The first Maratha to set foot in Thanjavur was Venkoji Rajah Bhosale, the stepbrother of the legendary Maratha King Shivaji. Venkoji, a half-brother of the great Maratha king Shivaji was the first Raja of Thanjavur from the Bhosale dynasty. It is believed that he took over the administration of Thanjavur in April 1674 and ruled till 1684. During his reign, his brother Shivaji invaded Gingee and Thanjavur in 1676–1677 and made his brother Santaji the ruler of all lands to the north of the Coleroon. During the last years of his reign, Venkoji also allied with Chokkanatha of Maduraito repulse an invasion from Mysore. Thanjavur Marathas of the Bhonsle dynasty, were the rulers of Thanjavur principality of Tamil Nadu between the 17th to the 19th century C.E. Their native language was Marathi. Venkoji was the founder of the dynasty.
Shahuji I was the eldest son of Venkoji and he ascended the throne at the age of twelve. During his reign, the Mughals occupied the Coromandel coast and Tiruchirapalli and forced Shahuji I to pay tribute. Shahuji was a patron of literature. During his reign, there were frequent skirmishes andbattles with the Raja of Madurai and Ramnad for control of the border lands.
Serfoji (1675–1728), also called Sarabhoji I was a younger son of Venkoji and he ruled from 1712 to 1728. His rule was marked by regular warfare and disputes with the Madurai Nayak., He was the third Raja of the Bhonsle dynasty. He consolidated the hold of Marathas over Thanjavur and patronised arts and literature.
The reign of Serfoji I was known for literary works of considerable significance. Advaita Kirtana, a Tamil manuscript in the Tanjore library speaks of a breach in the Cauvery dam and refusal of theMadurai Nayak to allow this repair. Drought and famine followed, and then, the necessary repairs were carried out. There is a Sanskrit manuscript named Sarabhoji Charitra which praises the king for fighting with those who came to cut off the Cauvery dam. The reference here has to be traced to an event in the Marava war of succession.
Serfoji I is presented as a pious and charitable monarch. He endowed Brahmanas with agraharams like Mangamatam in Tiruverkadu and Sarabhojirajapuram in Tirukkadaiyur. Vidyaparinayawritten by Vedakavi was enacted in the festival of the Goddess Anandavalli in Thanjavur. It speaks of the marriage of the individual soul with Vidya. Sarabharaja Vilasa and Ratinamanmatha were written by Jagannatha son of a minister of Ekoji.Sivabharata, a Sanskrit manuscript deals with the ancestry and achievements of Shivaji. It was translated into Tamil as Sivajicharitram.
Serfoji I did not have a legitimate male offspring of his own.However, after his death, a claimant rose in the person of Katturaja who assumed the name Shahuji II and claimed to be an illegitimate offspring of Serfoji II.
Serfoji II (September 24, 1777 – March 7, 1832) was the last ruler of the Maratha principality of Tanjore to exercise absolute sovereignty over his dominions. His descendants, however, have managed to thrive as titular Maharajahs of Thanjavur to the present day. Serfoji was born on September 24, 1777 in the royal house of the Maratha king, Chattrapati Shivaji. Raja Thulajah, the king of Thanjavur adopted him as his son on January 23, 1787 by duly performing all of the religious rites. The boy was entrusted to the care of Rev. Christian Freidrich Schwartz, a Danish missionary.
During Serfoji’s reign which lasted from 1798 until his death in 1832, for the first time, the proceedings of the Tanjore durbar were recorded in paper. The Delta region was divided into five districtseach under a Subedar. Cultivable lands yielded good profits and the judiciary system was highly efficient and praiseworthy.
Serfoji is also credited with having built a lot of chathrams or rest houses for weary pilgrims. These pilgrims received free boarding and lodging and their needs were taken care of by the State. In all Serfoji built three important chathrams, including one at Orathanadu.
Serfoji founded a school called Navavidhya Kalanidhi Sala where languages, literature, the sciences and arts and crafts were taught in addition to the Vedas and shastras. Serfoji maintained close ties with the Danes at Tarangambadi and visited their schools quite often and appreciated their way of functioning. Impressed, he tried to implement European methods of teachings and education all over his Empire. He was a supporter of the emancipation of Indian women and revolutionized education by appointing women teachers.
Serfojis is also credited with installing a hand press with Devanagari type in 1805, the first of its kind in South India. He also established a stone type press called “Nava Vidhya Kalanidhi Varnayanthra Sala”.Serfoji constructed ten water tanks and a number of wells for civic use. He implemented an underground drainage system for the whole of Thanjavur city.
