Arunachaleshwar Temple

Top choice in Tiruvannamalai

This 10-hectare temple is one of India's largest. Its oldest parts date to the 9th century, but the site was a place of worship long before that. Four huge, unpainted white gopurams mark the entrances; the main, 17th-century eastern one rises 13 storeys (an astonishing 66m), its sculpted passageway depicting dancers, dwarves and elephants. During festivals the Arunachaleshwar is awash with golden flames and the scent of burning ghee, as befits the fire incarnation of Shiva, Destroyer of the Universe.

Inside the complex are five more gopurams, a 17th-century 1000-pillared hall with impressive carvings, two tanks and a profusion of subtemples and shrines. There's a helpful temple model inside the second gopuram from the east, where the temple elephant gives blessings. To reach the innermost sanctum, with its huge lingam, worshippers must pass through five surrounding prakarams (compounds).

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