Divine Wonders: Exploring Tamil Nadu's Religious Architecture

December 29, 2018

From the intricate carvings of Arjuna's Penance to the towering shikhara of Brihadeshwara Temple, Tamil Nadu's architectural heritage is a treat for the eyes


Blessed with rock-cut temples and magnificent monuments, Tamil Nadu is a delight for lovers of architecture and history. This is where the Dravidian style of architecture has seen fruition. The temples of Tamil Nadu are not just places of worship, but also excellent specimens of history, depicting the rise and fall of empires, great battles won and lost, achievements of kings and queens. Many, like Arjuna’s Penance in Mahabalipuram, combine mythological themes with scenes from everyday life. Many others, like the temples of Madurai and Kanchipuram, combine exquisite craftsmanship with skilled engineering. Commissioned by the Cholas, the Pallavas and the Pandyas, the temples have withstood the test of time. Here are five top attractions of Tamil Nadu.


Arjuna’s Penance
Dating back to the 7th century, Arjuna’s Penance is a magnificent relief carved out of stone. Situated in the seaside resort of Mahabalipuram, the relief depicts two themes: the Descent of the Ganges and the story of Arjuna Penance. The story of the descent of the Ganges concerns King Bhagiratha, who performed austerities to bring the Ganges to earth. Since her force would have been too much for the earth to bear, Shiva agreed to hold her in his locks. 
The story of Arjuna’s Penance concerns the severe austerities performed by Arjuna, the Pandava king, to seek the blessings of Lord Shiva. The whole composition is divided into two parts: while one part depicts the celestial world, the other part showcases the world of the humans. A natural cleft in the middle depicts serpents. The relief is considered as one of the finest specimens of rock-cut architecture and is a must-visit for all tourists.


Shore Temple


Overlooking the Indian Ocean, the Shore Temple is made of fine granite and dates back to the 8th century. Built by the Pallavas, the temple is one of the earliest examples of a structural temple. The granite used in the construction of the temple was hauled from the quarry nearby. It is a collection of several temples, which are built on a platform. The main Shore Temple faces the east, so that it can catch the first rays of the sun. In total, there are three shines, with two of them dedicated to Shiva and one dedicated to Vishnu. Together, they are meant to harmoniously combine features of both Shaivism and Vaishnavism. 

Pancha Rathas


Another marvellous piece of Pallava architecture is the monument complex of Pancha Rathas. The entire complex is made up of five chariots, which are constructed from isolated pieces of granite stone. Named after the Pandavas and their wife Draupadi, the rathas, according to the Archaeological Survey of India, are neither temples, nor do they have any religious significance. Some experts say they were left either unfinished or left unconsecrated.  Their style depicts a mature form of Dravidian architecture, showing ornamental domes with single (ekathala) or triple (trithala) towers. 


Meenakshi Temple


One of the greatest architectural wonders of Tamil Nadu is Meenakshi Temple. Meenakshi, a form of goddess Parvati, married Sundareshwrar, an incarnation of Lord Shiva, and the temple was built to celebrate their eternal love. Even today, the wedding between Shiva and Parvati is celebrated over 10 days, and the occasion is graced by over a million devotees. Despite the presence of so many tourists, the place is amazingly clean and has been recently voted as ‘Best Swachch Iconic Place’ in India. 


Brihadeshwara Temple



Considered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Brihadeshwara Temple is one of the largest temple complexes in India and also one of the finest specimens of Chola architecture. The temple recently turned 1,000 years old, but its fine carvings and structural integrity belie its true age. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple, apart from its intricate carvings, is also a feat of metallurgy and engineering. Although the temple is made of granite, no evidence of a granite quarry is found nearby, indicating that stones must have been brought down from far-off places. Furthermore, architects also wonder how the massive, octagonal granite cap stone was hauled up on the top of the shikhara, or the tower of the temple.

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