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.