Madurai is a medium sized city in Tamil Nadu, in the southern half of India. It's a place where the spirit world touches reality, where the gods appear nightly, and where one of the world's most amazing buildings sits in the city centre.
Madurai is an agricultural centre, situated in the centre of a wide, brown plain. The city has been inhabited for at least 2 500 years; its first historical reference comes in the third century BCE, where it is recorded in the Arthashastra, an ancient Indian textbook on economics and government. Madurai is also mentioned in classical Roman and Greek texts, where it is noted as already being a significant city for the area.
But, like many places in India, there is a legend that underlies the history.
Indra is a Hindu deity (also important in Buddhism), who is sometimes referred to as the 'King of Heaven'. In early religious texts, he was the most powerful of the Gods, controlling the lightning and rain, and battling demons while mounted on a white elephant.
He was also portrayed as temperamental, with a flawed character; drinking excessively, and committing adultery.
Indra's position in Hinduism has been compared to both Zeus and Odin, in western mythology, with whom he shares many characteristics.
One Indra story has him undertaking a pilgrimage, to atone for his misdeeds and bad behaviour. During his wandering, he comes across a naturally formed 'Lingam'; a round topped column that is the symbol of Shiva, the creator of the universe. Stopping to pray, Indra is suddenly overcome with a feeling of peace and calm, and knows that he has found a sacred place.
Indra constructed a temple at the site, his efforts recognised when lotus flowers spontaneously appeared in a nearby pool. A gift from the temple's patron, Shiva.
This is the foundation story of the city of Madurai, and the temple at its centre.
Sometime after the city's beginning, southern India fell under the sway of the Pandyan dynasty. The Pandyan's were a Tamil ethnic group, who built their kingdom on their mastery of fishing, and trade with neighbouring regions.
Then the largest city in southern India, the Pandyans made Madurai their capital.
And so the story goes; the second Pandyan King, Malayadwaja Pandya, was praying in the royal residence in Madurai when he experienced a holy vision. Meenakshi, one of the manifestations of Parvati, Shiva's consort, appeared to the king and queen in a fire, to answer their prayers.
After this startling experience, the Pandyan king had the Madurai temple re-dedicated to Meenakshi. It is one of the few temples in southern India not dedicated specifically to Shiva, and possibly the only one where Meenakshi and Shiva are thought to manifest together.
Whatever the reality of the temple's founding, it was maintained, and expanded upon, by a series of local rulers over the esnuing centuries. By the 7th century CE, Thirugnanasambandar, an early Indian historian, mentioned the Meenakshi temple in his writings, as one of the finest in India.
The temple would undergo substantial expansion during the 16th and 17th centuries, during the Nayak dynasty. Most striking of all, the Nayaks would build a series of elaborately decorated towers.
There are four major towers, or 'gopurams', one at each of the temple's principal gates (aligned to the compass, one gate is at each of north, south, east and west). The largest is the southern tower, 52 metres high, which was also the first to be built, completed in 1559.
Each tower is pyramidal in shape, and are entirely covered with bright, elaborately decorated wooden carvings depicting Shiva, Meenakshi, Indra, other significant Hindu deities.
In contrast the vibrant exterior, the interior of the temple is a sober place; with long stone corridors (worn smooth by millions of pilgrims feet), vaulted chambers, and elaborately austere statues and pillars. The heavy stone construction muffles most noise, and natural light is kept to a minimum, providing a peaceful, contemplative environment, half hidden in shadow.
In the northern part of the temple is the 'Hall of 1000 Pillars', which was completed in 1569.
This rectangular chamber contains two rows of floor to ceiling stone columns (actually numbering 985), each decorated with a unique carving. The carvings again depict significant figures from Hindu theology, as well as the mythical 'Yali'; a creature with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant, that was the symbol of the Nayak house.
Down the centre of the hall, on the ceiling between the stone columns, are a brightly coloured series of panels. The circular designs used here are symbols from Hinduism; including astrological signs, calendar months and royal seals.
But the Meenakshi Temple is more than just a collection of elaborately decorated towers and halls.
'At nightfall the temple was packed with people. Men, women and children. The men, stripped to the waist, wore dhoties, and their foreheads were thickly smeared with the ash of burnt cow dung.
You saw them making obeisance at one shrine or another, and sometimes lying full length on the ground, in the ritual attitude of prostration.
At the foot of each column a religious mendicant is seated, each has in front of him a bowl for offerings. Some are clad, some are almost naked.
God seemed to be near and living.'
- Larry Durrell, describing a visit to the Meenakshi Temple
The Razor's Edge, W. Somerset Maugham
The account of the Meenakshi Temple quoted above very much aligns with what I saw on a recent visit.
While there were tourists, they were far outweighed by the devoted, who had come to the temple to worship. They kneeled to pray, or stood in silent contemplation, or waited patiently in line to enter the parts of the temple reserved for Hindus.
The 'Hall of 100 Pillars' is a less elaborately decorated chamber, set aside specifically for meditation. There Hindu's and non Hindus alike sit on the stone floor, and close there eyes for a few minutes reflection.
Every evening, the temple closes with a ritualistic procession.
While drum and flute music plays, an icon representing Shiva is loaded onto a palanquin. Four bearers, followed by a procession of curious onlookers, pilgrims and devotees, then carry Shiva from his shrine to Meenakshi's (located in the restricted part of the temple), so the husband and wife can spend the night together.
It's a vibrant, rowdy, but significant, way to end each day, the perfect summation of the existence and function of this remarkable place.