Sri Meenakshi Temple

The following is an extract from the travel book A River of Life: Travels through Modern India.

The Sri Meenakshi Temple on Chitrai Street is the commercial and devotional focus of the city of Madurai, lying at the heart of its lotus plan. Being in the Southern or "Dravidian" style, the most arresting feature about it is, naturally enough, the soaring gopurams over its cardinal entrances: brash and impressive, beautifully colourful, covered all over with sculpture.

The interior of the temple is big but intimate, a maze of cloistered corridors crammed with worshippers and the idly curious. There are stalls just inside the east entrance selling garlands of marigolds and jasmine, as well as coconuts to offer as prasad to the gods within. They are also selling garish trinkets and small images of the gods. One of the stall holders waves postcards at me, big and glossy, better than any I have seen since Mamallapuram. I buy a dozen.

During the 3rd century BC, the Greek ambassador for whom I have a particular soft spot, Megasthenes, visited the city of Madurai and hobnobbed with its elite. He was particularly enamoured of its queen, Pandaea, in whom he fancied he saw a "daughter of Herakles". He recorded details of the city, its people, its nobility, in his book the Indica, although it was the rulers of an earlier age who gave the city its most enduring legend, the one that was central to the Sri Meenakshi Temple. Anxious for a son and heir, the Pandya king Malayadraja prayed to the god Shiva, lighting a sacrificial fire and making offerings to the god. Out of the flames stepped a three-year-old child, who, to Malayadraja's dismay, was not only of the wrong sex but bore the disfigurement of an extra breast. Prophecy foretold that the third breast would disappear when she encountered her husband-to-be. The king raised her as his own child, a fine girl who came, in time, to conform to the ideals of beauty and desirability as described in classical Indian love poetry, most especially her eyes, fish-shaped just as beautiful eyes should be. In the absence of a son, Meenakshi, "fish-eyed", succeeded her father to the Pandyan throne, setting out after her accession to conquer the world. She bested all who came before her, including the armies of Shiva at Mount Kailasa, his Himalayan abode. When Shiva himself stepped onto the battlefield, Meenakshi's third breast withered away, fulfilling the prophecy, and the couple returned to Madurai, where they ruled the Pandya kingdom and later became the presiding deities of the main temple.

I wander through the various halls of the temple, the first truly active temple I have been in, admiring the sculptured pillars and images of gods. The squat figure of the monkey god Hanuman is particularly arresting. Faithful servant of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, the god is highly venerated in the South. The statue has a coating of ghee and coloured powder, that devotees are transferring onto their foreheads to make tilak markings.

I wander on through the roofed and columned halls, deeper into the heart of the temple, towards the shrine of Sundareshwara, the form under which Shiva is worshipped in Madurai. Non-Hindus aren't allowed inside the shrine. I am shooed away by a sorely vexed doorkeeper who, momentarily lax in his duty, has allowed me to stray too close. He knots his brows fiercely and jabs the air with a go-away finger. Worshippers within are performing a candlelit rite. A Brahmin priest holds a tray loaded with camphor and ash.

I return to Pottamarai Kulam, the tank of the golden lotus at the temple's heart, sit there awhile and read. There are many others around me. Like many temples I have visited, the Sri Meenakshi is impressive in scale and size. Over 15,000 people pass daily through its gates.

Read on...

Read the next article about the Jain pilgrimage site of Indragiri.

According to Jain wisdom, we live in an age of decreasing purity, in consequence of which the stature of man is also decreasing. In the time of Adinatha and his son, Gomateshwara, men were giants; hence the often grand scale of depictions of Jain saints and tirthankaras, the crossing makers of the Jain religion, also called jinas, from the Hindi jainas, meaning victors, saviours who have succeeded in crossing over life's stream and making a path for others to follow.

Go back...

Read the previous article about the temple at Thanjavur.

As the sun sinks and begins to set a succession of tentative melodies sound from the entrance to the main shrine within the tower, played on a nagaswaram, an oboe-like instrument. People begin gather, summoned by the music. It is time for evening darshan, when the curtain is drawn back from the sacred Shiva lingam inside the sanctum sanctorum.

Available for purchase now

Sheldon's account of his overland travels around India, A River of Life, is available for purchase now. Buy the e-book from or, or the paperback from or (also available in other countries, search Amazon for more information).

The first instalment, A River of Life, Book 1: Travels in the North, is available separately (e-book format only) via or The second instalment, A River of Life, Book 2: A Tour of the South, is available via or


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