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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 exploration of 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 and span!’ she observes. With a gleam of pride in her eyes, Selvi says, ‘You know something? Our railway station has been consistently winning the trophy for the best maintenance and upkeep, and the authorities are determined to retain it by making the station as passenger-friendly as possible.’

Minakshi Temple, Madurai

Outside the station the two friends find themselves confronted by a mob of auto rickshaw drivers. Selvi waves them away with a gesture and heads for her two-wheeler. ‘Thank God we have our own conveyance,’ she mutters. ‘A gullible stranger at their mercy is milked dry.’ Turning to her companion, she says, ‘Now, Valli, look at the frontage of the station. Doesn’t it look like a mini temple? Look how the ivory-coloured tower is shimmering in the morning sun. Isn’t it wonderful? It captures, in a quintessential way, the basic ethos of the city centering round the famed temple. The station is also a temple, the temple of travelers!’ Valli nods in admiration. Without any further ado, they mount the scooter and within a few minutes reach Selvi’s home in Chockikulam, a posh locality in Madurai.

At the breakfast table, Selvi asks, ‘So, Valli, I surmise your visit to Madurai is not so much for recreation as for a bit of research?’ ‘You’re right,’ answers Valli, ‘I have a project to do on Madurai and I rely on you to collect and collate the details about the city.’ Selvi replies, ‘Well, Madurai is Janus faced, so to speak. It is congested, dusty, and noisy, to be sure; but behind the facade of cacophony and grime lurks the real Madurai—glorious, grand, and hoary. It has a unique place on the map of Tamil Nadu and a special niche in Tamilians’ hearts. The city’s global renown draws tourists in droves while it bursts at its seams with a population of 1.5 million. Though Madurai is a multifaceted gem of a city—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 rightly be 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 of the last millennium. Present-day Madurai is spread over 22 square kilometers. The climate is tropical and the main spoken languages are Tamil, English, and Saurashtra.

‘Madurai is one of the oldest cities of India with a history dating all the way back to the Sangam period. Later on, after its ransack by the ravaging armies of Delhi’s Mali Kafue, it came under the rule of the Vijayanagara kingdom. During the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the city was ruled by the Nayaka kings, the foremost of whom was Tirumalai Nayakar. The Sangam poet Nakkirar is associated with some of the Tiruvilayadal episodes of Lord Sundareshvarar, divine sports of Lord Shiva, which are enacted as part of temple festival traditions even today.’

Valli listens with rapt attention as Selvi continues with 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 was on the fecund literary soil of Madurai that the sturdy tree of Tamil literature had its luxuriant growth. The Sangam era, the golden age of Tamil literature, witnessed a veritable literary efflorescence in the form of masterpieces—and it was still early first millennium! Madurai was already the seat of the Tamil Sangam, or academy of learning. Eminent poets and scholars of great renown adorned the academy 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 and rejuvenates Madurai’s citizens. The temple is the city’s best-known landmark. The layout of the city resembles a lotus with its petals encircling the central bud. The temple is the bud round which run the thoroughfares of Madurai in concentric circles. In fact, the rectangular series of streets reminds one of the structures of the cosmos. The majestic towers of the temple, visible from every corner of the city, ensure that no stranger loses his way here. The old city lies on the southern side of the Vaigai. The northern side has seen an exponential growth of new settlements and colonies and forms part of the new city.

‘In days of yore, Madurai was also a commercial centre, having trade links with places like Rome and Greece. It was visited by Megasthanes as early as the third century BCE. Under the able rule of the Pandyas, the city flourished until the tenth century BCE when it was captured by the Cholas, their archrivals. The Cholas ruled Madurai from 920 BCE till the beginning of the thirteenth century CE. In 1223the Pandyas regained their kingdom and the city once again became prosperous. Tamil came to enjoy immense patronage, and it was during the Pandya reign that many masterpieces of that language appeared. Silappadikaram, the great Tamil epic, is based on the story of Kannagi, who burnt down Madurai to avenge the injustice caused to her husband Kovalan. In April 1311, Malik Kafur, the general of Delhi’s Aladdin Khalji, raided Madurai and plundered the city of precious stones, jewels, and many rare treasures. This was followed by a spate of attacks and raids by other Muslim rulers, and in1323 the Pandya kingdom became a province of the Delhi Empire under the Tughluqs.’

King Tirumala Nayakar

Valli is touched by the chronicle: ‘I wonder why the fair face of Madurai has had to suffer thus at the hands of Destiny?’ Selvi is surprised by her friend’s emotional attachment to the city and continues her narration. ‘Flies converge on a ripe fruit. Madurai was a prize city that attracted the covetous glances of greedy kings. In 1371 the rulers of Hampi captured Madurai and it became part of the Vijayanagara empire. The Vijayanagara kings used to entrust the administration of captured territories to governors called Nayakas to ensure efficient management of the empire. The Nayakas paid an annual tribute to the Vijayanagara empire. After the death of 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 of many magnificent structures in and around the city. The Raja Gopuram of the Minakshi Amman temple, the Pudu Mandapam, and the Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal 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 British East India Company. In 1781 the British appointed their representatives to look after Madurai; George Procter was the first collector. Be that as it may, a prominent name that figures in the history of Madurai is Rani Mangammal, a woman of great sagacity and administrative ability. Though women were generally believed to be unsuited to the exacting tasks 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 Koyil Thevara Sthalam and the Kudalalagar Divya Desamare the most important temples which none should miss 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 and Tirumohur, are also in the neighbourhood.

