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Madurai in Tamilnadu State is one of the great temple towns of southern India. The city is synonymous with the celebrated Meenakshi Temple. Situated on the banks of river Vaigai River, Madurai has a rich 2500 years old cultural heritage from the great Tamil Era. It was an important cultural and commercial center even as early as 550 CE. It was the capital city for the great Pandya kings. The Pandyan King Kulasekarar built a great temple and created a lotus shaped city around the temple. The Mythological explanation of the name of the city is interesting. On the day the city was to be named, as Lord Shiva blessed the land and its people, divine nectar (Madhu) was showered on the city from his matted locks. This city was henceforth known as Madhurapuri. Madurai is famous for Jasmine Flowers.
Madurai is one of the oldest cities of India, with a history dating all the way back to the Sangam period of the pre Christian era and the very early Christian era. The glory of Madurai returned in a diminished form in the earlier part of this millennium; it later on came under the rule of the Vijayanagar Empire after the ravaging armies of the Delhi Sultanate under Malik Kafur ransacked it. During the 16th and 18th centuries, Madurai was ruled by the Nayak rulers, the foremost of whom was Tirumalai Nayakar. The Sangam Period poet Nakkeerar is associated with some of the Tiruvilayaadal episodes of Sundareswarar - that are enacted during the temple festival celebrations.
The Sangam Period or the Golden age of Tamil literature produced masterpieces in the Pre Christian era and in early first Millennium. Madurai was the seat of the Tamil Sangam or Academy of learning. The entire city of Madurai is built around the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple. Concentric rectangular streets surround the temple, symbolizing the structure of the cosmos. Megasthanes visited Madurai as early as the third century BCE. Later many travelers from Rome and Greece visited Madurai and established trade relationship with the Pandya rulers. Until the Cholas, the arch rivals of the Pandyas, captured it in tenth century CE, Madurai was a great temple and trading city.
The Cholas ruled Madurai from 920 CE until the beginning of the 13th century. In 1223 CE Pandyas regained their kingdom and once again the city become prosperous. Pandyan rulers patronized the Tamil language and literature. During their period, many of the classic Tamil masterpieces were composed. The story of Kannagi who burnt Madurai as a result of the injustice caused to her husband Kovalan, forms the basis of the great Tamil epic Silapathikaram. In April 1311, Malik Kafur, the commander of Sultan Alauddin Khilji of Delhi raided and robbed the Madurai for its precious stones, jewels, and other rare treasures in its famous temple and in the houses of the affluent residents of the city. Attracted by the fabulous riches that he looted, many subsequent Islamic Sultans followed suit. Under the rulers of Tughlaq Dynasty in 1323 the entire Pandya Kingdom including the famed city of Madurai became a province of the Delhi Empire for a short period. The Vijayanagar Dynasty of Hampi (in Karnataka) captured Madurai in 1371 to incorporate it in their vast empire. Vijayanagar Dynasty had a tradition of appointing local Nayaks or governors in the territories that they conquered. They considered this way of administration very efficient because they did not have to deal with day to day situations in their vast territories. The Nayaks had to pay a fixed amount to the Vijayanagar Empire in return for their safety and wellbeing. After the death of Krishna Deva Raya of Vijayanagar Empire in 1530 the Nayaks asserted their independence and ruled the local territories as sovereign monarchs. In Madurai Thirumalai Nayak who ruled from 1623 to 1659 was immensely popular. Most of the architectural wonders of Madurai and its surrounding areas date from his period. The Raja Gopuram of the Meenakshi Amman Temple, The Pudu Mandapam and Palace of Thirumalai Nayakar are some of the monuments that are testimony of his artistic and architectural fervor. With the gradual development of British political power in southern India, Madurai slipped into the territories of British East India Company. In 1781 they appointed a representative to administer Madurai. George Procter was their first collector in Madurai. After independence of India Madurai became one of the major districts of the new Tamil Nadu State. Within Tamil Nadu Madurai is the second biggest conglomeration of the state that elects 15 members to the State Legislative Assembly and 2 members of Lok Sabha, the Indian Parliament.
Among the Nayaka rulers the name of a female monarch is a unique and extraordinary phenomenon. Rani Mangammal was such an extraordinary queen regent. Mangammal was the daughter of Lingama Nayaka, a commander of the king Chokkanatha Nayaka, who ruled Madurai from 1659 to 1682. Although Chokkanatha married Mangammal very early, she became the principal queen only after all his efforts to marry the daughter of the Thanjavur ruler Vijayaraghava Nayaka failed.
