Thanjavur and the Doctrine of Lapse

Asia, India, South
Thanjavur 1

Thanjavur Maratha Palace

Chapter 4, Part 16

Once South and Southeast Asia were lands where Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms and empires, and later Islamic sultanates, conquered one another not only to exert their dominance, but also to control the lucrative spice trade in the region. Then the Europeans came and forever changed the geopolitical landscape of Asia and beyond. By the 19th century, two European nations – the British and the Dutch – through their quasi-governmental East India Companies had established monopolies on the world spice trade, from nutmeg to cinnamon, clove and pepper.

While the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was largely unchallenged in the Dutch East Indies (the precursor to modern-day Indonesia), the British East India Company (EIC) controlled much of the Indian subcontinent and Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). In India, the EIC gradually rose to prominence within centuries since their inception at the turn of the 17th century. In the mid-18th century, they won a decisive battle in Bengal against the Nawab (the local ruler who was under the influence of the once mighty Mughal Empire) and the French whose own East India Company was aspiring to be a major power in the region.

In the decades that followed, the EIC’s grip on India expanded. In the mid-19th century, Lord Dalhousie, who at that time was the company’s governor general, formulated a policy which would help the British to further acquire lands in the subcontinent. Dubbed the Doctrine of Lapse, the policy dictated that any princely state under the influence of the EIC whose ruler either died without a male heir or was incompetent would automatically be annexed by the company. The British, unsurprisingly, determined who was competent and who was not.

Thanjavur (also known as Tanjore in the past) in the southern part of the subcontinent was one of the princely states which would later be absorbed into British India. A region which was once the political center of the Chola Empire whose hegemony reached lands far beyond its borders, Thanjavur became a kingdom (and later a princely state) under the Bhonsle dynasty of the Maratha clan after centuries of rule by the Pandyas, the Delhi Sultanate, the mighty Vijayanagara empire, and the Nayaks of Madurai.

At the heart of their capital, the Bhonsles resided in a sprawling palace complex locally known as Aranmanai. However, it is today a compound consisting of both relatively well-preserved structures and dilapidated halls. The Durbar Hall (royal court) has now become an eerily quiet corner in the palace complex. Its entrance is a nondescript dark corridor, while the hall’s highly-ornate ceiling and capitals are suggestive of a time when monarchs sat on the currently empty throne.

In spite of having lost the territory they once controlled, the Bhonsles remained in the palace, surrounded by lands under British control. And as the British Raj exerted further dominance in the subcontinent, one by one they took over lands from local rulers and consolidated them under the rule of the British Crown. Only Portuguese-controlled Goa, Daman and Diu, as well as French-controlled Pondicherry and a number of enclaves along the eastern and western coasts of India were spared.

Thanjavur 2

The Palace’s Durbar Hall

Thanjavur 3

Richly-Decorated Ceiling and Capitals

Thanjavur 4

A Fading Opulence

Thanjavur 5

Statuettes on A Capital

Thanjavur 6

Shiva and Parvati Sitting on Nandi

Thanjavur 7

The Guardians and the Floral Motifs are Unmistakably Cholan

Thanjavur 8

A Fresco Painted in South Indian Style

Thanjavur 9

Walk the Right Way

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

43 thoughts on “Thanjavur and the Doctrine of Lapse”

  1. This was truly an eye opener for me regarding the history of colonialism in India. Thank so much for this enlightening contribution!


    • You’re very welcome, Peter. It’s always fascinating to learn about less-known events in history, which will enrich our understanding on why and how we got to the point where we are today, and what we should do to prevent bad things from reoccurring in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t know about this place either until I stumbled upon a blog post written by one of the Indian bloggers that I’ve been following. Thanks for reading, Alison.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The colors of the pillars are astounding Bama. Such detail throughout. You take your readers to such fascinating spots Bama. I’m always happy to be along for the tour.


    • Much appreciated, Liz. I’m always drawn to places with a plethora of detailed carvings and ornate decorations. It’s mind-boggling to think of the amount of time spent to create such exquisite works of art.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. annacolorista says:

    I am always excited to read pieces on places I have never been before. I really enjoyed post and your gorgeous pictures and can’t wait to read more! Greetings from Germany 🙂


    • And that’s exactly what makes blogging so much fun! We are constantly inspired and fascinated by places so foreign to us. Vielen dank for reading and leaving such a kind comment, Anna!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The manner in which you have captured India is simply magnificent … However, you have not covered North India at all. Do visit places like Ranikhet, Almora, Himachal, Kausani, Delhi etc. Do not miss them …

    I am absolutely enamored by your blog … It is one of the most beautiful blogs I have seen. Please keep writing … Much love Sugarsatchet!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I really appreciate your kind comment. On my first trip to India in November 2015, I focused on the southern part of the country: Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, as well as a short stay in Kolkata. However, I know just one visit would never do India justice. For my future trip(s) I have already had several places in mind: Hyderabad, Mumbai, the Ajanta and Ellora Caves, and Diu, to name some. Now I have even more places to add on my wish list thanks to your recommendation.

      Thanks again for dropping by and sharing your thought!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Hey … Would love to help you plan your trip and stay in India. There are places which are like hidden gems which need to be written about … Nagaland, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam … Travel websites don’t do justice to these places and they have a lot to offer in terms of beauty, culture, food, tradition, artefacts … Drop in a text when you plan to come down next. I love showing off my country to the world … Keep writing. Lots of love … Sugarsatchet

        Liked by 2 people

      • In addition to the places you mentioned, I’m also eyeing on Meghalaya and Unakoti in Tripura. The Northeastern states look so appealing, indeed. Thanks again for your suggestion, Sugarsatchet. Hopefully my second trip to India comes sooner than later.

        Liked by 3 people

  5. Bama, Durbar Hall was magnificent indeed, but it was sad to see how neglected and dusty it was – it’s as though people simply do not care about this fascinating part of their heritage. I particularly remember the pervasive smell of bird droppings and urine while we were there (also being gifted with a wet, unwanted “souvenir” by an errant pigeon). Hopefully someone will step in these next few years to clear out the birds and restore the place to its former glory.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was surprised to find the hall in a rather neglected state. I wonder if the lack of funding is the main issue, since the same pattern keeps repeating in Indonesia as well. Or maybe it’s the bureaucracy. I do hope this hall will see better days sooner than later, so people can appreciate the rich heritage of this part of India.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks again, Ausmita. Doing research is quite time consuming, but it gives us better understanding of a place from historical and cultural perspectives.

      Liked by 1 person

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