Last Updated: May 4, 2019 Kamlesh Nayal
Known as the temple city of India, Tamil Nadu is one place in South India where the elaborate architecture and brilliant sculptures of its ancient temples, leave all its tourists spellbound with their astounding beauty. With almost all the temples built during historic and medieval times, a trip to these temples provides you with a deep insight into brilliant architectural, sculptural and artistic skills of the engineers, architects and artisans of the bygone times. These temples also showcase the opulent and lavish tastes of the erstwhile royal kings, be it Pallavas, Cholas or Nayakas. Standing tall as the backbone of the Tamil culture, these temples are today, India’s precious jewels adding to its rich heritage.
If you are planning for a South India temple tour, we bring to you a list of 15 famous temples of Tamil Nadu that not only provide you a great spiritual experience but, also give you a chance to revel in their mesmerizing designs, still speaking stories of their glorious past.
Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai
Dedicated to Goddess Parvati in the form of Meenakshi and her consort, Lord Shiva in the form of Lord Sundareshwarar, the ‘Meenakshi Amman Temple‘ is one of the most ancient and famous temples not only in Tamil Nadu but, in entire India. According to historical and archaeological records, the temple was originally built around 6th century AD and the major portion of it was damaged in 14th century by the Muslim invaders in India. The present structure of the temple dates back to 16th century when it was again restored to its pristine glory by the Nayak rulers.
The temple is a masterpiece of the Dravidian architecture. The richly sculptured and decorated ‘Gopurams’ of the temple are its major highlight that can be seen from even a far-off distance. Adorned with thousands of figures of gods, goddesses and demons, the Meenakshi Amman Temple is no less than an architectural marvel. Besides gopurams, intricately carved figures and scenes depicted from Indian mythology in the halls add to the artistic charm of the temple. Scenes of ocean of milk being churned by devas and asuras, nine heads Ravana playing veena, Rishi Markandya hugging Shivlingam and wedding ceremony of Sundareshwarar & Meenakshi; are few of the sculptures worth noticing when you are inside the temple premises.
The temple’s thousand pillared hall is again an engineering marvel with each pillar built of a single granite rock producing a different musical note when tapped. The temple today, sees a footfall of thousands of devotees and tourists every day that raises to around 1 million during the annual Meenakshi Thirukalyanam festival celebrated in the months of April-May.
Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur
One of the largest temples in India, the ‘Brihadeeswarar Temple’ is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is located in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. Built under the reign of the Chola dynasty in 11th century AD, the temple stands tall as a testimony to the opulence and grandeur of the Chola rulers. Today, the temple enjoys the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the list of ‘Great Living Chola Temples’ and is visited by hundreds of thousands of devotees and tourists every year. The greatest attraction of the temple is its 216ft Tall.
‘Vimana’ or tower that is also claimed to be the tallest in the world. The ‘Kumbam’ or the apex structure on top of the Vimana, weighing 80 tonnes and carved from a single granite, just adds to the magnificence of the entire structure. Also, the Brihadeeswarar Temple has another feather to it with an acclaim of being the world’s first temple completely built from granite. With no granite quarry within 100 km. radius of the temple, a visit to this temple definitely makes one wonder about the logistics and efforts that must have been required to transport tonnes of granite to this site. Not only transportation, just imagine how such a heavy rock must have been first carved owing to the fact that granite is one of the hardest stones to be cut, and then later on embellished on top of a 216ft tall Vimana during the times when the technology was just in its early stages? Well! the answers to these questions can only be given by expert architects and engineers but, for ordinary people like us, the structure of the Brihadeeswarar Temple and its grandeur today, definitely leaves us awed with the extra-ordinarily brilliant engineering skills of the then engineers, architects and artisans.
Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam
Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Photo: https://goo.gl/HJkX1R
Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the ‘Ranganathaswamy Temple’ located on the Srirangam Island of the Tiruchirappalli city in Tamilnadu, is another masterpiece of the Dravidian architecture. Spread across an area of over 150 acres, the temple has 49 sub-shrines and is dotted with 21 brilliantly carved Gopurams (tower gateways) with the main or the ‘Raja Gopuram’ standing tall at 236 ft. making it the tallest in Asia. It is also only one of its kind shrine where you will find a unique mix of a temple and township co-existing; a part of the temple is actually dedicated to temple activities whereas the remaining portion serves as a township for human. The temple also has 7 prakaras or enclosures with the presiding deity of Lord Vishnu in the form of Lord Ranganathaswamy reclining on five-headed serpent, enshrined in the innermost prakara. The tower above the innermost prakara is in the shape of ‘Om’ and is completely plated in Gold. Counted as the first amongst the 108 ‘Divya Desams’ or holy abodes of Lord Vishnu, the temple draws uncountable pilgrims and tourists every year.
The exact date of temple’s consecration is still not known but, according to archaeological records, the original structure of the temple dates back to 10th century when the region was under the rule of Chola dynasty. In the 14th century, the temple was plundered of its wealth by Muslim invaders and was again restored to its original grandeur by the Vijayanagara and Nayaka rulers in late 16th century. Magnificent architecture, delicate carvings, exquisite sculptures and brilliant frescoes of the temple, even today give you a deep insight into the superb skills of the then architects, sculptors and artisans. During your visit to the temple, you just cannot miss the thousand-pillared hall that can leave anyone awed with its artistic brilliance; the exquisitely carved figures of horses standing on their rear legs depicting war scenes on the base of these pillars offer a true spectacle.
Jambukeswarar Temple, Thiruvanaikaval
Another famous temple located on the Srirangam Island of Tamilnadu is the ‘Jambukeshwara Temple’ dedicated to Lord Shiva. Dating back to the Chola era, the temple again represents a Dravidian style of architecture with 7 tiered gopuram adorned with delicate carvings. There are 5 enclosures inside the temple with the innermost being the main sanctum housing the Shivlinga in the form of Appu Lingam (water Lingam). There is an underground stream flowing underneath the Shivlinga from which water continuously flows out.
According to mythological legends, Goddess Parvati in the form of Akilandeswari performed a great penance under the ‘Jambu Tree’ that is believed to have grown from the head of a meditating saint. To perform the Pooja, she made a lingam from the water of River Cauvery flowing by. Impressed with the devotion of Parvati, Shiva gave her darshans and taught her Shiva Gnana.
Enacting the penance of Parvati as Akilandeswari worshipping Lord Shiva, everyday during noon, the priest of the temple dresses as female dressed in saree and offers prayer to Lord Jambukeswarar. This noon prayer is attended by hundreds of devotees every day and provides a great insight into few unusual Indian traditions and customs to those travelling to India for the first time.
Kanchi Kailasanthar Temple, Kanchipuram
Located in Kanchipuram district of Tamilnadu, the ‘Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple’ is another one of the most famous pilgrim centres in South India. Dating back to late 7th century-early 8th century, the temple is believed to have been built under the reign of the Pallava Dynasty. Carved entirely out of sandstone, the temple is the oldest temple in Tamil Nadu dedicated to Lord Shiva with its main sanctum enshrining a 16 sided Shivlinga made of a black granite. The architecture of the temple again showcases a brilliant Dravidian style with a delicately carved pyramidal shape tower on the main sanctum and 58 small Shiva shrines enclosed inside the complex. Prominent highlight of the temple are undoubtedly, the beautifully carved sculptures of Lord Shiva and his consort, Goddess Parvati in different dance postures that can be seen adorning the inner walls. Standing tall as a symbol of grandeur of the Pallava kings, the ‘Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple’ today, attracts hordes of pilgrims from different parts of the country, especially on the occasion of Maha Shivratri when devotees throng here to seek the blessings of the God.
