A visit to two of the most famous temples in Tamil Nadu

Our visit to two of the most famous temples in Tamil Nadu—the Meenakshi temple in Madurai and the Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur—left us speechless at their size and intricacy.

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During a short family vacation through Tamil Nadu over Christmas a few years ago, 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). Sadly, even though they’re among the most famous temples in Tamil Nadu, we only had time for a quick visit. But the size and intricacy of each complex still left us gobsmacked! If you’re wondering which temples to visit in Tamil Nadu, these should definitely be on your list.

Also read: Magical sights of Hampi that you may not even know exist



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. And the great Meenakshi Amman temple has always been at its heart. The old city is even 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. And though there is a shrine to Shiva in the temple, Meenakshi takes precedence here.

This huge, ancient temple may not be the largest temple in Tamil Nadu (that honour belongs to the Sri Ranganathar Swamy temple), but it’s still one of the most famous Hindu temples in the world.

Combining both Shaivite and Vaishnavite themes

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 shows Vishnu as the brother of Meenakshi and, therefore, the brother-in-law of Shiva. This makes the temple an important pilgrimage site for devotees of both Shiva and Vishnu, something 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.

Madurai - Elu Kadal Street - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
Approaching the east gopuram from Elu Kadal street

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A mistake in timing

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. But we realized too late that the temple would be closed to visitors from 12:30 to 3:30 pm. And we would arrive 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!

The old and the new coexist

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 to the temple, because it’s one of the most famous temples in Tamil Nadu for good reason!

Madurai - Smooth pillar figure - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
An unrecognizable figure carved on a pillar and worn smooth by millions of reverential hands over the centuries
Madurai - Nandi - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
The Nandi statue at the entrance to the Pudumandapa
Madurai - Pudumandapa pillars - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
The central pillared hall of the Pudumandapa
Madurai - Pudumandapa stalls - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Shops in the gallery


Madurai - Pudumandapa yali figures - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
The yalis on the pillars of the Pudumandapa
Madurai - Pudumandapa veshti - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
A man adjusts his veshti while the goddess Kali looks on
Madurai - Pudumandapa brass shops - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
The dazzling rows of brass shops
Madurai - Pudumandapa central hall statues - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
An incredibly ornate yali statue in the central gallery


Madurai - Pudumandapa garlanded statue - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
A statue still revered
Madurai - Pudumandapa roof carving - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Ceiling carving in the Pudumandapa
Worshipper at Ashta Shakti Mandapa or Hall of Eight Goddesses in the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
A worshipper at the colourful Ashta Shakti Mandapa (Hall of Eight Goddesses) in the east wall of the complex
Madurai - Satue and shelves - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
The ancient and the modern


Madurai - North gopuram silhouette - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
The north gopuram silhouetted against the midday sun
Madurai - North gopuram - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
The impossibly complex detail on the north gopuram
Madurai - view through north gopuram - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
A view of the inner gopuram through the outer one


Madurai - Keerthimukham on south gopuram - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
The keerthimukham, symbol of reabsorption and renewal, at the top of the south gopuram
Madurai - Pudumandapa gandhi - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
A memorial to Mahatma Gandhi outside the east wall, interestingly in completely Islamic style
Madurai - Figures on school arch - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Temple imagery is everywhere in Madurai, even over the entrance to a school


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 at the heart of Thanjavur lay the enormous Brihadeeswara temple. Built over 1,000 years ago, this Shiva temple is considered the pinnacle 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 outer gopuram looming over the crowds told us that this would be very different from 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 structures here were.

A powerful influence across ancient Southeast Asia

Like the rest of the temple, the gopuram was made of granite brought in from 60 kilometers away (or so our guide said). The archway was supported by three-storey high pillars of solid granite, and the entire thing was covered in complex plasterwork. We were immediately struck by how Southeast Asian the figures looked! It turns out that much of Hindu art and culture actually spread to places like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia from the Chola empire—and we were standing at the very source! The knowledge that the huge temple complexes of Prambanan in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia could trace their roots back to where we were standing left us a little dazed. In terms of its influence on regional history, this was one of the most important temples in Tamil Nadu—if not the most important!

Thanjavur - First view of outer gopuram - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
The outer gopuram, with the gateway arch (and the spotlight on top) hardly noticeable in front

The rest of the sprawling complex was also made of carved granite, including the towering, 16-storey vimana. This was even taller than the temple’s gopurams, which is quite rare. As the evening grew darker, bright spotlights lit up the temple and courtyard. The interplay of their white-blue and deep yellow lights made everything seem a little unreal. Besides which, it also made taking decent photographs really difficult!



A leisurely few hours of wandering

We took our time walking around the courtyard, polished smooth by millions of bare feet over the centuries. As we admired the various temples surrounded by red-dressed pilgrims, we were thankful for the cool night. So we gazed at the huge monolithic Nandi bull, the main vimana, and 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 of this, one of the most famous temples in Tamil Nadu, 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.

Also read: Intricate temples and other experiences in Ubud, Bali

Thanjavur - Figures on outer gopuram - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Gods and demons on the outer gopuram
Thanjavur - View of innder gopuram - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
The inner gopuram seen though the outer (the huge solid granite pillars can be seen on either side in the foreground)
Thanjavur - inner gopuram - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
The concourse between the outer and inner gopurams


Thanjavur - Vimana and Nandi - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
The vimana as seen through the inner gopuram, with the Nandi in front
Thanjavur - Diyas and script - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Butter lamps sold to worshippers from between ancient pillars
Thanjavur - Script - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
1,000 year-old inscriptions in Tamil and Sanskrit


Thanjavur - Flower sellers - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Flower sellers
Thanjavur - Nandi - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
The massive Nandi, and the platform from which oil and milk is poured over it
Thanjavur - Nandi roof mural - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Ceiling mural at the Nandi statue


Thanjavur - Small nandi - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
One of the more than 1,000 smaller Nandi statues across the complex ignores the argument behind it
Thanjavur - Diyas - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Butter lamps burn at the foot of the Nandi
Thanjavur - Temple left view - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
The incredible temple, with its towering vimana


Thanjavur - Temple left stairs - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Visitors admire the temple from its side entrance
Thanjavur - Temple top facade - famous temples in Tamil Nadu
The temple’s facade
Thanjavur - night View back to gopurams - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Looking back towards the gopurams


Thanjavur - Ladies in red - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
Pilgrims willingly pose for photographs in the yellow spotlight
Thanjavur - Outer gopuram at night - Temples of Madurai and Thanjavur
A last look at the outer gopuram, as it looms over the gateway arch, now clearly visible

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IQ’s top tips from our visit to Madurai and Thanjavur

  • Give yourself lots of time when visiting these ancient temples in Tamilnadu. You’ll need it if you truly want to appreciate them.
  • 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. Visitors can’t enter during that time, but it seems you can stay if you’re already 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.
  • You can’t take cameras into the temple complex. Strangely enough, mobile phones with cameras aren’t a problem.
  • 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. You’ll need 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 leave one’s shoes behind when entering the temple complex, 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.

Veggie tip

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 restaurants). 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’). Either way, vegetarian food is very easy to find.

Also read: Magical sights of Hampi that you may not even know exist

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