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A town by the Vaigai

In the heartland of the South, and at the crossroads of ancient trade routes, historic Madurai has evolved into a premier economic centre. But away from the bustle of commerce lies a repository of legends in the land of the Meenakshi temple. CHITRA VIJI explores the sights and sounds.

MADURAI with its 2,500-year-old history is a town on the banks of the Vaigai which follows a leisurely pace of life. Being in the southern sub-continental heartland at the crossroads of trading routes of yore, it evolved into a premier economic centre. According to legend, Madurai was established in the midst of a Kadamba vana kshetra and his said to embody sweetness; hence its name. For a considerable part of its history, it was the headquarters of the Pandyan dynasties.

Within the present town, there are areas with the prefix kudal, an indication that hamlets existed at the confluence of streams. There were many streams, water-channels and minor tributaries of the Vaigai that created a network of waterways in and around Madurai which fed and sustained a lush forest. These salubrious forests are now to be found at Sirrumalai, Palanimalai, Alagarmalai and Nattamalai, the repository of medicinal plants and endemic species of trees of immense bio-diverse value.

Anamalai and Nagamalai are two striking rock formations, and home to ascetics of the Jain and Hindu faiths. There are inaccessible caves with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions on rock beds which are chiselled out as quarters for the sages. The sages, reclusive philosophers and savants, were responsible for the development of the Tamil language, Madurai, the cradle of Tamil literature, attained further eminence on hosting the Tamil Sangam - an epochal event in the language's history. Records in Sri Lanka refer to this town as Dakshina Mathura, to distinguish it from its namesake, the more famous northern town. Being a revered pilgrim centre, its temples have influenced this city's history and culture.

The Pandyas, who ruled Madurai through two millennia, were a sea- faring dynasty and maintained close links with Sri Lanka and other nations and islands in the Indian Ocean. Back home, it was with Kerala. They established trade, the products being pearls, spices, cloth and other commodities. Imperial Rome coveted these riches and the impact of counter-trade can be judged going by the discovery of numerous Roman coins in excavations at Madurai. An eclectic outlook helped Madurai to absorb many cultures and this is reflected in its present day heritage being home to Malayalam, Saurastrian, Telugu and English in the midst of a strong Tamil culture.

The Imperial Cholas of Thanjavur maintained a hegemony over Madurai. The city had the title Maduraikondan, or the "Vanquisher of Madurai". This led to a period of sullen co-existence and the Pandyas of Madurai wooed Sri Lanka and Kerala to throw in their lot with them to create multi-focal disturbances in order to get back power.

Later, when Madurai came under the Vijayanagara Kings and established a governorship under Nagamma Nayak, the city played a pivotal role in holding together the southern regions of the empire. The development of an army and the accumulation of wealth, often hidden and unaccounted for, from the central power helped the Nayaks to break free and establish an independent state centred around Madurai. Gangadevi, the author of Madhuravijayam, has established that the conquest of Madurai was most crucial to the building of the Vijayanagara Empire, as controlling this town permitted them to hold sway over the heartland in the South.

The history of the Meenakshi-Sundareswara temple is closely intertwined with the political evolution of the town. The crux of the divine right to rule had its origins in early legends of this temple. Lord Siva, as Sundaresvara, took as his bride the lovely Pandya princess Meenakshi, and it is this event that is celebrated as Meenakshikalyanam. In honour of the virgin princess, Madurai also came to be known as Kannipuram. The worship of the Mother Goddess, or Shakti, is personified in the worship of Meenakshi as a loving, sustaining female energy. In reality, Siva, as Kalyanasundara, the divine groom, also manifests beatitude. The Meenakshi-Sundaresvarar temple was earlier celebrated as Tiruvalavayudaiyar or the Tambiranar shrine. With Thirugnanasambandar's eulogy of the lord as Chokkar, this name achieved great currency particularly with the Nayaks.

