Sri Meenakshi Temple – Madurai, Tamil Nadu, South India (09.05.14)
For a country boasting hundreds of thousands of temples it seems almost churlish to pick out any particular one as a favourite. With so many to choose from, in every size, shape, colour, design and age, there is no temple that is acknowledged to stand out, head-and-shoulders above the rest. There is a great swathe of shrines I love, dotted across the country, scattered through varied landscapes from deserts, jungles, fields, towns and cities to high mountain tops, holy lakes and revered rivers.
However, I do have a few personal favourites. Even when I consider my visits to the Golden Temple (Amritsar, Punjab); Kasi Vishwanath (Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh); Ellora & Ajanta Caves (Aurangabad, Maharashtra); and the array of 900 temples at Palitana (Gujarat) where I spent my 21st birthday – even with these in mind, one of my all time top temples is the Sri Meenakshi Temple (Madurai, Tami Nadu).
Built between 1623 and 1655 the Sri Meenakshi not only sits at the heart of the busy town of Madurai, it also encapsulates everything special about the 2,500 year old city. To my mind it is one of the most exciting, vibrant, colourful and welcoming of temples in Asia.
I first visited it in 1984, and will always remember whiling away several days just sitting and watching the astonishing spectacle of everyday temple life in Sri Meenakshi. Swaying elephants, burning incense, ringing bells, colourful saris, painted pilgrims, tranquil sadhu priests, fervent pilgrims… et al.
Nomadic Thoughts have arranged trips to the Temple for decades, as many of our clients have traversed the unique and diverse states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, in southern India. Sri Meenakshi often tops the “highlight of our trip” in our clients’ reports. This is mainly because visitors (whether pilgrims or tourists) are able to enjoy the mesmerizing mix of enthusiastic, devout and happy people, all enjoying the sprawling maze that is Sri Meenakshi, with its collection of spectacular, ornate and spiritual inner-areas.
As a tourist you are in a tiny minority when compared with the numbers of local worshippers, especially when the pilgrim season kicks in during November/December/January/February. You can either choose to be swept along in the melee, or simply sit back and soak it all up from one of the many vantage points dotted around the 65,000 sq metre complex. Whatever time of day or night, the temple is a welcome resting spot in which to escape the outside heat. The quieter inner-meditation areas are as charming as the striking, brightly painted fresco courtyards and the extraordinary Ayiramkael Mandapam (Hall of a Thousand Pillars) structure.
I hope these photos, taken on various trips of mine to the temple, give you an idea of how thrilling and special this holy site is. Originally dating back 2,000 years, the main complex as it stands today has attracted visitors since the substantial 1600s developments. Entering from the streets outside, through any one of the four huge and elaborate gateways, visitors soon realise that they are entering a city within a city. Paintings, sculptures, ornate offerings and a never-ending burble of worshipful excitement leads you through the abode of the triple breasted goddess Meenakshi.
The nature of the temple, as a living city within itself, is enhanced by the vast array of gods and goddesses, as well as images of demons, devils, saints and sinners. The 100 metre long pillared Hall of Pudhu Mandapa is as good as any to start with, offering everything from strong pillar sculptures, including the triple-breasted Meenakshi as she married Shiva (accompanied by Vishnu), through to a buzzy market-style vibe of tailors, flower sellers, charmers and elephant painters.
As with most temples in India, visitors do need to be dressed modestly; ladies’ shoulders should be covered, as should everyone’s legs. Perhaps one of the most exciting surprises for first time visitors is the enormous collection of painted frescoes throughout huge courtyards. Colourful patterns, images, historical and religious scenes complement the oil-blessed fertility goddesses, the ancient rock carved statues and shafts of mystical light that give you the feeling you have stepped into a giant Aladdin’s Cave.