Thiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu
The Annamalaiyar Temple in Thiruvannamalai is an absolutely gargantuan temple complex, one of the largest in India. Dedicated to Shiva, it is associated with the Jyotirlinga legend (though it is not one of the Jyotirlinga temples). It covers an immense area, and boasts four of the tallest pyramid towers in Tamil Nadu. Millions of pilgrims descend on the temple annually for the Karthigai Deepam Festival every year, and millions more visit the temple year-round.
According to Hindu legend, in ancient times the deity Shiva appeared as a pillar of fire in the Annamalai Hills on at least one (possibly two) occasions. One story tells of how his wife Parvati made him close his eyes in a moment of bliss, thereby briging darkness to the world. He returned light to the world by appearing as a bright light at Annamalai. Another story tells of how this was the location where Shiva appeared as a pillar of light in order to test the deities Brahma and Vishnu to see who was superior.
Whichever story is true, there is no doubt that the site of the temple has been sacred to devotees of Shiva since the early Middle Ages. Early temples stood on the site well over a thousand years ago. During the 9th century, the Chola dynasty came to power in the region and established a major center at Thiruvannamalai.
One of their first projects was to construct a major new temple to increase pilgrimage traffic to this already popular religious site. Work began in the latter half of the 9th century, and continued on and off for the better part of Chola rule and beyond. In the 14th century, the Hoysala dynasty took over the area and continued work on further expanding and embellishing the temple.
Thiruvannamalai and its famous temple became the target of many conquerors for over three hundred years. During this period it was conquered in turn by Muslims, Hindus, Mughals, the French, the British, Mysore and finally the British again. However, the amazing structure, held in awe by almost everyone who saw it, miraculously survived the worst ravages of the colonial era. In recent decades it has been restored to its former glory and is now once again one of India’s great centers of pilgrimage.
The Annamalaiyar Temple is an awe-inspiring sight even among those who have become utterly jaded with India’s endless varieties of magnificent temples. The huge, rectangular walls of the complex enclose an area the size of over half-dozen soccer fields. Four spectacular gates, each crowned with a tremendous white stone and marble pyramid tower, stand at the four cardinal points of the compass. Inside in the walls is a veritable Eden laden with palm trees and other exotic plants.
The temple complex is a labyrinth of courtyards, shrines and extensive halls for prayer and other uses. Among its best known structures is the Hall of Light, where supplicants come to see the ancient temple tree and pray for fertility; and the Hall of a Thousand Pillars which looks like a movie set lifted straight out of Middle Earth. The main shrine, and the oldest part of the temple, honors Shiva as well as a number of other Hindu deities.
The Annamalaiyar Temple occupies a huge area in the center of Thiruvannamalai just east of the Annamalai Hill, approximately 1100 miles south of New Delhi. It is open every day from 6:00am-8:00pm. There is no cost of admission, but not all areas may be open to everyone. Web: www.arunachaleswaratemple.tnhrce.in (official website).
While the Annamalaiyar Temple handily outshines all others in Thiruvannamalai, there are a few others, including the Tirumalai Jain Temple complex just outside of the city.