The Meenakshi Temples of Madurai, India

Sri Meenakshi Temple
John Wang

The ancient southern Indian city of Madurai, which has earned the sobriquet, 'Athens of the East,' is a place of great historical importance. Said to be the oldest city in South India, Madurai stands on the banks of the sacred river Vaigai, eternalized in Lord Shiva's exploits in the Halasya Purana.

Madurai's fame rests almost entirely on the famous temples dedicated to goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswar.

History of the Meenakshi Temples

The shrine of Meenakshi at Madurai, popularly known as the Meenakshi Temple, was built during the reign of Chadayavarman Sundara Pandyan in the 12th century. The imposing nine-story tower was built between the 13th and 16th century. During the 200-year reign of Nayakka rulers, many Mandapams (covered structure with pillars) were constructed in the temple premises, including the Hall of Thousand Pillars, Puthu Mandapam, Ashta Sakthi Mandapam, Vandiyoor Theppakulam, and Nayakkar Mahal. The temple, as it stands today, was built between the 12th and 18th centuries.

The Majestic Entrance

Many majestic towers (gopurams), small and big, beckon one and all to this historic temple. As it is a common practice to worship Devi Meenakshi first and then Lord Sundareswarar, devotees enter the temple through the Ashta Sakthi Mandapam on the eastern street, named after the sakthis represented in figure-eight shapes on the pillars on two sides. At this Mandapam, one can see the vivid scriptural representation of Devi Meenakshi's wedding with Ganesha and Subramanya on either side.

The Temple Complex

Crossing over, one comes to the extensive Meenakshi Naickar Mandapam, named after the builder. This Mandapam has five aisles separated by six rows of stone pillars on which are carved holy sculptures. At the western end of the Mandapam is the massive Thiruvatchi, containing 1008 brass oil lamps. Adjacent to the Mandapam is the holy golden lotus tank. Legend has it that Indra bathed in this tank to rinse out his sins and worshiped Lord Shiva with the golden lotus from this tank.

Expansive corridors surround this holy tank, and on the pillars of the northern corridor, the figures of 24 poets of the third Tamil Sangam are etched. On the walls of the northern and eastern corridors, an exquisite painting depicting scenes from Puranas (ancient scriptures) can be seen. The verses of Tirukkural are inscribed on marbles slabs on the southern corridor.

The Meenakshi Shrine

A three-storied gopuram stands at the entrance of the shrine and on the outer sanctum, the golden flagstaff, Thirumalai Nayakar Mandapam, brass images of Dwarapalakas, and shrines of Vinayaka can be seen. The Maha Mandapam (the inner sanctum) can be reached through the doors in Arukal Peedam, where the shrines of Ayravatha Vinayakar, Muthukumarar, and the celestial bedroom are found. In the shrine, Devi Meenakshi is depicted as the fish-eyed goddess who stands with a parrot and bouquet, emanating love and grace.

The Sundareswar Shrine

Dwarapalakas, which are twelve feet in height, stand guard at the entrance to the shrine. On entering one can see the arukal peedam (pedestal with six pillars) and two brass covered Dwarapalakas. There are shrines dedicated to Sarawathi, 63 Nayanmars, Utsavamoorthi, Kasi Viswanathar, Bikshadanar, Siddhar, and Durgai. On the northern corridor is the holy Kadamba tree and the Yagna shala (large fire altar).

The Shiva Shrine

In the next sanctum, is the shrine of Lord Nataraja where the Lord is worshiped in the dancing pose with his right foot raised. Adjacent to it is the sanctum of Sundareswarar, which is supported by 64 boothaganas (ghostly hosts), eight elephants and 32 lions. The Sivalinga, which bears the names of deities such as Chokkanathar and Karpurachockar, inspires deep devotion.

The Hall of Thousand Pillars

This hall is a testimony to the excellence of Dravidian architecture. The hall has 985 pillars and is so arranged that from every angle they appear to be in a straight line. At the entrance is the equestrian statue of Ariyanatha Mudaliar, who built this triumph of art and architecture. The chakram (wheel of time) engraved on the ceiling denoting the 60 Tamil years is truly spellbinding. The images of Manmatha, Rathi, Arjuna, Mohini, and the Lady with a flute are also awe-inspiring. There is a unique exhibition of rare artifacts and idols in this hall.

The Famous Musical Pillars and Mandapams

The Musical Pillars are near the northern tower, and there are five musical pillars, each consisting of 22 smaller pillars carved out of a single stone that produces musical notes when tapped.

There are numerous other Mandapams, small and big, in this temple, including the Kambathadi, Unjal and Kilikoottu Mandapams --all of which can marvelous specimens of Dravidian art and architecture.