Unity in Diversity
There isn’t a better motto that describes the whole nation of India more than this one. One of the main areas where this diversity is extremely telling is in religious monuments and places of worship. We have the Tibetan monasteries of Ladakh, the great mosques and other Islamic structures of Delhi, the Golden gurudwaras of Punjab, the churches of Goa and of course the temples of Tamil Nadu. While there is no dearth of incredible temples all across India, in Tamil Nadu it is on another level. We’re sure no one would want to miss a temple trail in Tamil Nadu.
With many of these temples dating back thousands of years and built in the distinct Dravidian style, it shouldn’t matter whether you are Hindu or not, whether you are religious or not. These temples are for everyone, from history buffs to architecture geeks to the devotional deities. To learn more about ancient India (particularly South Indian) culture and heritage, be sure to visit these gems of places when you are in Tamil Nadu. So let us get this pilgrimage going, shall we!
Best Temples in Tamil Nadu
1. Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
Madurai has a long and deep love story with the beauty of which Meenakshi Amman Temple is an integral part.
Madurai is located in southern Tamil Nadu and is the 3rd largest in the state. Thanks to its numerous temples, Madurai is known as Koil Nagar (City of Temples) and has grown in size and prosperity due to religious tourism. Among these myriad temples, the one that stands out and defines the city is Meenakshi Amman Temple.
This temple has a very interesting historical and mythological past. While some scholars state that the temple was mentioned as long ago as the 6th century BC, it is widely accepted that it was first built by King Kulasekara Pandya in the 12th century. However, it was destroyed during the conquest of Malikkapur and subsequently rebuilt in the 16th and 17th centuries according to the Shilpa Shastras, which are Hindu scriptures on architecture.
The legend of the temple goes like this: When King Malayadwaja and Queen Kanchanamala performed several yajnas for a child, Meenakshi, an incarnation of Goddess Parvati was born. It is said that Shiva came down to Earth in the form of Sundareshwarar to marry Meenakshi following which they ruled over the kingdom for a few years before leaving for their heavenly adobe from the very spot where the temple is located.
While it is built in the typical Dravidian style of architecture, the sheer size and detail of the temple will impress you to no limits. The whole Meenakshi Temple is so delicately designed, with all its colours, carvings and sculptures. The gopurams or entrance gates of the temple, in particular, are spectacular as they are filled with statues, sculptures and carvings that are so comprehensive that they can tell a story by themselves. In fact, the southern gopuram is 170ft tall (16-17 storeys). The Thousand Pillar Hall is a monumental beauty and is worth visiting while the Art Museum within the temple will also keep you occupied with its collection of sculptures. At the centre of the temple is the golden lotus pond which is another highlight of the temple.
For a spiritual experience, come to Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. If you want to experience a different side of the customs of Tamil Nadu, come during the period of Chaitra (April-May) when the wedding between Meenakshi and Sundareshwarar is re-enacted. All in all, it should definitely be on your temple trail in Tamil Nadu.
2. Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameswaram
This is one of the holiest of the holy temples, literally! One of the 12 Jyotirlinga Temples which are the most important temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, Ramanathaswamy Temple is yet another masterpiece of Pandyan architecture. Located on the eastern coast of Rameswaram Island and just metres away from the beach and Dr Abdul Kalam’s childhood home, Ramanathaswamy Temple is placed perfectly.
The Ramanathaswamy Temple has existed for millennia as a small thatched hut before the 12th century when proper construction of the temple began. The Sethupathi Kings are the major contributors to the temple with Pandya, Chola and Vijayanagara Kings also giving their share of prosperity and grandeur to the temple.
The folklore surrounding Ramanathaswamy Temple goes back to the Ramayana. There are two Lingams in the temple because according to legend, Sita made one Lingam out of the sand while Hanuman got the Vishwalinga from the Himalayas. There is also a 16ft Hanuman statue from where he was supposed to have jumped to Lanka. However, part of the statue is submerged in water. Along with this, there are many more interesting anecdotes about the temple that will get you engrossed in the history and fables of this magnificent temple. Even now it is a revered religious site and is part of the Char Dham pilgrimage.
