Located in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Kanchipuram is one of the popular pilgrimage destinations for Hindus. The city abounds with temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva, and their consorts. The majority of these temples have been constructed over centuries ago by some of South India’s most prominent rulers, including Pallavas, Cholas, Nayaks, and Vijayanagara kings. Navigating which temple to go to can be overwhelming, so spend your time wisely by checking out Kanchipuram’s ten best.
Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple
The Kanchi Kailasanathar Temple was the first of the many temples erected by the Pallava kings in Kanchipuram. It took 20 years to build and was completed in the 8th century, making it the city’s oldest place of worship devoted to Shiva. Built out of sandstone, the highlight of the temple is the sub-shrines that dot the temple complex. There are more than 50 of them and each is magnificently decorated with Pallava-style murals, sculptures, and relief structures depicting Hindu divinities, mythical animals, and various avatars of Shiva. The temple also houses a 16-faced black lingam (symbol of Lord Shiva) in its main sanctuary. Do check out the small but fascinating Kanchi Kudil heritage museum nearby, displaying traditional art, antiques, and photos.
This remarkable temple, spanning about 25 acres, is the largest place of worship in all of Kanchipuram. It was built during the Pallava era, although the present structure dates back to the Chola dynasty in the 9th century, with some parts added later by the Vijayanagara empire in the 15th century. The special feature of this temple is that Lord Shiva is worshipped here as the natural element of earth called Prithvi Lingam. Inside the complex are 1,008 Shiva Lingams, a hall of 1,000 pillars with impressive carvings on each column, a mango tree that dates back as far back as 3,500 years, and a profusion of sub-temples dedicated to goddess Kali, Lord Vishnu, Nataraja (a form of Shiva), and more Hindu deities. The temple also boasts four gopurams (gateway towers) and the southern tower is one of the tallest in South India, standing at 194 feet tall. It immediately draws the eye of anyone in the area and has a beautiful image of goddess Parvati embracing the Shiva lingam. Six aartis (prayer ceremony) are performed here every day, from early morning to late evening. If possible, time your visit to coincide with one of the ceremonies. The temple’s 13-day long Panguni Brahmotsavam festival in March/April sees the deities paraded around the Kanchipuram’s streets.
Kanchi Kamakshi Amman Temple
As its name suggests, Kamakshi Amman Temple is dedicated to goddess Kamakshi (the goddess of love and devotion, and a form of goddess Parvati). It is the only religious monument in the city devoted to a female deity. The exact date of its construction is obscure, but many believe it was built by the Pallava dynasty kings. The temple’s main sanctum—with a golden tower directly above it—is genuinely awe-inspiring, and inside you’ll find an image of the temple’s namesake in a lotus position, holding a flower bunch and a sugarcane bow in her lower hands, while the upper hands have her two weapons: ankusha (goad) and pasha (rope). There are also several miniature shrines of other deities in the complex, plus a holy pond and an elephant sanctuary.
It’s particularly festive during the Tamil month of Masi (between February and mid-March) when the famous chariot festival takes place. A procession of goddess Kamakshi on a silver chariot winds its way through the streets of the city—truly a sight to behold. The temple is also one of the 51 Shakti peethas found across India, a collection of shrines where it’s believed pieces of goddess Sati’s corpse fell. This temple was the final resting place of Sati’s navel.
Varadharaja Perumal Temple
Lord Athi Varadar Perumal (a form of Vishnu) is the presiding deity of Varadharaja Perumal Temple. This temple is one of the 108 Divya Desams, sacred abodes associated with Lord Vishnu where the most revered Alwars (poet-saints) glorified the lord with their songs. Covering 23 acres, the temple complex is huge, with 389 pillared halls, 32 shrines, 19 towers, and many water tanks. Most astonishing of all is the seven-tiered, Dravidian-style rajagopuram (main gateway tower), and the hundred-pillar hall adorned with exquisite sculptures and reliefs of divine beings, mythical creatures, and auspicious signs. The main sanctuary of the temple has a giant stone idol of Vishnu along with a number of murals depicting the various avatars of Vishnu. Also noteworthy is the 350 inscriptions found throughout the complex. They belong to some of the most important dynasties of South India.
