PONDICHERRY AND THE GREAT TEMPLES OF TIRUVANNAMALAI

PONDICHERRY

Pondicherry (south eastern coast of India, 240 kilometers south of Chennai) was the center of the French colony in India, and the French influence is still very much alive. French is still spoken by many people; there is a statue of Joan of Arc and a miniature Arc de Triomphe; and the policemen still wear red klepis. Pondicherry has beaches and attracts a lot of French hippies, druggies and enlightenment seekers. It is sort of a French version of Goa. The main character in “Life of Pi” — the Yann Martel novel and Ang Lee movie — was Piscine Molitor, an Indian Tamil boy from Pondicherry

Located on the Arabian Sea and founded in 1674, Pondicherry is home to 245,000 people (more in the surrounding area) and is laid in an oval with streets at right angles like a French city. People gather around the long seaside promenade. The city was mainly known for its name and rarely visited until a World-Bank-funded, coastal road opened up between Chennai and Pondicherry in the early 1990s,

Matt Gross wrote in the New York Times: “Pondicherry is, for an Indian city, tiny. Just about a million people live there, mostly in the types of charmless, three and four-storey concrete buildings erected all over the poorer parts of Asia. But near the Bay of Bengal, the cityscape changes drastically. Soon you see tile roofs and wooden shutters, balconies and colonnades, wide brick streets and pastel Catholic churches – the neighbourhood once known as the Ville Blanche, or White Town, where the colonists lived.” [Source: Matt Gross, New York Times, March 30, 2008]

Pondicherry is called Pondy by most people and has officially been known as Puducherry since 2006. It is a separate Union Territory within India. Among its attractions are blue waters, lush greenery, multi-cuisine restaurants, beaches, seafront promenades, spiritual havens and tree-lined boulevards, French-influenced architecture and cheap beer. You can enjoy kayaking, swimming scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, and windsurfing. Many people explore the town by bike. The Sri Aurobindo International Center of Education, Lycée Français, Alliance Française and other schools all use French-mediu as their fiest language, with Indian languages being taught as a second language. Some even call Pondicherry “la Côte d'Azur de l'Est” (the “French Riviera of the East”).

Getting There: By Air: The closest international airport is in Chennai, around 135 kilometers from Pondicherry. Chennai has excellent connections with all major cities in India and direct connection to Europe, USA, Middle East and South East Asia. Trichy airport (220 kilometers) and Bengaluru airport (320 kilometers) are the other nearby airheads. By Road: Puducherry is well-connected to all districts and major towns of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. There are frequent buses from Chennai. By Train: Villupuram is the nearest railway junction, well-connected to Chennai, Madurai and Trichy

History and Development of Pondicherry

Matt Gross wrote in the New York Times: Pondicherry was not exactly a success story, as colonies go. Soon after the French set up this lovely nugget on the Bay of Bengal in 1674, it was captured by the Dutch, retaken by its founders, then sacked and destroyed by the British. And though the French kept rebuilding it, Pondicherry never became more than a stopover on the way to Indochina. Even after Pondy, as it is nicknamed, rejoined India – late in 1956 – it languished, out of step with the rest of the nation. In other words, for most [Source: Matt Gross, New York Times, March 30, 2008]

“No more. Today, Puducherry, as it is officially known but rarely called, is capitalising on a glammed-up version of that history, and emerging as an artsy, design-savvy destination with a quasi-Gallic approach to eating, drinking, shopping and relaxing. It's like India seen through a French lens, or maybe vice versa.

“Here, under a very un-Indian blanket of tranquillity, Pondy is exploding. In less than a decade, the local branch of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage has contributed to the restoration of dozens of historic structures, from private homes to former governors' residences. The crumbling ochre walls of the 18th-century Education Department, for example, were once covered in a sheen of grey mould; when I arrived in the rue Romain Rolland last spring, the building was smart and tidy, with pink-peach plaster trimmed in white. It had reopened as the 16-room Hotel de l'Orient in 2000, and my room there had a four-poster bed, an antique dark-wood wardrobe and framed prints of blue-skinned gods on the sponge-washed walls. The air-conditioning was blasting, and when I turned it off, I heard something I'd never heard before in India: nothing. No traffic or honking horns, no vendors' cries, no heavy machinery whirring from within a neighbour's home.

