Originally built by early Tamil dynasties like the Cholas, the temples of Chettinad form the core of its culture. It is said that Nagarathars cannot do without constructing a temple wherever they reside. Numerous temples dot the Chettinad region, each with its own tank called oorani where water lilies are grown.
There are several temples being unearthed at the original settlement of the Chettiars at Poompattinam, from where they migrated to the current Chettinad. Historians also find the temples in the Chettinad region invaluable in understanding history. Temple inscriptions carved on stone, plates of copper and leaf manuscripts are used to understand historical events.
The role of temples
The Chettiars (then known as Nagarathars) were invited to their current settlement by the king of the region at the time. Even the various clans within the Nagarathar community were identified as belonging to different Kovils (Temples). The association with each clan (and temple) decided the protocols for marriage within the community. The temples played a central part in the town planning, and the guides can take you to vantage points to explain how the city evolved around the temples, affecting everything from culture and architecture to business. Therefore the temples in the Chettinad region play an immeasurable role in defining their history and their culture.
The nine temples or ‘Kovils’ are Illaiyathangudi, Mathoor, Vairavankoil, Nemamkoil, Illupaikudi, Surakuddi, Velangudi, Iraniyur and Pillaiyarpatti.
Among the famous temples are – Vairavan temple, Karpaga Vinayakar temple, Kundrakudi Murugan temple, Kottaiyur Sivan temple and Kandanur Sivan temple. Many of the temples in the Chettinad region were built by earlier dynasties who ruled the region. The temples have been maintained and have grown in stature during the time of the Chettiars.
As you travel through the region, expect to find temples at every turn, for religion is a central part of life in this region. Each temple has its own character. Some of the relics, even the ritual implements that you will find here are possibly hundreds of years old and priceless in value. Observe the rites and rituals that continue to be done by appointed families that hand down the responsibility across generations. The history of the region itself can be unlocked through the wealth of information that has been passed on over the centuries. The ornate carvings and paintings that you see in each temple are a cumulative effort of generations of artisans, and are examples of a dying art form. Each deity has a place and position in the folklore of the region and in the mythical stories of Hinduism.
The temple experience
You can join prayers of the devotees constantly milling around, or opt from the hundreds of offerings that you can sponsor depending on your needs and wishes. You will find local ladies deftly crafting ornaments of freshly plucked flowers from the locality and threading them together with twine pulled from the plants. The flowers and the creative use of their colors is a key visual element of the temple sights. A visit to the temple is a delight to the 5 senses – starting with the visual imagery of hundreds of brightly hand lit oil lamps. The temples also offer aromatic pastes and oils of herbs and sandalwood which are cool to the touch and applied to the forehead. Each temple has its trademark ‘prasadam’ or offering of sweets which has been blessed in front of the deity and is distributed amongst the devotees. There are ornate bells which are rung during the puja and often accompanied by music from local artistes on traditional instruments. Some temples allow you to take a dip in the temple pond as with other devotees who do so before taking part in the rituals. Aromatic incense is burnt throughout the day and its delicate fragrance constantly hangs on in the temple.
The towering temples combine the grand architecture with simple but compelling rituals and a rich sensory ambiance to deliver a unique and memorable experience. Whether it is to be awed by these ancient creations or meditate in its natural environment, you can be sure to connect with your spiritual side.
These grand temples, built over decades and the rock edifices form the center of the town. But equally revered are the many smaller temples and local deities that dot the landscape. These are more personal, intimate areas of worship accompanied by folklore from the surrounding villages. The locals will love to explain the story behind each deity, which range from the supernatural to touching personal accounts.
The journey to some of these temples is as rewarding as the temple itself. The guides can lead you to places of worship off the beaten path and even some which have now been abandoned. The archaeological relics still stand hundreds of years later and are testament to a bygone era.
Patrons and builders of temples
The Chettiars continued to build temples and support religion through their worship of Kula Deivams (family deities) and via large donations to the existing temples in Madurai, Chidambaram, Tanjavur and Thirunvannamalai. Popular Gods among the community include Lord Shiva, Lord Ganesa, Lord Muruga, Lord Venkateswara, Lord Ayyanar, Goddess Durgai and Goddess Mariamman. Chettiars also built numerous temples in the various places where their travels took them.