Madurai (Part 1)- The city of Pandyan architecture

This was a family backpacking trip; exclusively to explore Madurai, the city of the Pandyas. For anyone who hears the name of this famed city, they know of the Meenakshi Amman Kovil. A typical traveler / tourist / pilgrim would visit just that temple and takes pride in marking it in their travel map of places visited. But what one doesn’t realise is, that Madurai is beyond just this. The contribution of the Pandya kingdom is not limited to just the Madurai Meenakshi temple and can be seen and felt in several structures just around the same city. Also, a portion of the Madurai city has a history beyond the Pandyas too. Hence, our family wanted to reserve this long weekend, exclusively for Madurai. We boarded an overnight bus from Bangalore and reached Madurai at 6.00.a.m. on the following morning. Like some of our family trips, we wanted this also to be an impromptu vacation. Apart from to and fro travel, nothing else was fixed. 

As per me, you would need a good 2-3 days to have a quick run around doing this same itinerary as ours, exploring ONLY Madurai. If you are an art and history buff, carry additional days!

Day 1:

After alighting the bus, we walked around the Meenakshi amman Kovil to find a good hotel. Since this is the heart of the city, it wasn’t hard to find a decent lodge around there. We checked into a hotel that was located just infront of the temple’s west gate. We freshened up quickly and left for the main part of the trip for anyone visiting Madurai. A visit to the Meenakshi temple: An abode of the Pandyan architecture. The entire temple complex is fortified and has 4 entrance towers, one on each of the 4 directions. The sculptures on each of these towers are out of the world. Once inside the complex- you start to wonder which world of wonder you have stepped into. It took us more than 4hrs to finish only a quick round inside the temple and also get the darshan of Meenakshi Amman and Lord Sundareshwaran.

The finely decorated interiors of the Meenakshi Temple
The finely decorated interiors of the Meenakshi Temple

There are a lot of stalls inside the complex selling various handcrafted articles. The temple art museum within the same premises is a must visit. The central sculpture of Natarajan, or the dancing form of Shiva is believed to be one of the Pancha Sabhas of the lord. This place represents the Silver hall and Shiva is believed to have performed the ‘Sandhya Thandavam’ dance form here(More on the Pancha Sabha Kshetras in another post). Also, there are 1000 pillars- all decorated with intricate pieces of sculpture. The dim light used for each pillar adds up to the beauty of the place. The Madurai paintings adorning the walls of the temple requires another post to talk about. I go speechless when I get to explain about the South Indian temples. They are beyond words. Internet has plenty to feed and I don’t want to get into the details.

Inside the Temple art museum
Inside the Temple art museum

After a tour of this massive temple complex, we decided to head out to explore the city beyond the Meenakshi Kovil. A small walk through the narrow lanes took us to the Thirumalai Nayyakar Mahal built in the 16th century. Fine architecture with elegant paintings on the roofs and vaults is neatly presented in a simple combination of off-white and velvet red colour combination. There is sound and lights show every evening conducted here. However, we could not make it.

The interiors of Thirumalai Naickar Mahal
The interiors of Thirumalai Naickar Mahal

From there, we took a local bus to Vandiyur. This is where the annual event of the famed Teppotsavam / Float festival takes place to celebrate the birthday of King Thirumalai Nayak in January. This tank is supposedly the biggest of its kind in the state. With the float festival just 2 months away and monsoon season just passing by- this tank still remained dry, during our visit. When enquired how the event is going to take place in a dry tank, we were told that the water will be fed in January from the Vaigai river through artificially laid underground channels. This is truly amazing how such a concept was laid way back in the 16th century. But for a new-commer like me, the dried lake was an eye sore as it was used as a watering hole by many vandals.

Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam - the island temple
Vandiyur Mariamman Teppakulam – the island temple

Taking another bus from there to Periyar and a small walk from there through the stinking / dirty by-lanes, we reached the Koodal Alagar temple. A quick pooja and a walk around the temple was a nice boost up. The architecture here too, is similar to that of Meenakshi temple. We had to rush to The Gandhi museum as it would close by 6.00.p.m. However, we could not make it on time. This was once called the Tamakkum palace of Rani Mangammal. Today, the museum supposedly houses 14 articles that were used by Gandhiji, along with his sacred ashes and blood stained dhotis. Gandhiji is said to have visited the city five times while he was alive.

Entrance of the Pudumandapam
Entrance of the Pudumandapam

So, we then headed back towards our lodge. But, on the way- we checked into Pudumandapam. This is a 1000yrs old shopping mall, supported by huge sculpture rich stone pillars. The stalls are occupied with tailors, handicrafts vendors, wholesale dealers of pooja related and general accessories. A good place for shopping traditional artifacts at Madurai, and that too in a market that is so old!

Day 2:

We took a local bus from Periyar bus stand to travel 21kms to reach Alagar Kovil. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, Meenakshi amman’s brother. The village is surrounded by an old fort wall, it gives a good view of the green hills around the temple. The architecture is similar to Koodal Alagar temple in the city. A trek of 3kms uphill, though green forests and monkey infested walkways lead us to the Murugan temple. It is one among the six abodes of Lord Murugan and hence important among the pilgrims. A walk of half a kilometer further uphill took us to Pazhamudhir Solai temple. A temple dedicated to Goddess Rakkaya exists close to a natural spring called Nuburagangai here, where devotees take a holy bath. But what seemed strange to me was that the place was probably the only temple I had ever been to, which charges an entry fee into the temple itself. This is where the famed Chittrai festival is observed during the month of April.

The Alagar Murugan Kovil
The Alagar Murugan Kovil

From there, we took the next bus back to Periyar, from where we had to take a another bus to Tiruppanakundram. This was a cave temple at the foothills of a rock hill. It is believed that Lord Murugan was wedded to Devyani, daughter of Indra at this place. Hence, this is also counted one among the 6 abodes of Lord Murugan. Up the hills, is the Dargah of Hazrat Sultan Sikandhar Badushah shaheed Radiyallah Ta’al anhu. Owing to time constraint and exhaustion, we thought of skipping the climb.

Entrance to the Tiruppanakundram Murugan temple
Entrance to the Tiruppanakundram Murugan temple

Other lesser known places we skipped due to time constraints were the Kazimar mosque and Goripalyam Dargah. At the centre of the city is the Kattabomman junction. This is where a part of the old Madurai fort exists. Today this is not more than a public library.

I don’t do this usually, but would make a special mention about the streets of Madurai. Every street in the city has a history behind it: This link to an article from “The Hindu” explains it all- Where moats made way for motorways

This was all about getting around the place for sight seeing with bits of history. But, there is much to say and do..
To be continued……. Part 2 (Click here the read further) 🙂

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