Ekambareswarar Temple, Kanchipuram
Ekambareswarar Temple, Photo: https://goo.gl/BGVGkl
Yet another beautiful and famous temples in Tamil Nadu, the ‘Ekambareswarar Temple’ attracts thousands of pilgrims and other tourists from different parts of India and abroad. Counted amongst five ‘Panch Bootha Sthalas’ (five elements of the universe), the temple is dedicated to the element, Earth and holds a great religious significance for devotees of Lord Shiva.
As per mythological beliefs, Goddess Parvati performed a penance here under a sacred mango tree, for Lord Shiva with a Shivlinga made of sand. Pleased with her devotion, Shiva appeared before her and came to be known as Ekambareswarar or the ‘Lord of Mango Tree’.
The temple is believed to have been existing since 600 AD but, the present structure is said to be dating back to 11th-12th centuries. The architecture of the temple showcases a signature Shaivite structure with a lofty gopuram, 5 prakrams or concentric circumambulatory enclosures. The 1000 pillared hall adorning carvings of 1008 Shivlingas is believed to be added by the Vijayanagara kings during 15th century. The inner sanctum houses the Prithvi Lingam. Also, the sacred mango tree, believed to be more than 3000 years old, can be seen in the temple premises. The speciality of the tree is that it bears four different types of Mangoes in four different seasons in the year.
For anyone on a pilgrimage tour in South India, a visit to the Ekambareswara Temple provides for a great spiritual experience.
Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameswaram
One of the four primary pilgrimage destinations (‘Char Dhams’) for all Hindus across the world, the ‘Ramanathaswamy Temple’ is swarmed by hordes of pilgrims every day. Besides being one of the holy ‘Chardham’, the temple is also counted amongst the 12 sacred Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva. According to mythological legends, the story associated with the Shivlinga enshrined in the main sanctum of the temple goes back to the times of Ramayana. It is believed that after returning from Lanka, Lord Rama wanted to absolve his sins of killing the demon Ravana who was also a great Brahmin and scholar. In order to do so, he decided to worship Lord Shiva and asked Lord Hanuman to get the biggest Shivlinga from Himalayas. As it took very long for Hanuman to get the Shivlinga, and seeing the auspicious time for prayers being run out, Rama’s wife, Goddess Sita built a Shivlinga from sand. The same Shivlinga, known as ‘Ramalinga’ is believed to have been residing in the sanctum of the Ramanathaswamy Temple for centuries. Enshrined next to Ramalinga is the ‘Vishwalinga’, the Shivlinga that was brought by Hanuman. As per the legends, Lord Rama seeing Hanuman disappointed, ordained that for any devotee visiting Rameswaram, the holy yatra would be successful only if he first pays his obeisance to Vishwalinga and since then, all the rituals are first made at Vishwalinga and then at Ramalinga.
Located on the serene island of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu, the structure of this temple is believed to have been built during 12th century CE by the Pandya rulers. The tallest of its 4 gopurams stands at the height of 126 feet metres and is built in typical Dravidian style. The temple is also acknowledged for housing longest corridor hall in India made of almost 1000 intricately carved granite pillars. A colossal statue of Nandi 6 metres tall also grabs attention of many.
A visit to the Ramanathaswamy temple not only provides you with an unmatched spiritual experience but, also gives you an opportunity to witness the grandeur and opulence of the kings in the times bygone.
Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Chennai
Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Photo: https://goo.gl/edEIsK
Located in Mylapore district of Chennai, the ‘Kapaleeshwarar Temple’ was built under the reign of the Pallava Kings during 7th century CE. However, the temple structure that stands today dates back to 16th century CE owing to the fact that the original structure was devastated by the Portuguese and it was in 16th century that the Vijayanagara Kings brought the temple back to its pristine splendour. Dedicated to Lord Shiva who is revered here in the form of Kapaleeshwarar, the temple is one of the significant pilgrimage sites in Tamil Nadu for the Shaivites attracting hordes of devotees every day. Adorned with a huge rainbow-coloured Gopuram, pillared halls and a water body; Kapaleeshwarar Temple presents a fine example of a true Dravidian style of architecture.
