Meenakshi Amman Temple, also known as Minakshi-Sundareshwara Temple, is one of the oldest and most important temples in India. Located in the city of Madurai, the temple has a great mythological and historical significance.
Located in the heart of the city of Madurai, the Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar temple is dedicated to goddess Meenakshi, the consort of lord Shiva. It has long been the focus of both Indian and International tourist attraction as well as one of the most important places of Hindu pilgrimage. For the people of Madurai, the temple is the very center of their cultural and religious life.
Built in the Dravidian style. The ancient city of Madurai, more than 2,500 years old, was built by the Pandyan king, Kulashekarar, in the 6th century B.C. But the reign of the Nayaks marks the golden period of Madurai when art, architecture and learning flourished expansively. The most beautiful buildings in the city including its most famous landmark, the Meenakshi temple, were built during the Nayak rule.
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During his reign, many ‘Mandapams’ (pillared halls) were built. The temple was then expanded by many later Nayaka rulers before the advent of the British East India Company. The temple was once again degraded and parts of it were destroyed during the British Rule. In 1959, the restoration work wass started by Tamil Hindus by collecting donations and by collaborating with historians and engineers. The temple was completely restored in 1995.
According to a legend, Meenakshi emerged out of a ‘Yajna’ (sacred fire) as a three-year-old girl. The ‘Yajna’ was performed by a king named Malayadwaja Pandya along with his wife Kanchanamalai. Since the royal couple had no child, the King offered his prayers to Lord Shiva, requesting him to grant them a son. But to their dismay, a triple-breasted girl emerged from the sacred fire. When Malayadwaja and his wife expressed their concern over the girl’s abnormal appearance, a divine voice ordered them not to fret over the girl’s physical appearance. They were also informed that the girl’s third breast will disappear as soon as she meets her future husband. The relieved King named her Meenakshi and in due course crowned her as his successor.
Meenakshi ruled over the ancient city of Madurai and also went on to capture the neighboring kingdoms. Legend has it that she even captured Indralok, the abode of Lord Indra, and was on her way to capture Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva, as well. When Shiva appeared before her, Meenakshi’s third breast disappeared and she knew that she had met her better half. Shiva and Meenakshi returned to Madurai where their wedding took place. It is said that the wedding was attended by all the gods and goddesses. Since Parvati herself had assumed the form of Meenakshi, Lord Vishnu, Parvati’s brother, handed her over to Lord Shiva. Even today, the wedding ceremony is celebrated every year as ‘Chithirai Thiruvizha’ which is also known as ‘Tirukalyanam’ (the grand wedding). The two ruled over the kingdom for many years before they left for their heavenly abode from the spot where the temple now stands.
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The temple occupies a huge area in the heart of Madurai as it spreads over 14 acres. The temple is enclosed with huge walls, which were built in response to the invasions. The entire structure, when viewed from above, represents a mandala. Famous as one of the largest temples in South India, the Minakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple has a spectacular architecture with spellbinding murals all around.
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Two principal sanctuaries (accessible only by Hindus) sit at the center of the temple complex: one dedicated to Meenakshi (who is considered a manifestation of the goddess Parvati), and another dedicated to Sundareshwara or “Beautiful Lord” (a form of the god Shiva). A gold finial, visible only from a high vantage point, caps each of these sanctuaries. Fronting each sanctuary is a mandapa (a pillared, porch-like structure) that pilgrims pass through as they make their way to the garbagriha (the innermost sacred areas of the sanctuary).
The temple has four main towering gateways (gopurams) that look identical to each other. Apart from the four ‘gopurams,’ the temple also houses many other ‘gopurams’ that serve as gateways to a number of shrines. The temple has a total of 14 towering gateways. Each one of them is a multi-storey structure and displays thousands of mythological stories and several other sculptures. It has 4 Raja gopurams, 2 gold gopurams, 1 Chithirai gopuram, 5 five-floored gopurams and 2 three-floored ones, which are all majestic in appearance.
The tallest gopura rises to approximately 170 feet and contains more than 1500 figures that are repaired and repainted every twelve years. This multitude of brightly-colored figures excites some visitors and repels others. It is likely that most Hindu temples (just like their ancient Greek and Egyptian counterparts) were painted in vibrant hues, and many are still today.
The most popular fact about the temple is that it is home to a hall that has a thousand pillars, a sacred pool with a golden lotus where you can take a ritual bath, a wedding hall, innumerable small shrines, gardens, and elephant sheds. The temple is so beautifully maintained that it was recognized as the ‘Best Swachh Iconic Place’ in India in 2017 by the Central Government.
Renowned for its astonishing architecture, Meenakshi Temple was nominated as one of the wonders of the world, but couldn’t make it into the list of ‘Seven Wonders of the World’. However, the temple is definitely one of the ‘Wonders of India’.
Heart of Madurai
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The Meenakshi Temple is in many ways a microcosm of the earthly and spiritual characteristics of Hindu India. It is bustling, crowded, and filled with people from all walks of life. It is said that the people of the city wake up, not by the call of nature but by the chant of hymns at the temple.
The temple’s shrines, pillars, sculptures, and paintings are populated with a dazzling quantity of divine beings who engage in various activities, can manifest in multiple guises and places simultaneously, and are subject to dissolution and rebirth. On the famous gopuras, figures of gods and goddesses are repeated as though reincarnated many times over as they rise towards the heavens, symbolically preventing the defilements of the everyday world from polluting the sacred spaces within.
The Meenakshi Temple is the physical center of the city of Madurai as well as its economic, mythical, and spiritual heart. Its importance radiates outward from the central shines through Madurai to the entire Tamil-speaking region in south India, and beyond. Modernity has reached the city, but not at the cost of its rich culture and tradition.
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