Temples of Tamil Nadu - Madurai Meenakshi Temple

by V.A.Ponmelil (All rights reserved by the author)

The Madurai Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple is one of the greatest temples of Meenakshi in India. It is also known for its sprawling landscape filled with sculptured halls, pillars and lofty towers with lavish artwork in all forms. Madurai is also the site of the 64 Tiruvilayadalgal of Shiva and one of the 5 Pancha Sabhais of Nataraja. It has Rajata (Velli) Sabhai where Lord Shiva dances with a raised right foot. It is believed that the goddess Sakthi rules the world as Meenakshi in Madurai, as Kamakshi in Kanchi and as Visalakshi in Kasi.

According to the legend, the Pandyan king, Malayathuwajan, performed a Yagna seeking the blessing of God for a child. A three year old child with three breasts appeared from the sacrificial fire causing a great anxiety at the ceremony. Then a mysterious voice informed that the third breast would disappear when she met her future husband. Even the instructions that the child be known as 'Thadathagai' and be brought up as if she was a son, were given. Subsequently, the child was brought up giving training in all aspects of royal duties befitting a prince including the art of war. One day she came across a young handsome person and her third breast disappears by which she became aware that she had met her future husband. The young person was none other than Lord Sundareshwarar who had come to take her consort as pre-ordained. The marriage ceremony started and the bride decked with all fineries was taken to the temple where she walked into the sanctum and became one with the Lord.

The most striking feature of the temple is the soaring gopuram or the gateway towers built above the four entrances on the four sides. The most popular entrance being on the east side which is in line with the shrine of Meenakshi leads to the Ashtasakthi Mandapam where the pillars are full of sculptures. The scriptures here depict the different aspects of Goddess Meenakshi and the miracles performed by Lord Siva in Madurai. This hall leads to the Ciththirai gopuram passing through which will lead to a passageway on the eastern end of the Pottramarai kulam having a brass column in the centre. This sacred tank of the golden lotus is older than the temple itself.

It is believed to be created by Lord Shiva by thrusting his shoolam into the earth to grant prosperity to all who bathe in it. The statues of Dhananjeya and Kulasekara Pandiya are carved on the pillar on the northern side of the tank. The walls have dilapidated murals, representing the 64 legendary deeds that Shiva performed in and around Madurai. In the Oonjal mandapam, every Friday, Meenakshi and Sundareswarar are put on a swing while othuvars sing the ancient Tamil hymns.

The Kilikkoottu mandapam was the place where parrots were used to be kept. The Ashtashakthi Mandapam has a hall projecting outwards from the enclosure wall south of the east gopuram leading straight to the Meenakshi shrine. Eight goddesses or eight forms of Goddess Sakthi and two male donor figures are carved on the columns. The Samagam Meenakshi Naickar Mandapa which is adjacent to Ashta Shakti Mandapam has shops and stores.

Built in 1708 by Meenakshi Naickar, this hall contains 110 stone columns, arranged in six rows, each 6.7m high carrying figures in the form of mythical beast yali. There is a doorway surrounded by a brass frame covered with oil lamps at the far end of this hall.

The Thousand Pillared Hall or the Ayirakkal Mandapa is the largest and the most spectacular Mandapa in the temple dating back to the middle of 16th century. Built by Ariyanatha Mudaliyar, this mandapa situated near Veeravasantharayar Mandapam contains 985 beautifully sculptured pillars with each pillar being exquisitely carved out of a single circular block of granite and sounds an arpeggio of musical notes when tapped. These pillars arranged in such a way that from whatever angle one looks from within, they appear to be in rows. There is an idol of Ariyanatha Mudaliar, facing south bestriding a horse erected in 1569 can be seen at the entrance.

The large deity of Nataraja or the dancing Siva is located at the far end of the hall and an idol of Lord Sabapati at the centre.

The sculptures of Lord Shiva destroying an asura, four armed goddess riding a bird and sculptures of Pichadanar, Dharman, Beeman, Rathi and Veerpathirar, carvings of Agni, Manmadan, Purushamirukam, Arjunan and Mohini, yalis and Hunter, as well as that of two Dwarapalakars, statues of Thiripurandhakar, Nirutha Ganapathy, Lord Muruga on peacock, Nagaraja, and Saraswathy are situated. There is a wheel, representing 60 years in the Tamil calendar on the roof of the entrance. The art museum established in this hall in 1966 has exhibits of temple art and architecture, fine brass, five metal and stone images, friezes and photos, religious icons, antique coins etc.


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