Tiruvannamalai is one of the major sacred places of Tamil Nadu not only because of its great mountain Arunachala, but also because of its huge Arunachaleswarar Temple dedicated to Lord Siva and also to the many and frequent festivals which occur at this place.
The mythology of the Lingodbhavamurti, the column of light (which is unvarying in all its parts whether it be the top or bottom) commemorates that there is no actual difference of any part of Arunachala. However even though Arunachaleswarar Temple is fully identified with Arunachala, for which it is also a substitute—certain variations between the bottom and top of the Hill were previously recognised four times a year by observance of purification ceremonies (prayascittas) for which priests used to go up to the summit of the mountain.
Those four times were: Mahasivaratri Festival acknowledging the supremacy of Lord Siva, the Marriage Ceremony celebrating the union of Lord Siva with the Goddess, Karthigai Festival with its multitude of legends and symbolism, and the fourth and last purification ceremony represents separation from the Goddess and the renewed manifestation of the supremacy of Siva the great Yogi. However over the years the difficulties of the climb for aging gurukkals and other factors has led to less emphasis being paid to these purification ceremonies occurring on the summit of the Hill itself and nowadays the only prayascitta regularly observed on the summit of Arunachala is after the completion of the Karthigai Festival.

Besides occupying a large area, Arunachaleswarar Temple radiates its influence throughout the whole town due to its connections with outlying tanks. The sacred bath which takes place at the close of each of the numerous Temple festivals is performed either in one of the two Temple tanks, or in one of the outlying tanks: Indra Teertham, Tamari Kulam, Agni Teertham, and Isanya Teertham. The last two of these lie at the extremities of the circumambulatory route around the mountain—and in the case of the Isanya Teertham are actually situated where cremation grounds lie.

In Tiruvannamalai where the Siva Temple is omnipresent and all-powerful there are also a large number of Temples dedicated to the Goddess and Ganapati. These are street shrines and community Temples, all of which relate to the great Siva Temple. During Festivals the processions from these Shrines proceed through the mada veedhis surrounding the great Temple and abhishekam of the idols take place, depending on the location of the Temple, either at Isanya Teertham to the north or Agni Teertham to the south.

Structure of Arunachaleswarar Temple

Prakarams (Courtyards)
The Temple has five enclosures (courtyards) and except for the first and second, each enclosure is separated from one another by a wall. These enclosures are called prakarams which may be open to the sky or covered with plain or carved stone slabs.

Prakarams are compared to the body sheaths: annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanmaya and anandamaya kosas. In respect of Arunachaleswarar Temple, the mada veedhis (4 streets around the outside of the Temple perimeter walls) represent the annamaya kosa, the three open courts one inside the other represent manomaya kosa, pranamaya kosa and vijnanamaya kosa; and the closed court represents the anandamaya kosa.

According to tradition, enclosures are numbered from the centre. At Arunachaleswarar Temple,  Priests and Temple authorities call the platform that is contiguous with the central shrine to be the first Prakaram. Thus at Tiruvannamalai there are five major 'Prakarams' (i.e. corridors) around the central structure with a high wall running on all four sides at the edge of the outer 'Prakarams'. The sixth Prakaram is regarded as the mada veddhis (perimeter Temple streets). These mada veddhis are: Car Street (east), Thiruvoodal Street (south), Pey Gopura Street (west), and Big Street (north). The seventh Prakaram is regarded as the 14 km girivalam roadway that circumscribes Arunachala.

It is believed that one aspect of the Temple which has determined the physical form of the town was the later construction of the fourth and fifth prakarams. These extensions caused the relocation of residences, especially of gurukkal priests and those serving at the Temple, who would usually live around the Kovil in the square formed by its four car-streets (i.e. mada veddhis).

At Tiruvannamalai Pey Gopuram Street (west of the Temple) has few houses because the mountain slopes upward almost immediately. Thus until recent times, most of the gurukkal Brahmin residences near the Temple were those on Big Street. As for the streets east and south of the Temple, they follow main regional highways and are thus crowded with shops and pilgrim accommodation. For these reasons Brahmins serving at the Temple were often located far from it, almost at the old town limits, around the Ayyankulam and Indra Teerthams.