“In the garden of the 33-room Promenade, Pondicherry's second-newest boutique hotel, situated (surprise!) right on the promenade, well-heeled patrons – mostly Western, with a smattering of Indians – drank cocktails and dangled their feet in a small pool. It was a Tuesday in March, but it felt like a summer Friday.”

Driving from Mahabalipuram to Pondicherry to Thanjavur

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “Heading south from Mahabalipuram, Tini and I hopped on a bus to Pondicherry, the former French colonial town. It was a good stop for dining and some new boutique hotels, but it did not have much in the way of grand temples. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 19, 2008 /*/]

“So we hired a car to reach the temple of Gangaikondacholapuram, a few hours’ drive southwest, where the detailed statues and friezes from the Chola dynasty are as remarkable as the temple’s name. What astounded me were the demon-protector statues flanking each doorway, towering over me, snarling at me with fanged teeth, telling me in a not-too-subtle way that I didn’t belong here.

“The drive to the temple had taken us deep into the Tamil Nadu countryside, past the electric-green rice fields of the Cauvery Delta. Storms broke out as we were leaving the temple, but I didn’t mind. It all seemed part of the landscape, these rains that would bring a harvest for the farmers making a living the same way their ancestors had done thousands of years ago.

Eager for a roof over our heads, we told our driver to head for Thanjavur, where I hoped to see the finest surviving works of the Cholas, who ruled a large swath of south India from this city.

“The downpour was ceaseless, continuing through the night and the next day. I spent my first morning in Thanjavur looking at marvelous bronze statues in the Royal Palace compound. The famous bronze depiction of Nataraja, lord of the dance, standing in a ring of fire, strands of the cosmos swirling from his head, was created during the Chola dynasty and has since been replicated endlessly.”

On his bus experience around Pondicherry, Kyle Jarrard wrote in the New York Times: “The short, brutish trip back to town is another unforgettable piece of India. Our bus passes others dangerously, and the others pass too: tons of steel packed with innocents hurtle straight at each other until the last second. It is an articulate game of chicken played out with nonstop honking but never any gesticulating and no vulgarities. Only the Westerners clutch their chests....At day’s end, there’s no energy left for anything but a cold shower and a check of the seaside view. [Source: Kyle Jarrard, New York Times, August 19, 2008 ~~]

Tourism in Pondicherry

Pondicherry ia popular weekend getaway for many Indians in the south, particularly from Chennai and Bengaluru. It gets a fair amount of Europeans too, some of who stay for a fairly long time, and other who seek out ashrams. Pondy offers a variety of accommodation options — hotels, homestays, boutique hotels, apartments with kitchenettes, cottages and beach bungalows. You could either opt to stay by the sea or in the city limits where food is more accessible. The best time to visit is from October to February, when the temperatures take a pleasant dip.

Matt Gross wrote in the New York Times: “In Pondicherry, she said, "there's not much to see, but a lot to feel." “For the next five days, I tried to feel as much of Pondicherry as possible. I played flaneur and observed my fellow visitors. The French had a penchant for local dress, donning saris and kurtas as if they'd worn them all their lives. They were also, contrary to what I'd read, the only people to be heard speaking French – Tamil and English dominated les rues. [Source: Matt Gross, New York Times, March 30, 2008]

“More than anywhere I've ever visited, the invisible wall between locals and tourists was a challenge to breach in Pondicherry. This seemed to be a legacy of colonialism – or at least, that's what I understood from my research at the French Institute. Gazing out of a window at the remains of the city's 18th-century defence walls, I read about how the French, unlike the British, rarely tried to change Indian society or the caste system, and explicitly cut the city up – block by block, house by house – according to ethnicity. That few Pondicherry natives now spoke French in public, or adopted Escoffier as their own personal kitchen god, or approached foreign tourists as equals, seemed natural, particularly since, as Saroja Sundararajan wrote in Pondicherry: A Profile, the colony's native population was once "one of the most exploited in the world".

