Madurai, the Legendary Temple City: By N Hariharan
It is a hot morning in mid-April. As the Chennai-Madurai Pandyan Express chugs in and grinds to a halt at Madurai station, Valli is in a flurry of excitement. The Chennai-bred girl is thrilled by the prospect of meeting her friend Selvi,a native of Madurai,and of launching with her into a week-long study and explorationof Madurai city. As she stands in the doorway looking expectantly,Selvi turns up. ‘Welcome to the Temple City!’ Walking briskly along the lengthy platform,Valli is delightfully surprised. ‘What a refreshing change! The station looks so spick andspan!’ she observes. With a gleam of pride in her eyes, Selvi says, ‘You know something? Our railway station has been consistently winning the trophyfor the best maintenance and upkeep, and the authoritiesare determined to retain it by making thestation as passenger-friendly as possible.’
Outside the station the two friends find themselvesconfronted by a mob of autorickshaw drivers. Selvi waves them away with a gesture and headsfor her two-wheeler. ‘Thank God we have our ownconveyance,’ she mutters. ‘A gullible stranger attheir mercy is milked dry.’ Turning to her companion,she says, ‘Now, Valli, look at the frontageof the station. Doesn’t it look like a mini temple?Look how the ivory-coloured tower is shimmeringin the morning sun. Isn’t it wonderful? It captures,in a quintessential way, the basic ethos ofthe city centring round the famed temple. The station is also a temple, the temple of travellers!’ Vallinods in admiration. Without any further ado, theymount the scooter and within a few minutes reachSelvi’s home in Chockikulam, a posh locality in Madurai. At the breakfast table,Selvi asks, ‘So, Valli,I surmise your visit toMadurai is not so much for recreation as for abit of research?’ ‘You’reright,’ answers Valli, ‘Ihave a project to do onMadurai and I rely onyou to collect and collatethe details aboutthe city.’ Selvi replies, ‘Well, Madurai is Janusfaced,so to speak. It is congested, dusty, and noisy,to be sure; but behind the facade of cacophony andgrime lurks the real Madurai—glorious, grand, andhoary. It has a unique place on the map of TamilNadu and a special niche in Tamilians’ hearts. Thecity’s global renown draws tourists in droves whileit bursts at its seams with a population of 1.5 million. Though Madurai is a multifaceted gem of acity—it is and has always been an important centre of political, economic, social, and cultural activity—it is its cultural dimension that dominates and overshadows the other aspects. It can rightlybe called Tamil Nadu’s cultural capital. Standing on the banks of the Vaigai River, this beautiful city had been celebrated as the seat of Tamil learning and culture since ancient times. Its glory returned,though in a diminished form, in the earlier part ofthe last millennium. Present-day Madurai is spreadover 22 square kilometres. The climate is tropical and the main spoken languages are Tamil, English,and Saurashtra. ‘Madurai is one of the oldest cities of India witha history dating all the way back to the Sangam period.Later on, after its ransack by the ravaging armiesof Delhi’s Malik Kafur, it came under the ruleof the Vijayanagara kingdom. During the sixteenthand eighteenth centuries, the city was ruled by the Nayaka kings, the foremost of whom was TirumalaiNayakar. The Sangam poet Nakkirar is associatedwith some of the Tiruvilayadal episodes ofLord Sundareshvarar, divine sports of Lord Shiva,which are enacted as part of temple festival traditionseven today.’ Valli listens with rapt attention as Selvi continueswith the story of Madurai’s hoary antiquity, its chequered history replete with gripping incidents,the vicissitudes of fortune it experienced as it passed through the corridors of time, and its amazing resilience even after repeated setbacks: ‘It wason the fecund literary soil of Madurai that the sturdytree of Tamil literature had its luxuriant growth.The Sangam era, the golden age of Tamil literature,witnessed a veritable literary efflorescence in theform of masterpieces—and it was still early first millennium! Madurai was already the seat of theTamil Sangam, or academy of learning. Eminentpoets and scholars of great renown adorned theacademy and brought undying fame to it. ‘However, Madurai has also been a spiritual sanctuary.The Minakshi-Sundareshvarar temple is a hallowed spot from which spirituality radiates andrejuvenates Madurai’s citizens. The temple is thecity’s best-known landmark. The layout of the cityresembles a lotus with its petals encircling the centralbud. The temple is the bud round which runthe thoroughfares of Madurai in concentric circles.In fact, the rectangular series of streets reminds oneof the structure of the cosmos. The majestic towersof the temple, visible from every corner of thecity, ensure that no stranger loses his way here. Theold city lies on the southern side of the Vaigai. Thenorthern side has seen an exponential growth ofnew settlements and colonies and forms part of the new city. ‘In days of yore, Madurai was also a commercial centre, havingtrade links withplaces like Rome andGreece. It was visitedby Megasthanes asearly as the third century BCE. Under the able rule of the Pandyas,the city flourisheduntil the tenth centuryBCE when it was captured by the Cholas, their archrivals.The Cholas ruled Madurai from 920 BCE tillthe beginning of the thirteenth century CE. In 1223the Pandyas regained their kingdom and the cityonce again became prosperous. Tamil came to enjoyimmense patronage, and it was during the Pandyareign that many masterpieces of that languageappeared. Silappadikaram, the great Tamil epic, isbased on the story of Kannagi, who burnt downMadurai to avenge the injustice caused to her husbandKovalan. In April 1311, Malik Kafur, the generalof Delhi’s Alauddin Khalji, raided Madurai andplundered the city of precious stones, jewels, andmany rare treasures. This was followed by a spateof attacks and raids by other Muslim rulers, and in1323 the Pandya kingdom became a province of theDelhi Empire under the Tughluqs.’ Valli is touched by the chronicle: ‘I wonder whythe fair face of Madurai has had to suffer thus at the hands of Destiny?’ Selvi is surprised by her friend’semotional attachment to the city and continues hernarration. ‘Flies converge on a ripe fruit. Maduraiwas a prize city that attracted the covetous glancesof greedy kings. In 1371 the rulers of Hampi capturedMadurai and it became part of the Vijayanagaraempire. The Vijayanagara kings used to entrustthe administration of captured territories to governorscalled Nayakas to ensure efficient managementof the empire. The Nayakas paid an annualtribute to the Vijayanagara empire. After the deathof Krishnadeva Raya in 1530, the Nayakas became in-dependent and ruled the territories under their control. The most popular among them was Tirumalai Nayakar (1623–59), who is even now fondly remembered by the citizens of Madurai for the creation ofmany magnificent structures in and around the city.The Raja Gopuram of the Minakshi Amman temple,the Pudu Mandapam, and the Tirumalai NayakarMahal are an eloquent testimony to his artistic zeal.