One of the oldest cities in South Asia, MADURAI, on the banks of the River Vaigai, has been an important centre of worship and commerce for as long as there has been civilization in south India. It was often described as “the Athens of the East” and indeed, when the Greek ambassador Megasthenes visited in 302 BC, he wrote of its splendour and described its queen, Pandai, as “a daughter of Herakles”. The Roman geographer Strabo also wrote of Madurai, complaining that the city’s silk, pearls and spices were draining the imperial coffers of Rome. It was this lucrative trade that enabled the Pandyan dynasty to erect the mighty Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar temple. Although now surrounded by a sea of modern concrete cubes, the massive gopuras of this vast complex, writhing with multicoloured mythological figures and crowned by golden finials, remain the greatest man-made spectacle of the south. No fewer than 15,000 people pass through its gates every day and on Fridays (sacred to the goddess Meenakshi) numbers swell to more than 25,000, while the temple’s ritual life spills out into the streets in an almost ceaseless round of festivals and processions.
Although considerably enlarged and extended through the ages, the overall layout of Madurai’s old city, south of the River Vaigai, has remained largely unchanged since the first centuries AD, comprising a series of concentric squares centred on the massive Meenakshi Temple. Aligned with the cardinal points, the street plan forms a giant mandala, whose sacred properties are activated during the regular mass clockwise circumambulations of the central temple. North of the river, Madurai becomes markedly more mundane and irregular. You’re only likely to cross the Vaigai to reach the city’s more expensive hotels or the Gandhi Museum.
Although invariably interwoven with myth, the traceable history and fame of Madurai stretches back well over 2000 years. Numerous natural caves in local hills, and boulders often modified by the addition of simple rock-cut beds, were used both in prehistoric times and by ascetics such as the Ajivikas and Jains, who practised withdrawal and penance.
Madurai appears to have been capital of the Pandyan empire without interruption for at least a thousand years. It became a major commercial city, trading with Greece, Rome and China, and yavanas (a generic term for foreigners) were frequent visitors to Pandyan seaports. The Tamil epics describe them walking around town with their eyes and mouths wide open with amazement. Under the Pandya dynasty, Madurai also became an established seat of Tamil culture, credited with being the site of three sangams, “literary academies”, said to date back ten thousand years and which supported some eight thousand poets.
The Pandyas’ capital fell in the tenth century, when the Chola king Parantaka took the city. In the thirteenth century, the Pandyas briefly regained power until the early 1300s, when the notorious Malik Kafur, the Delhi Sultanate’s “favourite slave”, made an unprovoked attack during a plunder-and-desecration tour of the south, and destroyed much of the city. Forewarned of the raid, the Pandya king, Sundara, fled with his immediate family and treasure, leaving his uncle and rival, Vikrama Pandya, to repel Kafur. Nevertheless, the latter returned to Delhi with booty said to consist of “six hundred and twelve elephants, ninety-six thousand mans of gold, several boxes of jewels and pearls and twenty thousand horses”.
Shortly after this raid Madurai became an independent Sultanate. In 1364, it joined the Hindu Vijayanagar empire, ruled from Hampi and administered by governors, the Nayaks. In 1565, the Nayaks asserted their own independence. Under their supervision and patronage, Madurai enjoyed a renaissance, being rebuilt on the pattern of a lotus centring on the Meenakshi Temple. Part of the palace of the most illustrious of the Nayaks, Thirumalai (1623–55), survives today. The city remained under Nayak control until the mid-eighteenth century when it was gradually taken over by the British. A hundred years later the British de-fortified Madurai, filling its moat to create the four Veli streets that today mark the boundary of the old city.