Madurai, where spirituality meets romance

Madurai is one of the oldest cities in the world, mentioned in ancient literature dating all the way back to 300 BC. I have always been fascinated by the city although I have hardly visited it. Besides the historical relevance, the city has been closely associated with Tamil Literature, something close to my heart. Secondly it is the place of cultural significance. My ancestors, Nattukkottai Chettiars moved there from Poompuhar in the 13th century.  And the place was just 2 hours away from my home town. So when chance beckoned one weekend, I decided to make use of it.

As we drove during the wee hours of the morning to make it early enough to beat the crowds, what excited me  was spirituality; the chance to visit the royal couple Sundareswara and Meenakshi in the famous Meenakshi Amman temple.

Madurai is where Lord Shiva married his consort Meenakshi and ruled the city as a couple. The city where Shiva performed 64 acts, as recorded by Thiruvilayadal puranam. (Events staged by the Lord himself and which He was part of). The stories are hugely popular and were part of my childhood. I was curious to see this flavour of Shiva, a family man, consort to the ruling Meenakshi, playful and very dear to his devotees; a stark difference from the austere, ash bearing, serious form I was otherwise used to.

And the temple did not disappoint.

Every ancient/ significant temple has a spirit to it. When I visit the Thayumanavar temple in Tiruchirapalli, I feel like a kid in my parents’ home. The grand old temple at Tiruvannamalai inspires you to give up all material desires. Madurai had a sense of fun to it, mixed in equal parts with mature romance tingling with excitement. There is something to look forward to in every corner; a statue; a sign; a monument; an event; a surprise; a story.

We entered the temple from the East entrance. You are first directed to the shrine of Meenakshi, different from other temples where the first worship is reserved for the male God. Very clearly, while Shiva (called Chokkanathar or Sundarar here, meaning a very handsome man) is the king of Madurai, Meenakshi is the ruler. I couldn’t help but feel proud of her.

As soon as you enter, you are in a big Mandapam or Hall filled with a melange of shops selling all trinkets. These shops are the most vivid memory I carry from visiting the temple decades ago, the flurry of activity, the mesmerizing display of bangles, ear rings, pictures, books, devotional items and my mother’s rule that we always did the “shopping” after we were done with prayers. So I make a note to spend some time here on our way back.

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The next Mandapam is another magnificent one with statues and paintings of the kign Thirumalai Nayakar who ruled the city in 17th century. (missed clicking pictures)

Then we come cross the legendary Golden Lotus pond which has a literary significance. During the Sangam period, all literary works were assessed here. The work, usually written on palm leaves would be placed on the gold lotus that was afloat on the pond. If the work was worthy enough, the lotus would stay afloat. If not, it would sink.

As you walk towards the shrine, there is a small Ganesha made completely of vibuthi, or holy ash. You take the white ash all around Him and smear Him a bit more with it, like everyone else. Ganesha is of course the most beloved God in the Hindu pantheon. He is just so closer to devotees here, letting them decorate Him the way they please.

Vibhuti Pillayar

As we crossed the threshold into the hall leading to Meenakshi’s shrine, there was a lot activity there, the usual morning procession of the Gods.

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We then entered the shrine of the Goddess, the ruling Queen which was thankfully not very crowded. Below is a photo-logue of what captivated as we went through the traditional practice of prayers in different shrines across the temple. The temple has a magnificent display of statues and I spent my time wandering imagining the stories behind each one of them, dreaming of the glorious days when the people depicted statues would have lived and breathed on the very corridors I was walking on.

