First Published on February 7, 2018
There are always some places that beckon you to return over and over again. It’s funny though how every time you visit those places, there is something unique that you discover. For me, one of those places is the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. Every Indian student finds a mention of it in the Indian history textbooks and every Hindu knows of it as a pious place. I always wanted to visit it for cultural and historical reasons and my first chance came in 2009 on a road trip down South India. Fate had me return later again in 2016 and once more in 2017 during my Golden Chariot train journey.
With every visit to the Madurai Meenakshi temple, I gleaned more about this epic destination. The fascinating corners, the stunning sculptures, the artistic ceilings and tales embedded within each one of them – the Meenakshi temple kept me entertained every single time. Sharing my favorite parts of the temple with you – all of which will serve as a Travel Guide to the Madurai Meenakshi Temple – should you decide to visit it.
Legend of the Madurai Meenakshi Temple
Meen means “fish” and Akshi means “eyes”. Essentially the name refers to a maiden with fish-shaped eyes. She is supposed to be an avatar of Goddess Parvati (Wife of the Great Shiva) who was born to a childless royal couple with three breasts. Legend has it that divine intervention advised the king that she be brought up as a son and when she meets her match, things will become normal. As predicted, she was raised like a prince and proclaimed as the King of the land till she met Lord Sundereswar (Lord Shiva) and she lost the third breast. She continues to rule the town of Madurai even now and is worshipped as Meenakshi.
History & Significance of the Meenakshi Temple
The Meenakshi temple finds a mention in the texts dating back to the 4th century A.D. However, the present day structure is said to have been built by Thirumalai Nayak – the ruler of Madurai in the 14th century. The infamous raider of the Delhi Sultanate – Malik Kafur plundered the temple soon after, destroying many aspects of it. However, it was restored and expanded in the 16th century by the same Nayak dynasty.
Madurai itself is over 2500 years old and has always been described as one of the holiest cities in India. They say that it is termed as South Mathura, making it an important part of the Hindu pilgrimages. While the Meenakshi temple has two important deities worshipped here – Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundereshwar, it is primarily devoted to the Goddess. In some ways, it is a significant gesture towards the power of women and the matrilinear society.
Layout of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai
Madurai as a city is centered around the ruling grounds of its protector – Goddess Meenakshi. The Meenakshi temple forms the central square and the rest of the city is designed as outer squares. Even today when I visited the temple, this characteristic layout of the city was easy to observe. The tiny lanes lined with shops on both sides seem to run along parallel roads that turn only at right angles. It is kind of amusing as you walk the roads to get to the Meenakshi temple.
The Meenakshi temple is supposed to be the abode of the Goddess and thus, is designed to include 2 major sanctums that can be equated to the Bedrooms. The smaller shrine belongs to Lord Sundereswara and the larger one is for Goddess Meenakshi. Long passages lead you to these shrines and different hallways – each with their own significance. 14 gateways adorn the temple, of which the outer 4 are the tallest. On the whole, the Meenakshi temple struck me as more of a palace for the Goddess than really a religious sanctum.
Stunning Gopurams of Meenakshi temple
Every picture of Meenakshi temple that you might have seen showcases its huge gateways or Gopurams. Colorful and intricate, the outer Gopurams never fail to impress its first-time visitors. Even the careless electricity wires that run around them cannot diminish its vibrant beauty of this Dravidian styled architecture.
The gopurams differ in heights. The outer ones that I entered through were the tallest of them all, with the Southern one scaling 9 floors. Each level of the Gopuram is carved with deities and mythical creatures in action. They say that each level has a different tale etched and that there are over 4000 tales, just on the outer Gopurams.
Once I stepped inside the compound, there were two significant sights that I saw. One included several threads and cradles being tied to trees. Devotees here pray for happy marriages and the boon of a child through these symbols. Fits given that the temple is dedicated to a Goddess.
The other significant sight included a playful elephant who stands at one of the outer mantappas or halls before the main entrance. Give a coin to the elephant and he will raise his trunk to bless you. He is there almost every evening during the pooja hours and even during festivals. I missed him on my last visit to Madurai, when I visited in the morning.
The Sanctums within the Meenakshi temple
While the rest of the temple is open to everyone, the inner sanctums are only open to Hindus. After you have entered the temple, the first sanctum that faces the entrance is that of Lord Sundereswara. If you notice the devotees, they ignore this sanctum first and visit the main bigger sanctum of Meenakshi temple, devoted to the Goddess of place. It is only after that they return back to Lord Sundereswara’s shrine and exit the temple.
Huge hallways connect the two shrines and the most characteristic part of these hallways is its ceilings that are brightly colored in floral designs. Walking along the passage, I found myself torn between looking up at the magnificent ceiling or examining the sculpted pillars that lined the way. Each one had its own beauty and tale to tell.
At a junction between the two shrines is a third shrine dedicated to Lord Ganesha. Photography of the same is not allowed now and the priest here will not hesitate to take away your phone (cameras are not allowed, only mobile photography) if he catches you. This rule interestingly has come in only in the last few years for I managed to get a picture of the sanctum on my first visit. Here it is for me to share.
The Meenakshi shrine has a statue of her holding a lotus and a parrot while the Sundereswara shrine has a Shiva Linga enclosed by his signatory snake hood. Another symbol lies in the Sundereswara shrine of feet marks on metal – called Cokkar and this is the point I share an interesting ritual that takes places every evening at Meenakshi temple.
