The sixth largest city in India, Chennai is home to over 4 million people. Known as the “Detroit of India” due to its prominence in the beginning and development of India’s auto industry, Chennai is also a frontrunner in the country in Internet technologies and other technologically driven industries. With all that attention and effort going toward the future, it would be easy to overlook Chennai’s spectacular past — especially the past that has been preserved in its Hindu temples. These havens of faith and a different lifestyle still offer the weary traveller and the local deity-devoted Indian respite and relief in the midst of a busy, urban area.
If you’re considering taking a holiday to Chennai, set aside plenty of time to visit at least one of its many temples. From its humble origins as a fishing village to its current instalment as a fast-humming 21st century innovation capitol, Chennai is still a land of exotic faith and beauty, as is exemplified by its Hindu temples.
Sri Parthasarathy Temple
Built sometime in the 8th century, Sri Parthasarathy is one of the oldest temples in Channai. Dedicated to the worship of Lord Krishna, the god so invested in human concerns that he serves as the charioteer of Arjuna (the finest archer and warrior in Indian history) in the epic of Mahabharata, the temple is a stunning example of religious architecture. The temple has two main towers at its eastern and western points, and while it is less ornate than some temples in Chennai, its age alone makes it worth visiting. Some of the more notable shrines at the temple are to:
Ranganatha — a deity who is the resting form of Vishnu
Vedhavalli Thayar — Ranganatha’s wife
Rama — the seventh avatar of Vishnu
Andal — one of the 12 Alvar poets/saints of Lord Vishnu
One of the oldest buildings in all of Chennai, Kapaleeshwarar Temple dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries. A temple dedicated to the god Shiva, a form of Shiva’s wife, Parvati, can also be worshipped at this site. The temple’s architecture is Dravidian and has the pyramid shape and carved stone typical of Dravidian temples. There are numerous shrines throughout the temple, with those dedicated to Parvati (the Karpagambal) and Shiva (the Kapaleeswarar) being the most prominent and popular. Six daily rituals are observed in this temple and four yearly festivals are celebrated. Legend has it that Brahma and the four Vedas have all worshipped here.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mahabalipuram Temple is a beautiful 7th century temple located along the shoreline just a short drive from Chennai. Legend claims many origins for its name. Some say it was named after the demon King Mahabali, who was actually famous for his acts of kindness, whereas others say it was named for King Narasimhavarman I, who was a mighty warrior. A beacon of Dravidian architecture, this temple is stunning, full of carvings and sculptures that are in remarkable condition. Dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, this temple is one of just a handful of still-standing rock-cut temples in all of India.
Built in the 11th century by the Chola kings, the Kandaswamy temple is dedicated to Shiva, although shrines to other gods and goddesses abound. Some notable sculptures include an idol of Shiva’s son, Muruga, in five different positions: as a dancer, as a child, as a teacher, as a hunter and with Brahma. There is also a stunning image of Kazhukundran, who is said to have made many elaborate changes and improvements to the temple during the 16th century, including a temple chariot that he designed for use during temple festivals. That chariot is still used to this day.
Regardless of your religious leanings, the temples of Chennai will spark your imagination and provide you with an experience of Indian history and culture unlike any other. Relics of a bygone time — both in their architecture and view of the world — the temples are impressive anachronisms, whispers of a religious desire that piques the interest of a mere few in this age. If you’re planning a trip to the area, make sure you spend at least a day in one of these masterpieces of faith, worship, myth and devotion.
Kapaleeshwarar Temple image by photoglot on Flickr’s Creative Commons.
Mahabalipuram Temple image by Kamala L on Flickr’s Creative Commons.