Madurai or “the city of nectar” is the oldest and second largest city of Tamil Nadu. This city is located on Vaigai River and was the capital of Pandyan rulers. The Pandyan king, Kulasekhara had built a gorgeous temple around which he created a lotus shaped city. It has been a center of learning and pilgrimage, for centuries. Legend has it, that the divine nectar falling from Lord Shiva’s locks, gave the city its name – ‘Madhurapuri’, now known as “Madurai”.
The Origin Of The Meenakshi Temple
The Sri Meenakshi Sundareswara temple and Madurai city originated together. According to tradition, Indra once committed sin when he killed a demon, who was then performing penance. He could find no relief from remorse in his own kingdom. He came down to earth. While passing through a forest of Kadamba trees in Pandya land, he felt relieved of his burden. His servitors told him that there was a Shivalinga under a Kadamba tree and beside a lake. Certain that it was the Linga that had helped him; he worshipped it and built a small temple around it. It is believed that it is this Linga, which is till under worship in the Madurai temple. The shrine is called the “Indra Vimana”.
Once Dhananjaya, a merchant of Manavur, where the Pandyas had arrived after the second deluge in Kumari Kandam, having been overtaken by nightfall in Kadamba forest, spent the night in the Indra Vimana. When next morning he woke up, he was surprised to see signs of worship. Thinking that it must be the work of the Devas, he told the Pandya, Kulasekhara, in Manavur, of this. Meanwhile Lord Shiva had instructed Pandya in a dream to build a temple and a city at the spot Dhananjaya would indicate. Kulasekhara did so. Thus originated the temple and city.
When the next Pandya, Malayadhvaja, and his queen, Kanchanamala, performed a sacrifice for a child, Lord Shiva caused Goddess Parvati Herself to step out of the fire as a little girl. She had three breasts. Lord Shiva told the couple that the third breast would disappear when she set eyes on he who was to be her husband. They were to name her “Thadathagai” and bring her up as if she were a boy.
She succeeded her father to the throne at his death. She gained many military victories. Finally she marched on Kailasa itself. When she saw Lord Shiva, her third breast disappeared. The Lord told her to return to Madurai and said that He would marry her there. The divine marriage was celebrated. This is the theme much beloved of Madurai artists. There is a superb sculpture of this in the temple. The crowning of Meenakshi, for She was the same as Thadathagai, is celebrated as a festival in the temple.
The Lord performed many miracles at the wedding. These are described in a celebrated poem, the “Tiruviayadal Puranam”. Under the name of “Sundara Pandya”, the Lord ruled the land as a mortal. After sometime, crowning Lord Muruga, their son, who was named “Ugra Pandya”, Sundara Pandya and Thadathagai went into the temple and assumed divine forms as “Lord Somasundara” and “Goddess Meenakshi” respectively.
Earliest References Of The Temple
Paranjothi Munivar wrote the Tiruviayadal Puranam in the sixteenth century. It is regarded as the temple’s Sthalapurana. An earlier work adds a few celestial sports not included in the latter. These are, or rather were painted on the walls around the Golden Lily Tank. Some of the painted wooden panels are in the Temple Museum.
The earliest references available to any structure in this temple is a hymn of Sambhandar’s, in the seventh century, which refers to the “Kapali Madil”. The present inner walls of the Lords shrine bear this name today. In the early times the entire temple must have been confined to the area between these walls, and the structures must have been of brick and mortar.
In the 14th century an invasion by Malik Kafur damaged the temple. In the same century Madurai was under Muslim rule for nearly fifty years. The temple authorities closed the sanctum, covered up the Linga, and set up another in the Ardhamandapa. When the city was liberated, the sanctum was opened, and, tradition says the flower garlands and the sandalwood paste placed on the Linga were as fresh as on the first day, and two oil lamps were still burning.
About The Temple
While the temple originated in times to which no date can be assigned, the structures that are standing today date mostly from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. They occupy a vast space, 258 m by 241m. There are the two main shrines, no less than twelve Gopuras, a tank and innumerable Mandapas. At every turn there is superb sculpture, magnificent architecture.
