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The Annamalaiyar or Arunachaleswarar temple at the base of Annamalai hills in Thiruvanamalai town, Tamil Nadu, is one of the famous Pancha Bhootha Stalams, or five Shiva temples, each a manifestation of a natural element: earth, water, air, sky and fire.
In Annamalaiyar temple, Shiva represents the element of fire or 'agni'. The lord is said to have manifested himself as a massive column of fire, whose crown and feet could not be found by the Hindu gods, Brahma and Vishnu. The main lingam in the shrine is referred to as ''Agni Lingam,'' and represents duty, virtue, self-sacrifice and liberation through ascetic life at the end of the Agni Kalpa.
His consort Parvati's depicted as Unnamulai Amman. Another Legend has it that once the universe was plunged into darkness when Parvathi closed the Lord's eyes playfully. Parvathi did penance here and other places. Pleased with her devotion, on a Kathikai day, Shiva appeared as fire before her and Parvathi merged with Him. To mark this day in the month of Karthigai (November-December) on 'Karthigai day' (full moon day) Deepam (oil lamps) is lighted first on the hill behind the temple and later in all shiva temples and homes.
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This huge temple complex covers 10 hectares, and is one of the largest in India and has four main towers or gopurams. The tallest being the eastern tower, with 11 stories and a height of 66 meters (217 ft), making it one of the tallest temple towers in India. The temple has numerous shrines, with those of Annamalaiyar and Unnamulai Amman being the most prominent. The temple complex houses many halls; the most notable being the thousand-pillared hall built during the Vijayanagar period.
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Another legend has it once Shiva appeared as a flame and challenged Brahma and Vishnu to find his source. Neither Brahma nor Vishnu could find the beginning and end and while Vishnu conceded his inability, whereas Brahma lied that he had found the crown, his witness being Thazambu flower (Screw pine. in Hindi: Kewra). Upon this Shiva cursed that Brahma would never have temples on earth dedicated to him and Thazambu would never be used for pooja - prayer.
Among the dozens of festivals, Karthikai is a ten day festival during the Tamil month of Karthikai, between November and December, concluding with the celebration of Karthikai Deepam (lamp). A huge oil-ghee lamp several feet high is lit in a cauldron, containing three tons of ghee, at the top of the Annamalai hills which will be visible over a few miles surrounding. To mark the occasion, the festival deity (Urchavar) of Annamalaiyar Shiva) is taken around the mountain in a procession..
Temple stone inscriptions record that the festival was celebrated as early as the Chola period (from 850 CE to 1280 CE) and was extended to ten days in the twentieth century. Every full moon, tens of thousands of pilgrims after taking bath worship Annamalaiyar by walking around the Arunachala hill barefoot covering a distance of 14 kilometers (8.7 mi), and is referred as Girivalam. According to Hindu legend, the walk removes sins, fulfills desires and helps get freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth.
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The beautiful lush mountains and the peculiar serene, quiet and blissful ambiance around Thiruvanamalai offer excellent opportunity for those who want to come over to this place for respite, relaxation and meditation, a change from the mundane and monotonous urban life. This place is closely associated with such well known yogis and spiritual Gurus as Ramana Maharishi,Yogi Ram Surath Kumar, et al.