Structure of Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple - A Historical Perspective

Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple at Tiruvannamalai is one of the most ancient Temples of Lord Siva in Tamil Nadu. Many ancient rulers of South India have contributed to the development of this Temple. The Pallavas, the Cholas, the Pandiyas, the Kadavarayas, the Banas, the Hoysalas, the Rayas of Vijayanagar, and the Nayaks of Thanjavur have altered, extended and developed the vast Temple complex for nearly a thousand years. The 500 inscriptions of Tiruvannamalai clearly bring out the history of the construction and development of the mighty structure of the Temple.

The Pallava Architecture

Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple originated with the Central Shrine. The extensions to it and around it were constructed as time passed. The absence of Pallava inscriptions in this Temple is conspicuous and on that account some believe that the Cholas built the first stone structure over the Lingam. An examination of the frieze around the Central Shrine reveals the so-called Kudu, a floral design shaped like a spur, or a tongued horse shoe around a human face, shows that it is Pallava Architecture. In Chola architecture the human face in the Kudu is omitted. With this information M. Anant Narayan Rao maintains that the Central Shrine was built by the Pallavas, perhaps in 600 A. D. thus the time taken for the growth of the Temple to its present dimensions is about 900 years.

The History of the Prakarams

The innermost shrine of Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple opens to the east and accommodates the principal deity of Lord Shiva. The courtyards or prakarams are counted, starting from the centre. In Tiruvannamalai, there are said to be seven of them; five were constructed in the course of the nine centuries of extensions and alterations, the sixth is represented by the four "Chariot Streets" around the Temple and the seventh by the road surrounding the hill. The first prakaram which houses the Sanctum Sanctorum was built in the 9th and 10th centuries. The second prakaram was constructed during the 12th century. The third prakaram was expanded in the 13th century and the fourth prakaram was completed in the 14th century. The fifth prakaram was erected in the 16th century and completed in the 17th century. Thus the actual construction and expansion of the Temple complex took nearly nine hundred years for the present dimensions of the Temple.

The Dravidan Art

The building is of the Dravidian Art in stone which is indigenous. This art seems to have originated with the Pallavas in the 6th century. A.D., being a regular transition from wood to stone. The Dravidian style of architecture of Temples is characterised by a pyramidal tower (or gopuram) over the central shrine with large gopurams over the entrance gateways. The large and closely jointed blocks of stones of the edifice, with no mortar intervening, is another feature. Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple is a notable specimen of Chola art and architecture further beautified by the Hoysala art and sculpture. Important renovation work was done in the sanctum sanctorum by Aditya-Chola in 750 A.D. and Parantaka Chola - in the 10th A.D.

The General Features

The Temple is situated in an area of 25 acres with a sylvan backdrop of the Holy Arunai Mountain in the west. The Temple faces east and has four stately towers on all four sides and four high stone walls just like the rampart walls of a fort. The walls are 30 feet high. The walls in the east and west are 700 feet long. The southern wall is 1478 feet and the northern wall is 1590 feet long. Statues of unknown chieftains are found in the outer precincts of the Temple. There are two tanks and 56 courtyards in the Temple.

The Nine Gopurams

The Temple has nine towers, four in the outer walls, each in every direction. It has nine vimanas with beautiful architecture. There are three miniature towers of 70 feet height which are called "Kettai Gopurams" connecting the inner walls. Three towers are in the eastern side of the Temple with two towers in each direction of South, West and North. Rajagopuram, Vallala Maharaj Gopuram, and Kiligopuram are in the eastern side of the Temple. The southern tower is called Thirumanjana Gopuram. The western tower is named Peygopuram, which was originally Peyalvar Gopuram. The northern tower is called Ammani Amman Gopuram. These magnificent impressive towers are among the finest in Tamil Nadu and can be compared with those of Chidambaram, Srirangam, Jambukeswaram, Madurai and Rameswaram.


The eastern tower is called Rajagopuram which is the highest of all nine towers. It is 217 feet high. It has eleven storeys with a width of 135 feet by 98 feet at the base. The Tanjore Big Temple built by the Chola monarch Raja Raja Chola is 216 feet high. Krishnadevarayar, the King of Vijayanagara, who had built the Rajagopuram, intended it to be at least one foot higher than the Big Tower of the Tanjore Temple. The building of the Rajagopuram was started by Krishnadevarayar in 1516 A.D. and completed by the King of Tanjore, Sevappa Naicken in 1590. This tower provides the main entrance to the Temple.