Ashta Sakthi Mandapa
It is a convention in this temple, different from that followed in others, that the devotee offers worship first to Goddess Meenakshi. Therefore, while there are four other entrances into the temple, under huge Gopuras in the four cardinal directions, it is customary to enter not through any of them but through a Mandapa, with no tower above it. This entrance leads directly to the shrine of the Goddess.
This Mandapa is an impressive structure, with a hemispherical ceiling. It is 14m long and 5.5m wide. There are bas-reliefs all over the place. Over the entrance one of them depicts the marriage of Goddess Meenakshi with Lord Somasundara. The Mandapa derives its name, the “Ashta Sakthi”, from the fact it contains sculptures of the eight Sakthis (also spelt as Shakti). Those of the four principal Nyanmars were added during renovation of the temple in 1960-63.
An interesting story is told of what an artist did in 1923 when adding some paintings there. In one of these depicting the coronation of Goddess Meenakshi, he included a figure of Mahatma Gandhi. The British authorities ordered that it be removed. What the artist did was to add to the lasting oil painting long locks of hair in watercolour so that a sage resulted. But shortly after, the locks disappeared and Gandhiji re-merged.Queen Rudrapathi Ammal and Queen Tholiammal, consorts of Tirumalai Nayak (1623-1659) erected the Mandapam. Tirumalai, the greatest of the Nayaks of Madurai, who were originally viceroys of the Vijayanagar Rayas, but who later made themselves virtually independent, was the grandest builder in the history of the temple and the city. Formerly, pilgrims used to be fed in this Mandapa.
Samagam Meenakshi Naicker Mandapa
A smaller Mandapa connects the large one with another large one with another large hall, called the “Samagam Meenakshi Naicker Mandapa”, after its builder, a minister of Vijayaranga Chokkanatha (1706-32), who erected in 1707. In former times the temple’s elephants camels and bulls used to be stabled here. A brass “Tiruvatchi” holding a thousand and eight lamps stands here, 7.6m high. Marudu Pandya, one of the early opponents of the growing British power, installed it.
The Meenakshi Naicker Mandapa is a huge hall, 42.9m long and 33.5m wide. It contains 110 stone columns, each 6.7m high. There are yalis in the capital and delicate reliefs below. Some of the carvings are unfinished.
The “Chitra Gopura”, its name amply justified by its exquisite sculptures, 740 in number, stands over the entrance from this Mandapa into the shrine complex of the Goddess. It could have been the original entrance into the sanctum. Over seven tiers, and 35.6m high, it is the tallest of those over the shrine of the Goddess. It was built about 1570 by Kalatthi Mudaliar, a son of Aryanatha Mudaliar, who helped Vishwanatha Nayak, the founder of the Madurai Nayak dynasty, to consolidate his power. He rose from poverty and obscurity to the highest post after the Nayak. There are equestrian statues of him in two places in the temple, in the Pudumandapa and in the thousand-pillared hall. The Gopura was extensively renovated in 1960-63.
Mudali Pillai Mandapa
The Mudali Pillai Mandapa follows the Chitra Gopura. Added in 1613, it is 183m long and 7.6m wide. On its wall are many puranic scenes. It used to be without any natural light, but windows were added in the last renovation.
The Golden Lily Tank
The lovely and historic Golden Lily tank then comes into view. It is from its banks that most popular photographic views of the temple are taken, showing the gigantic south outer Gopura. The northern corridor leads directly to the shrine of the Goddess. On its pillars are the images of some of the Sangam poets, of Kulasekhara Pandya, the first builder of the temple, and of Dhananjaya, who figures in the traditional story of its origin. There is no fish in the tank.
The corridors around the tank are rightly called the “Chitra Mandapa”, for the walls carry paintings of the divine sports of the Lord, as narrated in the “Tiruvilayadal Puranam”. They have been renewed from time to time. A short while ago there were paintings on wooden panels affixed over an older series. They have since been removed to the Temple Museum in the thousand-pillared Mandapa, leaving some dilapidated murals to view. It is impossible to ascertain the date of these.