According to mythological legends, Goddess Parvati in the form of peahen or ‘Mayil’ as said in Tamil, performed a huge penance for Lord Shiva at this pious site. That is the reason, a small shrine of Goddess Parvati who is revered here in the form of Karpagambal is also present in the temple complex besides the main sanctum of Lord Shiva who is enshrined in the form of Shivlinga. The Karpagambal shrine attracts huge crowds on Fridays when the presiding deity is bedecked with a garland of gold coins. Another interesting site of the temple is a small shrine under the old Punnai Tree in the courtyard that depicts the story of Goddess Parvati in the form of peahen worshipping the Shivlinga.
One of the most sacred sites in Tamil Nadu, a visit here is sure to provide you with an unmatched experience of solace and divinity.
Monolithic Rock Temples, Mahabalipuram
Monolithic Rock Temples, Photo: https://goo.gl/7BSk9N
Known as the ancient temple town, Mahabalipuram is a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to 7th century and is believed to have been built under the reign of Pallava dynasty. The town today, stands as a testimony to some of India’s greatest architectural and sculptural achievements. The main highlight of this temple town is its five monolithic rock-cut temples in the form of ‘Panch Rathas’ or chariots. Each ratha is believed to have been dedicated to a Pandava brother from the times of Mahabharata. With every ratha carved in different shape and size, adorning captivating sculptures of animals, humans and gods; the architecture of these structures provide you with a deep insight into the architectural skills of the sculptors during the Pallava rule.
Another great attraction of the town is the beautiful ‘Shore Temple’ embellished with intricate carvings and sculptures. Unlike other temples of the region that have been carved out of monolithic rocks, this temple was made from granite blocks and stands as one of the earliest examples of stone built temples in South India. The inner sanctum of the temple enshrines a Shivlinga. Also, a shrine dedicated to Lord Vishnu with an image of him reclining on the Sheshnag can be seen adorning the inner walls. The outer courtyard of the temple is decorated with multiple sculptures of Nandi bull. Located on the shores of Bay of Bengal overlooking the azure waters of the never ending ocean, the temple not only showcases the artistic brilliance of the artisans of the bygone times but, also the royal taste of the Pallava kings. Withstanding the atrocities of wind and sea, the temple even today stands tall in its pristine glory and serves as a stunning backdrop for the annual Mahabalipuram Dance Festival.
A visit to Mahabalipuram is incomplete without witnessing its gigantic bas-relief works carved out of granite blocks dating back to 7th century. Most famous amongst all reliefs is the depiction of River Ganges’ descent to earth with Lord Shiva shown taking her in his matted locks. Another amazingly beautiful relief work is of ‘Arjuna’s Penance’ depicting Arjuna undertaking a penance in order to obtain a powerful weapon from Lord Shiva that can lead to Pandavas victory over Kauravas in the battle of Mahabharata.
Nagaraja Temple, Nagercoil
Nagaraja Temple, Photo: https://goo.gl/2CBC6l
Located in the Nagercoil town of Kanyakumari district in Tamil Nadu, the ‘Nagaraja Temple’ is dedicated to the serpent king Vasuki. The presiding deity of this temple is the five-headed Naga God and is visited by hordes of devotees, especially on Sundays when special Pooja is performed offering milk and turmeric to the deity. The temple sees an uncountable footfall of people suffering from Naga Dosha during the Tamil month of Avani (August and September) when some distinct rituals are performed for 12 days.
According to folk tales and legends, once a village girl was cutting grass in the area when all of a sudden she noticed blood oozing out of her axe after accidentally hitting a stone. She hurriedly went to the village and brought few villagers here, out of which one villager recognized the stone as an idol of a five headed snake. Thereafter, the temple dedicated to Nagaraja was built with its walls made of mud and roof made of coconut leaves. The main sanctum of the temple still has these mud walls and thatched roof with the small stone idol of Nagaraja placed on the soil. The soil underneath the idol remains wet as it is believed that the blood is still oozing out of the deity till date. It is believed that this soil holds special powers and can cure any skin ailments; the soil is also given as prasadam to the visitors of the temple.
