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Meenakshi Sundareshwara Temple

Meenakshi Sundareshwara Temple

History of Meenakshi Amman and Sundareshwara

The crowning glory of this historic city of Madurai is the sprawling Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple.

The origin of the Sri Meenakshi and Sundareshwarar Temple at Madurai in South India goes as far back as 1600 B.C. The temple stands as the quintessence of the timeless Vedic Tradition in its peak of grandeur and brilliance. Since antiquity, it has been glorified and extolled by celestial hymns especially from the last couple of millennia in the great Tamil literatures.

A Living, Grand Marvel of Highest Vedic Creation

Owing to its rich cultural heritage and architectural splendor, the Madurai city is often referred to as the ‘Athens of the East.’

Sri Meenakshi Sundareshwara Temple is one of the grandest temples of South India with breathtaking beauty, and a stunning history that is as much alive today as it was from its creation, captivating anyone into experincing the living presence of divine effortlessly. It is situated in the heart of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India in the south side of the river Vaigai covering an area of 17 acres, with the entire city built around it in the form of a lotus. The city was laid out in the shape of square with a series of concentric streets culminating from the temple proving the construction genius from the ancient vedic times.

Its majestic gateway towers (gopurams) invite you from a far distance to enter its sacred energy field. The temple stands as a living marvel bespeaking the vast glory of the timeless, rich vedic tradition.

The Meenakshi Amman temple is not just an architectural spectacle but also an edifice of living spiritual sciences vibrating with the sacred sentiments of divine love, causeless compassion of the divine inviting you to soak yourself into the divine.

Glance an eye on any stone, any pillar, any sculpture and you are bound to hear them narrate to you their history, their unique heritage just waiting to be revealed and bequeathed to you. Etched with opulent carvings are the infinite divine acts, miracles, and life incidents of Sri Meenakshi, Sri Sundereshwarar (Lord Shiva), and over 33 million sculptures in the temple complex depicting the science of relating with divine, to ultimately be established in pure feeling connection, the devotion to the highest consciousness in the form of deities and to celebrate their eternal presence.

The sophisticated mastery of fine craftsmanship dates back to thousands of generations of untiring dedication of the artisans (sthapatis), several dynasties of kings, culminating into one of the highest masterpieces of rare vedic creations brought into life to touch, feel, experience in all its splendor.

The Living Presence of the Presiding Deities

Goddess Meenakshi, meaning the beautiful fish-eyed one, the incarnation of the Cosmic Mother is the main presiding deity of the temple. She represents the divine feminine consciousness, the energy of creation, the source of the whole existence. In euphonic Tamil, she is also called ‘Angayarkanni’. Along with Goddess Meenakshi, her divine consort, Lord Shiva named as ‘Sundareshwarar’ also prayed by devotees as ‘Chockanathar, and Chockalinga Perumal’ is worshiped here from time immemorial.

After their divine marriage, the pair ruled over Madurai for a long time and then directly assumed the divine forms as Sundereshwarar and Meenakshi having their Jeeva Samadhis (living body with eternal life force) consecrated at the sanctum sanctoriums. So, the deities are worshiped and prayed by millions of devotees as the direct living embodiment, the Achala Murthis (immovable deity) of the living incarnations (Sachala Murthi) of the Cosmic Mother and Father, Devi and Shiva with their own independent intelligence to respond and answer directly to the prayers of each devotee. They are offered the same sacred ceremonies, prayers, and pujas as done to the living incarnation of God.

It has become customary to go through the east entrance, facing Mother Meenakshi. In the sanctum, the Goddess stands with a parrot and bouquet, radiating pure love and compassion. The entrance leads up to the Ashta Sakthi Mandapam, the Abode of the Eight Powers. It houses many beautiful drawings and sculptures. These depict a few stories related to ‘Thiruvilayadals’ or the 64 divine leelas, plays of Lord Shiva.

The events leading to the birth of Sri Meenakshi and her life find a place in these drawings.

The Temple Gateway Towers, the Stunning Heights of Divine Entrance

The temple has four Raja Gopurams (main gateway towers), on the east, the west, the south and the north. Each gopuram is nine-storeys tall. Besides these, there are eight gopurams of which two are vimanas (shrines). Each gopuram teems with hundreds of stucco figures of the deities in the Hindu pantheon, the various forms of Lord Shiva and his leelas, the divine plays.

The east gopuram was built by Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan in the 13th century and is the oldest of the four. At its base are two Tamil inscriptions, which refer to the gopuram as “Sundarapandya Tirugopuram” and “Avanivendaraman Tirugopuram” (the king who conquered the world).

The west gopuram was built by Parakrama Pandya in A.D. 1323.

The 170-feet (52 m) South Gopuram is the tallest of the four. It is a magnificent structure with late Vijayanagar and early Madurai Nayak characteristics. The squatting lions on the wall pilasters are typical of the Vijayanagar period. It was built by Siramalai Sevvandi in 1478 A.D

 Hunter Statues

On the northern verandah, there is a statue of a hunter which is 8 feet high. According to legend, Lord Sundareshwara and Sri Meenakshi appeared in the form of a hunter and huntress and blessed anyone who wanted to wash away his or her sins and seek relief at the feet of God.

