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Thanjavur: An inheritance for keeps

The temple town of Thanjavur has much to offer to a collector of Indian crafts

The traditionally preserved techniques of painting and doll-making in Thanjavur have earned GI tags. Photo:  iStock
The traditionally preserved techniques of painting and doll-making in Thanjavur have earned GI tags. Photo: iStock

Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu is famous for the Brihadisvara Temple, which together with two other 11th-century Chola temples is a Unesco World Heritage Site. But few know that the temple town is also a collector’s delight, with four distinctive handicrafts that have won GI (geographical indication) tags. Here’s a list of souvenirs to look out for in Thanjavur.

Dancing Dolls

Thalaiyatti Bommai are dancing bobble-headed dolls, painted in bright colours and intricate designs. During Dasara, the dolls are available everywhere—from stores to makeshift stalls. The papier mâché and clay dolls are set up in elaborate tiered displays that relate mythological stories during the Bommai Kolu celebrations as part of Dasara.

Metal Art Plates

Maratha king Serfoji II (Serfoji Bhonsle) was a patron of the arts and many of Thanjavur’s iconic crafts started during his reign and flourished. He’s credited with the original suggestion that resulted in another GI-tagged product—metal art plates created as gift items. Made of silver, brass, copper and sometimes bronze, the plates are embossed with figures of gods and goddesses surrounded by floral patterns.

Thanjavur Paintings

Thanjavur paintings are the town’s most famous product, instantly recognizable for their vivid colours, rich gold leaf work and glass bead inlay. They reflect the influences of both the Maratha period in the 1700s, when they originated, and of the Nayakas who ruled the region before the Marathas. Painted on wooden panels, their subjects are religious, representing Hindu gods and goddesses, and episodes from religious texts.

Saraswati Veena

Revered for its resonant quality, the Saraswati Veena is a Carnatic musician’s prized possession. Awarded the GI tag in 2013, each veena is made from the wood of a mature jackfruit tree, taking an artisan two-three months of patient chipping away to complete it. The bulb of the instrument is intricately carved with floral motifs or the image of Goddess Saraswati, and then polished for a gleaming finish.

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