Ruled by Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, Marathas and various other dynasties and kings over the years, Tamil Nadu in Southern India is home to some of the most beautifully sculpted temples in the country. As much as they are frequently visited by pilgrims and followers of Hinduism, these temples also display spectacular carvings and sculptures which were chiseled centuries ago. These give the visitors a peek into the world of temple architecture and extensive stone work which have withstood time, war and natural calamities over the years. Below are the 10 must visit temples in Tamil Nadu which are popular among both pilgrims and travellers alike.
Sprawling over 156 acres, Sri Ranganathaswamy temple is the largest functional Hindu temple in the world. Located on the river island of Srirangam, which is carved out of the rivers Cauvery and Kollidam, the temple is one of the prominent Vishnu temples in India. As per Srirangam temple history, it was first built in the 3rd century CE and was rebuilt over the next many centuries until 17th century CE. Apart from 21 spectacular entrance gates (gopurams), 9 temple ponds, 39 pavilions, 49 shrines of Vishnu and many halls, the expansive temple premise also houses museums, roads, houses and commercial establishments. There are 7 decorated colourful gopurams to pass through to reach the sanctum sanctorum, which has a gold plated gopuram. Rajagpuram which faces south is the main entrance gate and stands tall at 73 meters. Ranganathar, which is a form of Vishnu in a reclining pose on a coiled serpent, is the main shrine here. The temple is built in typical Dravidian temple architecture, and its halls such as Kili Mandapam, Garuda Mandapam, Ranga Vilasa Mandapam and Shesharaya Mandapam are testimony to this. A narrow stairs near Ranga Vilasa mandapam goes up to the roof and offers lovely aerial views of all the gopurams. Margazhi (December- January) month is when the temple hosts its major festival.
Brihadeeshwarar temple which is often called as the big temple, was built in the 11th century during Chola reign by Rajaraja Chola I, and is presently a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple dedicated to Shiva is built in Dravidian style, and emblazons the Chola art, design and architecture. Built inside fort Shivganga, the temple has two extensively carved entrance gates with sculptures of mythological characters. The sprawling courtyard house numerous shrines, but what stands out is the intimidating main shrine which is a thirteen storeyed structure with spectacular sculptures and an eighty tonne carved granite block atop it. The chisel work is extensive and there are numerous inscriptions too across the outer façade of the main shrine. The other shrines in the complex are dedicated to Ganesha, Nataraja, Varaha, Chandikeshvara etc. The shrines of Subrahmanya and Nandi have gorgeous sculptures and frescoes on them. A pillared pathway runs across the courtyard which is an ideal place to relax and see the sun set behind the main shrine in the evenings.
Adi Kumbeshwarar, Kumbakonam
Kumbakonam is known for its numerous temples and Adi Kumbeshwarar is considered to be one of the most prominent ones in this temple town. Built before the 7th century CE during the rule of Chola dynasty, this temple is believed to have been rebuilt and renovated over the years. Dedicated to Kumbeshwarar, a form of Shiva, this popular temple has wonderful mythological sculptures on its walls, ceiling and pillars. These can be spotted on the hall that leads to the inner sanctum, which has numerous colourful carvings and sculptures. The temple premise also houses Kandha Kumba Theertham, the sacred temple pond.
Dedicated to Shiva, the main shrine at Ramanathaswamy temple is believed to have been consecrated by Rama (the protagonist in the epic Ramayana) upon his arrival from Sri Lanka after defeating Ravana. The temple was renovated and expanded during the rule of Pandya kings in the 12th century CE. This temple is believed to be one of the 12 Jyotirlinga temples in India and has four large entrance gates or gopurams. A major attraction at this temple is the thousand pillared corridor which is the longest temple corridor in the country. The colourful ceilings are another highlight here. There are 22 theerthams (holy ponds) within the temple, where pilgrims get watered by priests before entering the inner sanctum as it is considered auspicious.
