Some of the most experienced travelers to India will claim that until you visit one of the famous temples in south India, you have not seen any temple at all. That is not far from the truth. South India is known for its iconic massive temple complexes that were built in this geographical area throughout the history of India. This unique building method and architecture are known as the Dravidian architecture (refers to the diverse group of people whose native language belongs to the Dravidian language family, mostly in southern India. South India refers mostly to 4 Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh.). This style of temple building gains such as popularity and reputation, so it was copied and used in all around the region. We can find Dravidian style temples in Sri Lanka, Maldives, and various parts of Southeast Asia. The most famous complex is Angkor Wat in Cambodia. When travelling in South India, it’s defiantly worthwhile to visit one or more southern style temples. I will suggest 3 of the most famous temples in south India. To have some variety, these 3 very much differ from one another and give a great scope of:
- Monumental architecture temple
- Glimpse to the regions rich history
- The religious daily life of south India
So, here we go…
Meenakshi Amman Temple (also known as Sri Meenakshi Temple), Madurai, Tamil Nadu:
In the middle of the small and colorful city of Madurai lies one of the largest and biggest complexes of temples in India. This is like a small neighborhood inside the city and it seems like the beating heart of Madurai. The temple was built in the 17th century and is dedicated to Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. According to mythology, Goddess Parvati, was reborn as Meenakshi (means fish eye) a daring queen with three breasts. During her conquest, she met Lord Shiva and her third breast vanished. Lord Shiva called her to Madurai and married her here.
A visit to the temple is mesmerizing as it contains all aspects of life – merchants, tailors, pilgrims, weddings – all is happening here. Religious life mixes with lots of different colors, smells and sounds from the temple and the magnificent indoor market nearby. The temple contains 12 huge towers (called Gopurams), some are 53 meters high, built from colorful images of Hindu gods, heroes, and mythological animals. In the entrance, you will probably meet countless vendors and shopkeepers try to take you to the roof of their shop so “you can see the best temple view” and “take the best photo”, and of course they will be happy if you buy something from them…
Once in the temple compound, you will get lost in the labyrinth of inner rooms, rotating around a large pool with green water. The temple is full of worshippers all day and night and the corridors are packed. Devotees are seen offering pujas in the early morning and it goes on all day till the evening. The whole atmosphere is filled with oil lamps, incense sticks fragrance and the sound of bells. Almost every night a wedding party is held, with thousands of participants. This is a golden opportunity to see an Indian wedding in Tamil style in which the bride and groom are full of colorful powders and are dressed in glamorous clothes, necklaces of flowers, fancy robes, and crowns. They are led to the temple to be married, just like Shiva and Parvati.
The temple is open from 5:00 to 12:30 and 16:00 to 21:30. It costs only 2 rupees to put the shoes in the keeper stand at the entrance.
Also nice to know: The temple was in the list of top 30 nominees of the “New Seven Wonders of the World” and the annual 10 day Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival celebrated during April–May and attracts 1 million visitors.
Buses: Mattuthavani is the largest bus station and located 4 km north of the city of Madurai. From here you can catch a bus to other cities in Tamil Nadu like Rameswaram and Kanyakumari
Arapalayam station located within the city. From there, buses are available to other destinations in the north and west of India
Trains: The railway station of Madurai is a 10-minute walk from the temple complex and the hotels. Trains leave north to the mountains (like Coimbatore, etc.) south to the cities in the tip of India, west to the state of Kerala (Trivandrum, Cochin, etc.) and the east towards the cities of Tamil Nadu (Chennai, Pondicherry, etc.).
Air: Madurai has its airport, located 12 km from the city center. There are daily flights to Chennai and twice-daily flights to Mumbai.
Most of the hotels and guesthouses are located in the streets between the temple and the train station.
2. GLIMPSE TO THE REGION RICH HISTORY
Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu:
Mamallapuram is a charming small village approximately 60 km south of the city of Chennai. It has various historic monuments built largely between the 7th and the 9th centuries and has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The temples are located on the shoreline next to the beach and are built in a unique style, dated back to the dynasty that ruled the area in around 700 AD. The beautiful carvings have been damaged by the sea, the wind and the typhoons that hit the area (including the Tsunami of 2004) but you can’t miss the sense of antiquity that comes while you stroll in the temple complex. However, the temples are just the icing on the cake.