“I could read Pondicherry's current superficial Frenchifying as subtle revenge upon the colonisers. What better way to redress the wrongdoings of centuries past than by adopting a French facade in order to extract more money from nostalgic Gauls? Except that Pondicherry was just too beautiful and relaxing for it all to be a sham. The distinctions – Indian/French, native/foreign, authentic/simulated – lost their meaning and Pondicherry was simply Pondicherry, and it became more so every day I was there.

Kyle Jarrard wrote in the New York Times: Pondicherry is “best done by bicycle. I couldn't help thinking, wandering the French quarter, how much the place resembles New Orleans in summer: hot and muggy, but thick with colonial architecture and secret gardens. The various parts of the Aurobindo ashram are all worth visiting, from the crafts store to the main center where Sri Aurobindo and his venerated disciple, La Mère, are buried and around whose jasmin-covered tombs dozens meditate communally each day in a sea of sweet incense. [Source: Kyle Jarrard, New York Times, August 19, 2008 ~~]

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: “In Pondicherry, a pleasant place to stay is the Vatika Guest Home, on the northern edge of the old colonial center (67 François Martin Street; 91-413-233-3980; www.vatikaguesthome.com). It has seven rooms, three with air-conditioning (and plans to add it to all), costing 1,000 to 1,500 rupees. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, September 19, 2008 /*/]

Food and Entertainment in Pondicherry

Pondicherry offers an interesting amalgamation of food — sea food, organic food, Italian, Mexican, French, Continental and Chinese food. The food here is a quirky culmination of the spices of the South India and the culinary sensibilities of France, with a generous dose of Italian quirk thrown in. There are hundreds of restaurants in the city, ranging from chai stalls selling hot buns to luxury hotels that cook up a lavish spread for their guests. Wong wrote: “An atmospheric place to eat in Pondicherry is Satsanga, in a converted colonial mansion at 30, rue de la Bourdonnais (91-413-2225-867). It serves Continental and Indian cuisine.”

Kadugu Yerra is a speciality of Pondicherry. It is a prawn curry cooked in tangy tomatoes with vinegar, fenugreek, potatoes, creamy coconut milk and mustard paste. Fresh and delicious sea food is available in many eateries across town. Prawn, crab and different kinds of fish cooked in Indian as well European styles can be enjoyed. Italian food available in Pondicherry includes wood-fried pizzas, risotto, lasagne and other authentic Italian dishes are readily available in Pondicherry. Many bakeries here offer fresh croissants, baguettes, muffins and breads.

Matt Gross wrote in the New York Times: “Pondicherry's restaurants represented an odd mixture of cuisines. I'd heard the city was home to a unique school of cooking in which French and Indian techniques and ingredients intermingled, but if such a restaurant actually exists, I couldn't find it. Instead, so-called "creole" places such as Madame Shanthe's simply offered French and Indian dishes side by side. [Source: Matt Gross, New York Times, March 30, 2008]

“Later, I sampled the slick, soft brown-leather banquettes at Risque, in the Promenade hotel – one of two developed by Hidesign. Risque is a classic boutique hotel destination bar: DJ playing loud dance music for a mix of stylish international types but perhaps a little pretentious. Everyone generally moved on to Le Space, a rooftop bar with mismatched chairs and strings of fairy lights, where the beers were cold, and disparate populations mixed: backpackers, spiritual seekers, wealthy French and, a relative rarity, Indians.

