The Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple:
Madurai and the Meenakshi Temple are synonymous. The very mention of the town conjures up an image of lofty gopurams, intricate sculptures and an emerald hued Goddess. The temple and the town have origins that are misted over by time. Did the town come up first or the temple? Most likely they sprang up together and have remained intertwined.
Tradition has it that after killing a demon, indra was weighed down with a sense of guilt. Wandering aimlessly, he arrived at a forest of Kadamba Trees. He felt completely rejuvenated. On enquiry he found that this was due to the presence of a Linga under one of the tress. He worshipped the Linga and built a small shrine over it and departed. Till date the sanctum of Lord Sundareswara is referred to as the Indra Vimana.
Years rolled by. A merchant belonging to the land of the Pandyas, during the course of his travels spent a night under the tree. On waking up, he found that worship has been conducted. He informed his monarch, Kulashekara Pandya, that the Gods worshipped at the tree. The monarch, the previous night, had been instructed by Lord Shiva, in a dream, to build a capital city and a temple in the spot indicated by the merchant. The king followed the advice. The next king was Malayadhvaja Pandya. He and his wife Kanchanamala performed a sacrifice for getting progeny. On the instructions of Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvati herself appeared before the royal couple and advised them to teach the child all that a Prince would need to know. He also said that the third breast would disappear when the girl met her future consort.
The girl, named as Thadathagai, grew up learning all about Kinghsip. Upon her father?s demise, she became the Queen and set about conquering vast territory. This was known as Digvijayam in Sanskrit. She reached the Himalayas. Lord Shiva appeared, whereupon, the third breast disappeared. Thadathagai realized that this was her future Lord. They came to Madurai together, where there were married. This Digvijaya and marriage celebration is an integral feature of the annual celebrations at the temple till this day. Muttuswamy Dikshitar mentions the Digvijayam in his kriti ?Mamava Meenakshi? set to Varaliraga.
To return to the story, the wedding was celebrated with pomp and Lord shiva and Goddess Thadathagai ruled over Madurai as joint monarchs, Sundara Pandya and Meenakshi. Before ascending the throne, they worshipped a Linga of Shiva. This Linga, together with the images of Shiva and Meenakshi, worshipping it exists at the Immayil Nanmai Tharuvar Temple in Madurai. After ruling for some time. They installed their son Subrahmanya as Ugra Pandya and merged with the deities in the Temple. They became Sundareswara and Meenakshi.
The Lord performed 64 miracles at this temple and these are recorded as the Tiruvilayadal Puranam, written by Parajothi munivar in the 16th Century. These incidents are carved in panels all around the temple.
Historically, epics such as the Silapadikkaram carry detailed accounts of Madurai. While the origins of the temple are difficult to establish, it is evident that the temple has been in a state of continuous expansion from the 12th to the 18th century. It occupies an area of 62000 sq meters and has twelve gopuras and two principal shrines. Apart from this, there are innumerable mandapams and the famed Pottramarai Kulam (Lake of the Golden Lotus) around which the Sangam met to debate on Tamil. It was also at this lake, legend has it, that the greatness to Tiruvalluvar was established, when his works floated up on the water, rather than sink.
The Gopuras near the shrine of the Goddess were built in the 12th Century. In the 14th century, the temple received damages at the hands of Malik Kafur. Madurai was under muslim rule for some time during which the temple was looted. Later the city and the temple were liberated and additions where mad to the temple. The most famous of these is the Chitra Gopura which was built in 1570 AD. It has 740 sculptures on it and was once the original entrance into Goddess Meenakshi?s sanctum.
The temple as it stand today owes mostly to the renovations carried out by the greatest of the Nayak Kings, Tirumalai (ruled 1623 to 1659 AD ) and his queens Rudrapati and Toli. A later day king to undertake large constructions was Vijayaranga Chokkanatha (rules 1706 32). Both kings are remembered with status in the temple till today.
In the shrine of the Lord Somasundareswara, there are four gigantic sculptures, one each of Agni Veerabadra, Aghora Veerabhadra, Bhadrakali and Oorddhvatandava. Tradition requires covering these with butter, for they are all manifestations that were created by Shiva in anger.
The Bhadrakali statue and its coating of butter is mentioned by Muttuswamy Dikshitar in his kriti Halasyanatham in the raga Darbar. In addition, the mandapam leading to the Lord?s shrine is filled with sculptures of Shiva in different manifestations. Other fames sculptures include those of the five Pandavas and Draupati.
The Temple, boasts of a 1000 pillared hall. In addition, there are the famed four Gopurams. One in each principal direction. Each was built at different times, yet they complement each other. While the Eastern is the oldest, the Southern is the most famous and is often photographed. This was built in the 16th century and is 49 meters tall.
The temple also possesses a large tank called the Vandiyur Tank, which is 3 km away. The annual float festival takes place there. This festival is mentioned in Muttuswamy Dikshitar?s kriti Somasundareswaram in Shuddha Vasanta. In conclusion, one can say that the Madurai Temple is a true representative of India?s past, be it in the fields of art, sculpture, music of celebrations.
The Goddess Meenakshi:
To the residents of Madurai, Meenakshi is still their queen. It is customary to pay obeisance to here before having Darshan of the Lord. This is in contrast to all other Shiva temple. The idol of the Goddess is about four feet in height and is made of a greenish stone called Marakatam (not an emerald).
Visiting Saints and Savants:
The temple has been visited by many of the 63 Nayanmars. Sambandar mentions the Kapali Madil, one of the outer walls in his hymn. Adi Shankara visited the place and composed the Meenakshi Pacharatnam and the Meenakshi Stotram here.
Among the Carnatic Trinity, Muttuswamy Dikshitar composed extensively on this temple. Syama Sastri comosed a set of nine songs called the Navaratna Malika. Among modern composers. Papanasam Sivan has composed on it.
The annual festival in the month of Chitra is a great attraction. It culminates with the wedding of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar. The entire town of Madurai celebrates the wedding as a family affair. An interesting sidelight is the festival of Azhagar (Sundaraja Perumal at Azhagarkoil) who as Meenakshi?s brother, sets out to attend her wedding , but arrives late and leaves in a huff. In addition the temple has innumerable events, processions decorations and worship, which would require many books to describe.
In conclusion one can say that the Madurai Temple is a true representatives of India?s past, be it in the fields of art, sculpture, music or celebrations.