My parents were in India this past month and we met up at my pinni’s place in Tirupati to embark on a weeklong tour of Tamil Nadu. My cousin, Keerthana, and my grandpa also accompanied us as we made our way around Chidambaram, Tiruvannamalai, Vellore, Madurai, Trichy, Tanjore, and Rameswaram. [We also visited a fair amount of temples in Andhra Pradesh—Tirumala, Sri Kalahasti, Kanipakam—during and after our travels around Tamil Nadu]
Tamil Nadu has temples—lots of them. Throughout our week exploring the southernmost state of India, we saw more than a fair share of imposing gopurams and massive temple complexes. The trip was really a pilgrimage—we made it to the five famed lingams, visited Ramana Maharshi’s peaceful ashram in Arunachalam, and even got to visit some sacred geography—specifically sites around Rameshwaram associated with the Ramayana and the siege of Lanka.
At some point, all the temples began to blend together in my mind. Though marvelous in their own right, seeing almost a dozen temples within the span of a week can really warp one’s memories. That being said, I really did enjoy the magnificent architecture and the powerful spiritual presence within each temple.
If you have the chance and the patience, I really would recommend going down south. Visiting temple towns can be difficult because there is a fair amount of travel required to move between each location. To keep things simple, we took a night train to Madurai, which became our home base, and hired a car to make shorter daytrips around the region.
To keep this post short and crisp, I’ll just touch upon a few of my favorite sites:
Arunachalam, also known as Tiruvannamalai, is home to one of the most famous Shiva temples in India–the Annamalaiyar Temple, which dates back to the 9th century. The temple town has become more important in the past century because it also was the home of mystical saint Ramana Maharshi, a simple ascetic who preached self inquiry as a path to self realization. After visiting the Shiva temple itself, we spent some time at Ramana Maharshi’s ashram, a beautiful and peaceful abode in the center of the city. One can see his room, spend time meditating, and pick up a few books on his eternal teachings at the ashram bookshop.
Madurai’s Meenakshi temple is one of the biggest temples in the world. Patronized by dynasties of monarchs, the temple has numerous mandapams, two major deities, and even sports a thousand-pillar hall. Madurai is called the temple town of India—and the locals are proud of their status. When the Meenakshi temple was first being built, every home in Madurai contributed toward its construction, making the temple a community project. The city is actually planned around the temple-it’s fascinating to think about how city planning was very much a concept even 1,000 years ago. The city is also home to a Kumaraswamy temple, which is lovely, and worth a visit. [I personally also appreciated the swachh bharat campaign in Madurai that banned plastic bags around the temple]
Over 1,000 years old, the Brihadeeshvar temple in Tanjore is too beautiful for words. I studied this Chola masterpiece, patronized by Rajaraja Chola, in an art history class and remember finding the temple simple but stunning. In person, the temple impressed upon me even more. The garbagriha of the Brihadeeshvar temple is visible from anywhere in the city—the sheer scale of the temple makes it an architectural marvel. After visiting the temple, we were able to visit a local workshop and learn how to cast Chola bronzes (the lost wax method) and I really enjoyed seeing the process in person.
The Ramanathyswamy temple in Rameshwaram wasn’t my favorite due to the obscene crowds—but I did love the vicinity. Rameshwaram is an island off the coast of Tamil Nadu connected to the mainland by a bridge and railway line that run across the ocean. The sea is a bright blue color and dotted with fishing boats—one of the staples of the local economy. We were able to visit Dhanushkodi, only 30 kilometers away from Sri Lanka—and where it is said that Ram and Lakshman crossed the Indian Ocean by building a bridge out of stones. One of our close family friends from the states is from Rameshwaram so we went to his brother’s place for lunch—we were treated to some excellent food and kind hospitality. I do have to admit that I loved the food in Tamil Nadu in general—lots of tiffins, eating off of banana leaves, and the varieties of chutneys kept me satiated during our entire journey.