A travelogue of the Pandyan territory

Madurai. There is something quite charming in the name itself though I cannot quite put my finger on it. It is said that the town derives its name from mathuram, meaning sweetness, because a few drops of nectar trickled down from Shiva’s matted locks and fell on it. The story has a nice ring to it, and I almost want to believe it. Another legend says that Madurai was the site of the third Tamil Sangam or assembly of poets, the first two host cities lost to the sea (I refuse to say Kumari Kandam!). While these tales seem to find some alibis in the Ramayana and the Arthashastra, the first clear record of such claims comes from significantly recent texts of the 7th century.

No matter, Madurai is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of India with Greek and Sri Lankan sources dating the city to at least 2,550 years ago; only Varanasi, Avantika, and Rajgir claim older founding. Perhaps it was this suggestion of a connection to a hallowed past that draws me to Madurai.

I had been to Madurai once before. When I was young and foolish enough to be seduced away from the Roman virtues of gravitas, pietas, dignitas, and virtus by technology and modernity. Consequently, I saw and understood little of the town or its place in the history and culture of India. Standing on the Vaigai, today, Madurai is the third largest settlement in Tamil Nadu with a population of slightly over a million and is home to several industries. Well connected to the larger metropoles by air, road, and rail, Madurai is a destination for pilgrims as well as for tourists. In fact, mis compadres arrived in Madurai for our (long) weekend excursion through Pandyan country via these multiple options.

Our first destination could be none other than the Meenakshi Amman Kovil around which Madurai is centred. The temple site is undoubtedly ancient as it has been mentioned in several of the Tamil epics but the actual structure had to be rebuilt by the Nayaks in the late 1500s after the original building met with the tender loving care of Malik Kafur and his hordes in the 1310. Meenakshi Amman Kovil has 14 gopuram, each approximately 50 metres in height, and two golden vimanas above the shrines of Meenakshi and Shiva, who is known as Sundareshwar in Madurai. In all, the temple has 32 shrines but it has two primary shrines because it celebrates the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundereshwar. To this day, Sundareshwar is carried to Meenakshi’s shrine, led by drummers and a brass band, just before the temple closes and is returned to his shrine only at dawn.

Meenakshi is supposed to be a Pandyan princess who married Lord Shiva. As the mythology goes, Meenakshi was born to the second Pandyan king, Malayadwaja, and his wife Kanchanamalai, in answer to their prayers after they had remained childless for long. At birth, Tadaatagai, as the child was called, had three breasts but a voice from the heavens told the royal couple not to worry as the third breast would disappear as soon as the princess met a husband worthy of her. The king was overjoyed and trained his daughter in all the shastras as he would a crown prince.

After completing her education and before her coronation, Tadaatagai went on a round of conquest; she easily conquered all who opposed her until she came upon Shiva. Unable to fight him, Tadaatagai realised that her third breast had also disappeared. Shiva agreed to come to Madurai and marry the Pandyan princess, and preparations were made with full vigour. Vishnu, Meenakshi’s brother, was supposed to do the kanyadaanam but was delayed by Indra and missed the wedding, arriving a day late. Furious at the prank, he vowed never to enter Madurai again. The Koodal Alagar Temple to him that stands inside Madurai was once in the town’s suburbs and became part of Madurai as the agglomeration expanded. When Meenakshi and Sundareshwar found out what happened, they rushed to Vishnu’s camp on the Vaigai and implored him not to be offended. Mollified, Vishnu blessed the newly weds and gave them all the gifts he had brought for them.

However, the kalyanasundari murti and several paintings inside the Meenakshi Amman Temple show Vishnu performing the kanyadaanam. This is a puzzle I am yet to decipher…unless the local deity who presided over the marriage was subsequently seen as an avataar of Vishnu. Also, if anyone knows what trick Indra played on Vishnu and why, I would be most interested to know. One more question I have about Madurai that no one seems to be able to answer is why the town is known by the sobriquet, Athens of the East.

