Madurai is popularly known as the Athens of the East, because of its antiquity and historical importance.
It stands tall as the premier temple of Tamil Nadu in the opinion poll conducted by NDTV for seven wonders of the state. The temple complex is filled 12 gopurams or towers. The most famous of the gopuram on the southern part of the complex stands tall @ 52 meters ( 170 feet )
The original Meenakshi temple seems to have built during the reign of Kulashekaran Pandyan ( 1268 – 1308 ). A rich merchant by name Dhanajaya was a great devotee of Lord Shiva, discovered a forest temple where he spent a night. He found sings of regular worship during the night times and inferred it must be work of gods. He narrated his experience to the Pandya king Kulashekara, who ruling Manavur, near present Madurai city. Lord Shiva as Sundareshwar appeared in his dream. He dreamt that drops of nectar was falling on Lord Shiva’s matted hair. A serpant coiled around the boundary of the town. Based on this legend a temple was dedicated to the Lord. On account of Madhu ( nectar ) which fell on the Shiv Linga, the place was known as Madhupura or city of nectar, which was later abridged to Madurai.
According to the Myth, the Pandyan king and his queen Kanchana mala performed Putra Kameshi Yagna for begetting a child.
The temple town was subject to invasion by Malik Kafur in 1309, who literally razed the temple to ground. All the wealth was plundered by the armies as booties by the infidels.
The initiative to rebuild the temple was undertaken by Arya Natha Mudaliar, who was the PM of the Nayaks ( 1559 -1600 AD ), the feudatory of Vijayanagar Empire. The building of the temple complex was completed by contribution of Thirumala Nayak ( 1623 – 1659 ) He is credited to have completed the vasantha complex inside the temple.
EPIC & MYTHOLOGY :
According to legend Lord Shiva descended on earth to marry the princess Meenakshi. During the wedding ceremony grand arrangements were made from the bride side to display the pomp and glory of their wealth and status. Lord Sundareswar ( bridegroom ) had a small retinue, along with dwarf “ Gundodhara” Meenakshi after seeing a small group of members remarked that a grand arrangement with all the food preparations would go waste. The groom was confident his small retinue would ensure that all the preparations would be consumed. When the dwarf started polishing of all the preparations, he single handedly exhausted all the food preparation, when there was nothing left, he asked for water. All the water in the well too was exhausted by his unquenching thirst. This left the bride’s family members bewildered and invoked the blessing of Annapurneswari to fulfill the hunger and thirst. He thus invoked the blessing of mother earth and placed his thumb to spring the Vaigai river banks on which Madurai is located even today.
The epic also narrates that during the procession towards the wedding venue Lord Vishnu, brother of Meenakshi was tricked and delayed by Lord Indra . He was supposed to preside over the biggest marriage on earth . This angered Lord Vishnu and he swore never to enter the city. Lord Vishnu settled on the outskirts which is known as Alagar Koil. He was appeased by the devotees and other gods to bless the couple. This occasion is celeberated as Chithrai Tiruvila or Alagar tiruvila.
The above wonderful theme of marriage was taken as an inspiration by the sculptures and painters. The walls of the Meenakshi temple are adorned with various scenes from the fabled marriage between Shiva and Parvathi.
TEMPLE COMPLEX :
The temple is located in area of 45 acres. A massive structure measuring 254x237 meters. The temple is surrounded by 12 towers, the tallest of which is the southern tower which is raised to the height of 170 feet.
The centre shrine is dedicated to the Lord Shiva, it contains the unusual statue of Lord Nataraja, who is on the left foot. The famous posture of Lord Nataraja is to have the left foot raised standing on the right foot. But here the posture is reversed according to the request of the Pandyan king who is deemed expert on dancing.
The Meenakshi shrine is on the left of the Shiva shrine, and sculpturally less valuable than the Shiva shrine. There is also a Ganesh Shrine adjescent. The hall contains 995 pillars instead of 1000 pillars.
In the midst of the temple there is a small rectangular pond with lotus around the water. There is bronze pillar and bronze lotus in the an enclosure right in the centre of the pond. There is no marine life in this pond. The pond measure 165x120 feet in size. It is considered auspicious to enter the lake and wash one’s feet before entering the temple, which is given a go by many piligrims. The legend has it that a literary work is judged for its purity by placing it on the pond. If it is blessed than it floats otherwise it sinks down under.