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A musician?
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Shiva, as an ascetic
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The legendary Yali, the mythical animal that is part lion, part elephant and part horse
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Spent some deciphering where this soldier’s arms are. His right arm is holding a sword near his knee, left arm is slightly bent. A musical instrument(?) or another weapon is shown above his left shoulder
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This sculpture had me wondering. Is the man begging? Is there some mythology behind this scene?
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One of the Kings who patronized the temple. If you zoom in, you can see that he has the Vaishnavite symbol of “namam”, the vertical three lines on his forehead. It was quite common for Vaishnavite kings to support Shaivite temples. We didn’t take a guide, so I did not know who exactly this is. But, when they could erect elaborate sculptures like this, why would they not add their name to it!
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Another King – quite a handsome dude!
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A two storey construction inside the corridors of the temple to allow large numbers of people to watch processions on special days
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One of the many drain hole covers carved in stone – an example of the superb architecture of the temple
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One of the eight elephants supposedly holding up the roof of Shiva’s shrine. This elephant has an interesting story behind it. Malik Kafur, Alauddin Khilji’s army chief was sent to Tamilnadu to capture the area. When he invaded Madurai, he easily defeated the Pandiya king. When he visited this temple, a saint appeared and told him that these elephants are not mere statues. To prove that, he fed the elephants sugarcane and to Malik Kafur’s surprise, the elephants ate them. This miracle saved the temple from destruction. 
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The original temple well, now situated in the corridor outside Shiva’s shrine. The tree stump belongs to the Vanni tree that stood here. After marrying her lover with Shiva as the witness, the girl came back here asking for justice as the man refused to acknowledge the wedding. The Lord apparently appeared at this spot to vouch that the marriage indeed take place.
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The celestial couple as ascetics
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The wedding scene. Vishnu giving away Meenakshi in marriage to Shiva or Raja Sundara Pandya as he is depicted here. Every year there is a festival that marks the wedding. Kallazhagar, a form of Vishnu from the temple a few km away comes on his horse to attend the wedding. But since he is late he misses the main ceremony. He learns about that as he is crossing the river Vaigai to get to Madurai and returns back to his abode without going any further. This is a huge event in the month long that happens between 15 April and 15 May in Madurai.
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Virabhadra, the eternal warrior, created from Shiva’s wrath when he learnt that his wife Sati had killed herself in Daksha’s yagna. Virabhadra was commissioned to destroy Daksha. 
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Shiva and Kali having a dance off. Shiva won the competition as he danced the pose of lifting his leg all the way up (as on the left in this picture). Kali refrained from replicating the pose as it was not an appropriate move for a woman. 

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Shiva in his destroying form, in all glory – here he is destroying all three worlds. There were other forms destroying other aspects of life. 

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A dancer who usually dances in temple festivals
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Must be a devotee. Seeing this made me wonder, what qualifies a person to be depicted on a temple pillar? Besides the usual culprits like the various Gods, significant mythology scenes and a melee of temple support staff we usually find a few commoners. Who are they and what did they do to become immortal as a stone carving?
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Raavana lifting the Kailash – as depicted on the Gopura (tower)
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A pictorial verse. The words make sense whichever way you read them, horizontal or vertical. Composed by Nakeerar, a poet authentic enough to challenge God when He intentionally gave the wrong answer to the King’s question. Full story here
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With that we enter the Thousand Pillar Hall (Aayiram Kal Mandapam), a must-see for any history/ culture enthusiast. The hall has almost a thousand pillars and is currently a museum showcasing 1200 year old history through sculptures and paintings from the temple. The one here depicts the wedding of Meenakshi and Shiva.
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One of the many dancing ladies. How pretty is she!
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Can you make out if this is a man or a woman? Or is this person of the third gender?

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Dancers on Swans

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The small drums Shiva is holding here are hollow inside and sound like a drum when you tap on the flat side
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This lady caught my eye as her face was not picture perfect like the typical statues. There was a bit of asymmetry in the facial features. I guess we would never know if this was a miss by the sculptor or if he was depicting a real woman of some significance
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Saraswati
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Subramanya
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A lady with a baby. There were two such statues and this was intriguing. I did not get the context.
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And finally, after all that sight seeing in the scorching summer sun, a special jigarthanda to cool off with! A sweet drink made with agar agar, this is special Madurai drink!

I did not want to leave, but the rat race beckoned and I was getting late for my flight back home.

Next time, I should take a guide and plan to spend a whole day in the temple. For, I am smitten!

For the curious travellers:

Not to miss in the temple besides the usual big attractions:

  1. Learn about the different halls in the temple from the numerous websites out there so that you know where you are
  2. The Pandava sculptures
  3. Vibhuti Pillayar
  4. Madurai is the Velli (Silver) Ambalam, one of the five places where Shiva performed dance. The exact spot is on the right hand side when you enter Shiva’s shrine. Unlike the usual dance pose, here Shiva raises his right left, balancing on his left. He apparently did this as one of the Pandya king requested him to change his legs and he was worried that Shiva might be in pain keeping the left leg lifted for eons.
  5. The elephants around Shiva’s shrine
  6. The corridor around Shiva’s shrine houses a damaged Lingam. This was planted a decoy to fool the invading Muslim rulers who wanted to destroy the temple. The main shrines were covered in sand and made to look like a hillock. The fake Lingam was planted in a make shift temple. The temple remained hidden for almost 40 years. When the destruction threat receded and the temple was reopened, everyone was astonished to see that the flowers on the original deity were still fresh and the lamp was still burning.
  7. The walls around Shiva’s shrine are painted with murals depicting the 64 events He was part of.

Visit the temple early in the morning to enjoy the place without much rush. Avoid April-May unless you want to witness the Chithirai festival.

The official temple website is http://www.maduraimeenakshi.org/

My photos don’t do enough justice – I clicked them on my iPhone in poor lighting due to excess sun light and artificial lighting drowning out features of the sculptures. 

 

 

 

 

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