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Thousands of temples with lofty towers dot the skyline of the entire state of Tamilnadu. The Tamils have been the greatest of temple builders. Temples from the pre Christian era as well as those from the 20th century exist in this state, where the ancient rulers have made outstanding contributions to the growth of these monuments of great artistic value.
The most ancient temples were built of brick and mortar. Upto about 700 AD temples were scooped out of caves. The Pallava Kings (upto 900) were great builders of temples in stone. The Cholas (900-1250 AD) have a number of monuments to their credit. Mention must be made of the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Tanjavur. The Cholas added many ornate mandpams or halls to temples and constructed large gopurams - towers. The Pandya Style (Upto 1350 AD) saw the emergence of huge towers, high wall enclosures and enormous towered gateways. The Vijayanagar Style (1350 - 1560 AD) is noted for the intricacy and beauty especially for the decorated monolithic pillars. The Naik style (1600 - 1750 AD) is noted for the addition of large prakarams (circumambulatory paths) and pillared halls.
The above is a rather terse description of the Dravidian temple styles found in Tamilnadu. The age of a temple could be determined from the architectural features exhibitied by it, as well as from references to it in ancient literature. The Sangam period literature of the pre Christian era refers to some temples. The songs of the revered Saivite Saints (Nayanmars) and the Vaishnavite Alwar Saints that date back to the period 7th to the 9th century AD provide ample references to the temples of those days, and these are a valued source of reference in estimating the age of temples. In addition, stone inscriptions found in most temples throw a lot of light on the history , and on the patronage extended by various rulers.
The following, is a list of important temples in Tamilnadu/Pondicherry. Most of the temples listed here are of great historic and religious significance. Those marked as Divya Desam, have been sung by the Vaishnavite Alwar Saints of the 7th through the 9th centuries, while those marked as Paadal Petra Stalam have been sung by the Saivite Nayanmar Saints of roughly the same period.