Madurai’s prime attraction is the Meenakshi-Sundereswerar Temple. Originally built by King Kulasekara Pandian in the 6th century BC, the temple achieved its near perfect status under the Nayaka dynasty during the golden era of Tamil art and culture (16th-18th centuries). More than a religious structure, it is a repository of Tamil culture and played a pivotal role in the development of literature, art, music and dance.
Tamil temple architecture achieved its absolute zenith in the Meenakshi-Sundereswarar Temple at Madurai. Perfectly proportioned with four tall gopurams decorated with life size sculptures of gods and goddesses and detailed reliefs, the Meenakshi Temple is best known for its famous thousand pillar hall. Each stone pillar is elaborately carved and surpasses the other in beauty and style. Those with the patience to count the pillars will make the interesting discovery that there are actually only 985 pillars, so what happened to the other 15?!
The tallest four gopurams form the outer square; the southern gopuram is the tallest at 50m. Open to visitors, the gopuram has a magnificent bird’s eye view of Madurai, the temple complex, and especially the vimanas (roof of the sanctum) of the two shrines dedicated to Shiva and his consort, Parvati in her avatar as Meenakshi. The twin temples have four gopurams apiece, smaller than the four outer gopurams but equally rich in ornamentation.
Though there are five entrances to the temple, the eastern gate, the Meenakshi Sannadhi is the one commonly used. Incidentally, it’s the only one without a gopuram! The Ashta Shakti Mandapam is the first stop for visitors. Built by Queen Rudrapathi Ammal and Queen Tholimamai, the hall was used to distribute food to devotees. The pillars of the hall are engraved with incidents from the life of Meenakshi, princess of Madurai alongside stories depicting tiruvilayadals, the miraculous feats performed by Lord Shiva.
Adjacent to the Ashta Shakti Mandapam is the 110 pillared Meenakshi Nayakkar Mandapam with the famous stone yallis (body of a lion with head of an elephant) topping each pillar. Close by is the most artistic gopuram of them all, the Chitra Gopuram decorated with nearly 750 miniature sculptures, each one more exquisite than the other. The ceiling of the Rani Mangammal Mandapam is gaily painted with scenes depicting the wedding of Meenakshi and Sundereswarar (Shiva). The details show Lord Brahma performing the ceremony attended by richly dressed gods and goddesses. The artists obviously found inspiration in the traditional Tamil wedding with all the associated glitter and gloss.
The black marble hall opposite the Rani Mangammal Mandapam holds a swing from which it derives its name, Oonjal (swing) Mandapam. Each Friday, temple priests carry the 16th century gold idols of Meenakshi and Sundereswaram from their respective temples for a ceremonial swing. Priests make offerings to the divine couple; hymns are sung in praise of the deities before they are returned to their sanctums with due solemnity.
A pillared corridor rings the Golden Lotus Tank, the Potramaraikulam that is integral to the legend of the origin of the shrine and so, as venerable as the temple itself. Devotees walk down stone steps to bathe in its hallowed waters and cleanse themselves. The tank is also associated with the Tamil Sangam, the legendary literary institution that tested the merit of works submitted to it by tossing them into the tank! If the manuscript sank, it was a literally a washout!
The thousand pillar hall, Ayirankkal Mandapam with its exquisitely carved 985 pillars is definitely the highlight of the Meenakshi Temple. It is believed the Nayaka kings set up a factory to produce the pillars, but these are certainly off no production line. Each pillar is a work of art depicting images of gods and goddesses as well as humbler men and women. Elaborate and intricate in design, the pillars also serve a more useful purpose. They support the roof over a 5548sq mt hallway. The mandapam houses the Temple Art Museum with a fine collection of images, drawings and photographs showing the 1200 year old history of temple architecture in South India.
The temple is a masterpiece of Dravidian craftsmanship. The renowned Meenakshi temple is the pulse of the throbbing city of Madurai.
Vasonthosavam Spring Festival is celebrated in the Meenakshi temple every year during the months of April and May. Other festivals include Avanimool Festival which is held in the months of September and October, when temple cars are drawn around the streets of Madurai and Teppam Festival also known as the annual float festival is held in the months of January and February.
Chithirai festival, a 12 day festival held during the months of April and May, celebrates the marriage of Shree Meenakshi to Lord Sundereswara. On the occasion, an elaborately decorated chariot bearing the images of the divine couple is taken around the city.