Madurai, Tamil Nadu
The Meenakshi Temple in Madurai is the largest and most magnificent temple in India dedicated to one of the female Hindu deities, in this case, Parvati, the wife of Shiva. It may also be one of the oldest temples in Tamil Nadu (or at least a descendent of one of the oldest). The temple also hosts one of the largest annual pilgrimages to a female deity anywhere. Architecturally, it is one of India’s most colorful and fanciful temples, with hundreds of thousands of intricately painted carving details and some of the best statues of Parvati on the Subcontinent.
The city of Madurai is associated with one of Hinduism’s most romantic legends. According to some stories, Meenakshi, an incarnation of Parvati, was born in Madurai, emerging from a sacred fire that had been set for a royal sacrifice. When she came forth, she had a third breast, and it was foretold that the superfluous breast would only disappear after she met her true love.
Meenakshi grew in mind and body, becoming incredibly powerful. Before she was coronated to replace the king, however, it was required of her that she conquer three worlds. In her subsequent quest, she conquered Sathyaloka, where the deity Brahma resided; and Vaikunta, where Vishnu resided. Having defeated these two great deities, she set forth to challenge Shiva.
After arriving in Kailasha, she overcame the bull Nandi. But when faced with Shiva himself, Meenakshi realized that she was in fact the goddess Parvati and that she had met the man she would marry. In that moment her third breast disappeared. The wedding took place at Madurai, and the pair ruled there for a while. A temple was constructed commemorating the momentous events in very early times (it is uncertain exactly when the first temple was constructed here, but it may have been close to two thousand years ago). According to tradition, the deity Indra himself founded the temple.
Records indicate that there was a major temple as far back as the Middle Ages, but this was completely destroyed by Muslim invaders in the 14th century. Construction on the current temple began in the 16th century, and continued on and off for the next three hundred years. Every year, millions of devout Hindus descend on the temple to re-celebrate the wedding of Shiva and Parvati.
The Meenakshi Amman Temple, while not as large as some of Tamil Nadu’s other major temples, is nevertheless pretty huge. It boasts over a dozen pyramid towers, including four huge ones standing over the four gates at the cardinal points of the compass. Like most Hindu Temples, the pyramids and shrines are absolutely covered in beautiful carvings. However, unlike the stark white towers and walls found at other temples, the carvings here are painted so intricately and in such detail that no other temple in India can match it.
There are several major shrines here, the most important being the central one dedicated to Parvati. This shrine is crowned in gold and decorated in gold all throughout the interior. Some of the finest painted carvings of the temple can be found inside. Other important shrines here are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesh. The shrine of Shiva houses a statue of the deity doing a cosmic dance. This is one of the most famous statues of Shiva in all of India.
The Meenakshi Amman Temple is located in the very center of the old city of Madurai close to the southern tip of India, over 1200 miles south of New Delhi. It is open year round from 5:00am-10:00pm. There is no cost of admission. The main shrine may not be open at all times to all visitors. Web: www.maduraimeenakshi.org (official website).
All of Madurai’s other temples are lost in the shadow of the Meenakshi Amman Temple. However, there is also the Thirupparankundram Temple, a cave shrine dedicated to Subramanya.