Acknowledged as the finest, and one of the largest, Meenakshi Sundareswar
temple popularly known as Madurai Meenakshi temple is a magnificent example
of Dravidian architecture in India. It is located at the heart of Madurai
City, featured by an astonishing profusion of sculpted figures, ornamental
pillars and cloistered courtyards.
The history of the temple dates back to very ancient
times two to three thousand years ago, when Madurai was the capital of
the Pandya Kings. King Kulasekhara Pandya heard about a divine Siva Linga
under a Kadamba tree inside a forest, from a traveling devotee. He cleared
the forest, found the lingam and build a temple there. According to legends,
the 'swayambu' is believed to have been found by king of Gods Lord Indra
when he was wandering on earth due to a curse brought upon him by the
killing of a Brahmin, Vrithasura. He worshipped the 'swayambu' (Siva linga)
and was relieved of his curse.
The temple grew in status under the patronization of
Pandya rulers. But in the year 1310, the temple was almost completely
destroyed by the Muslim conqueror Malikkapur. It later regained its glory
in the14th century when the Vijayanagara empire came to power. The present
temple was designed by Vishwanatha Nayak in 1560 and was mostly built
during the reign of Tirumalai Nayak (1623-55 AD). Subsequently his grandson
added many imposing structures including some of the great entrance towers.
The temple grew to its present size and shape in a span of a hundred years,
from 1550 to 1650. This temple has two main shrines, one dedicated
to Parvathi in the form of Meenakshi (the fish eyed Goddess, consort of
Shiva) and the other to Shiva in the form of Sundareswar.
Apart from the two main shrines, the 15 acre temple
complex is surrounded by a number of small shrines, twelve large towers
(Gopuras), a sacred tank and numerous grand pillared halls (Mandapas). The
outer wall of the complex is 259m by 221m. There are five entrances to
the temple, the one on the south of the east gopuram is usually preferred
since it leads to the shrine of Goddess Meenakshi, who is the presiding
Towers or Gopurams
The twelve towers of the temple, some of them with a height of 45
to 50 meters, rise from solid granite bases and are covered with stucco
figures of deities, mythical animals and monsters painted in vivid colours. Among
the towers, four are 'Rajagopurams' or nine tier majestic towers with
painted sculptures. The 16th century southern gateway built by Siramalai
Sevanthi Murthy Chetti is the largest one with a height of nearly 50 meters,
with 1511 sculptures on it. From the top of this gopuram one can get a
panoramic view of Madurai city and the other remaining gopurams of the
temple. The west tower with 1,124 sculptures is 47m (154 ft) high and
was built by King Parakrama Pandian between 1315 and 1347. The north tower
was started by Krishnaveerappanaicker (1564-1572) and completed by the
family of Amaravathi Pudur Vayinagaram Nagappa Chetti in 1878. This tower
is 46m (152 ft) high and has 404 sculptures on it. The fourth rajagopuram
in the east built by King Maravarman Sundarapandian (1216-1238) is around
46m high and has 1011 sculptures depicting episodes from puranas. The
eight smaller gopurams are within the compounds of the twin temples. There
are also two golden pinnacles one on top of the two main shrines.
The Golden Lotus Tank
the complex, there is a scared tank of the Golden Lotus, which is older
than the temple itself. This pond is believed to be created by Lord Siva
by thrusting his 'soolam' into the earth and grants prosperity to all
who bathe in it. The rectangular stepped tank of length 240 and breadth
165 has a brass lamp in the centre, surrounded by pillared cloister. Statues
of Dhananjeya and Kulasekara Pandiya are carved on the pillar on the northern
side of the tank. The walls of the colonnade on the north and east are
decorated with dilapidated murals, representing the 64 legendary deeds
that Shiva performed in and around Madurai. The ceiling of the walkway
are painted with large medallions. Composition illustrating the
marriage of Shiva and Meenakshi, covers the ceiling of a small pavilion
that projects over the water on the west side of the tank. Several impressive
and sprawling halls surround the temple, like the Ashta Shakti Mandapam,
Meenakshi Naickar Mandapam, Kilikoondu Mandapam, Rani Mangammmal Mandapam,
Aayira kaal Mandapam (Thousand pillared Hall)etc.
Samagam Meenakshi Naickar Mandapa
This large hall 42.9m long and 33.5m wide used for shops and stores
is adjacent to Ashta Shakthi Mandapam This was built in 1708 by Meenakshi
Naickar. It contains 110 stone columns, arranged in six rows, each 6.7m
high carrying figures in the form of mythical beast yali. Some of the
carvings are unfinished. Its piers have lion brackets carrying suspended
beams. At the far end of this hall is a doorway surrounded by a brass
frame covered with oil lamps. The towered gateway here is on an axis with
the Meenakshi shrine further west.
On the west side of the golden lotus tank is the Unjal mandapam or
the Hall with swing. This mandapam was constructed by Thiruambala Chetti in1562. There
is another Unjal Mandapa built by Chettiyappa Naickar in 1563 opposite
to this. The presiding deities are worshipped on the swing here, every
Friday. There are paintings of the six abodes of Lord Muruga on the ceiling
of this Mandapa. A celebrated mural, opposite to the entrance of the shrine,
depicts the marriage of Goddess Meenakshi.