Meenakshi Amman Temple is fairly large, sprawling over 45 acres of land. Apparently, Vishwanatha Nayak reoriented Madurai to align with the temple when he rebuilt the place according to the shilpa shastras in the mid to late 1500s. You can tell, however, that parts of the temple are older than others – the destruction wrought by Islamic invaders was not absolute. The architecture and style are dead giveaways between Pandyan and Nayak handiwork. The temple’s kalyani, Porthamarai Kulam, is famous for the lotus in its middle; in fact, the name of the water reservoir means exactly that – Pond with a Golden Lotus.

There are also several long passages and mantapams that are lined with pillars sculpted with incidents from Hindu mythology. Since I have a thing for Devi worship, I liked the Ashta Shakti mantapam though it gets little mention in most accounts of the temple. The mantapam was built by Thirumalai Nayak’s wives, Rudrapathi Ammal and Tholimamal, in the mid-1600s and is quite recent by Indian standards. Unfortunately, the statues of the eight shaktis are lost amidst shops, shoppers, and sight-seers and it is difficult to appreciate the sculptures undisturbed. Although Hindu temples have always been hubs of commercial, intellectual, and cultural as well as spiritual activity, I was disconcerted by the crowds and the damage they would do to the four-centuries-old building.

Perhaps the most famous feature of the temple is its thousand-pillared hall that actually only has only 985 columns. Like almost anything in India, this too has a mythological reason behind it but what makes it interesting is its similarity to several other tales from different cultures around the world. As the tale goes, a dwarf came to Meenakshi one day and challenged her to a duel. Looking upon his diminutive size, the queen laughed and suggested he fight the general of the army instead. The dwarf agreed and in short time, dispatched him. Meenakshi realised that this dwarf was no ordinary dwarf, that he had magic powers. So she challenged him to build a thousand-pillared hall by sunset; if he succeeded, Meenakshi would have to do the same but if the dwarf failed, he would have to kill himself.

The dwarf went about completing the challenge; with his magic, he summoned stone, shaped it, sculpted it, and polished it into pillars. He built the roof and the dais. Around midday, the dwarf stopped for a break. As anyone who has experienced the brutal Tamil Nadu sun can attest, that seems most reasonable! Upon awakening, he continued with his task. He had completed 985 pillars when Meenakshi discreetly threw up one of her earrings and blocked the sun for a few minutes. Seeing the sun disappear, the dwarf accepted defeat and kept his end of the bargain, leaving the hall forever incomplete.

In the realm of mortals, the hall was built in 1569 by Ariyanantha Mudaliar, the prime minister of Vishwanatha Nayak. Today, it has been converted into a museum and holds several statues, carvings, and paintings that depict the encounter of Sambandar with the Jains. According to Shaivite legend, when the Pandyan king Koon converted to Jainism, the Nayanar poet Sambandar was invited to Madurai by the queen and the king’s minister to curb the growing influence of Buddhism and Jainism. The legend states that the Jains set fire to Sambandar’s dwelling but the latter transferred the heat to the king’s body through his spiritual powers.

The Jains could not cure the king of his affliction but Sambandar could, and disconcerted at being shown inferior, the Jains challenged Sambandar to several challenges and debate. Sambandar defeated the Jains in all the challenges and upon their further refusal to accept Shaivism, the king had them executed by making them sit on sharp conical protrusions that penetrated their nether regions. However, while Shaivite traditions mention this “mass execution,” Jain sources are silent on the matter and historians do not think any such event occurred – the tale was to merely illustrate Shaivaite supremacy.

The most capturing sight in the hall is undoubtedly the Nataraja in the front and centre, on a slightly raised dais. With the lamps surrounding him and the lighting effects, Shiva looks absolutely spell-binding. We simply sat before the statue for a few minutes to soak in the beauty of the tandav-performing Shiva. Incidentally, Meenakshi Amman Temple is also one of the pancha sabhai, or one of the five places where Shiva danced his tandav on a dais and is worshipped in the Nataraja form rather than as a lingam – or more accurately, alongside the usual non-anthropomorphic shrines to him. The Nataraja statue at the Meenakshi temple is plated with silver and hence the stage is called velli ambalam.

