Tanjore Art – A Divine Legacy of Gold in South India’s Cradle of Arts

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This article by Manisha Sarade, National Law University, Mumbai

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There’s more to golden art than jewellery. Venture south to the Tanjore district in Tamil Nadu and witness the splendid ‘Tanjore Paintings’. Thanjavur is known for being home to some of the most famous historic structures in Tamil Nadu, including a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Brihadeeswarar Temple. But this dormant town in the state’s centre has much more to offer than just architectural marvels. In fact, for anyone with an interest in South Indian art, music and dance forms, Thanjavur is nothing short of a pilgrimage and thoroughly deserves the title of being ‘South India’s Cradle of Arts’.

Tanjore painting is a popular form of artwork that originated in Southern India. These paintings have been popular from the 16th century and have evolved under the reign of the Chola emperors and are famous for its use of gold. When the Marathas invaded Tanjore in Tamil Nadu many painters and artists migrated here and under their rule, this art form flourished.

Maharana Sangram Singh

This form of painting is distinguished by its use of gold and semi-precious or precious stones which is used to accentuate the design. Each painting tells a story, usually revolving around Hindu gods, Goddesses or Saints. In olden days, Tanjore paintings were placed in dark temple shrines by emperors. In a dim place, the gold used to enhance the painting.

The Tanjore painting is characterized by simple ionic compositions, rich colours, glittering gold foils that are laid on gesso work and glass inlay beads on precious and semi-precious gemstones. If you take a close look at the Thanjavur paintings, you will find out that it has an influence of the Maratha, Deccan, Vijayanagar and European styles of painting embedded in it.

For those who are fond of the Traditional Indian Paintings, Tanjore paintings are one of its kind to take interest in it. The rich cultural heritage that it carries within itself is a strong reason why people from around the world love to own a piece of the painting to keep as a souvenir in their houses and workplaces. The kind of vibe it has, everybody would like to keep it preserved in the years to come, fearing the fact that it might lose its charm in modern times.


Apparently, Thanjavur paintings haven’t got their name from any Sanskrit word like other Indian painting styles. Tanjore painting is Anglicized name for Thanjavur paintings and it has got this name from a city in South India. This city is where this painting style developed and thrived and hence it got this name. Thanjavur city is the centre for architecture, religion, and art of the South Indian region.

History – A Breathing Legacy

The history of Tanjore painting is unique and deliverable. The Thanjavur painting as we know it today was a result of the region’s artisans imbibing the influences of “the Vijayanagara murals, and through it Deccani painting, court painting…traditional sculpture in wood…and…folk painting,” writes art historian Jaya Appasamy in Thanjavur Painting of the Maratha Period. The book is a detailed study of the art form, which has its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Glorious Padmasana Gajalakshmi Tanjore Painting With Large Wooden Traditional Door Frame

The city of Thanjavur, 280 km south of Chennai, has not only seen the rule of powerful dynasties such as the Cholas, it has also been a thriving centre of art and architecture throughout history. Amid its rich and enduring artistic tradition are the Tanjore Paintings, a style of painting that originated and thrived in Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu in the 17th century, under the patronage of the region's Maratha rulers.

These ornate creations are beautiful panel paintings traditionally done on wooden boards and depict deities, and characters and scenes from Hindu mythology, the epics and the scriptures. Their signature feature are their embossed contours covered in glittering foil, beads and stones. Locally known as Palagai Padam, which translates into 'paintings done on wooden planks', Tanjore Paintings are a very important part of the living cultural legacy of Thanjavur.

Stunning Ganesha Tanjore Painting With Large Wooden Traditional Door Frame

Thanjavur was the imperial capital of the Cholas from the 9th to 13th centuries CE, a period during which the city reached its zenith in art and architecture. One of the symbols of this period that survives is the Brihadisvara Temple, which towers over the city. An architectural jewel and one of the most famous temples of South India, it represents the zenith of the Chola Empire and its temple-building tradition.

After the decline of the Cholas in the 13th century CE, Thanjavur was captured by the Pandyan King, Malavarman Kulasekara Pandyan I, in 1279 CE. He annexed the entire Chola kingdom. Over the following centuries, Thanjavur saw the rule of the Delhi Sultanate (briefly in the 14th century), followed by the Vijayanagar rulers (between 15th and 16th centuries), the Thanjavur Nayakas (16th-17th centuries) and the Marathas (17th-18th centuries). Interestingly, the legacy of these great rulers can still be found in Thanjavur today. While the temple architecture in the region represents the pinnacle of Chola architecture, the mural traditions of the Nayakas and the Cholas can be seen on temple walls, and the painting legacy of the Marathas in the Tanjore Paintings. It is said that the Tanjore Paintings draws their inspiration from the paintings done by the Nayakas.

