The door to the garbha griha (sanctum sanctorum) is closed when our group files into the antarala or the outer chamber. We arrange ourselves around the barriers placed there and wait expectantly for the door to open and for the deity to give us darshan or audience.
One of the priests goes around the group asking for our names and other details for the archana or offerings to be made. As I wait for my turn, I look around the poorly lit chamber which is dark with years of accumulated soot and smoke. There are baskets of flowers, coconuts and bananas, and lamps and sundry puja items piled up against the walls. I can smell flowers and incense and some sandalwood as well.
The priest soon finishes with our group and disappears into the garbha griha. The initial murmurs and excited whispers give way to silence as we wait in anticipation for the door to open.
Just when I feel that I can’t wait any longer for darshan, Bharat Sundar, the musician accompanying our group starts to sing softly . It is a kriti by Muthiswami Dikshitar, Maamava Meenakshi, in praise of the deity we were all waiting to get a darshan.
Almost on cue, the doors open and the curtain inside parts and I see Her — Meenakshi Amman of Madurai. With the illumination provided by numerous oil lamps, I can see that she is wearing a green saree, much like the one in the Tanjore painting I have at home (left). The jewellery she is adorned with sparkles and twinkled in the light.
Carved out of a dark green (rumoured to be jade), almost black-coloured stone, Meenakshi Amman’s graceful form is mesmerising. She is far more beautiful than I imagined and I can’t take my eyes off Her, so compelling is Her gaze.
The priest finishes the aarti and distributes the prasadam, marking the cue for us to leave. As we make our way out, my mind is filled with stories of Meenakshi Amman and the temple she is enshrined in — stories that Sriram, our tour leader, had narrated.
Meenakshi Amman is considered to be an incarnation of the Goddess Parvati, though the stories of her origins have been lost over the centuries and become part of mythic lore and legend. She is believed to be the granddaughter of Kulasekaran, the founder of the Pandian kingdom in Madurai. Born to King Malayadhwaja, after he prayed to Lord Shiva for a child, Meenakshi grew up to be a warrior and an able administrator. After the death of her father, she ruled the kingdom well and was much-loved by her subjects.
According to legend, she travelled North to confront Lord Shiva himself and in the process realised that she was an incarnation of Parvati. She returned to Madurai and Lord Shiva followed her there where as Sundareswarar, he married Meenakshi in an elaborate ceremony. All the Gods were in attendance, with Brahma officiating as the priest and Vishnu, who played the part of Meenakshi’s brother, giving her away in marriage to Sundareshwarar. 
And as stories go, Meenakshi and Sundareswarar lived happily ever after, ruling Madurai together and bringing a lot of prosperity to their kingdom. 🙂
More than the origin story of Meenakshi, it is the story of the temple she is enshrined in that fascinated me. Though there is no reliable documentary evidence on the origin of this temple, scholars agree that there has been a Shiva Temple on the site for centuries, perhaps on the very site where the shrine to Sundareshwarar is located. It is around this shrine that the temple complex has grown to the 14 acres it covers today comprising multiple shrines, shops, elephant stables, halls, temple offices, etc.
The map above also shows that the central, larger shrine in the temple complex is dedicated to Shiva or Sundareshwarar, while the smaller Meenakshi Amman shrine is to the left, closer to the South Gopuram. I was surprised to find that the heart of the temple is not the Meenakshi Amman shrine, but that of her consort, Sundareshwarar. I was even more surprised to know that till about 2-3 centuries ago, this was better known as a Shiva Temple, rather than the Meenakshi Amman Kovil it is known as today. What were the reasons for this shift and why is Amman more popular than her consort? I don’t know and haven’t been able to get a satisfying answer.
And to think that the Meenakshi Temple is considered as one of the most important Devi temples today ! I thought I heard wrong when Sriram mentioned this, but one look at the various forms of Shiva in the temple complex and you know that you are in a Shiva Temple. Though there are images of other divinities, it is Shiva who dominates.
