It has been a while since I planned a bucket list of temple trails including Madurai, Kumbakonam, Trichy, Kanchipuram, and many more. And this time, I finally packed my bags and visited Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple and around.
I have been to Madurai as a kid with the family. But the memories are so faint that I can very well call this the first trip to Madurai. As a kid, I remember walking through a small lane opening up to a grand towering temple entrance, nothing more. And this time too, I went wide-mouthed when the tiny south street led me to the grand Meenakshi Amman Temple Entrance. But this time I had the intelligence and curiosity to know more about the Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple.
The history of the temple, the grand entrance, the sculptures, the paintings, the beautiful Goddess, wow!! I went on two days for darshan despite the rush cos the beauty of Meenakshi Amman indeed has no words to describe.
When I first looked up, Google mentioned the temple is closed due to covid restrictions. It still shows as temporarily closed, did not take my suggestion edit. The Meenakshi Amman temple is pretty much open but not all the entrances. The East gate and South gate are open.
Most of the crowd flocks through the east entrance. But both of these are not far, if you stand at the T junction you can pretty much see the Amman Sannadhi East and South. Wearing a mask is a must. Scarf, makeshift bandanas all that is not considered as a mask. Temperature is checked and sanitizer is applied generously. Children below the age of 10 and elders above the age of 60 are not allowed inside the temple as they are more susceptible to coronavirus. Some parts inside the temple are also closed for tourists.
Covid or no covid the temple has few other restrictions for entry into the Meenakshi Amman Temple. This includes no carrying of mobile phone, bags, food, chappal, shoes, etc. The moment you approach the entrance, you can see crowded locker rooms to deposit all your belongings.
I handed over the handbag at one counter and took my wallet alone. Chappal and shoes in the adjacent counter. And deposit your mobile phones at the next counter. You need to pay a fee of 5 rupees at each of these counters. I was then frisked by the security, and the wallet was checked before letting me in. By this time, you would have come in contact with many people and so just trust the face mask and thank your stars.
When I approached the temple entrance and looked perplexed, a guide walked up to me and offered to take me around the temple. And I said yes. Mostly because it was only 200INR and I am always in the mood to listen to stories. So I have plenty of stories to tell you. Note that no photography is allowed inside the Meenakshi Amman Temple. We have already submitted our phones and cameras, no surprise there. So am going to take you through stories and temple complex with little to no pics, please envision it all :)
Birth of Princess Meenakshi
The birth of the princess goes back to many stories and lives before. She is born to reunite with Her Love, Lord Siva.
The story goes back to the time when Goddess Parvati marries Lord Siva against her father Dakshan's wishes. Remember that Dakshan conducts a yagna without calling Lord Siva? And Parvati jumps into the fire cos Dakshan disrespects Shiva? So Parvati dies in the fire and Shiva performs the dance (Rudra thaandavam) with Parvati's body, the parts of her body land in what today is called, "Sakthi Peetam".
From then on Siva remains without a wife. Parvathi is then reborn in Kanya Kumari as Devi Kanya. The story of Kanyakumari is another big episode that I am not writing here. In short, she remains as Kanya (the unmarried girl), the marriage with Shiva is disrupted, she kills a demon, and they are not able to unite in her second birth. So the third birth is of Princess Meenakshi in Madurai.
The Pandyan king Malayadhwaja and his Queen Kanchanmala are distressed that they do not have a son. So they perform a yagnya (holy pyre) and pray to God for a son. But out of the fire appears a girl child. The king and queen are not only disappointed but utterly confused. The girl child has three breasts. This is where my guide very modestly says, "the girl is born with three dhanam". Dhanam in Tamil means wealth. And am wondering and questioning him what's wrong if the child is born rich :D I probe and look super confused until he takes me to a sculpture of Meenakshi with three breasts in one of the pillars. And that's when I realized the story.
So, while the king is worried, there is a divine voice that says, "don't worry about the breasts, she will be fine when she is of marriageable age!" The Princess unaware that she is a Goddess, grows to become the queen and conquers the world. When she finally reaches heaven and starts a war, Lord Shiva appears on the battlefield. Her third breast disappears and she realizes it is her husband and they both marry. Thus finally united in her third birth.
Lord Siva is called Sundareswarar ( the handsome/beautiful Siva) and also as Sokkanathar (meaning, so handsome that people will get intoxicated in love with Him). The marriage is a grand affair in Madurai, it is called Chithirai Thiruvizha aka Chithirai Festival. Chithirai is the Tamil month that arrives in April. The celebration includes the coronation of Goddess Meenakshi, marriage with Sundareswarar, Alagar Perumal (brother of the bride) visiting them, chariot festival, and so on. Devotees throng to see the celebrations and many married women tie the mangalsutra or renew the thread on this day.
