Tiruvannamalai, also known as Arunachala, is one of the greatest Saivite shrines in Tamil Nadu, India, on a sprawling 24 acre temple campus, drawing hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every full moon. The hill here is considered to be a manifestation of Shiva. Tiruvannamalai is one of the Panchabhoota Stalams signifying the 5 elements of wind (Kalahasti), water (Tiruvanaikkal), fire (Tiruvannamalai), earth (Thiruvarur) and space (Chidambaram). Kartikai Deepam festival here is of great significance. Manikkavacakar composed his Tiruvempavai here.The Paatala Linga shrine is connected with the spiritual savant Ramana Maharishi. Arunagiri Nathar began composing his Tiruppukazh here at this temple.
The temple has 9 towers and seven parakrams. The main tower (Rajagopuram) is 217 feet high with eleven stories, and is the second largest tower in South India.
Traditional stories tell us that there was an unsettled dispute between Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma as to who was superior. They sought the help of Lord Shiva to judge who was really superior; Lord Shiva grew into a long flaming light stretching between earth and heaven, and asked them to find root and crown.
Brahma agreeing to reach the crown took the form a swan and flew, and flew to an extending height and could not reach the crown. In his upward flight he caught hold of a flower of Pandavas falling from Shiva's crown and requested the flower to bear a false witness that he collected it from Shiva's crown . Knowing this Lord Shiva cursed Brahma that he would never be worshipped in the temple, and banished Pandavas flower from his adornment.
Lord Vishnu took the form of pig and kept digging down to reach Siva's foot; Shiva was really pleased with the humility of Vishnu and took him his heart.The significance of Shiva's representation as agni over here is to convey the divine message "To be blessed with true knowledge, there should be a complete destruction of the ego."
The Arunachaleshwara temple for Lord Shiva was built between the 16th and the 17th centuries by the kings of the Vijayanagara empire. The temple is famous for its massive gopurams. The 11 tiered East Rajagopuram towers to a height of 217 feet, while the fortified walls pierced with 4 gopura entrances offer a formidable look to this vast temple complex . The Pei Gopuram, Tirumanjana Gopuram and Ammanaiammal gopuram are the other three. The 1000 pillared hall and the temple tank were built by Krishna Deva Rayarar of Vijayanagar. Each of the prakarams has a huge Nandi and several towers such as the Vallala Maharaja Gopuram and Kili Gopuram. It is one of the panchabhoota sthalams - Lord Shiva temples representing the five principal elements. This is the Tejo Sthalam among the Pancha Bootha Sthalams representing Fire. The others are - Tiruvanaikavil (Appu sthalam - Water) Kanchipuram (Prithvi sthalam - Earth) Kalahasti (Vayu sthalam - Air) Chidambaram (Akasa sthalam - Sky).
Town is well connected to many cities and towns in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh by road. It lies on the junction of the Chittoor - Cuddalore state highway and the Puduchery - Bengalooru national highway (NH 66). The TNSTC operates many bus services to the different towns and cities in Tamil Nadu. The closest airport to Tiruvannamalai is Chennai, about 180 km north. Tiruvannamalai is well connected by bus. Several other tourist destinations, like Tiruchirappalli, Madurai, Vellore and Kanchipuram are connected by buses. On full moon days, several cities operate special buses to Tiruvannamalai.
First time and occasional visitors are better advised to visit Thiruvannamalai anytime during year except on Full Moon days because this pilgrim centre is heavily thronged during Full moon days and any visitor is likely to be stranded without accommodation during these days!
- Arunachaleswara Temple. The major tourist and religious destination of the town. The temple has several tall towers in a symmetric arrangement. The temple has several ponds and a thousand-pillared hall. It is full of artistic and legendary sculptures. The "Rajagopuram", principal tower of the temple, is one of the tallest in the state. Like all other Shiva temples, it has a large "Nandi". The temple hosts several cultural, religious and literary events.
- Kandha Ashram. Situated just outside the town.
- Ramanar Ashram. Situated just outside the town. This is basically a cave where the saint meditated in his early days of enlightenment.
- Shivalayams. In addition to the Arunachaleswara temple, there are nine small "Shivalayams" (Lord Shiva temples) along the Girivalam path, each representing the "navagrahas". About 7 km from the Arunachaleswara temple is "Adi Annamalai" (அடி அண்ணாமலை), a large temple. This temple was built before the Arunachaleswara temple. "Ner Annamalai" (நேர் அண்ணாமலை), which is located exactly halfway along the Girivalam path is also a site of interest. From one of the sites along the Girivalam path, a part of the mountain looks like "Nandi" (head of a cow). There are display signs for this: Nandi Darisanam(நந்தி தரிசனம்).
- Auspicious Days. Pournami (Full Moon) Day and Karthigai Deepam Festival
- Girivalam (கிரிவலம்). The most popular activity in Tiruvannamalai is "Girivalam", which is walking barefoot around the Tiruvannamalai hill. Legend has it that the mountain itself is an incarnation of Lord Shiva, and walking around brings good fortunes. There are 8 lingams one in each direction 360 holy tanks, mandapas and ashrams around the Arunachala hill. Every month on full moon day, scores of people travel to the town for "girivalam". Girivalam is also common on the first day of every Tamil month. Usually, Girivalam starts and ends in front of the Arunachaleswara temple. The Girivalam path is about 13 km (~8 miles) long and has well-maintained concrete/tar roads with pedestrian platforms. One can also do it by cycle, two-wheeler/three wheeler. By foot it takes about 3-5 hours, by bicycle it takes 60-90 minutes. Bicycles are available for renting at nominal rate of ₹10 per trip, auto rickshaws (three wheeler) charge up to ₹150 for a trip. The path is well lit at night and is equipped with sanitation facilities. On regular days, people also go around the mountain on vehicles. On full moon days and during the 10-15 days of Karthigai Deepam festival, however, vehicular traffic is blocked. Best time to walk around the mountain is early morning and in the evening after daylight. At least 10 lakh (1 million) people do girivalam on full moon days.
- Karthigai Deepam festival. The most important festival for the town, is celebrated during the months of Nov/Dec (full moon day of the Tamil month, Karthigai). The most important event of the festival is lighting a "Deepam" (a large lamp made with several litres of ghee and a several-meter-long cotton wick) at 6PM on the full moon day of Karthigai month. The light can be seen from several towns/villages within a 30 km diameter. Millions visit the town on the day to do "girivalam" and "climb" the mountain. The town literally lights up with fireworks all over. The festival begins 10 days before and concludes 3 days after the full moon day. The "deepam" burns for at least a week. Television and radio channels in Tamil Nadu broadcast the event live. Buses operate to the town from every corner of the state and from major towns in neighboring states.
The town has several very good vegetarian restaurants, and a few other non-vegetarian restaurants are also available. Food quality is generally good.
The Girivalam path along mountain has plenty of small shops. Sugar juice shops could be spotted along the Girivalam path. Fresh sugarcane juice gives the body the much needed needed energy while doing Girivalam.
Javvadu hills, Sathanur Dam, World Peace center, Parvada Malai, and Gingee Fort are within a 30-40 km radius from the town. Historically important towns Puducherry and Vellore are easily accessible from the town.