Not just spiritually, Ramanathaswamy Temple is appealing architecturally also. This temple is home to the unique record of the longest temple corridors in the world with a perimeter of over 2000ft. The corridors are supported by a whopping 1212 pillars! The temple is built of stone and sandstone and has immaculate carvings all over. Within the temple, walls are 22 wells or ponds where the deities bathe before entering the sanctum. It is said that the water in each well tastes differently and have curative features. The main gopurams of Ramanathaswamy Temple are 53m tall and dominate the Rameswaram city skyscape.
You must visit this temple (and try going early in the morning when crowds are less) when you are in Rameswaram, as it is also nearby to other tourist attractions such as Dhanushkodi, the beach, APJ Abdul Kalam’s former house (which is a museum/gallery now).
3. Brihadeswara Temple, Tanjore
Temple going will purify your soul and put your mind in peace.
While we don’t know if that saying is true for every temple; in Brihadeswara Temple it is certainly more than true. There is something special about this temple, special enough for it to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is situated in the heart of Tanjore which was the hub for Dravidian art, literature and culture and capital of the Chola dynasty. Unlike other temples, Brihadeswara Temple is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India, making it more of a monument than a fully functioning temple. The main deity of the temple is Nataraja – the dancing form of Lord Shiva, so is it any wonder that even your heart and mind will be dancing in anticipation whilst you are in Brihadeswara.
Brihadeswara Temple was built exactly 1010 years ago by the famed Chola king Rajaraja Chola I. The temple was built using 130,000 tons of granite and has the tallest vimanam (temple tower) in South India and has a height of 60m. However, one major question continues to stump historians, how did they make the temple using granite as there is no granite found anywhere within 75km of the temple. Remember this was a time when cars or machines didn’t exist. Another remarkable feat of the temple is that it uses no binding material, the whole structure is standing due to the interlocking of stones.
There is a massive 25 ton, 12 feet tall Nandi statue that was carved out of a single stone. For those loving a bit of mystery, there are over 100 passageways underneath the temple leading to the palace of the Rajas. It is said that a few of these paths only open up when you recite a secret mantra. Like other Dravidian temples, Brihadeswara is also effused with elaborate carvings and inscriptions on the temple walls. Along with these carvings, there are also beautiful paintings that add to the charm of this magical place. The Marathas too increased the temple’s value by leaving it with even more colourful paintings. The French soon built a fortified wall around the temple in the 18th century.
Brihadeswara Temple is a testimony to the Chola prowess in architecture and design and potrays the mighty empire at the peak of its power. If you are looking for ancient wonders of the highest order, look no further than Tanjore, or Thanjavur as it is called now.
4. Shore Temple, Mahabalipuram
Imagine this scene: a stunning medieval temple in the foreground and the sea waves crashing in the background. What a scene it would be right? This is exactly what you get to see in Mahabalipuram.
The Shore Temple, aptly named considering it was built on the coast of Bay of Bengal, was built in the 8th century by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman. It was built on a base of granite and the superstructures and other parts of the temple were constructed of mortar and quarried stone. Unlike other temples of the era was built of cut stones rather than carved out of stones. The Shore Temple is actually part of a larger complex of temples known as the ‘Seven Pagodas’ as called by Marco Polo. Unfortunately, the Shore is the only remaining temple as the rest have submerged. These sunken temples were briefly revealed during the 2004 tsunami.
Shore Temple has two main shrines for Vishnu and Shiva, depicting the major religious movements of the time. The walls of the shrines are rich in cultural and mythological depictions. The temple is cleverly constructed in a way to make it look like Dharmaraja Ratha (Yudhishthir’s Chariot). The gopurams are pyramidal in shape and complete the photogenic look of the temple. The outer wall of the temple is adorned with Nandi figures and there are many more rock sculptures in the temple that have stood the test of time admirably. The park leading to Shore Temple is maintained well, clean and has a nice green lawn. The areas surrounding Shore Temple are also copious with rock-cut monuments such as the Descent of the Ganges, Arjuna’s Penance, Cave Temple’s and Pancha Rathas. These also must be part of your temple trail in Mahabalipuram.