Beautiful Large Panchamukhi Ganesha Tanjore Painting

Tanjore Painting, as we know it today, originated under the patronage of the Maratha rulers of Thanjavur in the 17th century CE and flourished under the most famous ruler of the line, Maharaja Serfoji II (1777-1832 CE), a great patron of learning and the arts. Thanks to him, large paintings of deities and portraits of Maratha rulers, their courtiers and nobility were painted and installed in Maratha palaces and other buildings.

Traditionally, it is the Raju community of Thanjavur and Tiruchi (also known as Jinigara or Chitragara) and the Naidu community of Madurai who painted in the Thanjavur style. It is believed that these artists were originally Telugu-speaking people from the Andhra region, who moved to Tamil Nadu after the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire in the 17th century and the founding of Nayaka rule in Madurai and Thanjavur. Tanjore Paintings are known for their vivid colours and rich embellishments, especially the use of gold or silver foil. The paintings usually depict a deity from Indian mythology, the epics or religious texts. Krishna, Vishnu and Lakshmi are commonly depicted in Tanjore Paintings, sometimes surrounded by subsidiary figures or elements such as temple arches, animals, trees etc. It is this depiction that made the paintings significant as objects of worship. One can also see the assimilation of many stylistic influences in these paintings –Tamil, Telugu, Maratha, Deccani, folk and even European, thanks to colonial rule. The art form was also influenced by other prominent painting styles which were under the Vijayanagara school, like the Kalamkari and Tirupati styles of painting. Tirupati paintings, produced in the famous temple town of Tirupati using different media and techniques, portrayed deities, and many were gilded and gem-set in a manner similar to Tanjore paintings.

The essence of the whole thing is that historically speaking, painters in the latter part of 19th century used to travel from village to village looking for patronage. They would settle down for a while in a village where some work was offered. They would then make paintings to the required subjects or specifications of the patrons, be paid very small sums of money which would be supplemented by a place to stay and adequate food. On completion they would move on to the next assignment in another village.

Each painting goes through several layers of work and is a labour of love, time and skill. The process begins by preparing the base, which was traditionally wood from the jackfruit tree or teak. Now, the base is usually plywood. The wooden base is cut to the required size and is covered with a layer of gum, originally made using tamarind seed. A cloth is pasted on the wood and left to dry. After this, a paste of glue and chalk powder, known as gesso, is applied to the cloth. Once the paste dries, the surface is smoothened and polished using a stone or an emery sheet or sand paper. It is on this surface that the artist draws the sketch of the painting.

Next, layers of the gesso paste are masterfully added to the sketch, carefully following its contours, to give it an embossed, three-dimensional look. Once dried, the embossed areas are covered with gold foil. A thin layer of the foil is placed on an embossed area and the foil is then cut to shape. The painting is enhanced by using glass beads, semi-precious stones and other decorative material.

The painting is then coloured in and allowed to dry. Traditionally, vegetable or natural colours were used but these have been replaced with chemical colours. The painting, once complete, is framed with a glass panel to protect it. As far as the maintenance is concerned, Tanjore paintings in and of themselves need to be preserved by framing them. The silk sarees with the Tanjore painting motifs on them however, need to be preserved like any other silk saree. It needs to be wrapped in Muslin along with naphthalene balls for protection against moths. It is preferable to dry clean them rather than wash them.

Large Goddess Rajarajeshwari Tanjore Painting | Traditional Colors With 24K Gold

Some spectacular examples of old Tanjore paintings, dated to the 17th and 18th centuries, can be seen at the famous Saraswathi Mahal Library in Thanjavur. This library is also considered the great legacy of Maharaja Serfoji II, who expanded it from being the state library under the Nayakas of Thanjavur. The Government Museum in Chennai and the Thanjavur Art Gallery also have fine collections of Thanjavur Paintings, depicting the Maratha kings of Thanjavur and allied subjects. While the wood and paints used in this craft have undergone a sea change, artists have also started making Tanjore Paintings on mediums such as glass, mirror and canvas.