Shopping in Pondicherry

Pondicherry is a good place to shop for textiles, silk and traditional doll-making as well as high quality pottery, handmade paper, leather and aromatics. Tourists love to buy korai mats that are made of a special kind of grass. Most small shops and local bazaars sell these mats. Handmade paper is another popular souvenir item. It comes in various colors and has been made for over half a century by Sri Aurobindo ‘s Handmade Paper Factory.. There are many handicrafts to shop for in Pondicherry and dolls are a speciality. Made of terracotta, papier mache or plaster of paris, they are popularly called Pondicherry Bommai. One can find them in various handicraft emporia across Pondicherry.

Matt Gross wrote in the New York Times: “I spent time, and money, shopping. I bought my wife an embroidered tunic and a crinkly yellow-and-white scarf. At Nirvana, I bought baby T-shirts featuring Rajdhani, the beturbaned cartoon spokesman for an old brand of Indian coffee, and at the local branch of Fab India, a chain that sells craft clothing from all over the subcontinent, I sifted through shirts and scarves, skirts and sandals. [Source: Matt Gross, New York Times, March 30, 2008]

“Finally, I browsed the shelves of Hidesign. Relatively unknown outside India, this Pondicherry-based maker of leather goods is slowly starting to expand overseas (thanks in part to an investment by LVMH), and its slick, soft briefcases and handbags can now be found as far away as Dubai, Hong Kong and Norway.

Kyle Jarrard wrote in the New York Times: Shopping along Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi streets, we find rock-bottom prices. Sundays bring a flea market along Gandhi at which you can find everything from toe rings to motherboards amid the zigzagging bikes and rickshaws with no mind for the ambulatory. [Source: Kyle Jarrard, New York Times, August 19, 2008 ~~]

Sights in Pondicherry

Places like Aurobindo Ashram, Manakula Vinayagar Temple, the church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. and Matri Mandir (located inside Auroville) are perfect places for those seeking spiritual guidance. The French influence is most apparent when you stroll through the old quarter. There are also pristine and quiet beaches.

Worth checking out he Aurobindo Ashram (a religious learning center set up guru Aurobindo and his disciple Mirra Alfass); Auroville (an experimental community set up by Aurobindo); Matro Mandir (a huge stadium-like mediation center still under construction in 1999); the Pondicherry Promenade, the 100-year-old Botanical gardens, Colonial buildings include the 18th century Raj Nivas (the governor's residence), the 17th century Église de Notre Dame de la Conception church, and other churches. Pedalboats, row boats, windsurfers, water scooters and jet skis can all be rented. Boat cruise to visit dolphins are also offered.

Botanical Gardens was laid out in 1826 in an ornate French style. A wide variety of exotic plants were imported by the French from all over the world to make this garden. The idea was to know which plant species they would be able to cultivate in the region. Spread over 22 acre, the garden is home to over 1,500 species of plants. Each of these has a placard with the name of the species, its common name as well as interesting trivia like the amount of oxygen it generates, its medicinal value, its uses and more. The Botanical Gardens is open between 10 in the morning and five in the evening, and has six fountains of which one is a musical-dancing fountain; this one operates only on weekends, though.

Sri Aurobindo Ashram is largely associated with Sri Aurobindo and his teachings. A popular spiritual retreat, the ashram was founded in 1926 and was home to Sri Aurobindo himself, as well as Mother Mirra, during the course of their lives. Located on Rue de la Marine, it is one of the wealthiest ashrams in the country, and is seen as an amalgamation of spiritual knowledge of yoga and modern science. Sri Aurobindo founded the ashram when he was fleeing British persecution and arrived in Pondicherry to find a haven. Here, he found the spiritual power of yoga and went on to inspire many with his writings.

