Madurai: The Athens of the East

Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple

By Narayanamoorthy Nanditha

Here is a map. Take it. I give it to you so we can explore together, the city of Madurai in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in India. It is situated on the banks of the Vaigai River. It’s a beautiful river. You can see it from here, can’t you? The city is called the Athens of the East sometimes. Why, you ask? Owing to its beautiful architecture, of course. Look around you! Can you already see the beautiful Dravidian architecture everywhere, and feel history sneak up on you? Every structure you see is more than 2000 years old. Madurai has been continuously inhabited since 500 BCE. The Greek explorer Megasthenes visited the city, and even refers to it in his accounts. The city has been ruled, robbed, raided and pillaged in the past, like all ancient cities. I assure you, however, that the city, despite being a commercial capital today, is deeply entrenched in the past. Don’t take my word for it. If you look around, you will see that the people, the structures and the city itself have remained unchanged. Ah! You ask what Madurai means? Good question. It comes from the word “nectar” or “honey” that fell from Lord Shiva’s hair. So, Madurai literally means sweet!  

We are walking on the narrow streets now. I assume you are taking in the scent of jasmine flowers. Madurai is the city that exports the most jasmine flowers to the whole state of Tamil Nadu. What else can you smell? Ah! The fragrance of the south Indian spices? Do you also hear the noise that these street vendors selling their Idlis, Vadas and Sambhar make? What can I say–You get exceptional south Indian food here. You see the coffee as well–How it falls like a waterfall from the “Tumbler” to to the saucer?

Flowers on sale in Madurai
Flowers on sale in Madurai

That is how they cool it. And how they savor it! Do you see the people? They are always on the go: active and hardworking, carefree and happy. In fact, this city has also been named, ‘the city that never sleeps.” People wake up not by the call of nature but by the morning temple bells. And the restaurants you see now are almost always open. You hear the language that the people speak? Is it not beautiful and melodious? It is Tamil, one of the most ancient languages spoken in the world, and Madurai is in fact the birthplace of Tamil Literature. This is where the language is still used in its purest form. And believe me, it is here that it sounds the most beautiful.

Let us keep walking. Here we are on another street. Can you already see the legendary Meenakshi Amman Temple at the center from here? Oh, you saw it from the other street as well? Of course, how silly of me! I should not even have given you the map. You see, you may not be able to tell from here, but Madurai is a lotus shaped city. The lotus flower is the symbol of the Goddess Lakshmi, and the city has been constructed around the temple. Any and every street, therefore, will lead you to the Temple at the center, of course. The roads are all interconnected and thus, you could never be lost. It makes it easier for visitors like you, don’t you think? The city is designed in such a way that you will reach any of the four gates of the temple at the center no matter where you start around the city. So, pick a street and walk to the temple. From there, of course, you can find your way back. How convenient! Furthermore, the markets that thrived near the temple, at the beginning, have now expanded in all directions.

However, the map I gave you is not so we could explore the physical realm. It is so I could take you back to the past through the same streets to a time where we can witness the wedding of the Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Shiva (Sundereshwar) and to when the temple was built. You would stumble across temples in every street, but you have to remember that the entire foundation of the city was laid around the Meenakshi Temple. Just like the relic of Saint Mark made Venice a very powerful city in Europe, the “descent” of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati (Meenakshi) in Madurai made this city, one of the holiest places in India. If I tell you that it is the second most ancient city in India, you can imagine how far back the story goes.

Legends are many, but one that comes to mind is that Meenakshi was born as “Tadaatagai” in Madurai after a number of prayers and rituals performed by the parents of the child. She came out of a fire as a warrior. She grew up to fight numerous battles and to conquer many lands. Why was her name Meenakshi, you ask? Well, because she was actually an incarnation of Goddess Parvati and when she met Sundereshwar (Lord Shiva) during one of her battles, he expressed how her eyes were shaped like those of a fish. Are you imagining the story in your mind? We still have a long way to go. 

