Memories of Madurai: A photo essay

Earlier this year, on the 2nd of January, I took a flight out of Mumbai for Chennai to join a small group of music and culture enthusiasts for a 3-day tour of Madurai.

Known variously as Halasya Kshetram, Koodal Nagaram, Aalavai and Kadamba Vanam, among others, Madurai is better known today as a temple town and is synonymous with the Meenakshi Amman Kovil. But Madurai has rich history that predates the temple and one that goes back to more than 2,000 years making it one of the oldest cities in the country. The city has been the seat of Tamil literature, culture, learning, politics, religion, and more.

An overnight train journey later, our group was in Madurai looking forward to exploring the city and getting to know it better. This was my second trip to Madurai, but it could very well have been my first for the previous visit in 2005 was only about visiting the Meenakshi Temple ! This trip, too, began with a visit to the Meenakshi temple — considered to be the heart of the city and the point from where the city is believed to radiate out like a lotus — before we moved on to explore other parts.

Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India

It’s been a year since that visit and this post is an attempt to share some of the memories that have lingered on. But first, a brief history of Madurai.

The earliest (and contested) mention of Madurai is in the account of Megasthenes, who is reported to have visited the city in 3rd century BCE. Madurai has been ruled by the Kalabhras (till 5th century CE), the Pandyas (5th–9th century CE), the Cholas (9th-12th century CE), and again by the Pandyas, but for only a century till 1330, when Allauddin Khilji’s forces, led by Malik Kafur, attacked and destroyed Madurai.

There was about 50 years of Muslim rule in Madurai before Lingamma Nayak, an emissary of the Vijayanagara empire took control of Madurai in 1380. In the early 1500s, Nagamma Nayak broke away from the Vijayanagara kingdom and became the first Nayaka King of Madurai.

The Nayaka rule ended in the 1730s after which the Nawabs ruled the region till the English took over in 1801. Every ruler, every dynasty left its mark on Madurai but no one more than Thirumalai Nayak, who reigned from 1623-1655. Thirumalai Nayak is the best known of Madurai ruler today .. He is everywhere and has left his mark on everything in Madurai. At least that is what it seemed like to me !

Manohar Devadoss (in Multiple Facets of My Madurai, 2013: pg.128) has this to say about Thirumalai Nayak:

During his 30-year reign, the Madurai Kingdom was very powerful… Peace and stability reigned. The coffers were full. There was a strong patronage for the arts. Above all Thirumalai Nayak became known as a prolific builder, raising religious and secular structures of excellence… Indeed, among all those who ruled Madurai over 2200 years, the one ruler that everybody in Madurai knows is Thirumalai.

Therefore, it seems only apt that I begin this photoessay with Thirumalai Naik, the palace he built, the remains of the palace he is reported to have built, and another Nayaka palace that is now a museum in Madurai.

Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
A relief of Thirumalai Nayak, at the palace named after him in Madurai.
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
Columns and arches at the Thirumalai Nayak Mahal
A policeman looks up in awe at the Pathu Thoongal or 10 pillars, which are the only things remaining from the Ranga Vilas, a palace built by Thirumalai Nayak
A policeman looks up in awe at the Pathu Thoongal or 10 pillars, which are the only things remaining from the Ranga Vilas, a palace built by Thirumalai Nayak.
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
Gandhi Memorial Museum at Madurai. Formerly, this was the Tamukkam Palace of the Nayakas

Madurai is green and surrounded by hills which are named after the animals they are supposed to resemble — Pasumalai (cow), Anaimalai (Elephant)… These hills are scared and have many temples, both structural and rock-cut in/on/around them. Anaimalai has an excellent set of Jain sculptural reliefs as well.

Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
Pasumalai near Thirupuramkundram
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
The lotus pond at the Yoga Narasimha Perumal Temple at Narasingham. Anaimalai is seen in the background
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
A rock-cut temple near Madurai that was once used by Jains, but is now a Shiva temple
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
A row of reliefs depicting Jain Tirthankars on a rock face at Anaimalai.

Madurai is the city of temples and I visited Meenakshi Amman, Koodal Azhagar and Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal at Madurai, and the temples at Thirupuramkundrum, Kallazhagar, and Yoga Narasimha Perumal on the outskirts of the city.

Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
The mural of Vishnu and Lakshmi in the niche, instead of a sculpture, came as a surprise at the Koodal Azhagar Temple, Madurai
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
Bronze icons of the Alwars, Vaishnava poet saints, at the Koodal Azhagar Temple, Madurai.
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
The approximately 12-ft tall idol of hanuman at the Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Temple, Madurai

Temples and palaces were not the only things I photographed; there were a lot of random stuff that caught my eye and the camera as well.

Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
A local bus service. The bright green with the yellow stripe was so cheerful
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
Wall art ! Temple stripes and signs in Madurai
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
I lost my heart to the arches and the delicate lattice-work in the balcony
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
Most old houses in Madurai have a religious icon mounted at the entrance façade like this one. Don’t miss the very Christian cherubs.
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
Surrounded by books and lost in a book…
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
Stacks of Madurai’s local saree, the Sungudi, at a shop
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
Fragrant chamelis (right), my favourite flowers
Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
This man was too proud to openly beg for money openly, but kept an upturned palm as people passed him by

The prize for the funniest, most bizarre, completely out-of-the-place, and the last thing I expected to see in Madurai was a dinosaur, even a fake plaster one. This one sighting made the trip memorable for a completely different set of reasons ! 😛

Madurai, Madurai City, Tamil Nadu, Travel, Incredible India
I don’t know what the dinosaur is doing at the Government Museum, Madurai, and that too surrounded by sculptures !

