The jaw-dropping size and intricacy of these ancient temples in South India will leave you speechless, even if you only see them from the outside.
During a short family vacation through Tamil Nadu over Christmas in 2017, we paid a quick visit to two legendary South Indian temples: the 2,000 year-old Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai, and 1,000 year-old Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur (Tanjore). Though we only had time for a quick visit, the sheer size of each temple complex and the intricacy of their decorations left us gobsmacked!
Madurai’s Meenakshi temple: Still unique after 2,000 years
They say Madurai has existed for at least 2,000 years, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in India. Throughout this time, the great Meenakshi Amman temple has always stood at the heart of its heart (though it’s been rebuilt and expanded over the centuries), with the old city built in roughly concentric squares around it. The temple itself is unique because, though it is part of the Shaivite (Shiva-worship) tradition, it is actually dedicated not to Shiva himself, but rather to his consort Parvati in the form of Meenakshi.
Even more interestingly, the temple also incorporates many Vaishanavite (Vishnu-worship) themes, even though Shaivism and Vaishnavism are considered separate from each other. The strongest of the Vaishnavite themes is that Vishnu is shown as the brother of Meenakshi and, through her marriage, the brother-in-law of Shiva. All of this makes the temple an important pilgrimage site for devotees of both Shiva and Vishnu, something that’s almost unheard of. Lastly, besides Shaivite and Viashnavite themes, the temple also contains references to Brahma, the third member of Hinduism’s ‘trimurti’, the three forms of the divine.
We flew into Madurai on the mid-morning flight from Hyderabad, and thought we would spend an hour or two taking in the Meenakshi temple before making the three-hour drive to Thanjavur. To our intense irritation, we realized too late that we had timed our visit quite badly: the temple is closed to visitors from 12:30 to 3:30 pm, and we arrived at 12:45! We had to content ourselves with a walk around the high walls that surrounded the inner temple complex. But what a walk it was!
Everywhere, the ancient rubbed shoulders with the modern, and life carried on as usual. The intricately carved yali pillars of the breathtaking Pudumandapa (a mandapa is a pilgrim’s hall) at the east gate of the temple complex played host to local shopkeepers; the imposing columns of Elu Kadal Street funnelled the stream of humanity towards and away from the painted Nandi statue at the entrance of the Pudumandapa; devotees, locals and tourists thronged the pedestrian zone around the temple; and over everything towered the massive, brightly painted outer gopurams (gate towers), covered in innumerable episodes from Hindu scripture.
Having seen all this, we were a little less disappointed that we couldn’t see the inside (especially the gold-plated vimanas—the sanctum towers—of the central shrines). And now we have something to look forward to during our next visit!
The Brihadeeswara temple of Thanjavur: The center of an empire that transformed Southeast Asia
The ancient city of Thanjavur was at the center of the powerful Chola empire that, at its peak, covered most of South India, and wielded major influence across Southeast Asia. And the heart of Thanjavur lay the enormous Brihadeeswara temple. Built over 1,000 years ago, this Shiva temple is considered the height of South Indian temple architecture, together with its smaller sibling at nearby Gangaikonda Cholapuram. And even though it also incorporates some Vaishanvite themes like the Meenakshi temple at Madurai, it looks quite different.
We arrived at the temple in the early evening, because we wanted to see what it was like at night. A glimpse of the huge outer gopuram looming over the crowds at the entry arch was enough to tell us that this would be a very different experience from what we had in Madurai. But only once we walked through the entrance archway (the French built a defensive wall around the temple in the late 1800s) did we appreciate how different the scale of the structures here was. Like the rest of the temple, the gopuram was made of granite brought in from 60 kilometers away (so our guide said), with the archway supported by four-storey high solid granite pillars, and the entire thing covered in complex plasterwork. We were immediately struck by how Southeast Asian the figures looked, until we realized that much of Hindu art and culture actually spread to places like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia of the Chola empire—and we were standing at the source! The knowledge that the huge temple complexes of Prambanan in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia had their roots where we were standing left us a little dazed.
The rest of the sprawling complex was also made of carved granite, including the towering, 16-storey vimana, which was even taller than the temple’s gopurams, something that is quite rare. As the evening grew darker, bright spotlights were turned on to light peoples’ way and to light up the temples, and the interplay of their white-blue and deep yellow light made everything seem a little unreal. Besides which, it also made taking decent photographs quite difficult! But as we wandered around the courtyard—polished smooth by millions of bare feet—admiring the huge main temple and the other minor temples, and surrounded by red-dressed pilgrims, we were thankful for the cool night that allowed us to take our time. So we admired the huge monolithic Nandi bull from a distance, admired the main vimana from every angle possible, popped into a shrine here and there, and generally soaked in the atmosphere.
We left after about two hours of wandering around, knowing that we had really only scratched the surface, and knowing that there was more than enough left to see the next time around. Early next morning, we continued on the last leg of our trip: three days in the shadow of elephants in Valparai.
- If you’re visiting Madurai, plan your schedule so you spend at least a day there. There’s more to see than just the temple.
- Visit the temple before 12:30 pm or after 3:30 pm. It’s closed for entry during that time, though it seems visitors who have entered earlier can stay inside.
- Seeing just the outside took us an hour, so you might want to budget at least two hours if you’re going inside, too.
- Cameras aren’t allowed inside the temple complex. Strangely enough, though, mobile phones with cameras are.
- If you’re thirsty, there’s a very nice chap who sells fresh coconut water at the corner of the north and east streets just outside the temple complex.
- The area around the temple complex is a pedestrian zone, so be prepared to walk for a few minutes to get there.
- When visiting the Brihadeeswara temple in Thanjavur, you might want to take a taxi. Parking is a nightmare!
- Visit the temple during the day if you want to take photographs, but go at night if you want atmosphere.
- One needs to enter the temple complex barefoot, so if you have sensitive feet, wear thick socks.
- It might be worth it to spend Rs. 600 and hire a guide, though their accent can be tough to follow, and they might rush you a bit. Make sure that the guide is certified by the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India), though.
If you’re looking for a nice vegetarian place to eat, you can’t go wrong with the local outlet of the popular Adyar Ananda Bhavan, a chain of sweet shops with attached vegetarian restaurant. If you can’t find one, ask a local to point you towards a restaurant that serves ‘saiva saapaad’ (roughly translated as ‘pure food’ or ‘untainted food’).