‘Then occurred a turning point in Madurai’s history.It began to slip into the hands of the BritishEast India Company. In 1781 the British appointedtheir representatives to look after Madurai; GeorgeProcter was the first collector. Be that as it may, aprominent name that figures in the history of Maduraiis Rani Mangammal, a woman of great sagacityand administrative ability. Though women were generally believed to be unsuited to the exactingtasks of governance, Rani Mangammal shines as an example of an efficient and strong ruler.‘Madurai is justly famous for its temples. Besides the Minakshi Temple, the Tiruvappudaiyar KoyilThevara Sthalam and the Kudalalagar Divya Desamare the most important temples which none shouldmiss seeing. In the vicinity of Madurai is Tirupparamkunram,one of the six Padai Vidu shrines of SriMurugan glorified in Nakkirar’s Tirumurugatrupadai.Two other Divya Desams, Alagarkoyil andTirumohur, are also in the neighbourhood.‘But Valli, now that you have a fairly good ideaof the place, let us take a tour of the city and I willtell you all that I know about the various places ofinterest. We start with the Minakshi temple.’ The Minakshi Temple Within a few minutes, the girls reach the spot.Standing in front of the elegant three-storeyed gopuramfacing the east, the main entrance to the temple,Valli is enraptured by its intricate and ornatesculpture. The sheer variety, craftsmanship, anddeep motifs of the sculptural pieces awe her. ‘Marvellous!, it is a sight for the gods!’ ‘Don’t exhaustall your admiration right here,’ interjects Selvi.‘Reserve some for the wonders yet to come.’ Thenshe continues: ‘Look how even the approach to the temple is filled with a divine fragrance. That is because these shops that you see on either side of thestreet vend puja articles like flowers, garlands, coconuts,incense sticks, camphor, sandalwood paste,betel leaves, haldi, and kumkum. And look at thepressing crowds of devotees waiting to step into thewide corridor of the temple. Isn’t the very atmosphereinspiring?’ Valli silently nods assent. Selvi resumes her narration. ‘The Minakshishrine is one of the fifty-one Shakti Pithas and ishailed as the seat of Budha, Mercury. It is one of thePancha Sabhas, or Five Halls, of Lord Nataraja andis celebrated as the Velli Ambalam or Rajata Sabhawhere the Lord Shiva performed his mighty tandavadance for the sake of his devotees Patanjali andVyaghrapadar at the time of his wedding with GoddessMinakshi. Devi Shakti had incarnated Herselfas a Pandyan princess and married Lord Shiva.The glory of Minakshi-Sundareshvarar has been extolled in immortal hymns by the Shaiva saintsAppar, Sundarar, Tirujnanasambandhar, and Manikkavachakar,and in the works of erudite scholarslike Paranjyoti Munivar, Kumara Guruparar, andNilakantha Dikshitar. ‘According to some ancient texts, Madurai wasearlier known as Halasya Kshetram, Kadamba Vanam,Tiru Alavoi, and Jivanmukti Nagaram. An interestingmythology centres round the city.’ Thevery mention of the word mythology rouses Valli’scuriosity. ‘Selvi, you know how I love mythology!I am all attention. Please carry on.’ Selvi continues: ‘Centuries ago, Madurai wasa forest of kadamba trees. Once Indra, king of the gods, incurred the sin of killing a brahmana. In orderto wash off the sin, he went on a pilgrimage.When he was roaming in this forest, he stumbledon a svayambhu linga under a kadamba tree. Heperformed severe penance there and felt thoroughlypurified. He worshipped the linga with goldenlotuses from a nearby tank, built a vimana over it,and returned to heaven. Since then, the gods startedworshipping the linga. One day, a merchant byname Dhananjayan happened to spend a night nearthe shrine. He felt as if regular puja was being per formed there. He apprised Kulashekhara Pandyan,king of Manavur, of the matter. At the same time,Lord Shiva, with honey dripping from his mattedlocks, appeared to the king in dream and commandedhim to build shrine there. The king hastenedto the forest and offered worship to the linga, nowencircled by a large serpent. Then he had a propershrine built there and developed around it the cityof Madurai in the shape of a lotus. Thus Madurai became the famous capital of the Pandyas.
‘Kulashekhara was followed by Malayadhwaja. Malayadhwaja and his wife Kanchanamala were childless. In the course of one of the many yajnasthat the royal couple performed in order to get child, they were overjoyed to see a girl child emergefrom the sacred fire. The child was named Tadatagai.But the girl had a queer appearance with threebreasts. A disembodied voice, however, assured theworried king that the girl’s third breast would disappearthe moment she set her eyes on her future husband.Tadatagai grew up to be a heroic woman well versed in the science of warfare, and in course oftime succeeded her father to the throne. Now sheset out on an expedition of conquest and broughtthe neighbouring kingdoms under her rule. Hertriumphant march eventually took her to MountKailas, the abode of Shiva. A miracle happened onthe battlefield as she confronted Shiva. Shiva’s gazemade her shy and, lo, her third breast disappeared!Shivapromised to marry her at Madurai—so Tadatagaiwas none other than Devi Parvati—and shereturned to her capital. In due time, the weddingof Shiva and Tadatagai took place and togetherthey ruled Madurai for some time. A son namedUgra Pandyan, an incarnation of Murugan or Subrahmanya,was born to them. After crowning himas king, the couple assumed their divine forms andtook their lodgement in the temple. That is why theimages in the Madurai temple look so infused with divine power and radiate spiritual splendour.’ Valli is vastly impressed by the absorbing mythology behind the temple. Curious to know more about its architecture, she asks, ‘Selvi, the architectural elegance and sculptural beauty of the templeare simply staggering. How were such featsachieved?’ Selvi, pleased with her friend’s growinginterest, answers: ‘The origin of the temple fadesinto the mists of antiquity. Only a small shrine ofShiva existed in the seventh century CE. The Minakshitemple was built in the twelfth century. Itrepresents the high-water mark of Dravidian architecture.The sculptural marvels that abound in thetemple towers and the beautifully chiselled mandapamsare a standing testimony to the skills ofTamil artisans. Of the eleven gopurams toweringover the temple, the four nine-storeyed ones at thefour main entrances are noteworthy. These werebuilt between the thirteenthand sixteenth centuries.The oldest is the east tower built by ManavarmanSundara Pandyan in the thirteenth century.The tallest and most imposing is the southtower rising to a height of 170 feet with its paraboliccurve; it was built by Sevvantimurti Chettiarof Siramalai in 1559. The western tower was builtby Parakrama Pandyan in the fourteenth century. Though of massive size, these towers look like exquisite ornaments studded with gems in the formof hundreds of sudhaistatues—colourful images ofgods, goddesses, animals, and mythical figures.