Under his and the Mother's influence, the ashram has grown from a mere two dozen disciples to almost 2,000 members today. Run and maintained voluntarily by devotees who live in a network of inter-connected homes provided by the ashram, this place is a sanctuary of amity and harmony, with colorful flowers and plants dotting the simplistic yet astoundingly beautiful place. In the center, lies the samadhi, a white marble shrine where Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were laid to rest. Visitors are allowed to sit by the samadhi and meditate for as long as they like, or even browse through the literature on Sri Aurobindo and Auroville that is available here. However, cell phones are strictly not allowed and talking is discouraged.

Museums in Pondicherry

Pondicherry Museum is a French style museum with Chola bronzes and archeology, geology, sculpture, weapons and handicraft displays. Matt Gross wrote in the New York Times the tranquil museum is “a mansion full of relics from the past, recent and distant. For 20 minutes, I was the only visitor, wandering alone among the cannonballs and bronze statues of goddesses, until I found a display of 2,000-year-old Roman amphorae from the nearby archaeological dig at Arikamedu.” [Source: Matt Gross, New York Times, March 30, 2008]

“Farther north lay the Aurodhan Gallery, perhaps the city's finest collection of contemporary Indian art. After browsing three floors of brilliant Ganesh portraits and sombre neo-Expressionist scenes of old men drinking and playing checkers, I asked the gallery owner's wife, Shernaz Verma, what to do next. She suggested I visit the French Institute and Auroville – a utopian community founded by the Sri Aurobindo Society, whose followers were, for many years, Pondy's main tourists.”

Jawahar Toy Museum has a wide variety of decorated dolls and painted toys are displayed here. These have been taken from various parts of the country like Gujarat, Assam, Haryana, Maharashtra, Punjab and Rajasthan. The dolls exhibited here are dressed in traditional costumes of the regions, giving an interesting insight into the diverse sartorial choices in India. The major attraction is a gallery that has been recreated as a fairyland with a puppet of Lord Ganesha occupying the pride of place.

Near Pondicherry

Thiruvakkarai (outside Auroville, around 25 kilometers from Pondicherry) is the home of India’s first National Fossil Wood Park in Thiruvakkarai, located. The fossil park, maintained by the Geological Survey of India, is a national geo-heritage monument that was established in 1940. Spread over 247 acre, one can find petrified wood fossils, which are over 20 million years old, throughout the park. Only a square kilometer area in the park is open for public and is home to around 200 fossilised trees. Thiruvakkarai also houses a popular temple of Pondicherry and the main deity is in the form of a huge lingam with faces of - Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Mahesh. It is believed that Chandiran (the moon god) also worshipped Lord Shiva here.

Karaikal (130 kilometers south of Pondicherry) is major port, that is worth a stop if you are in the neighborhood. It is home to one of the best natural beaches in southern India. The region was under the control of Raja Pratap Singh of Tanjore before 1739, and it was on February 14, 1739, that the French took possession of the fort of Karakalcheri, eight dependent villages and the Karaikal town after Frenchman Dumas reached a deal with Thanjavur’s Sahuji for their possession for 40,000 chakras. Its rich architecture boasts a trademark Chola style and is believed to be the hub of the Chola kingdom. Previously, a historic center of Pondicherry, the district now has only faint remains of the dynasty left.

Auroville

Auroville (20-minute drive from Pondicherry) is a universal township founded by Mother Mirra in 1968 on the Coromandel Coast on the outskirts of Pondicherry. At its core lies Matrimandir (temple of the mother), a brilliant golden dome surrounded by green lawns, where visitors can meditate and introspect in silent concentration. Matrimandir or 'Soul of the City, as it is called, is located in a large open area, Peace.

