Madurai’s history lies underneath our feet
Below the well laid out streets lie the ruins of an empire
Madurai is steeped in history. But few are aware that much of the city’s history is underneath our feet. Below the well laid out streets lie the ruins of a sprawling empire.
Foreign historians who visited Madurai during the Pandya reign are said to have described it as the city of forts. The fort of the early Pandya rulers (400 B.C. to 400 A.D) and the later Pandya rulers (1190 A.D to 1334 A.D) is located where Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple now stands.
The Vittavasal (gate), situated in front of the Amman Shrine, is one of the few relics of the Pandya fort in Madurai. A part of the fort is covered over by the parking lot of the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple. Residential and commercial buildings stand atop the remaining section of the fort. “The Vittavasal was the Eastern entrance of the Pandya fort. The Western entrance was somewhere near Nethaji statue. The locations of North and South entrances are not known,” says C. Santhalingam, retired archaeological officer.
A street near the Nethaji Statue bears the name of a moat that once existed below it.
“That is the Pandiyan Agazhi Kidangu Street in Madurai, and this shows there were moats surrounding the walls. When exactly the fort was pulled down is not known. But it existed when the Nayak rulers constructed their forts,” he points out. The Nayaks ruled Madurai from 1529 to 1739. “We assume that the Pandya fort must have stood where the police commissioner’s office is located at present. By excavating the vicinity, there is a likely possibility that we can trace the base of the Pandya fort”, Mr Santhalingam adds. “There were Pandya and Chola forts in Madurai. We do not know where all of them are located because of the lack of archaeological evidence”, said R. Venkatraman, retired professor of art history.
According to K. P. Bharathi, tourism development officer of DHAN foundation, commercial complexes and residential buildings now occupy the areas where the Pandya fort stood earlier. An excavation within the city, though unlikely, might bring to the fore several historical revelations, he added.
“Excavating within the city might not be possible because the streets have been formed and roads have been laid over the fort area. The Pandya rulers had trade links with Rome and invaded Ceylon twice, and they brought home a lot of wealth”, Mr Bharathi said. “Excavating Elukadal Street can bring out the trade connections of ancient Madurai. It was a key market in those days, and had evolved into a commercial hub”, he added. The circumstances that led to the destruction of the Pandya fort are, however, not known, experts said. Another prominent fort of yore, only partly visible above ground, is the one built by the Nayaks. The rest of the Nayak fort remains buried.
A portion of the Thirumalai Nayak palace in the city is one of the prominent sites that draw tourists. The four Velli Streets today used to be a large moat which was filled after the fort walls were razed by Collector Blackburn in 1857.