A dose of Chettinad culture & architecture through the Karaikudi Temples

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, India, Tamil Nadu | 7

You have experienced the colorful Chettinad culture through the various mansions of Karaikudi. How about, a quick trip to the various Karaikudi temples while in the region. Trust me when I say that these are a must-visit even for the atheists for they present a different facet of the culture of Chettinad. The temples of Karaikudi are a showcase of the Chettiars’ love of art and color through its architecture. And yes, these temples of Chettinad are a treasure trove of legends and tales too!

About the Karaikudi Temples

The Karaikudi temples are a lovely showcase of Chettinad architecture
The Karaikudi temples are a lovely showcase of Chettinad architecture

Centuries ago. the Nagararthar Chettiars used to stay in Poompuhar but had to move out after the town got destroyed – owing to a Tsunami. This is when they moved to the higher ground in the present-day Chettinad area. This is where they not just rebuilt their abodes but also, their places of worship. Quite like their rich mansions, the Chettiars spent freely to build magnificent temples. As a business community, they donated a percentage of their savings to these temples for their maintenance. They believed that what they got was a result of the Lord’s blessings.

While there are those one or two Karaikudi temples that belong to the entire community, there are unique clan temples too. In fact, the entire community has 9 clans and one temple for each one of them. While I could not go on a journey to all of these temples, I learned enough about them to share with you and enable your temple-hopping tour in Karaikudi. Let’s begin with the one that dates back to the Pandya kings -even before Chettinad and its villages emerged.

Kundrakudi Murugan Temple in Chettinad

Distance from Karaikudi: 12 km

Kundram means hill and that should give you the location of this temple.  Legend has it that the great sage Agasthya worshipped Lord Murugan here. However, the temple came in later, during the rule of the Pandya Kings – around the 1200s. It wasn’t a part of our Karaikudi itinerary but we landed here while searching for the Pillaiyarpatti temple. The colorful ceiling on top of the hill beckoned us closer and we explored this one instead of our original destination.

150 steps to the top of Kundrakudi Murugan temple - one of the key temples of Chettinad
150 steps to the top of Kundrakudi Murugan temple – one of the key temples of Chettinad

The Kundrakudi Murugan temple consists of three smaller cave temples at its base and a larger one atop a peacock shaped hill. The hill is said to be the immortalized form of the vehicle that Lord Murugan uses. Folklore has it that the peacock he rode on was so vain that in anger to an insult by Lord Vishnu’s vehicle Garuda and Lord Brahma’s Swan, he swallowed them both. Lord Vishnu had to request Lord Murugan to help get the two back and it was here that the entire incident happened. Hence, the significance of the hill.

Inside Kundrakudi Murugan Temple in Karaikudi
Inside Kundrakudi Murugan Temple in Karaikudi

A flight of 150 steps takes you to a small temple with gorgeous pillars. The Dwarapalas (gate guardians) stand out against the white background while the painted ceilings add a certain vibrancy to the whole temple. The main shrine has a six-faced Lord Murugan seated on his peacock with his two consorts – Deivanai and Valli beside him. The unique six faces of the idol have given this temple another name – Shanmughanathar Temple.

The highlight of Kundrakudi Temple in Karaikudi - the ceiling of its Kalyana Mantappa
The highlight of Kundrakudi Temple in Karaikudi – the ceiling of its Kalyana Mantappa

The high point of this temple is actually in its Kalyana Mantappa  – near its entrance. The hall has some exquisite ceiling art – stories within stories. This section is used for various religious ceremonies, including marriages and naming rites. I wouldn’t mind having one of my celebrations here either 😉

It is a good idea to visit this temple during the Thaipusam festival that takes place in January or the Panguni Uthiram festival in April.

Pillaiyarpatti Karpaka Vinayakar Temple

Distance from Karaikudi: 12 km

Truth be told, the Karpaka Vinayakar Temple is possibly the most visited and famous temple of Chettinad. This Karaikudi temple also, dates back to the Pandyan dynasty though the sculpted image of the Ganesha with the rock-cut caves is much older. It is said to belong to the eras between the 2nd and 5th Centuries. Though we had set a course for this temple, we encountered the Kundrakudi Murugan temple first and ended up missing this place. Nonetheless, here is what attracted me to this Karaikudi temple in the first place and got it on my planned list of things to see in Karaikudi.

