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The most beautiful temples in India, from intricate & ancient carvings to pure gold covered structures

After spending over six months traveling through India it is without a doubt one of my favorite and most traveled countries, I return again and again, always longing to explore more, discover new food and to seek out the most intricate and beautiful temples scattered throughout the country. I’m not religious myself, but religion and religious buildings have always fascinated me. The dedication, the hours spent in devotion, the houses of worship that draw in pilgrims from all over the world, there’s something so touching about that amount of faith. 

Home to most of the world’s Hindu population, there’s many Muslim, Christian, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist followers in India too, making the country a vast melting pot of beliefs, multiculturalism and of course, beautiful temples. Upon visiting the temples listed below, it’s very true that they moved me deeply. When you’re face-to-face with carvings that took years to complete before the invention of modern machinery it’s hard not to be impressed. These temples are, after all, massive works of art, huge glimmering beacons of hope and spirituality. 

The most beautiful temples in India, from Tamil Nadu to Rajasthan and beyond

1. The Hindu Temples and Monuments of Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu

As part of a month-long trip exploring the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, I wasn't prepared for what I found within the small seaport town of Mamallapuram. Some of the most astonishing carvings and temples I've ever seen in my life sit quietly, and almost secretly, without the flocks of crowds you'd expect from such ancient and stunning pieces. My favourites include the Five Rathas, a set of five buildings that were actually carved from a single large rock, each one dedicated to a god or goddess and buried under sand up until just over 200 years ago. And although not temples, Anjuna’s Penance, a giant rock relief depicting scenes of Hindu mythology and Krishna’s Butterball, a precariously balanced stone boulder that sits on a slope are so exquisite I felt overwhelmed with emotion in their presence. It's also in this small town where I found one of the best places to practise yoga in India with 6am one-on-one classes in partnership with Hotel Mamallaa Heritage.

The five rathas mamallapuram, one of the most beautiful temples in india
The Five Rathas of Mamallapuram

2. The Golden Temple, Amritsar

Before making my way north to the Nek Chand Rock Garden I spent time in the fascinating city of Amritsar with its mesmerizing Golden Temple. Spiritually, this is the most important site of Sikhism and visually I think it’s one of the most beautiful temples in India, if not the world. Covered in pure gold, sitting in the centre of a manmade lake, the temple appears to be magically floating as devotees and pilgrims line the walkway making their way inside. I visited the temple twice, once in the middle of the day when the sun was high and hot, making the gold shine brighter than ever, and once at dusk, when the reflection of the temple on the lake made the most magically ethereal scene. Equally as amazing as the temple itself, is the community kitchen where every day up to 100,000 people are fed for free and anyone can join in, regardless of religion, race or caste. 

The golden temple on lake amritsar in india with reflections, it's one of the most beautiful temples in india
The Golden Temple

3. Ranakpur Jain Temple, Rajasthan

Coincidentally, a man in Udaipur told me about this temple while I was reading a book on Jainism, so I made the decision to stop at the tiny village of Ranakpur on my way to Jodhpur. Aside from being one of the largest and most important temples of Jain culture it also features 1444 hand-carved white marble pillars with no two being alike. The sheer beauty of the place is astounding, made all the more impressive by the fact the temple dates back to the 1400s. You must remove your shoes before entering and you cannot touch anyone of the opposite sex once inside. If you're planning on staying in Rajasthan for a while it's worth booking a few nights stay at the Fairmont Jaipur for their bathtubs and swimming pool alone.

white carved marble pillars inside jain ranakpur temple, one of the most beautiful temples in india
A few of the 1444 white marble pillars inside Ranakpur Jain Temple

4. Kandariya Mahadeva Temple, Khajuraho

Hidden deep in the centre of India is a fascinating group of Hindu and Jain monuments otherwise known as the Kama Sutra temples, since many are covered with highly erotic sculptures. Kandariya Mahadeva is the largest and most impressive of the group and features three vertical layers covered by hundreds and hundreds of figures, most in sexual and seriously impressive yogic positions. With the carvings dating back over a thousand years and 22 more temples in the group to explore, I spent a few days in Khajuraho giving them the time they deserve, I'd recommend doing the same before heading up to Bandhavgarh to look for wild tigers.