‘But Valli, now that you have a fairly good idea of the place, let us take a tour of the city and I will tell you all that I know about the various places of interest. 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 gopuram facing the east, the main entrance to the temple, Valli is enraptured by its intricate and ornate sculpture. The sheer variety, craftsmanship, and deep motifs of the sculptural pieces awe her. ‘Marvellous!, it is a sight for the gods!’ ‘Don’t exhaust all your admiration right here,’ interjects Selvi. ‘Reserve some for the wonders yet to come.’ Then she 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 the street vend puja articles like flowers, garlands, coconuts, incense sticks, camphor, sandalwood paste, betel leaves, haldi, and kumkum. And look at the pressing crowds of devotees waiting to step into the wide corridor of the temple. Isn’t the very atmosphere inspiring?’ Valli silently nods assent.

Selvi resumes her narration. ‘The Minakshi shrine is one of the fifty-one Shakti Pithas and is hailed as the seat of Budha, Mercury. It is one of the Pancha Sabhas, or Five Halls, of Lord Nataraja and is celebrated as the Velli Ambalam or Rajata Sabha where the Lord Shiva performed his mighty tandava dance for the sake of his devotees Patanjali and Vyaghrapadar at the time of his wedding with Goddess Minakshi. Devi Shakti had incarnated Herself as a Pandyan princess and married Lord Shiva. The glory of Minakshi-Sundareshvarar has been extolled in immortal hymns by the Shaiva saints Appar, Sundarar, Tirujnanasambandhar, and Manikkavachakar, and in the works of erudite scholars like Paranjyoti Munivar, Kumara Guruparar, and Nilakantha Dikshitar.

‘According to some ancient texts, Madurai was earlier known as Halasya Kshetram, Kadamba Vanam,Tiru Alavoi, and Jivanmukti Nagaram. An interesting mythology centres round the city.’ The very mention of the word mythology rouses Valli’s curiosity. ‘Selvi, you know how I love mythology! I am all attention. Please carry on.’

Selvi continues: ‘Centuries ago, Madurai was a forest of kadamba trees. Once Indra, king of the Gods incurred the sin of killing a brahmana. In order to wash off the sin, he went on a pilgrimage. When he was roaming in this forest, he stumbled on a svayambhu linga under a kadamba tree. He performed severe penance there and felt thoroughly purified. He worshipped the linga with golden lotuses from a nearby tank, built a vimana over it, and returned to heaven. Since then, the gods started worshipping the linga. One day, a merchant byname Dhananjayan happened to spend a night near the 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 matted locks, appeared to the king in dream and commanded him to build shrine there. The king hastened to the forest and offered worship to the linga, now encircled by a large serpent. Then he had a proper shrine built there and developed around it the city of Madurai in the shape of a lotus. Thus Madurai became the famous capital of the Pandyas.

Sculpture on the west gopuram

‘Kulashekhara was followed by Malayadhwaja. Malayadhwaja and his wife Kanchanamala were childless. In the course of one of the many yajnas that the royal couple performed in order to get child, they were overjoyed to see a girl child emerge from the sacred fire. The child was named Tadatagai. But the girl had a queer appearance with three breasts. A disembodied voice, however, assured the worried king that the girl’s third breast would disappear the 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 of time succeeded her father to the throne. Now she set out on an expedition of conquest and brought the neighboring kingdoms under her rule. Her triumphant march eventually took her to Mount Kailas, the abode of Shiva. A miracle happened on the battlefield as she confronted Shiva. Shiva’s gaze made her shy and, lo, her third breast disappeared! Shiva promised to marry her at Madurai—so Tadatagai was none other than Devi Parvati—and she returned to her capital. In due time, the wedding of Shiva and Tadatagai took place and together they ruled Madurai for some time. A son named Ugra Pandyan, an incarnation of Murugan or Subrahmanya, was born to them. After crowning him as king, the couple assumed their divine forms and took their lodgement in the temple. That is why the images 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 temple are simply staggering. How were such feats achieved?’ Selvi, pleased with her friend’s growing interest, answers: ‘The origin of the temple fades into the mists of antiquity. Only a small shrine of Shiva existed in the seventh century CE. The Minakshi temple was built in the twelfth century. It represents the high-water mark of Dravidian architecture. The sculptural marvels that abound in the temple towers and the beautifully chiseled mandapams are a standing testimony to the skills of Tamil artisans. Of the eleven gopurams towering over the temple, the four nine-storeyed ones at the four main entrances are noteworthy. These were built between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The oldest is the east tower built by ManavarmanSundara Pandyan in the thirteenth century. The tallest and most imposing is the south tower rising to a height of 170 feet with its parabolic curve; it was built by Sevvantimurti Chettiar of Siramalai in 1559. The western tower was built by Parakrama Pandyan in the fourteenth century. Though of massive size, these towers look like exquisite ornaments studded with gems in the form of hundreds of sudhai statues—colourful images of gods, goddesses, animals, and mythical figures.

‘The five musical pillars, each consisting of twenty-two smaller pillars carved out of a single stone and producing different notes when struck, are another great attraction for visitors. The sprawling temple complex also consists of several mandapams. These are not just a chaotic jumble of jaded structures that pass off as mandapams, but well-planned halls that are artistic treasure-troves.