Please click on any of the pictures below to see the details after which you can use the arrow keys to navigate and see the others:
This temple complex in Madurai was built over centuries and each of the dynasties that ruled the kingdom — Pandyas, Cholas and the Nayakas — contributed something to it. The imposing gopurams, the first things that any visitor notices, were built between the 13th and the 16th centuries.
There are 14 gopurams or gateways in all, of which the East Gopuram, whose construction began in the 12th century CE, was the first to be built.  The North Gopuram was the last to be built and is also the least ornamented. The South Gopuram, built about 350 years ago, is the most elaborately decorated gopuram having over 1500 icons on it. It also has a rather pleasing concavity that you can see in the second picture below.
The Meenakshi Amman temple complex is vast and there are lots of places to explore within and see apart from the main shrines. The pillars are exquisitely sculpted and some of the walls have murals painted on them. The well-known 1,000-pillared hall has a museum of sorts with artifacts carelessly arranged in the spaces between the pillars. They are poorly labelled, but let that not deter you. from having a look.
Of course, one needs to get over the grandeur of the temple first. I was so overwhelmed after the visit to the Meenakshi Amman and Sundareshwarar shrines that what I saw barely registered. It is thanks to the cell phone camera with me that I have a few pictures from that visit and they helped me in reconstructing some of what I saw and also share a few of the pictures here. 
The first time I visited the Madurai Meenakshi Kovil was in December 2005 with my parents as part of a temple tour across South India. I don’t have very good memories of that visit and I have nobody to blame, but myself, for that. The day we visited the Meenakshi temple was also the day extraordinarily large numbers of devotees on their way to Sabarimala were visiting. The temple was packed and though we were in a special line and got a good darshan of Amman, I preferred to alternate between raging and sulking at the crowds.
Appa tried to show me around and point out the more interesting things at the temple, but I was too full of myself to notice anything and looked the other way. Appa gave up after a while and left me alone. Not my proudest moment and something I have regretted deeply in retrospect. 😦
When the chance to visit Madurai in January 2016 with Chennai Pastforward 2016 came up, I immediately signed up for it. For one, the trip promised a lot of live music as we travelled and for another, it was a second chance at visiting the Madurai Meenakshi Temple, a place my Appa had loved. It was time to make up and say sorry to Appa and to Meenakshi Amman as well and make amends for my bad behaviour!
Everything was different about the 2016 visit as compared to the one in 2005. It was as perfect as it could get — the visit, the darshan and my behaviour too. Perhaps, the intervening years had taught me to deal with crowds (which were admittedly not too much) better, for they did not bother me this time. In fact, I was able to tune out everything, except what was in front of me.
I think Appa approved. At least, that is what it felt like when a beam of light suddenly lit up the space right after I had whispered a sorry to him. At the risk of sounding irreverent, I think Madurai Meenakshi, the queen who became a Goddess, approved too.
- To be honest, I don’t remember whether Bharat sang Maamava Meenakshi before or after the darshan or inside at the antarala or outside. I just know he sang this song beautifully.
- For a more detailed and a slightly different version of the myth of Meenakshi Amman, do read Devdutt Pattanaik’s article here.
- Entrance to the Meenakshi Amman Kovil is through the East Gopuram, after a security check.
- Cameras and tablets are not allowed inside the temple and lockers are available to leave your belongings and footwear. Though mobile phones are allowed inside the temple complex, please note that no photography is allowed inside the shrines.
Disclaimer: The visit to the Meenakshi Amman Kovil was part of a larger tour of Madurai with Chennai Pastforward and led by V. Sriram. This was NOT a free, sponsored or discounted trip, and I paid the full trip fees.
MS Subbulakshmi’s House | The Meenakshi Amman Kovil | Memories of Madurai: A photoessay | The two Azhagar Kovils | Pathu Thoon or the 10 Pillars | The palace that Thirumalai Nayak built | Tyagaraja’s tambura |