The textual/oral traditions that influenced these paintings in the form of thematic representations

The inspiration for these paintings lies in the mythological stories in the Puranas, in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Also, Thanjavur paintings are known to have been inspired by the Kritis, the bhajans composed by famous musicians and saints. These form a part of the pool of inspiration which helped the artists to articulate the sacred themes in a visually striking manner. 

The Meticulous Effort that goes into Creating the Golden Art

Between 2nd century B.C. and 7th century A.D., gold in these paintings helped inspire a feeling of devotion. Notably, Tanjore paintings are completely handmade and do not employ any machinery. The subjects of these paintings are portrayed with cherubic faces and almond shaped eyes. Brilliant colour schemes and inlay of semi-precious stones, cut glass, pure gold foils and real pearls are the hallmark of Tanjore paintings. Several stages of meticulous work are involved before a Tanjore painting is completed. From making of the board sketching, muck work, inlaying of semi-precious stones, pasting the gold foil to painting of the subject, utmost care is given to details. Patience as well as precision are essential when working on a Tanjore painting.

The essential elements involved in the Art are as follows –

  • Wooden plank
  • Rich colours
  • Golden foil
  • Precious stones
  • Natural colours and Dyes
  • Highly intricate work

The usual practice is creating the Art is laid down below –

1.    To make a Tanjore painting, a sketch is first made on a cloth.

2.    This cloth is pasted on a wooden base, historically made from the jackfruit tree. Today, plywood is used as an alternative.

3.    The canvas is evenly coated with Limestone or French chalk and a binding medium.

4.    Once dry, the sketch is outlined with dark brown or black paint and painted using bright colours. These paintings have intricate brush strokes and graceful figures. The gold adds life and depth to the painting.

5.    In olden days, vegetable or mineral dyes were used in the painting. The colours used were specific to different segments of the painting. For example, Backgrounds were usually red or green, Lord Vishnu was coloured blue and Lord Nataraja was painted white, the colour yellow was used to paint Goddesses, the sky was painted blue or black depending on the story, the clothing and ornaments adorned by Gods and Goddesses were made of pure gold, and Gold, gemstones, pearls, glass beads, and precious stones are embossed over the painting. This gave the paintings a three-dimensional effect.

6.    Usually, gold foils are used in these paintings. Sometimes pure gold milk or dust is used as well. The use of pure gold makes the painting a splendid visual treat. Since gold was widely used, these paintings were considered a treasure. The shine of these paintings lasts for 80-100 years, as pure gold never fades.

The most-loved theme by Tanjore painters has been the image of baby Krishna, sitting on his golden throne with a pot of butter in his hands. He is elaborately bejewelled and the painting features gold in his jewellery, clothing and the throne.

The major forms of Tanjore Art:

There are multiple forms of Tanjore paintings, specific to respective regions like:

The Chettinad Tanjore painting

·      Originated Tanjore

·      Practised since 1600 AD.

·      Features bold colours and thick lines

The Mysore Tanjore painting

·      Originated in Mysore

·      Features delicate lines, intricate brush strokes and graceful figures of Gods and Goddesses. Bright colours and lustrous gold leaves were also used to enhance these paintings.

Revitalized commercial interest post GI Tag

Then Thanjavur paintings received the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2007, commercial interest in the art had picked up, long after a brief spike in the early 1990s. A geographical indication is a sign used on products that correspond to a specific geographical location or origin. This tag is issued by the geographical indication registry under the department of industry promotion and internal trade, ministry of commerce and industry. Following that, relatively cheaper, fake-gold foil sheets started making an appearance in the market—it encouraged hobbyists to keep the art alive, but also aided insincere profit-making motives.

Barring that, the form itself has barely evolved. Its characteristic idiom—the striking gold foil on gesso (a white paint mixture) with embedded gemstones, flat vivid colours, and divine figures—has stayed largely the same for close to a century. This stagnancy, however, was not typical to Thanjavur art. In fact, the indispensable use of gold film on gesso would not have even come to be if it were not for the many initial experiments by the region’s artisans. 

28" x 34" Large Ashtabhuja-Dhari Ganesha Tanjore Painting

The Distinctiveness of Gesso: One-of-a-kind element of Tanjore Art

The most one-of-a-kind element of Tanjore Paintings is the Gesso Work (its 3-Dimesnional property). To clarify it further, Tanjore Painting has embossed zones on it which most different works of art don’t have. That is, the painting has zones that are elevated from the surface. This embellish is called Gesso work in craftsmanship language. As a rule, Gesso work is done on columns and different territories of a structure in Europe however never done on any artistic creation during that time. Gesso work is one of the means and the most extraordinary procedure that could ever include in an artistic creation. That is the degree of imagination Tanjore craftsmen have displayed in the production of the work of art. The other Unique element is to accomplish more with the material than the strategy – the Gold Foil overlaid on the Gesso work. Genuine 22-carat gold foil is utilized and since it is made of genuine gold, it never blurs.