What is particularly interesting regarding Nataraja and Meenakshi is that one of the primary Nataraja idols – there are quite a few all over the temple – stands on his left leg with the right leg crossing his body. The legend behind this, as per the Thiruvilaiyadalpuranam, is that one of Shiva’s most sincere devotees was the Pandyan king Rajashekhara who was himself a dancer. Understanding the difficulty of standing on one leg for so long, the king requested his Lord to shift his stance. A more empirical version for those trapped in utilitarian and realist modes of thinking might perhaps be sought in Calambur Sivaramamurti’s magisterial Nataraja in Art, Thought and Literature.

Throughout the temple, there are several sets of musical pillars. Some of these stone pillars also vibrate and create resonance as they are played in conjunction with others. While at first this phenomenon used to amaze me, it seems not uncommon in many of the old South Indian temples – I have counted at least eight or ten temples that have them.

One cannot finish any narration about the Meenakshi Amman Temple without mentioning the Meenakshi idol itself. There is, as one can imagine, a fairly long queue to get in for darshan but a special entrance is available for a fee of ₹100. Nothing adorns a temple more than the idol of the main deity and Meenakshi was resplendent. Clad in green silk, Meenakshi was simple, elegant, and graceful with a charming smile on her lips. It is a pity that one cannot photograph the main deity in a temple but Meenakshi, with her ever-present parrot on her shoulder, is undoubtedly one of the better art works in her temple.

We spent half a day at Meenakshi Amman Temple and it was nowhere near enough. However, such mega complexes are best seen over time, either in multiple visits or over three or four days for half a day each. During our visit, I would not say that the temple was crowded but it certainly was not empty. I am sure these temples were once places where people used to go to relax. Those were also the days when the population of the town was perhaps 25,000 and not everyone was allowed entry; today, at over a million people, the only temples that are nice and relaxing are those no one knows about!

We broke for lunch and given the group’s inclination and the short duration of our trip, decided to skip Thirumalai Nayak Palace altogether and head to Thirumayam instead. From what I hear, the palace is definitely worth a visit – built in a fusion of Dravidian and Islamic styles in the mid-1600s by the same king whose wives built the Ashta Shakti mantapam, the palace has been damaged and renovated several times by its several owners. I am told that parts of the palace grounds and some of its buildings have long been incorporated into the city and only the core of the the royal residence remains.

But to more important things – lunch! There is no problem regarding food in Madurai. If one is not fond of South Indian cuisine, northern cuisine is also available. There are plenty of clean restaurants and hotels. So sustenance and lodging should be no problem for visitors. What will be a problem is the weather – we went in mid-February and though the nights were deceptively cool, the daytime sun was scorching. It was not hot as much as it was sunny, so much so that the ground was too hot to walk on barefoot – we had left our footwear in the car and once we left the temple, even the local members of our unit – presumably accustomed to the climate of their land – had to hike up their mundus and run to the car to get off the hot ground! The temple itself, however, was cool and offered shade in the unforgiving Tamil Nadu sun.

About an hour and a quarter from Madurai, Thirumayam is not a popular tourist destination, domestic or foreign, and unfortunately so. Most people you bump into at Thirumayam’s two historical temples – Sathyagirisvarar and Sathyamoorthi – are either locals or aficionados of South Indian history and architecture. Both these temples, cut out of rock, stand below the Thirumayam fort. Built by Sethupathi Vijaya Ragunatha Thevar, ruler of Ramanathapuram, in 1687, the fort is smaller today than it used to be and has been renovated by the Archaeological Survey of India. We did not go to the fort as we had little time before the sun set and we wanted to maximise the time spent in the temples. The Shiva temple is a little older than the Vishnu temple and both have received assistance from the ASI for their maintenance and renovation. The new work is very apparent as it is completely unadorned unlike the originals.

