The Great Library of Thanjavur


Throughout history, powerful capitals have all boasted of having great libraries - almost symbolic of the great wisdom and power these cities stored. Go to Thanjavur and you will come across one of the oldest libraries that is still in use in Asia. The Sarasvati Mahal Library, which houses one of the finest collection of old manuscripts. This library is also considered the greatest legacy of Maharaja Serfoji II (1777-1832 CE) of Thanjavur or Tanjore. That is saying a lot, given that it was Serfoji under whose patronage the Tanjore painting and Bharatnatyam as a dance form flourished.

The city of Thanjavur which lies 279 kms away from Chennai, was once the capital of the Medieval Cholas and it is still famous for the grand temple of Raja Raja Chola, it houses. But a lot of the later fame for Thanjavur came thanks to the Maratha kings who ruled over this sliver of land between 1675 and 1855 CE.



Maharaja Serfoji
Maharaja Serfoji|Wikimedia Commons/ The San Diego Museum of Art

The Sarasvati Mahal Library houses one of the finest collection of old manuscripts

Of the Maratha Rajas of Thanjavur, the most famous has to be Maharaja Serfoji, a great patron of learning and the arts. He expanded the old state library of the Nayak Kings (who ruled between 1535 - 1673 CE) transforming it into a collection of rare books from across the world. Go to the Sarasvati Mahal Library and you will find a rare collection of palm leaf manuscripts and papers written in Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, English, Marathi and a few other languages that are indigenous to India. The collection comprises over 60,000 printed books, 45,000 manuscripts. It also contains 12,000 documents in the ancient Modi script that was used to write Marathi in till early 20th century.

18th century Tanjore- style painting of Sarasvati, the Godless of learning, displayed in the library
18th century Tanjore- style painting of Sarasvati, the Godless of learning, displayed in the library|Official Website of ‘The Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library’

The collection comprises over 60,000 printed books, 45,000 manuscripts

The most notable books in the Sarasvati library collection include rare texts on grammar and medicine, two interesting recipe books the Bhojna Kuttukalam and Sarabhendra Phakshastram, which detail the recipes of the Maratha court of Thanjavur , providing great insights into the time. Another rare and interesting manuscript found at the library is called Shabdartha Chintamani created by a person called Chidambara Kavi. Nothing is known of the author, but what is unique about this book is that if it is read left to right, it contains the story of the Mahabharata and if it is read right to left it tells the story of the epic Ramayana!

Serfoji’s love for books also compelled him to set up one of the first printing presses in the region. The press was the first to publish great works in Sanskrit and it is thanks to Serfoji’s insistence that the press used the Devanagari script across its Sanskrit prints, that Sanskrit is so closely associated with Devanagari. Until this time, Sanskrit was written in regional scripts.

Interiors of the Sarasvati Mahal Library
Interiors of the Sarasvati Mahal Library|Wikimedia Commons/Wiki-uk/CC 3.0

The collection comprises over 60,000 printed books, 45,000 manuscripts

Serfoji II's successor, Shivaji of Thanjavur had a relatively shorter reign, from 1832 to 1855 CE. Following his death the British refused to recognise his heir, as he was adopted and annexed the Kingdom of Thanjavur. In the wake of this, the Sarasvati Mahal Library was mostly neglected. No notable additions were made, but the printing press continued publishing manuscripts under the name of Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library (TMSSM Library) right up to 1980. These are considered to be extremely valuable even today.

Today the Sarasvati Mahal Library is a designated Manuscript Conservation Centre under the National Mission for Manuscripts and even houses a museum.

Do visit the library when you head to Tanjore. There are thousands of rare books that haven't been read for decades over here!


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The library is 2.8 kms away from Thanjavur Railway Station. The closest airport to Thanjavur is Trichy International Airport, nearly 58 km away

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