It would be no exaggeration to state that Madurai is a true
representation of the cultural ethos of India, and of the grandeur of Indian art. Central
to this standing is the sprawling Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple.
The plurality of faiths centered around the Meenakshi
Sundareswarar temple, the splendour of its festival traditions, the invocation of
events from the 1st millennium CE in its festival traditions (as in the enactment of the Tiruvilayadal
Puranam), the association with the Golden age of Tamil literature - the Sangam
period, the abundance of literature associated with the temple, the wealth of
sculpture seen in the temple, the popularity of the temple in terms of the number of
visitors etc. contribute to this standing.
The literature of the pre Christian Sangam period speaks of Madurai. The
devotional hymns of the Nayanmars venerate Somasundarar - or
Aalavaayan of Madurai. The Haalaasya Mahatmyam or the Tiruvilayadal
Puranam speak of the various legends associated with Shiva, which still form a part of the
festival traditions of this temple.
The most amazing feature of this temple is the fact that it is a living legend, absorbing
traditions for over two millennia. In its finished form, it represents the marvelous
resilience of the Indian cultural ethos - (the fact that it was reconstructed during the Nayak
period, after the destruction of the temple by Malik Kafur, one of the
generals of Allaudin Khilji). Legends such as Meenakshi Kalyanam, the
coronation of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar as the Queen
and King of Madurai, still form part of the grand festival traditions.
In fact, Meenakshi and Sundareswarar are regarded as the Royal
Pandya rulers of Madurai; Meenakshi's father, is said to be Malayadwaja
Pandyan, who was preceded by Kulasekhara Pandyan - the legendary
builder of the city of Madurai.
The living legend the temple is - is complimented with architectural and
sculptural splendour thanks to the vision and patronage of the Madurai Nayak
rulers - successors to the Vijayanagar empire. Towering
Rajagopurams dominate the skyline of Madurai; each of these gopurams is filled
with myriad stucco images reflecting legends from the puranas; the temple complex in
itself is a lavish art gallery, what with the grandeur of sculptures in the 1000 pillared
hall, the millions of stucco images adorning the towring gopurams of the temple the
murals, the depiction of the Tiruvilayadal puranam - only to name a few.
The festival traditions here represent a congruence of the Saiva, Shakta, Skanda and Vaishnava streams of the Hindu
religion - thanks to the adept repositioning of the Maasi Tiruvizha in
the month of Chittirai, to coincide with the annual festival at the Kallazhagar temple, when all of Madurai is
transformed into one huge space of celebration.