Ammani Amman Gopuram

The northern Ammani Amman Gopuram is 171 feet in height and it has nine storeys. It was built by Ammani Amman who was a monk. Ammani Amman found the previous tower in the northern side of the Temple unfinished and it was she that completed the building of the Gopuram with strenuous efforts. She was trained in yogic practices during her life and had a remarkable power of knowing the exact amount of money a person possessed - and she was able to get a portion of that wealth from such people by guesses how much they had. These amounts Ammani Amman used in order to construct the northern tower - the Ammani Amman Tower. There is a mutt in her name in northern Orravadai street with a statue of her installed nearby.

Thirumanjana Gopuram

The Southern outer tower is called Thirumanjana Gopuram. Thirumanjana means holy water for the bath of an idol. Every day in the morning before opening the gate of the Temple, holy water is brought through the Southern Tower and sprinkled near the Flag Post. Hence this tower is called Thirumanjana Gopuram. This tower has nine storeys and is 157 feet in height. The base of all four towers of the outer court are generally ascribed to Krishnadevaraya. The tower might have been completed by later Nayak rulers.


The tower in the west is called Peygopuram which is merely an aberration - as its name erroneously indicates . . . there is neither ghost (pei) nor devil in it. It was actually Mel Gopuram (i.e. Western Tower). The tower was also called Periyagopuram (Big Tower) before the other towers of the Temple were built. But as years passed, this name got corrupted into Peygopuram. According to an inscription dated 1388 A.D., the base of the tower was constructed by King Ballala III and the spire was presumably built by King Krishnadevaraya. The height of the seven-storey Tower is 144 feet.

The Sivaganaga Theertham

To the south of the Kambathu Illaiyanar Temple there is the sacred tank called
Sivagangai Theertham. Sivangagai is the name of a river in Kailayam, the abode of Lord Siva. The Theertham is named after the river. There is also a Theertham called Sivagangai in Chidambaram. It has stone steps and Thirumalapathi Mandapam on all four sides. This Theertham is used for sacred ablutions of the Temple deities. The Theertham (with steps all round) presents a panoramic view. Inscriptions reveal that water to this (Theertham) was provided by digging a canal called Thirumalai Amman Devi Samduram. There is a verse which proclaims that Sevappa Naickan the ruler of Tanjore, built a tower and dug a tank in 1572 A.D.

The Thousand Pillared Mandapam

The Thousand Pillared Hall in the fifth prakaram was built by Krishnadevaraya. This Thousand Pillared Hall has exactly 1000 pillars. The pillars are carved with sculptures of the Nayak period and some divine images of sages. Vishnu's incarnations too find a place with floral designs. It was engraved with figures and the roof with numerous stone Nandis. The basement of this Mandapam is adorned with the designs of girls playing kolattam, warriors, sports. etc. This Mandapam is used for the Deities to be seated and for ablutions and worship on Ani Thirumanjanam and the day of Thiruvathirai.

A copper plate of sagam 1435 reveals that the land site of 275 feet east west and 295 feet north south was sold to Krishnadevaraya for 500 sovereigns of gold by the members of a great mutt in Tiruvannamalai. There is the Patala Shrine in the underground chamber of the thousand pillared Mandapam. This type of Thousand pillared Mandapam has also been built in the Temple of Thirvanaikaval, Thirunelveli, Thiruvarur, Srirangam and Madurai.

The Vallala Magaraja Gopuram

The Vallala Magaraja Gopuram was built by the Hoyala King Ballala, who was exceedingly active in Tiruvannamalai during 1318 A.D., and 1343 A.D. This tower was started in 1328 A.D., and completed in 1331 A.D. by King Vallala. His statue of 2 feet has been installed in the tower itself hence this tower is called Veera Vaiboga Vallala Maharaja Gopuram.

Brahma Theertham Tank

This holy Brahma Theertham is exactly to the south of Puravimandapam in the south east side of the Fourth prakaram. On the northern bank of the Tank and near the Puravimandaam there is the Theerthavari Mandapam which has four pillars. In 1230 A.D. the Brahma Theertham Tank was dug by King Venu Udaiyar (son of Kadva King Kopperunsingam). This tank was first called Perumal Thadakam (pool). On the banks of the pool he grew a flower garden. To the north of this holy tank the King also erected the Theerthavari Mandapam. The form of his father (Kopperunsingam) which is facing north, has been carved into one of the pillars of Purvavi Mandapam.

