(Viewed 3622 times since Oct 2021)

When we think of Indian art, many of us immediately imagine resplendent depictions of the Hindu gods. We think of bright colors, beatific poses, and gold leaf.

Whether we know it or not, what we are thinking of are Tanjore (Thanjavur) paintings.

Radha Swings with Krishna Tanjore Painting 

Also known as “religious paintings with a royal heritage,” this form of south Indian visual art began in the town of Tanjore in the 16th century. These oil paintings have been made by indigenous artists for generations, and it is kept alive by practitioners who faithfully replicate the old ways and the beloved style.

When we examine this genre, we find so much intertwined in the story: history, religion, and art all mixed. The masterpieces this style has left behind and the contributions it still makes today express an inexhaustible vitality rarely seen in the art world.

Glorious Gajalakshmi Tanjore Painting

Over the last two centuries, art has become a place where styles come and go, where the wave swells and crests and disappears within ten years. But Tanjore paintings remain. Is it because of the access they grant us to the divine? Is it because of the inherent beauty and splendor? Let’s take a close look and discover what makes Tanjore paintings a permanent part of the art landscape.

What are Tanjore paintings?

The style has a few major trademarks:

Depiction of Hindu deities, or sometimes nobility

Bright colors

Iconic compositions

Architectural framing

Gold foil

Inlays of beads and precious or semi-precious gems

Gesso undercoat

Painted on wooden planks


Lord Venkateshvara as Balaji Tanjore Painting

These make up the main features, but when we look at them, we see there is another quality — one harder to grasp with words. It’s the presence of the divine, an ability to relate the gods to ourselves. In this way, Tanjore paintings awaken within us the Atman, that Higher Self in us that always was, always is, and always will be the whole of the cosmos.

Tanjore paintings typically make little use of perspective, instead favoring a two-dimensional layout. The subjects are almost always depicted with softened and circular features. These two choices lend a certain storybook unreality to the paintings, making them at the same time less directly realistic while also much more relatable.

Rama Darbar Tanjore Painting

The color choices are one of the most striking elements of any Tanjore painting. For instance, the sky is often painted black — allowing the colors of the scene to almost glow. There is also frequent use of a deep, scarlet red. Because many of the gods are depicted with blue skin, the contrast allows both colors to vibrate off the canvas. No matter the individual choices of the artist, the colors are always rich and bright. This is an important part of the style’s exuberance.

The architectural motifs are ubiquitous. These create a frame within a frame, while also giving the artist the chance to use inlays and gold leaf to decorate the painting. This in part lends itself to another important feature: the stiff tableaus and poses of the subjects. Those poses make the paintings feel like a direct address to the viewer, a way for them to understand the significance of what they bear witness to, and it gives the subjects an auspicious presentation.

History of Tanjore Paintings

In 1336 CE, Harihara I and Bukka Raya I of the Sangama dynasty established the Vijayanagara Empire in south India. They were from a simple cowherd community, yet they united to fight off Islamic invaders. Over the next two centuries, the Empire cultivated a distinct culture with lasting influence in the region today.

The empire was incredibly diverse and liberalized. The region’s contact with Islam was centuries old at this point, leading to much cultural exchange. And they protected many forms of Hindu painting against the ongoing tide of Islamic conquerors. The leaders also made sure to welcome all forms of Hindu practice. For this reason, the architecture, sculpture and painting that occurred in the empire is still upheld as a great flowering of human creativity.

Thanjavur – A Cultural History

By the 16th century, repeated military defeats led to the destruction of the empire. With cities falling, painters in the traditional style once protected and patronized by the empire migrated to safer places, including Tanjore. It is in Tanjore where the traditional style mixed with the preferences of local patrons.

In this context, Tanjore painting as we know it sprouted. Over the intervening centuries, many tropes and conventions were created, altered, and passed on. But while there has certainly been development, artists have made sure to keep the fundamental style intact.

When we view these paintings, we are witnessing history and the present meet. We are feeling the impact of a long-fallen empire and the passion of living, breathing artists.

How are Tanjore paintings created?

Tanjore paintings begin by preparing the surface. Jackfruit or teak wooden panels are covered with a canvas, using Arabic gum as an adhesive. The canvas is then covered in either French chalk or powdered limestone with a binding agentadded.

Thanjavur Paintings: Materials, Technique and Conservation

Once dried, an outline is sketched, and gesso is applied. Then, inlay and gold leaf are applied. These ornamental features cover the architectural elements in the composition, like pillars and arches. The artist then uses oil paints to color in the scene.

The Legacy of Tanjore Paintings

For many, this style of art is important because of its beauty and its ability over the last five centuries to keep a tradition intact. But above and beyond the aesthetic or historic importance, these paintings have brought countless numbers of people in closer contact with the divine.

Rama Darbar Tanjore Painting

When we look at a Tanjore painting, we not only see gods. We see them the same way people have for half a millenia — even longer. That staggering time scale includes so many who have been born and died, so often to be born again. Amid all that, paintings in this style have been a reliable well of inspiration, a balm to difficulties of existence, and a guide to liberation.

Add a review

Your email address will not be published *