‘Since Goddess Minakshiis the presiding deity here, devotees enter the temple through the Ashtashakti Mandapam, or Abode of the Eight Powers. Look at that lovely sculptural representation of Minakshi’s wedding there over the entrance to the mandapam. See also the images of Ganesha and Subramanyan installed on either side. The eight Shaktis are Kaumari, Raudri, Vaishnavi, and Mahalakshmi on the left and Yajnarupini, Shyamala, Maheshwari, and Manonmani on the right. How attractive they look! Besides these, there are dvarapalakas, or guards, in front, and statues of Ganapati and Murugan. Aren’t the wall paintings so lovely! They graphically depict interesting scenes of Shiva’s miracles from Paranjyoti Munivar’s Tiruvilayadal Puranam, which is regarded as the sthala purana (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.

A yali

‘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 resplendent with a plethora of fine sculptures, 730 in all—a visual feast! It is rightly called Chitra Gopuram, or Marvellous Tower. The tower can be seen from the Adi Vithi, the first circular street around the Minakshi-Sundareshvarar shrines, at the spot where elephants are tethered, or from the western side of the Golden Lily Tank. Kalatinatha Mudaliar, son of Dalavoi Ariyanatha Mudaliar, built the tower in 1569. It is now maintained by the Shivagangai Devasthanam.

‘Next comes the Mudali Pillai Mandapam, also known as the Dark Mandapam. This 60-foot-wide structure was built by Kadantai Mudaliar. Of the myriad carvings here, the telltale figures of Bhikshadanar, the wives of the Darukavana sages, and Mohini are the most arresting. An interesting story is associated with the lovely women represented in these sculptures. Once the wives of the sages of Darukavana fell in love with Shiva when he appeared before them in the form of a bhikshadanar, or mendicant. His beauty so bewitched them that they stood mesmerized, unaware even of their garments. A connoisseur cannot but wonder at the way the sculptor has lavished all his skills on these statues. The statue of Bhikshadanar is true-to-life, evocative, and fully reflects the sculptor’s artistic abilities. Images of Ganesha and Subrahmanya are also found in this mandapam. The term ‘Dark Mandapam’, however, is now a misnomer, as the building is now well lit and ventilated by windows.’ [image:Bhikshanandar_Shiva.jpg|thumb|Bhikshanandar Shiva]]

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 the cool breeze. ‘Valli, this is sacred Potramarai Kulam, or Golden Lotus Tank. See the golden lotus floating at the centre of the reservoir? Hence the name. According to mythology, Indra once bathed hereto rid himself of his sins. He collected golden lotus flowers from the tank and worshipped Shiva with 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—and their sins, à la Indra!—in the pellucid water before entering the temple.

Potramarai Kulam—the Golden Lotus Tank, and south tower

From the middle of the eastern corridor, we can see two small towers covered with golden plates in the midst of the eight temple towers. The chief deities, Minakshi and Sundareshvarar, are ensconced in sanctums below these golden towers. The wall of the southern corridor is inlaid with marble slabs engraved with 1,330 couplets from Tiruvalluvar’s Tirukkural, which is celebrated as the Tamil Veda. The numerous pillars in the northern corridor bear the figures of twenty-four poets of the third Tamil sangam, but on one of them we also find Kulashekhara Pandyan and on another is Dhananjayan. Bright, colourful paintings on the ceilings of all the corridors depict scenes from the Tiruvilayadal Puranam. They say that in the olden days the literary worth of a Tamil work was tested by placing it on a plank on the water of this tank. If it floated, it was deemed worthy, and if it sank, well, it sank!

‘Valli, look at that hall built in black marble with an unjal, or swing, on the western side of the tank. It is called the Unjal Mandapam. Every Friday, the gold images of Minakshi and Sundareshvarar are placed on the swing, gently rocked to the accompaniment of music, and worshipped. The paintings on the ceiling of this mandapam portray Subramanian’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 enhanced by the long row of 28 pillars and exquisitely carved sculptural pieces. Particularly noteworthy are the figures of Vali, Sugriva, the Pandavas, and Draupadi. A yali is engraved on another pillar; a ball of stone revolves in its mouth! There are also two large paintings of Minakshi’s wedding and coronation. Mural paintings on the ceiling are eye-catching. Opposite AmmanSannidhi, on one side of the balipitham, or sacrificial altar, is a pillar bearing the figure of Bhimasena, and on a pillar on the other side is a semi-human figure; both stand in combative poses. In this mandapam, the pillars depict Shiva’s miraculous deeds. The figures, though very small, are of unsurpassed charm. The paintings on the canopy represent an array of deities of the Hindu pantheon. The scene of Minakshi’s wedding in front of the Sannidhiis attractive.

Devi Minakshi

‘Valli, we are now about to enter into the heart of the temple, the Devi’s sanctum. Look at 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 Tower after its builder Ananda Tandavanambi of Vembattur. On the outer prakaram, or circular corridor, can be seen the golden flag-post, the Tirumalai Nayakar Mandapam, brass dvarapalakas, and the shrines of Vinayakar and Kudal Kumarar. That is the Kolu Mandapam in the western corner. During the Navaratri festival in the Tamil month of Purattasi, in September-October, the image of Minakshiis exquisitely adorned in nine different ways on the nine days and kept there for public view and worship.

