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The city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu in South India is fondly referred to as 'the Athens of the East'. The city is resplendent with temples, monuments and ancient cultural wonders.
The historic Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple forms the lifeline of the 2500 year old city of Madurai. It forms the geographic and historic centric of this ancient city. This temple built in 1600 with its awesome architecture is a standing testimony to the ancestry of the Tamil culture.
Meenakshi Amman temple is dedicated to Sundareswarar, 'the beautiful lord' and his consort, Meenakshi 'the fish eyed goddess'. Meenakshi temple is regarded as one of the most sacred places of Goddess Parvati among others.
The temple complex spreads around a 45 acre plot with its massive structure measuring 254 by 237 metres. The temple is surrounded by elaborately sculpted and painted gopurams (towers), twelve in number, and the tallest is the famous Southern tower that rises to over 170 ft (52 m) in height.
Legend behind Madurai Meenakshi Temple
Ancient mythology has it that Lord Shiva came down in the form of Sundareswarar to marry Meenakshi, an incarnation of Goddess Parvati, who descended to earth in answer to the penance of Malayadwaja Pandya, the king of Madurai.
Lord Shiva appeared on earth and proposed to marry her. Their marriage was perceived as the biggest event on earth with the whole earth gathering near Madurai. The event is celebrated as 'Chitirai Thiruvizha' annually in Madurai, after Thirumalai Nayakar linked the Azhakar Thiruvizha with the Meenakshi Wedding.
Thirugnanasambandar, the famous Hindu saint mentions this temple as early as the 7th century. Although the temple was nearly destroyed by the Muslim invader Malik Kafur in 1310, it was later rebuilt under the initiative of the famous Nayak King Viswanatha Nayak 1559 -1600 AD. This was followed by the valuable contributions of King Thirumalai Nayak who ruled Madurai between 1623- 1659. It goes to the credit of Thirumalai Nayak to have built the Vasantha Mandapa, Kilikoottu Mandapam, Teppakulam and other monuments which speak volumes of Thirumalai Nayak's governance even today. Rani Meenakshi built Meenakshi Nayakar Mandapam.
Deities at the Meenakshi Temple
The Meenakshi temple has four entrances facing the four directions and the entire temple walls and the city walls are built in concentric squares. The temple complex with its high walled enclosure has two sanctums for Meenakshi and Sundareswarar. A number of smaller shrines and pillared halls surround the main deities.
The shrine of Lord Shiva lies at the centre of the complex. On the outer shrine stands the giant sculpture of Lord Ganesha, carved out of a single stone, called Mukuruny Vinayakar which is believed to have been found while excavating the temple lake. When the king Thirumalai Nayak excavated the temple tank 3 km from Meenakshi temple, he unearthed this idol of Vinayakar and he erected the same here.
The shrine of Lord Shiva is depicted as Hindu God Nataraja (Lord Shiva in a dance posture). This lies in the north of Kilikoontu Mandapam. This massive sculpture is enclosed in a huge silver altar and hence called 'Velli Ambalam' in Tamil. Since the idol of Nataraja is covered with silver leaves, this hall is named as the Silver hall.
On the left side of Lord Shiva is the shrine of Goddess Meenakshi who appears enchanting with quite less ornamentation. In the outer wing to the main shrine there is the Kadamba tree which is said to be part of the same tree under which Indra worshipped Shiva linga.
Meenakshi temple architecture
The ancient Tamil kings were known for their valour and courage in the war front. Yet these kings encouraged poets and were connoisseurs of art and architecture. The Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple evidences this fact.
Pillars: The Meenakshi Amman temple is famous for its 'Aayiram Kaal Mandapam' which means a hall with thousand pillars. It has 985 exquisitely carved pillars, instead of 1000.
Gopurams: The 12 gopurams impress the visitor with their soaring towers rising from solid granite bases. The gopurams are covered with stucco figures of deities, mythical animals and monsters painted radiantly in vivid colours.
The gopurams are pyramidal in shape and have an enormous height of more than 50m. The entrance to the temple complex is indicated by towering gateways at the four cardinal points while the gopurams with lesser height lead to the sanctums of the main deities.
South Indian temple architecture at the temple
In Indian architecture, the basic structure of the temples revolves around the sanctum sanctorum or 'Garbha Griha' in Tamil where the idol of the main deity remains. A porch adorned with carved pillars covers the entrance to the temple. The prominent shikhara surmounts the top of the Garbha Griha. There are several smaller temples which have grown in the temple complex.
True to the tradition of South Indian temple architecture, the shikhara at the Meenakshi Amman temple is made up of distinct horizontal levels that diminish to form a rough pyramid. Each of the levels is decorated with miniature temple rooftops. Elaborate gateways and gopurams add to the overall symmetry of the temple complex. Whereas in contrast the shikhara in a North Indian temple resembles an inverted cone that is decorated with miniature conical shikharas.
Meenakshi temple interesting facts
Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple attracts six thousand visitors on an average every day. This is an ancient Hindu temple in Madurai and stands as an exponent of the fine artistic work done by Vishwakarma Brahmins. It is said that the figure of Goddess Meenakshi Amman at this temple is engraved out of a single emerald.
Even after two thousand years, the grandeur of the Meenakshi Amman temple at Madurai remains intact. This temple is not only a marvel of Indian architecture, but it is also a treasure trove to the Indian culture and civilization. It is revered as one of the largest temple complexes in India till this day.
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