Sarasvati Mahal Library: Legacy of Thanjavur’s Scholar-Kings

  • bookmark icon

    BOOKMARK

In the city of Thanjavur is a treasure, that is a gift from the city’s rulers, including a king who without a kingdom turned to scholarly pursuits. ‘Priceless’ is the only word that can be used to describe the valuable collections of the Sarasvati Mahal Library, started by the Nayak rulers of Thanjavur and developed by Marathi King, Maharaja Serfoji II. Among its many treasures is a manuscript, which when read from left to right is the Ramayana, and whenread from right to left is the story of Krishna! Its palm-leaf manuscripts are showpieces of its collection, which includes 49,837 manuscripts, 60,000 books, 12,000 documents and so much more.

Housed within the Thanjavur Palace complex, the library is one of the finest and rarest collections of manuscripts and books in Indiaand is said to be one of the oldest libraries in South Asia.

The library is formally named the ‘Thanjavur Maharaja Serfoji's Sarasvati Mahal Library’, after the Maratha King of Thanjavur, Serfoji II (r. 1798-1832), who built it into the impressive collection it boasts today. But it wasn’t Serfoji II who founded this grand institution; the fabulous collection we see today was started by the Nayak rulers of Thanjavur around 500 years ago.

Thanjavur & Its Learned Kings

The historic city of Thanjavur, with its prime location in the Cauvery delta, came to prominence during the reign of the Medieval Chola dynasty (9th-11th CE), as the dynasty’s capital. It later came under the Madurai Nayaks, the Marathas of Thanjavur and then the British Empire.

Brihadisvara Temple, Thanjavur

The Thanjavur Nayaks, who succeeded the Cholas, ruled from 1532 CE to 1673 CE. They were great patrons of the arts, and encouraged literature, drama, music and fine arts. The Sarasvati Mahal Library was established during the reign of Raghunatha Nayak (r. c. 1600-1634), as a palace library, to house the collection of these kings. It was then called the ‘Sarasvati Bhandar’.

Raghunatha Nayak’s court was filled with scholars who were prolific writers, and their work was stored in the Palace Library. And since the Nayaks were initially provincial governors under the Vijayanagara Empire till the 15th century CE, they brought with them a collection of works from the Vijayanagara period, which was stored in the library.

Vyankoji Raje Bhosale | Wikimedia Commons

In the 17th century CE, the Marathas took over from the Nayaks, with Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s younger brother, Ekoji or Vyankoji Bhosale, establishing the Maratha kingdom in Thanjavur. The Marathas added to the culture and legacy of their predecessors. In fact, many of the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur, being scholars themselves, took a keen interest in enriching the library’s collection. While several kings made their contributions, the turning point for the library was during the reign of the Maratha king of Thanjavur, Serfoji II, who developed the library’s vast and varied collection.

Who Was Serfoji II?

Born into the royal Bhosale family in 1777 CE, Maharaja Serfoji II (r. 1798 to 1832) was adopted by the Thanjavur king, Raja Thuljaji, as his son and successor. As a child, Serfoji was placed under the tutelage of the Danish missionary, Father Schwartz, who was a close friend of Raja Thuljaji. Father Schwartz introduced the young Prince to Western learning and Serfoji became a scholar in Sanskrit, Marathi, Tamil, English, French, German and other languages.

Maharaja Serfoji II | Wikimedia Commons

He ascended the throne in 1798 CE but ruled only for a year because, in 1799 CE, he signed a treaty with the British that deprived him of his powers, making him the last sovereign Maratha king of Thanjavur. With no kingdom or rule, Serfoji II turned his attention to developing literature and other arts in Thanjavur. It was under his rule that the world-famous Thanjavur paintings, the classical Bharatanatayam dance form, and literary and scientific pursuits flourished. Naturally, he turned his attention to the Sarasvati Mahal Library.

Serfoji II went to great lengths to develop its collection, a large part of which was built during a pilgrimage he made to Benares in 1820, accompanied by 300 people, including artisans, copyists and pandits. In the holy city of Benares, he asked the pandits to collect and copy Sanskrit works from all the renowned Sanskrit centres in North India.

The Maratha ruler is also credited with introducing the printing press to Thanjavur in 1805. Serfoji II was a very progressive ruler and he used the press to print copies of great works in the Devanagari script for public circulation. Over the years, the library boasted a massive collection of around 39,300 Sanskrit manuscripts, 5,968 Tamil manuscripts, 3,000 Marathi manuscripts and 822 Telugu manuscripts.

Interiors of the Thanjavur Palace | Wikimedia Commons

With Serfoji II’s death in 1832, the library lost its greatest patron king. Serfoji II was succeeded by his son, Shivaji of Thanjavur, who ruled as a titular head from 1832-1855. After his death, left with no heir, Lord Dalhousie’s ‘doctrine of lapse’ spelt the end of the glorious Maratha era in Thanjavur.

A New Era

In 1918, the priceless collection of the Sarasvati Mahal Library was thrown open to the public for the first time. According to the Head Librarian, Dr S Sudarshan, “The library used to give access only to language scholars and experts to study the manuscripts.”

