Madurai enjoys the sobriquet ‘Athens of the East’ and stands on the banks of the Vaigai river. We drove down from Kodai and found it a comofrtable journey despite the heat.

The story goes that a king of Madurai was childless for a long time. He prayed rigorously and was granted a three-breasted girl (an avatar of Parvati). A divine voice assured him that the third breast would disappear as soon as she fell in love. The girl grew into a brave and beautiful princess, won many battles and lost her heart to Shiva. Her third breast disappeared and she was married to Shiva. They came to be known as Meenakshi and Sundareswarar- the main deities of the Madurai temple.The temple could be as much a historian and architect’s delight as it is a religious believer’s.

Ruled by many, it was the capital city of Pandya Kings and they built the Meenakshi-Sundareswar Temple. Then Alauddin Khilji’s men plundered it and after a while it went to the Vjaynagar kings. Their Governors- nayaks- “naikars” took charge and restored/enhanced the glory of the shrine.

The city was originally like a set of concentric circles – with the Madurai Meenakshi temple at the center and the streets around it are named after Tamil months. There are five entries to the temple but the east one is preferred ( possibly because it leads to the Goddess’ sanctum). I wonder how Lord Sundareswarar or Shiva feels about being second to his wife. The Meenakshi idol is beguiling with a parrot and bouquet, so I am sure she knows how to appease him.

Spread over many acres, you can see the 12 colossal towers of the temple – Gopurams- beckon you from almost anywhere in the city. They represent the various directions. To the western & uninitiated eye the gopurams with the idols numbering over 1000 each, may appear kitschy with the over powering colours and clutter even. But it will leave everyone mesmerized. And as kids are wont to do, counting the tiers of a Gopuram will leave you with a strained neck! The Southern Gopuram is the tallest at 160 feet and the only one that may be climbed.

Apart from the Shiva and Meenkashi shrines, you cannot miss the gigantic Ganesha called Mukkurini Pillaiyar. One of the Nayakars unearthed this idol elsewhere and erected the same here.  Dwarapalakas, apsaras, various other gods adorn the temple walls. There are colourful murals depicting celestial weddings. The ceiling art include Vaishnavite themes as well. The Musical Pillars, the thousand pillar hall, various mandapams, the old stump of the Bilva tree, the God of Delivery, are all worth seeing and have some myth related to them.

And there is the Golden lotus tank. Huge corridors border the tank and it is surprisingly kept dry and fairly clean for the amount of footfalls it gets. The corridors are said to have been the meeting ground for the Sangam poets. Any literary work was judged by throwing it into the tank. Only if it did not sink was it considered worthy of attention! A case where the writing material would have been more important than the written matter!

The Meenakshi temple is open to public from 5 am-1 pm and from 4 am to 10 pm

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