The district of Thanjavur attained prominence under the rulers of the Chola dynasty who were regarded as the paramount in South India in the ninth and the twelfth centuries. They were excellent rulers as well as mighty builders, who erected a large number of exquisite temples in their empire, some of which are the finest specimens of architecture. Hence this district has a distinct identity in the state even in its large number of temples, whose legends extend deep into early historic times. Several temples reflect the power, genius and architectural grandeurs of their authors portraying the magnificent and unique proficiency in painting, sculpture and wood carving.
The period of Chola dynasty was not only regarded as epoch-making but also an era of the cultural renaissance. The district of Thanjavur under the Chola rulers was the cradle of Tamil Culture and the civilization, literature and the rare Tamil manuscripts in the Thanjavur library supports this fact. Another prominent feature is that despite several onslaughts, alien invasions and internal conflicts, the ancient culture and civilization have not suffered much devastation. As per the known history which dates back to the Sangam Age, the Cholas ruled over Thanjavur for nearly one thousand years. It was during their rule over Thanjavur plans were formulated to extent the supremacy of the Cholas by spreading their glory from Kanyakumari in the south to Himalayas in the north. They also, under their patronage cultivated fine arts, constructed anaicuts, erected temples, built ports and cities. Among the Chola Kings whose names are mentioned in the Sangam literature, Koccengan and Karikala were the most prominent.
The Chola dynasty became extinct in the beginning of the thirteenth century and it paved way for the supremacy of the Pandyas. The regime of the Pandiyas was short lived. When the Pandyan kingdom was in the thrones of civil war, the Muslim ruler Ala-Ud-Din Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, seized the opportunity and over-powered the Pandyas and the Thanjavur district came under the Muslim rulers.
Thanjavur district remained under the control of the Vijayanagar Kings for a long period. During this period the Nayak dynasty was established and Sevappa, the founder of Nayak Kingdom of Thanjavur made his appearance on the scene (1532-1560). In the year 1560, Sevappa Nayak passed the rule of the kingdom to his son Achuyutappa Nayak. His rule, unlike that of his father was not one of unbroken peace and after getting old he abdicated the crown in favour of his son Ragunatha. During his reign, a Danish settlement was established at Tranquebar in 1620. The Nayaks of Thanjavur remained loyal to Vijayanagar after the battle of Talikotta and helped the Vijayanagar rulers in repulsing the attacks of the Nayaks of Madurai and their temporary ally Golkonda, but the beginning of the 17th Century saw the end of the Vijayanagar Empire.
The Marathas came to the Thanjavur district in the later half of the seventeenth century and Ekogi was the first Maratha ruler of Thanjavur. They ruled over Thanjavur for some time but later became vassals of the Mughal Governor of Karnataka. Afterwards there were hostilities between the Nawabs of Arcot and the Maratha ruler of Thanjavur. The English and French also began interfering in the internal affairs of South India and the supremacy of the English was later established. Saraboji II, the adopted son of Tuljaji, was made the King of Thanjavur in the year 1798, after agreeing with all the conditions laid down by the British Government. A pact was signed between the English and the Maratha ruler by virtue of which the status of the Raja was reduced to a mere vassal.
The Thanjavur administration was totally given over to the English under the Treaty of 1799 and the ruler of the Thanjavur was allowed to retain the fort of Thanjavur only with limited power of administration. When the ruler of Thanjavur died in the year 1841 without an heir, the Thanjavur fort was annexed by the British. The district of Thanjavur remained under the British until 1947 when India attained freedom.