Madurai is an animated city packed with pilgrims, beggars, businesspeople, bullock carts and legions of underemployed rickshaw- wallahs. It is one of southern India’s oldest cities, and has been a centre of learning and pilgrimage for centuries. Madurai’s main attraction is the famous Sri Meenakshi Temple in the heart of the old town, a riotously baroque example of Dravidian architecture with gopurams covered from top to bottom in a breathless profusion of multicoloured images of gods, goddesses, animals and mythical figures. The temple seethes with activity from dawn till dusk, its many shrines attracting pilgrims from every part of India and tourists from all over the world. It’s been estimated that there are 10,000 visitors here on and one day!
Madurai resembles a huge, continuous bazaar crammed with shops, street markets, temples, pilgrims, choultries, hotels, restaurants and small industries. Although one of the liveliest cities in the south, it’s small enough not to be overwhelming and is very popular with travelers.
Madurai’s history can be divided into roughly four periods, beginning over 2000 years ago when it was the capital of the Pandyan kings. Then, in the 4th century BC, the city was known to the Greeks via Magasthenes, their ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. In the 10th century AD, Madurai was taken by the Chola emperors. It remained in their hands until the Pandyas briefly regained their independence in the 12th century, only to lose it again in the 14th century to Muslim invaders under Malik Kafur, a general in the service of the Delhi Sultanate. Here, Malik Kafure established his own dynasty, which, in turn, was overthrown by the Hindu Vijayanagar kings of Hampi. After the fall of Vijayanagar in 1565, the Nayaks ruled Madurai until 1781 AD. During the reign of Tirumalai Nayak (1623-55), the bulk of the Meenakshi Temple was built, and Madurai became the cultural center of the Tamil people, playing an important role in the development of the Tamil language.
Madurai then passed into the hands of the British East India Company, which took over the revenues of the area after the wars of the Carnatic in 1781. In 1840, the company razed the fort, which had previously surrounded the city, and filled in the moat. Four broad streets- the Veli streets –were constructed on top of this fill and define the limits of the old city to this day.
Sri MEENAKSHI TEMPLE
Every day, the Meenakshi Temple attracts pilgrims in their thousands from all over India. Its enormous gopurams, covered with gaily-coloured statues, dominate the landscape and are visible from many of the rooftops in Madurai. The temple is named after the daughter of a Pandyan king who, according to legend, was born with three breasts. At the time of her birth, the king was told that the extra breast would disappear when she met the man she was to marry, and this duly happened when she met Siva on Mt Kailasa. Siva told her to return to Madurai and, eight days later, arrived there himself in the form of Lord Sundareshwara to marry her.
Designed in 1560 by Vishwanatha Nayak, the present temple was substantially built during the reign of Tirumalai Nayak (1623-55 AD), but its history goes back 2000 years to the time when Madurai was the capital of the Pandya kings. These are four entrances to the temple, which occupies six hectares. It has 12 towers, ranging in height from 45 to towers, the tallest of which is the 50-metre-high southern tower. The hall of 1000 columns actually has 985.
Depending on the time of day, you can bargain for bangles, spices or saris in the bazaar between the outer and inner eastern walls of the temple, watch pilgrims bathing in the tanks, listen to temple music in front of the Meenakshi Amman Shrine (the music is relayed through the whole complex on a PA system), or wander through the interesting though decidedly dilapidated museum.
This museum, known as the Temple Art Museum, is housed in the 1000-pillared hall and contains some beautiful stone and brass images, examples of ancient south Indian scripts, friezes and various attempts to explain the Hindu pantheon and the many legends associated with it, as well as one of the best exhibits on Hindu deities anywhere. Unfortunately, many of the rebels are missing.
On most evening at 9 pm, temple music –mantras, fiddle, squeeze box, tabla and bells – is played outside the Meenakshi Amman Shrine.
TIRUMALAI NAYAK PALACE
About 1.5km from the Meenakshi Temple, this Indo –Saracenic palace was built in 1636 by the ruler whose name it bears. Much of it has fallen into ruin, and the pleasure gardens and surrounding defensive wall have disappeared. Today, only the entrance gate, main hall and dance hall remain. The palace was partially restored by Lord Napier, the governor of Madras, in 1866-72, and further restoration was carried out several years ago.
There is a sound & light show (son et lumiere) in English, daily at 6:45 pm, telling Madurai’s history using sound and coloured lights and lighting is quite sophisticated.
You can get to the palace on a No 11,11A or 17 bus from the state bus stand, or take the 20 –minute walk from the Meenakshi Temple through an interesting bazaar area.
Housed in the old palace of the Rani Mangammal, this oddly moving museum provides some little-known facts about the Mahatma, although the only real piece of Gandhi memorabilia is the blood-stained dhoti from the assassination, displayed behind a bulletproof screen. The museum also has an excellent History of India display with some fine old photographs.
The local government museum is in the same grounds, as is a small bookshops stocked with plenty of Gandhi reading matter.
MARIAMMAN TEPPAKKULAM TANK
This tank, five km east of the old city, covers and area almost equal to that of the Meenakshi Temple and is the site of the popular Tppam Festival. For most of the year, however, it is empty save for local kids playing cricket in it. The tank was built by Tirumalai Nayak in 1646 and is connected to the Vaigai River by underground channels. The No 4 bus from the state bus stand stops at the tank