She ascended the throne at a very difficult period in the history of Madurai. The army of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb was stationed just outside the Gingee Fort ready to invade Thanjavur and Madurai with all their might. While her husband, Chokkanatha Nayaka, was still alive, the rulers of Mysore had started a campaign to expand their territory in the south. The Raja of Travancore in south Kerala had stopped paying tribute to Madurai rulers. In the eastern Tamil Nadu, Raghunatha Thevar, the ruler of Ramanad had revolted in a bid to gain independence. When Chokkanatha Nayaka died in 1682, his son Rengakrishna Muthu Veerappa, a spirited youth ascended the throne of Madurai. He was courageous in his dealings with Emperor Aurangzeb. But he died very young in 1689. His queen was pregnant with his son, Vijayranga Chokkanatha. She was so bereaved by the death of her husband that she committed suicide after delivering the son. Rani Mangammal was forced to take over the reign as the regent of her grandson who was crowned at just three months of age.
Zulfikar Ali Khan, the commander of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had laid a siege of the Gingee Fort, where the Maratha ruler Rajaram, son of the famous Maratha Warrior Shivaji, was entrenched. Rajaram sent an army to Madurai to demand the territory of Thanjavur. The Marathas had taken Thanjavur during the reign of Chokkanatha Nayaka, Rani Mangammal’s husband. The Rani did not have many options because her kingdom was surrounded by rulers who had their eyes on Madurai or at least parts of Madurai. In eastern Tamil Nadu Raghunatha Thevar was ruling Ramanad. He also saw this opportunity to revolt against Madurai. Rani Mangammal kept her cool in these trying circumstances. She paid tribute to Rajaram, the Maratha ruler but at the same time sought the help of the Mughal commander, Zulfikar Ali Khan to take back the territories lost. Chikkadevaraya, the ruler of Mysore, sent his famous commander, Dalavoy Kumariyya to invade Tiruchi. Fortunately Dalavoy Kumariyya had to be called back because the Marathas attacked Mysore. In 1697 she sent her army to Travancore to demand tribute from Raja Ravi Varma . In 1700 her commander, Dalavoy Narasappiah defeated the Thanjavur army. There were friendly relations between Thanjavur and Madurai for some time and they united against the aggression of Mysore rulers. But her great failure was the battle with Raghunatha Sethupathi, in which her commander, Dalavoy Narasappiah died. She never recovered from this loss and died in 1706. With her political wisdom, diplomatic skill, administrative ability and cool courage in facing danger, she was able to maintain the prestige of Madurai and regain for it much of the position it had held during the days of Tirumala Nayaka.
Despite all the military activity in and around her kingdom Rani Mangammal administered the civil, trade and industrial matters very effectively. She had many irrigation canals and new roads constructed. She also had trees planted on either side of main roads. Her palace still stands in Madurai and is used as the Mahatma Gandhi Museum. Although she was personally very devout Hindu, she was very liberal in her state policy towards Muslims and also towards the newly converted Christians as well as the Christian missionaries.
Meenakshi Temple is one of largest temples in Tamil Nadu. It is dedicated to Shiva in his Sundereshvara form and his consort Parvati in her Meenakshi form. It was originally constructed by Kulasekara Pandya but it has been restored and expanded many times. Much of the present temple was constructed during the reign of Nayaks in 18th century. There is a very high wall enclosing the massive temple complex that has twelve very impressive Gopurams, the typical south Indian temple towers that function as gates. The Gopurams have solid granite stone foundations. The exterior of these Gopurams is covered with very colorful, beautifully carved idols of Hindu deities as well as mythical monsters and animals.
The twelve Gopurams are landmarks of Madurai. Of these four Gopurams have nine stories:
The East Gopuram has a total height of 161 feet and 3 inches with 1011 Sudhai figures.
The South Gopuram has a total height of 170 feet and 6 inches with 1511 Sudhai figures
The West Gopuram has a total height of 163 feet and 3 inches with 1124 Sudhai figures
The North Gopuram has a total height of 160 feet and 6 inches with much lesser Sudhai figures
These Gopurams indicate the entrance to the temple complex at the four cardinal points, while lesser Gopurams lead to the sanctums of the main deities. Stucco Workon the figures of deities on the Gopurams are repaired, repainted and ritually re-consecrated every 12 years.
