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The complete guide to Meenakshi Amman Temple of Madurai

If you search online for the term ‘most famous temples of South India’, chances are that you will find the mention and picture of a tall monument that has become the iconic image of the beautiful temple architecture of the south. This is the story of the Meenakshi Amman Temple, a landmark monument with more than 30,000 sculptures.

  

The Meenakshi Amman Temple is located in the temple city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, on the southern bank of the Vaigai River. This historic temple is dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi, a form of Shakti, and her consort, Sundareswarar, a form of Shiva. The temple's name, ‘Meenakshi,’ is derived from the words ‘meena’ and ‘akshi’, which means eyes like the shape of a fish, symbolising the beautiful eyes of devi. The name ‘Sundar’ means ‘the handsome one’, denoting Shiva’s beauty. The temple is a celebration of the divine union between Meenakshi and Sundareswarar.


What is the origin story of Meenakshi Amman Temple?

According to legends, Meenakshi, a young princess with three breasts, was born to King Malayadwaja Pandya and Queen Kanchanamala. It was prophesied that she would marry Lord Shiva, and when she does, her third breast would disappear. After the passing of the king, Princess Meenakshi became the queen and led many expeditions, conquering many kingdoms. 


Finally, Queen Meenakshi reaches Swarga in the Himalayas, where even the gods cannot defeat her. Helpless in front of the valorous Queen Meenakshi, the gods appeal to Lord Shiva for help. When Shiva appears on the battleground, Meenakshi’s third breast disappears. Recognizing that this is her destined life partner, she asks Shiva to marry her. Lord Shiva agrees, and the queen goes back to Madurai. 


Lord Sundareswarar, in all his magnificence, reaches Madurai eight days later, and the divine couple gets married in a glorious ceremony, which is called the Thirukalyanam, meaning ‘the sacred wedding’. As per legends, Lord Vishnu performed the ‘kannikadhanam’ (kanyadaan or the ceremony of giving away the bride) of his sister, Meenakshi, with Sundareswarar, because in the South Indian tradition, Meenakshi is considered to be Vishnu's sister. The divine couple later had two sons, Kartikeya and Ganesha. 


The depiction of Shiva and Parvati is different at the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Instead of the ascetic form of Shiva, Lord Sundareswarar is portrayed as a handsome householder, clad in jewels and silks. The queen continues to be the ruler of the land, and Sundareswarar is her consort. Their divine marriage is celebrated annually during the 10-day Chithirai Festival at the temple complex. Lakhs of devotees attend this grand event held during the month of April. 


What is the history of the Meenakshi Amman temple?

The construction of Meenakshi Amman Temple started more than 1400 years ago, but it endured cycles of destruction and restoration. In the early 14th century, it fell victim to plunder and devastation during the Islamic invasion led by Malik Kafur, a notable general of the Delhi Sultanate. The temple underwent rebuilding initiatives by the Vijayanagara Empire rulers, who restored the temple and reopened it. Further repairs, renovations, and expansions took place in the 17th century under Tirumala Nayaka and by Kumara Krishnappar who renovated the granite structure in the late 16th century. Thus, contributions from Pandya, Nayak, and Chola rulers have shaped the present temple. The main portions of the three-storeyed gopuram at the entrance of the Sundareswarar Shrine and the central portion of the Goddess Meenakshi Shrine are some of the earliest surviving parts of the temple. 


What is special about the architecture of the Meenakshi Amman Temple?

The Meenakshi Temple complex spans an astounding area of around 15 acres, and has over 30,000 statues. Huge, intricately sculptured towers, beautiful temple shrines and numerous pillared halls, known as 'Mandapams,' grace the temple. Built by various kings and emperors, these halls serve as resting places for pilgrims and devotees. The grand entrance of the temple, known as the Ashta Shakthi Mandapam, showcases remarkable artistry. The Thousand Pillar Hall is another architectural marvel, adorned with 985 finely carved stone pillars out of a single rock. 



The temple has four nine-storeyed Rajagopurams or majestic gopuram towers visible from afar, each facing one cardinal direction. The south Rajagopuram is about 50 m high, making it the tallest among all the gopurams in the temple complex. Other gopurams include one seven-storeyed, five five-storeyed, two three-storeyed towers. Among these, five lead to the Sundareshvara shrine, while three are gateways to the Meenakshi shrine. Finally, adorning each shrine dedicated to the Lord and the Goddess are two one-storeyed gold-gilded towers, also known as vimanas. 


Each magnificent gopuram is adorned with intricate sculptures and paintings that depict various episodes from Hindu mythology. These statues, depicting animals, gods, and demons, are repainted and repaired every 12 years as part of the ritual restoration of the temple that maintains its glory. Among the numerous interesting sights in the temple complex, one is The Golden Lotus Pond or Potramarai Kulam in Tamil. 


The temple's main sanctum houses Lord Sundareswarar as a Shiva Lingam and Goddess Meenakshi in all their resplendent glory. The Shiva lingam inside the sanctum is said to have manifested by itself and discovered by a merchant who was passing through the forest. On hearing about this, the Pandya King Kulasekaran himself comes to visit the lingam, and finally builds the city of Madurai around it. Today, Madurai is a city of architectural grandeur that celebrates the resilience, rich cultural heritage and religious traditions of India.

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