29" x 35" Large Nataraja (Dancing Shiva)

Gold as a figure of Purity and Prosperity

Thanjavur art’s basic canvas-making process itself is a distinguishing feature. Two layers of cloth are pasted over a plank of jackfruit wood, with gum made from tamarind seeds; then, a paste of lime is painted over it. Once this dries and is polished with stone, a drawing is made demarcating sections. Finally, the artist sticks on the gold or gemstones with a gluey limestone paste, before painting in the colours.

Large Dancing Shiva with Devi Parvati

This wasn’t just an artistic or decorative choice. It was scientific – Even the way they made dyes was such that it would protect the painting from insects. The paintings were made to last long. Over time however, ply boards, adhesive and acrylic paint have replaced their natural, durable predecessors. Jack and tea wood has been replaced by plywood and synthetic colours are preferred over the natural and mineral colours. While it is good to see the modern improvisation of the artists in this form of painting, the missing touch of aesthetics and values have made it a little disturbing trend. But the love for gold has endured.

Traditionally, for centuries, families in South India have preferred gold jewellery over any other. Gold is non-reactive, does not rust or tarnish: it is pure, and therefore, auspicious. Further, Gold has always symbolised fire; it is a symbol of purity. It symbolises wealth, and is an emblem of Lakshmi [the goddess of prosperity]. Threads of gold are woven into saris; it is in the Gopuram (ornate entrance towers) of temples. It has a strong ritualistic significance within the Hindu dharma so to speak. Even the Panchadhatu (traditional, sacred metal) for example has a small amount of gold added to it. This very property also gave gold social currency. In many communities even today, a girl is sent to her marital home with some gold as part of her personal wealth (streedhan, the protection of which is enshrined in the law) — the husband or his family cannot exercise claim over it.

Lord Shiva With Devi Rajarajeshwari

Devotional Aspect

There are also instances from early 18th century Thanjavur, when art that depicts gods adorned with gold jewellery, was presented at weddings. Incidentally, musicologist P. Sambamoorthy’s biography of the saint-composer Tyagaraja (mid 1700s-early 1800s) mentions that a student, Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar, had presented a painting of Kodanda Rama (Rama with Bow) to his guru on Tyagaraja’s daughter’s wedding.

Ram, Lakshman and Sita stand below a gold-coloured stylised frame of arches reminiscent of temple architecture. Sita has lines of gold at her waist, indicating a belt or a layered, waist-hanging jewel. Ram and Lakshman’s bows are both strong strokes of gold. This theme, of Ram with a bow—the Kodanda Rama is still popular. The iterations that came after Tyagaraja’s time had started to edge out the flat gold-yellow painted surfaces in favour of gold gilding on gesso. This led to the gold architecture that framed the canvas even more intricately embossed with floral swirls. Over time, Sita began to have a prominent golden nose ring, similar to the large circular Maharashtrian nath. Soon, in many versions of this theme as well as in others, artists had begun to emboss the torsos of the gods entirely in gold. The sacred icons and their highly decorated character were an expression of devotion. Philip Rawson, an expert in Eastern art believes that: “the attitude towards ornament reflects an instinct deeply rooted in the Indian character. To ornament is also an expressing of respect…or other auspicious properties.” The fact that Thanjavur artists would not sign their name on their paintings further shows devotional loyalty in the practice.

Rama Durbar with Dangling Parasol

In what feels like a hat tip to the continuation of gold’s history with Thanjavur paintings, artists today say that commercially available gold foil comes from Rajasthan and Gujarat. While artists prefer to stick to these, out of good conscience, they are also ready to cater to the budgetary needs of the market. Owning and adapting to market reality is the entrepreneurial innovation expected of Thanjavur artists now. However, most are reluctant to making changes in the designs. The architectural elements understandably remain constant, inspired as they are by ancient temples. Similarly, from the reticent way that the artists talk about changing the jewellery on their gods, it seems like these elements form symbolic and religious iconography—this has no scope to change with the times either. Appasamy writes that “the iconic style of Thanjavur painting fulfilled a function that was not primarily aesthetic…and became repetitious precisely because it was sacred.” Regular portraiture, which Thanjavur painters did briefly under the British, did not necessitate the grandeur typical to their art. To this day the Navaneeta Krishna (baby Krishna with a pot of butter), Gajalakshmi (Goddess Lakshmi with elephants), Kodanda Rama all continue to be depicted under the gilded temple arches with flowers and the yaazhi. They continue to be adorned with a traditional golden kaasu malai (a chain made of small gold coins), medallion-like-pendants, and crowns just as they were over a century ago.