Ashta Shakthi Mandapam is the huge assembly hall that a visitor to the Meenakshi Temple arrives at when entering through its eastern gateway. Rudrapathi Ammal and Tholimamai, the two wives of Thirumalai Nayakar had this Mandapam constructed. During the reign of Nayaks food used to be distributed to everyone who came from distant regions. Next to this hall is the Meenakshi Nayaka Mandapa, a spacious columned hall used for shops and stores. This hall has a votive lamp-holder with 1,008 lamps, which are lit on festive occasions and present a spectacular sight. The sculptures on the pillars here relate some of Lord Shiva's Thiruvilayadals (miracles) and also the interesting story of Meenakshi's birth and her life as the princess of Madurai. Her story is: Malayadwaja Pandya, a king of Madurai , was childless for a long time. He performed a number of Yagnas (sacrifices made before a sacred fire) to obtain an heir to his throne. On one occasion, a three-year-old girl came out of the fire and Malayadwaja welcomed her to his family. But the girl had three breasts and this worried Malayadwaja. However, a divine voice assured him that the third breast would disappear as soon as she met her consort. The girl grew into a brave and beautiful princess. She won many battles, but eventually lost her heart to Lord Shiva, when she met him on the Kailash peak. As soon as she saw him, her third breast disappeared and she recognized her divine consort, for the princess was none other than Shiva's consort, Parvathi. After ruling over the Pandya kingdom for a while, they settled in the Madurai temple as Meenakshi and Sundareswarar.
Meenakshi Nayakkar Mandapam: This big hall is adjacent to Ashta Shakthi Mandapam and has 110 pillars carrying the figures of a peculiar animal with a lion's body , and an elephant's head called Yalli.
Potramaraikulam (golden lotus pool): This temple pool is an ancient ritual place where devotees take bath in the holy water at festive occasions. The area around this pool was the meeting place of the Tamil Sangam - the ancient academy of poets. Although the origin of the Tamil Sangam is lost in mythology, all scholars believe it to be an ancient literary institution in Tamil Nadu. There is a popular myth that the academy judged the worth of any work of literature presented before it by throwing it into the pool. Only those that did not sink were considered worthy of attention. This is probably just a myth but the Tamil Sangam is certainly a historical academy. The pool is surrounded by a pillared corridor. Steps lead down to the pool, enabling worshippers to bathe in it.
Oonjal (swing) Mandapam and Killikoontu (parrot cage) Mandapam are on the western side of the pool. 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 on every Friday. The parrots in the Kilikoontu Mandapam have been trained to repeat Meenakshi's name. The twenty-eight pillars of the Mandapam have exquisitely carved sculptures of figures from Hindu mythology.
Swami Sundareswarar Shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva, the consort of Goddess Meenakshi is to the north of Kilikoontu Mandapam. A gigantic idol of Shri Ganesh called Mukkurini Pillaiyar in Tamil precedes the shrine of Lord Shiva. This idol was found in an excavation done by Thirumalai Nayakar about two miles away from the Meenakshi Temple. It was brought to the temple and placed there with the traditional rituals.
In the outer Pragaram (corridor outside the main shrine) there is a stump of the Kadamba tree that is said to be part of the same tree under which Indra worshipped the Shiva Lingam. Also in the outer corridor there are the Kadambathadi Mandapam and big hall called Velli Ambalam. An idol of Nataraja, Shiva in his form as the Lord of Dance is placed here. This idol of Nataraja is covered with silver leaves giving this hall the name of Velli Ambalam (Silver Hall).
The Thousand Pillar Mandapam is one of most important attractions in this temple. The real number of the beautifully carved columns is actually 985. These columns are sculpted in traditional Dravidian style. An interesting collection of idols, photographs and drawings is exhibited in a Temple Art Museum in this hall depicting the 1200 year old history of this temple. There are many other Mandapams in this temple. Each pillar just outside this Mandapam produces a different musical note giving the place its name of Musical Pillars area. The ritual marriage of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati is celebrated every year during the festival of Chitiral in mid-April in the Kalyana Mandapa that is just south of this pillared hall.
