Thanjavur, only to add a 13km detour further north, into the town of Thiruvaiyaru, once we had returned. We visited saint-composer Thyagaraja’s samadhi (memorial) and stopped awhile at the riverbank. Classes were in progress at the elegant Kalyana Mahal, a building made by the Marathas that now functions as a music college.

This was when I realized the true contribution of the Thanjavur Marathas. They ruled during a fecund period in the history of Indian performing arts. Without their patronage, renowned composers like the Carnatic Trinity—Muthuswami Dikshitar, Syama Shastri and Thyagaraja—and the Tanjore Quartet—Chinnaiah, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu—who configured Bharatanatyam for the stage, may never have been able to create the vast body of work for which they are revered.

In hindsight, I suppose I envied my elderly co-traveller’s rootedness, the assurance that comes from belonging to a place. But I realize that my sense of belonging need not come from a place, but an ethos, maybe even one of acculturation—building on the good work of those who lived before me, adding only a few touches of my own.

Having said that, I wonder, with a touch of sly pride, what the co-traveller would do if the Thanjavur Maratha royal kitchens hadn’t introduced a dish whose assimilation into the Tamil ethos is so complete that it is considered a Tamil creation. What would she do without sambhar?

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros.

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