Sunday, 21 October 2012

Minäkshi-Sundareswara Temple, Madurai

Ménäkñé-Sundareçwara Temple, Madurai

Period & Builder
The Ménäkñé-Sundareçwara Temple built by Kulasekhara Pandyan of the ancient Pandyan dynasty is the biggest Temple in Tamil Nadu, and is a superb example of the Dravida School of temple-architecture. The origin of the Temple goes back to legendary times. Only a shrine of Lord Shiva was existing in 7th century. The shrine of Çré Ménäkñé  was built during the reign of Chadayavarman Sundara Pandyan in 12th century. The entire credit for making the Temple as splendid as it is today goes to the Nayakas who ruled Madurai from 16th to 18th century, considered as the golden period of Madurai. The largest expansion was during the reign of Tirumalä Näyak (1623-59 CE). He was the best of the Näyakas of Madurai.

Madurai’s history can be divided into roughly four periods, beginning over 2,000 years ago, when it was the capital of the Pandyan kings. In the 4th century BCE, the city was known to the Greeks via Meghasthenes, their ambassador to the court of Chandragupta Maurya. In the 10th century CE, Madurai was taken by the Chola Emperors. It remained in their hands until the Pandyas briefly regained their independence, in the 12th century, only to lose it again in the 14th century to Muslim invaders under Malik Kafur, a general in the service of the Delhi Sultanate. Malik Kafur established his own dynasty here, which in turn, was overthrown by the Hindu Vijayanagar Kings of Hampi. After the fall of Vijayanagar in 1565 CE, the Nayakas ruled Madurai for around 200 years (considered the golden age of Madurai) until 1781 CE. Designed in 1560 CE by Viswanath Nayaka, the present temple was substantially built during the reign of Tirumalä Näyaka (1623-1655 CE), and Madurai became the cultural centre of the Tamil people, playing an important role in the development of the Tamil language.

Subsequently, Madurai passed into the hands of the British East India Company, which took over the revenues of the area, after the wars of the Carnatic in 1781 CE.

The temple town of Madurai is one of the most ancient heritage sites of India, truly reflective of the cultural ethos of India. Madurai is closely associated with the literary wealth of Classical and modern Tamil. The crowning glory of this historic city is the sprawling Ménäkñé-Sundareçwara Temple. Four of the six major streams of the indigenous system of beliefs as codified by Ädi Çaìkaräcärya (Çaivism, Çaktism, Vaiñëvism and worship of Skanda) meet this historic city during festive occasions, when the entire region is transformed into a vast space of celebration.

There are four entrances to the temple, which occupies six hectares. It has 12 towers, ranging in height from 45 to 50 metres, and 4 outer-rim nine-tiered gopurams, the tallest of which is the Southern Rajagopuram. The Hall of 1,000 columns actually has 985.

Chronological details of the Räjagopurams
The Eastern Rajagopuram (153 feet), built by Maravarman Sundara Pandyan (1216-1238 CE) is the oldest.
The Western Rajagopuram was built by Parakrama Pandyan in 14th century.
The Southern Rajagopuram (160 feet) was constructed by Sevvanti Murty Chettiar in 1559 CE. It is 9-storeyed and has 1511 sculptures.
The ‘Thousand-pillared Hall’ (985 actually) was constructed during the reign of Viswanath Nayak in 1569 CE.
The ‘Golden Lotus Tank’ (length 240 feet x width 165 feet) was built in 1636 CE.

Famous Gopurams*
Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple
240 feet
Arunachaleswara Temple

217 feet

Ekambareswara Temple

194 feet

Sri Andal Temple
192 feet

Southern Rajagopuram of Minakshi
-1511 sculptures
Sevvanti Murty Chettiar in 1559 CE
Eastern Rajagopuram of Minakshi

153 feet
Sundara Pandyan
Sarangapani Temple
146 feet


134 feet


126 feet

*Why do I give this Table every time. So that each write-up is independent, and one can visualise immediately.

The deity here is Çré Ménäkñé (meaning fish-eyed), an aspect of Goddess Parvati and her consort Lord Sundareçwara, an aspect of Lord Çiva. They are enshrined in this twin Temple. Çré Ménäkñé stands with a parrot on her right hand (not to be mistaken with a similar form of Aëòal with a parrot on her left hand) radiating feminine grace. 

Sri Minakshi has the parrot on her right hand

Sri Andal has the parrot on her left hand

Ménäkñé is conceived here as Universal Mother in her loving mood. Çré Sundareçwara’s shrine is in the other part of the complex.

Temple architecture/style/specialty
The Temple covers an area of seventeen acres. It has four Rajagopurams – gateways, in each of the four directions – East, West, North and South. The Eastern Rajagopuram built by Maravarman Sundara Pandyan (1216-1238 CE) is the oldest and rises to 153 feet. The Western Rajagopuram was built by Parakrama Pandyan in 14th century. Among the eleven gopurams in the temple, the largest and the best of them is the Southern Rajagopuram rising to a height of 160 feet with a parabolic curves at the sides. It was constructed by Sevvanti Chettiar in 16th century. The lofty base and the concave curves of the whole structure tend to give it a soaring quality greater than what its height suggests. The surface is pulsating mass of masonry, covered all over with plastic figures of deities and celestial characters freely drawn from inexhaustible treasure house of Hindu pantheon. The North Rajagopuram otherwise known as mottai gopuram is modest without any striking artistic work.

There are also smaller gopurams that add to the beauty of the temple-complex. The gopurams include four nine-tiered, four seven-tiered, five five-tiered, two two-tiered and two gold-covered-tiers, a total of 17 gopurams.

There are five vimanas over the sanctum of the Lord, and three over the sanctum of the Çré Ménäkñé.

Outside the sanctum are some great sculptures, including one that depicts Çré Ménäkñé’s wedding with Çiva, with Lord Viñëu (considered her brother) giving away the bride.

The Ménäkñé Nayakar Maëòapam is famous for its 110 pillars carrying the figures Yali, a peculiar animal with a lion’s body and an elephant’s head.

The ‘Thousand-Pillar Maëòapam’ actually contains 985 pillars, including few musical pillars, each one producing a different musical note when struck. Viewed from any angle, these pillars appear to be in a straight line (Like Diwan-e-am in Red Fort). The ‘Thousand-Pillared Hall’ is sort of a museum. In the Velliambalam, Lord Nataraja is seen in the dancing posture with his right foot raised. Usually, Nataraja is depicted as dancing with his left foot raised. The dance is known as Jïänasundara Täëòavam.

The ‘Golden Lotus Tank’ within the Temple-complex has its own story. It is said that the ancient Tamil Academy judged the worth of any work of literature presented before it, by throwing it into ‘The Lotus Tank’ here. Only those that did not sink were considered worthy of attention.

Although razed to ground, the Madurai Ménäkñé-Sundareçwara Temple was rebuilt with amazing resilience by the Nayaka rulers who ruled Madurai from 16th to 18th century of Madurai.

Madurai is a city of festivals. The most important festival is the Ménäkñé-Sundareçwara wedding on Chitra-Purnima day (April-May).

Of all the temples documented so far, Madurai was the second most difficult (first being Mahabalipuram. The Temple-Complex is so vast, it requires repeated visits to comprehend the basic structure and lay out. My problem was to distinguish the four Räjagopurams. It took two visits (2008 and 2009) and four years to document above (basics). I write only what I have understood and digested.

Work in progress

No comments:

Post a Comment