‘To the west is a bigger, five-storeyed tower. This is 54 feet high and its base is 50 feet long and 28 feet wide and is visible even from the western Adi Vithi. The imposing structure has 224 impressive sculptures. At the south-west corner of the inner prakaram is the Vinayakar shrine and at the north-east junction stands that of Kudal Kumarar. Stanzas of the Tiruppugal sung by the saint Arunagirinathar are inscribed on the walls of this shrine.

‘To the east there is an entrance to Swami Sannidhi. One can reach the Mahamandapam or inner prakaram through the Arukal Pitham. This is where the Shaiva saint Kumara Guruparar sang his “Meenakshi Ammai Pilai Tamil”. The story goes that the goddess was so delighted with the hymns that she appeared before the saint in the form of a small girl and gifted him a pearl necklace. The Arukal Pithamis also the venue of Devi Minakshi’s coronation during the Chitrai festival. The shrines of Airavata Vinayakar and Muttukumarar, and the Palli Arai or Chamber of Repose, can also be seen in the Mahamandapam. Its pillars and ceiling have exquisite pieces of sculpture—for instance that bell hanging from 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 Goddess Minakshi. Behind them is a pressing queue of devotees eager to have a glimpse of the deity. ‘How gorgeous Mother looks in her splendid finery and all that sparkling jewellery!’ exclaims Selvi; ‘What sublime grace and charm she exudes as she stands holding a parrot and a bouquet in her hands! Look at her eyes brimming with tenderness, compassion, love! Valli, perhaps you know that fish-shaped eyes 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 mother fish hatches her eggs by lovingly gazing at them, Mother Minakshi vitalizes and nourishes her children by casting her benign glance on them. Don’t you agree, Valli?’ Lost in Devi Minakshi’s wondrous beauty, Valli nods assent.

Mukkuruni Vinayakar

The girls exit the sanctum sanctorum and move towards the shrine of Lord Sundareshvarar. On the way, a colossal statue of Ganesha makes 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. Selvi explains: ‘This marvellous image is known as Mukkuruni Vinayakar. It was found when Tirumalai Nayakardug the Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam. It faces the south, as if to welcome 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, built in 1374 by one Mallappan. It is 72 feet high with a base measuring 48 feet by 31 feet. There are 40sculptures on this tower.

‘Now comes the corner where we see the figures of the forty-nine poets of the kadai, or last, sangam. North of this is a mandapam where weekly group prayers are held. Adjoining this is a five-storeyed tower, built by Sevantivelappa Chettiar in 1560. It is 71 feet high with a base 45 feet long and 34 feet wide. This tower has 18 sculptures. At the top of the tower can be seen the majestic figure of a vrishabha, or bull, Shiva’s mount.

‘Valli, do you see that mandapam over there at the 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 built by Chinnappa Nayakar in 1526. At the south-eastern corner 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 veritable treasure trove of sculptural riches, it is a connoisseur’s paradise. You will notice that we are now in the outer prakaram right in front of the Sundareshvarar shrine. Each one of the sculptural pieces and the architecture of the building as a whole is a feast for discerning eyes. See that golden flagstaff, Nandi, and the balipitham at the centre. Look at these intricate sculptural 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 ten incarnations of Vishnu.

The Celestial Wedding

The Celestial Wedding

‘But the sculpture depicting Meenakshi’s wedding is the best of all. It is a striking example of Dravidian temple art. Look at the colossal statues of Agni Virabhadra, Aghora Virabhadra, Kali, and Shiva close by.’ Valli stands transfixed, captivated by it all. The scene, capturing the sublime solemnity of Vishnu’s offering of his sister Minakshi in marriage to Sundareshvarar, enthralls Valli. She exclaims, ‘How skillfully 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 on the opposite pillar. It represents the story of Shiva’s awesome fight with the demon Tripura. With a view to storming the three magic cities of the demons and destroying them, Shiva made earth his chariot and rode into the battlefield. The sun and the moon were the wheels of the chariot; the four Vedas were the horses, and the Upanishads the reins. Vishnu himself became Shiva’s terrible bow. Thus equipped, the god destroyed Tripura’s three impregnable fortresses, made of iron, silver, and gold.

That pillar over there illustrates the story of the great devotee Markandeya. According to a Puranic story, Shiva saved his devotee from death by kicking Yama with his left foot! And on the other one is Nataraja. Notice the network of designs detailing the incident of Shiva’s burning of Manmatha, Cupid.’

The superb artistic excellences whet Valli’s enthusiasm, which grows still keener. Suddenly, something wonderful catches her eyes. ‘What is that? It looks like a huge demon about to be crushed under a mountain. And Parvati-Parameshvara, sitting on top of the mountain, seem to be enjoying the demon’s plight!’ 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 humbled him by pressing his toe on the mountain, which bore 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 shows a huge column of light? What do the figures of the swan and boar symbolize?’ ‘That column of light was the form Shiva assumed in order to curb the pride of Brahma and Vishnu, who had fallen into a 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 found either the top or the bottom of the pillar of light would be the greater of the two. Brahma promptly assumed the form of a swan and soared up to find the top, and Vishnu took the form of a boar and burrowed through the netherworlds in search of the bottom. However, both were unsuccessful in their attempts. But while Vishnu humbly admitted his failure, Brahma falsely claimed to have seethe top of the pillar of light. He tried to buttress his claim by presenting as proof a petal of the ketaki flower, which he said was taken from Shiva’s matted locks. Enraged by Brahma’s falsehood, Shiva cursed him that he would never receive temple worship and that the ketaki would no more be used in Shiva worship—as punishment for its complicity in the entire affair! But Valli, the implication of the story is that Brahman, here represented by Shiva, can be realized neither by discursive knowledge, symbolized by Brahma, nor by material wealth, symbolized by Vishnu.’ Valli had never realized that Puranic stories were so full of meaning.

