Thursday 11 August 2011

Madurai Meenakshi Temple

Madurai: The Athens of the EastMadurai evokes a vision of great temple towers.This is natural as it shelters one of the most grandiose specimen of temple architecture in South India. Much of South-India’s claim as a cultural destination hinges on the Meenakshi temple, which attracts visitors from far and near, not merely the devout, but scholars, students of architecture, as well as connoisseurs.
Yet, Madurai’s claim should go way beyond the towers. It is the most ancient city in the south with paradoxically, very contemporary refinements. History records that it was the meeting place of literatures possessing a highly developed style and grammar several centuries ago. It has been a trading post since time immemorial, drawing merchants from places as far off as Greece and Rome.
It has been the focal center for cultural activity and craftsmanship all through the millennia. Sometimes called the Athens of the east, Madurai where the temperature is usually described as ‘hot’, has an added attraction, a mere two hours drive away, lies one of the coolest spots of Tamilnadu – Kodaikanal and the temperate waters of the Bay of Bengal.
With its many-sided attractions, cultural, commercial, educational and business, Madurai happens to be the second largest city in Tamilnadu and is well connected by surface and air transport, NEPC providing the latest airlink. In fact, the latter even boasts of a captive airport with maintenance facilities for F-27 aircraft in the sacred city. From Madras by air is less than an hour’s journey.  By rail in a superfast air-conditioned train, takes seven hours, but is equally comfortable.
Coaches operate regularly from other vacation spots or business centers like Kanyakumari, Triandrum, Coimbatore and Bangalore. Geographically, Madurai enjoys a unique locational advantage, being equidistant from the east and west coast as well as the southern tip, so much so that it can be easily grafted onto any south Indian package. Moreover many foreign travel groups headed for Colombo or Male invariably include Madurai in their itinerary.
Few destinations hold as much fascination as Madurai. A tourist can spend days on end studying the intricate carving of the Meenakshi Sundreshwara temple, or strolling around its galleries and musical pillars. Since life revolved round the temple in the old days, the main streets were planned accordingly. Interestingly, they run in concentric circles around the shrine dedicated to Meenakshi, the goddess of limpid fish eyes, and to her consort Lord Siva. From within its massive precincts, had sprung art forms, music, dance and literature. The great literary conclave called the Sangam used to meet at Madurai. Legend has it that great literary works were thrown into the temple tank by divine force to be rated according to their worth. Accordingly works of merit floated while those substandard, sank.
The enormous temple complex spread over 65,000 sq.metres was not built in a single phase.  Understandably, like Rome it could be said of Madurai that it was not built in a day! Successive ruling dynasties, monarchs and great sculptors dedicated their genius and efforts to construct this masterpiece in stone. It is dominated by four towers (gopurams) at the main entrance gates. The earliest tower is on the eastern gate built in the 13th century, while the tallest and last one was built later in the 16th century. In addition, there are eleven smaller towers, each ornamented with carvings. Another great temple feature is the thousand-pillared hall (the precise number is 985). The temple is open all days from 5 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and from 49.30 p.m. It has its own museum open from  6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Besides the Meenakshi, several ancient shrines which features ingenious construction. There is the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal, palace of one of the powerful chieftains of the 19th century. The most imposing remnant is its vast hall of audience, opening on to a courtyard. Cultural enthusiasts should do well to watch the place come alive in a sound and light show portraying the story of Nayak and of the celebrated Tamil epic Silappathikaram.
The city sports festivals and fairs associated with temples and trade. Often they are interlinked. The most famous is the Chithirai festival, when a deity of Lord Vishnu is taken on a golden horse to re enact his participation in the celestial marriage of Meenakshi with Lord Sundareshwara. The colour and sound of the spectacle is eagerly anticipated by thousands of people in Tamilnadu and neighbouring states. It is also an occasion for trade fairs. Madurai is famous for its unique silk saris, hand-woven by traditional families at astoundingly competitive prices. It is also famous for condiments obtained from the western ghats. Visitors, particularly those from abroad, are fascinated by the local crafts like brassware, old bronze pieces and sculpted creations.
Madurai’s importance is as much due to contemporary events as to the glory it once possessed. Today it has evolved into a major industrial center and has several educational institutions. The place was active during the freedom struggle and now an institution (dedicated to Gandhiji and his teachings), is housed in a 300 year old palace which is a must in the itinerary of every visitor. Besides the personal memorable of the Mahatma, it houses beautiful products drawn from several handicraft and village industries.
This sunny city where the gods reside, is close to Kodaikanal, a hill station 2133 metres above sea level, abounds in pleasant walks, picturesque waterfalls and a magnificent lake. To the west, five hours’ drive away, from Madurai is the famous Periyar wild life sanctuary. A slight diversion and one can have a breathtaking view of tea plantations and cardamom estates. Travelling south is Rameshwaram, one of the most sacred temple towns, an island paradise of golden sands.
The magical charm of a near mythical experience in the presence of gods and goddesses, exquisite architecture, ecstatic performing arts and not to be forgotten, the south Indian culinary delicacies explain Madurai’s special appeal. Truly an unforgettable experience.

Article by : V. S. Srinivasan
Source: Bhavan's Journal 15 July 2006
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