India is a land rich in history, religion and tradition. These many beliefs have given rise to countless numbers of temples of various faiths, built over the course of thousands of years and displaying the architectural styles unique to the ages of their construction. A visit to India is not complete without taking time to visit some of the more well-known of these cultural masterpieces. Southern India is particularly famous for its spectacular temples. Though they decorate the landscape no matter where one might happen to be, three destinations stand out as some of the best - Madurai, Tanjore and Trichy.
The Temples of Madurai
The city of Madurai has a history that goes back more than 2000 years and is one of the oldest cities in the world to be continuously inhabited. Records of Madurai can be traced all the way to the 3rd century B.C.E. Now, this city is a booming metropolis boasting a population of more than 1.5 million. Over its long history, many temples have been built there, giving it a reputation in the modern world as one of the most famous Indian cities when it comes to religious monuments.
Of all the temples of Madurai, the most well-known is the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Erected in the 12th century as a ritual center, it is the centerpiece around which the city has been built. Many consider it to be India’s greatest architectural achievement. Dedicated to Shiva, Meenakshi is a main site of Hindu pilgrimage. It is built in the Dravidian pyramid-like style, capped with a tower nine stories tall. This complex has been added to countless times from the 12th to the 18th centuries resulting in a dense assortment of shrines, hundreds of pillars and numerous beautiful carvings.
In addition to Meenakshi, there are several other wonderful temples in and around Madurai. The Koodal Alagar Temple is a tiered structure filled with amazing sculptures. Kallalagar is a temple to Vishnu located outside the city among scenic beauty of nature. Tiruvedagam, Thiruvadavur, Thiruparankundram, Thirumohur and several others are all worth visiting and within easy travelling distance of Madurai.
The Temples of Tanjore
Tanjore, also known as Thanjavur, is located on the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu. It is testament to the coming of the Cholas, an important historical people that ruled the region for more than 400 years and left their mark in the design of the area’s temples as well as spreading their architectural style across all of southern India.
The Bridhadeeswara Temple and Fort is the main temple of this site. It was built by the Chola ruler Raja Chola I in the 11th century. Dedicated to Shiva, it is a masterpiece of the Dravidian style that took nearly 12 years to complete. Many regard Bridhadeeswara to be the best example of a Chola temple ever constructed. It is a central temple located within a fort and surrounded by a moat. The centerpiece is a 14-storied Vimana that stands more than 200 feet tall. Within the temple is one of the largest statues of Nandi in India, weighing in at an amazing 25 tons and carved from a single piece of stone.
Countless other religious monuments lie within the region of Tanjore. The temples of Swamimalai are famous for their spectacular brass works. Thiruvarur and its Thiyagarajaswami temple is a major site of pilgrimage. The temples of Kumbakonam, Thirukandiyur and many others all show a key phase in the development of the Dravidian tradition of architecture and present some of the most beautiful examples of this style.
Temples of Trichy
Trichy, more properly known as Tiruchirappalli, has had a diverse history with many resident cultures to influence its temple-building traditions. A vast and modern city today, the history of this region was one filled with religious significance. Many temples hold a position of great importance in Trichy.
Ranganathar is a temple complex with many structures, dating mostly from the 14th to the 17th centuries. It is surrounded by seven walls and the buildings within show the effects of the various cultures that have ruled the region throughout history. The extensive devotion to the expansion of this architectural wonder has resulted in what is believed to be the largest temple complex in all of India. The main temple is dedicated to Vishnu, but the complex is sprawling. Luckily, guides are available to show visitors around and educate them on the complex’s rich and diverse history.
Rock Fort Temple lies nearly 300 feet above the city, carved from the stone of a nearby hill. This site is actually a collection of three main temples, each having its own place along the 437-step path to the top. Manikka Vinayagar lies at the bottom, Thayumanavar half-way up the trail and Vinayagar at the top. Unfortunately, non-Hindus are not allowed within certain areas of the temples, though there is still much to see at Rock Fort.
Several other temples, including Sri Naganadhaswami, Kailasamundaiyar, Jambukeswara and Chayavaneashwara, all lie within convenient travel distance for those that wish to get a bigger picture of India’s rich temple-building tradition.
The story of India is as much about religion as it is the rest of its history. These varied temples are a mark upon the country that show how the people of this great land developed. The temples of India and their architectural designs eventually spread throughout most regions in Eastern Asia and, over time, have come to touch the entire world. In order to have a truly genuine experience within India, visiting some of these religious wonders is a must.