It was in the sixteenth century that the corridors and the steps leading down to the tank were constructed; the northern corridor and steps in 1562, those on the east in 1573, and those on the south five years later.
The Unjal And Kilikatti Mandapas
Two Mandapas, the Unjal and the Kilikatti, stand on the farther way to the shrine of the Goddess. On their ceilings are more paintings. A celebrated mural, opposite to the entrance of the shrine, depicts the marriage of Goddess Meenakshi. The Kilikatti Mandapa derives its name from the fact that there are parrots in a cage here. On its walls are carvings of the divine sports. The most ornamental of the temple’s Mandapas, it was built in 1623.
A Gopura of three tiers stands over the entrance from this Mandapa into the shrine of the Goddess. Built in 1227 by Vambathura Ananda Tandava Nambi, it is named the Vambuthurar Gopura after him. The shrine consists of a square sanctum, an Ardhamandapa and a Mukhamandapa. In the niches on the walls of the shrine are images of Iccasakthi in the south, Kriyasakthi in the west, and Jnanasakthi in the north. There are shrines of Vinayaka and Subramanya in the outer Prakara. They probably belong to the fifteenth century.
Near the flagstaff is a six-pillared structure, which is of historic interest. A famous poet, Kumaragurubarar, composed verses in praise of the Goddess at the request of Tirumalai Nayak. He recited the work in this part of the temple with Tirumalai present. As he was doing so, a little girl walked upto the Nayak, took a pearl necklace from his neck, gave it to the poet and disappeared. She was the Goddess Meenakshi Herself. There is a stone bell on the ceiling of the Mukhamandapa. The entire shrine measures 68.5m by 45.7m.
On the way to the Lord’s shrine from here there are two Gopuras, the Nadu Kattu over the doorway leading from the Kilikatti Mandapa, and the Gopuranayaka, which rises above the actual entrance into the shrine. Each is of five storeys and perhaps belongs to the mid-sixteenth century.Beyond the former, facing south, is a huge image of Lord Vinayaka, engagingly the “Mukkuruni Vinayaka” from the fact that a single enormous edible, the “Kozhukattai”, made from 34 kg of rice, is offered to Him on Vinayaka Chaturthi Day. There is a tradition that the image was discovered when Tirumalai Nayak was digging the beautiful tank on the outskirts of the city, called the “Vandiyur Teppakulam” .
The Kambathadi Mandapa
The Kambathadi Mandapa, which contains the flagstaffs of the Lord’s shrine, has, besides some of the most striking baroque sculpture in the country. It was originally built by Krishna Veerappa Nayak (1572-95) and renovated in 1877 by the Nagarattars, a class of Chettiars, who have built and renovated many a fane in Tamil Nadu. This Mandapa encloses the Nandi shrine, two flagstaffs and the balipitha, has eight monolithic columns, which carry huge sculptures of the Lord in various forms. These includes Somasundara, the Protector of Markandeya, Nataraja, Chandrasekhara, Ardhanariswara, Dakshinamurti, Bikshatana, Somaskanda,Rudra, Ekapadamurti and Rshbaruda. There are also the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu. It is here that the celebrated sculpture of Goddess Meenakshi’s marriage is to be found. On either side of the entrance there are imposing monoliths of Bhadrakali, Agora Virabhadra, Agni Virabhadra and Urdhatandava. A carved ceiling made of a single stone covers the Nandi shrine. Over the entrance into the shrine stands a Gopura of three storeys. It was originally built by a Pandya in 1168 and, therefore, is one of the oldest surviving structures in the temple. Flanking the entrance are huge dwarapalkas, each 3.6m high, made of a single stone each, and standing on a pedestal about 1.5m high. The shrine is a square of 10.4m. Eight elephants, thirty-two lions and sixty-four sportive dwarfs support its base. On its outer walls there are prominent niches on the three sides, each projecting 1.8m. In the south there is Dakshinamurti in the west Lingodbhava, and in the north Durga. These niches are so big as to be small shrines. Stone elephants about 3m high flank each of them. There is always a concourse of worshippers in front of the Durga image. The Vimana above the sanctum is of three storeys. The Sikhara is plated with gold. In front of the shrine there are successively an Antarala, an Ardhamandapa, a Mukhamandapa and a Mahamandapa so that this is virtually a temple by itself. The whole measures 128m by 94.5m. There are two Prakaras and five Gopuras. The outer walls are called the “Sundara Pandya Madil” and the inner ones, which measure 76.2m by 47.5m, the “Kapali Madil”. The latter is referred to by Sambandar in the 7th century.