Vimanas should not to be confused with the elaborate gateway-towers of Gopurams, which are perhaps the most prominent features of South Indian Temples.

Vimana is a term for the towers above the Garbhagriha (Sanctum Sanctorum) in a Hindu Temple. A typical Hindu Temple of Dravidian style may have many Gopurams which are usually constructed into multiple walls in tiers around the main shrine. The Temple's walls are typically square with the outermost wall having four Gopurams, one at each side situated exactly in the centre of each wall. The Garbhagriha and its towering roof (the central deity's shrine) are also called the Vimana. Generally, these do not assume as much significance as the outer Gopurams, with the exception of a few Temples where the Sanctum Sanctorum's roofs are as famous as the Temple complex itself. The structure of the Vimana are generally believed to be the docking zone for celestial vehicles in which gods travel.

During the Kumbhabhishekham ceremony at Temples; Divine Power is transferred back to the deities by performing abhishekam (salutary bathing) to the Vigrahas and Vimanas (pinnacles) on the roof with sanctified holy waters—this is accompanied by Vedic chanting and special rites. On the final day at the designated auspicious time, the Kumbha is bathed with charged and sanctified holy waters—thereupon consecrated and sanctified pranic powers trickle down a silver wire and enter the Deity installed inside the Sanctum Sanctorum of the Temple.

Specifically at Arunachaleswarar Temple, these smaller towers known as Vimanas are found over certain shrines in the various prakarams. In the first prakaram, the Garbagriha is surmounted by a tower constructed with painted brick masonry, which consists of 2 false-storeys. This is, therefore, a shrine-tower on three levels; the first corresponds to the height of the walls of the ground floor and the 2 others to the 2 false-storeys.

The three photographs below are of Vimanas over Central Shrine of the 1st and 2nd Prakarams.

Annamalaiyar Vimana, Centre

West side of second and first Prakaram

North east of 2nd prakaram

List of Vimanas over the Central Shrines are:

1.  Arunachala Garbhagriha
2.  Amman Garbhagriha
3.  Palli Arai (sleeping chamber)
4.  Sambandha Vinayaka (left side flagpost)
5.  Pazhani Andavar (right side flagpost)
6.  Natarajar (right side entrance 2nd prakara)
7.  Somaskandar (northwest corner 2nd prakara)
8.  Venugopala Swami
9.  Arumukha Swami
10.  Bhairavar

Alankara Mandapam and Gopurams

Alankara Mandapam
To the east of the Raja Gopura is a small mandapam meant for darshan of the Panchamoorties during processions. A fire on July 11, 1996 burnt the previous Mandapam to the ground. The current Mandapam built at an estimated cost of 107 lakhs was part of major restoration work of the Temple completed in time for the Arunachaleswarar Maha Kumbhabhiskeham of February 27, 2002.
Alankara Mandapam

This current mandapam which is used for darshan of the Panchamoorties during festivals, rises 31 feet at the Central Eastern Pinnacle and 22 feet on the North and South sides and consists of 20 Anivoti Stone pillars and 24 Chittrakanda Stone Pillars as well as 44 stone Bothials and cut stone flooring. Although this current mandapam consists of 44 pillars it continues to be known as the 16 pillar mandapam (pathinaru).

Alankara Mandapam side view

Raja Gopura with previous Mandapam, 1930’s

The entrance to Arunachaleswarar Temple and courtyard at the entrance are exactly aligned to the successive courtyards. It is therefore always by these axis that one penetrates inside an enclosure.
Temple with all 9 Gopurams

There are four big Gopurams on the Temple’s outer boundary; Raja Gopura (East), Pey Gopura (West), Thiru Manjana Gopura (South) and Ammani Amman Gopura (North). Historians say that the western Gopura is the oldest. Its base was built by Vallala Mahara III but the top belongs to a later style. Inscriptions attributed this to Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagar. It is said that this King also built the base of the other three Gopurams. However examination suggests that the base of the Western Gopura was constructed first and then followed construction of the South, East and North Gopurams.

