(Continued from Part One. To read Part One first, click here.)
By Sharon St Joan
History of the temple
Over twenty-five hundred years old, Madurai is mentioned by a number of ancient writers. The Greek Megasthenes, living in the third century BCE, may have visited Madurai. The statesman Chanakya also wrote about Madurai in the third century BCE. Roman historians mention Madurai in the first and second centuries BCE.
Between the third and seventh centuries CE, the city fell under the rule of the Kalabhras, one of whose chieftains was Tiraiyan of Pavattiri. The Tiraiyans were a mysterious people who had come from across the sea. The Kalabhras’ rule in south India was overthrown by the Pandyas, Chalukyas, and the Pallavas.
In the seventh century, there stood on this site a shrine of Shiva.
Then, from the early ninth to the early thirteenth century, the Cholas, who produced extraordinarily beautiful bronze sculptures, ruled Madurai. Many of the statues in the Madurai temple today are Chola bronzes, amazingly elegant and beautiful.
The shrine of Meenakshi, the village Goddess who had been found in the forest of kadamba trees, was added in the twelfth century by Chadayavarman Sundara Pandyan. And with this addition, Meenakshi joined Shiva in the temple.
However, life did not remain peaceful for the divine couple. This original temple was sacked in 1310 by the Moslem general Malik Kafur, who plundered a great many Hindu temples. Moslem incursions disturbed the peace of south India over the next couple of hundred years, though the Moslems were unable to establish a permanent hold in Tamil Nadu.
The temple was rebuilt in the following centuries by the Nayak kings, who ruled from 1529 CE to 1739 CE.
Rebuilding the temple was begun in 1560 by the first Nayak king of Madurai, Vishwanata Nayak and his remarkable prime minister, Ariyanatha Mudaliar. King Thirumalai Nayak in the seventeenth century also took a keen interest in the temple and added many of the complexes that now make up the temple’s interior.
The world within the temple
A high red and white wall surrounds the temple, and the walls of the temple tank (an enclosed pool) are also painted with red and white stripes, as is commonly done in many temples. Corridors that surround the temple tank provide a passageway along which one can walk through the temple while looking down over the tank through elegant columns. These corridors were built by Rani Mangammal (Queen Mangammal), one of the most successful and popular rulers in Tamil Nadu, at the close of the seventeenth century.
A tall gold mast stands at the east entranceway surrounded by many intricately carved statues. Nearby Nandi, the bull who is Shiva’s vehicle, stands guarding the temple, encircled in garlands and a white cloth.
Inside the temple one has entered a different world, of Gods, heroes, animals, and angels, gracefully cast in stone among the flickering lights and the gentle darkness.
Among the 33,000 sculptures in the temple are an endless number of yalis (mythical lions). There is Ganesha, the elephant-headed God of good fortune who overcomes all obstacles, and Kartikeya, who stands with his vehicle, the peacock. There are sculptures of the heroes of the epic poem, the Mahabharata. The Ashta Shakti Mandapam (Hall of Eight Goddesses) contains the statues of the eight forms of the Goddess Shakti. Rati, the wife of Kama, rides on the mythical bird Hamsa.
There are many halls, small and large, within the temple. The Hall of 1000 Pillars extends along straight rows. Wherever one stands looking down the rows, they are aligned in perfectly straight parallel lines.
One of the charming features of the temple are five musical pillars. As a musician strikes the stone pipes that form an integral part of the pillar, they make a lovely musical tone.
Hundreds of smaller sculptures, displayed in glass cases, which have been given to the temple over the years, are housed in a large hall.
Above the main corridors, overhead on the ceiling are rows of lotus blossoms painted red, yellow, and orange. They open and close as one’s eye travels along the ceiling.
Fortunately, parrots are no longer kept captive in the temple as they once were. Instead, they are now free to fly in the clear blue sky, and Meenakshi is certainly pleased that they are living happily once again in the natural world.
Murukruni Pillaiyar, who is Ganesha, was unearthed during an archaeological excavation and was brought here to his site in the temple. In front of his large form, many little dancing fires have been lit. The fires flicker as the priest gives him a bath in coconut water.
The temple is worlds within worlds, magical levels of existence, glimpsed through the magnificent beauty of the stone beings who are not really stone at all, but who gaze, aware and alive, deep into a world of the spirit.
The Meenakshi Amman Temple, like many Hindu temples, is rather like India itself — enchanting, beautiful, and of a complexity beyond understanding.
Top photo: Reji Jacob / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.”/ Some of the sculptures in the Meenakshi Temple.
Second photo: Iramuthusamy / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / Madurai Meenakshi Sundareshawar Temple, Golden Lotus Tank.
Third photo: Jomesh at mi.wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons / “Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.” / Pillars in the 1000 Pillar Hall.
Fourth photo: Rengeshb / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” / Nataraja, a form of Shiva, among the sculptures encased in glass; he stands with one foot on a demon who signifies ignorance.
© Sharon St Joan, 2014. This article may be reblogged or reposted, provided a link is given to the original article on this site.