BENGALURU: A visit to Madurai and without seeing the Meenakshi Temple is like forgetting to see the Taj Mahal on a trip to Agra. This ancient city is built around the Meenakshi Amman Temple which has been the geographical and ritualistic centre of the region since the times of the Pandyans. The temple complex which was destroyed by the invader Malik Kafur was later rebuilt by the Nayakars of Madurai and this is what we see today and not its original form. However, the site remains the same. The Thirumalai Nayakars played a very important role in the restoration and preservation of this temple.
As it is, the city is dominated by the presence of this huge temple with 14 gateways that are visible whichever corner of the city one traverses to. The temple, housing more than 30,000 sculptures, attracts thousands of people daily from India and abroad. And so, this highly religious place surrounded by streets with innumerable shops selling flowers, coconuts and pooja items, is always crowded.
The temple complex divided into concentric quadrangular enclosures is so massive and complicated that you have to keep track of your movements, otherwise you may get lost and forced to go round and round without ever reaching the sanctum sanctorum. The main deities in this temple are Shiva and Parvati, dressed and decorated in all their finery. But to get a glimpse of the gods, one has to pay a bit of money at every phase even as you pass from one complex to another housing an unbelievable number of gods.
Since the city is divided into a number of quadrangular streets around the temple which was designed by the first Madurai Nayak king, it almost looks similar to a modern urban planned city. All the city squares are named after Tamil month names or to the festivals associated with the temple. During the annual festival, the temple authorities organise many chariot processions and other dramatic festivities which in fact, can be accommodated in the concentric streets. The temple forms the heart and lifeline of the 2500-year-old city.
The existence of so many, huge gateways in the temple complex is an extraordinary sight what with their heights ranging from 150 to 170 feet. They are multi-storeyed structures and embellished with figures and figurines of gods, goddesses, animals and demons. They have been painted in bright colors and hues. However, the towers atop the temple housing the main deities of Shiva and Parvati are painted in pure gold and these towers are visible at great distances.
Another attraction in this temple complex is the ‘Hall of 1000 Pillars’ and this is situated very near to the structure housing the main deity of Shiva. The pillars are richly carved with images of mythological beasts and it demonstrates the engineering skill and artistic vision of the Madurai Nayakars. The nearby temple art museum houses many sculptures, photos, drawings, images and depict the history of this 1200-year-old temple.
It is a magnificent piece of temple art and architecture in the south of the country but without the assistance of a guide, it is impossible to see or understand the rich heritage left by our ancient rulers. The temple complex is as big as a city itself and houses every kind of shopping outlets. If only it was quieter and more serene so that one could absorb the rich religious past of our country in peace.