Selvi continues: ‘You know that Shiva is sometimes represented in his peculiar dichotomous form, as Ardhanarishvara. This sculpture here shows him with the left half of his body feminine and the right half masculine. Thus Purusha and Prakriti are combined in one form—but it also suggests that he is beyond both aspects. In another dichotomous representation on a pillar over there, the left side of the image shows Vishnu in his silken raiment, with ornaments 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 divorce between Shiva and Vishnu. And there is Shiva in his meditative pose; he is facing the south. Young in age but ripe in wisdom, he imparts spiritual knowledge to his four old disciples, the four eternal sages Sanaka, Sananda, Sanatana, and Sanatkumara, through mystic Silence. That is his Dakshinamurti form.

‘Do you see that fine sculpture showing Shiva killing an elephant? It is called Gajaharamurti. The elephant was in fact a demon masquerading as a rampaging tusker and intending to kill Shiva, here shown as Bhikshadanar. The demon was set upon Shiva by the jealous sages of Darukavana, whose wives were carried away by the god’s beauty. On the next pillar are the figures of Bhikshadanar, Rudrar, Kiratarjunar, and Somaskandar. You can also see the ten avatars of Vishnu engraved at the bottom of some pillars. The carvings on this other pillar here feature a story in which Shiva helps an old woman on the banks of the Vaigai. Valli, these precious sculptural treasures so intricately woven into the elegant architecture of the temple mainly revolve round our ancient mythology and hoary culture, proclaiming their undying value.’

Four immense statues on the eastern side of the Kadambatadi Mandapam now draw Valli’s attention. They are the imposing figures of Agni Aghora Virabhadrar and the awe-inspiring forms of Urdhva Tandavar (Nataraja) and Bhadrakali. ‘Oh, how fantastic!’ Valli utters in wonderment. ‘What disciplined minds and deft hands the sculptor must have been blessed with for his images to reflect such difficult moods as fury and fortitude, resolve and ruthlessness so effectively! They must have been extraordinary artists. But Selvi, isn’t it funny that Agni Virabhadrar and Aghora Virabhadrar are bespattered with globs of butter? Any story behind this?’ Selvi has ready answers even for unexpected questions. ‘Devotees throw butter at the frightful forms in order to pacify them!’ She continues: ‘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 proceed to Lord Shiva’s shrine.’

Aghora Virabhadrar

As they approach the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum, Selvi points to two 12-foot-high dvarapalakas on either side and begins her commentary: ‘See the images of Shiva and Minakshi—both with five faces? You can also see the statues of the four saints Appar, Sundarar, Sambandhar, and Manikkavachakar nearby. Their lyrical outpourings in praise of the Lord in chaste Tamil are known as the Tevaram, or “A Garland for the Divine”. Look at the three-storeyed tower of Swami Sannidhi. It is 41 feet high with a base 31 feet long and 18 feet wide and contains 36 sculptures. It was built by Kulashekhara Pandyan in 1168.’ The girls enter the sanctum, a quadrilateral structure with artistic engravings of sixty-four bhuta ganas (Shiva’s companions), eight elephants, and thirty two lions. ‘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 ingenious device that represents the two apparently contradictory aspects of the Godhead. As a tangible image it surely has a form, but being featureless it can be considered formless. It is, so to say, in the twilight zone between form and formlessness and admirably 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 is Brahma, 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—unmanifest sound—underlying omkara (aum). So the linga is doubtless a true symbol of the Absolute. For all that, 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.

thumbUrdhva Tandavar ‘This prakaram abounds in attractive sculptures depicting 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 southwestern corner is the utsava murti, which is used for processions during festivals, and at the north-western corner are the images of Kashi Vishvanathar and Bhikshadanar. 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 tunnel, which once upon a time led to Tirumalai Nayakar’s palace. The royal family used to come to the temple through this path. The tunnel also served as a secret vault to store valuable 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 big hall is called Velli Ambalam, or Silver Hall. This is the hall that I spoke about earlier. Look at the exquisite 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 jnanasundara tandavam here to please the devotee-king Rajashekhara Pandyan. There are four other halls in the temple—Kanaka Sabha and Ratna Sabha in the first corridor, Deva Saba in the Hundred Pillar Hall, and Chitra Sabha in the Thousand Pillar Hall—but they are of minor importance compared to Velli Ambalam.

Coming out of the prakaram the two girls find themselves back in the Kadambatadi Mandapam. Selvi tells her friend that the five storeyed tower on the eastern side of the mandapam is 66 feet high with the base 42 feet long and 33 feet wide. It has 280 sculptures on it and was built in 1372 by Vasuvappan. To the east, beyond this tower, is another big mandapam. ‘This is called theViravasantarayar Mandapam,’ begins Selvi. ‘It was built by Tirumalai Kayaker’s elder brother Muttuvirappa Nayakar. It has 46 pillars. The eyes of the big Nandi statue in front are 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. The dancing Bhadrakali and the dvarapalakas are very popular. The tall arch of lights that you see above was donated by the Marudu Pandyas; the lights are maintained by the Shivagangai Devasthanam. Here you can see rows of shops on both sides selling puja articles, bangles, brassware, and things like that.