‘The five musical pillars, each consisting of twenty-two smaller pillars carved out of a single stoneand producing different notes when struck, are anothergreat attraction for visitors. The sprawlingtemple complex alsoconsists of several mandapams.These are notjust a chaotic jumbleof jaded structures thatpass off as mandapams,but well-planned halls that are artistic treasuretroves. ‘Since Goddess Minakshiis the presidingdeity here, devotees enter the temple through the Ashtashakti Mandapam, or Abode of the Eight Powers. Look at that lovely sculptural representationof Minakshi’s wedding there over the entranceto the mandapam. See also the images of Ganeshaand Subrahmanya installed on either side. Theeight Shaktis are Kaumari, Raudri, Vaishnavi, andMahalakshmi on the left and Yajnarupini, Shyamala,Maheshwari, and Manonmani on the right. Howattractive they look! Besides these, there are dvarapalakas,or guards, in front, and statues of Ganapatiand Murugan. Aren’t the wall paintings solovely! They graphically depict interesting scenes ofShiva’s miracles from Paranjyoti Munivar’s TiruvilayadalPuranam, which is regarded as the sthalapurana (local legend) of the Madurai temple. The four figures adorning the eastern side are the four great Shaiva saints Tirujnanasambandhar, Tirunavukkarasar, Sundaramurty Nayanar, and Manikkavachakar. The Ashtashakti Mandapam was built by Rudrapati Ammai and Toliammai, the consorts of Tirumalai Nayakar. Here food used to be served to pilgrims who came from far-off places. Now you see fruit stalls on both sides of the building. ‘A small mandapam with verandas running along either side connects the Ashtashakti Mandapam and the Minakshi Nayakan Mandapam. On the southern veranda, there is an eight-foot-high statue of Goddess Parvati. She is dancing with a shulayudham, a kind of spear, in one hand and resembles a huntress. A five-headed serpent shields her against sun and rain. On the northern veranda is a statue of a hunter. This is also eight feet high and is thought to represent Shiva as a hunter. ‘Now we step into the Minakshi Nayakan Mandapam, named after its builder; it is also called Yali Mandapam. The structure is 160 feet long and 110 feet wide. Here we see before us six rows of 110 pillars, each 22 feet high. Every pillar bears the figure of a yali, a strange creature half lion and half elephant,at the top, and fascinating sculptural patterns at the bottom. At the western end is a massive 25-foot-high tiruvatchi containing 1,008 brass lamps! The array of lamps, when lighted, presents a magnificent sight. The tiruvatchi was installed by the Marudu Pandyas, and its maintenance costs are even today met by the Shivagangai estate’s hereditary trustee. ‘On our way to Amman Sannidhi, or Mother’s Presence, we pass through a seven-storeyed tower whose base is 78 feet long and 38 feet wide. The height of the tower is 177 feet. The tower is resplendentwith a plethora of fine sculptures, 730 inall—a visual feast! It is rightly called Chitra Gopuram,or Marvellous Tower. The tower can be seenfrom the Adi Vithi, the first circular street aroundthe Minakshi-Sundareshvarar shrines, at the spotwhere elephants are tethered, or from the western side of the Golden Lily Tank. Kalatinatha Mudaliar,son of Dalavoi Ariyanatha Mudaliar, built the towerin 1569. It is now maintained by the ShivagangaiDevasthanam. ‘Next comes the Mudali Pillai Mandapam, alsoknown as the Dark Mandapam. This 60-foot-wide structure was built by Kadantai Mudaliar. Of themyriad carvings here, the telltalefigures of Bhikshadanar,the wives ofthe Darukavanasages, and Mohini are the most arresting.An interesting story is associatedwith the lovelywomen representedin these sculptures.Once thewives of the sagesof Darukavana fellin love with Shiva when he appeared before themin the form of a bhikshadanar, or mendicant. Hisbeauty so bewitched them that they stood mesmerized,unaware even of their garments. A connoisseurcannot but wonder at the way the sculptor haslavished all his skills on these statues. The statue ofBhikshadanar is true-to-life, evocative, and fullyreflects the sculptor’s artistic abilities. Images ofGanesha and Subrahmanya are also found inthismandapam. The term ‘Dark Mandapam’, however,is now a misnomer, as the building is now well litand ventilated by windows.’ Golden Lotus Tank As the pair move on, a large reservoir with stone steps on all four sides and a wide corridor running around it comes into view. Groups of people are sitting in the corridors and on the steps enjoying thecool breeze. ‘Valli, this is sacred Potramarai Kulam,or Golden Lotus Tank. See the golden lotus floatingat the centre of the reservoir? Hence the name.According to mythology,Indraonce bathed hereto rid himself of his sins. He collected golden lotus flowers from the tank and worshipped Shivawith them. The tank is 165 feet long and 120 feet wide and remains full for the best part of the year;it is hardly ever dry. Devotees wash their feet—andtheir sins, àla Indra!—in the pellucid water before entering the temple
‘From the middle of the eastern corridor,we can see two small towers covered with golden plates in the midst of the eight templetowers. The chief deities, Minakshi and Sundareshvarar,are ensconced in sanctums below these golden towers. The wall of the southern corridor isinlaid with marble slabs engraved with 1,330 couplets from Tiruvalluvar’s Tirukkural, whichis celebrated as the Tamil Veda. The numerous pillars in the northern corridor bear the figures of twenty-fourpoets of the third Tamil sangam,but on one of them we also find Kulashekhara Pandyan andon another is Dhananjayan.Bright, colourful paintings on the ceilings of all the corridorsdepict scenes from the Tiruvilayadal Puranam. They say that in the olden days the literaryworth of a Tamil work was testedby placing it on a plank on the water of this tank. If it floated, it was deemedworthy, and if it sank, well, it sank! ‘Valli, look at that hall built in black marblewith an unjal, or swing, on the western side of the tank. It is called the Unjal Mandapam. EveryFriday, the gold images of Minakshi and Sundareshvarar are placed on the swing, gently rocked tothe accompaniment of music, and worshipped. The paintings on the ceiling of this mandapam portray Subrahmanya’s Arupadai Vidu, or Six Abodes. That smaller mandapam on the opposite side has paintings done during Rani Mangamma’s period. ‘We now enter the Kilikutu Mandapam, or Parrot cage Hall. The parrots kept here are trained to call the name of Minakshi and are a great amusement amusement for the children. The hall’s grandeur is enhancedby the long row of 28 pillars and exquisitelycarved sculptural pieces. Particularly noteworthyare the figures of Vali, Sugriva, the Pandavas, andDraupadi. A yali is engraved on another pillar; aball of stone revolves in its mouth! There are alsotwo large paintings of Minakshi’s wedding andcoronation. Mural paintings on the ceilingare eye-catching. Opposite AmmanSannidhi, on one side of thebalipitham, or sacrificial altar, is apillar bearing the figure of Bhimasena,and on a pillar on theother side is a semi-human figure;both stand in combativeposes. In this mandapam, thepillars depict Shiva’s miraculousdeeds. The figures, thoughvery small, are of unsurpassedcharm. The paintings on the canopyrepresent an array of deities of the Hindu pantheon. The scene ofMinakshi’s wedding in front of the Sannidhiis attractive. ‘Valli, we are now about to enter intothe heart of the temple, the Devi’s sanctum. Lookat the three-storeyed tower at the entrance. It is40 feet high with the base 27 feet long and 20 feet wide. It is a repository of exquisite sculptures, 476to be precise. The tower is called Vembattur Towerafter its builder Ananda Tandavanambi of Vembattur.On the outer prakaram, or circular corridor,can be seen the golden flag-post, the TirumalaiNayakar Mandapam, brass dvarapalakas, and theshrines of Vinayakar and Kudal Kumarar. That isthe Kolu Mandapam in the western corner. Duringthe Navaratri festival in the Tamil month of Purat-tasi, in