The architecture of the temple is quite simple with scores of sculptures and images of different snakes adorning the walls, trees and pond around. The main sanctum enshrines the deity and is guarded by two huge statues of five-headed serpents. Inside the temple premises, you will also find Shivlinga and idol of Vishnu in Anant Shayana position.
One of the very unique temples in India located amidst tranquil and peaceful settings, a visit here is sure to leave you with a blissful experience.
Kumari Amman Temple, Kanyakumari
Located on the peninsula of Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, the ‘Kumari Amman Temple’ is dedicated to the virgin Goddess Kanya Kumari, an avatar of Goddess Shakti. Dating back to 3000 years, the temple sits on the serene confluence of Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. The idol of the presiding deity is in the form of a charming young girl with rosary in her right hand.
As per mythological beliefs, in Puranic times, the demon king, Banasura obtained a boon from Lord Shiva that he could only be vanquished by a virgin. With this boon in hand, he caused great agony to Devas who in turn worshipped Goddess Parvati to get them relieved from the harassment of the demon king. As an answer to the prayers of Devas, Goddess Parvati appeared in the form of a young girl and performed a penance for Lord Shiva on the confluence of these three oceans to kill Banasura. Enchanted with the beauty of Kanya Kumari, Banasura tried to force her in marriage that resulted in a fierce battle ending in his death.
Relieved of the atrocities of Banasura, a temple was built here dedicated to Devi Kanya Kumari by Lord Parshuram. The idol of the deity is believed to be the same that was installed by Parshuram. The nose ring adorned by the deity has another story associated; it is believed that the diamonds of the nose ring are so bright that in the past, few ships sailing in the sea mistook the brilliance of these diamond as light from a lighthouse resulting in their wreckage upon the nearby rocks. Since those accidents, the eastern door (sea facing) of the temple remains closed.
One of the famous pilgrim destinations in Tamil Nadu, a visit to this temple is sure to leave you blessed with peace and prosperity.
Thillai Nataraja Temple, Chidambaram
Dedicated to Lord Shiva in the form of Nataraja or the cosmic dancer, the ‘Thillai Nataraja Temple’ is one of the most ancient temples of Tamil Nadu known for both, religious and architectural significance. The temple is believed to have been built during the time of Pallava rule in 11th century and further renovations were made during Cholas, Pandyas and Vijayanagara reign. The Nataraja Temple is also one of the ‘Panch Bhuta Sthalas’ with each one dedicated to five elements of universe – earth, air, water, fire and space; this temple signifies the fifth element, space.
The place where the temple sits is believed to be the centre of earth’s magnetic field. The main sanctum known as Chitsabha, houses the deity of Nataraja and Sivakamasundri (Nataraja’s consort). The roof of Chitsabha is made of gold and is believed to have been built during the Chola rule. The temple also has a shrine for Sivakamasundri known as the Sivakami Amman Temple and a 1000 pillared hall designed in the form of a chariot. Dating back to the Chola period, the temple and the hall are adorned with figures of dancers, drummers and musicians on the walls. The lofty gopurams of the temple ornamented with carvings of Hindu gods, various manifestations of Lord Shiva and dancers representing 108 postures of Bharatnatyam, are also a sight to behold.
One of the most significant temples for Shaivites, a visit here is sure to provide you with an inner peace and solace.
Annamalaiyer Temple, Thiruvannamalai
Another significant temple of the ‘Panch Bhuta Sthalas’, the ‘Annamalaiyer Temple’ represents the element, fire and Lord Shiva here is revered in the form of Agni Lingam. The structure of the temple dates back to 9th century when South India was under the rule of Chola dynasty. Further additions were made to the temple by the Vijayanagara kings during 15th century.