Three days of exploring Madurai via its temples, rock-cut caves and reliefs, palaces, museums, etc.helped us to know the area a little better. We walked some, lingered and reflected over some, and observed, discussed & listened as well. There was lots of music to accompany the temple visits, as well as stories and legends and myths.

Of course, this wasn’t an exhaustive exploration and we couldn’t see everything in the limited time that we had, but the visit did give me a glimpse, a tasting of Madurai. It helped me see the city beyond the Meenakshi Temple, and was enticing enough to plan a trip again.

Till then watch out for the next three posts which will be detailed accounts of some of the places I visited. 🙂

Update (Dec. 2, 2016, 2.15 pm IST): Based on very valid feedback received from my friend and fellow blogger, Anuradha Shankar, I have added three new photographs, deleted one and rearranged the photographs thematically to enhance the readability of this post. Thank you for the invaluable feedback, Anu. 🙂

Disclaimer: I was part of a group, led by V. Sriram, that toured and explored Madurai with Chennai Pastforward. This was NOT a free, sponsored or discounted trip, and I paid the full fees.

Madurai Series:
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 |

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25 thoughts on “Memories of Madurai: A photo essay

  1. I have visited the three main temples you have listed here, but have to admit that I didn’t have eyes for all the details that your discerning eyes have captured for me. I just stopped at devotion and the deities. this post was like filling the blanks for me and looking forward to the others. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We all notice things so differently, Zephyr. I’m sure you would have noticed something that I have missed out completely. That is one of the reasons I like to travel with somebody — there is always that much more to see in the same place at the same time. It is like having an extra pair of eyes !

      Though this was my first visit to Madurai, it felt like the first. And I hope that it won’t be the last 🙂


  2. Beautiful description of your Madurai visit……such profound history of our past just leaves me in wonderment as to what a marvellous nation we belong to.
    I too visited Madurai with my husband in 2004 and that was to take Amma (my dear mother-in-law) to Sivaganga from where she hailed……and we visited Madurai Meenakshi Kovil too.
    That was that.
    One life is not sufficient to visit such hallowed places ……….
    Thank you for this beautiful article enhanced with your lovely photography.Looking forward to the following ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Vijayaa for your kind words of appreciation.

      Sometimes I feel there are multiple births only so that we can experience so many things and travel to so many places. 🙂


      1. Very true Sudhagee! That is what I too expressed after reading your article.
        A belief and solace for meeting one’s nearest to observe,listen,speak,do and think together what one missed out in this life!
        In addition,last but not the least ‘to observe,listen,speak,do and think’ together that is unseen,unheard,undpoken,not done and not thought of!


    1. Anindya, your words and comments always humble me and inspire me to write better. Thank you so much. 🙂

      We did eat at a local tiffin house and the food was delicious. But me being me, I ate first and then realised that I had not taken photos. And writing about Madurai almost a year after the visit has also made me forget the name of the tiffin house. Sorry.

      But in general food was very good — hot, tasty and always fresh.


  3. Nice post, Sudha. I have been to Madurai so many times, but have seen so little of the city itself. Next time I go, I will try to explore more…. About the post, the narration is superb, as usual, as are the photos. I esp adore that one of the Alwars.. the light, the background, and even the veshtis of the Alwars are colour co-ordinated!! what a super pic! As for the flowers, my favourite are the thickly tied madurai mallis. have fond memories of those from every trip!
    Finally, just one small thing.. I have a feeling that there is some sort of disconnect between the text and the photos, considering your usual style. Could you go over it once more and see if you can add a few pics which might remove that disconnect? Of course, this is just an afterthought, which struck me only because I first read the post and then saw the pics 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Anu. I did feel the disconnect and also that there was something amiss in the post. But also reasoned that i was perhaps over-analysing. I have changed it a bit and i think you will find it better.

      If I had to choose top 10 images from the Madurai trip, then the one of the bronze Alvars would have been there. I loved it not just for the sculptures and the kutti veshtis, but also the lighting. It is so rare to find well lit spaces inside a temple.

      The next time you are in Madurai do walk around in the historic centre of the city. Like most old cities, it is fascinating.


    1. Madurai mallis are the best. ❤

      If I had been returning home to Mumbai directly from Madurai, I would have brought back some with me. But while I was there, I bought and wore some every day. It was heavenly 🙂


    1. I did a one-day trip with my parents in 2005 and as far I I knew, Madurai had only the Meenakshi Temple worth visiting. Now, of course I know better ! There is lots to see and experience both in and around Madurai, so I would suggest a relook at your plan and visit.

      Let me know if your need any tips and suggestions.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Sudha, we have been thinking of a trip to Madurai, and want to experience more than the Meenakshi temple for sure. How many days should we plan for? Must do things? Any tips or suggestions? I would greatly appreciate it if you could spare some time out for an email on this! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  4. A lovely photo essay of Madurai; I would love to wander around this beautiful city.
    Pardon me for my ignorance. the garlands around Hanuman – one is made of limes, what is the other one? And is that a snake at his feet?
    The hills and the rock cut caves are really very beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Neena.

      The green garland is made of rolled up betel leaves. These leaves are considered to be auspicious offerings and you can see this in many Hanuman temples. And yes, that is a snake on the pedestal He is standing on. It is pretty unusual and I have been thinking about it too !


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