When it comes to temples in South India, the state of Tamil Nadu dominates with its ancient towering Dravidian masterpieces that often have brightly painted sculptures on their gopuram (towers). These temples, which display some of India's greatest temple architecture, are the backbone of Tamil culture. Here's where to find the most magnificent South India temples. Many of these places have more than just the one temple, so do look around.
Ancient Madurai in Tamil Nadu is home to the most impressive and important temple in South India—the Meenakshi temple. If you only see one South Indian temple, this temple should be it. The temple complex covers 15 acres, and has 4,500 pillars and 12 towers -- it's massive! Most astonishing of all is its many sculptures. The 12-day Chithirai Festival, featuring a reenacted celestial wedding of the temple's god and goddess, is held in Madurai during April each year. Read more about the Meenakshi temple and how to visit it and discover the top things to do in Madurai.
Thanjavur emerged as the stronghold of Tamil culture in the 11th century, with Chola king Raja Raja I at the helm. The powerful Cholas built more than 70 temples in Thanjavur, with the most outstanding one being the Brihadeswara temple (known as the Big Temple). This temple is one of three Great Living Chola Temples listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It turned 1,000 years old in 2010, also making it among the oldest temples dedicated to Lord Shiva in India. Constructed solely out of stone, its dome rises to over 60 meters, and the passage around the sanctum is adorned with Chola frescoes. Read more about what to do in Thanjavur.
You'll find the other two UNESCO-listed Great Living Chola Temples at Gangaikonda Cholapuram and Kumbakonam, about an hour northeast of Thanjavur. The royal temple at Gangaikonda Cholapuram was built not long after Thanjavur's Big Temple in the 11th century, when Rajendra Chola I relocated the Chola capital there in celebration of victory. Its design is similar to the Big Temple but on a lesser scale, and it features an enormous stone Nandi (bull). Just west of Kumbakonam, at Darasuram, the 12th century Airavatesvara temple is special for its art and exquisite intricate stone carvings. Kumbakonam abounds with temples and is a fabulous place for temple hopping! If you only have time to see a few, the 13th century Sarangapani temple (dedicated to Lord Vishnu) is most impressive, with a shrine in the form of a horse-drawn chariot.
Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu
Popularly known as a "City of a Thousand Temples", Kanchipuram is not just famous for its distinctive silk saris. Located around two hours southwest of Chennai, on the main road to Bangalore, it was once the capital of the Pallava dynasty. Today, only a 100 or so temples remain, many of them with unique architectural beauty. The diversity of temples is particularly noteworthy. There are both Shiva and Vishnu temples, built by various rulers (the Cholas, Vijayanagar kings, Muslims, and British also ruled this part of Tamil Nadu) who each refined the design.
Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu
The special feature at Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameshwaram is its astonishing pillared hallway, regarded as the longest in India, lining its perimeter. The seemingly endless rows of carved pillars have a mesmerizing painted ceiling. The temple is located only 100 meters from the sea (Agni Theertham) and pilgrims take a bath there first, before going inside the temple and bathing in its 22 wells. The water is considered to be holy and purifying to mind and body. Rameshwaram, located on a small island at the tip of the Indian Peninsula, holds a special place in Hindu mythology as it's where Lord Ram built a bridge across the sea to rescue Sita from the clutches of the demon Ravan, in Sri Lanka. Read more about the top things to do in and around Rameshwaram.
Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu
Chidambaram is off the tourist trail and people mainly head there to visit its Nataraj temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva performing the cosmic dance. This ancient temple is quite unusual because it follows Vedic rituals, set by the sage Patanjali, unlike other Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu whose agamic rituals are based on Sanskrit scriptures. The Vedic rituals are centered on fire, and yagna (fire sacrifice) is performed every morning as part of the puja in the Kanaka Sabha (Golden Hall). Non-Hindus can see it. Get there around 8.00 a.m. The temple priests, known as Podu Dikshitars, were said to be brought from the abode of Lord Shiva by Patanjali himself! The nearby Pichavaram mangroves make an interesting side trip.
Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu
Arunachaleswar temple sits at the base of holy Mount Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai, about four hours southwest of Chennai. It's another large temple complex, with nine towers and three inner courtyards. Lord Shiva is worshiped there as the element of fire. Pilgrims flock to the town every full moon to walk around the mountain. Numerous shrines and sadhus (Hindu holy men) can be found along the path. Once a year, during the Karthikai Deepam Festival on the full moon between November and December, a huge fire is lit on top of the mountain and blazes for days. This holy town has a strong spiritual energy about it, especially some of the meditation caves that can be found in various spots up the mountain.
