Tracing India’s Templed South

From a vibrant coral red to purple, teal and a shade of orange as bright as mango flesh, there’s hardly a color missing from the entrance to the Moon Temple of Nava Thirupathi.


This isn’t the first temple I’ve visited in India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu, but it is part of the biggest complex of temples I’ve seen so far: nine in total.

Located not far from the port city of Tuticorin, this set of Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu is named after, not surprisingly, the words for “nine” and “temple,” and each individual temple is named after one of the planets from the solar system. Traveling with a group of friends from the UK, we begin our tour of Nava Thirupathi at the Moon Temple, whose entrance is built in classic south Indian style.

One of the things I find most remarkable about India is the way each state seems to be a country of its own. I’m drawn to the many changes that occur once you cross a new state’s border: the different languages, cooking and clothing styles and, in this case, temple architecture. From the Sikh gurdwaras seen often in Punjab to Rajasthan’s Jain temples and the mosques in Delhi and Hyderabad, these varying religions and places of worship are another way to mark my journey around the country. And here in Tamil Nadu, it’s the spectacularly colored Dravidian temples I begin to look for in each new town I visit.

Dravidian temple architecture is known for its pyramid shape, recognizable stepped design, and the colorful statues that adorn the steps, featuring everyone from deities and kings to dancers. These brightly-hued figures tower above us as we walk inside to a darkened courtyard, where we are immediately surrounded by stone columns, into which have been carved flowers, goddesses, and elephants. The ground is cool beneath my bare feet and the warm, buttery smell of ghee lamps fills the air.

In the back of the temple, we quietly join a small group of Hindu worshippers as a priest begins to perform puja and the rituals of arthi, offering lamps to the deity. While some of my friends step forward when the priest holds out the arthi plate for them to pass their hands over and then touch their forehead, I hang back, preferring to simply observe the ceremony taking place. Although not a Hindu myself, I can appreciate the religion while observing its customs and ceremonies. Indeed, that’s one of the things India has proved to be in my time here: accepting of everyone who is part of its dazzling array of people, religions and cultures.

Passing down palm-lined back roads and rural landscapes, we move next to the Sun Temple, where the path to the sanctum is a maze of carved columns and stone floors worn smooth by time. Some of the carving is incredibly intricate; dragon-like creatures that look ready to pounce with their claws and teeth bared. The temple complex itself is large, extended over a series of covered walkways, and I watch silently as worshipers place their wreathed flowers in front of the deity.

Due to differing darshan times at each temple, the last one we’re able to visit for the day is actually the ninth, named after Pluto. Inside, we are greeted by temple dancing girls that have been carved into the floor, their figures smoothed over from years of worshipers’ footsteps. The atmosphere feels almost subterranean, but suddenly we emerge into a small courtyard where a famous tamarind tree stands. When a priest insists it is 5,110 years old, one of my fellow travelers, Sarah, jests, “It’s doing well for its age.”

As we turn to leave, my thoughts rest on one of the things I have found most fascinating about India: that no matter how small a village is, no matter how far you may be from major centers such as Delhi or Mumbai, there is always a temple to discover; that even here in rural Tamil Nadu, there are exquisitely-carved temples inviting travelers to explore them and trace their intriguing history.

So when it comes to exploring Nava Thirupathi, it looks like I’ve got three temples down, six to go.

Info Box

How to get there: The best place to base yourself to visit Nava Tirupathi is either Tuticorin (also known as Thoothukudi) or Tirunelveli. Public buses run to some of the temples, but a private taxi or van will be necessary for others.

Visiting information: Thoothukudi District’s website has put together a helpful page listing all of the temples’ darshan times as well as some help with bus routes and place names for taxi vans:

For more information on Nava Tirupathi: visit websites.

Author: Candace Rardo

Freelance writer + photographer MA Travel Writing

Comments

  1. Interesting read, I know South India is famous for temples.
    Several years back I visited temples in Madurai and amazed by its rich architecture. I hope I can visit some of other temples in India soon.

  2. I read that there is a distinct difference between the temples in South and North. North style architecture is called Nagara and the south it is called Dravida.

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