September-October, the image of Minakshiis exquisitely adorned in nine different ways onthe nine days and kept there for public view andworship. ‘To the west is a bigger, five-storeyed tower. Thisis 54 feet high and its base is 50 feet long and 28 feetwide and is visible even from the western Adi Vithi.The imposing structure has 224 impressive sculptures.At the south-west corner of the innerprakaram is the Vinayakar shrine and at the north-east junction stands that ofKudal Kumarar. Stanzas of the Tiruppugal sung by the saint Arunagirinatharare inscribed on the walls of this shrine. ‘To the east there is an entranceto Swami Sannidhi. One can reachthe Mahamandapam or inner prakaramthrough the Arukal Pitham. This is where the Shaiva saint Kumara Guruparar sang his “Meenakshi Ammai Pilai Tamil”. The story goes that the goddesswas so delighted with the hymns that she appearedbefore the saint in the form of a small girland gifted him a pearl necklace. The Arukal Pithamis also the venue of Devi Minakshi’s coronationduring the Chitrai festival. The shrines of AiravataVinayakar and Muttukumarar, and the Palli Araior Chamber of Repose, can also be seen in the Mahamandapam.Its pillars and ceiling have exquisite pieces of sculpture—for instance that bell hangingfrom the top. Can you believe it is wholly made of stone? To the west are the Ardhamandapam and the sanctum sanctorum.’ Valli and Selvi are now face to face with GoddessMinakshi. Behind them is a pressing queue of devotees eager to have a glimpse of the deity. ‘Howgorgeous Mother looks in her splendid finery and all that sparkling jewellery!’ exclaims Selvi; ‘Whatsublime grace and charm she exudes as she standsholding a parrot and a bouquet in her hands! Lookat her eyes brimming withtenderness, compassion,love! Valli, perhaps you know that fish-shapedeyes are a mark of exceptional beauty, but Mother also has the power to bestow all-round welfare on us by a mere glance of those eyes. Just as the motherfish hatches her eggs by lovingly gazing at them,Mother Minakshi vitalizes and nourishes her childrenby casting her benign glance on them. Don’tyou agree, Valli?’ Lost in Devi Minakshi’s wondrous beauty, Valli nods assent. The girls exit the sanctum sanctorum and movetowards the shrine of Lord Sundareshvarar. On the way, a colossal statue of Ganeshamakes Valli draw her breath in astonishment.The statue is really gigantic;it is eight feet tall. However, Vinayakar,seated on a high pedestal, looks equally compassionate. Selvie explains: ‘This marvellous image isknown as Mukkuruni Vinayakar.It was found when Tirumalai Nayakardug the Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam. It faces the south, as if towelcome the devotees. On the sacred Vinayaka Chaturthi day, a big kozhukkattai,a ball of rice mixed with sugar and coconut, made from three kurunis (equivalent to 34 kilograms) is offered to the god, so the name Mukkuruni Vinayakar. ‘The outer prakaram is 420 feet long and 310feet broad while the inner prakaram is 250 feet by 158 feet. West of this is a five-storeyed tower, builtin 1374 by one Mallappan. It is 72 feet high witha base measuring 48 feet by 31 feet. There are 40sculptures on this tower. ‘Now comes the corner where we see the figuresof the forty-nine poets of the kadai, or last, sangam.North of this is a mandapam where weekly groupprayers are held. Adjoining this is a five-storeyedtower, built by Sevantivelappa Chettiar in 1560. Itis 71 feet high with a base 45 feet long and 34 feetwide. This tower has 18 sculptures. At the top of thetower can be seen the majestic figure of a vrishabha, or bull, Shiva’s mount. ‘Valli, do you see that mandapam over there atthe north-eastern corner? That is the main mandapam and is supported by 100 pillars. It too contains some fine pieces of sculpture. A lovely idol of Nataraja is installed there. The mandapam was builtby Chinnappa Nayakar in 1526. At the south-easterncorner is the Jnanasambandhar temple. Here we find statues of Mangayarkarasi, Kulachirayar, Kunpandyan, Sambandhar, Appar, Sundarar, and Manikkavachakar. This mandapam was built by Krishnavirappa Nayakar.’ Moving on, the two friends reach another large and spacious mandapam, its pillars embellished with images of surpassing beauty. Selvi continues:‘This is the well-known Kadambatadi Mandapam. A veritabletreasure trove of sculpturalriches, it is a connoisseur’s paradise. You will notice that we arenow in the outer prakaram rightin front of the Sundareshvarar shrine. Each one of the sculpturalpieces and the architecture of thebuilding as a whole is a feast for discerningeyes. See that golden flagstaff, Nandi,and the balipitham at the centre. Look at these intricatesculptural carvings on each of the eight ornamental pillars depicting Shiva’s different manifestations:Ardhanarishwarar, Dakshinamurty, Rudrar,Bhikshadanar, Lingodbhavar, Vrishabharudrar, Somaskandar,Ekapadamurty, Chandrashekharar, Natarajar,and Somasundarar. You can also see the tenincarnations of Vishnu. The Celestial Wedding ‘But the sculpture depicting Meenakshi’s weddingis the best of all. It is a striking example of Dravidiantemple art. Look at the colossal statues of AgniVirabhadra, Aghora Virabhadra, Kali, and Shivaclose by.’ Valli stands transfixed, captivated by it all.The scene, capturing the sublime solemnity of Vishnu’soffering of his sister Minakshi in marriage to Sundareshvarar, enthrals Valli. She exclaims, ‘How skilfully the sculptor has distilled profound moods with the subtle nuances of his creation! While bridal shyness oozes through the figure of Minakshi with her slightly bent head, Sundareshvarar, with His benign smile, exudes at once masculine charm and deep self-possession, while Sundararajar, as Vishnu is called, moves us by his look, reflective of joy not unmixed with a tinge of pain of impending separation from his sister.’ Selvi resumes her narration. ‘Now look at this cluster of pillars. On one pillar stands a formidable Shiva, ensconced in a chariot and ready to mount an attack on the demons onthe opposite pillar. It represents thestory of Shiva’s awesome fight withthe demon Tripura. With a viewto storming the three magic citiesof the demons and destroyingthem, Shiva made earth hischariot and rode into the battlefield.The sun and the moon werethe wheels of the chariot, the fourVedas were the horses, and the Upanishads the reins. Vishnu himself becameShiva’s terrible bow. Thus equipped, the god destroyed Tripura’s three impregnablefortresses, made of iron, silver, and gold. That pillar over there illustrates the story of thegreat devotee Markandeya. According to a Puranic story, Shiva saved his devotee from death by kickingYama with his left foot! And on the other oneis Nataraja. Notice the network of designs detailingthe incident of Shiva’s burning of Manmatha,Cupid.’ The superb artistic excellences whet Valli’s enthusiasm,which grows still keener. Suddenly, somethingwonderful catches her eyes. ‘What is that? Itlooks like a huge demon about to be crushed undera mountain. And Parvati-Parameshvara, sitting ontop of the mountain, seem to be enjoying the demon’splight!’ Selvi is ready with the mythology:‘You are right. That is Ravana caught under Mount Kailasa. Ravana was a great devotee of Shiva. Once,in his impudence, he dared to lift the mountain,the abode of his chosen deity. But Shiva humbledhim by pressing his toe on the mountain, whichbore down on Ravana, causing him to wail aloud.