In addition to the four large Gopurams on the outside wall, there are also three small Gopurams on the inner boundary in the directions of south, west and north—known as Kattai (smaller) Gopurams. Additionally there are two separate Gopurams at the east namely, Vallala Gopura and Kili Gopura.

The outermost North and South walls of the Fifth Prakaram are 1479 feet and 1590 feet respectively and the Eastern and Western walls of the same Prakaram are each 700 feet long. Surrounding the Fifth Prakaram stand huge stone walls which rise to a height of about 30 feet. They are thick and strong and connect all four outer Gopurams.

Raja Gopura
The main entrance to Arunachaleswarar Temple is via the east gate i.e. the Raja Gopura. The Gopura was built by Krishnadevaraya in 1516 A.D., and completed by the King of Tanjore, Sevappa Naicken in 1590. The Raja Gopura is 11 stories in height (217 feet) and is the tallest Gopura in this Temple. The Gopura of the Tanjore Temple built by Chola Rajaraja is 216 feet in height and it is believed that King Krishnadevaraya intentionally built the Raja Gopura at Arunachaleswarar Temple one foot higher so as to eclipse the big tower in Tanjore Temple. The Raja Gopura provides the main entrance to Arunachaleswarar Temple.
Raja Gopura

On the northern wall of the entrance there are two figures. The upper one is believed to represent King Krishnadevaraya.
King Krishnadevaraya in niche Raja Gopuram

In the Temple to the left of the main Gopura, is also a statue of the Gopura Ganapati.

The Raja Gopura’s base is 135 x 98 feet and believed to be later than the southern base of Thirumanjana Gopura. The spire is said to have been completed by Sevappa Nayak of Tanjore about 1690 A.D. Although the spire seems to have little pilaster, only a small amount of brick work is actually exposed.
8 Gopurams from top storey of the ninth - Raja Gopuram

Thirumanjana Gopura
The southern tower of the outermost court is the Thirumanjana Gopura. It has nine storeys and is 157 feet in height. The meaning of Thirumanjana is “holy water for bathing a deity”. In this respect each day in the early morning, holy water is brought through this Gopura and poured on the ground near the flagpost.

 Thirumanjana Gopura left, Kattai South to right

The base of the Thirumanjana Gopura is later than that of the Pey Gopura (West Gopura). It also differs from the Western Gopura in that it has a “yali” above the frontal lotus projection of the corbel clusters of its upper course, more prominent lotus centres and wider niches. The Thirumanjana Gopura is the most modern of all the four Temple Gopurams because of the heaviness of the plastering and changes introduced during an earlier restoration of its pilaster—which indicates that it is in fact probably older than both Pey and Ammani Amman Gopuram spires.

Pey Gopura
One belief is that name of this Gopura is a corruption of Melgopura (i.e. West Tower). However others speculate that the name of the Gopura i.e. Pey (demon, ghost) has occurred not by mistake or misrepresentation. That in fact the Tower’s name is significant in that it represents the wild, uncultivated aspects of the Mountain’s west side as opposed to the cultivated area.

The Pey Gopura has seven storeys and is 144 feet in height. According to an inscription dated 1388 A.D., the base of the tower was constructed by King Ballala III and the spire around 1516 A.D., by King Krishnadevaraya.  Previously this tower used to be called the Periya Gopura (big tower) before the later and larger Gopurams were built—but as years passed, the original name got corrupted into Pey Gopuram (i.e. ghost tower).

Right Pey Gopura, Kattai West to left

Its base is similar to that of the Raja Gopura on the east. The bases of all the four outer Gopurams are ascribed to Krishnadevaraya. All the niches of this base are narrow and empty. The spire is said to have been built in 1740 A.D. The Dvarapalakas are taller than the windows they stand beside and are present on each storey from bottom to top.

Ammani Amman Gopura
The northern Gopura known as the Ammani Amman Gopura  has nine storeys and is 171 feet in height. The base of this Gopura is believed to be later than that of the Raja Gopura to the east.
Ammani Amman right, Kattai North to left

It is the spire that is attributed to Ammani Amman and the date is approximately around 1810 A.D. There is a mutt in her name on northern Orravadai street and a statue of her installed nearby. Her samadhi is located next to the Isanya Mutt in another part of town.