Thanjavur attained prominence under the Chola rulers who were paramount in South India during 9th to 12th centuries. They were not only excellent rulers but also mighty builders, who erected a large number of exquisite temples in their empire, some of which constitute the finest specimens of architecture. Hence the district stands distinguished in the state even in its large number of temples, whose legends extend deep into early historic times. Many of these temples reflect the power, genius and architectural grandeurs of their authors displaying the unique and magnificent proficiency in sculpture, painting and wood carving. Art gallery the great Saraswathi Mahal library, the 'Sangeetha Mahal' (hall of music), the thriving of classical music and dance known as 'Bharathanatyam' and the celebration of grand annual music festival at Thiruvaiyaru, in honour of the great Saint Thiagaraja, all bear testimony to the cultural heritage.
The period of Chola Kings was not only considered as epoch-making but also an era of the cultural renaissance. Thanjavur under the Chola rulers was the cradle of Tamil Culture. Literature and civilisation and the rare Tamil manuscripts in the Thanjavur library corroborate this fact. Another notable feature is that in spite of several alien invasions, onslaughts and internal conflicts, the ancient culture and civilisation have not suffered much devastation. The inhabitants have successfully concentrated their histrionic talents in the field of art, literature, drama, music and dancing and are known for their rich cultural and religious fervour. They live in close harmony as a well knit community and the three main religious groups viz., Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, celebrate their fairs and festivals with a sense of mutual respect. On festive occasion, the Hindu devotees out-number all other participants in the shrines belonging to other religions. Similarly, in the case of some Hindu festivals, the temples are thronged by a substantial number of persons belonging to other religious group as well, who have a staunch faith and come in full reverence to pay homage to the presiding deities.
According to the known history dating back to Sangam age, the Cholas ruled over Thanjavur for about one thousand years. It was here that plans were formulated to extent the Chola supremacy by spreading their glory from Kanniyakumari in the south to Himalayas in the north. They also under their patronage cultivated fine arts, erected temples, constructed anaicuts, built ports and cities.Among the Chola Kings who found place Sangam literature, Karikala and Koccengan were the most prominent. The name ' Karikala' which in Tamil refers to a man with charred leg, was derived by this King from a fire accident. He was assailed imprisoned and deprived of his birth right by his enemies. He, however, managed to regain the throne and in the great battle at Venni he defeated Pandya and Chera rulers and secured for himself the hegemony over them. He crushed both the internal and external opposition and became complete master of his country. He renovated the capital of Uraiyur, built up the renowned port of Puhar (Kaveripoompattinam) and patronised liberal arts and letters.
Karikala was succeeded by two rival kings- Nalangilli and Nedungilli who ruled from Puhar and Uraiyur respectively. The next Chola King Killivalavan from Uraiyur was a brave and able warrior, besides a patron of letters. Of the Chola of later Sangam age, Koccengan was more brilliant and illustrious in both war and peace. He showed equal zeal for both Saivism and Vaishnavism, built numerous saivite temples including the famous Jambukeswara Temple at Tirunaraiyur. After a brief set back in the Chola regime between the third century to ninth century A.D., the Cholas became the mighty race of rulers. Once again Vijayalaya (850-870) the founder of the new Chola dynasty, drove away the Muttaraiyar Chieftains from Thanjavur and assisted the Pallava King to stem the tide of the Pandiyan overlordship. His son Aditya I (870-907) soon over-threw the Pallava King Aparajita and expelled him from his territory. After conquering the Kongu country and Pandyas, he further extended his kingdom. He was an ardent saivite like his father and built temples along the banks of cauvery from Sahyadri to the sea.
Parantaka I (907-955) was more powerful and under his rule Cholas acquired a dominion which foreshadowed the great empires of Rajaraja and Kullottunga. With the rise of Rajaraja I (985-1014), the days dawned to bring about new and brilliant chapter in the history of Cholas. Both in war and peace Rajaraja and his son Rajendra proved themselves as the most outstanding personalities of their time. Rajaraja conquered Kerala (Chera country) the whole of the Pandya country and Malainadu (Coorg ) and extended his dominion. He also invaded ceylon and destroyed Anuradhapura, its capital. He was also a great statesman and administrator and endeavoured his best to establish his empire on a firm footing. He built the most magnificent temple of Rajarajeswara at Thanjavur, the fine specimen of Tamil architecture. Rajaraja was succeeded by his son Rajendra I (1014-1044). He had the advantage of possessing an empire which had already been organised on sound lines. He set about at once to improve its organisation and increase its glory. He undertook expedition to north in search of the Ganges and assumed the title of Gangai Konda Cholan”.
His most glorious expedition was to Kadaram which shows the great naval strength of the Cholas. Rajendra I was succeeded by four rulers Rajadhiraja, Rajendra II, Virarajendra and Adirajendra’s reign was brief and it became weak in his time and later the kingdom passed on to the Eastern Chalukyan. Rajendra Kulottunga (1070-1120) was a remarkable personality. He was more a statesman than a warrior. From 1120 to 1163, three Chola kings, viz, Vikrama Chola (1120-1135) Kulottunga II (1136-1150) and Rajaraja II (1151-1163) succeeded Kulottunga I and under all these rulers no wars or invasions distracted the country. During the reigns of Rajaraja III (1216-1246) and Rajendra III (1247-1279), the Pandyas in the south and Hoysalas in the north monopolised all the power. By the beginning of the 13th century, the Chola dynasty became extinct and it gave way to Pandyan supremacy.
The beginning of the 13th century, the Chola dynasty became extinct and it gave way to Pandyan supremacy. The Pandiyan regime was short lived. When the Pandiyan Kingdom was in the thrones of civil war, the muslim ruler Ala-Ud-Din Khiliji, the Sultan of Delhi, took advantage of it and over powered the Pandiyas. Thanjavur then came under the muslim rulers.
Thanjavur remained under the supremacy of the Vijayanagar Kings for a long period. The Nayak dynasty was established during this period and Sevappa, the founder of Nayak Kingdom of Thanjavur made his appearance on the scene (1532-1560). In 1560, Sevappa Nayak made over kingdom to his son Achuyutappa Nayak. His rules unlike that of his father was not one of unbroken peace. Shortly after getting old he abdicated the crown in favour of his son Ragunatha (1600-1630) During his reign, a Danish settlement was established at Tranquebar (1620). The Nayaks of Thanjavur were loyal to Vijayanagar after the battle of Talikotta and helped Vijayanagar in repulsing the attacks of the Nayak of Madurai and their temporary ally Golkonda, but the beginning of the 17th Century was the end of the Vijayanagar empire
The Marattas also came to Thanjavur in the later half of the 17th century. Ekogi became the first Maratta ruler of Thanjavur (1676-1683). The Marattas ruled Thanjavur for some time but became later vassals of the Mughal Governor of Karnataka. Subsequently there were hostilities between the Arcot Nawab and the Maratta ruler of Thanjavur. The French and English also began interfering in the internal affairs of South India. The supremacy of the English was later established. Saraboji II the adopted son of Tuljaji, was made King of Thanjavur in 1798, after agreeing with all the conditions laid down by the British Government. A pact was signed between the Maratta ruler and the English by virtue of which the status of the Raja was reduced to a mere vassal.
The administration of Thanjavur was given over to English fully under the Treaty of 1799. The ruler of the Thanjavur was allowed to retain the fort of Thanjavur only with limited power of administration. When the ruler died in 1841 without heir, the Thanjavur fort was also annexed by the British and it became part of the then Madras, Thanjavur remained under the British until 1947 when India attained freedom.