File:Thousand Pillar Hall

‘Valli, just a few steps from here and adjoining this structure is the Thousand Pillar Mandapam, which is another treasure-house. It was built in 1569by Dalavoi Ariyanatha Mudaliar. Originally there must have been 1,000 pillars—there are only 985now—probably the missing ones made way for the two small temples that we find here. This mandapam is 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 features of the sixty Tamil years are described there! At the entrance is the majestic Ariyanatha Mudaliar on a horse, and the statue of Kannappan Nayanar close by. Kannappa was such an ardent Shiva bhakta that he did not hesitate to gouge out his own eyes and offer them to the Lord! Then come the statues of Satya Harishchandra and his wife Chandramati. How poignant the woebegone Chandramati looks, holding her dead son in her arms! And over here are the well-known figures of Kuravan and Kuratti, the gypsy couple. Don’t they look so realistic? Observe how their rugged physical features, their poverty, and their travails are mirrored in stone; and you can’t miss that monkey on a leash or the couple’s unruly children! See this stern-faced, resolute Shiva trampling a demon beneath his feet; but you can also make out an ineffable smile on his lips and the profound quiet of his face. One wonder show the sculptor succeeded in bringing out such conflicting emotions at the same time!

Devi Saraswathi

‘The other creations that you find on the pillars of 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. The images on the whole present a refined commentary on the science of erotics. Thus the Thousand Pillar Mandapam indeed lays out a delightful sculptural repast to genuine connoisseurs. In the olden days, it also 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, and Jnanasambandhar. South of this is the Servaikarar Mandapam built by the Marudu Pandyas sometime in the mid-eighteenth century. We find the figure of the elder Marudu on the left pillar.

’‘Selvi, what is that ornate hall over there? It looks 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. During April-May the entire city of Madurai goes delirious with joy. A spirit of devotion pervades the entire atmosphere as people from far and near converge on Madurai to participate in the festivities and experience the exalted mood they generate. That dais, on which the actual ceremony is performed, and the black stone mandapam were built by Vijayaranga Chokkanathar. See his figure carved on the first pillar 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 on the top portion. See there, those are the pictures of Vynagaram Venkatachalam Chettiar and Nagappa Chettiar, who built this mandapam.

File:Devotees At Minakshi
Devotees throng through the Minakshi Temple Complex

‘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 Vithis are the outermost streets around the temple but within its precincts. The temple elephants and camels are kept in the courtyard at the eastern end of the temple. As we walk west along the southern Adi Vithi, we will find the temple offices, library, the Tevaram School, Tiruppugal Sabha, Divanerikalagam, Panniru Tirumurai Manram, and Dandapani Tiruppugal Manram.’

As they slowly move along, the magnificent south tower looms into view, and Valli cannot suppress a cry of unadulterated admiration. The grand tower is of really mammoth proportions. Selvi continues her narration: ‘Valli, as I mentioned earlier, the south tower is the tallest structure in the entire temple complex: it is 170 feet high, its base 108feet long and 67 feet wide. It is bejeweled, as it were, with 1,511 exquisite sculptural figures. The top of the tower commands a panoramic view of Madurai city. See the two giant yalis on both sides of the tower? The diameter of each eye of those creatures is two and a half feet! You will remember that the tower was built in the sixteenth century by Sevvanti 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 west tower is 154 feet high with a base 101 feet by 64 feet. It contains 1,124 sculptural pieces. It was built by Parakrama Pandyan, who ruled Madurai between1315 and 1347.

‘The northern Adi Vithi exudes the fragrance of Tamil devotional literature. It is here that the Tiruppugal Sabha and the Tiruvalluvar Kazhagam are situated. The Tiruppugal Mandapam was built in1952. The Tirukkural Kazhagam, housed in a beautiful mandapam, was started in 1941 by Tirukkural Attavadanam T P Subramania Das. This building is the venue of many religious meetings. Well, Valli, a striking feature of the north tower is—’ ‘That it is bald and looks incomplete!’ interrupts Valli. ‘And that is why it is called Mottai Gopuram, or Bald Tower,’ Selvi continues. ‘But it is not as plain as the name suggests: you can see some sculptural work 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 Tuesdays and Fridays. On those days the northern tower is decorated with thin flower garlands.’

1,511 sculpted figures: the south gopuram

Valli is in for a pleasant surprise now. ‘Ever hear pillars sing?’ her friend asks. Valli doesn’t know what to say. ‘Come, I will show you’, says Selvi. Beyond the north tower on the Adi Vithi stand five stone pillars. ‘Observe them closely, Valli. Each pillar has 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 is struck 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 Thousand Pillar 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 paintings portraying the story of Manikkavachakar. Passing this we come to the Swami Sannidhi to the east of which stands the east tower. This is the oldest of the big towers. Since it was built by Maravarman Sundara 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. Stepping out of the temple complex, they enter East Chitrai Street where Selvi points to a small temple to the south of the east tower. ‘That is the Madurai Viraswami temple, and opposite that is the famous Pudu Mandapam. It houses all kinds of shops and is in fact an unsophisticated version of Chennai’s erstwhile Moore Market.’