Ravana was released only after pacifying Shiva by playing on his lute and singing sama chants.’ Pointing to a design on another pillar, Valli asks, ‘Is there any story behind that carving which showsa huge column of light? What do the figures of theswan and boar symbolize?’ ‘That column of lightwas the form Shiva assumed in order to curb thepride of Brahma and Vishnu, who had fallen intoa dispute as to who was greater between the two,’Selvi explains. ‘Emerging from the linga as Lingodbhavamurti in the form of a massive pillar of effulgence,Shiva declared that the one who foundeither the top or the bottom of the pillar of lightwould be the greater of the two. Brahma promptlyassumed the form of a swan and soared up to findthe top, and Vishnu took the form of a boar andburrowed through the netherworlds in search of the bottom. However, both were unsuccessful intheir attempts. But while Vishnu humbly admittedhis failure, Brahma falsely claimed to have seenthe top of the pillar of light. He tried to buttresshis claim by presenting as proof a petal of the ketakiflower, which he said was taken from Shiva’s mattedlocks. Enraged by Brahma’s falsehood, Shiva cursedhim that he would never receive temple worshipand that the ketaki would no more be used in Shivaworship—as punishment for its complicity in theentire affair! But Valli, the implication of the storyis that Brahman, here represented by Shiva, can berealized neither by discursive knowledge, symbolized by Brahma, nor by material wealth, symbolizedby Vishnu.’ Valli had never realized that Puranic stories were so full of meaning. Selvi continues: ‘You know that Shiva is sometimesrepresented in his peculiar dichotomous form,as Ardhanarishvara. This sculpture here shows himwith the left half of his body feminine and the righthalf masculine. Thus Purusha and Prakriti are combined in one form—but it also suggests that he isbeyond both aspects. In another dichotomous representation on a pillar over there, the left side ofthe image shows Vishnu in his silken raiment, withornaments and weapons, while the right side shows Shiva with his matted locks, his ash-smeared body clad in antelope skin. This is the Shankaranarayana form that strikes at the root of the supposed divorcebetween Shiva and Vishnu. And there is Shiva in hismeditative pose; he is facing the south. Young in age but ripe in wisdom, he imparts spiritual knowledgeto his four old disciples, the four eternal sages Sanaka,Sananda, Sanatana, and Sanatkumara, throughmystic Silence. That is his Dakshinamurti form. ‘Do you see that fine sculpture showing Shivakilling an elephant? It is called Gajaharamurti. The elephant was in fact a demon masquerading as arampaging tusker and intending to kill Shiva, here shown as Bhikshadanar. The demon was set uponShiva by the jealous sages of Darukavana, whose wives were carried away by the god’s beauty. On thenext pillar are the figures of Bhikshadanar, Rudrar,Kiratarjunar, and Somaskandar. You can also seethe ten avataras of Vishnu engraved at the bottomof some pillars. The carvings on this other pillar here feature a story in which Shiva helps an oldwoman on the banks of the Vaigai. Valli, these precioussculptural treasures so intricately woven intothe elegant architecture of the temple mainly revolveround our ancient mythology and hoary culture,proclaiming their undying value.’ Four immense statues on the eastern side of theKadambatadi Mandapam now draw Valli’s attention.They are the imposing figures of Agni Virabhadrarand Aghora Virabhadrar and the awe-inspiringforms of Urdhva Tandavar (Nataraja) andBhadrakali. ‘Oh, how fantastic!’ Valli utters in wonderment.‘What disciplined minds and deft hands the sculptor must have been blessed with for his imagesto reflect such difficult moods as fury and fortitude,resolve and ruthlessness so effectively! Theymust have been extraordinary artists. But Selvi, isn’tit funny that Agni Virabhadrar and Aghora Virabhadrarare bespattered with globs of butter? Anystory behind this?’ Selvi has ready answers evenfor unexpected questions. ‘Devotees throw butterat the frightfulforms in order to pacify them!’ Shecontinues: ‘Be that as it may, do you notice anything special about the Urdhva Tandavar statue?Well, normally Nataraja is portrayed with his left leg raised, but here he performs a rare type of dance with his right leg raised straight up so that it almost touches his right ear. Anyway, now let’s proceedto Lord Shiva’s shrine.’ As they approach the entrance tothe sanctum sanctorum, Selvi points to two 12-foot-high dvarapalakason either side and begins her commentary:‘See the images of Shivaand Minakshi—both with five faces? You can alsosee the statues of the four saints Appar, Sundarar,Sambandhar, and Manikkavachakar nearby. Theirlyrical outpourings in praise of the Lord in chasteTamil are known as the Tevaram, or “A Garland forthe Divine”. Look at the three-storeyed tower of Swami Sannidhi. It is 41 feet high with a base 31 feetlong and 18 feet wide and contains 36 sculptures. Itwas built by Kulashekhara Pandyan in 1168.’ Thegirls enter the sanctum, a quadrilateral structurewith artistic engravings of sixty-four bhuta ganas(Shiva’s companions), eight elephants, and thirtytwolions. ‘Valli, this is the linga of Lord Sundareshvarar,also known as Chokkanathar and Karpurachokkar.It is installed under a golden canopy called the Indravimanam.The linga is an ingeniousdevice that represents the two apparently contradictoryaspects of the Godhead. As a tangibleimage it surely has a form, but being featureless it can be considered formless. It is, so to say, in thetwilight zone between form and formlessness andadmirably signifies the indefinability of the Infinite.Again, the linga is also a visual symbol of Om.It is believed to comprise the four deities Brahma,Vishnu, Rudra, and Shiva. The base of the linga isBrahma, the encircling portion is Vishnu, the cylindrical portion is Rudra and the crown is Shiva.The first three stand for the three mystic sounds a,u,and m respectively; Shiva is the amatra—unmanifestsound—underlying omkara (aum). So the lingais doubtless a true symbol of the Absolute. For allthat, as I said before, here in this temple it is still Mother who receives worship first! ‘Valli! Look at the imposing statues of Adhikara Nandi, or Nandi the Authority, and Chamundi. And that six-foot-high dais is where Paranjyoti Munivar’s Tiruvilayadal was formally released. The copper coverings that you see on the dais were gifted by Tirumalai Nayakar. Observe the figures of Patanjali and Vyaghrapadar with folded palms carved on the pillars facing the dais. ‘This prakaram abounds in attractive sculpturesdepicting the Shiva lilas. On the southern side we find a row