EASTERN TOWER :
It is generally accepted according to Hindu custom of Vaastu that one enters from the east and exits from the West, but in this temple it is considered to be a taboo. A temple employee seems to have plunged himself to death during the reign of Chokkanath Nayak as a mark of protest against the unjust levy. This is one point to keep in mind when one visits the temple. On hindsight I myself was not aware of this custom. However I think I entered from Western enterance If my memory serves right. Vistors are advised to enter by Ashta Lakshmi Mandapam.
TEMPLE MUSEUM :
The beautiful artifacts of the era are preserved in the form of paintings, coins, statues, weaponary, ivory, bronze statues, etc. An enterance fee is collected and camera fee of Rs 50 is common for visiting the museum and the temple. It is one of the important must see places in the temple to get the feel of the era.
Months of Thai ( Jan 15-Feb 15 ) and Aadi ( Jul 15 – Aug 15 ) are popularly celeberated. Along with Shivaratri and Navarathri.
Temple Timing :
Morning 6.15 am to 8 am
9.00 am to12pm
4.00 pm to 8pm
The main temple is closed at 7.15 am, it is better to complete the dharsan before that or better to have dharshan at 9 am.
TIRUMALA NAYAK PALACE :
The palace is built mostly like a darbar hall for meeting the public. It can be safely assumed that the King never stayed in this place except on occasion of official function. This palace is supposed to have been constructed during 1626 by Thirumal Nayak. ASI sign board states that the remains of the palace is only 1/3 and 2/3 was moved to Trichy, which seems to be highly unlikely. The pillars of the palace are so massive that no earthquake or vandalism can easily destroy this palace. It is constructed with robust architectural knowledge to last 1000 s of years. The roofs of the palace are beautifully painted with bright colours signifying the royalty. The ventilation for the place is given prime importance. The palace is currently under renovation and is likely to be completed by 2009 year end. The adjescent portion has a garden in which the various statues are to be housed from the museum. Further on the back of the palace lot of shrubs needs to cleared. In front of the palace there is landscaped garden which is generally locked. A ticket of Rs 7 has to be obtained for entry with a camera fee of Rs 30/-
GANDHI MUSEUM :
This premise was a place built during the time of Rani Mangammal as evidenced in a communication in 1700 AD. Then it was occupied by the East India company. Finding the house in the Madurai Fort unhealthy, Samuel Johnston requested the Nawab of Arcot to occupy Tamukkam Bunglow as his residence in 1782.
Mr Johnston spent 6000 pagodas in clearing the jungle surrounding the palace and he turned it into habitable residence. He lived in this palace till he shifted to Trichy in 1787 AD. After that Johnston requested the premises be converted into educational place. Subsequently the premise was used as court house in 1838 it was shifted to Thirumala nayak palace.
In 1877 AD this place was occupied by district collector C.S. Crole. Since then it became a permanent place for District collectors. It continued till 1956 AD. In 1956 the government of India renovated this place and handed over to Gandhi Memorial for honouring the father of the nation. This memorial contains the original cloth of Gandhi, when he was shot dead.
ALAGAR KOIL :
This temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, and it seems to be of earlier origin than Meenakshi temple. The temple seems to have been constructed during the reign of Hoysalas along with Pandya Kings. It is credited to the reign of Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan ( 1251-1268 ) which coincides with the reign of Narasimha III ( 1254-1291 ) of the Hoysala empire.
It seems to be originally a beautiful fortress with a massive arched gateway enterance which now lies in ruins needing urgent repairs. The entire complex is so huge and so magnificient but hardly maintained either by temple authorities or department of archaeology. The temple is surrounded by Alagar Hill. The entire complex is more than 50 acres.
The TN forest department is maintaining a herbal forest on the hills. The enterance to the garden is restricted to the students and researchers. There is temple dedicated to Lord Kartik on the hills which 3 km away from this temple. It is closed before sunset in view of the forest area.
Majority of the architectural grandeur of this temple complex was completed during the reign of Vijaynagar emperor Krishna devaraya ( 1309 to 1329 ). The gopuram to the temple is similar to the Dravidian architecture. There is a kalyana matap and inside the beautiful shrine of Lord Vishnu in all its grandeur. The temple is opened according to the whims and fancies of the priest.
The inscriptions found in the temple premise and also in the caves of the hillock throw light on the antiquity of this place. Some of them date back to reign of King Ashoka. It is believed that the renowned Jaina teacher Ajjanandi and his disciples were staying in the caves on the hillock.