The Historic Shrines In The Prakaras
There are a number of historic shrines in the Prakaras. Opposite to an entrance into the first from the Mahamandapa there is one of Lord Sabhapathi. This is the famous Velliambalam where one of the Lord’s divine sports took place when, at the request of the sages, Patanjali and Vyagrapadha, He danced as Lord Nataraja. In the second Prakara a shrine, now called that of the Sangam poets, contains images of many of them. In the same Prakara there is a shrine apparently dedicated to Kariyamanikka Perumal, but now empty. Also in the same Prakara there is a row of fourteen small shrines, called the “isvarams”. Many of them contain Lingas.
Thousand Pillared Mandapa
Among the other Mandapas in the temple is the celebrated thousand pillared one. Aryanatha Mudaliar, who bestrides a horse at the entrance, erected it in 1569. Measuring 76.2m by 73m, it contains 985 pillars. The central nave leads to a shrine of Lord Sabapati. On every pillar there are sculptures. These are varied iconographic interest. Among themselves they make a veritable pantheon. On the ceiling near the entrance there is a wheel, which gives the cycle of sixty years of Tamil calendar. Fergusson calls the Mandapa “The wonder of the place”.
West of it is a small Mandapa added during the renovation of 1960-63. It commemorates Sambandar’s reclamation of the Pandya to Hinduism. It contains a Linga and images of ‘Sambandar’, ‘Mangayarkarasi’, ‘Kulachirayar’ and ‘Kun Pandya’. The second was the queen, the third the minister of the Pandya.
The Kalyanamandapa, built by Vijayaranga Chokkanatha (who stands here in effigy) in the first decade on the eighteenth century, contains much excellent woodwork. It was originally open on all sides. In the center is a large platform, where annually the marriage of the Lord and the Goddess is celebrated. On two of the walls are two huge paintings of the “two worlds” of Hindu cosmogony, each about 1.8m in diameter.
Near the east outer Gopura stands the celebrated Pudumandapa. Built by Tirumalai Nayak between 1626 and 1633, it is a large hall, 100m by 32m, and contains a hundred and twenty four pillars. These magnificent columns carry bold reliefs. There are equestrians and yalis on the outer pillars, while at the centre there are portraits of ten Nayaks from Viswanatha, the first of them to Tirumalai.
There are, besides, some of the Tiruvilayadal scenes, the wedding of Goddess Meenakshi, Goddess Meenakshi as Thadathagai, and Ekapadamurti, among other themes. At the western end there is a canopied Mandapa, the Vasanta, where the images of the Lord and the Goddess are brought on certain festival occasions.
The Great Personal Interest Of Tirumalai Nayak In The Erection Of The Pudumandapa
Loving tradition tells of the great personal interest Tirumalai Nayak took in the erection of the Pudumandapa. On one occasion, Sumandramurti Achari, the principal architect, was so deeply engrossed in sculpting a relief of the stone elephant eating sugarcane, an incident in the temple’s puranic history, that he did not notice the Nayak standing by him.
The Nayak rolled some betel leaves and arecanuts and handed them to him. Thinking that it was an assistant who had done so, he took them and began to chew them without looking around. When he realised that it was the Nayak himself, he was so much affected that he damaged the two fingers of his that had taken the betel leaves. Moved by his devotion to duty, the Nayak gave him many gifts.
