When it comes to south India temples, the state of Tamil Nadu dominates with its many ancient, towering Dravidian masterpieces. These temples, which display some of India's greatest temple architecture, are the backbone of Tamil culture. As if the temples aren't captivating enough, many of them are located in spectacular surroundings including an island, perched high on a rock, and in the remote mountains. Here are five places to find magnificent south India temples. Many of these places have more than just the one temple, so do look around!
Ancient Madurai in Tamil Nadu is home to the most impressive and important temple in south India --the Meenakshi Temple. If you only see one south Indian temple, the Meenakshi Temple should be it. The city of Madurai is more than 4,000 years old, and has remained a major center for Tamil culture and learning. During the heyday of its history, when the Nayak dynasty ruled, many magnificant temples and buildings with superb architecture were constructed. These days, Madurai attracts pilgrims and tourists in equal numbers. The 12 day Chithirai Festival, featuring a re-enacted celestial wedding of God and Goddess, is held in Madurai during April each year.
2. Thanjavur (Tanjore)
Thanjavur emerged as the stronghold of Tamil culture in the eleventh century, with Chola King Raja Raja I at the helm. The Cholas built more than 70 temples in Thanjavur, with the most outstanding one being the Brihadeswara Temple. Its importance is acknowledged by the fact that it's now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple, which turned 1,000 years old in 2010, is a symbol of the unrivaled power and might of the Cholas. It's also one of the oldest temples dedicated to Lord Shvia in India. Constructed solely out of granite, the temple's Dravidian architecture is imposing and precise. Its dome rises to over 60 meters, and the passage around the sanctum is adorned with Chola frescoes.
3. Tiruchirappalli (Trichy)
Tiruchirappalli, or Trichy as its informally known as, was an object of great desire for all the Dravidian rules due to its strategic position on the Kaveri river. The Cholas, Pandyas, and Pallavas all fought for control of it. The focal point of Trichy is the Rock Fort Temple, built by the Nayaks of Madurai in spectacular style on a rocky outcrop 83 meters (237 feet) above the city. As is to be expected, it affords a panoramic view. If you get tired walking up the 437 rock cut steps to the Rock Fort Temple, stop at Thayumanaswamy Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva on the way. Also don't miss the Vinayaka Temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh at the top!
Rameshwaram is a small island off the coast of Tamil Nadu, located at the tip of the Indian Penninsula. It's connected to the mainland by one of the longest bridges in India -- actually there are now separate bridges for cars and trains. Rameshwaram holds a special place in Hindu mythology as it's where Lord Rama built a bridge across the sea to rescue Sita from the clutches of the demon Ravana, in Sri Lanka. The most important temple on the island, which is also one of India's most worshiped temples, is the Ramananthswamy Temple. Its special feature is the longest hallway in India. There are hundreds of pillars with detailed carvings. The lost land of Dhanushkodi, at the eastern end of the island, is also a must-see.
Situated above Tirupati in the southern part of Andhra Pradesh, rather than in Tamil Nadu, the temple of Lord Venkateshwar (Lord Vishnu) is yet another masterpiece of Dravidian architecture, in another striking location. You'll find it nestled on the seventh peak of Tirumala Hill, in the Eastern Ghat mountains. Those who are able can walk the 4,000 steps up the hill to the temple, which takes two to four hours. Otherwise, it's easier to go by bus. The temple is one of the most visited and wealthiest in India, as can be seen by its gold plated dome. It's been patronized by all the various rulers and kings over the years. In recent times, Bollywood stars Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai prayed at temple after their marriage in 2007.