Thanjavur Painting is a peculiar, ancient, miniature type of painting named after the place Thanjavur [called Tanjore in English] in Tamil Nadu, a southern state of India. Thanjavur is located in the state of Tamilnadu and was the capital of the mighty Chola empire. The Chola rulers besides being great warriors, were builders of magnificient temples and great patrons of arts. It was against this setting that this highly specialised form of art with its characteristically beautiful ornamental relief work flourished.Thanjavur is famous for various arts and crafts in which paintings are ranked high among the other arts like Thanjavur Toys, Thanjavur Plates, etc. Its origin dates back to the Nayak & the Maratha period in the 16th century.
The Maratha rule of Thanjavur lasted for about 2 centuries from the late 16th century. The Thanjavur school of painting evolved in a period full of political chaos in South India. Thanjavur Paintings flourished under the patronage of the Nayak & Maratha princes in the 16th to the 18th centuries. Most of these paintings revolve around the theme of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, along with saints. The main figure is always painted at the center of the painting. Since Tanjore paintings are mainly done on solid wood planks, they are locally known as 'Palagai Padam' (palagai meaning wooden plank and padam meaning picture).
The art was practiced by two main communities namely - the Rajus in Thanjavur and Trichy [a city near Thanjavur] and Naidus in Madurai [a city ruled by Pandiyas]. The artists [Rajus & Naidus] who are originally Telugu speaking people from "Rayalseema" region, moved to Tamil Nadu in the wake of the Nayaks rule of Madurai & Tanjore. The paintings were rooted in tradition and innovation was limited. The art was sacred to those master craftsmen who chose to be anonymous and humble.
Paintings were done on materials like wood, glass, mica, exotic media such as ivory, murals and manuscripts. Most of the paintings were of Hindu deities & saints. Other courtly & secular portraits were also created.
The early paintings were embedded with real Diamonds, Rubies and other precious stones. Later, use of semi-precious & artificial stones gained popularity. There are some examples of this art in the "Saraswathi Mahal Library", in Tanjore set up & developed by King Sarfoji. This monarch, who reigned from 1798 to 1832, to whom we owe the "Ganesha shrine" in the "Tanjore Big Temple", played an important part in the history of the art of his times.