No text can do justice to the Meenakshi temple. The gigantic temple complex, the statues exploring the entire range of human emotions, everything here is larger than life. The Meenakshi temple complex is a city temple – 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 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.
The Sri Meenakshi Sundareswara temple and Madurai city originated together. According to tradition, Indra once committed sin when he killed a demon, who was then performing penance. He could find no relief from remorse in his own kingdom. He came down to earth. While passing through a forest of Kadamba trees in Pandya land, he felt relieved of his burden. His servitors told him that there was a Shivalinga under a Kadamba tree and beside a lake. Certain that it was the Linga that had helped him; he worshipped it and built a small temple around it. It is believed that it is this Linga, which is till under worship in the Madurai temple. The shrine is called the “Indra Vimana”.
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.
Paranjothi Munivar wrote the Tiruviayadal Puranam in the sixteenth century. It is regarded as the temple’s Sthalapurana. An earlier work adds a few celestial sports not included in the latter. These are, or rather were painted on the walls around the Golden Lily Tank. Some of the painted wooden panels are in the Temple Museum.
The earliest references available to any structure in this temple is a hymn of Sambhandar’s, in the seventh century, which refers to the “Kapali Madil”. The present inner walls of the Lords shrine bear this name today. In the early times the entire temple must have been confined to the area between these walls, and the structures must have been of brick and mortar.
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.
Ashta Sakthi 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.
A smaller Mandapa connects the large one with another large one with another large hall, called the “Samagam Meenakshi Naicker Mandapa”, after its builder, a minister of Vijayaranga Chokkanatha (1706-32), who erected in 1707. In former times the temple’s elephants camels and bulls used to be stabled here. A brass “Tiruvatchi” holding a thousand and eight lamps stands here, 7.6m high. Marudu Pandya, one of the early opponents of the growing British power, installed it.
The Meenakshi Naicker Mandapa is a huge hall, 42.9m long and 33.5m wide. It contains 110 stone columns, each 6.7m high. There are yalis in the capital and delicate reliefs below. Some of the carvings are unfinished.
The Mudali Pillai Mandapa follows the Chitra Gopura. Added in 1613, it is 183m long and 7.6m wide. On its wall are many puranic scenes. It used to be without any natural light, but windows were added in the last renovation.
The lovely and historic Golden Lily tank then comes into view. It is from its banks that most popular photographic views of the temple are taken, showing the gigantic south outer Gopura. The northern corridor leads directly to the shrine of the Goddess. On its pillars are the images of some of the Sangam poets, of Kulasekhara Pandya, the first builder of the temple, and of Dhananjaya, who figures in the traditional story of its origin. There is no fish in the tank.
The corridors around the tank are rightly called the “Chitra Mandapa”, for the walls carry paintings of the divine sports of the Lord, as narrated in the “Tiruvilayadal Puranam”. They have been renewed from time to time. A short while ago there were paintings on wooden panels affixed over an older series. They have since been removed to the Temple Museum in the thousand-pillared Mandapa, leaving some dilapidated murals to view. It is impossible to ascertain the date of these.
It was in the sixteenth century that the corridors and the steps leading down to the tank were constructed; the northern corridor and steps in 1562, those on the east in 1573, and those on the south five years later.
Two Mandapas, the Unjal and the Kilikatti, stand on the farther way to the shrine of the Goddess. On their ceilings are more paintings. A celebrated mural, opposite to the entrance of the shrine, depicts the marriage of Goddess Meenakshi. The Kilikatti Mandapa derives its name from the fact that there are parrots in a cage here. On its walls are carvings of the divine sports. The most ornamental of the temple’s Mandapas, it was built in 1623.
A Gopura of three tiers stands over the entrance from this Mandapa into the shrine of the Goddess. Built in 1227 by Vambathura Ananda Tandava Nambi, it is named the Vambuthurar Gopura after him. The shrine consists of a square sanctum, an Ardhamandapa and a Mukhamandapa. In the niches on the walls of the shrine are images of Iccasakthi in the south, Kriyasakthi in the west, and Jnanasakthi in the north. There are shrines of Vinayaka and Subramanya in the outer Prakara. They probably belong to the fifteenth century.
There are a number of historic shrines in the Prakaras. Opposite to an entrance into the first from the Mahamandapa there is one of Lord Sabhapathi. This is the famous Velliambalam where one of the Lord’s divine sports took place when, at the request of the sages, Patanjali and Vyagrapadha, He danced as Lord Nataraja.
In the second Prakara a shrine, now called that of the Sangam poets, contains images of many of them. In the same Prakara there is a shrine apparently dedicated to Kariyamanikka Perumal, but now empty. Also in the same Prakara there is a row of fourteen small shrines, called the “isvarams”. Many of them contain Lingas.
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.
The annual solemnization of the marriage of Meenakshi with Lord Sundareshwar (Shiva) is one of the most spectacular temple festivals at Madurai’s famous Meenakshi temple in Tamil Nadu. Car processions of the goddess and the god are some of the colourful features of this festival.
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.