Madurai

Meenakshi Temple

This is an outstanding example of Vijayanagar temple architecture and an exact contemporary of the Taj Mahal in Agra. Meenakshi, the 'fish-eyed goddess' and the consort of Siva, has a temple to the south, and Sundareswarar (Siva), a temple to the west. Since she is the presiding deity the daily ceremonies are first performed in her shrine and, unlike the practice at other temples, Sundareswarar plays a secondary role. The temple's nine towering
gopurams
stand out with their colourful stucco images of gods, goddesses and animals which are renewed and painted every 12 years - the most recent touch-up having been completed in February 2009. There are about 4000 granite sculptures on the lower levels. In addition to the Golden Lotus tank and various pillared halls there are five
vimanas
over the sanctuaries.

The temple is a hive of activity, with a colourful temple elephant, flower sellers and
musical performances
. There is an evening ceremony (arrive by 2100), when an image of Sundareswarar is carried in procession, to a heady accompaniment of whirling pipe and drum music and clouds of incense, from the shrine near the east
gopuram
to Meenakshi, to 'sleep' by her side; he is returned first thing the next morning. The procession around the temple is occasionally led by the elephant and a cow. During the day the elephant is on continual duty, 'blessing' visitors with its trunk and then collecting a small offering.

The main entrance is through a small door of the
Ashta Sakthi Mandapa
(Porch of the Eight Goddesses) which projects from the wall, south of the eastern
gopuram
. Inside to the left is the sacred
Tank of the Golden Lotus
, with a lamp in the centre, surrounded by pillared cloisters and steps down to the waters. The Sangam legend speaks of the test that ancient manuscripts had to undergo: they were thrown into the sacred tank, and only if they floated were they considered worthy of further study. The north gallery has murals (under restoration at the time of writing) relating 64 miracles said to have been performed by Siva, and the southern has marble inscriptions of the 1330 couplets of the
Tamil Book of Ethics
. To the west of the tank is the
Oonjal Mandapa
, the pavilion leading to the Meenakshi shrine. Here the pillars are carved in the form of the mythical beast
yali
which recurs in temples throughout the region. Golden images of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar are brought to the
oonjal
or swing each Friday evening where they are worshipped. Cages with parrots, Meenakshi's green bird that brings luck, hang from the ceiling of the neighbouring
Kilikootu Mandapam
, which is flanked by finely carved columns. The
Meenakshi shrine
 with the principal image of the goddess, stands in its own enclosure with smaller shrines around it.

To the north of the tank is another enclosure with smaller
gopurams
on four sides within which is the
Sundareswarar shrine
 guarded by two tall
dwarapalas
. In the northeast corner, the superb sculptures of the divine marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar being blessed by Vishnu and Brahma, and Siva in his 24 forms are in the 19th-century
Kambathadi Mandapa
, around the golden flagstaff.

The mid-16th century
Thousand-pillared Hall
is in the northeast corner of the complex. The 985 exquisitely carved columns include a lady playing the
vina
, a dancing Ganesh, and a gypsy leading a monkey. The art museum here exhibits temple art and architecture, fine brass and stone images, friezes and photos (the labelling could be improved). Just inside the museum to the right is a cluster of five
musical pillars
carved out of a single stone. Each pillar produces a different note which vibrates when tapped. Nayaka musicians could play these as an instrument.

The
Nandi pavilion
is to the east and is often packed with market stalls peddling flowers, trinkets and coconuts. The long
Pudu Mandapa
(New Mandapa), across the road from the East Tower, is lined with yet more beautiful sculptures of
yalis
, Nayaka rulers and elephants, and during the day Beyond lies the base of the unfinished
Raya Gopuram
which was planned to be the tallest in the country.

Northeast of the Meenakshi Temple, off N Avani Moola Street, is the
flower market
, a profusion of colour and activity at its best 0500-0730. It is a two-storey hall with piles of jasmine of all colours, lotuses, and huge jumbles of floral prettiness amid a sea of decomposing mulch of flowers trampled underfoot.

Thirumalai Nayaka Palace

Built in 1636 in the Indo-Mughal style, its 15 domes and arches are adorned with stucco work while some of its 240 columns rise to 12 m. Its
Swarga Vilasam
(Celestial Pavilion), an arcaded octagonal structure, is curiously constructed in brick and mortar without any supporting rafters. Special artisans skilled in the use of traditional lime plaster and powdered seashell and quartz have renovated parts. The original complex had a shrine, an armoury, a theatre, royal quarters, a royal bandstand, a harem, a pond and a garden but only about a quarter survives since Thirumalai's grandson removed sections to build another palace in Tiruchirappalli, and the original
Ranga
Vilasam was destroyed by Muslim invaders. It is a bit run down.

Vandiyur Mariammam Teppakulam

To the southeast of town, this has a small shrine in its centre where the annual
Float Festival
takes place in January/February.

Gandhi Museum

Located in the 300-year-old Rani Mangammal Palace, this is Madurai's best museum: informative, interesting and well laid out. It contains an art gallery, memorabilia (including the
dhoti
Gandhi was wearing when he was
shot) and traces the history of the Independence struggle and the Quit India movement. It also has sections for Khadi and Village Industries and some stunning examples of South Indian
handicrafts. Yoga classes are held daily (though only in Tamil) at 0630.
Excellent bookshop

Thirumalai Nayaka Palace Museum

This museum concentrates on the history of Madurai with galleries on the famous Nayaka king and the art and architecture of Tamil Nadu. There's also a Sound and Light show .

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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