The potramarai or the golden lily pond has around its corridors the 64 lilas, which delineate legendary and popular anecdotes to do with Siva's benefaction. Into this puranic lore also has been woven tales of the kings - the Cheras, the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Munis and Saiva philosophers and saints like Manikavaccakar.

The Meenakshi temple, as we know it today, covers a vast area and is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, improved upon by different dynasties such as the Vijayanagara and Nayaka rulers. The fact is that the gods of this temple received so much wealth that its coffers were full. The prosperity attracted Muslim rulers. Eventually, Mailk Kafur and his marauding army pillaged and looted the treasure. The destruction the temple was subject to was debilitating and it had to be rebuilt from the ashes, effacing the earlier Chola-Pandya heritage. When it rose again, the preimeter walls were built in the tradition of forts to provide security to the people. In the reconstruction, the Nayaks made the temple their focus and created majestic towers soaring to the skies, offering pilgrims sanctuary.

Ibn Batuta describes the beauty of Madurai in the midst of the destruction, as having a layout and scheme that was centred round the Vaigai. Another famous traveller Marco Polo had this to say about the Pandyan penchant for horses, frequently leading to extravagant withdrawals from the treasury even though they had no clue about breeding. "Many fed their horses with boiled rice and meat and various cooked food; horses die off". Reading through inscriptions, travelogues and the writings of missionaries, one can gather that Madurai was the cynosure of all eyes because of its prosperity and that the treasury of the temple was the repository of immense artefacts and monies of various countries.

The two women, at the helm of affairs in the 18th Century were the Queen Mother Mangamma, regent to her young grandson Vijayaranga and subsequently followed on the throne by his young widow Queen Meenakshi. The latter was unused to the ways of palace intrigue and used the wealth of the State to purchase an uneasy peace, eventually leading to a weakening of control. In 1764, the protector Yusuf Khan was treacherously murdered, leading Madurai to subvert to the British, who made the purchase from the Nawab of Arcot in 1801 "in perpetuity". Madurai witnessed incessant quarrels and wars with Mysore and Thanjavur and tried getting help from Trichy and Gingee and suffered through the 18th Century. The Europeans focussed on developing port towns to consolidate their economic and political gains and paid little heed to the hinterland. Madurai slipped from its pre- eminence and lost its way for a while. Today, there is greater revival and sense of purpose, but this town still exhibits its quaint charm of being a rural town cobbled together into a metropolis.

The Chittarai festival, conducted over 10 days, is one of the most splendid religious pageants. The Nayaks of Madurai were mainly responsible in resurrecting it especially after re- building and restoring the temple's glory. They made this ritual participatory and gave an impetus to the show by reaffirming their coronation vows and receiving the sceptre from the temple, as if deriving their power from the gods.

The spirit of participation is unmatched. People from every village and hamlet in and around Madurai congregate towards the temple and the river. To walk through the night listening to the troubadours and balladeers recreating the heroic deed of warriors and of saints, to be part of the milling crowd of the faithful, having water sprinkled from goat skin bags to soothe tired, weary feet and then to be present on the banks of the Vaigai at the crack of a new dawn to witness the daughter of Madurai, Meenakshi, wed Lord Sundaresvar is to find salvation among the bhaktas. Vishnu, as Kalalagar, arrives on a golden horse and enters the river. Inscriptions and literature of the medieval and modern ages speak of the pomp and grandeur associated with this spectacle taken to new heights by the Nayaks, who bore the title "Chokkanatha" with pride. Passages from Maduravijayam, ideas from the Sthala purana legends, the heroics of local warriors, all are fodder in entertaining pilgrims. They are sung and shouted at a high pitched crescendo to prevent one from losing interest.

As the Meenakshi temple is synonymous with Madurai, people interchange the names. Visiting the temple is the primary article of faith for any visitor. There is of course more to this town. With industrialisation and educational facilities, there are other landmarks to visit. The Madurai-Kamarajar University, for one, has established the city as a centre of learning.