erotic sculptures at khajuraho, one of the most beautiful temples in india
Some of the erotic carvings at the temples of Khajuraho

5. Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai

Visiting the fabulous Meenakshi Amman Hindu Temple is one of my favorite things to do in Madurai. It's a deeply spiritual, highly fascinating place where masses of devotees merge, each bringing offerings of flowers and fruits daily. Right in the centre of the bustling city, the temple is dedicated to a form of the Hindu goddess Parvati, the pilgrimage site features shrines, secret chambers and thousands of intricately carved pillars spread over a massive 14 acres.

Meenakshi amman temple spire with birds flying in blue sky, this is one of the most beautiful temples in india
Meenakshi Amman Temple

6. Ellora Cave Temples, Aurangabad

I took a jeep taxi to Ellora that was packed full (28 people!) that I thought it may tip over should we take a corner too quickly. But I’ve never taken a journey more worth it, arriving at Ellora I explored 34 temples, carved from rock by hand. Some took 200 years to complete and the main Hindu temple had 200,000 tonnes of rock cut away to make it, the temples here are so vast, so intricate and so beautiful that they make me cry. It was hard to comprehend the effort that had been spent on these incredible pieces of art. As well as Hindu temples, there are also Buddhist and Jain monuments and it’s here you can find the world’s largest monolithic rock excavation, the Kailasa Temple, carved incredibly from one piece of rock.

elephant heads carved in rock at kailasa, one of the most beautiful temples in india
Part of the Kailasa Temple

7. Charminar, Hyderabad

One thing is for sure, you’ll never get to see the outside of Charminar in silence. Sitting majestically, bang in the centre of busy roads, bustling bazaars and the daily hustle of Hyderabad this pretty, symmetrical building with beautiful minarets standing tall on each corner is constantly surrounded by people and noise. There’s even a Mosque on the top floor where anyone can worship, regardless of religion and legend has it there’s a secret underground tunnel that leads to nearby Golconda Fort—unfortunately it’s never been proven.

charminar in the centre of a road hyderabad, it'a one of the most beautiful temples in india
Charminar in Hyderabad

8. Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur

Sitting outside the main Chola temple, which is over 1000 years old, I again found myself wondering whether skills like stone carving have died out. These amazingly beautiful carvings at a World Heritage Site in southern India were timeless and still impressive, years after they were imprinted in stone but it made me sad to think that thanks to modern machinery, new carvings would perhaps never be made by hand again. But there are still thousands of beautiful temples to see throughout India and this one remains another highlight of my time in the country. Protecting the pinky-orange temple is a massive bull statue cut from a single piece of rock. Known as Nandi, the Hindu God Shiva was often depicted riding on this sacred bull. Inside the temple, you can find a massive linga (an abstract representation of the Hindu deity Shiva) that weighs 81 tonnes plus a further 100 smaller lingas surrounding the temple along with several shrines and deities.

Brihadeeswara temple and trees in thanjavur, one of the most beautiful temples in india
Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur

9. Virupaksha Temple, Hampi

Hampi transports you to another place, this boulder-strewn landscape dotted with storybook temples feels like another world, an older more mysterious place where you can lose yourself completely. It should be on everyone’s list and I’m eager to go back. Virupaksha Hindu Temple dominates the whole area with its huge Gopuram (ornate tower entrance) jutting out into the sky. The oldest and only working temple in Hampi, the main shrine is dedicated to an incarnation of Shiva. There are daily ceremonies and rituals which you can see most mornings and evenings but watch out for the mischievous monkeys, they rule the area.

Gopuram of virupaksha temple in hampi, one of the most beautiful temples in india india
The Gopuram of Hampi's Virupaksha Temple

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