History of Meenakshi Amman Temple
If you are wondering, "What was I reading all this while if this section is called History of Meenakshi Amman Temple?" Well, this section is about how the temple was constructed and some more miracles and discoveries.
Discovery of Indira Vimaanam
First is the discovery of the Shiva Shrine. The present-day Sundareshwarar shrine is the oldest. And the Shiva Lingam was discovered by a merchant called Dhananjayan while passing through the Kadambavanam forest. The Pandya King Kulasekaran on hearing this arrives at the thick of the forest to see the Shiva lingam. This Shiva Lingam is prayed by Lord Indira Himself. The king is astounded to see the shrine flanked with Indira's elephants and Shiva. He then moves the capital of Pandyas from Korkai to Madurai. Clears the forest around the Shiva shrine and builds the present-day Meenakshi Amman Temple. These parts of the temple are from the 11th century. Even today if you look up the Siva shrine you can see it flanked by golden Gopuram. The tower has eight elephants guarding all the directions. Since it is believed to be installed or built by Lord Indira Himself, the tower is called Indira Vimaanam.
The Delhi Sultanate Invasion
The other parts of the temple were built by the Thirumalai Nayyakar, the most powerful king of the Nayakar dynasty. This was after the invasion by the Delhi sultanate. During the Muslim invasion, to protect the main Shiva deity, they closed the shrine and kept another Shiva Lingam in front of it. The Muslim invasion plundered and looted the temple and so for many years, the temple remained closed with no pooja. When you are stepping out of the Shiva shrine, past the kodimaram (flag pole), you can see this damaged makeshift Lingam too.
The Golden Lotus Pond
You would be surprised to know the number of stories linked with the Golden Lotus pond which in Tamil is called Potramarai Kulam. The temple pond is called so because it used to yield Golden lotuses for Lord Indiran to worship Lord Shiva. Not now anyways :P
The Potramarai Kulam is famous for the Nakkeerar story too. The poet Nakkeerar challenges Shiva that there is a fault in the poem He has penned. Siva gets angry and opens His third eye! Nakkeerar still says, you might be God, you might open your third eye but what is wrong is wrong. But he is not able to take the heat coming out of the third eye! He jumps into the potramarai kulam to cool himself. Hence it gets the name as Adhi kulam (ancient pond) and it is filled with divine power.
The Silver Dancing Hall
There are five dancing halls in Tamil Nadu called Panchai sabhai (literal translation). And Madurai has one of the dancing halls called Velliambalam meaning silver dancing hall. These are the places where Siva performed the cosmic dance, the Taandavam.
Here He dances Sandhya thandavam, which is the happy peaceful dance. Family man in Madurai you see! It is also one of the places you see Natarajar (dancing form of Siva) with His right leg lifted up. Usually Natarajar always has his left leg lifted up. But here on request of His devotee, Kulasekara Pandyan, He changes His posture.
The story goes that after much hesitation Kulasekara Pandian decides to learn dancing. He has already learnt 63 of the 64 arts that are prominent. And the only one he has not is dancing, as he feels, in Madurai it should be only Shiva who is dancing. But when he hears that a Chola king has mastered it all, he starts to learn too. And realizes that it pains a lot. So he goes to the Velliambalam and says, "I can't even take the pain of ten days of dancing. You seem to be dancing with one leg lifted up all the time. At least change the posture of the leg so it does not pain." Wooshhh, and the Lord changes the posture.
Virtual Walk Through Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple
Now that I have told you many stories let us walk through the temple. I entered through the East Gopuram. I looked up at the ceiling and gawked at the detailed paintings of Lord Shiva and Parvati. To the left is Lord Ganesha and to the right comes Lord Muruga's shrines. Pay the salutations and step in to arrive at the Golden Lotus Temple pond. Due to covid restrictions, they have created one single queue which you have to walk through, so there is no sitting near the pond or loitering around it. My guide said if we stand near the other end of the pond we can see majority of the gopurams. Well another time.
Moving in the queue takes straight to the sanctum of Meenakshi Amman. There are two queues, one for free darshan and the other paid, eventually they merge into one queue. On the way stop and admire the Velliambalam and majestic smiling Natarajar to your right. Then it is straight darshan of Goddess Meenakshi.
I liked how they have raised the platform at places so everyone gets a chance to get a good view of Amman. She is about 6ft tall, adorned with jewels, and in a silk saree. Meenakshi refers to eyes beautiful like that of a fish. But honestly, Her nose ring shines through everything that you cannot make it out. It is only when the priest shows the deepam (light) and holds it near Her face, you can feel the beauty and divine power. Meenakshi Amman is often depicted in green color, mostly to emphasize the dusky south Indian skin tone. She holds a parrot in her hand as well. The parrot repeats our prayers to Her and so whatever you wish for is for sure conveyed to Her.