On another occasion a son of an artist pestered him for a mango when that fruit was not in season. He would not take no for an answer. The Nayak ordered that gold mangoes be brought from the palace. The boy was content and allowed his father to continue the work undisturbed. From this incident the family came to be called the “Mampazham” family. When, on yet another occasion, the artist was making a sculpture of a consort of the Nayak’s a chip broke off from the thigh. He started work on another image, but again the chip came off from the same place. A minister of the Nayak advised the artist to leave the image as it was. When the Nayak came to know of this from the artist, he was angry, wondering how the minister could know that his queen had a scar on her thigh. He sent for him. The minister knew that the Nayak was angry and might punish him. So he put out his eyes. At this the Nayak was filled with grief. Thereupon the minister composed a poem in the praise of the Goddess, beseeching her to give him back his eyesight if he was innocent. She restored it. The minister was a famous Sanskrit poet. Among his works are the “Shivalilamava”, on the traditions of Lord Shiva in Madurai, and the “Gangavatarana”, on the descent of the Ganga to the earth. When the “Vasantha” festival was celebrated the year the Mandapa was completed, the Nayak was himself received the customary honours in person. In subsequent years they were offered to his sculpture. The practice continues. Near the Mandapa is the base of an unfinished Gopura. Work began in 1654, but was not completed. Had it been, The Gopura would have been the tallest in the country then. It measures 53m by 35.6m at the base.
The Gopuras Of The Temple
The four outer Gopuras in the four directions are marvellous works of art. They are of perfect proportions, though they were built at different time and though, moreover, they have been repaired and renovated from time to time. The Gopuras of Tamil Nadu, by themselves, form a chapter in the history of Indian Art. Some of the brightest pages are due to the towers of Madurai.
The Eastern Gopura – The eastern Gopura is the oldest of the four. While it is generally attributed to Jatavarman Sundara Pandya I, who ruled in the first half of the thirteenth century, it is possible, judging from some of its inscriptions, that an earlier Pandya or Pandyas had commenced it. One of these epigraphs, dated in the year in the last decade of the twelfth century, is the oldest in the temple. As with the other Gopuras, the base of this one is a stone structure built in two storeys. It measures 34m by 20m. Over it the super structure towers to a height of 47m in nine storeys. A leaf of the doorway, measuring about 9m by about 2m, is a remarkable specimen of the wood carver’s art. It was removed during the renovation in the 1960’s. Because a temple servant committed suicide by falling down from this Gopura in the reign of Vijayaranga Chokkanatha, devotees did not use the entrance. They do so now after the last renovation.
The Western Gopura – The western Gopura was built in the fourteenth century, a troubled period in the history of the temple and the city following the Muslim invasions. It is difficult to believe that a venture of this magnitude could have been possible in that time of travail. But the sources of information are clear. They attribute the Gopura to a Parakrama Pandya. There were many kings of that name in the century. Since the famous Pandya crest of two carps appears on this Gopura, it may be accepted that the Pandyas did build it. This was their swan song in the temple, which will always be associated with their piety, munificence and glory. It is 48m high, rising on a base that is 31m by 14m. Like the three other Gopuras, it is of nine tiers.
The Southern Gopura – The most beautiful and the most artistic of the four, the southern, frequently photographed for its lovely eminence over the Golden Lily Tank, is also the tallest, 49m. Its stone base measures 32.9m by 20.4m. The tower sweeps in a graceful curve. It was built about the middle of the sixteenth century by Siramalai Sevvanthi Murti Chettiar, a scion of a family of Tiruchi, which has contributed much to the temple.
The Northern Gopura – The latest in date is the northern Gopura, which was built by Krishna Veerappa Nayak (1564-72). For some reason, it was without a Sikhara and was not plastered. Therefore, it was called the “Mottai” Gopura. The deficiencies were supplied in renovation about the end of the last century. Such an ancient and renowned fane has attracted considerable literature and many beautiful traditions, apart from those narrated above. It is said for example Rous Peter, a Collector in the early decades of the last century, was so beloved of the people that they called him “Peter Pandya”. Every day he would go round the temple on horseback. One night when he was asleep, there was heavy rain. A little girl woke him up and beckoned him outside his house. The girl then vanished. Peter, convinced that She was Goddess Meenakshi, presented valuable jewels to the temple.