The Kili Gopuram

The Kili Gopuram means parrot tower. In a niche in that tower a mortar image of a parrot can be seen. It is believed that resting on the Gopuram in the form of a parrot is Arunagirinathar-who composed his famous Kandar Arunbhutti as well as other famous poems. The Kili Gopuram was built by Bhaskaramoorthy whose statue along with his wife are still found in the tower. This Tower belongs to the 11th century. In a niche at the left side of Kili Gopuram, the images of Veera Rajendira Cholan and his ministers are found. This King ruled in 1063 A.D. All idols are taken from the Temple for procession only through the tower gate of this Gopuram.

The Katchi Mandapam

On entering into the Third Prakaram one can see the spectacular Temple of Annamalaiyar and the Aruna Linga Mountain. After crossing the entrance of the Kili Gopuram. One will first step into a vast sixteen pillared Mandapam. This Mandapam is called Katchi Mandapam because the Panchamurthis give darshan on the day of Karthigai Deepam. Arthanareeswara too gives darshan from this place. Devotees watch the Holy Beacon from this Mandapam on Deepam day. Hence this is also called Deepa Tharisana Mandapam. This Mandapam was built by Mankaiyakarsi a devote in 1202 A.D. Hence it was originally named as the Manakaiyakarasi Mandapam. From this place one can see the flagpole and a small Nandi in front of Arunachaleswarar Temple.

Sri Sambanda Vinayagar Shrine

Sambathar Vinayagar Shrine is located in the area to the south of the Flagstaff and Balipeedam. Sambanda Vinayagar looks crimson smeared with saffron. Hence it is called Sennira Vinayagar (Red Vinayagar). The idol which is very large is considered to be one of the biggest images of Ganapathi in Tamil Nadu. This huge Vinayagar is in sitting pose. It is told that Vinayagar killed a demon and smeared his body with the demon's blood - hence he appears red. An inscription from 1262 (1340 A.D.) of the region of Veera Vallala Deva is found here. From this epigraphy we learn that one Sambandan lived in Tiruvannamalai and was President of a popular Mutt. It was he that built the shrine for Vinayagar; hence it is called Sambandan Vinayagar. In the south west corner of the second Prakaram, there is Sthala Vinayagar. It was erected by Sembiyan Mahadevi the Queen of Kandaraitha Chola.

The Temple of Unnamulaiyamman

The Temple of Unnamalaiyamman has been erected in the northwest corner of the third Prakaram. This is a separate structure in the sacred complex of Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple. The Amman Temple is situated on the south. The wall of the Amman Temple is about 10 feet high. The emblem of Hoysala, (the Kandaperanda Bird) is found and nearby there is also a statue of a standing man with worshipping hands. The standing man is identified as Ballala. Hence it is presumed that the outer walls might have been built by the Hoysala King. The architecture of the Sanctum Sanctorum and the sculpture found there belongs to the eleventh century. The stones containing inscriptions have been altered during the renovation work of the Temple. We learn from inscriptions of 1180 A.D. during the region of the Chola King Kulothunga III, that there was a Shrine to the Goddess, called Thirukkalakotam. But some scholars have come to the conclusion that Kulothunga I, a pious devotee of Lord Shiva might have built the Temple. The Navagraha Shrine, the Kodemara Mandapam, the Astalakshmi Mandapam and the Sanctum Sanctorum are important structures of the Unnamalaiyamman Temple.

Gilding of the Temple

During the thirty-fifth year of the reign of Kulothunga III, i.e. 1216 there was a powerful Banachief bearing the name of Ponparapinan Magadesan (alias Vanakovaraiyan). He is known to have gilded the central shrine of the Arunachaleswarar Temple and to have given three villages to the Temple, and donated 96 cows and 3 bulls for the purpose of burning three perpetual lamps (Nanda Villakku) to the God Thiruvannamalai. Udaiya Nayanar who is called "Ponparapinan", was responsible for gilding the vimana of Tiruvannamalai Temple.


Sri Arunachaleswarar Temple with its massive walls of thirty feet in height, looks like a fortified citadel of a great emperor. It has nine towers, fifty-six courtyards, numerous Shrines and countless idols, made of both metals and stone. There are two main holy tanks and five broad prakarams in the Temple. It contains seven Mandapams; from a small four pillared Vasantha Mandapam in the third prakaram to the thousand Pillared Mandapam in the fifth prakaram. There are beautiful images, sculptures, pillars, drawings and pictures in the Temple. In the Temple of Tiruvannamalai (as Skandananda states) sculptures adoring the various shrines, towers and Mandapams, are of the purest Dravidian style and are consequently of great beauty.

[By: A. Sakthivel]