The third largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu, it is also often called the “Athens of the East”. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, its historical importance and several important sites of antiquity and religious significance have earned it the moniker. The Meenakshi Amman temple, built by the Pandya king Malayadwaja Pandya and his wife Kanchanamalai, on the southern bank of river Vaigai, is at the heart of the city.
This temple is the biggest and best known in Madurai. Parvati, known as Meenakshi, is the principal deity here. She is accompanied by her consort Shiv, called Sundareshwara.
Legend goes that Parvati appeared out of the holy fire of a Putra Kameshti Yagna and promised Kanchanamalai that she would give birth to an incarnation of the goddess. Consequently a daughter was born to the royal couple with three breasts, the third of which was prophesied to disappear when she met her husband.
They named her Tadaatagai, who waged war over the three worlds. However, when she entered Kailash to defeat Shiva, the moment she looked upon his face, her third breast disappeared, and Tadaatagai realised that she was an incarnation of Parvati, and that Shiva was her destined husband.
After the marriage, they ruled over Madurai for a long time as the presiding deities of the temple.
The intricate lore and mythology, coupled with the imposing structure of the temple, has made the Meenakshi Amman temple an awe-inspiring sight to behold. With over fourteen gopurams, golden sculptured vimanas, and an estimated 33,000 sculptures, the Meenakshi Amman temple was among the top 30 in the nominee list of New Seven Wonders of the world. And this is just one temple in Madurai.
The Tirumalai Nayak palace, on the other hand, requires a day to explore and admire its many features.
Other notable sites of significance in Madurai include Thiruparangundram, Chithirai, Thiruvizha, Azhar Kovil, Pazhamudhir cholai and Madhurai Malligai.
The southern most tip of mainland India, and well-known from the adage ‘Kashmir to Kanyakumari’ is yet another significant tourist town in Tamil Nadu. While it is not as religiously significant, it is considered as an important destination for a pilgrimage. The name of the town is derived from Devi Kanya Kumari, an incarnation of goddess Parvati. The legend goes, that Kanya Kumari was left waiting for Lord Shiva on their wedding day as he failed to show up. The devi is now considered to be a virgin goddess blessing pilgrims and tourists who visit the temple dedicated to her. Other important sites to visit in Kanyakumari are the Vivekananda Rock Memorial and the confluence of the three seas. The sun rise over this town is also said to be beautiful and is a popular tourist attraction with crowds thronging every morning to witness the sun rise out of the sea.
Located on Pamban island, and connected to the mainland through the Pamban railway line, Rameshwaram is an important site for both Shaivites and Vaishnavites and is part of the Char Dham pilgrimage. The Ramanathaswamy temple, located at the centre of the town, is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was supposedly built by Vishnu’s seventh avatar Lord Rama.
According to the Ramayana, Lord Rama built the temple around a lingam to be absolved of the sin of committing Brahmahatya by killing Ravan. As Hanuman, who was commissioned with bringing a lingam from the Himalayas was delayed, Sita built a smaller lingam which is now believed to be in the inner sanctum of the temple. The Hindu temple with the longest corridor, it is also one of the twelve Jyothirlinga temples, where Shiva is worshipped in the form of a lingam.
The temple has within it 22 of the 24 important tirthas (water bodies), and bathing in these waters is an important part of the pilgrimage. The act is considered equivalent to penance.
The most important of these is the Agni theertham which is the sea itself.
Rameshwaram, which is of such significance to numerous sects across Hinduism, is also known to have been the site where Rama constructed the stone bridge to Lanka with the help of his vanara sena (monkey army).