Meenakshi Amman, Madurai
The biggest attraction in Madurai is undoubtedly Meenakshi Amman or Meenakshi Sundareshwarar temple. The 7th century temple built by the Pandya dynasty is located in the heartland of Tamil Nadu. The temple has had many additions to it in the later years by various other rulers. The four tall colourful entrance gates with extensive carvings are a major attraction as one strolls around the tall walls of this popular temple. While the temple is dedicated to Meenakshi, a form of Parvati, it also houses a shrine dedicated to Shiva, in the form of Sundareshwarar. The temple architecture stands out with its beautiful carvings and sculptures of various gods, figurines and scenes from mythology on walls, ceilings, pillars and gopurams. The temple is also known for its numerous halls with sculpted pillars. Aayiram Kal mandapam (Thousand pillar hall), Kalyana sannidhi, Oonjal mandapam and Kambathadi mandapam are some of the wonderfully sculpted halls within the premises. The large temple pond is another highlight here. Meenakshi Amman is one of the most colourful and vibrant temples in Tamil Nadu.
One of the oldest and popular temples near Tiruchirappally in central Tamil Nadu, Jambukeshwarar temple was built in the 2nd century CE by the Chola kings. Located in the town of Thiruvanaikaval, the temple is dedicated to both Shiva and his consort, Parvati. The temple is adorned with colourful gopurams (entrance gates), tall walls and carved pillars. The sculpted pillars are the highlight of this temple and they are present across the premises with broad corridors running alongside. Apart from the main shrine which has a shivlinga, the other major shrine here is Akhilandeshwari amman. There are also a few other shrines within this temple.
The second largest temple complex in India, Arunchaleshwar temple is dedicated to Shiva, and has a beautiful setting spread over 10 hectares. The gopurams (entrance gates) and walls of the temple stand tall in the middle of the small town of Tiruvannamalai with Arunachaleshwar hill in the backdrop. The temple was first built by the Chola dynasty and later rebuilt and expanded during the rule of Vijayanagara empire. Though the gopurams are devoid of colours, they have numerous carvings of various mythological characters. The main entrance which faces east direction is the tallest at 217 feet. Here Shiva is worshipped in the form of Agni (fire). The temple also houses numerous other shrines, and a beautiful hall called Ayiram Kal Mandapam which has thousand carved pillars. The major festival at this temple is Karthigai Deepam (November- December) during which pilgrims circumnavigate the Arunachaleshwar hill.
Built by Narasimhavarman II during the rule of Pallavas in the 8th century CE, Kailasanthar temple has Dravidian temple architecture, and is dedicated to Shiva. Though the sculptures have weathered over the years, the temple still displays extensive carvings of various gods and mythological figures all across its walls. While the main shrine has a shivlinga, there are numerous other small shrines in the temple which are dedicated to Shiva. While the base of the temple is made of granite, the interesting aspect is that every other part of the temple is made from sandstone. Kanchipuram has numerous temples, and this one lies tucked away in one of its alleys and doesn’t look one bit ostentatious despite being the most prominent one.
Worshipped in the form of earth, Shiva is the presiding deity at Ekambareshwarar temple. Sometimes referred as Ekambaranath temple, it was built during the Chola reign in the 9th century. Though the main shrine houses a shivlinga, there are numerous other shrines too, including a shrine dedicated to Vishnu. The temple architecture is impressive with a magnificent eleven storeyed main entrance gate called Rajagopuram, apart from beautiful carvings, long pillared corridors, a thousand pillared hall and a large pond. Most of the pillars and halls were built later when Kanchipuram was under the Vijayanagara dynasty. Believed to be 3000 years old, an old mango tree inside the temple is the location where Shiva and Kamakshi had supposedly got married, and is a revered place for pilgrims visiting this temple.
Thillai Nataraja, Chidambaram
Dedicated to Shiva, Nartaraja temple was built during the Chola period in the 11th century CE. With extensive Chola sculptures and exquisite architecture, the colourful temple has Shiva in a dancing pose as its main deity. The temple complex also has numerous other sanctums, including that of a Vishnu shrine apart from pillared halls and huge water tanks. The entrance door or gopuram stands tall and intimidating with its colourful exterior and sculpted interiors. Intricate sculptures of gods and mythological figures embellish the colourful gopuram. The sprawling courtyard is known as Kanakasabhai, and the temple is known for its yearly music and dance festival. Maha Kumbabhishekam is the annual festival that brings the temple alive every year.