Serfoji established the Dhanavantari Mahal, a research institution that produced herbal (indigenous medicine) medicine for humans and animals. The institution also treated sick people and maintained case-sheets which have become famous of late. Here, physicians of modern medicine, ayurveda, unaniand siddha schools have performed research upon drugs and herbs for medical cure and had produced eighteen volumes of research material. Serfoji also had the important herbs studied and catalogued in the form of exquisite hand paintings.
Based on the medical prescriptions stored at the Dhanvanthri Mahal, a set of poems were compiled detailing the procedures to cure various diseases. These poems were collected and published as a book,called Sarabhendra Vaidhya Muraigal.
In September 2003, a meeting between Dr. Badrinath and Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, current Prince of Thanjavur and sixth descendant of King Serfoji II, revealed the existence of 200-year-old manuscripts in the Saraswathi Mahal library containing records of the eye operations believed to be conducted by Prince Serfoji II. This is not strange for Serfoji is known to conduct such operations. He usually carries a surgical kit with him wherever he goes and performs surgery on people afflicted by cataracts. Seforji’s “operations” have been recorded in detail in English with a case history of the patient operated upon. These manuscripts form a partof the collection at the Saraswathi Mahal Library. Serfoji created the first Zoological Garden in Tamil Nadu in the Thanjavur palace premises.
Serfoji erected a shipyard at Manora, around fifty kilometres from Thanjavur. Serfoji also established a meteorological station to facilitate trade. He had a gun factory, a naval library and a naval store with all kinds of navigational instruments.Serfoji was also keenly interested in painting, gardening, coin-collecting, martial arts and patromized chariot-racing, hunting and bull-fighting.
Serfoji was a patron of traditional Indian arts like dance and music. He authored famous works like “Kumarasambhava Champu”, “Mudrarakshaschaya” and “Devendra Kuruvanji” and introduced western musical instruments like clarinet and violin in Carnatic Music.The five storeyed Sarjah Mahadi in the Thanjavur palace and the Manora Fort Tower at Saluvanayakanpattinam were constructed in Serfoji’s reign. He installed lightning rods at the top of these monuments and had the history of the Bhonsle Dynasty inscribed on the south-western wall of the Brihadeeswara Temple. It is considered to be the lengthiest inscription in the world. Serfoji also renovated and reconstructed several existing temples like the Brihadeeswara Temple apart from building new ones. He was also an ardent philanthropist and a member of the Royal Asiatic Society.
In 1820-21, Serfoji embarked on a pilgrimage to Kasi along with a retinue of 3,000 disciples and camp-followers. He encamped at several places along the route,giving away alms to the needy and the poor and engaging himself in acts of charity. He was also involved in the renovation of several holy places. Memories of the pilgrimage have survived to the present day in the paintings of the bathing ghats on the Ganges and the different holy sites commissioned by him.
Serfoji was open-minded and tolerant of other faiths. He liberally funded churches and schools run by Christian missionaries. He was also a patron of Thanjavur Bade Hussein Durgah.
Serfoji II died on the 7 March 1832 after a reign of almost 40 years (His first reign was from 1787 to 1793 and his second reign was from 1798 to 1832). His death was mourned throughout the empire and his funeral procession was attended by over 90,000 people.
Serfoji’s greatest contribution:
The Saraswathi Mahal Library was founded as a Palace Library by the Nayak kings of Thanjavur (1535–1675), it was however Serfoji who enriched it with priceless works, maps, dictionaries, coins and artwork.
The bibliophile that he was, he purchased around 4000 books from different parts of the world and enriched his library with his enormous book collection. Medical treatises, in the library collection contained his remarks alongside, in English. His library included treatises on Vedanta, grammar,music, dance and drama, architecture, astronomy, medicine, training of elephants and horses, etc. Serfoji setup the first Devanagari printing press in South India, using stone letters. He sent many Pundits far and wide and collected huge number of books and manuscripts for this Library. All the books in the library carry his personal autograph in English.
Apart from these, the Library contains a record of the day-to-day proceedings of the Maratha court known as the Modi documents, French-Maratha correspondence of the 18th century.
The Encyclopædia Britannica in its survey of the Libraries of the world mentions this as “the most remarkable Library in India”. The Library is situated in the centre of Nayak palace and it was opened for public in 1918. There is also a small Museum there for the visitors.
Shivaji was the last Maratha ruler of Thanjavur and reigned from 1832 to 1855. He was a weak and feeble prince with barely any authority. As he died childless in 1855, Thanjavur was annexed by the British as per the provisions of the Doctrine of Lapse.