Truth be told, I was not floored by Thirumayam. That may partly be due to the very high standards Tamil and Karnataka temples have made me accustomed to. Nonetheless, the temples were certainly picturesque, nestled under the rock face. The garbhagudi of the Vishnu temple was huge (compared to other temples) and had a large relief – some nine metres from end to end – of Anantashayana. Vishnu is calming Shesha down, who is upset that Madhu and Kaitabha would dare attack his master. Vishnu’s weapons are anthropomorphised and shown attacking the demons as the gods, saptarishis, and others look on. The relief was covered with oil and completely blackened to preserve it from the elements.

The date of construction of the Satyamoorthi temple is disputed. It basically comes down to an inscription that speaks of renovation work being carried out. However, scholars cannot agree whether the inscription belongs to the late 7th century or second half of the 8th century. The first would put the temple’s excavation in the late 500s while the latter would put it a century later. Another interesting factoid about the temple is that it was not always called the Satyamoorthi Temple. Several inscriptions show it being referred to as Pallikontarulina Alvar or Alakiyameyyar. Its present name is thought to have come from the Alwar poet Thirumangai who referred to Vishnu as Thirumeyyamalaiyalan, the Tamil equivalent of Satyamoorthi. This would date the name to the Vijayanagara period.

The Satyagirisvarar Temple has a lingam in the central shrine and the dwarapalaks are both anthropomorphised weapons of Shiva. What is interesting about the lingam is that it is one with the ground – as this was a rock-cut temple, the craftsmen carved around a lingam emanating from the floor rather than place an extraneous piece of rock. On the opposite wall is a carving of Lingodbhava. Like the Satyamoorthi temple, this one also carries several inscriptions. Some of them tell the story of Thirumayam torn by the rivalry between Shaivism and Vaishnavism. The village changed hands several times and each ruler patronised one of the deities more than the other.

It was dark when we got back to Madurai. Upon reflection, we should have come to Thirumayam in the morning and visited Meenakshi Amman in the afternoon. That would have spared us driving at night as well as see both sites properly, for Meenakshi Amman is well lit in the evenings. The distance between Madurai and Thirumayam is about 80 kms and there are several buses connecting the two. However, hiring a taxi may be the better option if you are pressed for time. The next morning, we had the famed Madurai idli for breakfast but I think South Canara has it beat by a long shot. To be fair, I will grant that our hotel might not have provided the best sample for testing – after all, it is no Iyer mess! We set out for Tirunelveli, 160 kms to the south of Madurai, by mid-morning.

Until I visited the place, I had trouble even pronouncing Tirunelveli and did not know about the Nellaiappar Temple there. A small town, Tirunelveli is nonetheless well connected to major local and regional cities by road, rail, and air. For tourists, though a bit off the beaten path, accommodations and food should be no problem to secure. It is also a very old settlement, perhaps as old as Madurai, for records mention it as far back as the 4th century before the common era. The halwa from this town is very famous but is basically an oilier version of what is prevalent in South Canara – both are quite yummy!

Nellaiappar Temple was a real discovery for me, as I am sure it will be for most tourists – while there was no dearth of Marathi, Gujarathi, Hindi, French, Spanish, and Italian speaking people at Kanchipuram, Mamallapuram, Khajuraho, Belur, or any of the dozens of other historical places of interest in India, the temple at Tirunelveli had a very local clientele. Nellaiappar Temple is about 1,300 years old, though like many temples in the South, later dynasties have added to it in an effort to leave their imprint on the shrine and in the history books. By surpassing the original creation, the later rulers hoped to take ownership of, or the credit for, the entire temple. Within the Nellaiappar Temple is also a shrine to Kanthimathi, the consort. Technically, this used to be a separate temple but was merged into one large complex by Thiru Vadamalaiappa Pillaiyan in 1647 when he built the chain mantapam.

The temple is actually quite big – some 14 acres, if I remember correctly. Tirunelveli is also one of the pancha sabhai, and has the Tamira Sabha. The name derives from the copper – taamirai – exterior roof of the sabha. The interior side of the roof has exquisite wood carvings but unfortunately, the sabha was locked when we were there and we could only peer in from the door. The condition of the wood makes me think the roof is no more than five centuries old but I could be mistaken and the builders may have coated the wood with some preservative. The sabha itself, however, is probably older than the roof which could easily be replaced or redone by later rulers. Unlike Madurai, however, Shiva stands on his right leg here.