Killikoontu Mandapam or Sangili mandapam
Kilikoontu Mandapa or the hall of parrots, also on the west side of
the golden lotus tank was constructed in1623 by Abisheka Pandaram. The
parrots in the Kilikoontu Mandapam have been trained to chant Meenakshi's
name. The pillars of the mandapam are carved with excellent sculptures
of dragon like figures (yali) from Hindu mythology as well as idols of
the Pandavas and Draupadi. Hence this mandapa is also called yali mandapam. The
two shrines of Siddhivinayaka and Kumara are located here.
The Kambathadi Mandapa
It is an impressive hall with a seated Nandi within a pavilion, and
an altar and glided flagpole in the middle. This mandapa was built by
Krishna Veerappa Nayak (1572-95) and renovated in 1877 by the Nagarattars.
There are eight piers carved with outsized images of Natesha, Virabhadra,
Kali and other Shaiva deities. There are also the ten incarnations of
Lord Vishnu. The sculptures of the marriage of Goddess Meenakshi and Sundareshwar
being blessed by Vishnu and Brahma, and Shiva in his 24 forms are in this
mandapa, around the flagstaff in front on the Sundareswar Shrine.
Thousand Pillared Hall (Ayirakkal Mandapa)The
largest and the most spectacular mandapam in the temple, the Thousand
Pillar hall dates back from the mid 16th century. Built by Ariyanatha
Mudaliyar, this mandapa is situated near Veeravasantharayar Mandapam in
the north east corner of the temple. Measuring 75m (250 ft) by 72m (240
ft), this hall contains 985 beautifully sculptured pillars.
Each pillar is exquisitely carved out of a single circular
block of granite and sounds an arpeggio of musical notes when tapped.
These pillars have been so arranged that from whatever angle one looks
from within, they can be seen in rows. On every pillar there are
the entrance, there is an idol of Ariyanatha Mudaliar, facing south bestrides
a horse, erected in 1569. There is a large deity of Nataraja (dancing
Siva) at the far end of the hall and at the centre, an idol of Lord Sabapati.
Among the sculptures are Kannapur, Lord Shiva destroying an asura, four
armed goddess riding a bird and sculptures of Pichadanar, Dharman, Beeman,
Rathi and Veerpathirar, carvings of Agni, Manmadan, Purushamirukam,
Arjunan and Mohini, yalis and Hunter, as well as that of two Dwarapalakars,
Statues of Thiripurandhakar, Nirutha Ganapathy with an urn containing
ambrosia, Lord Muruga on peacock, Nagaraja, Saraswathy etc. On the
roof of the entrance there is a wheel, representing 60 years in the Tamil
An art museum was established in this hall in
1966, with exhibits of temple art and architecture, fine brass, five metal
and stone images, friezes and photos, religious icons, antique coins etc.
Images include a mounted warrior, dancing bearded man and gypsy woman.
A corridor lined with rearing yalis, female musicians and attendants leads
to an impressive bronze image of the dancing Shiva and paintings depicting
the 64 miracles performed by Lord Sokkanathar, are raised on the dais
at the north end of the hall. Instructive copies of the murals surrounding
the Potramarai Kulam are also exhibited. The visiting time here is 8 am
to 8 pm.
Built in 1635 by Tirumala Nayak, the Pudumandapa (new hall) stands
outside the Meenakshi Temple, on an axis with the east gopura. It is a
large hall, 100m by 32m, and contains hundred and twenty four pillars.
Large fully modelled icons of Kali and Natesha mark the end of the front
corridor. Here too, there is a composition illustrating the wedding of
Goddess Meenakshi with Sundareshvara, attended by Vishnu. The side aisles
have lofty ceilings carried on brackets fashioned as seated yalis. The
interior of the Pudu Mandapa opens up into a large space. The columns
are carved with robust royal figures, portraying all of the Nayaka rulers
and their ministers.
Built by Vijayaranga Chokkanatha Nayak (1706-1732) in the eighteenth century,
the hall contains excellent woodwork. It was originally open on all sides.
The teak roof have paintings depicting miracles of Lord Siva. In
the center of the hall, there is a large platform, where annually the
marriage of the Lord and the Goddess used to be held. Now the wedding
takes place in the new wedding hall, and afterwards the deities are kept
in this Mandap to bless the devotees. On two of the walls are two huge
paintings of the 'two worlds' of Hindu cosmogony, each about 1.8m in diameter.
The golden chariot of the temple is kept in this mandapam and the
golden chariot procession also starts from this mandapam.
Rani Mangammal Mandapa
There is another hall on the western tank called the Rani Mangammal Mandapa
which has paintings showing the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundara and
also from Ramayana and Mahabharata. It contains several paintings dating
from Rani Mangammal's period.
Built by Krishna Veerappa Naicker, this mandapa is situated in the
second corridor of the Amman Sannithi (Meenakshi shrine)
on the western side. The Bomma Kolu (rows of idols and toys) is
displayed here during the Navarathri festival.