Pillayarpatti temple - one of the key Karaikudi temples
Pillayarpatti temple – one of the key Karaikudi temples                        Photo Credits: Sai DHananjayan Babu(Self) via Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain
  • Besides being the oldest rock-cut temple of Chettinad, the Pillaiyarpatti Pillaiyar is unique owing to the rare Ganesha within it. His trunk turns to the right as against the usual left.
  • This Ganesha idol also, has just two hands as against the four that he is normally depicted with
  • The caves and its idols look quite magical as they are lit by hundreds of oil lamps within. One can imagine the divine golden glow.
  • There are 9 lamps that surround the Ganesha representing the 9 planetary positions or the Navagrahas
  • The Chettiars consider this temple very auspicious for their business as the Lord of Good beginnings – Ganesha faces the direction of Lord Kubera – basically North.
  • There are loads of inscriptions on the rocks in the caves going back to the era of 1090s . Now while I cannot understand those, I had a bet with my hubby about him being able to read at least 5 words of the script. 😉

While I might have missed it, no reason for you too. So make sure you get there, especially around Vinayakar Chaturthi or Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Apparently, it is quite amazing here.

The 9 Chettinad Clan Temples

The Nagarthar temples or the Chettinad Clan Temples can be found within 25 km from Karaikudi. These Karaikudi temples are the foundation of the Chettinad area. It is around them that the original 96 villages were formed. They have a deep bearing on the Chettinad culture. As the tradition goes, each temple belongs to a particular sect of the Chettiar community. People belonging to that temple cannot marry each other as they are considered to be siblings. However, they can marry people from the other Chettiar sects.

These clan temples are dedicated to different forms of Lord Shiva. Each form has its own sacred ceremonies, beliefs and texts. Here is a complete list of them –

1) Pillaiyarapatti Temple – the most popular of Karaikudi temples

Distance from Karaikudi: 12 km

This has been covered in detail. It might be one of the clan temples but is revered by the entire community. Though Lord Ganesha is the chief deity here, it has a separate shrine for a Shiva Linga.

2) Periyamathur or Mathur Temple

Distance from Karaikudi: 5 km

The form of Shiva in the Mathoor Kovil is called Lord Ainnooteeswar. This is the only temple among the 9 Nagarthar temples that allow its sect to marry among themselves. The temple is known for its beautiful sculptures, especially that of the monolithic elephants by its entrance.

Almost all Chettinad temples have a temple pond around it
Almost all Chettinad temples have a temple pond around it

3) Nemam Kovil

Distance from Karaikudi: 12 km

The fierce form of Shiva when he opened his 3rd eye is the chief deity of this temple. This form is known as Lord Jayamkonda Soleeswarar. Unlike all the other temples that are being traced to the Pandya Kings, this one was built by the famous Chola Kings. There is a temple tank – Chola Teertham that is considered auspicious by the devotees. It is said that after a dip here, one has to offer garlands to all the deities of the temple and that ensures that his wish comes true. The Nemam Kovil is said to have some very unique sculptures. The one I have heard about has the head of Lord Ganesha, body of a female. one leg of a lion and one of a bullock.

4) Ilayathangudi Temple

Distance from Karaikudi: 25 km

The Shiva form here is called Lord Kailasanathar. Legend has it that this was the place where the Gods rested. Besides the sculptures, watch out for the ceiling art here.

Sculpted pillars are a common sight in the Karaikudi temples - this one is from the Kundrakudi temple
Sculpted pillars are a common sight in the Karaikudi temples – this one is from the Kundrakudi temple

5) Vairavan Temple

Distance from Karaikudi: 15 km

Valaroil Nathar is the deity of this temple and hence, the name of this Karaikudi Clan temple. This particular temple has stunning murals and chiseled pillars – including two musical pillars.

6) Iraniyur Temple

Distance from Karaikudi: 25 km

This is the temple of Nataraja, though locally the God is called Lord Aatkonda Nathar. The architectural beauty of the temple has earned it another name – Chirapakalanjiam. Simply translated – An architectural Treasure Home!

7) Soorakudi Temple

Distance from Karaikudi: 10 km

There is abundance of a particular type of shrub in this area called Soorai and hence, the name for this temple. The Soorakudi temple is dedicated to Lord Desikar Nathar and is 5 storeys high with numerous carved beauties within.

At the Kundrakudi Murugan temple. It is pretty common to have a temple elephant bless the devotees.
At the Kundrakudi Murugan temple. It is pretty common to have a temple elephant bless the devotees.

