When it comes to South India temples, the state of Tamil Nadu dominates with its many ancient, towering Dravidian masterpieces, many of 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.
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Madurai, Tamil Nadu
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.
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Thanjavur (Tanjore), Tamil Nadu
Thanjavur emerged as the stronghold of Tamil culture in the eleventh century, with Chola King Raja Raja I at the helm. The Cholas built more than 70 temples in Thanjavur, with the most outstanding one being the Brihadeswara Temple (known as the Big Temple). Its importance is acknowledged by the fact that it's now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple, which turned 1,000 years old in 2010, is a symbol of the unrivaled power and might of the Cholas. It's also one of 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.
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Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu
The town of Kumbakonam, located just over an hour northeast of Tanjore, has 18 temples! It's a fabulous place for temple hopping. If you only have time to see a few, Sarangapani Temple (dedicated to Lord Vishnu) is the most impressive, with a shrine in the form of a horse-drawn chariot. However, just west of Kumbakonam you'll find the 12th-century Airatesvara Temple. This Great Living Chola Temple is renowned for its temple art, particularly the exquisite stone carvings. It's smaller than the Tanjore Big Temple, and Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple (another Chola Shiva temple worth visiting nearby), but the detail is much more intricate.
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Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu
Popularly known as a "City of a Thousand Temples", Kanchipuram is not just famous for its distinctive silk saris. Located around 2 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 special. 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.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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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 Rama built a bridge across the sea to rescue Sita from the clutches of the demon Ravana, in Sri Lanka.
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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.
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Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu
Arunachaleswar Temple sits at the base of holy Mount Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai, about 4 hours southwest of Chennai. It's another large temple complex, with nine towers and three inner courtyards, and 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) and 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.
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Tiruchirappalli (Trichy), Tamil Nadu
Tiruchirappalli, or Trichy as it's informally called, is home to the largest temple in India -- the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, dedicated to a reclining form of Lord Vishnu. This temple occupies a mammoth area of 156 acres and has 21 gopurams (towers). The main tower, which is 73 meters high, is the second tallest temple tower in Asia. Also, don't miss the Rock Fort Temple, built by the Nayaks of Madurai in spectacular style on a rocky outcrop 83 meters (237 feet) above the city. As is to be expected, it affords a panoramic view. If you get tired walking up the 437 rock-cut steps to the Rock Fort Temple, stop at Thayumanaswamy Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva on the way. Vinayaka Temple, dedicated to Lord Ganesh, is worth visiting at the top as well!Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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One of the top places to visit in Karnataka, Belur is home to the captivating 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.
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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. However, there are a number of challenges when visiting Tirupati Temple, including huge crowds, making it best visited by serious pilgrims only.