The name ‘Madurai’ evokes in the minds of the Tamils the golden era when their language, culture and arts flourished under the patronage of successive Pandian kings. The city was the home of such illustrious institutions as the ‘Sangam’ which revived and nurtured great works of Tamil poets and artists. It now houses the largest temple complex in Tamilnadu built by the Nayaka Kings who ruled Madurai from the 16th to 18th century. They have left an indelible imprint of their glorious period in the Meenakshi-Sundareswarar temple. The goddess Sakthi rules the world as Meenakshi in Madurai, as Kamakshi in Kanchi and as Visalakshi in Kasi. But the most revered and worshipped of these three is the Goddess Meenakshi of Madurai.
Madurai has a small airport served by flights from Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram and Bombay. It is about 16 Km south of the city. There are four bus stands serving local towns and towns afar. The inter-state buses arrive at the TTC bus-stand which is nearest to the centre of the town. The railway station is just west of the temple complex.
A Tower in Madurai The Eastern Entrance
At first glance the most striking feature of the temple is the soaring ‘gopuram’ (gateway towers) built above the four entrances on the four sides. The most popular entrance is on the East Side through a towerless entrance in line with the shrine of Meenakshi. This entrance leads to the ‘Ashtasakthi Mandapam’ where the pillars are full of sculptures illustrating the different aspects of Goddess Meenakshi and the miracles performed by Lord Siva in Madurai. This hall leads to the ‘Ciththirai gopuram’ passing through which will take you to a passageway on the eastern end of the ‘Pottramarai kulam’. Steps go down on all four sides of this tank to the water in the middle of which stands a brass column. Walking around the tank in a clock-wise direction brings into view the golden ‘vimanam’ of the shrines of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar while on the east of the tank. As you come round the tank you pass the ‘Oonjal mandapam’ where every Friday Meenakshi and Sundareswarar are put on a swing while ‘othuvars’ sing the ancient Tamil hymns. Passing the ‘Oonjal mandapam’ you arrive at the ‘Kilikkoottu mandapam’ where parrots were used to be kept. Next is the entrance to Meenakshi shrine. North of the entrance to Meenakshi koil is the entrance to Sundareswarar koil.
Details above the Eastern Entrance
There are many legends as to the origin of Meenakshi. The Pandyan king, Malayathuwajan, performed a ‘Yagna’ seeking the blessing of God for a child as he had none. From the sacrificial fire appeared a 3 years old child with three breasts. This caused a great anxiety among those gathered at the ceremony. They were then told by a mysterious voice that the third breast would disappear when she met her future husband. The voice also commanded that the child be known as ‘Thadathagai’ and be brought up as if she was a son. So she was given training in all aspects of royal duties befitting a prince including the art of war. One day while she was pursuing her princely duties she came across a young person of immense beauty and aura. She was so attracted by the majesty and divine nature of this person that she became shy and was love stricken towards this heavenly person. Her third breast also disappeared at this point and she became aware that she had met her future husband. This was none other than Lord Sunthareswarar who had come to take her consort as pre-ordained.
The king was informed of his daughter’s wishes and a marriage ceremony was arranged. The bride was decked with all fineries and taken to the temple where she walked into the sanctum and became one with the Lord. Over the years Goddess Meenakshi (meaning the one with the beautiful fish-shaped eye) has gained prominence and the temple is now called ‘Meenakshi koil’ though the original name was Meenakshi-Sunthareswarar koil.
Another legend is that Goddess Sakthy was born to a Pandyan king in Madurai. When she reached the age of marriage, she was so beautiful that many suitors vied for her hand. She was a warrior princess and vowed that she would marry only someone who could defeat her in combat. Many of her suitors came forward and faced defeat in her hands. Finally Lord Shiva came in the guise of Sundareswarar and won her in combat. He then took her as His consort, they thus becoming the deities at the temple in Madurai.
The name Madurai itself has a legend associated with it. King Kulasekara Pandyan heard from his subjects that celestial beings were visiting his kingdom in order to bathe in a pond and worship at the Lingam installed nearby. He built a temple next to this tank and arrangements were made to install this Lingam in the temple. At the appointed hour Lord Shiva himself appeared and bathed in the pond. As he came out of the water droplets from his matted hair fell upon those gathered around and on the earth. This water was found to be the sweetest of all waters (Mathuram – Nectar of the Gods) and the place where this water fell came to be known as ‘Mathurai’. The temple where the Lingam was installed came to be known as Sundareswar koil and later as Meenakshi – Sundareswarar temple.
Opening Times and Festivals:
The temple is open for worship throughout the day. There are festivals in this temple practically every month. Two main festivals fall in the month of Chiththirai (April/May) and in Aavani (August/September).
The temple abounds with sculptures depicting the various lore of Hindu mythology. The dancing pose of Lord Nadarajar usually has the left leg raised. In the ‘Hall of Silver’ (Velliamblam) there is a statue of Lord Nadarajar with his right leg raised, which is very unusual. Near the Southern tower there are five musical pillars made up of 22 slender rods. Each of these rods gives out a different note when tapped gently. The pillar is carved out of a single piece of granite stone.