Life beyond the vault

As travellers most of us are aware of the Pyramids of Egypt, the tombs of New Delhi and Agra. But what about the tombs of Tamil Nadu? Among the many monuments that don’t make it to the itinerary of tourists is the Kailasa Mahal or Raja Gori in Thanjavur. Even local guides have little knowledge about it.

For those who would like to know of Thanjavur beyond the Brihadeeswara temple, the mausoleum complex of the Marathas are fascinating structures of brick and stucco that take one back in time.

The Maratha dynasty ruled Thanjavur from 1674-1855. The descendants continue to live in the palace, maintain the temples and the tomb complex. We have the court documents from Maratha rule in the Sarasvati Mahal Library. They are in Marathi written in Modi script and describe the daily court life and administration.

The administration of the kingdom was through 12 departments or Mahals — Pothe Mahal (treasury), Dharji Mahal (tailoring and clothes), Mubath Mahal (kitchens), Jasuth Mahal (spies), etc. One of the departments was Kailasa Mahal, the royal mausoleum, which consists of temples. There was a practice of building shrines for Siva or Parvati at the place where a king or queen was cremated.

Once covering almost 20 acres, it now occupies only three acres owing to heavy encroachments. Only four to five monuments can be seen, though there are at least 28 in various stages of dilapidation. The site is near Karandhai bus stop on the banks of river Vadavar. Locals know it as ‘Raja Gori.’ Attempts are on to map the area in the tourist circuit, but the effort needs support.

It is unlikely that there is such a set of monuments for a Hindu dynasty in India. Sadly we don’t know the names of the royalty in whose memory the monuments have been raised. The largest temple though is for Shivaji II, the last king, and his wives. All structures are in brick and stucco, but for one, which is built over a base of laterite. The brick is coated with stucco and then carved into beautiful shapes — one can see birds, couples, Mughal inspired onion domes, rosewater sprinklers and so on. In one of the structures, the balustrades are fashioned into elephants. Experts like Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, who currently heads the palace temples, believe that the most well-preserved structure was constructed in 1855 when Shivaji II passed away. There are a few smaller single-celled temples that must have been for his wives. When Shivaji II died, many of his wives lived in Mangala Vilas, the building in South Main Street, now almost in ruins.

The East India Company did not recognise his son and implemented the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ and took over the rule of Thanjavur. Bereft of patronage, slowly many of the palace buildings, including the Kailasa mahal, slipped into decay. Some of the mausoleums are now being used to fasten goats and store firewood. But for history buffs, the monuments provide a fascinating glimpse into the Maratha history of Thanjavur and are wonderful spots for photographers to capture the town beyond the Big Temple. Contact for access, Sambhaji Bhonsle +9199946 86984 or +9194436 02333.

(The author may be contacted at pradeepchakravarthy75@

Kailasa Mahal, once covering almost 20 acres, has now shrunk to three acres and only 4-5 monuments can be seen though there are at least 28 monuments.


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