Like the Meenakshi Amman Temple, Nellaiappar Temple also has musical pillars – in the Mani mantapam, the musical pillars were arranged such that one central pillar had several smaller pillars of varying circumference around it; there were several such “core pillars” and the amazing thing about it all is that they were all carved out of one single block of stone! The Mani mantapam was built by Arikesari Parankusa Maravarman, the same king whose “ghar wapasi” from Jainism was depicted on one of the murals at Meenakshi Amman Temple. Maravarman is also known as Nindraseernedumaran and Koon Pandiyan, the hunchback Pandyan.

Nellaiappar happens to be, I found out after I returned from my trip, one of the 275 paadal petra sthalam. Basically, it is one of the Shiva temples named by the Nayanars in their hymns and poetry in praise of Lord Shiva in the twelve-volume Tirumurai. And you thought the Alwars made long lists with their 108 divya desams in the Divya Prabhandam! The overwhelming majority of these 275 paadal petra sthalam are in Tamil Nadu, a few in South India outside of Tamil Nadu, three in the north (Gowri Kund, Kedarnath, Kailash), and one in Nepal.

There are several legends associated with Nellaiappar as is true with any temple in South India. One says that Tirunelveli was where the great sage Agastya got a darshan of Lord Shiva, while another suggests that it was where Rama worshipped Shiva for his Pasupata astra before invading Ceylon. This would be the same Pasupata astra that Arjuna asked for on Indrakeel mountain. Seems like the arms industry was well and ticking even back then!

As for the origins of the temple itself, it is said that Shiva once came to Tirunelveli and the four vedas stood around him in the form of a bamboo forest. Thanks to the bamboo forest, the area got the name, Venuvanam. A local brahmin who used to walk by the forest would frequently trip on the same root and spill the milk he had been carrying. One day, the man finally decided to cut away the root and came with an axe. When he struck at the offending root, however, blood started to ooze out. Scared, he ran off to call the king. When the king’s men excavated the site, they found a lingam with a gash in it. Apparently, the lingam in the garbhagudi today still has a cut in it though I could not see it in the dark and through the shringar.

One final legend about how the place itself got its name – a brahmin lived in the forest and begged for alms which he would offer Lord Shiva and then partake as prasadam. One day, as was his habit, he went to bathe in the Tamraparni before his midday prayers. Just then, it started to rain heavily. The brahmin, who was immersed in the river was dismayed that all the alms he had collected would be washed away and fervently prayed that the paddy he had collected remain safe. When the brahmin rushed back to his dwelling, he found that there had been a torrential downpour all around the area except in a circle around his alms and the lingam. The place acquired the name Tirunelveli henceforth, tiru meaning beautiful, nel meaning paddy, and veli meaning fence.

The main shrine of Tirunelveli has a shivalingam, obviously, but right next to it is a shrine to Vishnu, known as Nellai Govindan. It shows Vishnu reclining on and trying to pacify Shesha just like at Thirumayam. The temple has several shrines to various forms of Shiva – Bhikshatanamurthi, Dakshinamurthi, Nataraja, Chandikeshwara, and Thirumoolanathar. Of course, shrines to Shiva’s two sons, Ganesha and Shanmuga, are also present. One interesting shrine I noticed was a two-piece Ravana Anugraha shrine. As you approach, you see Ravana lifting Kailasa; right next to the shrine is a flight of stairs that takes you to a shrine directly above Ravana which holds Shiva pressing down on the mountain with his toe. Needless to mention, there are shrines to the sapta rishis, the Nayanars, the navagrahas, the sapta maatrikas, ashta Lakshmis, and Durga around the complex.

