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.
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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.
Meenakshi: the goddess with the fish-shaped eyes
The goddess Meenakshi of Madurai emerged from the flames of a sacrificial fire as a 3-year-old child, in answer to the Pandyan king Malayadvaja’s prayer for a son. The king, not only surprised to see a female, was also horrified that she had three breasts. In every other respect, she was beautiful, as her name, Meenakshi (“fish-eyed”), suggests; fish-shaped eyes are classic images of desirability in Indian love poetry. Dispelling his concern, a mysterious voice told the king that Meenakshi would lose the third breast on meeting her future husband.
In the absence of a male heir, the adult Meenakshi succeeded her father as Pandyan monarch. With the aim of world domination, she embarked on a series of successful battles, culminating in the defeat of Shiva’s armies in his Himalayan abode, Mount Kailash. Shiva then appeared on the battlefield and upon seeing him, Meenakshi immediately lost her third breast thus fulfilling the prophecy. They then travelled to Madurai, where they were duly married. They assumed a dual role – firstly as king and queen of the Pandya kingdom, with Shiva assuming the title Sundara Pandya, and secondly as the presiding deities of the Madurai temple, into which they subsequently disappeared.
Today, their shrines in Madurai are the focal point of a hugely popular fertility cult centred on their “coupling”. The temple priests maintain that this ensures the preservation and regeneration of the universe, so every night the pair are placed in Sundareshwarar’s bedchamber – but not before Meenakshi’s nose ring is carefully removed so that in the heat of passion it won’t cut her husband. However, fidelity is never taken for granted, and has to be ritually tested each year when the beautiful goddess Cellattamman is brought to Sundareshwarar “to have her powers renewed”. After she is spurned, she flies into a fury that can only be placated with the sacrifice of a buffalo.