The ancient town of Madurai is a temple town and the Meenakshi Temple is its heart and soul.  The grand gopurams ( gateways) that lead to the main temple from all four directions can be seen from far.

Madurai is believed to be of significant antiquity and played a major role in Tamil Sangams. The third Sangam was held here.  The first two sangams were held thousands of years earlier in prehistoric times. These locations are supposed to have submerged in the sea, millenia ago. Madurai has been mentioned in the works of ancient Roman and Greek historians. This in a way gives a western recorded history of this really ancient temple.

This temple is dedicated to goddess Meenakshi ( the one with eyes shaped like a fish), who is an avatar of Goddess Parvati. She is depicted with a crown and a green parrot perched on her right hand. Legend has it that the king of Madurai, Malayadhwaja Pandyan did great penance for an heir to be born.  Meenakshi came to him as  the boon. She was born with three breasts. It was told that she would loose one breast when she comes in front of her soul mate. Meenakshi became a warrior princess and led expeditions in the three worlds and all eight directions, deafeating many great kings.

Some wall murals that depict the warrior princess in action are shown below. The technique and style of painting in the two pictures differ as they are of different periods and therefore different artists.

 Meenakshi then advanced towards Kailash- Shiva’s abode. She defeated Nandi and headed towards Shiva- the mountain hermit. On seeing him it was love at first sight and one of her breasts fell off. Thus the prophecy came true and Meenakshi found her soulmate.  Lord Shiv is called Sundareswar (beautiful god) in Madurai.

This ancient mythology is shown in the picture below. Goddess Meenakshi has three breasts, and is seated on her throne and watching over her kingdom. In the last depiction, she is with two breasts once she is face to face with Sundareshwar.

The temple complex is sprawled in a huge area. There are four main grand gopurams of which the Southern gopuram is the tallest, measuring a height of 170 feet. One of the entry ways.

In all there are 12 towers in the temple complex. The main Shikhar above the sanctum sanctorum is adorned with gold. There is a beautiful tank in the courtyard of the temple. It has a golden lotus- suvarnakamal on one side. The courtyard corridors around this tank has beautiful carved pillars and the walls plus roof are adorned with sculptures and paintings. The inner corridor of the temple holds amazing sculptures depicting Shiva and Parvati. Below is the iconic sculpture of the ‘pannigrahan’ ceremony. Vishnu as brother is giving his sister Meenakshi ( Parvati) in marriage to Sundareshwar( Shiva).

The granite depiction of Shiva and Parvati sitting on Nandi’s back and Nandi’s head facing up towards them is the only one of its kind.

An intricately carved temple for Nandi that stands just outside the main garbh grih ( sanctum sanctorum).

One pillar has the portrayal of a gajsanhar- slaying of an elephant. The victor has the elephant’s hide around him.

The gold plated dhwajasthambh or flag pole just on the way to the main deity’s abode is so beautiful that one stands awestruck.

This is one of the rare temples where the tradition of Devi worship (Meenakshi) is more prominent than the worship of original deity (Shiva).

The Temple was ransacked and damaged severely by Malik Kafur, a general of Alauddin Khilji, in 1310. Malik Kafur came up to Madurai as part of his destructive campaign across the Indian Peninsula. Apparently he could not stomach the fact that masses were treating a female deity as divine and had such a grand temple in her honour.

In 1371, the Vijayanagar Dynasty of Hampi captured Madurai and it became a part of the Vijayanagar empire. Madurai was left under the control of Governors called Nayaks. The Nayaks rebuilt this temple and so the massive corridors and gopurams are around 500 yrs old.

In another side of this temple we find the hall of thousand pillars. All the carved pillars are parallel to each other and of the same specifications. It is a truly bewildering spectacle! 
Similar to many other South Indian temples, this one also boasts of a group of musical pillars.  Each pillar on tapping emanates a different frequency, conveying different notes of music. There was once a huge wooden door that led to this hallway. This gigantic door with intricate carving  is on display. Each square wooden panel of the door has a different carved depiction of deities and stories related to them. 
This hallway then leads to a passage that has massive sculptured pillars. These sculptures are of mythical animals, some part human and part animal; travellers, etc.

Portrayal of Rati and Kamdev facing each other.

Portrayal of Kamdev (Cupid) infront of Rati. Unfortunately one arm of Cupid along with his bow and arrow are broken. This is a reminder of the vandalism perpetrated by Malik Kafur. One pillar sculpture is of a transvestite. This shows the broad minded ness of the society of those times.

These stone carvings are exceptionally intricate. Below is a sculpture of a man with his pierced sharp nose. He once wore a nose ring. What is a wonder is that how did the artist make a small hole in the granite nose without cracking it. The passage ends with the magnificent statue of Nataraj in black granite. What is further unique in this sculpture is that Nataraj is depicted with his left leg raised in the dance pose instead of the usual depiction of raised right leg.  There are numerous panch dhatu ( five metal) statues of Shiva, Parvati, Ganesh and Kartikeya that appear life like.  

A rare statue of Kalbhairav with his dog.

Another wing  of the temple hosts the grand marriage hall where the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareshwar took place. This hall is mesmerising, with its beautiful wooden roof and paintings depicting the marriage and related ceremonies all around the upper support lintel of this roof. The marriage of Meenakshi with Sundareshwar is observed every year during the Hindu month of Chaitra ( April).  It is a grand celebration and devotees come from far and wide to witness the re- enactment of the holy marriage ceremony of their undefeated warrior queen with Shiva.
As a confirmation of the pan Indian character based on the epics, it is interesting to see the Panch Pandavas ( Five brothers from the epic Mahabharata), depicted as life size sculptures in one of corridors.

The outer corridor hosts the bustling market place, a rare example of a full fledged market operating within the temple complex. P.S: Photography and entry of non Hindus are prohibited in the main sanctum sanctorum. The huge temple complex in general is full of devotees and visitors- both Indian and foreign. It can easily be one of the wonders of the world.

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