Tamil Nadu Temples

Tamil Nadu is a gold mine for anyone wanting to explore Indian temple culture. It's home to some of the country's most spectacular temple architecture and sculpture, and few parts of India are as fervent in their worship of the Hindu gods as Tamil Nadu. Its 5000-odd temples are constantly abuzz with worshippers flocking in for puja (offering or prayer), and colourful temple festivals abound. Among the plethora of Hindu deities, Shiva has the most Tamil temples dedicated to him, in a multitude of forms including Nataraja, the cosmic dancer, who dances in a ring of fire with two of his four hands holding the flame of destruction and the drum of creation. Tamils also have a soft spot for Shiva's peacock-riding son Murugan (also Kartikeya or Skanda), who is intricately associated with their cultural identity.

The special significance of many Tamil temples makes them goals of countless Hindu pilgrims from all over India. The Pancha Sabhai Sthalangal are the five temples where Shiva is believed to have performed his cosmic dance (chief among them Chidambaram). Then there's the Pancha Bootha Sthalangal, the five temples where Shiva is worshipped as one of the five elements: Tiruvannamalai's Arunachaleshwar Temple (fire), Kanchipuram's Ekambareshwara Temple (earth), Chidambaram's Nataraja Temple (space), Trichy's Sri Jambukeshwara Temple (water) and, in Andhra Pradesh, Sri Kalahasteeswara Temple (air). Each of Kumbakonam's nine Navagraha temples is the abode of one of the nine celestial bodies of Hindu astronomy – key sites given the importance of astrology in Hindu faith.

Typical Tamil temple design features tall layered entrance towers (gopurams), encrusted with often colourfully painted sculptures of gods and demons; halls of richly carved columns (mandapas); a sacred water tank; and a series of compounds (prakarams), one within the next, with the innermost containing the central sanctum where the temple's main deity resides. The earliest Tamil temples were small rock-cut shrines; the first free-standing temples were built in the 8th century AD; gopurams first appeared around the 12th century.

Admission to most temples is free, but non-Hindus are often not allowed inside inner sanctums. At other temples priests may invite you in and in no time you are doing puja, having an auspicious tilak mark daubed on your forehead and being hassled for a donation.

Temple touts can be a nuisance, but there are also many excellent guides; use your judgement and be on the lookout for badge-wearing official guides.

A South Indian Journey by Michael Wood and Southern India: A Guide to Monuments, Sites & Museums by George Michell are great reads if you're interested in Tamil temple culture. TempleNet (www.templenet.com) is one of the best online resources.