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.
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 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 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.
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.
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 ! 😛
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. 🙂
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 |