Try to visit the temple during the 48-day long Athi Varadar festival held from July to August. During this time, the 10-foot-long wooden idol of the presiding deity is taken out from a secret chamber located below the temple tank for cleaning and worshipping. This event occurs once every four decades and will happen next in 2059. Although it’s the most crowded time to visit, catching a glimpse of Vishnu in this form is an experience to cherish forever.
Ulagalantha Perumal Temple
Ulagalantha Perumal Temple is also one of the Divya Desams just like Varadharaja Perumal, albeit less sprawling but equally attractive. Its architecture is a mix of different styles, influenced by Pallavas, Cholas, Nayaks, and Vijayanagara empires. The temple’s most striking attribute is its main shrine that houses a wonderful 35-foot-tall and 24-foot-wide black stone idol of Vamana, the fifth form of Vishnu. It is also one of the important Vishnu temples mentioned in the Tamil literary works dating back to the 6th century.
Sri Vaikunta Perumal Temple
Built to honor Lord Vishnu, this 8th-century temple is another of the 108 Divya Desams. The deity here is present in the form of Vaikuntanathan. The most impressive thing about the temple is that it has three levels, each flaunting a different pose of Vishnu. The ground level has an image of the deity in sitting posture, the first level houses a reclining avatar of Vishnu and is accessible to devotees only on Ekadasi (the 11th of every fortnight of the lunar calendar), and the second level has him in standing pose. There’s also a shrine dedicated to Vaikunthavalli Thayar (a form of Lakshmi). In addition, the temple also features plenty of weathered but detailed sculpture panels depicting stories of the presiding deity, episodes from the Indian epic of "Mahabharata," battle scenes as well as the history of the Pallava kings who are credited with building this temple.
Dedicated to Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara (spiritual teacher) of Jainism, the Trilokyanatha Temple is incredibly well-preserved and free of crowds. Much of it was erected in the 8th century by the Pallava rulers, but it has been frequently added to over the years by various major dynasties of South India. The musical hall with painted pillars was added in the 14th century by Vijayanagara kings. The temple complex is built in the typical Dravidian style of architecture, and also has three shrines. The main shrine has an image of Mahavira, while the others are dedicated to Adinatha (first tirthankara) and Neminatha (22nd tirthankara). The geometric designs, inscriptions, and paintings on the temple walls and ceilings are especially engaging.
In its present form—dating to the beginning of the 20th century—the Kumarakottam Temple was built to honor Murugan, the Hindu god of war and the son of Parvati and Shiva. It’s situated between Kamakshi temple and Ekambareswarar temple. Although it is relatively smaller than the temples around it, Kumarakottam is of great religious and historical importance. According to mythology, the creator-god Brahma was kept in captivity by Murugan as the former failed to explain the true meaning of the holy mantra "OM." Murugan even undertook the task of creation that belonged to Brahma. However, he had to release Brahma and give him back his work following the order of Shiva. In this temple, Murugan is depicted in the form of Brahma Shasta. The idol is in a seated posture, with a sacred water pot and prayer beads in his two upper arms. It’s also believed that "Kandha Puranam," one of the most important Hindu religious texts, was written in this temple.
Ashtabujakaram/Ashtabuja Perumal Temple
The Ashtabujakaram Temple has been constructed over the years by different ruling dynasties, dating as far back as the Pallavas in the late 8th century. It houses several shrines dedicated to the incarnations of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, but the main deity of the temple is Adi Kesava Perumal (a form of Vishnu), who resides in the inner sanctum and is depicted in a standing pose with eight hands, giving the temple its name (Ashta means "eight" and buja means "hand"). There’s a separate shrine for his consort Alamelu Mangai (a form of Lakshmi) and it is customary to pay obeisance to the goddess before worshipping the presiding deity. The temple plays host to a number of festivals, with the most famous being the 10-day Vaikunta Ekadasi festival, which is held in December- January and is one of the most important festivals for those who follow Vaishnavism (the worship of Vishnu).
Chitragupta Swamy Temple
The 9th-century Chitragupta Swamy Temple is a Chola creation. It is one of the few places of worship in India that’s dedicated to the Lord of Justice, Chitragupta. He’s also considered to be the chief accountant of Yamaraj, the Hindu lord of death. Legends say that Chitragupta is the one who keeps the track of the karma of every person on earth and based on his records, the person is directed to either hell or heaven after death. The central shrine of the temple has an idol of the presiding deity in a sitting position, with some documents in the left hand and a pen in the right hand.