Temples of Tamil Nadu – UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the most visited state of India

Temples of Tamil Nadu have stood the test of time – literally. No wonder, 4 of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites. They represent genius in art, architecture, science and spirituality.

Tamil Nadu Temples - The Great Living Chola temples, UNESCO world heritage

Choosing which temples to visit in Tamil Nadu can be a quite a struggle though – as the state is replete with excellent temples in every nook and corner. No wonder, I thought about writing a whole piece on the Top Cultural Experiences in Tamil Nadu beyond temples.

However, there is an obvious reason behind all this fuss. Some of the most amazing temples in the world are in Tamil Nadu.

So, after struggling myself on which temples to visit in Tamil Nadu, during my recent visit, I decided to make this decision easier for you!

No need to get bogged down by the list of ‘15 famous temples in Tamil Nadu’ – because who wants to see 15! Pick the Top 5 temples of Tamil Nadu and here they are –

Shore Temple Mahabalipuram 

It was almost a dream come true when I reached Mahabalipuram, just a short distance from Chennai. It has been on my list for a long time! Upon reaching my hotel and a look at the beach – I was a little shaken.

It was cluttered both with trash and drunken men from nearby cities who chose Mahabalipuram to celebrate their weekend. Cursing ‘Over-tourism’ in every possible manner, I called it a night – under-estimating every possibility of anything splendid existing there.

Morning came and I headed for the Shore temple, my brains also cluttered like the beach! As I got closer to the temple – surprise! It was like a dream standing by the Sea.Tamil Nadu Temples - Shore temple Mahabalipuram, UNESCO world heritage

I had no words for first few minutes – because the antiquity, the architecture and the location, have created a captivating world of their own.

Built by the mighty Pallavas, this shore temple is one of the many that existed at this site and now merged into the sea.

The mute shades of sculpted granite said a thousand words to me and I just looked at it in awe.

I had to literally peel myself off from the site to go through other points of interest – Krishna’s butterball, Arjuna’s penance, Cave temple, Krishna’s Mandapa and the Five Rathas.

The monoliths at the Five Rathas were most amazing, but of course Shore temple took my heart away.

Logically so because Mahabalipuram is world’s first stone carving city holding the GI tag for its sculptures. It is a 1300-year-old playground for the students of stone carving who proceeded from a simplistic ‘Butterball’ to the most complex Shore Temple – which was the last in the series.Tamil Nadu Temples - Five Rathas Monoliths Mahabalipuram, UNESCO world heritage

You can actually mark the progression in stone carving through each structure.

Insider tip – Download an audio guide called ‘Pinakin’ instead of hiring a local guide. Much better information and for 2% the cost.

The Great Living Chola Temples

The Great living Chola temples – are a big deal and very special. They make 3 out of the total 5 UNESCO world heritage sites in Tamil Nadu.

Big deal, because they are made by the same dynasty of rulers who built Angkor Wat – the biggest temple complex of world. Special, because all of them are living – unlike Angkor Wat.

Two of these temples are older than the Angkor Wat and the third is of the same period. Here is an interesting read by Huffington Post on an entire article dedicated to The Great Living Chola Temples.Tamil Nadu Temples - The Great Living Chola temples, UNESCO world heritage

It surely is an understatement, but it was a treat to watch the craftsmanship at each of these temples.

Adorned with intricate carvings, I could still feel the grandeur of the era gone by.Tamil Nadu Temples - The Great Living Chola temples, UNESCO world heritage. Thanjavur

These temples are completely built in tandem with ancient astronomy and geometry based on the Hindu scriptures. All of them are also dedicated to one and only – Shiva – the God with a third eye.

The biggest one of them, Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur features the highest temple tower in the world. I could see the geometry at play here in the temple exhibition hall. It has been a work of inspiration for the world-famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia, amongst others.

The second one at Gangaikonda Cholapuram was made by the son of the King who built the one in Thanjavur. Not as grand as the first temple, I was in awe looking at the Lingam in this temple.

The Lingam here is the biggest amongst all, energetic and enigmatic. The sanctum faces east and so gets natural daylight. In the evening, light falls on the Nandi sitting right opposite the sanctum which in turn reflects the light on the deity.

The last one of them – Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram turned out to be my favourite in terms of adornment and exquisite carvings. It surely beats both the other temples in terms of intricate and detailed workmanship. The pale red that remains on the walls still amongst other colours, gives it a magical tint.Tamil Nadu Temples - The Great Living Chola temples, UNESCO world heritage. Darasuram

Both Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur and Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram, have optical illusions in their architecture. All three of them also interestingly portray social themes on their walls.

It shows that temples were not isolated spots existing for a sole purpose. They were places of entertainment, relaxation, rejuvenation and social gatherings – people were intrinsic part of temple architecture.

These temples are set within 2 hours of each other. However, they are so detailed that it is a good idea to only cover 2 in a day at the maximum.

Meenakshi Temple Madurai

Though it could arguably be the oldest of all the temples in the list – yes even more than The Great Living Chola temples – most of its construction is new.

I would not feature Meenakshi temple Madurai on the Top 5 temples of Tamil Nadu list, if not for its hall of a thousand pillars. Yes, I am sorry to say this given the popularity of this temple – but this temple is just too commercialized to be in the top list.

Allowing shopkeepers to hide beautiful sculptures, so not done! But that is what has happened to its 124 pillared hall.

Thankfully because of the construction of the Temple Art Museum, the 1000 pillar hall can be seen without such impediments.Tamil Nadu Temples - Meenakshi temple Madurai, The Hall of a thousand pillars

This is where you should be focusing all your attention to – this Museum inside the temple is choc-o-bloc with art! And those pillars! Beyond words is the art carved on those pillars.

From the mythical beast Yali which is part lion, part horse and part elephant – to the wife of the God of love – Rati – I stopped at each pillar and literally dragged myself away from it.

Apart from the Pillars, I saw some amazing Bronzes and painting scrolls with mythological stories. Cherry on the cake for me was the ‘Nataraja’ statue at the centre of everything – Shiva in his dancing posture, incomparable sight!

Make sure to include each of these temples on your next visit to Tamil Nadu, the most visited state of India.

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