As the day ends and before the temple closes, a huge band accompanies the Cokkar statue from Lord Sundereswara’s shrine to Goddess Meenakshi’s shrine. It is locked here in the evening only to be taken by every morning. This is to depict that Lord spends time in the Goddess’ bedroom at the end of the day only to return the next day morning. I swear – not joking! 😉
Kambatadi Mandapam at Meenakshi Temple
One of the most intriguing hallways or Mandapam was the one facing the entrance of the temple. Called the Kambatadi Mandapam, this one catches your eye with the huge golden pole that is raised through the roof to the sky. I found this flagpole quite interesting for it passes through the roof enhancing its painted ceilings. And at different times of the morning, a beautiful ray of light from the hole in the roof lights up the various parts of the hall.
The hallway depicts the marriage hall of the two deities – Lord Sundereswara and Goddess Meenakshi. Carved around the golden flagpole, are sculptures depicting Goddess Meenakshi being given away by her brother Lord Vishnu to her betrothed. This is that one structure that pretty much depicts the main theme of this temple.
Surrounding the pole and around the entire passageway, you will be able to see Lord Shiva in his various forms. His Nataraja form or the dancing form and his war hero form being the most prominent. Other than that, you will see both Meenakshi and Shiva together on his favorite bull Nandi, both of them fused together and more. Each pillar that they are carved on is a real masterpiece and though I saw them in candlelight, the brilliance of the craftsmanship shone through.
The Golden Lotus Pond at Meenakshi temple
As you head towards Goddess Meenakshi’s shrine, you will pass by this hallway that overlooks a pond with a Golden Lotus. The pond is referred to as Porthamarai Kulum, literally translating to the Pond with the Golden Lotus. The pond was essentially built to allow the pilgrims their ablutions before heading to the temple. The place is quite a pleasant one for you can sit on those steps and watch the birds fly around the tank.
There is an interesting story attached to the Golden Lotus Pond. It is said that the worth of a literary art was tested by the poets and scholars of yesteryears by throwing their creations into the pond. Should it sink, their creation was not up to the mark and it was not presented. Quite a test – don’t you think?
Kilikoondu Mandapam of Meenakshi temple
The halls and the corridors surrounding the Golden Lotus Pond were collectively termed as Kilikoondu Mandapam. They say that the corridor was filled with parrot cages wherein the birds were trained to say the name “Meenakshi”. The corridor today is still quite interesting for you can well appreciate the presence of the parrots – though now in the form of a bird sitting on a lady, carved onto a pillar. The corridors with their arched doorways, do make a pretty picture as you stand there to look at the Golden Lotus Pond and the Gopuram behind.
Besides the engraved artwork of the robust pillars, you will also, see painted murals of the celestial marriage of the Lords. The pictures are a story in itself and if you enjoy the details, you can spend a while appreciating the tiny nuances painted by the artist.
Somewhere in the same corridor, lies a gilded swing. Every Friday, the divine couple of the temple are taken from their shrine and taken to the swing. The Ritual has been in practice for centuries now and still continues. I somehow, never made it on that day to see it.
Hall of 1000 pillars of Meenakshi Temple
Once you exit the temple from the same entrance that you came in, continue straight ahead along the colorful shops till you reach a grand hall labeled the Hall of 1000 pillars. A typical case of rounding off numbers – only to prove that it started ages back, this hall actually contains 985 sculpted pillars. Built by the Prime Minister of the Nayak dynasty – Ariyanatha Mudaliar in the 1590s, this place will leave you spellbound.
The most common figure within this hall is that of Yelli (Half Lion, Half Elephant guardian). Right in the center, there is a huge statue of Nataraja – a mirror image of what you normally see elsewhere. In every Nataraja idol, you will see that Lord Shiva has his left leg up in a pose. However, this one has his right leg up. A deliberate but beautiful mistake by the artist.
Within the hall, don’t forget to look for the musical pillars. Though you no longer an tap them, they like the Vittala temple in Hampi, make the sound of a musical instrument.
There are plenty of other corners that I can point to in the Meenakshi temple, each with their own story and interpretation. A lot is left undiscovered by me for even with three visits, I could not complete it all. I am pretty sure that even you will find it hard to see the entire temple in one visit. The temple is so beautiful that you might get into a frenzy when you see it all. Stay calm and remember my tips – these will get you through the best of Meenakshi temple in Madurai. 😉
- Madurai has its own airport and railways station. It is well connected to all the major cities in India and one can arrive here directly.
- Meenakshi temple is the hub of the city. There is no missing it. However, avoid taking your car there as there is no parking around the temple. Best to hire an auto rickshaw to get you there. Click here to get the exact location of Meenakshi temple on your mobile.
- This is the official website of the Madurai Meenakshi temple. Please refer to this for the latest information on the tickets and rules to the temple.
- The entrance is free but for Hindus seeking a fast queue access or certain types of Pooja, there would be a minimum charge.
- The temple is open everyday from 5 AM to 9:30 PM . It is however, closed during the noon from 12:30 PM to 4:00 PM.
- It is a living temple and hence, expect a lot of crowd everyday. During the festivals, it is even more so.
- Please respect the sentiments of the temple by following the basic norms needed to enter it. You will find the same detailed here on the post on Tips to visit a Hindu Temple.
- Cameras and electronic items are not allowed in the temple. You can carry your mobile phone for pictures. The rest of the things have to be deposited in the lockers at the entrance. The same is at your own risk.
- There is a small fee for mobile photography. Please retain the ticket for it as anyone can ask you for a confirmation within the temple.
- Footwear has to be left at the entrance.
- There are plenty of shops that allow you to keep aside your belongings and shoes with them for a minor charge or a purchase from their shops. Again, the same would be at your own risk.
- No bags are allowed in the Temple.
- You will have to undergo a security check before you enter the temple.
- Certain sections of the temple, like the Shrine are accessible only to the Hindus.
- There is a separate entrance fee of INR 10 for the Hall of 1000 pillars