The most well known of Madurai is the Meenakshi Sundareshwarar twin temple, the pivot around which the city has evolved. The Meenakshi temple complex is literally a city one of the largest of its kind in India, undoubtedly one of the oldest. Various kings have renovated it, adding convoluted corridors. It is believed that most of the temple as it stands today, owes its existence largely to the endeavour of the Nayaks, who, descending from Vijayanagar rulers, guided its destiny in the 17th century.
Shiva in his incarnation as Sundareshwarar and his fish-eyed spouse, Meenakshi, are enshrined in this twin temple. There are four massive gateways enclosing these two temples. Facing the shrine of Sundareshwarar is the lavishly embellished ‘Pudu Mandapam’, also known as ‘Vasantha Mandapam’. On each of the pillars, is represented Shiva in his various manifestations. The attractive life-size statues of the ten Nayaka rulers together with their consorts are installed here. To the south of the main shrine dedicated to Shiva, is the temple of Goddess Meenakshi. The structure with its two concentric enclosures is about half the size of the main shrine. The porch leading to the temple is called “Ashta Shakti Mandapam’ on account of the eight Shakti Goddesses figured therein.
There are in all eleven towers to this temple, the largest and most beautiful being the one on the southern doorway. Rising to a height of about 70 metres, this impressive ‘gopuram’ is by far the most ornate and florid of the Dravidian towers. It has nine stories and crowded with grinning gargoyles and gryphons that perch on the ornate curved edges. The surface of the ‘gopurams’ on the southern door way is covered with plastic figures of deities and semi- divine characters, freely sculptured and drawn from Hindu mythology representing the appearance of a pulsating mass of masonry. With frequent renovations and additions being done down the centuries, there are more than 1,600 sculptured figures.
The temple complex is within a high-walled enclosure, at the core of which are the two sanctums for Meenakshi and Sundareshwara, surrounded by a number of smaller shrines and grand pillared halls. Especially impressive are the 12 Gopuras. Their soaring towers rise from solid granite bases, and are covered with stucco figures of dieties, beasts and monsters painted in vivid colours.
There are 12 temple towers(Gopurams). The outer towers are the landmarks of Madurai. They are: East Tower (Nine Storeys).Height 161’3″. This Gopura has 1011 sudhai figures. South Tower (Nine Storeys).Height 170’6″. This Tower has 1511 sudhai figures. West Tower (Nine Storeys).Height 163’3″. This Tower has 1124 sudhai figures. North Tower (Nine Storeys).Height 160’6″. This Tower has lesser figures of sudhai than other outer towers.
Ashta Shakthi Mandapam
Above: The roof of the Ashta Sakthi Mandapam is painted with rich colors. A visitor who enters the temple through the eastern gateway, first enters this Mandapam (hall). It was built by Thirumalai Nayakar’s wives Rudrapathi Ammal and Tholimamai. In this hall, food was once distributed to the devotees who came from far off places. Next to this hall is the Meenakshi Nayaka Mandapa, a spacious columned hall used for shops and stores. This hall has a votive lamp-holder with 1,008 lamps, which are lit on festive occasions and present a spectacular sight. The sculptures on the pillars here relate some of Lord Shiva’s Thiruvilayadals (miracles) and also the story of Meenakshi’s birth and her life as the princess of Madurai.