of images of the sixty-three Nayanmars;there is also an image of Saraswati. At the southwesterncorner is the utsava murti, which is used forprocessions during festivals, and at the north-westerncorner are the images of Kashi Vishvanathar andBhikshadanar. We are now in the northern prakaram.Look at the image of the bearded Siddhar facing the east. Next to him stands Durga on an elevated pedestal, facing the north. How well-crafted the image is with its distinct features—Mother looks so divine! Look at the legendary kadamba tree whose trunk is still preserved. And yonder is the yaga shala and a well beside a vanni tree. In this corridor there is also an opening leading to a tun-nel, which once upon a time led to TirumalaiNayakar’s palace. The royal family usedto come to the temple through this path. Thetunnel also served as a secret vault to storevaluable temple ornaments during times of alien attack. ‘Valli, we have just completed our circumambulation of the outer prakaram of the temple and are about to enter the inner prakaram. Now, this bighall is called Velli Ambalam, or Silver Hall. This is the hall that I spoke about earlier. Look at theexquisite image of Nataraja dancing with his right leg raised. The fact that the image is set in a silver enclosure gives this hall its name. It is also believed that Nataraja performed the rare jnanasundaratandavam here to please the devotee-king RajashekharaPandyan. There are four other halls in thetemple—Kanaka Sabha and Ratna Sabha in thefirst corridor, Deva Saba in the Hundred Pillar Hall,and Chitra Sabha in the Thousand Pillar Hall—butthey are of minor importance compared to VelliAmbalam.Coming out of the prakaram the two girls find themselves back in the Kadambatadi Mandapam.Selvi tells her friend that the fivestoreyed tower on the eastern side of the mandapam is 66 feet high with the base 42 feet longand 33 feet wide. It has 280 sculptures on it and was built in 1372 by Vasuvappan.To the east, beyond this tower, isanother big mandapam. ‘This is called theViravasantarayarMandapam,’ begins Selvi.‘It was built by Tirumalai Nayakar’s elderbrother Muttuvirappa Nayakar. It has 46 pillars. The eyes of the big Nandi statue in frontare fixed on his master Sundareshvarar. Some of the pillars here are studded with fine sculptural pieces calling to mind interesting mythological stories,like Shiva’s rescue of Markandeya from Yama. Thedancing Bhadrakaliand the dvarapalakas are verypopular. The tall arch of lights that you see abovewas donated by the Marudu Pandyas; the lights aremaintained by the Shivagangai Devasthanam. Hereyou can see rows of shops on both sides selling puja articles, bangles, brassware, and things like that. ‘Valli, just a few steps from here and adjoiningthis structure is the Thousand Pillar Mandapam, which is another treasure-house. It was built in 1569by Dalavoi Ariyanatha Mudaliar. Originally theremust have been 1,000 pillars—there are only 985now—probably the missing ones made way for thetwo small temples that we find here. This mandapamis 250 feet long and 240 feet wide. It has been built to look like a huge chariot drawn by two elephants.Look at that figure of a wheel at the top of the entrance; see how graphically the featuresof the sixty Tamil years are described there! At theentrance is the majestic Ariyanatha Mudaliar on ahorse, and the statue of Kannappa Nayanar closeby. Kannappa was such an ardent Shivabhakta thathe did not hesitate to gouge out his own eyes andoffer them to the Lord! Then come the statues ofSatya Harishchandra and his wife Chandramati.How poignant the woebegone Chandramati looks,holding her dead son in her arms! And over hereare the well-known figures of Kuravan and Kuratti,the gypsy couple. Don’t they look so realistic?
Observe how their rugged physical features, theirpoverty, and their travails are mirrored in stone; and you can’t miss that monkey on a leash or thecouple’s unruly children! See this stern-faced, resoluteShiva trampling a demon beneath his feet; butyou can also make out an ineffable smile on his lipsand the profound quiet of his face. One wondershow the sculptor succeeded in bringing out suchconflicting emotions at the same time! ‘The other creations that you find on the pillarsof this mandapam are a woman playing on a vina, Murugan riding his peacock, the figure of a eunuch,and the exquisite Rati, Manmatha’s consort. Theimages on the whole present a refined commentaryon the science of erotics. Thus the Thousand PillarMandapam indeed lays out a delightful sculpturalrepast to genuine connoisseurs. In the olden days, italso used to be the venue of the royal court. ‘From here let us turn south and we will reach an open area with a newly built mandapam that bears the name of a saintly queen who contributed a lotto the growth of Shaivism and Tamil. It is called Mangayarkarasi Mandapam. It houses statues of Mangayarkarasi, Kulachirayar, Kun Pandyan, andJnanasambandhar. South of this is the ServaikararMandapam built by the Marudu Pandyas sometimein the mid-eighteenth century. We find the figureof the elder Marudu on the left pillar. ’‘Selvi, what is that ornate hall over there? Itlooks somewhat special with its copper-plated roof.’ ‘Oh, that is the famous Tirukalyana Mandapam, or Marriage Hall,’ replies Selvi. ‘That is where the wedding of Minakshi-Sundareshvarar is celebrated every year at the time of the Chitrai festival. DuringApril-May the entire city of Madurai goes deliriouswith joy. A spirit of devotion pervades the entire atmosphereas people from far and near converge onMadurai to participate in the festivities and experiencethe exalted mood they generate. That dais, onwhich the actual ceremony is performed, and theblack stone mandapam were built by VijayarangaChokkanathar. See his figure carved on the firstpillar on the southern side? On the southern and northern walls, attractive paintings within those big circles graphically depict the origin of the universe and its living beings. The hall measures 97 by47 feet, spacious enough to accommodate the devotees.There are wooden carvings and paintings onthe top portion. See there, those are the pictures ofVynagaram Venkatachalam Chettiar and Nagappa Chettiar, who built this mandapam. ‘Now, Valli, let us go to the southern Adi Vithi.To reach there we need to cross the Muttuvirappa and Minakshi Nayakar Mandapams. The Adi Vithisare the outermost streets around the temple but within its precincts. The temple elephants andcamels are kept in the courtyard at the easternendof the temple. As we walk west along the southernAdi Vithi, we will find the temple offices, library,the Tevaram School, Tiruppugal Sabha, Divanerikalagam,Panniru Tirumurai Manram, and DandapaniTiruppugal Manram.’
