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10 Famous Temples in Tamil Nadu

Updated: Jul 10, 2021

Story written by MONA KAPOOR

Carvings on Meenakshi Temple, Madurai
Carvings on Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

A temple tour of Tamil Nadu is the perfect introduction to India for those who are interested in architecture, history and are intrigued by the importance of religion in the daily life of an Indian.

Tamil Nadu’s cultural identity has been shaped by the Dravidians who have inhabited the South since the 4th Millennium BC. Followers of both Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu formed religious orders and most temples have similar versions of stories held to justify their existence in the eyes of the early pilgrim – the miraculous discovery of a “site” and the adventures of the people who were freed from sorrow by worshipping there- the “supreme” site.

Temple near Tiruvanamalai, Tamil Nadu
Temple near Tiruvanamalai, Tamil Nadu

Traditionally a long and uncomfortable journey brings pilgrims to the temple for worship.

Upon arrival, the pilgrim sees the towering gopuram (gate), beyond which lies the enclosed shrine. He leaves his footwear outside the gate, undergoes an initial purification via a holy bath and therein begins the real journey.

Here the pilgrim comes in touch with a higher power that he offers prayer to help him in his ordinary life in return for his own sacrifice.

Through all its great diversity, Hindu temple architecture repeatedly expresses shared beliefs of millions of Hindus who make visiting temples such a vital and living part of their life.

My favourite temple trail takes you to some of the most often visited and a few lesser known temples in the state.

Kapaleeshwar Temple

A 16th C temple at Mylapore, Chennai dedicated to Lord Shiva’s consort-Goddess Parvati.

Legend tells that in an angry fit Shiva turned his consort Parvati into a peacock, and commanded her to worship him here to regain her normal form. She did this at a spot outside the northeast corner of the temple's central block. Hence the name Mylapore, "town of peacocks.

Kapaleeshwar Temple with its magnificent carvings
Kapaleeshwar Temple with its magnificent carvings

Shore Rock Temple

Shore and Rock cut Temple overlooks the Bay of Bengal at Mahabalipuram and dates back to the 8th century AD
Shore Rock Temple overlooks the Bay of Bengal at Mahabalipuram and dates back to the 8th century AD

Marco Polo and the European merchants who came to Asia after him called the site Seven Pagodas. One of the Pagodas is believed to be the Shore Temple. It is believed that the temple acted as a landmark for navigation of their ships.

Kailashanatha Temple the oldest structure in Kanchipuram
Kailashanatha Temple the oldest structure in Kanchipuram

The spectacular Kailashanatha Temple (685-705 AD), considered the oldest structure in Kanchipuram and the Ekambaveshvara Temple, both dedicated to Lord Shiva, and the Vaikuntha Perumal Temple dedicated to Vishnu are all amazing introduction to temples in Tamil Nadu.

Nataraja Temple

This temple at Chidambaram, dedicated to Shiva as the lord of dance, holds a special memory.

Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram
Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram

This is where I witnessed a young girl, offering her first public performance called an Arangetram. Oblivious to the crowd gathering around, her focus only on the deity, the fluidity of her movements, and the flashing of her kohl lined eyes kept us all spell bound. Her passion and the devotion have left an indelible mark on my memory.

Brihadishvara Temple

In Tanjore, the Shiva dedicated exquisite Brihadishvara Temple exemplifies fully realised Dravidian architecture.

The Dravidian architecture of the Brihadishvara Temple
The Dravidian architecture of the Brihadishvara Temple

Ariyar Koil

Arriving at Sittanavasal, the rock cut cave or Ariyar Koil created by the Jains in the 2nd century is a personal favourite.

Off the beaten track, the cave is approached after a short uphill climb. The architectural features of the Sittanvasal Cave include the painting and sculptures found within its precincts. The paintings have been painted in fresco-secco technique with mineral colours. The paintings depict a beautiful pond with lotus flowers, people collecting the lotuses, dancing figures, lilies, fish, geese, buffaloes and elephants.

The image of Jain monks making the arduous climb to the cave to offer prayers, dating back to 600 AD creates a feeling of deep spirituality and peace.

Vijayalaya Choleeswaram Temple

The Vijayalaya Choleeswaram Temple in Narthamalai is another Shiva temple from the 9th century. This rock cut structure is again not on the usual trail, accessible only via a walk on a flat stone hillside, arriving at this beautifully isolated monument making the climb very worthwhile.

Meenakshi Amman Temple

Towards the end of our temple trail, the Meenakshi Amman Temple at Madurai offers a spectacular finale.

A complete antithesis of the rock temple visits, this complex covers 14 acres, has 4500 pillars and 14 towers and is over 2500 yrs old. It attracts a few thousand pilgrims daily and is a hub of religious activity.

The evening ceremony to put the Lord Sundareshwar and his consort Meenakshi to bed is a huge draw for locals and visitors alike.

Visit some or all these beautiful temples – you will be enthralled!

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