The cultural capital of Tamil Nadu, India, is home to the most famous temple—Meenakshi Amman. With time on your hands, there’s a lot more to see around this town.
It had been a few summers since I visited Madurai, the city with the famous Meenakshi Amman temple as its pivot. I stayed in a resort which was once the guest house for a spinning yarn company. Cottages with thatched roofs, a personal plunge pool, fresh food and an Ayurvedc spa amid the green paths, even a little temple for daily prayers, it was among my more blissful stays. The memories being so fresh, when some friends suggested going to see the temples of Madurai, I instantly said yes. Madurai being inhabited since the 3rd century, the history and life here is mind boggling.
Today the city is an industrial hub, but it was redesigned on the principles of vastu shastra by Vishwanatha Nayak (1529–64 CE), the first Madurai Nayak king. There is a systematic division of quadrangular streets around the temple. For centuries this temple has been the heart of the city, built on the banks of the river Vaigai. It’s also known as Meenakshi Sundareshwara temple. Meenakshi is a form of Parvati and Sundareshwara is Shiva. Vishnu is her brother. In fact, Meena means fish and askhi is eye, so she was said to be a meat eating goddess who was born with three breasts. But when she married Shiva, she came into her real form. In fact, even the name Madurai comes from ‘madhura’, which was the sweet nectar that Shiva showered upon the city through his matted hair.
It’s quite a stunning temple with 14 gopurams, the tallest being 170 feet and a 1,000-pillared hall. As we walked around, we saw the two golden sculptured vimanas, the 30,000 sculptures (we didn’t count but kept oohing and aahing). Then we went on to take the blessings of the lone decorated elephant who resides here. This temple is famous for its marriages and promoting marital harmony. Much of the restoration was done in the 14th century but it has been mentioned in the 6th century Tamil texts.
As the exploration continued, more about the temples in Madurai and the history came out. Here, there were groves/forests with particular species of trees. And each had its own presiding deity. One part of the region was said to be covered with Kadamba forest, so named Kadambavanam. While the city had many other names, the one that caught my attention was ‘Naanmadakoodal’. This meant the junction of four towers or the four major temples for which Madurai is known. I managed to find two more, but the fourth… maybe another visit.
Located quite close to the Meenakshi Amman temple is Arulmigu Koodal Azhagar Perumal temple. Koodal is another name of the city which means a literary assembly. This temple is dedicated to Vishnu and considered to be the one of the 108 divyadesams or holy abodes.
Another well-known temple is Arulmigu Subramaniaswamy Thirukovil, decidated to Muruga. Considered to be one among the god’s six main abodes, this was built by the Pandyas during the 6th century. It’s in the rock-cut architectural style.
More to see
But no tour is complete without shopping, eating and driving around.
- Puthu Mandapam is the pulsating market that is likely to woo one and all. With a 17th century pillar guarding the entrance, here you can find a whole lot of souvenirs to bring back—from paintings to jewellery to accessories.
- The Thirumalai Nayak Palace is about one km from the Meenakshi temple. King Thirumalai Nayak built it as his residence in 1636, helped by an Italian architect. While not much remains of the original palace, it had 240 pillars and is a blend of Dravidian and Islamic styles of architecture.
- With the British Raj came Christianity. And Saint Mary’s Church, among the oldest Roman Catholic churches in the country, is a testimony of those times. Though the original construction was in 1840, the current structure is a fusion of European and Continental styles, dating to 1916.
- At the ‘banana market’ you can find 16 varieties of this fruit. Murugan Idli shop is the place to enjoy the famous rice dish.
- As Mahatma Gandhi began wearing the dhoti here in 1921, inspired by the farmers, there is also a Gandhi Memorial Museum.
- If arts and crafts appeal to you, the head to the neighbouring villages of Vilachery and Keelakuyilkudi. At Vilachery, some families craft small clay idols of Ganesha for Ganesh Chaturthi and Bommai Kolu dolls for Navaratri. They also make nativity sets for Christmas. Keelakuyilkudi village houses a collection of painted mud horses and Jain sculptures.
The city is well connected via air, train and road. The airport is barely 10 km from the city and railway stations are Madurai Junction, Kudalnagar, Tirupparangundram.