These temples were so prominent that they were landmarks for the sea and guided travellers to the shore. Even now it continues to guide tourists to its adobe and amaze them. Not that surprising for a temple considered the icon of Pallava rule and design. You cannot complete your tour of temples in Tamil Nadu without visiting this one. Even UNESCO suggests you visit it!
5. Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam
Hey how about we visit the largest Hindu temple in the world. It is right here in Srirangam, Tamil Nadu!
Located in the town of Srirangam (right next to Trichy), on an island on Kaveri River, Ranganathaswamy Temple is the most important of Vaishnavi Temples (temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu). Srirangam is unique in that it is a temple town ie the whole settlement is centred around the temple. There are concentric rectangles running around with thick walls all around Srirangam. This blurs the distinction between the town and temple and hence Ranganathaswamy Temple is often called as just Srirangam.
The history of the temple dates back to 2nd century BC and it is an aggregation of building activity spanning centuries as the Cholas, Pandyas, Nayaks and Hoysalas all contributed to making Srirangam the enchantment that it is. One interesting story from the temple is that when the temple was looted and idol stolen by Malik Kafur, Devotees of Ranganathaswamy led a daring expedition to Delhi to trick the emperor and get back the idol. Luckily they were successful and they thought ahead during the next invasion and safely hid the idol in Tirumala Tirupati. Such intriguing tales make me want to go to Srirangam right now!
Like other temples of the region, Ranganathaswamy Temple is assembled in a Dravidian style to worship Ranganatha, a reclining form of Vishnu. The huge temple complex is sprawled about the area of 156 acres and has 21 articulately sculpted gopuras, 50 sub-shrines, 9 sacred pools and a golden vimana over the main shrine. There is a Thousand Pillar Hall similar to the one in Madurai and a Garuda Mandapam with a Garuda shrine. Mural paintings cover the temple walls and bring the various Gods and Goddesses to life and tell us their stories. The towering Rajagopuram (main temple tower), which eclipses everything else in Srirangam, is the tallest in Asia at 72m tall. There are also structures and buildings of day to day importance such as granaries, temple tanks and Arokyasalas (health centres). These along with the numerous inscriptions of the temple give deep insight into the life, culture and people of the Chola and Nayak periods.
For some unbelievable experiences and mind-boggling architecture and history, add Ranganathaswamy Temple to your temple trail!
6. Ucchi Pillayar Temple, Trichinopoly
On top of an 83m high rock lies the majestic Ucchi Pillayar Temple. This is a temple that is not only oozing in cultural history but also military history as it is inside the Trichinopoly Rock Fort. Initially constructed by Mahendra Pallava-Gunaparan in the 7th century, it is located at the zenith of Rockfort Hill. The temple was seamlessly cut to precision from the rock that already existed. The Fort surrounding the temple is a pivotal part of Indian history as the Madurai Nayaks used it to defend their territories and also the Rock Fort played an influential role in the Carnatic Wars which shaped the colonial history of India.
The folklore regarding this temple (and Ranganathaswamy Temple) has a very fascinating story from Ramayana. Following the defeat of Ravana, Lord Rama gifted Vibhishana an idol of Lord Ranganathaswamy; however if he let the idol touch the ground, it would remain there forever. While Vibhishana was an adherent of Rama, he was still an Asura and the Devas didn’t want him to obtain the Ranganathaswamy idol. So they sought the help of Ganesha, who dressed up as a cowherd boy and agrees to hold the idol while Vibhishana wanted to bathe in the Kaveri River. When the cowherd boy left the idol on the ground (this spot would eventually become the Ranganathaswamy Temple), Vibhishana chased him until the top of the hill where he hit the boy on the head. You can see the bump on the forehead of the idol even now! Ganesha then revealed himself to Vibhishana and this became the site of Ucchi Pillayar Temple. What a story right!