 Golden Lotus Tank

Golden Lotus in Temple Tank, Meenakshi Temple

Here, we come to an important part of the temple. A beautiful rectangular sacred temple tank, Porthamarai Kulam (pond with the golden lotus), is situated right across the sanctum sanctorium of Sri Meenakshi. In the Tamil legends, the lake is supposed to judge the worth of a new piece of literature. Authors place their works here and the poorly written works are supposed to sink and the scholastic ones are supposed to float, Tirukkural by Tiruvalluvar was one such work.

On one pillar in the center, we see the figures of Kulasekara Pandiyan, who built the temple and the city. On another is the figure of Dhananjayan, who informed the Pandiyan King about his discovery of the lingam in the forest.

Meenakshi Amman temple

From the parrot cage Mandapam (stage), one can go into Sri Meenakshi’s sanctum sanctorum. Passing the entrance, we can come to the Maha Mandapam (the great stage). On the western side, we see Meenakshi’s Garbha Mandir (the sanctum sanctorium). The marble bedroom (Palli Arai) of Mother Meenakshi is situated in the inner prakaram (the outer prencints of the temple) in the south western corner.

Opposite the Mandapa Nayagam is the Gnanasambandar temple. Here, we find the statues of the main Shiva devotees and great saints – Mangayarkarasi, Appar, Kulachirayar, Koonpandyan, Sambandar, Sundarar and Manickavasagar. This Mandapam was built by Krishnaveerappa Naicker.

Kambathimandapam

Kambathimandapam is in the outer prakaram in front of the idol of Lord Sundareshwarar. The various features of God are graphically depicted on eight blackstone pillars around the Nandi Mandapam, Bali Peedam and the Golden Flag post.

The famous Sri Meenakshi’s wedding scene is found delicately sculpted on one of these pillars.

Many incidents from the life of Sundareshwara and Meenakshi are depicted on these pillars, such as Shiva’s fight against the Tripura demons, then killing the Lord of Death to save his devotee Markandeya, and his cosmic dancing form, Nataraja.

There are also carvings of Ravana lifting Kailash, Shiva and Parvati in Kailasha, Ardhanareeshwar, Rashabaroodar, Vishnu’s Dasavatars, etc.

Puddu Mandapam has the famous carving of Shiva giving sugarcane to a stone elephant.

As per the legend, Shiva appeared frequently as a prophet in Madurai and performed many miracles. On hearing this, the Pandyan king summoned Shiva to his court. When Shiva refused, the king was enraged. He went to look for this mysterious prophet himself. On finding him, he challenged him to feed sugarcane to the stone elephant to prove his powers. The stone elephant lifted its head immediately and ran towards them to eat the sugarcane. When the king’s attendants tried to harm Shiva, he rendered them powerless with just one look. In this way, the king realised who this prophet really was and bowed down to Lord Shiva’s feet.

 Swamy Temple

Inside the gateway of the three-storeyed tower of Swamy Sannathi are Adhigara Nandi and Chamundi.

Beyond this is a six-footed dais where Paranjothi’s book ‘Thiruvilayadal’ is said to have been inaugurated. On the pillars facing this dais, saints Patanjali and Vyagrapadhare are featured, standing with folded palms.

In the northern prakaram, we find the idols of Siddhas, the doers of wonderful feats and the ancient Kadamba tree. The Vanni tree and the well and a number of other deities, including Durga (Goddess of power) are also in this Prakaram.

Musical Pillars

Beyond the north tower, in the Adi Street, there are 5 stone pillars. Each pillar has been carved out of a single stone. Each has little pillars chiselled exquisitely. Each of these little pillars produces a characteristic sound when struck. Hence, these are called musical pillars. Such pillars are seen in the 1000 pillar Mandapam (stage) too.

Thirukkalyanam Mandapam

We next come to the Thirukkalyanam Mandapam (marriage hall). Here, we see a dais where the marriage ceremony of Sri Meenakshi is performed every year during the Chitra Festival (April-May). This dais and the blackstone Mandapam were built by Vijayaranga Chokkanathar. His figure has been engraved on the first pillar on the southern side, facing north.

On the southern walls, the origin of the universe and the living beings is painted with big circles.

Thousand-Pillar Mandapam

This storehouse of art was built in 1569 by Dalaboi Ariyanatha Mudaliar. Though this Mandapam is called Thousand-Pillar Mandapam, there are only 985 pillars in it. At the spot where the remaining 15 pillars should have been erected, we find 2 small temples.

On the top of the entrance, there is a wheel on which the features of the 60 Tamil years are pointed. This Mandapam has been built like a car drawn by 2 elephants. At the entrance to this Mandapam, we see the majestic pose of Ariyanatha Mudaliar seated on a horse.

The common man was not neglected by the sculptures of the olden days. This is seen from the pillars portraying in Kurava (gypsy) and his wife. The statue of Kurava’s wife creates an even greater interest. It is a common phenomenon poor people have a great number of children, which is proved in this statue. The Kurava’s young wife has 4 children, one of which drags her hand, another sitting on her back, a third embracing her breast and a fourth sitting on her head. Her handicraft, a weaving basket, is also very graphically embodied in this statue. The kind of turbans and footwear worn in those days is also seen this statue.

The kings of those days conducted assemblies in the temple in the halls, like the 1000-pillar Mandapam. The representatives of the citizens also got a place in the assemblies.

The kings also constructed temples for the protective deities on the four sides of Madurai. These were Iyannar Koil in the east, Vinaynagar Koil in the south, Kariamar perumal Koil in the west and Kali Koil in the north.

Of these, Kariamar Perumal Koil was destroyed by Muslim invaders. Kali Koil is now called Chellathamam Koil.