The Meenakshi temple:

To reach the shrine of the goddess, one must enter the temple through the Ashtashakti mandapam and go on through the Chitra gopura which happens to be the tallest tower. It is a landmark. Passing through the Gopuranayaka entrance, one comes to the Swami sannadhi. The temple has pavilions to conduct myriad festivals. One is the Kolu mandapam, where Navarathri is conducted. Witnessing the event in perpetual obeisance at this mandapa are the portraits of Tirumalai Nayaka and his consorts. The thousand pillared pavilion is a huge canopied area and has exquisitely worked pillars.

A number of them bear the iconic forms of Siva alongwith a whole pantheon of other deities like Ganesha, Subrahmanya, Saraswati, Manmatha and Rathi.

These mandapas showcase the artistry of the shilpis. Numerous minor pavilions are aesthetically created to host events like the Unjul utsava, the Vasanthotsava and the Kalyana Utsava. These popular shrines are dedicated to Ganesha - the Siddhivinayaka icon is contemporaneous to the foundation of the temple while the most celebrated is the Mukkuruni pillaiyar, which was discovered in Tirumala Nayaka's reign. The temple madappalli has large vessels to prepare sweetballs as offering to the deity. The quantity of sandal paste required to coat Ganesha for the pooja is vast which the temple does in spite of costs. There is a vast iconic pantheon of deities covering various legends. Above all, this temple has a sprinkling of royal portraits. The mural painting of the Queen Regent Mangamma has her witnessing the divine marriage, i.e., the Meenakshi kalyanam. The Nayak paintings, sculptures and ivory portraits of the royal family are a pointer to clothing styles. Both men and women are adorned with intricately crafted jewellery. Jewellery design was an art that the craftsmen of Madurai understood and executed meticulously.

The temple museum was set up to showcase artefacts still with the temple such as the pavai villaku and remnants of armoury indicative of security concerns in the past that lay in the dark, damp rooms known as the karrulam or the temple treasury. Ritual utensils gifted to the temple that were damaged are on display. Tirumala Nayaka, largely responsible for the rejuvenation of the Madurai kingdom, used his energy creatively. He understood that a powerful army was a prerequisite to maintain peace in the region. We gather that he was a great hunter and liked to retreat from time to time to the Alagarhills and reside within the temple precincts to escape the summer heat. He was instrumental in enlarging and extending the Meenakshi temple. The Pudhu mandapam was built under his patronage. The Swarga Vilasam of the Thirumalanayakmahal palace and the royal enclave were his other achievements. According to travellers, the streets and the surroundings of the place were always crowded. Later, when the palace and structures around it became ruins, the crumbling edifices were pulled down to create a modern township.

The decision has left Madurai bereft of its traditional houses. Those that have survived are privately owned. However, the Mahal has survived the ravages of time and has, through the years, been restored by resurrecting the dying art of superior lime plastering. These have been hand-polished to create the lustre of a marble finish. It is in fact finding a solution in tradition that has helped the audience hall regain its importance and the reason behind the tourist department to convert it into a son et luminere monument.

However, years have lapsed and degeneration has set in. Recommissioning the sound and lighting and attention to ensuring cleanliness will keep the tourist's interst alive. The reconstructive energy of the 1970's that permitted projects to come to fruition is ebbing and a malaise has set in. The central dome of the palace is an attractive feature soaring to the height of 20 m, with its long canopied corridors and pillars rising to 10 m, giving the hall a majestic appearance.

From some of the written records and reports of traveller, one understands that the Tirumalai Nayakan palace complex was a collection of buildings with lovely arcades and canopied hallways. There were turrets and heavy walls created to protect residents. The well-laid out gardens and ornamental fountains created a salubrious environment amid the bustle of the royal household and marked place. Now is the time to denote attention to planting more vegetation. With government departments not being able to restore and maintain monuments and sometimes even temples, finding private sponsorship to achieve thse goals should be the task at hand.

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