The royal patronage was more towards portraiture and towards depiction of court scenes and similar other subjects related to the affairs of the state. But there were other important patrons particularly the Bhajan Maths i.e., the religious institutions attached to some temples as also some very large Bhajan Maths having their own temples. The mythological content of these paintings was ideally suited to project the Puranic narratives of the Hindu religion. The genre can also be subdivided into two streams viz ‘puranic’ and ‘iconic’. The puranic paintings are a counterpart to the superbly sculpted mythological stories depicted on the inner walls of temples and the iconic paintings relate to the deity presiding in the garbhagriha of the temple.

Diverse Versions of the Art in Mysore

Mysore Paintings are for the most part without stones or glass globules, while Tanjore artistic creations are rich with stones, dots, and other design. In some Mysore style artistic creations, gesso work is totally missing as are the gold foils. Rather, all the specifying is finished utilizing gold hues which is a striking distinction now and again

Devi Annapurna

A great deal of inventive opportunity is taken in Mysore Paintings accordingly, incalculable varieties can be found for a God in Mysore style, which is unmistakably not the situation in Tanjore Style. Tanjore specialists appear to play by the unwritten principles by sticking to the norm and conventional depictions and procedures. Subsequently, varieties of Gods are exceptionally restricted in Tanjore Paintings. Teak wood outlines are for the most part utilized for Tanjore and Rosewood/manufactured casings for Mysore. Ultimately, it is up to the end clients to pick the casing assortments, yet these are general perceptions.

Eminent Tanjore Artists

The workmanship was at first made and drilled by two principal networks in particular – the Rajus and the Naidus. The specialists have a typical root – the Vijayanagara Kingdom after whose fall, craftsmen moved to Tanjore, Madurai, and Mysore. The specialists who are initially Telugu talking individuals from the Rayalseema district, moved to Tamil Nadu in the wake of the Nayaks rule of Madurai and Tanjore. Tanjore was later given to the Marathas. The specialists who relocated to Mysore made a sister-workmanship considered the Mysore compositions that are fundamentally the same as Tanjore Paintings.

Devi Sarasvati Plays The Veena At Dusk

The artistic creations were established in convention and the advancement was restricted. Truth be told, any endeavour to include development would just bring about weakening of the fine art. The craftsmanship was hallowed to those ace specialists who decided to be mysterious and humble. The present craftsmen are not, at this point constrained to these two networks. There are numerous Tanjore Painting creation organizations that are making numerous craftsmen each spending year spread across different networks. The Saraswathi Mahal Library of Tanjore still displays the best Tanjore paintings.


Tanjore Paintings are one of the last enduring customary works of art of India and Hinduism. The core survival theory behind Tanjore Paintings is its adaptability towards the change in its format, the recent evolution witnessed in Tanjore Painting is its glass painting format which has been the centre of attraction amongst various followers of this typical painting work. The works of art are made with commitment – all subjects being Hindu Gods and the tales related with them. Each Tanjore Painting has a story to tell. Stories saved through craftsmanship. These are much the same as the models and drawings in a sanctuary, simply that the previous is compact and henceforth can be protected effectively from the demolition the sanctuaries were generally exposed to.

References and Further Readings:

1.    Thanjavur – A Cultural History’ by Pradeep Chakravarthy. Published by Niyogi books.

2.    ‘Tanjavur Painting of the Maratha Period’ by Jaya Appasamy. Abhinav Publications, 1980.

3.    ‘Thanjavur Paintings in Koviloor’ by C. Nachiappan. Hardcover Kalakshetra Publications. 14 Nov 2004, 1st ed.

4.    ‘Tanjore Paintings, A Chapter in Indian Art History’ by N. S. Kora Ramaswami.

5.    South Indian Paintings – A catalogue of the British Museum collection’ by A. L. Dallapiccola. Published by Mapin Publishing .in association with the British Museum Press.

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