Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram, Thanjavur district
Airavatesvara Temple in Darasuram, Thanjavur districtTN tourism board

A Walk Through Tamil Nadu's 6 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

These world heritage sites represent Tamil Nadu's diverse roots through its architectural splendour, heritage train rides and ancient temples, offering a mix of nature, culture and educational retreat
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Brimming with history and culture, Tamil Nadu draws tourists with its ancient temples, scenic escapes and architectural marvels. The glory of these iconic attractions has earned them the UNESCO World Heritage Sites accreditation. Be it marvelling at the finely shaped rock temples or sculptures as old as the 7th and 8th centuries AD, these places qualify for tourists of every taste, from leisure travellers and nature lovers to history mavericks. 

Take, for example, the architectural brilliance of the Chola dynasty. Its three revered temples — Airavatesvara in Dharasuram, Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur and Gangaikonda Cholapuram in Ariyalur district known as the 'Great Living Chola Temples,' are a testament to artistic brilliance on the many pillars and walls of these sacred spaces.

These structures tell tales of a bygone time through meticulously inscribed designs. Furthermore, nature enthusiasts can discover tranquillity aboard the Nigiri Mountain Railways' heritage toy train ride. History buffs can explore the Mamallapuram group of monuments, while those seeking natural wonders can venture into the Western Ghats, renowned for their biodiversity and scenic beauty. Take a look at the UNESCO sites which widen the tourism prospects of this heritage-infused State:

 Airavatesvara Temple
Airavatesvara Temple TN tourism board

 Airavatesvara Temple

If you are curious about the cultural heritage of the Chola Dynasty, Airavatesvara Temple in Dharasuram, Thanjavur district, is your place. This temple is a trove of history, culture and spirituality. Named after Lord Indra's white elephant 'Airavat,' its origin goes back to the 12th century CE when Chola King Rajaraja Chola II got it built. From bronze sculptures to paintings, this UNESCO World Heritage site will intrigue visitors with its temple complex, which has inscriptions telling the tales of the Indian Puranas. The temple also fascinates tourists for its famous 'singing steps,' the seven musical notes that pave the way to the altar.

Address: Gurunathan Pillai Colony, Dharasuram, Kumbakonam, Valaiyapettai, Tamil Nadu

Brihadeeswara Temple
Brihadeeswara Temple TN tourism board

Brihadeeswara Temple

This temple dedicated to Lord Shiva draws visitors for its grand Nandi statue, which is 13 ft high and 16 ft wide. The sacred bull of Lord Shiva has been sculpted out of a single rock, giving the temple an expansive appearance. The detailed artworks on the rocks depict the narratives of a former era. The main temple tower is 216 ft high and the tallest of its kind in the world. The complete structure of the temple is made out of granite. Its fortified walls, artwork, and leading 'Gopurams' (gateways) make for picture-perfect captures and let tourists travel back in time.

Address: Balaganapathy Nagar, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu

Gangaikonda Cholapuram
Gangaikonda CholapuramTN tourism board

Gangaikonda Cholapuram

With Lord Shiva as its principal deity, the historic temple in Ariyalur district has an imposing temple tower as tall as 55 metres, making it one of the three 'Great Living Chola Temples.' From a magnificent courtyard that is 170m high and 98 m wide to its grandeur-rich Chola art on the walls, the temple makes for an ideal place for history mavericks. It is believed that Chola emperor Rajendra I's army earned him the moniker Gangaikonda Chola after conquering enemies over a water dispute involving the Ganges. The same title later inspired the name of this iconic structure. Several West Bengal and Karnataka sculptures brought as trophies have been kept at the temple. 

Address: Near Jayankondam, Ariyalur district, Tamil Nadu 

Mamallapuram Shore Temple
Mamallapuram Shore TempleTN tourism board

Mamallapuram Shore Temple

The historic town of Mamallapuram is replete with monuments and temples of the seventh and eighth centuries. Among the most popular is the Mamallapuram Shore Temple, one of the oldest temples in South India and a prominent UNESCO World Heritage Site. A combination of spirituality and magnificent architecture, the shore temple was constructed during the Pallava dynasty during the reign of Pallavan king Rajasimha/Narasimhavarman II.

The use of intricately carved stone and granite blocks adds to the allure of the holy site, which was buried under the sand until recently. The monuments can be categorised into five groups: the mandapas (rock-cut caves), including the Konerimandapa, Mahishmardhini cave, and Varahamandapa; the rathas (monolithic temples); the rock reliefs; the temples such as Mukundanayananar temple and Olakkanesvara temple; and the excavated remains which include a Bhuvaraha image, a reclining image of Vishnu, and a well from the reign of Pallava King Narasimhavarman Rajasimha (638-660 CE), all intricately carved into the live bedrock.

Address:  J58V+JWW, Beach Rd, Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

Nilgiri Mountain Railway
Nilgiri Mountain RailwayTN tourism board

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Enjoy a train ride while enjoying the scenic views of the charming hill stations of Coonoor, Wellington, Love Dale and Fern Hill. This is the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a 1000 mm long railway line curled amidst the Nilgiri Mountain Range, which takes you through tunnels and sharp edges surrounded by verdant views.

This heritage toy train, operating on steam locomotives, was introduced by the British in 1908 and today enjoys the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Its old-fashioned build makes it a favourite draw among kids, who can enjoy a picturesque retreat from Mettupalayam to Ooty, an approximately five hour ride worth every capture. 

Valparai range of the Western Ghats
Valparai range of the Western GhatsTN tourism board

Western Ghats

The Western Ghats of Tamil Nadu are dotted with rich biodiversity and picturesque attractions. With famous tourist points like the Anamalai Hills or the Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve (spans till Kerala), these mountain ranges act as the custodians of ecologically sensitive areas that shelter rare species like the lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri Langur or Nilgiri Tahr. Besides, trekking trails like the one in Kodaikanal and tea estates like Meghamalai let visitors explore these protected regions beyond the scenic sights. 

Outlook Traveller