Tiruchirappalli (Trichy), Tamil Nadu
Tiruchirappalli, or Trichy as it's informally called, is home to the largest temple in India -- the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple on Srirangam Island. It's dedicated to a reclining form of Lord Vishnu, although only Hindus are permitted inside the inner sanctum to see it. This remarkable temple dates back 2,000 years to the early Chola-era in Tamil Nadu. It occupies a mammoth 156 acres and has 21 gopuram (towers). The main tower, which is 73 meters high, is the second tallest temple tower in Asia. In addition, don't miss the Rock Fort Temple Complex, built in spectacular style on a rocky outcrop above the city. As is to be expected, it affords a panoramic view. The complex consists of three Hindu temples and a fort. The oldest of these temples was cut into the side of the rock by Pallava king Mahendravarman I in the 6th century. Read more about the best things to do in Tiruchirappalli.
One of the top places to visit in Karnataka, Belur is home to the marvelous 12th century Chennakeshava temple, built by the ruling Hoysala dynasty to commemorate their victory over the Cholas and dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It took a long 103 years to complete and is adorned with some of India's most celebrated sculptures. You'll find many other temples belonging to the Hoysala Empire in Belur, as their capital was located there before its downfall from Mughal attack in the 14th century.
Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh
Extremely popular with pilgrims, the sprawling temple complex of Lord Venkateswara (Lord Vishnu) is situated above Tirupati in the southern part of Andhra Pradesh. Those who are able can walk the 4,000 steps up the hill to the temple, which takes two to four hours. Otherwise, it's easier to go by bus. The temple is one of the most visited and wealthiest in India, as can be seen by its gold-plated dome. It's been patronized by all the various rulers and kings over the years. In recent times, Bollywood stars Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai prayed at the temple after their marriage in 2007. Keep in mind that there are a number of challenges when visiting Tirupati Temple, including huge crowds, making it suited to serious pilgrims only.
The Group of Monuments at Pattadakal is one of India's little-known UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It consists of nine Hindu temples and a Jain sanctuary, surrounded by many smaller shrines. What's particularly striking about it is masterful blend of Dravidian (southern) and Nagara (northern) styles of temple architecture. The standout temple is the Virupaksha temple, built in the 8th century by queen Lokamahadevi of the Chalukya dynasty to commemorate her husband's victory over the Pallavas of Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. Its interior is covered in beautiful carvings and sculptures, including episodes from The Ramayana and Bhagavad Gita.
Not far from Pattadakal, former Chalukya capital Aihole has more than 100 temples. However, they were constructed much before the ones at Pattadakal, and their designs are considered to be experimental and not as refined. The Durga Temple Complex is the focal point. It has 12 Hindu temples dating back to the 6th-8th centuries. Another highlight is the 6th century Ravana Phadi cave temple, uphill from the Durga Temple Complex. It features large sculpture panels and is thought to be the earliest monument of the Badami Chalukyas. Pattadakal and Aihole can be visited on a side trip from Hampi.
Pudukottai, Tamil Nadu
Off-the-beaten-track, the historic Kudumiyanmalai Temple Complex is centered around a naked granite hill near Pudukottai, a bit over an hour south of two hours northeast of Tiruchirappalli. The two main structures are an ancient rock-cut cave temple localled called Melakkoil and large Sikkanathaswamy temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The was built in phases by many rulers from the Cholas to the Nayaks and is adorned with sculptures. More than 100 inscriptions can be found on the walls of the temples. Of most importance is the 7th century musical inscription engraved into the rock on the side of the cave temple. It's recognized as one of the earliest surviving sources of Indian music notation and outlays the grammatical notes of Carnatic music.
You've no doubt heard of the Golden Temple in Amritsar but did you know there's a golden temple in Tamil Nadu too? This dazzling modern-day temple was constructed by a spiritual organization headed by Sri Sakthi Amma (also known as Narayani Amma) and completed in 2007. It's said to be the only temple in the world that's fully covered in gold -- all 1,500 kilograms of it! Even the deity, goddess Mahalakshmi, is adorned with gold and diamond jewellery. The temple was plated with gold to attract visitors and impart messages of spiritual wisdom, which are written on the long pathway leading to the temple's entrance.
Lepakshi, Andhra Pradesh
The small village of Lepakshi, in the Anantapur district of southern Andhra Pradesh, can be visited on a peaceful day trip from Bangalore in Karnataka. It's renowned for its Vijayanagar style of architecture, in particular the Veerabhadra temple that dates back to the 16h century. Features include a collossal monolithic stone Nandi (bull) statue, unusual pillar that hangs from the temple roof, and some of the finest mural paintings of the Vijayanagar kings. There's also a Ganesh statue carved into a boulder, and stone Naga (snake) sheltering the temple's black granite shivalingam (representation of Lord Shiva).