Madurai : India’s Athens!
Architecture that will have you spellbound! … One of South India’s most picturesque temple towns, Madurai is one filled with exquisitely carved temples and monuments, so stunning that it’s earned the nickname the ‘Athens of the East!’ A spectacular blend of religion, history and beauty, this cradle of Dravidian tradition and culture is a picture perfect setting and a must for art lovers, historians and tourists heading to Tamil Nadu.
One with a rich heritage, Madurai’s history dates back to over 2500 years to the Sangam period, like many other cities in India, this one too comes with an interesting legend. It is said that a temple was built by King Kulasekara after a lingam was accidentally discovered in the middle of the forest Kadambavanam by a farmer named Dhananjaya on the banks of the River Vaigai.
Some legends also go on to say that a lotus shaped city sprung up around the temple overnight. When it was time for the city to be christened, Lord Shiva appeared and drops of nectar fell on the town from his hair, thus the town was named Madurai literally translating to the “city of nectar” (mathuram meaning drops of nectar in Tamil).
From serving as the center of the Pandaya Kings to being the place where Lord Siva performed sixty-four wonders, called “Thiruvilaiyadals”, this holy city finds its mention in many an Indian epic such as the Ramayana, Kautilyas or Arthasastra. It is also one that finds its mention in travelogues by great explorers such as Marcopoli and Ibn Batuta!
While there’s plenty of interesting sites here, the “centre” of tourist attractions here is the masterpiece… the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple! Dedicated to Sri Meenakshi, (the consort of lord Shiva) and Sundareswarar (an incarnation of Shiva)it is one of the biggest temple complexes of India, extending over an area of 65000 Sq. m. earning it the 26th position of the new Seven Wonders of the World list.
An architectural marvel, it boasts of 12 gopurams (large gateways) and mandapams (multi-pillared halls), exquisitely carved and is adorned with carvings of gods, goddesses, mythical figures and animals. The southern Gopuram being the tallest and the only one that may be climbed, the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple is truly a breathtaking temple with hardly enough words to describe it with sculptures here telling many tales of the life of Meenakshi’s birth and life and the Tiruvilayadals (miracles) of Lord Siva.
Of the mandapams, the Meenakshi Nayakkar Mandapam is famous for housing 110 pillars; other mandapams include Ooonjal Mandapam, Kilikoondu Mandapam, Thattu Chuttur Mandapam, and the Ayirankal Mandapam. Taking one’s breath away is the ‘Ayiramkaal Mandapam’ or a thousand pillared halls, today however it houses 985 exquisitely carved pillars, it is said that whichever angle these intricate pillars are viewed from, it appears to be in a straight line making it an architectural marvel! Also charming all are the musical pillars seen here, though chiseled by the same rock, each produces a different note when struck!
Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam is a huge temple tank located about 5 kms from the Meenakshi Amman Temple that houses the Vinayakar temple, dedicated to Lord Vigneshwara, the Elephant-faced God, on a small island. This tank is known for the float festival celebrated here normally in January or February to honor King Thirumalai Nayak, when the tank is filled with thousands of floats decorated with flowers and diyas.
Another brilliant piece of architecture here is the Thirumalai Nayak Palace, built in 1523 by the Nayaks, a majestic palace it is constructed entirely of brick and mortar without the support of a single beam. Known for its beautifully decorated arches and huge pillars, though it was destroyed by the king’s grandson who had the jewels removed so the same could be used for a palace of his own, it was partly restored by Lord Napier, the Governor of Madras.
Other marvelous attractions here include the cave like Thirupparamkundram Temple, which dates back to the Pandya and Nayakar periods, it is known for its intricately carved pillars and sculptures.
Madurai is the place where Mahatma Gandhi after seeing the poor dress during his visit here in 1921 decided to give up his rich clothing and adopt the simple ‘dhothi.’ Today honoring the father of the nation, Madurai is home to the Gandhi Memorial Museum that exhibits the works and teaching of the ‘father of the nation.’
Another interesting temple that is highly revered by the people of S.India is the Tirupparankundram Murugan temple considered to be the place where lord Subhrahmanya was married, today many consider it to be a holy place for marriages to be solemnized.
The Vaishnavite temple located at Alagar Koil, is one that is famous for its wonderful and intricate carvings and exquisite sculptures. Located at the foothills of Algatmalai, it is not just the hills but also the ruins of forts built by the Pandava kings that add to the beauty of this temple.
Dedicated in memory of Lord Subramaniya, the Pazhamudhir Solai is one where devotees can see some spectacular sculpting of Lord Subhramaniya in wood and marble.
While the place is famous as a pilgrim attraction, Madurai is a shopper’s delight if you’re looking for ethnic saris and handlooms. Also look out for items made from wood and brass
An exquisite temple town that is said to receive over 6000 visitors a day, for its Menakshi Temple, this city is a must for those who love architecture, culture, heritage and history!