As they slowly move along, the magnificent sout tower looms into view, and Valli cannot suppress a cry of unadulterated admiration. The grand toweris of really mammoth proportions. Selvi continuesher narration: ‘Valli, as I mentioned earlier, thesouth tower is the tallest structure in the entiretemple complex: it is 170 feet high, its base 108feet long and 67 feet wide. It is bejewelled, as itwere, with 1,511 exquisite sculptural figures. Th top of the tower commands a panoramic view ofMadurai city. See the two giant yalis on both sidesof the tower? The diameter of each eye of thosecreatures is two and a half feet! You will rememberthat the tower was built in the sixteenth century bySevvanti Chettiar. ‘Our tour now brings us to the western AdiVithi. The offices of the Shivagangai Devasthanam are located on the north of the west tower. The westtower is 154 feet high with a base 101 feet by 64 feet.It contains 1,124 sculptural pieces. It was built byParakrama Pandyan, who ruled Madurai between1315 and 1347. ‘The northern Adi Vithi exudes the fragrance ofTamil devotional literature. It is here that the TiruppugalSabha and the Tiruvalluvar Kazhagam are situated. The Tiruppugal Mandapam was built in1952. The Tirukkural Kazhagam, housed in a beautifulmandapam, was started in 1941 by TirukkuralAttavadanam T P Subramania Das. This buildingis the venue of many religious meetings. Well, Valli,a striking feature of the north tower is—’ ‘Thatit is bald and looks incomplete!’ interrupts Valli.‘And that is why it is called Mottai Gopuram, orBald Tower,’ Selvi continues. ‘But it is not as plainas the name suggests: you can see some sculpturalwork on it. This nine-storeyed tower was built by Krishnavirappa Nayakar during 1564–72. It stands152 feet high on a base 111 feet long and 66 feet wide.To its west is the temple of Mottai Gopura Muniyandi. The deity is worshipped mainly on Tuesdaysand Fridays. On those days the northern tower is decorated with thin flower garlands.’ Valli is in for a pleasant surprise now. ‘Ever hearpillars sing?’ her friend asks. Valli doesn’t knowwhat to say. ‘Come, I will show you’, says Selvi. Beyondthe north tower on the Adi Vithi stand fivestone pillars. ‘Observe them closely, Valli. Each pillarhas been carved out of a single stone and each contains within it more pillars, all finely crafted.These little pillars resonate when the outer pillar isstruck and produce superb musical sounds. Listen.’Selvi taps the pillars, and Valli can’t believe her ears:‘Why, it’s like a symphony!’ ‘Even the ThousandPillar Mandapam has this kind of musical pillar,’adds Selvi. ‘Now we are on the eastern Adi Vithi. This16-pillared mandapam at the head of the street is called Tattu Chutur Mandapam. It was built in1772 by Venkateshwara Mudaliar and has paintingsportraying the story of Manikkavachakar. Passingthis we come to the Swami Sannidhi to the east ofwhich stands the east tower. This is the oldest of the big towers. Since it was built by MaravarmanSundara Pandyan, who reigned from 1216 to 1236,it is also called Sundara Pandyan Gopuram. It is153 feet high with a base 111 feet by 65 feet, and has1,011 sculptures on it.’ That brings the girls’ tour to an end. Steppingout of the temple complex, they enter East Chitrai Street where Selvi points to a small temple to thesouth of the east tower. ‘That is the Madurai Viraswamitemple, and opposite that is the famousPudu Mandapam. It houses all kinds of shops andis in fact an unsophisticated version of Chennai’serstwhile Moore Market.’ Festivals Valli is mightily impressed by her friend’s encyclopedicknowledge. As they sit in a parlour refreshingthemselves with some ice cream, Selvi gives her anidea of the variety of festivals observed in Madurai.‘Madurai is a city of festivals. The grandest is, ofcourse, the Chitrai. The highlights of this ten-dayfestival are Goddess Minakshi’s coronation, herwedding with Sundareshvarar, and the car festival.A great flower-bedecked chariot bearing the utsava
murtis of the divine couple is drawn by crowds offervent devotees along the four Masi streets aroundthe temple. The gold image of Alagar, or Sundararajar—the presiding deity of the hill shrine of Alagarkoyil,20 kilometres away, who is supposed to be thegoddess’s brother—is brought in procession to theVaigai River to witness the wedding. Alagar’s reaching the Vaigai is believed to be such a sacred eventthat it draws lakhs of devotees. Fairs are also organizedon the occasion. The grand festival comes to aclimactic close on full-moon day of Chitra. ‘Valli, you know that Madurai Meenakshi,Kanchi Kamakshi, and Kashi Vishalakshi are three forms of the Divine Mother. So Navaratari, a festivalsacred to the Divine Mother, is celebrated at thetemple with great pomp. This too is a ten-day eventmarked by tremendous religious fervour. Kolus, galleriesof colourful dolls of various sizes arranged inan imaginative manner, arespeciality of thisfestival. The kolu in the temple is set up in the in innercorridor of Mother’s shrine on the southernside. Mother’s image shines prominently amongthe dolls, and she is decorated in ten different waysduring the ten-day period. The inner significanceof the kolu is that the Divine Mother is the benignEmpress of the entire universe, and all living beingsare her happy subjects. ‘Vasantotsavam and Avani Mulam are two othernoteworthy religious occasions. During the latter,Shiva’s tiruvilayadals are enacted. It also featuresa car festival. Other major festivals include theTeppam (Float) Festival, Arudra Darshanam, theTiruppavai-Tiruvembavai festivals and Mahashivaratri.The Float Festival commemorates the birthanniversary of Tirumalai Nayakar. A brightly litfloat carrying the utsava murtis of Minakshi-Sundareshvarar goes round the illuminated VandiyurMariamman Teppakulam and is witnessed by thousandsof devotees.’ Selvi’s absorbing narrative comes to a close. It isevening and the two friends return home to plan the next day’s sightseeing. Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal Next morning Selvi and Valli head towards thefamous Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal, just two kilometressouth-east of the Minakshi temple. Valli isimpressed by the massive structure’s medieval eleganceand dignity. Selvi begins her commentary:‘This palace is a real showpiece, don’t you thinkso? Tirumalai Nayakar built it in 1636 and it washere that he lived. Although large portions of thebuilding were destroyed by his grandson when he shifted the capital to Tiruchi, its attraction remains undiminished. ‘A classic example of the Indo-Saracenic style,the pièce de résistance of the Mahal is its carved dome that soars above the rest of the palace withoutthe support of girders or rafters—a truly outstandingarchitectural feat for those days. The stuccoeddomes and arches, the huge pillars—there are248 of them, each 58 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter—the paintings and carvings, and the overalldesign of the Mahal speak volumes about the Nayakakings’ flair for architecture. Inside you can seefurniture and utensils used by them. The courtyardand the dancing hall here are centres of attraction.Besides the royal residence, the sprawling palacealso has a shrine—the king used to celebrate majorfestivals in the palace—an armoury, and gardens. ‘It is interesting that a visitor can view the Kudalnagartemple from inside the Mahal, thus enjoyingthe double benefit of savouring the beauty of thepalace plus having the darshan of the sacred templeat the same time. Nowadays visitors are treated tolight-and-sound shows depicting the popular Silappatikaramstory of Kannagi and Kovalan in bothTamil and English.’ After the previous day’s temple tour, this visit tothe Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal was a different kindof experience for Valli. Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam Next Selvi takes her friend to Vandiyur MariammanTeppakulam, a vast artificial lake five kilometreseast of the Minakshi temple. Valli jumps for joyat the very sight of it. ‘This is glorious!’ she cries.‘It looks like a huge ornament with a lustrous gemembedded in its bosom!’‘Yes, yes,’ agrees Selvi, ‘thatcute mandapam in the middle does look like a gem.It has an image of Vighneshwara inside. It is saidthat the rare image was discovered when the place was being dug up in order to supply building materialsfor the Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal. The lake is fed by the waters of the Vaigai through an ingenioussystem of underground channels. Oh, I forgotto tell you yesterday—the Float Festival is held onthe day of Tai Pusam, in January–February.’ Gandhi Memorial Museum From there Selvi and Valli go to the TamukkamPalace, which is now home to the Gandhi MemorialMuseum, one of Madurai’s modern landmarks.Selvi begins her commentary about the place: ‘Valli,once we get inside, you will realize that this placeis a living memorial to the father of our nation. Itis generally agreed that the building was built by the Nayaka queen Mangammal around 1670. Soonafter Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, theGandhi Memorial Trust appealed to the people ofIndia to donate funds for a suitable memorial to thefallen hero. The response was so overwhelming thatthe Trust allocated 10 million rupees for settingup Gandhi Memorial Museums in seven selectedplaces across the country associated with Gandhiji’slife. In 1955, the Madras state government giftedthe Tamukkam Palace and 13 acres of land to the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi for building the museumin Madurai. Not many people know that Gandhiji visited Tamil Nadu fourteen times! Madurai is associatedwith certain momentous incidents in his life. It was here in 1921 that Gandhiji adopted histrademark dhoti-chadar dress; this sartorial style of his eventually earned for him the sobriquet “thehalf-naked fakir”. And it was here that he achieveda historic triumph over untouchability: in 1946,he embarked on a relentless campaign that dealt adeath blow to this social evil and ended with thedoors of the Minakshi temple being thrown opento the Harijans.’ ‘Selvi, yesterday you said Madurai is and has always been an important centre of political, economic,social, and cultural activity. I think I amslowly beginning to understand that. Really, its socio-political profile is so interesting,’ remarks Valli.‘Not just interesting,’ corrects Selvi, ‘fascinating—Ican promise you that! Just wait until we complete this tour.’
