Thanjavur was the capital of Imperial Cholas. Historical references on Thanjavur are available only after the 7th Century A.D. The epigraphical references on Thanjavur are available at Rock fort edicts of Trichirapalli. The first literary reference about Thanjavur is available in the hymns of Saint Appar of the 7th Century. Hence forward literary and epigraphical references are available on Thanjavur.
In 846 A.D the first imperial chola king Vijayalaya Chola captured Thanjavur territory from a Muttarayar King and established his capital at Thanjavur and built a palace. From the reign of Vijayalaya Chola, Thanjavur continues to be the capital of the subsequent Chola rulers also:
- ADIDYA. I (871-907 A.D)
- PARANTAKA I (907-950 A.D)
- GANDARADITYA (950-956 A.D)
- ARUNJAYA (956-957 A.D)
- SUNDARACHOLA (957-970 A.D)
- MADHURANTAKA UTTAMA CHOLA (970-985 A.D)
- RAJARAJA I (985-1016 A.D)
Starting from Parakesari Vijayalaya, the successive rulers of Chola dynasty led invasions to Ceylon and during the days of Raja Raja Chola far-off territories such as Kerala, Coorg, Parts of Mysore and Kalinga (Orissa) were subjugated and his successor Rajendra organised a North Indian campaign which led him up to the Ganges.
Most of these conquests were lost to the Cholas in the subsequent reigns but it is noticeable that these campaigns and conquests were responsible for the long and continued stability and prosperity of the kingdom and for the resultant encouragement and development of cultural pursuits. After the demise of Rajaraja I, Rajendra I held Thanjavur as his capital for 10 years from his accession (1014 A.D) and later (1025 A.D) shifted his capital to Gangaikonda Cholapuram. After the shifting of the capital, Thanjavur lost its prestige and glory as the capital of Cholas and relegated to the secondary position in the galaxy of capital cities of that time. At the close of reign of Rajendra III, the pandian empire at Madurai was at the height of its prosperity and has subdued the glory of the Chola Empire. In the battle between Maravarman Sundara Pandian and Rajaraja III the Thanjavur city was subjected to heavy damage and ruin by the Pandiya Army.
After the Pandiyas, Hoysala rulers ruled the Chola Mandalam for few years and in the 14th century, the Vijaya Nagar Empire brought Thanjavur under its control. During their reign, Thanjavur regained its lost glory. In 1535 A.D, Vijayanagara emperor Achutha Devaraya established the Thanjavur Nayak's rule. He appointed Sevappa Nayak as the first ruler of Thanjavur kingdom. The Nayak rule continued up to 1675 A.D. During the Nayak period also Thanjavur witnessed the flourishing of art, architecture, literature and other allied activities. The Nayakas established the Palace, Moats and fortifications in city of Thanjavur
After the Nayaks, the Marathas captured and ruled Thanjavur till 1855 A.D. Thanjavur was nourished and enriched with arts, literature, buildings, temples etc from the starting of 850 A.D till the end of the rule of the Maratha Kings in 1855 by different dynasties of Thanjavur Kingdom.
Albeit all political up heavel, Thanjavur is rightly acclaimed as the cultural citadel of Tamilnadu. Time was when it coruscated like a mammoth diamond and dazed all its beholders with its wonderous brilliance. It is situated amidst the vast deltaic tract of River Cauvery known as the "Granary of South India". Just as Egypt is called " the Gift of the Nile" so as also the Chola culture and Art may be called the gift of the Cauvery River.
It is said that the first Chola king, Karikal Cholan, who ruled over the Chola country in the later half of the first century A.D had built the Grant Anicut across the river Cauvery, which remains an engineering marvel even today and which is known as "Kallanai". The Great Rajarajan, the latter Chola King (985-1014 A.D.) built Rajareswaram, the Big temple at Thanjavur, which according to experts, is a standing classical monument of the Chola style of art and architecture.
Great poets, skilled builders and master craftsmen, savants and scholars and enlightened Kings combined to create a very sophisticated and advanced civilisation whose influence was felt not only in the Indian peninsula but also in the adjoining archipelago and as far as Orissa. Temples of grand designs and majestic proportions, embellished with the works of skilled sculptors, are the visible manifestations of the spirit and culture, priorities and principles, cherished values and beliefs of the people who lived in those days.
Today Thanjavur is well known throughout the world for its Big Temple or the Brihasdisvara temple, magnificent Palace, the famous Raja Serfoji' Sarasvati Mahal Library, Art Gallery and also known for its exquisite handicrafts, like Art plate, Pith work, bronze icons, Thanjavur paintings and classical south Indian musical instruments. If the Big Temple is an ancient landmark of Thanjavur, the Tamil University a Temple of learning could be spoken of, as its modern counterpart with its impressive temple-like facade along with its library housed in a circular building resembling the architectural style of India's parliament.