Symbolic of the birth of new consciousness, the mandir has been divided into a dozen individually named parks - Bliss, Light, Life, Existence, Consciousness, Power, Wealth, Perfection, Harmony, Youth, Progress and Utility - each having its own set of flowers, trees and shrubs. It has taken over 40 years to build and the construction of its 12 gardens, as wished by the Mother, is still a work in progress. One has to watch a video on what the Matrimandir stands for and understand its purpose at the visitors' center before being allowed onto the premises. Bookings have to be made in advance at the center.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Auroville “draws its inspiration from the vision and work of the renowned Indian philosopher and spiritual visionary Sir Aurobindo in collaboration with Mirra Alfassa (The Mother) in the year 1968. Auroville is based on the ideology the of manifestation of human unity in diversity. The township was founded on barren land and now has transformed into a green belt with a large variety of flora and fauna. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]

“Auroville rose out of a necessity to build an ideal city in the form of an experiment to create a passage for a new realization which needed implementation on a grass root level. It was intended for up to 50,000 inhabitants from all around the world. It currently houses 20,000 people of various nationalities. They live in various settlements sharing the land with 35,000 local populations in the surrounding villages.

“The settlement is based on the collaboration of eastern and western ideologies. It is a 'universal' city where people from all creeds, castes and nationalities can live and thrive in harmony.

“Auroville has its fundamentals based on partnership of Aurovilians with nature and the local population. These fundamentals are practiced in various forms of activities such as tree planting schemes, organic agriculture, educational research, village development, cultural activities, community services, land re-generation, rain water harvesting, conservation approach and many more. To manifest its principles these diverse activities are housed in the various scientific and social research, educational, agro-institutions, community centers and volunteering, internships & studies programs. All these activities and institutions are housed under one umbrella body constantly working towards experimenting on new methods of education, fine arts, village extension work, physical education and research in Indian culture and its evolution.”

Visitors' center also has a number of moderately-priced restaurants that serve Italian, French and India cuisines. Some of these restaurants are vegan too. There are some boutiques within the premises that are great places to pick up crockery, dresses, paintings, bags and an assortment of knick-knacks.

Arikamedu: Ancient Roman Site in India

Arikamedu, Early Historic Site (Pondocherry)was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site as one of the Silk Road Sites in India in 2010 . According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Arikamedu is one of the biggest ancient Roman trade centers in India (appro-34 acres). Unlike many other Roman trade centers including those on India's Malabar coast, Arikamedu has been properly identified and is to a large extent, well-documented. The site of Arikamedu enjoys the distinction of being the first site in the whole of India to provide evidence, through archaeological digs, for the export of variety of Indian objects, viz Glass beads, Shell, Terracotta objects, besides Muslin cloths . Most of the other roman trade sites of India have been dated on the basis of the chronology of Arikamedu. [Source: Archaeological Survey of India]

“Identification of Arikamedu with Poduke emporium mentioned in the Periplus maris Erythraei is accepted by historians, as the excavation at Arikamedu yielded all the features of Port town. .The literary records also makes its clear that Indo-Roman trade remained brisk until long after the middle of the first century A.D through sea.

“Among all the Roman trade sites in India, Arikamedu has yielded the largest number of Mediterranean amphora jars,terra sigillata and Rouletted ware. Arikamedu is the only site in India that has yielded pottery with inscriptions in atleast four different languages-Prakrit, Tamil, Old Sinhalese and Latin.

“Besides, remains of building with an oblong shell, massively built and with rough foundation bricks and with a ramp or staircase on the northern side of this building is identified with ware house and the two tanks involving a constant inflow and out flow of water justify their identification as cisterns or Vats for dyeing Muslin. These two structures are outstanding example of a type of building and technological ensemble during 1st. cen. B.C.

“Emerged as a trading colony where Romans settled to trade with the west through sea and introduced ceramic tradition of the Mediterranean which further evolved the pottery of similar nature in the Indian context. The settlement flourished with residential colonies , craft workshops and shopping centers which is visible after excavations. It bears a unique testimony to the trading settlement of the past during early historic period. The trade methodology is described into details in the early classical literature of Greece and Rome and corroborated by archaeological finds.”

Near Pondicherry

Gingee Fort (in Villupuram, 50 kilometers west of Pondicherry and 60 kilometers south east of a Tiruvannamalai) is one of the most magnificent citadels of South India. Perched upon three hillocks — Rajagiri, Krishnagiri and Chandrayanadurg — the fort encloses a huge triangular area and comprises palatial, military and religious structures. Gingee Fort served as the residence for most dynasties of South India during the medieval period, and is said to have been built by the Chola rulers in the 13th century.