‘Besides the picture gallery presenting a visualbiography of Mahatma Gandhi by means of paintings,photographs, quotations, and photocopies ofhis important letters, the museum has special exhibitionson the Indian freedom movement, khadiand village industries, and handicrafts. I don’t haveto tell you that Gandhiji was the force behind allthese social phenomena; in fact, he dedicated hislife to their revival. Now let us go to the hall wheresome of Gandhiji’s personal belongings are preserved.’Valli beholds the humble possessions of thegreat apostle of non-violence in mute admiration.Such simplicity!’ she exclaims. ‘If this isn’t greatness, what is!’
Selvi leads her friend to the south of the building,where they come to a big open-air theatre. ‘This can accommodate 8,000 people. Cultural events,weekly film shows, and public meetings are held here.’ From there the girls move on to the GandhiKutir, a replica of Gandhiji’s cottage in Sevagram,in front of the museum. Again, Valli is impressed byits simplicity. Finally they come to the large libraryin the north wing of the main building. It has some20, 000 volumes, mainly books on and by Gandhiji and allied literature. As the two friends emerge from the museum, Selvi asks, ‘Hope you found it all fascinating?’ But both of them know there is noneed of an answer. Ramakrishna Math Their next stop is at the Ramakrishna Math, locatedto the north of the Vaigai. Selvi happens to be a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna, widely acknowledgedas a modern incarnation of God. She wants to giveher friend a brief account of the history and activitiesof this branch centre of the worldwide RamakrishnaMath: ‘Valli, it is no exaggeration to saythat, in a spiritual sense, this Ramakrishna temple isno less than the Minakshi temple! Both are mightycentres of energy ministering to the spiritual needsof the people. Just as Mother Minakshi arouses our devotional instincts, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri SaradaDevi, and Swami Vivekananda inspire us spirituallywith their life-giving messages. Together, theyform a bulwark of Sanatana Dharma and Vedanta against mindless materialism.‘Compared to the ancient temple, this Ramakrishnacentre is of very recent origin—it came into being just three decades ago, in 1975. However,from its humble beginnings as a private centre run by dedicated devotees it has steadily grown in stature and blossomed into a full-fledged institutionproviding a wide range of services to the local people. But I will come to that later. ‘Sri Ardhanari and Dr Shanmugam, one a merchantand the other a reputed surgeon, were the instruments Sri Ramakrishna chose for his work inMadurai. These two genuine devotees pooled theirresources to start the private centre and served visitingswamis wholeheartedly. Thanks to their labourof love the centre was affiliated to the Ramakrishna Math in 1987. ‘This beautiful temple that we see before us was consecrated by Srimat Swami Ranganathanandaji Maharaj, the thirteenth president of the Ramakrishna Order, on 13 March 1998. Besides daily worship and bhajans in the temple, the centre alsoholds weekly religious classes and monthly spiritualretreats in its spacious auditorium. But that’snot all—it runs a primary school, a free coachingcentre, a charitable dispensary, a library, and abookshop. Furthermore, its monks and devoteesare constantly engaged in serving poor and needy people in various ways: for instance, every day some three hundred poor children are fed here—and this has been going on for years! This is what SwamiVivekananda meant when he exhorted his followers to serve God in human beings.What do you say?’After spending a few quiet moments in the prayer hall soaking up the serene atmosphere,the two girls turn theirsteps towards another place of interest. Madurai Kamaraj University ‘We are now in Palakalai Nagar,’Selvi informs Valli. ‘That vast, sprawling complex is the famed Madurai Kamaraj University,a veritable temple of learning. Until a few decades back, Tamil Nadu had only one university, the Madras University. In view ofthe growing number of colleges in the southern districts,the state government felt it prudent to establishanother university in Madurai. This was startedin 1966, and the University of Madras ExtensionCentre Library was renamed Madurai UniversityLibrary. The city complex, however, soon proved inadequate for the university’s growing needs. Soin 1973 it was shifted to its present location in PalakalaiNagar near Vadapalanji village on the Thenimain road, 13 kilometres west of Madurai city. Thefoundation stone of the new complex was laid byPresident Dr Zakir Hussain. But it was only in 1978 that Madurai University got its new name MaduraiKamaraj University. The institution occupies a picturesque753-acre area with the Nagamalai hills inthe background.’ After a quick tour of the university campusand its numerous departments, it is time to return home. Valli looks thoroughly satisfied. After dinnerSelvi winds down her narrative: ‘Valli, there are stilla few more things about Madurai that I must notfail to mention. This city has been visited by SriSarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda. This is where Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi was born and attained spiritual illumination when he was a youngboy. On a different level, in the sphere of classicalmusic, some of the top-notch artists it has producedinclude the legendary M S Subbulakshmi,Madurai Mani Iyer, T N Sheshagopalan, G S Mani,and Madurai Somasundaram. Two cultural institutions,Sadguru Sangita Samajam and Tamil IsaiSangam, are doing great service in the field of finearts, particularly Carnatic and Tamil music. TheLakshmi Sundaram Hall and Raja Muthiah Manramare two other prestigious auditoriums thatserve as venues for cultural programmes. ‘So, you see, Madurai is that rare and happy amalgamof the ancient and the modern, the orthodox and the unorthodox, the old and the new. Beneaththe dazzle of technology that you see from outsideruns a powerful current of spirituality. Madurai’sstrength lies in its amazing resilience, in its capacityto absorb everything good that modern technology has to offer, while yet standing solidly on its traditional moorings. It has successfully combined the calm dignity of the old and the explosive energy ofthe young. This gives the city its perennial beauty,which age cannot wither nor custom stale—a cityof paradoxes, indeed!’ Salutations to Devi Minakshi Next day, as the train trundles out of the station,Valli sits by the window unmindful of the surrounding bustle. As the train slowly gathers speed, her eyes seek out the temple towers. Gazing at them,she offers her salutations to Goddess Minakshi: Madhurapuranāyike namaste madhurālāpiśukābhirāmahaste malayadhvajapāṇḍyarājakanye mayi mīnākṣi kṛpāṁ vidhehi dhanye. Salutations to the Queen of Madhurapuri! O theone holding in her graceful hand a sweet-tongued parrot! O the princess of Malayadhwaja Pandya! Oblessed Minakshi, show me compassion! P How Many Vinas? Every year, on the Vijaya Dashami day, a magnificentexpression of devotion takes place at Sri Minakshi Temple: 108 veena artists assemble to dedicatea congregational recital to Mother Minakshi. The recital lasts a couple of hours, and is held in amassive temple hall accommodating several hundred people. Furthermore, every Friday evening, aveena artist performs at the temple. It is a unique and meaningful way of saluting the Goddess—thesource of all vidya.