A few shrines stood out to me, not necessarily for their artistic value but for questions they evoked. For example, the Bhairava shrine in the Mellaiappar Temple – does one offer it alcohol and meat the way people do in Avantika? Or is it a teetotaling vegetarian Bhairava at Tirunelveli? If so, why is there a difference? Is it local and social or does the mythology support it? There are, after all, Bhairava murthis that are angry and those that are calm. Another shrine that I noticed contained a Chakkara lingam – a lingam with many eyes. Something about it creeped me out, probably the same thing that I feel about insects’ compound eyes. I have already mentioned the Tamira Sabha but the intricate work in wood you see on the interior roof of the sabha is also visible at the entry to Nellaiappar Temple. On the doorway, as you enter, the arches are covered with tiny wooden figurines. Interestingly, some of these seem to have an erotic theme that I have only seen at Khajuraho so far.

There are several sculptures outside the main shrine, showing Veerabhadra, Arjuna, Bheema, and others that seem to be from the Nayaka period. I found them exquisite, but not quite ‘alive’ as some of the salabhanjika at Belur or Ellora. However, the figurines at Nellaiappar seemed to be done in granite, much harder to manipulate than soapstone as the Pallavas found out in Mahabalipuram. Our in-house expert within the team suggested that the granite used at Tirunelveli was of a softer variety and could be shaped more easily than the rock at Mahabalipuram, though still quite hard.

Perhaps the most intriguing structure at Nellaiappar was the Anwarnathan shrine. It was allegedly built by the Muslim nawab, Anwar Khan, in gratitude for his wife recovering from a painful, incurable disease and giving birth to a son after the couple had performed puja to Shiva. Not only did the nawab build a shrine, but he apparently prayed there regularly for the rest of his life. No wonder the Saudis do not consider their brethren in faith from India to be “real” Muslims…such pagan slippages, cheh!

It was on the way to the Kanthimathi Temple via the Sangili mantapa that I met my good friend by the same name. My Kanthimathi, however, is a dear little elephant. The poor thing was standing there blessing pilgrims for ₹10 and spraying them with water from her trunk – don’t ask! We lolled about for a bit, enjoying the elephant’s company before we moved on as it was getting late and the Nellaiappar Temple was about to close for midday. The Kanthimathi shrine was quite breathtaking as well.

I am quite picky about idols in temples but so far on this trip, I have seen only the best. Kanthimathi’s dwarapalaks are Ganga and Yamuna, and she herself stands with her parrot. A shrine to Murugan and his two consorts, Devasena and Valli, stands nearby. To southerners, this may not be of much importance but Skanda is seen as a brahmachari or with only one consort – Devasena – in the north and a shrine with both his wives would be interesting for those not from Dravidadesa.

There is no way long colonnaded corridors can be avoided in temples of this size, and there are several. In one of them, we had met Kanthimathi the elephant…because Ashwatthama, you see, was dead. The elephant, Ashwatthama. Some of us had expected Nellaiappar to be a good excursion and I had no expectations at all. I think we were all stunned by how much Nellaiappar Temple turned out to be a feast for the eyes and mind. In fact, we were so engrossed in our debate over lunch about whether Nellaiappar or Meenakshi was more beautiful that we could not be the least bit bothered about India’s bid to end its hundred percent loss record to South Africa in the World Cup! I think I may have been in a minority of one but I hold that between the Meenakshi idol, the beautiful fresco of Vishnu giving Parvati away to Shiva, that lovely Sabesan in the Ayiramkaal mantapam – the thousand-pillared hall – and the quirky Nataraja standing on his left foot, Madurai ranks slightly higher than Tirunelveli.

After lunch, we proceeded to Thirukkurungudi. I know, we missed several major attractions in Tirunelveli such as the Ulagamman Temple and Sankaranarayanan Temple, or if you are seeking a bit of nature, Papanasam, Kuttralam, and the Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve. Perhaps my greatest regret was missing out on Brahmadesam Temple and its famous Gangalanathar shrine. Those of you old enough to remember watching that terrible Tamil soap opera, Annamalai, on Sun TV may remember Brahmadesam as the temple in that show. The show was really hard to miss, given that they made over 750 episodes of it; thank the gods that it is over! Anyway, the temple was some 40 kms west-southwest of Tirunelveli but our destination in Thirukkurungudi was 45 kms to the south. There was no way we could have scheduled both in our itinerary.