Located on the foot of Annamalai hills, the temple spreads across an area of 25 acres and is built in typical Dravidian architectural style. The Rajagopuram of the temple stands tall at a height of 217 feet and can be seen from even a far off distance. This 11 tiered gopuram with intricate carvings showcases the artistic brilliance of the Vijayanagara artisans. Inside the temple complex, you will find 6 concentric enclosures with each enclosure housing shrines of various deities. The innermost enclosure has the sanctum that enshrines the Agni Lingam, the presiding deity of the temple.
While you will see the temple always crowded with devotees and pilgrims travelling from far off corners of the world, the footfall gets multi-fold during the annual ‘Karthigai Deepam Festival’. Huge processions accompanied with drummers, dancers and people dressed in vibrant attires, this festival provides you with a colourful spectacle also, giving you an opportunity to get an insight into different rituals and customs of South Indian temple festivals.
Sripuram Golden Temple, Vellore
Sripuram Golden Temple, Photo: https://goo.gl/uUPTfC
Situated on the hills of Malaikodi in the city of Vellore in Tamil Nadu, the ‘Sripuram Golden Temple’ is on the itineraries of almost all tourists on a trip to temples in South India. Standing tall in its stunning beauty and grandeur, the temple is truly a sight to behold. Built only recently in the year 2007, the temple is dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth and prosperity) known as ‘Sri Lakshmi Narayani’. Spread across a sprawling area of 100 acres, the temple is entirely built in pure gold. The total amount of gold used in creation of this temple is said to be around 15000 kilograms that costs around 600 crores. Over 800 gold and coppersmiths well experienced in temple art worked on the creation of this amazingly beautiful temple for 7 years. The astoundingly outstanding carvings, sculptures, artwork and exquisite lighting work done by these artisans on the walls, ceiling and pillars of the temple is sure to leave you awe struck. The glittering reflection of the temple in the water body surrounding it, during night is just beyond words and is sure to leave you enchanted with its hypnotising beauty.
The pathways leading to the main temple is designed in the shape of a star with each pathway adorned with messages from the Gita, Bible and Quran. As you walk along the pathways, taking in the essence of these messages, you are enlightened with deep wisdom and knowledge. Crossing the pathways and pillared halls, devotees get the darshans of Maha Lakshmi enshrined in the inner sanctum. You would be amazed to know that the deity of Maha Lakshmi itself is made of 70 kilograms of gold.
A one of its kind temple in the world, the Sripuram Golden Temple makes for a true feast for eyes.
Bala Murugan Temple, Siruvapuri
Bala Murugan Temple, Photo: https://goo.gl/3K23Ys
Dating back to 500 years, the ‘Bala Murugan Temple’ is dedicated to Lord Murugan also known as Kartikeya, son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. It is believed that Lord Murugan here fulfils the wishes of all his true devotees and therefore, the temple is visited by hundreds of people every day. The temple has a special place amongst the devotees wishing to purchase a new house or property.
The presiding deity of the temple is of Lord Murugan standing tall at a height of 4.5 feet. Outside the sanctum sanctorum, a sculpture of peacock made with green emerald is also held to be religiously significant. A shrine in the temple complex, dedicated to Lord Murugan and his consort, Devi Valli depicted in wedlock, is visited by many devotees wishing to get married; praying here on the day of Poosam star is believed to be highly auspicious and fulfils the wish of marriage for all boys and girls.
One of the very popular holy shrines in Tamil Nadu, a visit to this temple provides you with a unique experience and a spiritual bliss.
Tamil Nadu is home to thousands of temples that are visited by scores of pilgrims and tourists every year. The above list of temples is just a conglomeration of few of the state’s best pilgrimage sites. Providing you a great spiritual and divine experience, a trip to few of these temples makes for a ‘must visit’ if you are on a pilgrimage tour in South India. Having said so, make sure before visiting these pious shrines, you are dressed appropriately and have a respectful attitude towards the religious sentiments of the people here. A last tip – beware of touts, guides and pick pockets. Wishing you a blissful and fulfilling spiritual journey!
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Published: 16 May, 2016