In a city that has been alive for more than 2000 years, it's the street names that have outlived landmarks, people and time

With renewed enthusiasm and an added dose of curiosity, we set out on our second trip down the cramped lanes of the city, this time in the southern part, where once the royal families lived. Around the imposing palace, numerous streets branch out into the other parts of the town – all named after different communities and their trades.

Like the statuettes of dancing nymphs that narrated tales to King Vikramaditya, the poetic street names unfold the history behind them as you look closer. Chithirakkara Theru (Painters' Street) has one such incident to narrate – that Raja Ravi Varma learned the nuances of traditional Indian water colour portrait painting from Ramaswamy Naicker, a known painter of that time in the city.

Tucked between East Marret and East Masi Streets, the Chithirakkara Street was once the home of portrait painters and those specialising in temple art. According to N. Sulaimaan, retired Assistant Director, Regional Centre for Art and Culture, painters of Madurai were well known for their expertise. Today, the long, narrow stretch is filled with wholesale jaggery merchants and there's nothing left of its glory.

“Around 300 painter families flourished under the patronage of Naick rulers,” says J. Fathima, a retired Tamil professor. “But there was only one painter family left, when I visited the street in 1981 for my thesis on Madurai street names. The members of these families should have changed their profession after the entry of photography.”

Next to the street is Sayakkara Theru (Dyers' Street), where colours and paints were prepared. This has also become a commercial place. But Ezhuthanikkara Theru, Alavukkara Theru and Thennolaikara Theru still remain residential areas.

Document writers and makers of writing tools occupied Ezhuthanikkara Theru, branching out from Chinnakadai Theru, which cuts across South Masi Street. “In those days people used iron stylus to write on the palm leaves. Schools must have purchased the writing tools from this street,” says Ms. Fathima.

An adjacent lane called ‘Thennolaikara Theru' once thrived with basket and pandal weaving (made of coconut leaves). A number of streets are named after various occupations, such as Kadailakkara Theru, Uppukara Theru and Mettukara Theru.

The layout of these lanes suggests that people involved in related occupations must have lived in adjacent colonies. Farmers must have thrashed grains at Punjamettu Theru and sold hay on Vaikolkara Theru, while the grain must have been measured at the Alavukkara Theru.

Crowded settlements around the Mahal area indicate that people migrated to Madurai predominantly from the south. Correspondingly, the South Gate is still an active trading pocket.

“No doubt Madurai was tagged as ‘thoonga nagaram' (the city that never sleeps), as there were day and night markets (Naalangadi and Allangadi) even in those days,” says C. Santhalingam, Secretary, Pandyanadu Centre for Historical Research.

Pilgrims, who entered the city from the south, passed through the present Meenakshi Kovil Theru, a narrow lane connecting the Venkalakadai Theru-South Avani Moola Street junction with East Chithirai Street, to reach the temple. According to Ms. Fathima, the street was once lined with roadside eateries for the convenience of the pilgrims and hence was previously known as Sothukadai Theru.

Towards the central part of the town, around the temple, the street names take a different form, signifying religious and puranic influence.

Annakuzhi Mandapam Theru, near the West Tower, is named after a ‘thiruvilaiyadal' (divine sport) of Lord Shiva. According to the temple history the Annakuzhi Mandapam on the lane was constructed a century before the time of King Thirumalai Naick.

“The façade of the mandapam is now the two-storey Birla Vishram (a rest house),” says Ms. Fathima.

Ezhukadal Theru is another stretch that refers to thiruvilaiyadal. Connecting East Masi Street with Pudumandapam, the Ezhukadal Theru is said to be a tank that was connected with the Lotus Tank of the Meenakshi Temple. “During the eighties, a water channel was discovered in the place where the Nandi stands today,” says N. Sulaimaan. “Thirumalai Naick built Pudumandapam in such a way that excess water from the temple tank flowed around the central mandapam and drained into the Ezhukadal teppam.” Today, except for the small Kanchanamala Temple, there is no trace of the tank. A huge shopping complex stands in its place. Valayalkara Theru and Puttuthoppu are other places named after thiruvilayadal episodes.

Landmarks have changed, people who lived in these lanes are no more and the trades have shifted to the outskirts of the town but the street names still sing the old songs of Madurai.

(To be continued)

LEGENDS BEHIND THE LANES:

Annakuzhi Mandapam Theru:A fat demon called ‘Kundotharan' came for the wedding of Shiva and Meenakshi and the wedding feast wasn't enough to satiate his hunger. Food was served to him in a huge pit. The whole episode used to be enacted at the mandapam during Thiruvilayadal festival.

Ezhukadal Theru:Kanchanamala, the mother of Goddess Meenakshi, wished to bathe in the seven seas to attain ‘Moksha'. Hearing this, Lord Shiva brought waters from the seven seas into a tank for her. A few decades back, the Ezhukadal Tank was closed.

Valavikara Theru:Lord Shiva came disguised as a bangle seller and relieved the bangle traders of a curse.

Puttuthoppu:The name refers to the play in which Lord Shiva becomes a coolie to taste the ‘puttu' made by an old devotee.

TIDBITS:

Manjanakara Theru branches out of South Masi Street and is named after a group of people whose job was to provide Manjanam, a mixture of turmeric, sandal paste and other fragrances, for daily pujas in the temple.

Sudam Samiyar Sandhu is a south-facing by-lane branching out from Sambandamoorthy Street on the West Masi Street. According to J. Fathima, the lane is named after the priest at the Pillayar Temple of the lane. He used to provide camphor to the Meenakshi Temple and a trust established by him seems to be continuing the work.

Thalavai Theru is the street that leads to the East Tower of the temple. ‘Thalavai' is a subordinate to the king and mostly Brahmins held the post during Naick regime. The present street is supposed to be the Thalavai family settlement.

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