Chitrai festival: the deities on rathas

Valli is mightily impressed by her friend’s encyclopedic knowledge. As they sit in a parlour refreshing themselves with some ice cream, Selvi gives her an idea of the variety of festivals observed in Madurai. ‘Madurai is a city of festivals. The grandest is, of course, the Chitrai. The highlights of this ten-day festival are Goddess Minakshi’s coronation, her wedding with Sundareshvarar, and the car festival. A great flower-bedecked chariot bearing the utsava murtis of the divine couple is drawn by crowds of fervent devotees along the four Masi streets around the 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 the goddess’s brother—is brought in procession to the Vaigai River to witness the wedding. Alagar’s reaching the Vaigai is believed to be such a sacred event that it draws lakhs of devotees. Fairs are also organized on the occasion. The grand festival comes to a climactic close on full-moon day of Chitra.

Chitrai festival: the deities on rathas

‘Valli, you know that Madurai Meenakshi, Kanchi Kamakshi, and Kashi Vishalakshi are three forms of the Divine Mother. So Navaratari, a festival sacred to the Divine Mother, is celebrated at the temple with great pomp. This too is a ten-day event marked by tremendous religious fervour. Kolus, galleries of colourful dolls of various sizes arranged in an imaginative manner, are specialty of this festival. The kolu in the temple is set up in the in inner corridor of Mother’s shrine on the southern side. Mother’s image shines prominently among the dolls, and she is decorated in ten different ways during the ten-day period. The inner significance of the kolu is that the Divine Mother is the benign Empress of the entire universe, and all living beings are her happy subjects.

‘Vasantotsavam and Avani Mulam are two other noteworthy religious occasions. During the latter, Shiva’s tiruvilayadals are enacted. It also features a car festival. Other major festivals include the Teppam (Float) Festival, Arudra Darshanam, theTiruppavai-Tiruvembavai festivals and Mahashivaratri. The Float Festival commemorates the birth anniversary of Tirumalai Nayakar. A brightly lit float carrying the utsava murtis of Minakshi-Sundareshvarar goes round the illuminated Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam and is witnessed by thousands of devotees.’

Selvi’s absorbing narrative comes to a close. It is evening and the two friends return home to plan the next day’s sightseeing.

Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal

Thirumal Nayakar Mahal Corridor

Next morning Selvi and Valli head towards the famous Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal, just two kilometres south-east of the Minakshi temple. Valli is impressed by the massive structure’s medieval elegance and dignity. Selvi begins her commentary: ‘This palace is a real showpiece, don’t you think so? Tirumalai Nayakar built it in 1636 and it was here that he lived. Although large portions of the building were destroyed by his grandson when he shifted the capital to Tiruchi, its attraction remains undiminished.

Thirumal Nayakar Mahal:Detail of wood carvings

‘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 without the support of girders or rafters—a truly outstanding architectural feat for those days. The stuccoed domes and arches, the huge pillars—there are248 of them, each 58 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter—the paintings and carvings, and the overall design of the Mahal speak volumes about the Nayaka kings’ flair for architecture. Inside you can see furniture and utensils used by them. The courtyard and the dancing hall here are centers of attraction. Besides the royal residence, the sprawling palace also has a shrine—the king used to celebrate major festivals in the palace—an armory, and gardens.

Thirumal Nayakar Mahal at night

‘It is interesting that a visitor can view the Kudalnagar temple from inside the Mahal, thus enjoying the double benefit of savoring the beauty of the palace plus having the darshan of the sacred temple at the same time. Nowadays visitors are treated to light-and-sound shows depicting the popular Silappatikaram story of Kannagi and Kovalan in both Tamil and English.’

After the previous day’s temple tour, this visit to the Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal was a different kind of experience for Valli.

Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam

Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam

Next Selvi takes her friend to Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam, a vast artificial lake five kilometres east of the Minakshi temple. Valli jumps for joy at the very sight of it. ‘This is glorious!’ she cries.’ It looks like a huge ornament with a lustrous gem embedded in its bosom!’‘Yes, yes,’ agrees Selvi, ‘that cute mandapam in the middle does look like a gem. It has an image of Vighneshwara inside. It is said that the rare image was discovered when the place was being dug up in order to supply building materials for the Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal. The lake is fed by the waters of the Vaigai through an ingenious system of underground channels. Oh, I forgot to tell you yesterday—the Float Festival is held on the day of Tai Pusam, in January–February.’

Gandhi Memorial Museum

Gandhi Memorial Museum

From there Selvi and Valli go to the Tamukkam Palace, which is now home to the Gandhi Memorial Museum, one of Madurai’s modern landmarks. Selvi begins her commentary about the place: ‘Valli, once we get inside, you will realize that this place is a living memorial to the father of our nation. Its generally agreed that the building was built by the Nayaka queen Mangammal around 1670. Soon after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, the Gandhi Memorial Trust appealed to the people of India to donate funds for a suitable memorial to the fallen hero. The response was so overwhelming that the Trust allocated 10 million rupees for setting up Gandhi Memorial Museums in seven selected places across the country associated with Gandhiji’s life. In 1955, the Madras state government gifted the Tamukkam Palace and 13 acres of land to the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi for building the museum in Madurai. Not many people know that Gandhiji visited Tamil Nadu fourteen times! Madurai is associated with certain momentous incidents in his life. It was here in 1921 that Gandhiji adopted his trademark dhoti-chadar dress; this sartorial style of his eventually earned for him the sobriquet “the half-naked fakir”. And it was here that he achieved a historic triumph over untouchability: in 1946, he embarked on a relentless campaign that dealt a death blow to this social evil and ended with the doors of the Minakshi temple being thrown open to the Harijans.’

