Madurai - The Temple City and the Ancient Pinnacle of Tamil Culture
Location and History
Located on the banks of the Vagai River, Madurai is the oldest city in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The name Madurai, means “city of nectar.” According to legend, the Pandyan King Kurukshetra built a beautiful temple and constructed a city around it. During its christening ceremony, Lord Siva blessed the new city and its people. In the process, a few drops of “madhu”(Tamil word meaning “sweetness”) from his hair fell on to the city – thus the name. The center point of the city is undoubtedly, the venerated Meenakshi Amman Temple, a labyrinthine complex that celebrates the love of the Goddess Meenakshi for her consort, Lord Sundereshwar (“the Handsome God”) and easily the most celebrated temple in south India. The best time to visit is between April and May, when the Chittarai Festival, commemorating Meenakshis marriage to Sundareshwar, is celebrated-the excitement in this bustling temple town reaches fever pitch.
There is enough evidence to suggest that Madurai was visited by Megasthenes in the 3rd century BC. The Greeks and the Romans also visited and established trading relations with the Pandyan kings. The rule by the Pandyas was a golden age for the city as the rulers of this dynasty patronized and promoted Tamil literature. A number of great Tamil literary masterpieces were created during the Pandian rule. But, in 1323, Madurai was conquered by the Tughlaqs who added the city to their Delhi Empire. In 1372, this ancient city passed into the hands of the Vijaynagar dynasty. The kings of Vijayanagar were known for entrusting their territories to local chieftains or nayaks who were entrusted with the day to day management of territories in exchange for an annual royalty of sorts. The most revered of these nayaks was Thirumalai Nayak who governed the city from 1623 to 1659. Under his governorship, the spectacular Raja Gopuram of the Meenakshi Amman temple was constructed. Now, in modern post-independence India, Madurai is one of the major districts of Tamil Nadu and, in its better known avatar, one of the most beautiful, if dry and dusty, temple towns in India. In fact, Madurais temples will exhaust you before you exhaust them.
Madurai Airport handles daily flights from all major Indian cities like Chennai, Bangalore and the southern city of Trichy. Trains are also a convenient way of getting into the city as the Southern Railway connects Madurai to Chennai and Tirunelveli. There is an excellent private bus system that connects the temple town to the state capital, Chennai.
As with other Indian cities, rental cars are woefully limited. Hiring a taxi for the day is the best way to take in the sights in Madurai. Avoid auto rickshaws-if you have no other choice but to, firmly negotiate a flat rate before getting into one.
Where to Stay
The Royal Court Hotel, at West Veli Street, has reasonably priced accommodation in the heart of Madurai.
Where to Eat
The city has a number of cheap eating joints that specialize in South Indian thalis, a delicious platter of vegetarian curries, rice, bread and condiments. The Surya Rooftop Restaurant at the Supreme Hotel, offers spectacular views of the setting sun behind the Meenakshi Amman Temple.
What to See
Shree Meenakshi-Sundareshwar Temple
This is one of the biggest and busiest temples in South India and, on its own, is reason enough to visit Madurai. An average of 15000 worshippers stream past its majestic gopuras, which are visible from all over the city. The walls are covered with a multitude of gods, demons and beasts all garishly painted in a wildly fascinating riot of colors. Entrance to the temple is through the Ashta Shakti Mandapa. All around the complex, various rituals and ceremonies are carried out, some conducted by Brahmin priests, others more personal acts of devotion. In one intriguing ritual, devotees throw balls of ghee at the goddess in an effort to keep her cool, as her heart had turned to butter the day she met the handsome Lord Siva! At the end of each day, images of the goddess and her consort are ceremonially carried into the inner sanctum which is strictly off limits to non Hindus. Temple keepers are known to yank suspicious looking spectators off the lines. Also within the complex is the Hall of a Thousand pillars, which actually has 985 beautifully carved columns. Tap on one of the musical pillars and you will hear a string of Carnatic musical notes.
Tirumalai Nayak Temple
Close to the Meenakshi Amman Temple is the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal, a 17th century palace built by Thirumalai Nayak in the Indo Sarcenian style of architecture. The palace in its heyday was an elaborate affair with royal mansions, shrines, and armory vaults. Thirumalai Nayak was famous for the many dance and music presentations that he patronized at his palace. Not much remains of the original structure except a large courtyard and a few buildings, but a nightly sound and light show provides a fascinating insight into the citys ancient history.
Gandhi Memorial Museum
It was in the city of Madurai that Gandhi, in a historic gesture, gave up his kurta and dhoti for a simple loin cloth, the garb of the poor. The bloodstained Dhoti that he wore at the time of his assassination is exhibited at the Gandhi Memorial Museum, along with old photographs, original manuscripts and paintings.
This temple is located about 5 miles out of the city and is especially busy on Fridays when women with man troubles or family issues, gather to light lamps or offer flowers in obeisance to the goddess Durga. The courtyard floor is decorated with a colored powder of different hues creating a strikingly intricate pattern known as rangoli.