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Ancient Sculptures and Paintings at Famous Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, India
An Architectural Grandeur
Top of the Tower
Located at the southern bank of Vaigai River, the ancient city of Madurai in southern India has earned the name of 'Athens of the East'. Dedicated to Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswarar, the largest and the oldest Meenakshi Amman Temple is central to this lotus-shaped city and a great attraction to those who love Dravadian architecture. The masterpiece of rulers from 16th to 18th centuries, the magnificent architecture and beautiful sculptures continue to be the source of spirituality and peace even today.
The Temple has nearly 33,000 sculptures, attracting 15,000 visitors every day (25,000 on Fridays) and getting a revenue of Rs. sixty million annually. No wonder the massiveness and grandeur of the architecture placed it as one of the top 30 nominees for the 'New Seven Wonders of the World.
Stay with me to know more about this impressive and globally famous Temple.
The Gopurams (Gateway Towers)
There are twelve Gopurams or 'Gateway Towers' surrounding the Temple and are visible from far off distance. The tallest four stand on the outer walls facing one in each direction. The Southern tower was built in 1559 and is the tallest - 51.9 meters or 170 ft. One can have a view of Madurai city from the top of it. East Gopuram is the oldest, built during 1216-1338.
Apart from four outer Gopurams, there inner ones servings as the entrance to the inner enclosure to the central Sundareswarar Shrine.
Each gopuram is a multi-storeyed building which looks like a mountain of figures of divinities, celestial beings, animals, gods and demons, as visible in the close-up picture below. All these figures give a vivid multi-coloured look to the steeply pyramidal gateway towers.
Some Details of the Figurines at a Gopuram
Description of the North Tower
Two shrines central to the Temple are quite important for the visitors. Meenakshi Shrine has a beautiful emerald-hued black stone image of Meenakshi and the Sundareswarar Shrine is in the centre of the Temple covering about one fourth area of the Temple. Both of these shrines have gold-plated towers over sanctum and are visible from a distance.
Hall of Thousand Pillars
It can be called a wonder of the Meenakshi Temple. In this Hall, called Meenakshi Nayyakar Mandpam, about 985 columns in two rows are decorated with beautiful sculptures. Dating back to 16th century, this spectacular Hall was built by Ariyanatha Mudaliyar. Each pillar in this Hall is carved out of a single circular block of granite and they are so arranged that they appear to be in a straight line from every angle the visitors see them Towards the western side there are musical pillars, producing different musical notes when struck. Statue of Ariyanatha Mudaliyar on horse-back can be seen near the entrance of the Hall
Also there is a Temple Art Museum in this Hall where one can see icons, photographs and drawing depicting the 1200 years old history of the Temple.
Corners and Corridors with Carvings and Paintings
Pillars of Meenakshi Temple are very well carved. Some of these have very intricate art. A few of the pillars around Lotus Tank are now getting face-lift as these are dating back 1623-59 and were not aligned properly affecting the structure. Care has been taken to replicate the original design on these pillars during renovation. It is important to maintain the historical significance of this place.
Pond with the Golden Lotus
Situated within the temple complex is the sacred tank which is 50 meters (165 ft) by 37 meters (120 ft) in size and claimed to be containing water without any fish or marine life. Also called Pond with Golden Lotus, the tank with stepped sides is believed to be older than the temple itself and has a brass lamp-column standing in the middle. The legend is that it was created by the thrust of Shoolam (three pronged spear) of Lord Shiva. Many devotees bathe in this sacred tank on special days like new moon day (Amavasya), days of eclipses or other worship days. This is done to fulfill their aspirations in life. Another legend mentions about judging the quality of a piece of literature by placing it here.
Encircling the temple tank are corridors with paintings. A pillar on the northern side of the tank has carved statues of Dhananjeya and Kulasekara Pandiya. Western side of the tank has 17th and 18th century paintings of marriage of Sundareswarar and Meenkashi. The murals depicting 64 legendary miraculous deeds of Lord Shiva are in dilapidated condition. However, the ceilings present a large number of painted medallions.
All the five pillar towers of the Temple can be seen from one point near this tank. The picture here shows only four of these towers.
Some Prominent StatuesClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Museum in the Temple has a unique collection of artifacts and idols which often overwhelm the visitors. Some of these like Lord Natraj, Lady with a flute, Lord Vishnu. Lord Shiva wedding Goddess Meenakshi and Ravan lifting Kailash are very well known. It has both metallic and carved figures. In fact, there are so many and one requires a lot of time to study those.
Ivory StatuesClick thumbnail to view full-size
Another set of sculptures is ancient ivory sculpture, which are a great attraction for the visitors.
Statues of Three Famous Poets
Meenakshi Temple has been a centre of education of Tamil culture and art. The images above are of Sundarar, Appar and Thirugnanasambandar, three famous poets who glorified the Temple by their hymns of Tevaram which is 7th and 8th century Tamil canonical work on Lord Shiva.
Paintings on Walls and CeilingsClick thumbnail to view full-size
It is not the statues and figures alone which fascinate the visitors. There are a large number of painting on the walls and ceilings depicting Shaivite and Vaishnavite themes. Whole-hearted attention is required to appreciate these paintings.
Have Anothe rLook of the Temple
Others Inside the Temple
Your Opinion About Meenakshi Temple
Have you ever visited any other temple in the world with so many sculptures?
Pujaris (Priests) perform Puja (rituals) as per schedule every day and also during festivals. About fifty priests who are Brahmins by caste take part in Puja which involves sacred bath, decoration, food offerings and waving of lamps to Meenakshi and Sundareswarar six times a day. During these rituals music from pipe instruments and percussion instruments is a common feature. Many tourists take it as a privilege to watch these rituals. In fact, tourists find the Temple humming with activities all the time.
Cow is sacred in India and some visitors are seen worshiping decorated cow in the Temple.
Lighting earthen lamps is also a very common feature in some parts of the Temple.
Also offering flowers to deities during Puja is common and visitors take flowers available in abundance.
Suggested Time for a Visit
It is advisable to visit the Temple in the morning hours (5.00 am to 12.30 pm slot), preferably in the months of October to February, avoiding heat and monsoon seasons. Experienced guides can make the visit more meaningful.