Vasantha Mandapam was constructed under the patronage of Thirumalai Nayakar. The spring festival of Vasanthosavam is celebrated in this Mandapam in Vaisaki month of Hindu calendar that coincides with months of April or May. The columns in this Manadapam depict scenes from the marriage of Lord Shiva and Meenakshi along with figures of ten Nayak rulers and their queens.
Mariammam Teppakulam is a pool about 3 miles from Meenakshi Temple where there is an idol of Vinayaka or Vigneshwara installed on an island platform in its middle.
Tirumalai Nayak Mahal is about half a mile from Meenakshi Temple. The magnificent building was constructed in the Indo-Saracenic architecture style in 1523. It was originally about four times larger than it is at present. The Swarga Vilasam in this palace is most remarkable. The 66 feet high ceiling is not supported by its walls. There are two sound and light shows depicting the life of Tirumalai Nayak and the Tamil classic story of Silappathikaram in this palace every evening in English and Tamil languages.
Rani Mangammal’s palace houses the Gandhi Museum that has a collection of exhibits depicting the history of India’s freedom struggle. A Museum shop has books on Mahatma Gandhi and the struggle for India’s independence.
Thirupparankunram is a place about 5 miles from Madurai where the Pandyan rock-cut shrines from eighth century CE and a later Nayak period Hindu temple are located. The Subramanya cave has a temple dedicated to goddess Durga with idols of Ganesh and Subramanya on her sides. It is located on top of a hill.
Azhagar Koil is 21 kilometers or 13 miles north of Madurai. It is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu on top of a very picturesque wooded hill called Algarmalai.
Koodal Alagar Temple in another Vaishnava temple about 1 mile west of Madurai that has idols of Lord Vishnu in sitting, standing and reclining poses.
Events & festivals of Madurai:
The Chittirai Festival celebrates the marriage of Sundareshvara and his consort, Meenakshi in the months of April or May. During this festival a ritual marriage of Lord Shiva and his consort is held. It is followed by a very elaborate procession of the two deities on a chariot accompanied by beautifully decorated elephants and resounding notes of Nadaswaram and Mradangam Tamil drum instruments.
Avanimoola Festival is held in late August or early September to mark the coronation of Lord Shiva. It is celebrated by enacting the classical Tamil plays based on Hindu mythology and the legend associated with the Meenakshi Temple. It is also followed by a procession.
Teppam or the Float Festival that is held in January/February in the Meenakshi Temple lasts for twelve days of which the last two days are most spectacular. Tirumalai Nayak is believed to have started this tradition to mark his birthday. During this festival the idols of Meenakshi and Sundareshvara are decorated with flowers and placed on illuminated floats to be carried to the Mariammam Teppakkulam Pool accompanied by classical Tamil music and Vedic chants.
Panguni Festival is a fourteen-day annual event in the Tirupparankundram Temple that is held during the months of April and May to mark the coronation and marriage of Lord Subramanya and his consort, the Devyani, the daughter of god Indra. The deities from Meenakshi Temple are taken in procession during this festival.
Taj Gateway Hotel Pasumalai – 63 rooms
Heritage Madurai Hotel - 64 rooms (free WiFi)
GRT Regency Hotel – 57 rooms (Free WiFi)
Fortune Hotel Pandiyan - 57 rooms
Best Western Germanus Hotel – 84 rooms
Hotel Sangam – 50 rooms
Madurai Residency Hotel - 74 rooms
Hotel M. R. International – 48 rooms
Hotel Supreme – 69 rooms
Park Plaza Hotel – 55 rooms
Days Inn Germanus – 63 rooms
Royal Court – 70 rooms
Distance from Madurai in Kilometers and Miles:
Thekkady: 160 Kilometers or 99 Miles
Chennai: 444 Kilometers or 276 Miles
Coimbatore: 217 Kilometers or 152 Miles
Kanyakumari: 235 Kilometers or 168 Miles
Kochi: 270 Kilometers or 168 Miles
Pondicherry: 324 Kilometers or 201 Miles
Mysore: 382 Kilometers or 237 Miles
Rameshwaran: 172 Kilometers or 107 Miles
Thanjavur: 163 Kilometers or 107 Miles
Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram): 264 Kilometers or 164 Miles
Kanyakumari: 235 Kilometers or 146 Miles
Thrissur: 303 Kilometers or 188 Miles
Tiruchchirapalli: 128 Kilometers or 79 Miles