Connected with the temple is the lovely tank called the “Mariamman Teppakulam”, about 3 km to the east. It measures 345m by 290m, and has steps leading down to the water. In the center is a towered Mandapa, with four smaller Mandapas around it. The tank was excavated and the Mandapas built by Tirumalai Nayak. On his birthday a float festival of the images of the Lord and the Goddess is celebrated. On the other side of the road there is a famous Mariamman temple.
Places of Interest
Azhagar Koil – Located 21 km. northwest of Madurai is a Vishnu temple located on a picturesque wooded hill. Here Lord Vishnu presides as Meenakshi’s brother ‘Azhagar’. It is one of the few temples in the country built in tiers. The tower consists of 3 tiers depicting Lord Vishnu in 3 postures, sitting, standing and reclining. The shadow of the Vimanam never falls on the ground. On entering the temple, one can see the life-size sculptures carved in the stone Mandapam built by Tirumalai Naicken. These are similar to those found in Madurai temple. The deity is known as “Kalazhagar” as he is the household deity of the Kallas, a low caste people.
The Subramanya Temple in Tirupparankundram – The Subramanya Temple in Tirupparankundram, 8 km from Madurai, is a great center of pilgrimage. Its nucleus is an excavated “cave”. To this in successive ages the parts of a big temple were added, including a big Gopura of seven tiers. Behind the temple rises a hill. There are in this village another excavated temple and a third one, but of the Jains. The Subramanya Temple has been sung by a number of saints and sages down the centuries. The earliest is Nakkirar, a poet of the Sangam age. The temple is one of the “arupadai veedus” fanes of Lord Subramanya held particularly sacred.
Festivals of Madurai
Teppam Festival At Madurai – The famous festivals held at Madurai, include Teppam festival, the annual Float Festival, wherein the images of Sri Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswara (also spelt as Sundreshwara) are mounted on floats, and taken to Mariamman Teppakkulam Tank, where for several days they are pulled back and forth across the water in the middle of the tank, on an illuminated raft embellished with flowers, before being taken back to the main temple.
Meenakshi Kalyanam At Madurai – The annual solemnization of the marriage of Meenakshi with Lord Sundareshwar (Shiva) is one of the most spectacular temple festivals at Madurai’s famous Meenakshi temple in Tamil Nadu. Car processions of the goddess and the god are some of the colourful features of this festival.Meenaskhi Kalyanam, the wedding festival of Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareshwar is celebrated for twelve days from the second day of the lunar month (i.e. two days after the new moon). This is a spectacular festival celebrated in the month of Chaitra (April-May). The festival is characterized with royal decorated umbrellas, fans and traditional instrumental music. Scenes from mythology are enacted and the deities of Lord Shiva, Goddess Shakti and Goddess Meenakshi are taken out in a colourful procession. Thousands of devotees from all over the country gather in the city of Madurai on this occasion.
Getting there and Around
By Air: Madurai is connected by air with Mumbai and Chennai. Madurai airport is 10-km away from the city.
By Rail: Madurai has direct rail connections to Bangalore, Coimbatore, Kollam, Chennai, Rameshwaram, Thanjavur, Tiruchirappalli, Tirunelveli, Tirupathi and Tuticorin.
By Road: There are excellent roads connecting Madurai to all parts of South India. Madurai city has 5 Major Bus Stands- Periyar Bus Stand, Anna Bus Stand, Palanganatham Bus Stand, Arapalayam Bus Stand, Mattuthavani Bus Stand. From Madurai town buses, suburban buses, taxis, auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws are available to reach the temple.
Accommodation is available at the luxurious, moderate class and small budgeted hotels, devasthanam cottages, lodges, and dharmashalas in Madurai.