October 20, 2021

The Fabulous Meenakshi Temple

The Meenakshi Temple can be found in the middle of Madurai, in Southern India. It's a holy place, where believers think the Gods appear nightly.

Map showing Madurai, location of the Meenakshi Temple

Madurai is an agricultural centre, situated in the centre of a wide, verdant 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 Its first historical reference comes in the third century BCE, where it is recorded in the Arthashastra, an ancient Indian textbook on economics and government.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: King of Deities
Indra: King of Deities

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.

Shiva: the supreme being.
Shiva: the supreme being.

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 traditional story that tells of the founding of the Meenakshi Temple, and the city of Madurai that was built around it.

A carved representation of Meenakshi, from the temple.
A carved representation of Meenakshi, from the temple.

Sometime after the city's founding, 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.

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.

An English map of Madurai, 1755. The Meenakshi Temple is clearly visible, in the centre.
An English map of Madurai, 1755. The Meenakshi Temple is clearly visible, in the centre.

The Meenakshi Temple was expanded by subsequent rulers.

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 undergo significant change during the 16th and 17th centuries, during the  Nayak dynasty.

It was the Nayaks who would add the temple's elaborately decorated towers.

Meenakshi Temple towers
Meenakshi Temple towers

There are four major towers, or 'gopurams', one at each of the temple's principal gates. Each gate is aligned to the points of the compass, so there is one at each of north, south, east and west.

The largest tower is the southern one, which stands 52 metres high. It was the first to be completed, in 1559.

Meenakshi Temple tower

Each tower is pyramidal in shape, and are entirely covered with bright, elaborately decorated carvings in wood. These depict depicting Shiva, Meenakshi, Indra, and other significant Hindu deities.

Meenakshi Temple tower carvings

Meenakshi Temple tower carvings
Meenakshi Temple tower carvings

Madurai is a bustling city, and a lively market rings the Meenakshi Temple.

On holiday in Southern India, I was able to visit in person.

In contrast to 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.

Hall of 1000m pillars at the Meenakshi Temple
The Hall of 1000 pillars.
statue of the Yali, at the Meenakshi Temple
The mythical Yali.

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. These works also 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.

Brightly coloured ceilings at the Meenakshi Temple

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

While there were many tourists when I visited, they were far outweighed by the devout. They kneeled to pray, or stood in silent contemplation, or waiting patiently in line to enter the parts of the temple reserved for Hindus.

In the unrestricted areas Hindu's and non Hindus alike sit on the stone floor, sometimes with their eyes closed, lost in reflection.

Every evening, the temple closes with a 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 ethereal husband and wife can spend the night together.

This is quite something to witness. It is vibrant and rowdy, noisy and colourful, different to my experience of western religious rituals.

The Meenakshi Temple at night

The Hindus present appear lost in proceedings, carried away by the music and the moment.

And then the procession enters the restricted area, which is shortly barred. The sounds echo and then die away, and the Meenakshi Temple returns to its contemplative state.

Everyone files away into the night.

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