Gandhi Statue at the Gandhi Memorial Museum

‘Selvi, yesterday you said Madurai is and has always been an important centre of political, economic, social, and cultural activity. I think I am slowly beginning to understand that. Really, its socio-political profile is so interesting,’ remarks Valli. ‘Not just interesting,’ corrects Selvi, ‘fascinating—I can promise you that! Just wait until we complete this tour.’

‘Besides the picture gallery presenting a visual biography of Mahatma Gandhi by means of paintings, photographs, quotations, and photocopies of his important letters, the museum has special exhibitions on the Indian freedom movement, khadi and village industries, and handicrafts. I don’t have to tell you that Gandhiji was the force behind all these social phenomena; in fact, he dedicated his life to their revival. Now let us go to the hall where some of Gandhiji’s personal belongings are preserved. ’Valli beholds the humble possessions of the great 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 Gandhi Kutir, a replica of Gandhiji’s cottage in Sevagram, in front of the museum. Again, Valli is impressed by its simplicity. Finally they come to the large library in 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 no need of an answer.

Ramakrishna Math

Sri Ramakrishna Temple, Madurai

Their next stop is at the Ramakrishna Math, located to the north of the Vaigai. Selvi happens to be a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna, widely acknowledged as a modern incarnation of God. She wants to give her friend a brief account of the history and activities of this branch centre of the worldwide Ramakrishna Math: ‘Valli, it is no exaggeration to say that, in a spiritual sense, this Ramakrishna temple is no less than the Minakshi temple! Both are mighty centres of energy ministering to the spiritual needs of the people. Just as Mother Minakshi arouses our devotional instincts, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda inspire us spiritually with their life-giving messages. Together, they form a bulwark of Sanatana Dharma and Vedanta against mindless materialism.

‘Compared to the ancient temple, this Ramakrishna centre 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 institution providing a wide range of services to the local people. But I will come to that later.

‘Sri Ardhanari and Dr Shanmugam, one a merchant and the other a reputed surgeon, were the instruments Sri Ramakrishna chose for his work in Madurai. These two genuine devotees pooled their resources to start the private centre and served visiting swamis wholeheartedly. Thanks to their labour of 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 also holds weekly religious classes and monthly spiritual retreats in its spacious auditorium. But that’s not all—it runs a primary school, a free coaching centre, a charitable dispensary, a library, and a bookshop. Furthermore, its monks and devotees are 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 Swami Vivekananda 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 their steps 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 of the growing number of colleges in the southern districts, the state government felt it prudent to establish another university in Madurai. This was started in 1966, and the University of Madras Extension Centre Library was renamed Madurai University Library. The city complex, however, soon proved inadequate for the university’s growing needs. So in 1973 it was shifted to its present location in PalakalaiNagar near Vadapalanji village on the Theni main road, 13 kilometres west of Madurai city. The foundation stone of the new complex was laid by President Dr Zakir Hussain. But it was only in 1978 that Madurai University got its new name Madurai Kamaraj University. The institution occupies a picturesque753-acre area with the Nagamalai hills in the background.’

After a quick tour of the university campus and its numerous departments, it is time to return home. Valli looks thoroughly satisfied. After dinner Selvi winds down her narrative: ‘Valli, there are still a few more things about Madurai that I must not fail to mention. This city has been visited by Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda. This is where Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi was born and attained spiritual illumination when he was a young boy. On a different level, in the sphere of classical music, some of the top-notch artists it has produced include 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 Isai Sangam, are doing great service in the field of fine arts, particularly Carnatic and Tamil music. The Lakshmi Sundaram Hall and Raja Muthiah Manramare two other prestigious auditoriums that serve as venues for cultural programmes.

‘So, you see, Madurai is that rare and happy amalgam of the ancient and the modern, the orthodox and the unorthodox, the old and the new. Beneath the dazzle of technology that you see from outside runs a powerful current of spirituality. Madurai’s strength lies in its amazing resilience, in its capacity to 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 of the young. This gives the city its perennial beauty, which age cannot wither nor custom stale—a city of 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
mayi mīnākṣi kṛpāṁ vidhehi dhanye.
Salutations to the Queen of Madhurapuri! O the one holding in her graceful hand a sweet-tongued
parrot! O the princess of Malayadhwaja Pandya! Obsessed Minakshi, show me compassion! P

 How Many Vinas?

How Many Vinas.jpg
Every year, on the Vijaya Dashami day, a magnificent expression of devotion takes place at Sri Minakshi Temple: 108 
veena artists assemble to dedicate a congregational recital to Mother Minakshi. The recital lasts a couple of hours, and is 
held in a massive temple hall accommodating several hundred people. Furthermore, every Friday evening, a veena artist 
performs at the temple. It is a unique and meaningful way of saluting the Goddess—the source of all vidya.