Come out of the shrine, get your free laddoo prasadam, and walk around the shrine. You will see many other smaller shrines. There is Nayanmars, Krishna Rukmini, Ganesha, Murugar, Ramar, Saraswai, Navagraha and all. The walls have the stories from Thiruvillayadal painted on them. Madurai is also where all the stories from Thiruvillayadal happened.
Apart from the ladoo prasadam what you also have to get is the kungumam aka vermillion. This is called the Thalampoo Kungumam which has the beautiful fragrance of Thazhampoo (screw pine flower). Adorn a little and all the essential oils on world can give up in front of this fragrance that lingers on the whole day.
The Pichandavar shrine caught my attention. This was the first time I was coming across this deity. Apparently, it is Shiva holding a begging bowl, ready to take all your sins. So He is more like deposit your sins in the bowl. But people were tossing coins like He is an actual beggar.
Walk outside and you will see a beautifully done Nandi statue. Nandi sits opposite the Shiva shrine. The Nandi, the mantel on which it sits, the pillars, the carvings on it all are made from one single stone, monolithic! I was so stunned. And on all directions are huge man-sized sculptures of Natarajar, Meenakshi Sundareshwarar's wedding, different forms of Shiva, absolutely mind-blowing! It takes a good amount of time to observe and appreciate them. Head to pay your respects to Sundareshwarar. More calm, more divine, so much energy that shrine has. Absolutely moving.
Just outside is also a Siddhar Sannidhi that is unique to this temple. Once Lord Shiva came in disguise of a Siddha (Sundaranandar). The then Madurai king summoned the Siddhar to his court but the Siddhar did not oblige. When the king finally approaches the Siddhar and asks him to prove his power, the stone elephant near the shrine turns into a real elephant and start to eat a sugarcane. Many years later when Mallik Kapoor visited the temple wondered whether the miracle would happen again and it did! Such is the power of God. He listens to everything and acts on it.
Also to note is the Sthala Vriksham which is the Kadambam Tree. Remember the Kadambavanam story? Where they found the Shiva Lingam and formed Madurai around it? It is the same tree from that era. It is the most revered and prayed tree. The tree is no longer alive, a portion of the trunk is preserved. The guide also pointed out many old statues that are made of wax molds a technique that no longer exists.
Running along the outer walls of Meenakshi Amman and Sundareshwarar shrines are inscriptions. So many texts mostly in readable Tamil. Apparently, a recent study has been done on these inscriptions and people are waiting for the book to be released which can give more insights and stories.
You then come to the wedding hall where the usual Meenakshi Amman and Sundareshwarar's wedding happens. Totally different architecture from what you would have seen inside. The roof is of wood and it is carved exquisitely with detailed paintings running all around. The stage itself has two surprise elements. There are two huge paintings. One depicting the universe, the distance and position of planets, the stars, and stuff. The second one depicts the earth, even circumference and stuff mentioned. I mean, this is in the eleventh century. Did they really have the vision to draw this or they actually had the tools to find it, is still a mystery.
With that, I exited the temple along with the guide. The thousand pillar hall and other places remained closed due to covid restriction.
Best time to visit Meenakshi Amman Temple
South India gets super hot in summer. And dressing modest with sleeve and legs covered are a must. So better to visit from October to March when the winters are much better and summers are just on setting in March. However, the Chithirai Thiruvizha which happens in April also attracts a lot of crowd. Devotional people, photographers, people who appreciate festivals throng Madurai for ten days during this time. Make your reservations much ahead. In 2021, April 15 to April 30 is when Chithirai Thiruvizha happens.
For sometime there was a rule of women should wear salwar or saree and no leggings was prevalent. But that does not seem to be anymore. However, women cannot wear jeans, shirt or sleeveless. Wear kurta and legging and you are all set to go. Men as well need to have a full pant and shirt.
How to take photo of all Meenakshi Temple Gopurams
On some of the temples they let you climb to the terrace and take pictures of the gopurams. However that is not possible in Meenakshi Amman Temple. I asked my guide and he took me straight to the cottage emporium. This is kind of an arrangement they have. From their terrace you get a good view of the gopurams. And I really loved their collection, you can pick a souvenir as well from the shop. One of my friend also pointed out that you can just pay some money instead of buying articles.
I shelled out some money. Honestly was not expecting to buy but then the heritage lover in me wanted to pick few pieces.
For authorized donations to be made to the Madurai Temple - Click here
How to reach Meenakshi Amman Temple
Madurai has an airport. Which is the most convenient. Else you can book an air ticket to Chennai or Bangalore or next closest is Trichy. Madurai is well connected by road and bus and train from metro cities. MDU is the Madurai Junction code to look for. Once you are in Madurai, all roads lead to Meenakshi Amman temple. Take an auto for ease of commute. Madurai also has Ola cabs functioning.