After visiting the Brihadeeswara Temple, our next destination was another gem of a temple, perhaps the most beautiful one – the Madurai Meenakshi Temple.
Roots in antiquity
170 kms from Thanjavur, lies Madurai, one of the oldest cities in India, having been inhabited for atleast 2500 years now ! Madurai has been the centre of activity and a prosperous city right from the Sangam Era. Madurai was also the capital of the Pandya Dynasty and from time immemorial, a prosperous city, a centre of trade, culture, literature, art, architecture. The city status hasn’t changed to this day !
Drive between the two great capitals
It was a great feeling for history lovers like us to travel between the two capitals of the mightiest kingdoms in South India, Thanjavur, the Chola capital and Madurai, representing the Pandya pride. We do admit, albeit a little abashedly, that this writer is slightly biased towards the Cholas because of the Ponniyin Selvan fixation ! The Pandyas were the arch rivals and the chief trouble makers in the epic novel. Due apologies were sent up to the Chola kings !
While once all roads to Madurai from Thanjavur would be cut off, today, we have the suave highway connecting the two important cities of Tamil Nadu. We reached Madurai past lunch time and stopped for lunch at Temple City hotel on the highway just before entering the city. The hotel seems to be a popular chain in Madurai and the food was decent.
We then checked in at Hotel Tamil Nadu, TTDC’s signature hotel. We were allotted two rooms with a connecting door, most convenient when there are two families. TTDC’s hotels are usually a great bet while travelling in Tamil Nadu.
The Goddess of Madurai
At the heart of Madurai, is the temple of Goddess Meenakshi, the presiding Deity of the city of Madurai since the Pandyas ruled this part of the land. The flag symbol of the Pandyas was a fish, is that why they named their Deity, Meenakshi or the Fish-eyed Goddess?
The temple too has its history steeped in antiquity, abounding in legends, historical and literary events. The temple complex is too huge to comprehend. It took us 3 visits in the last 12 years to get a feel of the temple !
Cameras are not allowed anywhere near the temple. Photography is permitted only in one place and even there one can only use mobile phones for taking pictures. We could not take any pictures at the temple, not even a picture of the 4 massive gopurams, that seem to extend beyond the sky ! Do check the internet for some gorgeous pictures of the temple. Or even better, simply pack your bags and head to Madurai, the temple is not just to be seen, it has to be experienced !
Like the temple at Srirangam, the Meenakshi temple is so enormous that it is very hard to figure out the structure of the temple. The tall gopurams on all four sides can be seen from quite a distance.
Inside the dimly lit Garbhalaya is Goddess Meenakshi lit up in the darkness by oil lamps, what a sight it is ! For a temple of that size, it is amusing to see such a small idol but the radiance of the idol reflecting the light from lamps, is something surreal ! You feel what people call “Shakti” or power of the Divine Goddess. Whether it is the Divine power or the positive vibes of the temple and the people, we do not know but it feels something powerful is standing before you.
An interesting feature of the idol is the parrot on the Goddess’ right shoulder, it looks rather cute. We do not know if there is any religious symbolism behind it, would be interesting to read up on it a bit.
A walk through magnificence
Lord Sundareeshwara is Goddess Meenakshi’s consort and a visit to the shrine takes you through the magnificent corridors of the temple, with high ceiling, bordered by massive pillars decorated with most beautiful sculpture. Even with modern lighting, most of the corridors are slightly dark and when they are not crowded, they look imposing and scary. Imagine the ancient times when they were lit up with fire torches !
We took all the time in the world to savour every moment walking along those marvelous corridors, what style, the massiveness is overwhelming. One cannot even begin to imagine how these temples were built a thousand years ago ! The temple was the pride of the Pandyas and witnessed many an enemy attack in the 14th Century A.D, where the temple was plundered. Since then, the temple has been renovated and expanded over centuries by several kings till the early 17th Century A.D.
As you walk along the famous temple tank, the gigantic gopurams make their appearance again, the enormity of the temple simply boggles your mind after sometime and you find it hard to process anything more, you just want to give up looking around and taking in the massive sights before you !
Thousand pillar hall
Another main attraction of the temple is the thousand pillar hall. Almost all popular temples have a 1000 pillar hall, wonder what fixation these ancient builders had with these halls ! Probably, they were meant to be an exhibition of art, sculpture, music and dance.
The 1000 pillar hall at Madurai has been renovated with modern flooring and lighting, the pillars of course are all ancient and original. The hall is being used as a museum showcasing sculpture from around Madurai. This is the only place where photography is allowed, that too only with a mobile phone !
Outside this hall, the corridors are full of shops selling all things bright and beautiful, toys, souvenirs, flowers, merchandise, the scene wouldn’t have been very different 2500 years ago at Madurai !
We wish we could take pictures, that would have made our life easy while writing this post because when you sit down to write, you do not know where to start, what to describe and how to describe it. The Goddess of Madurai and her splendour leaves you speechless !
The Anjappar let down
For dinner we went to our favourite restaurant Anjappar in Madurai. We loved the food at Anjappar in Hyderabad and Chennai and even mourned when they closed the restaurant in Hyderabad. When we found the restaurant in Madurai, we were overjoyed but it turned out to a disappointment as the food was not upto the usual Anjappar standard. We were willing to forgive it because we are always biased towards Anjappar, more than the food, it is about the happy memories of dining on weekends at Anjappar, Hyderabad.
– The temple is open from 5 AM to 1 PM and from 4 PM to about 10 PM. Avoid visiting the temple during the holiday season, especially in December – January, the temple is usually heavily crowded and you wouldn’t get a chance to visit it in peace. You will need atleast 2-3 hours for a detailed visit around the temple and yet, you wouldn’t be done !
– Madurai and its vicinity is full of temples, apart from the Meenakshi temple, the other popular temples are the Azhagar Koil, Koodal Azhagar Koil, both Divya Desams dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Pazhamudircholai and Thiruparankundram, two of the 6 important temples dedicated to Lord Subramanya.
– The Thirumala Nayak Palace is another important tourist destination at Madurai. It is open between 9 AM and 5 PM, there is a sound and light show in the evening. This place should be interesting for Maniratnam fans as the palace has been featured in several of his movies.
– You could set aside 2 full days to visit all the temples and places around Madurai.
– Since photography is not allowed inside most temples, capture the beauty in your mind’s eye.