Here are the ten most valuable manuscripts in the library:

Siva Para Pancaratna Sloka: The manuscript consists of five shlokas composed by Kavi Gurudas in praise of Lord Pancanatheeswara at Thirvaiyaru. While the naked eye sees shlokas written in the Devanagari script, viewing it under a microscope will take your breath away, for each letter is created out of the word ‘Siva’, repeated over a hundred times!

Shabdartha Chintamani and Kathatrayi: Written by Chidambarakavi, both these manuscripts show the linguistic genius of the poet, who is said to have used many rare techniques of writing to compose this work. Read the Shabdartha Chintamani from left to right and it narrates the story of the epic Ramayana. Read the same stanzas from right to left and you would be reading the story of Krishna! Similarly, the Kathatrayi narrates stories from the Ramayana and Bhagavatam.

Phalavati: This is one of the oldest palm-leaf manuscripts in the library. It contains a glossary on the Purva Mimamsa Sutras of Sage Jamini. The Mimamsa, meaning ‘reflection’, is among the six important schools of ancient Indian philosophy. The manuscript is dated to around 1600 CE.

Panchapakshi Sastram: This pocket-sized, palm-leaf manuscript deals with astrological facts through ‘five birds’.

Bhagavad Gita: It is one of the smallest, pocket-sized manuscripts available in the library in the Sanskrit language.

A painting depicting the battle scene from the Ramayana | Wikimedia Commonss

Citra Ramayana: This paper manuscript depicts the first three kandas of the Ramayana - Bala, Ayodhya and Aranya – in miniature paintings of the Maratha period (1676-1855 CE). For each painting, an explanation is provided in Telugu. This type of manuscript is believed to be very rare in South India.

KambaRamayanam: This is one of the largest palm-leaf manuscript bundles in the library, containing all seven kandas of the Ramayana on 537 leaves. The Kamba Ramayana, also known as Ramavataram, was written by Tamil poet Kambar in the 12th century CE. This work, based on the Valmiki Ramayana, is regarded as a Tamil classic.

Adi Shankaracharya | Wikimedia Commons

Bhamati: This is the oldest paper manuscript in the library. It is a commentary on Adi Shankaracharya’s Bhashya, written by Vachaspati Mishra. This manuscript, written in 1468 CE, was acquired from Benares by Serfoji II himself.

Aswa Sastram: A unique part of the library’s collection are its painted manuscripts. One of them is the Aswa Sastram, an album picture on horses. It is a treatise by Nakula on the science of horses as expounded by Shalihotra, Susruta, Garga, Surya and other classical authors.

Modi Manuscripts: Among the most important manuscripts are the ones written in the Modi script, said to be the only indigenous source of the history of the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur. This script was once used to write the Marathi language and used in the courts of the Maratha rulers, both in Thanjavur and Maharashtra.

The library has 1,342 Modi documents, which record daily accounts, letters of correspondence, diaries, orders and petitions, among other things. Letters of correspondence between the French and the Marathas dating to the 18th century CE are also housed in the library.

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

The Sarasvati Mahal Library also has an impressive collection of over 65,000 books in English, Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu and other Indian languages. This diverse range of books is courtesy Serfoji II, who was a bibliophile. He collected around 4,500 books from foreign countries, written in English, French, Latin, Italian and other languages. Being a scholar, the king himself had authored quite a few books in Marathi and Sanskrit. Interestingly, all the books in his personal collection are autographed by Serfoji II.

Serfoji II also left behind a fascinating collection of maps and atlases. These maps are of great historical significance, for they include ancient geographical and historical details, sea routes, political divisions and their boundaries.

And it wasn’t works and atlases that interested Serfoji II. He was a patron of the iconic Thanjavur paintings. Originating during the rule of the Nayaks, they were further developed by the Maratha kings. Known for their distinctive technique and style, which involved paintings on glass and wood and miniature paintings, they flourished in Serfoji II’s time.

Thanjavur Painting | Wikimedia Commons

In fact, walk into the library and one of the first things you will notice are artworks in the signature Thanjavur style. Some unmissable ones are paintings of Goddess Saraswati, Adi Shankaracharya, Serfoji II, Samartha Ramdas and Krishna and Yashoda.

With its enormous collection, the library is an important centre for researchers and scholars but its in-person readership has plummeted. Dr Sudarshan says, “Nowadays, research scholars are not interested in visiting the library, to sit and read books. They mostly get the information they need from the Internet. So the number of readers is very low. On average, only ten to fifteen students visit the library every day.”

To keep up with the changing times, the library started digitizing its tremendous collection in 2015. It’s the best way to keep the legacy of the Thanjavur rulers alive.


This article is part of a five-part series on some of the great libraries of India and the incredible collections they hold. The series has been commissioned in memory of Dr G R Dalvi and Mrs Ratan G Dalvi, by their son Nitin Dalvi.

Best of Peepul Tree - Our History Shop