8) Illupaikudi Temple

Distance from Karaikudi: 5 km

This Chettinad Clan temple is also, called Thandthondeeswarar Temple owing to its deity Lord Thondriyeesar. The name comes from a legend of an alchemist who could create gold of a particular luminosity from iron. If that wasn’t enough, he prayed to Lord Shiva to grant him power to make better gold. The Lord appeared and granted his wish to disappear into a Lingam which turned to the same gold – spreading its brilliance around. Hence, the name. that means shining gold. The Shiva deity here has an ever-filling Akshay Patra (pot) instead of skulls in his hand. It is believed that this ensures the longevity of your basic needs.

9) Velankudi Temple

Distance from Karaikudi: 12 km

The Velankudi temple is the smallest of all the Nagarthar clan temples. The chief deity is called Lord Sandeeswarar. A bonus for visitors to this temple is the nearby bird sanctuary that attracts migratory birds in winters.

Ayyanar Horse Temples in Karaikudi

Distance from Karaikudi: 15 km

A unique Chettinad temple - the Andavar Solai temple in Karaikudi
A unique Chettinad temple – the Andavar Solai temple in Karaikudi

The Terracotta horse temples of Ayyanar add to the quirky side of this temple hopping tour of Karaikudi. They bring out different folklore and sect of Chettinad. The tribal lord Ayyanar is said to guard the villages on his horse and as a symbol of the same, the entire temple is filled with colorful clay horses. I managed to visit the Andavar Solai Temple where one can witness this.  You can read about in this post. Not only, did I discover the legend of Lord Ayyanar but also, enjoyed the colorful architecture of the temple.

What I have shared is NOT a complete list. There are many, many more temples but given that we will always be short of time, these are the significant ones that you must tick off your Karaikudi list. Pin this up so that you have this at the right time and tell me which is your favorite among these.

How to get to Karaikudi in Chettinad Region?

  • You will have to take a road trip from the nearest airports – Madurai or Trichy or Tiruchirapalli. The journey is the same from either of the two places. (around 100 km) and you can hire a cab at the airport itself. Alternatively, you can get into a bus from the main town.
  • Karaikudi has a railway station of its own and hence, travel by train is also, a good idea.
  • There is very good road connectivity from Bangalore or Chennai to Karaikudi. It takes around 7 hours to get here.

Travel Tips

  • Entry to all the temples is free.
  • Most of the temples open at 6:30 am and close by 12 pm. They reopen at 4 pm until 7 pm.
  • Photography in the temples is limited. Especially around the shrines. Please adhere to the local sensitivities in this regard.

Booking resources

  • For stay options in in Karaikudi, try Booking.com .  They have plenty of options for all kinds of budgets/
  • You might want to consider buying any of your travel accessories through Amazon. 

Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.
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7 Responses

  1. Lisa

    These temples are truly stunning Ami. I can’t get over the many colours and intricate design, it must have taken forever to paint! The porcelain horses are a fun and interesting addition to the collection. I’ve not yet visited India, but Karaikudi would be somewhere I’d like to visit.

  2. Linda (LD Holland)

    I am in awe every time I see the colourful and intricate architecture in places like the Karaikudi Temples. I could stare at that ceiling for hours! The outside design of the Pillaryarpatti Temple is quite unique. I am sure each of the carvings is quite unique. I love the playful horse temples. I am sure they are a draw for kids of all ages!

  3. Kaitlin Terese

    The Kundrakudi temple is very colorful and beautiful! All of the bright colors and detail would be amazing to see in person. The horse temples are very interesting also! I liked seeing your tips and information on the area. It is helpful for a first-timer like me. It is always crazy to me when you see the dates to places. Dating back to 1200- think of all the history that lies here. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Mick

    I’ve always wanted to visit India, and I’m so glad I’m discovering this article because I will definitely have a bigger appreciation once I finally visit. I didn’t know much about the Karaikudi Temples, but it sounds like it’s a must visit part of my itinerary. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Agnes

    Karaikudi temple looks impressive. Such great decorations, ornaments, columns, stairs, sculptures. It is an incredibly photogenic place. The colors are stunning. I would like to come back to India someday and visit this temple.

  6. Raksha

    Wow Karaikudi temples are absolutely stunning. They are so colourful and have that beautiful South Indian architectural touch. I really love visiting temples in South India, I feel the artists or the sculptures give a lot of attention to detail while making the temple and sculptures. Also, the temples are generally very old and have a lot of history. I will add Karaikudi temples to my list.

  7. Subhashish Roy

    The Karaikudi temples are so typical of the lovely place of worships that we see in South India. They have a very different charm compared to other temples in different part of our country. It was nice to know the background behind how the temples were built. Each temple here that you have showcased are so different but with rich history. Loved the trip.

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