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Meenakshi Amman Temple: Unique Towers, Migrants from a Lost Continent, and Sacred Marriage Celebrations

Meenakshi Amman Temple: Unique Towers, Migrants from a Lost Continent, and Sacred Marriage Celebrations

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Legends say Meenakshi Amman Temple was created by migrants from a lost continent. Perhaps that is just a story, but the unique and monumental towers with their brightly-colored sculptures of mythological figures could make you believe that this temple comes from a storybook. Once a year, the temple ups its game as it attracts over a million visitors to attend a sacred marriage celebration and a chariot procession for the angered god who almost did not make it.

Ancient Tamil Literature’s Description of the Early Temple

The Meenakshi Amman Temple is an important Hindu temple located in the city of Madurai, which is situated in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This temple is dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi, who is regarded to be an Avatar of Parvati, and her consort, Shiva, in his form as Sundareswara. The present temple was constructed during the reign of Tirumalai Nayak, a king who lived during the 17th century. Nevertheless, the original temple was built during an earlier part of the region’s history.

Lord Vishnu weds Meenakshi to Shiva.

Lord Vishnu weds Meenakshi to Shiva. ( Public Domain )

Ancient Tamil literature claims that the original Meenakshi Amman Temple was constructed around 2500 years ago by the survivors of the Kumari Kandam, a lost continent which may be identified as the Tamil equivalent of Atlantis. According to the historical records, however, the temple was built around the 7th century AD. During that period, the region was under the rule of the Pandyans, a dynasty of native Tamil origin. It was the king of this dynasty who commissioned the construction of the first Meenakshi Amman Temple. The original temple, however, was plundered and destroyed during the early 14th century (in 1310 to be exact), following the Islamic invasion of the south, which was led by Malik Kafur, a prominent general of the Delhi Sultanate.

17th century Wall paintings in the Madurai Meenakshi Temple depicting the founding legend of the temple.

17th century Wall paintings in the Madurai Meenakshi Temple depicting the founding legend of the temple. ( CC BY 2.0 )

The “Newer” Temple

It was only around the middle of the 16th century that the Meenakshi Amman Temple was rebuilt. By this time, most of Tamil Nadu was under the rule of the Nayak Dynasty. It was the first Nayak ruler of Madurai, Viswanatha Nayak, who initiated the rebuilding of the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Later on, the temple was enlarged during the reign of another Nayak ruler, Thirumalai Nayak, who lived during the 17th century. This temple has survived over the centuries, and is the one that visitors to Madurai see today.  

Sculptures inside the temple.

Sculptures inside the temple. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Meenakshi Amman Temple covers an area of 6 hectares (14.83 acres), and can be easily identified by its gopurams, which are 14 in total. These are monumental towers that are richly decorated by sculptures and carvings, which are a notable element of the Dravidian style of temple architecture. The gopurams of the Meenakshi Amman Temple may be divided according to their tiers, and each of them is a unique piece of construction. There are, for instance, 4 nine-tiered gopurams, which are known also as rajagopurams.

An aerial view of Madurai city from atop of Meenakshi Amman temple.

An aerial view of Madurai city from atop of Meenakshi Amman temple. ( CC BY 3.0 )

One of these, known as the ‘South Rajagopuram’, was built during the 16th century, and is the tallest tower in the Meenakshi Amman Temple. This rajagopuram measures almost 50 meters (164.04 ft.) in height, and is covered by more than 1500 brightly-colored sculptures of mythological figures. The oldest gopuram, on the other hand, is the ‘Swami Shrine Gopuram’, which has three tiers, and was built during the 12th century.

One of the Gopuram of Meenakshi Temple at Madurai

One of the Gopuram of Meenakshi Temple at Madurai. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

A Noteworthy Celebration at Meenakshi Amman Temple

The most important religious celebration held at the Meenakshi Amman Temple is the Chithirai Festival, which attracts over a million people to the site. This festival is celebrated annually around the month of April / May, and lasts for 12 days. Various events are held over the course of the festival. One of these is the Meenakshi Thirukalyanam, which marks the marriage of the goddess Meenakshi to Sundareswara, and is held on the 10th day of the festival.

A section of the Thousand Pillar Hall in the Meenakshi Amman Temple.

A section of the Thousand Pillar Hall in the Meenakshi Amman Temple. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Another event is the chariot procession of Vishnu (as Kalazaghar, Meenakshi’s brother) from his temple in Alagar Koyil to Madurai. According to legend, Vishnu was delayed during his journey, and therefore missed the wedding ceremony. Angered, the god swore never to visit Madurai, and settled on the nearby hill of Alagar Koyil. The other gods intervened, and placated, Vishnu continued his journey to Madurai to give his blessings to Meenakshi and her husband.

Top image: Indian Gopuram - Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple. Source: Natesh Ramasamy /CC BY NC 2.0

By Wu Mingren

References

Indian Holiday Pvt. Ltd., 2017. Chithirai Festival, Madurai. [Online]
Available at: https://www.indianholiday.com/fairs-and-festivals/tamil-nadu/chithirai-festival-madurai.html

Kuriositas, 2016. Meenakshi Amman Temple – India’s Dazzling Shrine Saturated with Statues. [Online]
Available at: http://www.kuriositas.com/2013/03/meenakshi-amman-temple-indias-dazzling.html

lewblank, 2017. Meenakshi Amman Temple. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/meenakshi-amman-temples

Lonely Planet, 2017. Meenakshi Amman Temple. [Online]
Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/india/madurai/attractions/meenakshi-amman-temple/a/poi-sig/478720/356498

Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple, 2017. Meenakshi Amman Temple. [Online]
Available at: http://www.maduraimeenakshi.org/

Sharma, K., 2017. This Temple Is Covered in Thousands of Colorful Statues. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/asia/india/meenakshi-amman-hindu-temple/

www.culturalindia.net, 2017. Meenakshi Temple. [Online]
Available at: http://www.culturalindia.net/indian-temples/meenakshi-temple.html

www.indian-heritage.org, 2017. Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple. [Online]
Available at: http://www.indian-heritage.org/temple/minakshi.html

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