Every Hindu Temple in India will have something special about itself, a myth or a legend surrounding it. If if doesn’t, it wont be long before some sadhu or a devotee will weave a backstory to make it special; story telling is as ubiquitous as temples in India. It is difficult therefore to bring to any table an irrefutable list of the most famous temples. What we can do instead, is draw a list of a few, on the basis of their nation wide appeal.
1. Somnath Temple
The Somnath temple,Gujarat, is a temple that houses the Jyotirlinga, and is dedicated to Shiva. The Jyotirlinga is a column of light, the indivisible reality out of which Shiva appears. Nobody knows when this temple was built but by 725 CE, when an invasion from Sindh took place, the temple was already there at the present site. The original structure has undergone many changes, but the architecture, in general, remains intact. It is important, both religiously and historically.
2. The Sun Temple of Konark, Odissa, is dedicated to Suryadeva and was built in CE 1250. This is one of finest examples of ancient Indian temple architecture and is listed today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The whole architecture reflects the grandeur of the Sun and is chock-a-block with intricate carvings. Artistically and technically this represents skill of the highest order and the highest achievement in religious architecture of the Eastern Ganga Dynasty. Worship has ceased in the temple but it still attracts thousands of devotees every year.
3. Brihadeeswara Temple
The granary of South India, Thanjavur was the royal city of the Nayaks, the Mahrattas and earlier the Later Cholas and is the home of the Brihadeeswara Temple built by the Chola Emperor, Rajaraja I. Completed in 1010 CE, this temple was historic in many respects. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, this temple was the first temple in India, built entirely of granite, one of the hardest stones in the world, in quantities sufficient to fill the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The Brihadeeswara Temple was 10 times taller than any other building in India at that time and it’s capstone consists of two granite stones of 40 tons each, raised 216 feet in the air. One of the architectural marvels of the ancient world. Known for its exquisite handicrafts, bronzes and south Indian musical instruments, Thanjavur is also famous for its distinctive art style. A couple of million tourists visit Thanjavur every year.
4. Khajuraho Temple
The Khajuraho group of temples dedicated to deities like Brahma, Shiva, Surya, Vishnu and others, were built by the Chandela Kings between 950 and 1150 CE. Located in Madhya Pradesh, these temples today are famous for their inclusion of erotic sculptures in their architecture. It is believed that young students, staying at the complex, during their Brhamacharya phase of life, were taught how to lead a more balanced Grahastya, through these erotic sculptures. It is akin to the Hindu approach of making oneself invulnerable to ‘bhoga’ by being exposed to it in a controlled manner. Khajuraho temples remain the best example of this line of thought and are actually one of the few standing sculptures of this kind, in India.
Worship has ceased at the Khajuraho but every year people flock to the temple in large numbers during the Khajuraho festival in February.
5. The Kashi Vishwanath temple, one of the holiest Dhams is dedicated to Shiva and was built by Ahilyabai Holkar in 1780 AD. The temple, every year, sees a massive number of devotees who come to worship and to wash away their sins in one of the Ganga Ghats. The Kashi Vishwanath temple houses a Jyotirlinga and plays a nodal role in the Hindu birth and death cycle. To have one’s ashes immersed in the Ganges and within the Ghats complex, is considered highly blessed. Many travel to Kashi Vishwanath also as a part of the Dham circuit, touching all the four Dhams. It is also one of oldest temples in India, that conducts daily worship services, with the first aarti starting as early as 3AM in the morning.
6. The Tirupati Venkateswara Temple, arguably the most famous temple of the Deccan, is a Vaishnavite temple, located on a hill in Tirupathi, Andhra Pradesh. Considered the richest pilgrimage centre, the Tirupathi Balaji temple attracts devotees from all over the world. Devotees walk up the hill by foot for penance, as a pariharam, taking special vows or just to prepare themselves before eventually seeing Lord Balaji at the inner sanctum. The walk is as famous as the perambulation at the Tirupathi temple but transport up to the top is also available. The number of people coming to worship at the temple, have always been in lakhs, everyday, at every time of the year. King Krishnadeva Raya is said to have contributed to the building of this temple but its origins go back to times even earlier. It is in definitive Dravidian Style and though primarily a Vaishnavite temple it attracts just about any one from the Hindu faith.
7. The Kamakhya Temple, located in Assam, is unmatched in its popularity as the oldest of the Shakti Pithas and the ultimate seat of Tantric worship. Primarily dedicated to Kamakhya, the various individual temples within the complex are dedicated to Bhuvaneshvari, Bagalamukhi, Chinnamasta, Tripurasundari, Tara, Kali, Bhairavi, Dhumavati, Matangi and Kamala.
Though it is unclear as to who built it and when it was built, there is evidence of this temple existing even as early as the 9th century. Built in the Nagara style, but with ample Assamese architectural influence, the Kamakhya complex, in terms of design, is most unlike any other Hindu temple when seen from the outside. The annual Ambubachi Mela is the most famous events at the Kamakhya, that sees mendicants, tantrics and devotees gather in large numbers at the complex.
8. The Vaishno Devi Temple, located in Katra, Jammu, is a very popular temple with the people of the north, who every year trek up the mountain in penance, for blessings for good health and general protection. Dedicated to ma Vaishno Devi, also known as Mata Rani and Vaishnavi, the temple is a Shakti temple and houses the female Goddess in its Garbhagraha. The trek up the mountain is very much a part of the Vaishno Devi experience and it begins with a period of purification and abstinence, often starting months in advance. About 8 million devotees each year visit this temple, making it the second largest gathering of devotees. Many miracles have been attributed to this temple and this continues to be a very popular religious site notwithstanding the arduous trek.
9. The Kedarnath Temple, located in the Garhwal Himalyan range, stands at an altitude of 11,755 ft and is dedicated to Kedar or Lord Shiva. This visually spectacular stone structure’s origin still baffles historians, as it marks its presence against the stark mountainscape, attracting reclusive sadhus, devotees and travelers from all over India.
Legend has it that Lord Shiva having made only the highest parts of the Himalayas his abode, frequents the four Dhams more often than any other place; the four Dhams being– Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri. With no direct road direct access the temple can be reached only by a 14km uphill trek from Gaurikund. The shrine is closed on the first day of the Kartik (Oct-Nov) month and the holy statue of Lord Shiva is carried down to Ukhimath where it is worshipped. After the passing of winter, the statue is reinstated at Kedarnath in Vaishakh (Apr-May) month and the doors of the temple are thrown open to pilgrims.
10. The Sai Baba Temple in Shirdi, Maharashtra built over the samadhi or the final resting place of the saint, Sai Baba in Shirdi though less than a century old has become one of the most important pilgrimage centres in India with an average of about 25,000 devotees visiting the temple everday; this number goes up to 1,00,000 devotees on important festival days. The Shirdi Sai Baba’s samadhi attracts worshipers from all over the world and not just India.