Nevertheless, Ucchi Pillayar isn’t the only temple in Rockfort Hill; there is a smaller Ganesha temple at the base and midway up the rock there is the Thayamanuvar Temple, for the worship of Lord Shiva. Ucchi Pillayar, meanwhile, is beautifully poised at the top. All structures in the fort complex exhibit the skill and dedication of artisans that is hard to even imagine. The Lower Cave Temple in the Fort has a form of pillars that weren’t found anywhere else and since it was made in the Pallava era, there are many inscriptions praising legendary king Mahendravarman I. The panoramic views of the Trichy town, Kaveri River, Ranganathaswamy Temple and beyond are also noteworthy reasons to pay a visit to this epic temple.
For a complete trip to Trichinopoly, take a day off for fun and divinity at Ucchi Pillayar!
7. Nellaiappar Temple, Tirunelveli
What is it with the 7th century and temples in Tamil Nadu? Yet another Dravidian temple in this state was initially constructed in the 7th century is the Nellaiappar Temple in Tirunelveli. Dedicated to Lord Shiva and Devi Parvati in the forms of Nellaiappar Swamy and Kantimathi Amman respectively, the two temples deifying these holy figures were separate for a millennium. While the 2 temple towers were built by Pandyas by 700AD, the rest of the temple was slowly added and improved by Cholas, Pallavas, Cheras and Madurai Nayaks. The shrines of Nellaiappar and Kantimathi were finally attached by the Sangili Mandapam in 1647 by Thiru Vadamalaiappa Pillaiyan.
There is an absorbing fable behind Tirunelveli. It is said that a Brahmin, Vedha Sharma begged for paddy grains and spread them on the floor to dry. However, it started to pour cats and dogs and Vedha prayed for protection for his grains from the rain. So Lord Shiva came and shielded and covered it by standing around it like a fence. So this town where it happen came to be known as Tirunelveli (beautiful paddy fence). This manifestation of Shiva is called Nellaiappar. This is also supposedly the spot where Vishnu witnessed the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.
Nellaiappar Temple is an architectural gem for many reasons. Mani Mandapam, with its musical pillars, was created around a single rock and can regurgitate musical notes when struck. The other prominent mandapams are 1000 pillar Mandapam, Oonjal Mandapam and Vasantha Mandapam. Thamira Sabha or the Copper Dance Hall is another portion of the temple that has many myths linked to it and is one of the 5 places where Shiva is meant to have revealed his dance. Similar to the one in Brihadeswara, there is a big Nandi statue in the Nandi Mandapam in Nellaiappar too. Apart from this there are various attractive carvings, sculptures and rock arts that shouldn’t be missed.
A number of festivals are celebrated in the temple with gusto and grand fervour. The ones that will catch your attention are Navratri, Arudra Darisanam and Bramhotsavam. The temple chariot of Nellaiappar Temple is the 2nd largest in Tamil Nadu and is taken out only during some particular festivals like Arudra Darisanam, so you wouldn’t want to miss this. There is also a golden temple car which is the 3rd largest in Tamil Nadu; it is taken out during the festivals of Thirukalyanam, Kaarthigai and Aaruthra. Experiencing the festivities and energy of Tirunelveli will put you on cloud 9.
Ooh, it all sounds so exciting, right? So it is time for you to get yourself back on track on your temple trail to Nellaiappar Temple and Tirunelveli!
The temples of Tamil Nadu tell gripping tales of the past, scream of architectural and engineering brilliance, mystify you, enthral you and are home to some of the best epics of Indian mythology. These temples are bound to mesmerise you and humble you in front of their abode of beauty.
Everyone must travel to the temples atleast once in their lifetime. So why not make that once in a lifetime now. Who knows, you may even keep going back for a second serving of these age old temples? So get off that couch, put on your boots (oh wait, don’t. You are going to a temple) and get going. Enjoy a divine and spiritual holiday and let us know about your encounters with serenity and tranquillity.