Madurai or "the city of nectar" is the oldest and second largest city of Tamil Nadu. This city is located on Vaigai River and was the capital of Pandyan rulers. The Pandyan king, Kulasekhara had built a gorgeous temple around which he created a lotus shaped city. It has been a center of learning and pilgrimage, for centuries. Legend has it that the divine nectar falling from Lord Shiva's locks gave the city its name - 'Madhurapuri', now known as "Madurai".
The Sri Meenakshi Sundareswara temple and Madurai City originated together. The structures that are standing today date mostly from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. They occupy a vast space, 258-m by 241m. There are the two main shrines, no less than twelve Gopuras, a pool and innumerable Mandapas. At every turn there is superb sculpture, magnificent architecture.
The Meenakshi temple complex is one of the largest and certainly one of the most ancient. According to legend Madurai is the actual site where the wedding between Shiva and Meenakshi took place. The gigantic temple complex, the statues exploring the entire range of human emotions, everything here is larger than life. The soaring and exquisitely carved towers enclose the temple dedicated to Meenakashi. The south gateway contains the twin temples of Shiva and Meenakshi and is about nine storeys high.
Once Dhananjaya, a merchant of Manavur, where the Pandyas had arrived after the second deluge in Kumari Kandam, having been overtaken by nightfall in Kadamba forest, spent the night in the Indra Vimana. When next morning he woke up, he was surprised to see signs of worship. Thinking that it must be the work of the Devas, he told the Pandya, Kulasekhara, in Manavur, of this. Meanwhile Lord Shiva had instructed Pandya in a dream to build a temple and a city at the spot Dhananjaya would indicate. Kulasekhara did so. Thus originated the temple and city.
In the 14th century an invasion by Malik Kafur damaged the temple. In the same century Madurai was under Muslim rule for nearly fifty years. The temple authorities closed the sanctum, covered up the Linga, and set up another in the Ardhamandapa. When the city was liberated, the sanctum was opened, and, tradition says the flower garlands and the sandalwood paste placed on the Linga were as fresh as on the first day, and two oil lamps were still burning.
Inside Meenakshi temple
Ashta Sakthi Mandapa :
This Mandapa is a convention in this temple, different from that followed in others, that the devotee offers worship first to Goddess Meenakshi. Therefore, while there are four other entrances into the temple, under huge Gopuras in the four cardinal directions, it is customary to enter not through any of them but through a Mandapa, with no tower above it. This entrance leads directly to the shrine of the Goddess.
This Mandapa is an impressive structure, with a hemispherical ceiling. It is 14m long and 5.5m wide. There are bas-reliefs all over the place. Over the entrance one of them depicts the marriage of Goddess Meenakshi with Lord Somasundara. The Mandapa derives its name, the "Ashta Sakthi", from the fact it contains sculptures of the eight Sakthis (also spelt as Shakti). Those of the four principal Nyanmars were added during renovation of the temple in 1960-63.
Closer View, Meenakshi temple
Meenakshi Nayakkar Mandapam :
This hall 42.9m long and 33.5m wide is adjacent to Ashta Shakthi Mandapam. It contains 110 stone columns, each 6.7m high carrying the figures of a peculiar animal with a lion's body, and an elephant's head called Yalli.
Potramaraukulam (Golden Lotus Tank) :
This temple tank is an ancient tank where devotees take bath in the holy water. The corridors around the tank are rightly called the Chitra Mandapa, for the walls carry paintings of the divine sports of the Lord. The area around this tank was the meeting place of the Tamil Sangam - the ancient academy of poets.This academy judged the worth of any work of literature presented before it by throwing it into the tank. Only those that did not sink were considered worthy of attention. The tank is surrounded by a pillared corridor. Steps lead down to the tank, enabling worshippers to take bathe in it.
The Thousand Pillar Mandapam :
It is the 'wonder of the place', Actually the number of pillars count to 985. Each pillar is sculptured and is a monument of the Dravidan sculpture. There is a Temple Art Museum in this 1000 pillars hall where you can see icons, photographs, drawings, etc., exhibiting the 1200 years old history. There are so many other smaller and bigger mandapams in the temple.
Just outside this mandapam, towards the west, are the Musical Pillars. Each pillar when stuck, Produces a different musical notes.
Vasantha Mandapam :
This mandapam was built by Thirumalai Nayakkar. Vasanthosavam - the Spring festival-is celebrated in this mandapam in Vaikasi (April/May). Its pillars contain elaborate sculptures of Shiva, Meenakshi, scenes from their wedding as well as the figures of ten of the Nayak Kings and their consorts. This is also called Pudhu Mandapam.
Oonjal Mandapam :
Two Mandapas, the Unjal (swing) and the Kilikatti (parrot cage), are on the western side of the tank. On their ceilings are more paintings. The Kiliatti Mandapa has on its walls the carvings of the divine sports. The most ornamental of the temple's Mandapas, it was built in 1623.
Every Friday, the golden idols of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar are seated on the swing in the Oonjal Mandapam and hymns are sung as the deities gaily swing to and fro. The parrots in the Kilikoontu Mandapam have been trained to repeat Meenakshi's name. But more interesting are the 28 pillars of the mandapam which exhibit some excellent Sculptures of figures from Hindu mythology.
Swami Sundareswarar Shrine :
Lord Sundareswarar (Shiva) the consort of Goddess Meenakshi is to the north of Kilikoontu Mandapam . On your way you can worship a gigantic idol of Sri Ganesh called Mukkurini Pillaiyar. When the king Thirumalai Nayakar excavated a temple tank 3 km from Meenakshi temple he unearthed this idol of Vinayaka and erected the same here.
In the outer pragaram (corridor outside the main shrine) there is stump of the kadamba tree, which is said to be a part of the same tree under which Indra worshipped Shiva linga. Also in the outer corridor there are the Kadambathadi Mandapam and big hall called ' Velli Ambalam' . Here, An idol of Nataraja (Shiva as the Lord of Dance) is seen. This idol of Nataraja is covered with silver leaves. Hence this hall is named as Velli Ambalam (Silver Hall)..
The famous festivals held at Madurai, include Teppam festival, the annual Float Festival, wherein the images of Sri Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswara (also spelt as Sundreshwara) are mounted on floats, and taken to Mariamman Teppakkulam Tank, where for several days they are pulled back and forth across the water in the middle of the tank, on an illuminated raft embellished with flowers, before being taken back to the main temple.
Meenaskhi Kalyanam, the wedding festival of Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareshwar is celebrated for twelve days from the second day of the lunar month (i.e. two days after the new moon). This is a spectacular festival celebrated in the month of Chaitra (April-May). The festival is characterized with royal decorated umbrellas, fans and traditional instrumental music. Scenes from mythology are enacted and the deities of Lord Shiva, Goddess Shakti and Goddess Meenakshi are taken out in a colourful procession. Thousands of devotees from all over the country gather in the city of Madurai on this occasion.