The village itself has lots of interest points and the atmosphere is great and laid back. The place is very small and most points can be reached within 15 minutes walk. Mamallapuram is located between the beach and huge exposed rocks, which means that fishing and stone carving (and of course tourists) are the main income source for the people of the village.
The village is famous for its temples and rock carvings, as well as the Indian dance festival held each year in December and January. Caves, wall carvings and rock-hewn temples are scattered among beautiful huge rocks and the entire area is open and people walk around freely, alongside goats and pigs. The place is alive and atmospheric and is full of charm.
Mamallapuram is very popular among Indian tourists and westerners alike. For this reason, there is an abundance of great guesthouses, family stays, western-style food, restaurants and Internet places. It is also a good place for shopping, especially for local craft goods of sculptors and stone crafted items. It is worthwhile to rent a bicycle and tour the area plus visit the lovely beach and go out for a boat and fishing trip plus take up some yoga classes. In short, this is a great place to spend an easy, laid back a few days, or for an escape from polluted Chennai for an atmospheric day trip.
Mamallapuram Pongal Festival
Also good to know is the harvest festival known as Pongal which is celebrated in South India at the end of the harvest season. It is one of the most important festivals enjoyed by the Tamils in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and usually falls in mid-January. Mamallapuram is a great place to celebrate the Pongal as the streets are full of people, everyone is hospitable and great food is sold in the streets in a festive atmosphere.
If you are with children the Crocodile bank at Vadanemmeli, 15 km on the road back to Chennai is a nice place to visit. You can feed the reptiles for a small fee.
Most people arrive at Mamallapuram from Chennai or Pondicherry by road. Chennai is the closest transportation hub for trains, flights, and taxis from the city will cost about 600-800 Rs. one-way (USD 15 to 20).
3. RELIGIOUS DAILY LIFE OF SOUTH INDIA
Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, near Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh:
For the Muslims there is Mecca, for the Jews, it’s the western wall (wailing wall) in the old city of Jerusalem. For the Hindus, especially for the followers of Vishnu/Krishna, it’s Tirumala temple. More than fifty thousand (and in some days over a hundred thousand pilgrims!) pilgrims visit the Sri Venkateswara Temple every day, which makes this place not only the biggest pilgrimage site in the world but also the most-visited place of worship in the world. Not a lot of western tourists make their way here and it is not really on the classic tourist map of India, but once you make the effort to arrive there, it is defiantly worthwhile. Here you can find and feel an authentic religious devotion. Hindu devotees flood this remote town in the south of India from all over the sub-continent and even from abroad, walking days by foot and waiting in huge queues (sometimes more than 12 hours!), only to get a glimpse of the site and a five-second quick peek (called Darshan in Sanskrit which means a glimpse of the eye) in the presence of the icon of God. As said, the Holy Mountain of Tirumala is one of the most important pilgrimage centers in India. There is a massive organization that takes care of the crowds and the religious practices at the mountain and in the temple that is on top of it. This organization has established a complete system of accommodation for the pilgrims (mostly huge halls in which families are sprawled out in and also separate rooms for wealthy families), shops, special buses and transportation, donations and much more. This whole industry creates massive profits that are used for charity and the temple is the richest pilgrimage center in the world, of any faith.
The presiding deity of the temple is Lord Venkateswara, a form of the Hindu god Vishnu. Venkateswara is known by other names: Balaji, Govinda, and Srinivasa and so it’s believed that he can make wishes come true.
Temple information and customs
Many pilgrims shave their heads before entering the temple and there are dozens of barbers in a special space provided. These barbers are just a small part of the thousands of employees of the Temple. Many religious practices take place such as sharing of candied sweets called Laddu, giving of offerings and donations. To enter the holy room in the temple there is a two and a half-mile stretch of people and waiting in line for at least 12 hours and you will need to be checked and searched for security measures. If you are willing to pay a small amount of money, you can wait for a shorter period of around 3 hours. The road up the hill is beautiful and the scenery is almost surreal, as you can see thousands of people scattered everywhere. You have to see it believe.
Tirupati is connected by trains and buses to the large cities of the south. It is around 600 km from Hyderabad, 138 km from Chennai and 291 km from Bangalore. The small airport is situated at a distance of 14 km from Tirupati city.
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