Soulful and sprightly, Madurai is a city with a distinct flavour replete with heritage that represents the embodiment of Tamil culture.
Also called the Athens of the East, Madurai is a highly spirited city and one of the largest in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. An eclectic place that offers diverse experiences, Madurai is a visitor’s delight.
Whether it is religion, history, culture or tradition, Madurai is the place for the discerning traveller. Synonymous with the world renowned Meenakshi Aman temple and ‘Madurai Malli’ or Madurai jasmine flowers, this ancient city lies on the banks of the Vaigai river of the state. Madurai currently is one of the hundred cities slated to be developed as smart cities under the Prime Minister’s Smart City Scheme.
Divinity and Sanctity profound
A wonderful mix of legends, myths and some brilliant ar chitectural techniques
Definitely the soul of the city, the Meenakshi or Arulimigu Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Thirukkoil, dates back to the 7th century. An architectural marvel, the grandeur of the temple with 14 towers or gopurams, as tall as 45-50 meters, dominates the city’s skyline. Much of the present structure of the temple was built in the 17th century under the reign of Tirumalai Nayaka after portions of it were demolished over the previous centuries. It is one of the few temples that has four entrances in four different directions and the entire complex is divided into concentric quadrangular enclosures.
With a whopping 33,000 sculptures, the temple is dedicated to goddess Parvati aka Meenakshi and her consort
Sundareswarar (Lord Shiva). The sculptures inside the temple spell magnificence and architectural brilliance. The ceiling of the temple is a riot of colours with exquisite paintings of gods and goddesses. A large statue of lord Ganesha, made from a single stone, at the entrance of the Sundareswarar and Meenakshi shrines called the Mukuruny Vinayakar, is noteworthy.
Apart from the main sanctum, the temple complex has several elaborate halls and ‘mandapams’ which create the unique ambience of the temple. These include the Kilikoondu Mandapam (bird cage corridor), the Puthu Mandapam (new hall), the Ashta Shakthi Mandapam (hall of eight goddesses) and the Meenakshi Nayakkar Mandapam (hall of 1000 pillars).
The Thirupparankundram Murugan temple is yet another temple of high religious significance that is dedicated to god Murugan. It is believed to be the place where lord Murugan married Devasena.
The Koodal Azhagar temple dedicated to lord Vishnu is also of high interest. Constructed in the Dravidian style of architecture with a massive five-tiered Rajagopuram, this temple is believed to be one of the most ancient temples in the country.
Rich historic legacy
A tour of palaces and museums of Madur ai showcasing the rich past of the city
If you are a history buff, the city’s Thirumalai Nayakkar Mahal is a sight not to be missed. Erected in 1636, by king Thirumalai Nayak of the Nayaka dynasty that ruled the city during the 17th century, the palace is located about two km from the Meenakshi temple. Built in a style that is a fusion of the Dravidian and Islamic schools of architecture, the palace is mainly divided into the Swarga Vilasam (Celestial Pavilion) and Ranga Vilasam. The courtyard and the dancing hall are the highlights of the palace famous for its giant pillars. The exquisite foliated brickwork and intricately carved cloisters are symbols of the excellent workmanship of the past.
Gandhiji’s connection with the temple town of Madurai is significant for more reasons than one and the Gandhi Memorial Museum in the city is counted as one of the five Gandhi Sangrahalayas (Gandhi Museums) in the country. Housed in the historic, Tamukkam Palace, belonging to Rani Mangammal of the Nayaka dynasty that was built in the 17th century, the museum has a rich collection of paintings, photographs and articles related to the leader’s life. It traces the sequence of events leading to the fight for India’s independence and chronicle events like the Dandi March, Jallianwala Bagh tragedy and Swaraj. Apart from the original letters written by the Mahatma, the museum has the original blood-stained clothes that were worn by the leader on the day he was assassinated. The government museum in the complex traces the history of Madurai through the ages and also the period of Tamil architecture, including the Cholas and Pallavas.
Experience the cultural and traditional aspects of Madurai
If you are someone who loves to explore the native pulse of a place, make sure you visit the local markets and sample the local flavours. Likewise, no visit to Madurai is complete without visiting its lively, action packed and colourful markets. Located close to the Mattuthavani bus stand is the flower market, which must be visited for the famous Madurai Jasmine or ‘Madurai Malli’. A flower that has inspired none other than French perfume-maker Christian Dior, ‘malli’ is the focus of the market as men and women deftly string these beauties into pretty garlands that are sold as hot cakes.
Others are involved in buying these flowers in bulk, only to be strung and sold elsewhere. These flowers whose fragrance is sweet, pleasant yet arresting are purchased with great passion by the locals and are used for worship as well as to adorn their hair by women. The roses, frangipani and lilies only add colour and enhance the whole flower market experience. The fruit and vegetable market, including the banana market, forms for yet another ‘flavourful’ outing.
The markets around the Meenakshi temple are worth exploring for their sheer indigenous appeal. Whether it is the one-ofits- kind tailor market, the sweet/ savoury shops or even the little establishments selling the famous Madurai Sungudi cotton saris, each one has a unique story and appeal of its own.
Sample some authentic South Indian food including the famous soft, signature idlis of the Murugan idli shop. While the brand has several branches in the capital city of Chennai, its origin lies in Madurai. Translating into ‘cool heart’, Jigarthanda is a local drink that is a concoction of milk, ice cream and a host of other ingredients that is a Madurai speciality.
Apart from all of this, just moving around the city and exploring its nooks and corners on foot, leads you to some quaint streets and glimpses of life that is pleasantly slow paced and full of old world charm!
About the City
Madurai city, the capital of Pandya rulers, is an important commer cial and religious center. The history of Madurai dates back to 650 BC. It is the administrative headquarters of Madurai District.
The city receives footfall from all over India and abroad throughout the year. Meenakshi Tirukkalyanam is the biggest festival that the city celebrates for ten days in April/ May. Held in commemoration of Lord Vishnu’s arrival to attend the celestial wedding of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar in the city, the festivity fetches more than one million visitors.
The temple town is home to many poets and artisans as it holds abundant literacy wealth of classical and modern Tamil language. Other than Tamil, the common language in the city is Saurastrians, spoken by the migrated Gujarati communities in early 16th century.
ALL NIGHT FISH MARKET
Thoonga Nagaram meaning the ‘city that never sleeps’ is another name of the city. Madurai’s fish market is one of the reasons which makes the city special. Over the last 100 years, vendors from the neighbouring big cities buy stock from Madurai’s fish market.
Madurai is the hub of Dravidian art and culture. The Hall of Thousand Pillars is a testimony to the excellence of Dravidian architecture. The hall has 985 pillars, so arranged that from every angle they appear to be in a straight line. At the entrance is the equestrian statue of Ariyanatha Mudaliar, who built this triumph of art and architecture. The chakrams (wheel of time), engraved on the ceiling denoting the 60 Tamil years, are truly spellbinding.
THE HISTORICAL CONNECT
Madurai was on the map of global travel before thousands of years when King Alexander visited India in the 3rd century BC. History says, Megasthenes, the ambassador of Selucus, had toured Madurai during his travels in India of which the reference is found in his account, Indica. According to the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Pandya Kings used to rule in Madurai.
Words: RASHMI GOPAL RAO