The prime attraction of the fort complex is Rajagiri, which houses the multi-storeyed Kalyana Mahal, adorned with a pyramidal top. Right next to it is an open ground featuring a wide stone platform. The lower part of Rajagiri Hill holds the remains of palaces, granaries and an elephant tank. There's also a temple dedicated to the guardian deity, Kamalakanni Amman. One can also see a watchtower and a few cannons near this temple. The 16th-century Venkataramana Temple is another attraction at Gingee Fort. Built by the Nayaks, it stands outside Rajagiri Hill's innermost fortification.

Tiruvannamalai

Tiruvannamalai (100 kilometers west of Pondicherry) is among the holiest towns of Tamil Nadu, Tiruvannamalai is a popular pilgrim site, which is believed to one of the five spots in South India, where elements of nature (fire, air, water, earth, ether) are worshipped. In this mountain-temple town, situated at the foothills of Mt Arunachala, Lord Shiva is worshipped in his fire avatar (Arunachaleswara). The town is sprawled around the iconic Arunachaleswarar Temple, a spectacular structure boasting four huge gateways or gopurams. On full moon nights, the town sees a sea of devotees arriving to perform the 14-kilometer walk of Girivalam, around the Annamalai hill. It is a mesmeric sight to see barefoot devotees gazing at the temple atop the hill and walking while chanting “Om Arunachala”. Mount Arunachala is so spiritually powerful that is said that just uttering its name is supposed to "guarantee a favorable rebirth."

Tiruvannamalai hosts a smattering of serene ashrams that are spiritual retreats for visitors. A popular picnic spot among locals and tourists is the Sathanur Dam over River Thenpennai, around 20 kilometers from the city. Karthigai Deepam festival is celebrated on the full moon day in the Tamil month of Karthigai (November/ December) and draws huge crowds. Tiruvannamalai has a rich architectural legacy as it was ruled by Pallavas, Cholas, Hoysalas, kings of the Vijayanagar empire, the Carnatic kingdom, Tipu Sultan and the British.

Getting There: By Air: Puducherry Airport, 100 kilometers away from Tiruvannamalai, is the nearest airport. By Road: Tiruvannamalai is well-connected with good roads within the state and the country. By Train: Tiruvannamalai Railway Station connects the city with most towns and cities in India.

Sights in Tiruvannamalai

Arunachaleswarar Temple (at the foot of Tiruvannamalai Hills) spreads over 10 hectares (25 acres). An imposing structure with a marvellous architecture. It boasts four gateway towers known as gopurams, each of which is encompassed with mandapams, shrines and enclosures, decorated with finely carved sculptures and pillars. The eastern tower with 11 storeys, stands at a height of 66 meters and is one of the largest temple towers in India. Also known as the Annamalaiyar Temple, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva and invites devotees in large numbers from all parts of the country. Built in the traditional Dravidian style of architecture, the temple is believed to be the eighth-largest Hindu temple in the world. The temple complex houses many halls and the most popular one is the thousand-pillared hall, which was constructed during the Vijayanagar period (1336-1646). The temple is one of the pancha bhoota sthalams, which are dedicated to the manifestation of five natural elements. According to legend the lord has apparently manifested himself as an element of fire in this temple.

Arunachaleswarar Temple houses eight lingams known as ashtalingam, which are positioned at different locations facing different directions. These lingams are named as Indralingam, Agnilingam, Yamalingam, Niruthilingam, Varunalingam, Vayulingam, Kuberlingam and Esanyalingam. Each lingam signifies different directions of the earth and is believed to bless the devotees who undertake Girivalam, a popular religious ritual, with different benefits. The temple is open from 5.30am to 9pm everyday.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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