Hold my hand, and we shall be guests at the wedding of the Gods. The streets we are taking now are the same ones that were used by the Gods. Thus, they are the maps we need. The wedding you will observe resembles every wedding in Madurai today and in the past. But the wedding of the Gods will be special, right? Yes, of course. The marriage was the biggest and the holiest event attended by anyone on Earth. Do you see all the people and all the Gods? They have all come together. That music you hear right there is the typical south Indian melody for when the couple actually tie the knot. (You can hear this today in Madurai too.) The houses where from you hear this music, you can safely assume there is a marriage. It is quite loud and lively, isn’t it? And soothing? Well, do you see the bride and the groom? Dressed beautifully, aren’t they? The sari that Meenakshi wears; isn’t that what you see most women in Madurai wear now? Do you notice the Goddess is adorned with gold necklaces that are tied to her waist like blazing sunshine on the sand? Yes, that is how we in Madurai dress. And of course, Lord Shiva looks wonderful too.

Temple complex
Temple complex

If you must know, there are very few temples in India where a male deity takes second place. And Meenakshi being a “Goddess” has bestowed such importance to the city. Even now, if the marriage is female dominated, we call it a “Madurai Marriage”. 

Look around you again. This marriage, this festivity, and this joy represent the city you are in. The city is as good as the people make it. And Madurai is a city of merriment where sometimes you will also find death celebrated with music. Don’t be alarmed. We celebrate life and death in the same vein. Such is the power and the omnipresence of the Goddess in the city. Do you not feel it yet? We are not far from the construction of the temple. Of course, the temple itself is so old that not many know when it was first constructed. You ask me why the temple itself is so deeply connected to people’s lives. Well, for one thing, every household contributed to the construction of the temple. Just the way the city itself was planned after the temple was built, the people too have accepted it as an integral part of their life. The legend says that Lord Indra himself built it. But from what we know, Muslim invaders from the North raided the temple. It was rebuilt by the Nayak dynasty. The architecture of the entire city, in fact, resembles the architecture of the temple. In a way, the temple represents the city itself. It has four entrances and the huge pyramid structures you can see from here. They are called “Gopurams,” and they are the characteristic of South Indian temples. You have seen them all over the city rising here, and there between alleyways, and dominating the city skyline. Haven’t you? And the main shrine underneath which sits the Goddess herself? You have seen that everywhere too? That attests to the fact that you are in a city of temples. Morning, noon or night, the prayers are in full swing. 

You will hear priests chanting, bells ringing, and people screaming God’s name.  People are always in a religious frenzy. Is it too loud for you? Don’t worry. That is only the sound of faith and prayer. Don’t expect the same level of faith from the “rickshaw” drivers though! Or from the vendors! If they know you are not from here, they will charge you more for everything. You can bargain though, right? Then you are fine. And the beggars in this city–They will follow you everywhere. Until you give them some, of course. And whilst you are here, I suggest you go buy yourself one of the beautiful sarees that you would only get here in Madurai. Not to mention the bangles for your hands and the jasmine flowers that you see women wearing in their hair. It is the sign of a married life for a woman in Madurai. I told you before–didn’t I–that the city itself is a map? That the streets and the temples and the buildings are all rhizomes that are connected to each other? That the temple is the lifeline of all the people in the city? You don’t need the map now, do you? You can leave it here. Why take a tourist map when you have seen, smelt and felt the city? When you have created a map for yourself using your consciousness? So, how did you like Madurai, my friend? Wasn’t it beautiful, my city? Now, let’s take a walk along the Vaigai River and listen to the bells that announce the evening prayers.

Nanditha is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Humanities at York University, Toronto, Canada. She studies the construction of feminist and queer digital counterpublics through digital protest in the Global South. She also investigates polarization, hate speech, and radicalization in digital activism.  She is an active member of the York Centre for Asian Research (YCAR), and the York Sensorium. She is published in Digital Studies/Le champ Numérique, The Journal of Social Media in Society, and the Digital Humanities Quarterly.


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