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Madurai

One of the oldest cities in South India, Madurai has been the centre of learning and pilgrimage for centuries. Spread along the rocky banks of the river Vaigai in the state of Tamil Nadu, this modern industrial city is today famous as a temple town.

The history of Madurai dates back to prehistoric times. Archaeological evidences unearthed from this region suggest the existence of settlements in the Megalithic Age and the Neolithic Age. The earliest recorded history of Madurai, available from the fourth century BC, can be found in the Tamil and Greek documents. Madurai also finds mention in many ancient texts and especially the Puranas, where sage Agastya eulogizes the greatness and glory of the city.

The city of Madurai has been ruled by various dynasties. The Cholas took over the city in the 10th century AD. The Pandyas regained control in the 12th century AD, only to loose it again to the invaders under Malik Kafur. In 1364, the Vijayanagar kingdom was established with the overthrowing of the dynasty established by Malik Kafur. The Nayaks, who were the local governors of Madurai, took over the city after the fall of the Vijayanagar kingdom in 1565 and ruled it till 1781. It was during this period that Madurai reached its cultural zenith. The city was taken over by the British East India Company in 1801.

The summers in Madurai can get very hot with the with temperature going up to around the 40°C. Winters are the best season to visit the city, as the daytime temperature is around 20°C making it pleasant for all excursions.

Sightseeing:

Meenakshi Temple :

One of the most important places of Hindu pilgrimage, the Meenakshi-Sundareswarar temple is located at the heart of the city and is the hub of the religious and cultural life of the city. Built by Kulasekara Pandya in the pre-Christian era, the temple was in ruins before it was rebuilt by Tirumalai Nayak. Spread over six hectares, the temple is an outstanding example of Vijayanagar temple architecture. The temple has four entrances to it and its gopurams (large gateways) and mandapams (multi-pillared halls) are covered from top to bottom in a profusion of multi-coloured images of gods, goddesses, animals and mythical figures. The southern gopuram, which is about 48.4-metre-high is the most spectacular of all gopurams, and has over 1,500 sculptures. You can even climb the gopuram to get a panoramic view of the city. The sculpted pillars in the Ashta Shakti Mandapam inside the Meenakshi temple tell the story of the beautiful princess of Madurai and her marriage to Lord Shiva. Legend has it that the princess was actually an incarnation of Parvati who came to earth to honour a promise. Shiva came to Madurai as Sundareswarar to marry Meenakshi, and the two ruled over the kingdom for many years. The spot from where they left for their heavenly abode is where the temple now stands. It is believed that the Sangam litterateurs decided the merit of the literary works presented to them at Portamaraikulam (literally, the golden lotus tank). The manuscripts that sank in the tank were dismissed while those that floated were considered great works of literature. The two presiding deities are seated at Oonjal Mandapam on the western end of this tank. The deities are worshipped every Friday on a swing. Next to this is the Kilikootu Mandapam (hall of parrots) where some beautiful sculptures as well as parrots that chant the name of Meenakshi can be seen. The shrine dedicated to the goddess is just beyond this hall and entry is restricted only to Hindus. Within the temple is located an art gallery. The gallery contains beautiful stone and brass images and some fine examples of South Indian scripts and friezes.

Tirumalai Nayak Mahal :

About 1 km from the Meenakshi Temple lies the palace of Tirumalai Nayak. Constructed in 1523, this Indo-Saracenic building was originally four times as large as it is today. Swarga Vilasam, which served as the audience hall, is the most remarkable part of this palace. Its dome, which lies beyond a huge courtyard and rises to a height of 20 metres without any support, is a magnificent example of the engineering skills of its builders. You can also watch the sound and light shows on the life of Tirumalai Nayak and the story of Silappathikaram (a Tamil classic) here.

The Gandhi Museum :

Housed in the old palace of the Rani Mangammal and dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, the museum provides a historical account of India’s struggle for independence. A bookshop in the premises of the museum offers a good collection of books on Gandhi.

Koodal Azhagar Temple:

Two kilometres to the west of Madurai is located the Koodal Azhagar Temple, an ancient Vaishnavite temple. The temple has a statue that depicts Lord Vishnu in three poses—sitting, standing and reclining—one above the other.

Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam:

Five kilometres east of the Meenakshi temple is a tank called Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam. At the centre of the tank is an idol of Lord Vinayaka or Vigneshwara installed on a platform. The tank was built by Tirumalai Nayak in 1646 and is connected to the Vaigai River by underground channels. The tank is also the site of the annual Teppakulam float festival conducted in the month of January-February.

Pazhamudhirsolai:

Located on a picturesque wooded hill, Pazhamudhirsolai is one of the six abodes of Lord Subramanya.

Excursions From Madurai:

Kodaikanal:
Around 120 km away from Madurai lies Kodaikanal, one of the most beautiful hill stations in India. It is situated in the Western Ghats at a height of 2,130 metres above sea level. The focus of the town is the lake created in 1910 by the building of the dam. You can go in for boating or fishing in the lake. For fishing, you need to take prior permission. You can also take pleasant strolls among the wooded hills and have a look at the picturesque waterfalls.

Rameswaram:
Located on an island in the Gulf of Mannar, Rameswaram is connected to the mainland by the Indira Gandhi Bridge, which is regarded as one of India’s engineering wonders. The town has many temples dedicated to various Hindu gods and goddesses. It is considered one of the most important pilgrimage sites for the Hindus. Sacred for both Vaishnavites and Shaivites, it is said that no Hindu pilgrimage is complete without a visit to this holy city. Apart from the temples, the beaches of Rameswaram are also worth paying a visit.

Vaigai Dam:
About 70 km from Madurai on the way to Thekkady lays Vaigai Dam, a popular picnic spot with beautiful, well laid out gardens. The dam offers a breathtaking sight on weekends when it is illuminated.

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