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One of South India's biggest, busiest pilgrimage sites, attracting up to 15,000 devotees a day, this sprawling temple, always undergoing renovation and repairs, is a place of intense spiritual activity. A 6m-high (20-ft.) wall surrounds the complex, and 12 looming goparums (pyramidal gateways) -- the most impressive in south India, with the four highest reaching 46m (151 ft.) -- mark the various entrances. Garish stucco gods, demons, beasts, and heroes smother these towers in a writhing, fascinating mass of symbolism, vividly painted in a riot of bright Disneyesque colors -- these are repainted every 12 years and currently (painted in 2008) looking absolutely gorgeous. Traditionally, entrance to the complex is through the eastern Ashta Shakti Mandapa, a hall of pillars graced by sculptural representations of the goddess Shakti in her many aspects, and devotees then perambulate in a clockwise direction but you are welcome to enter through any gate (the northern gate is quieter, and you can see the houses of the priests, some 50 of whom are in the temple's employ, and live communally in the humble lane leading up to the gate), and then wander at will. Adjacent to the mandapa is Meenakshi Nayaka Mandapa, where pilgrims purchase all manner of devotional paraphernalia and holy souvenirs. Near the inner gate, a temple elephant earns her keep by accepting a few rupees' donation in exchange for the usual blessing -- bestowed with a light tap of her dexterous trunk (note that if you wish to photograph her you would do well to donate a few rupees rather than just take a photograph and irritate her mahout). From here you can wander in any direction, finding your way at some stage to the impressive 16th-century Hall of a Thousand Pillars. This hall (or museum, as it is also called) has 985 elegantly sculpted columns, including a set of "musical pillars" that produce the seven Carnatic musical notes when tapped (a ticket officer will gladly demonstrate in exchange for a tip).

All around the complex of shrines and effigies, various pujas (prayers) and rituals are conducted as spontaneous expressions of personal, elated devotion, or under the guiding hand of the bare-chested Brahmin priest (also identified by their shaved foreheads, long hair tied in a knot, three horizontal stripes of ash on their forehead, signifying that they are Shaivite and brass trays with camphor and ash offerings). Layer upon layer of ghee and oil have turned surfaces of many of the statues smooth and black, with daubs of turmeric and vermilion powder sprinkled on by believers seeking blessings and hope.

At the heart of the complex are the sanctums of the goddess Meenakshi (Parvati) and of Sundareshvara (Shiva). What often eludes visitors to the heaving temple at Madurai is the city's deeply imbedded cult of fertility; behind the reverence and severity of worship, the Meenakshi Temple is a celebration of the divine union of the eternal lovers, represented symbolically at around 8:30pm (could be earlier or later; ask on the day) when they are ceremoniously carried (a ritual you can observe until they enter the inner sanctum, which is off-limits to non-Hindus) before Shiva is deposited in the Meenakshi's chamber (whose nose ring is even removed so as not to get in the way), retired for an evening of celestial fornication. This is the time to head

for the stairs around the great tank, where devotees gather to chat and relax at the end of the day. Many of the groups of people you see sitting around are in fact arranging their own unions; the temple is a place where men and women of marriageable age are presented to families.

Temple Tips:

  • Dress sensibly: Visitors, both male and female, must be discreetly dressed to gain access -- no exposed shoulders or bare midriffs or legs.
  • Get a guide: For your first visit it is highly recommended that you do so accompanied by a good guide. We recommend you contact and book a visit with the knowledgeable, eloquent Rishi before even leaving (mobile tel. 9843065687 or rishiguide@yahoo.co.in).
  • Temple times: After visiting with a guide, go back just to wander around and enjoy the atmospheric scenes; serious photographers will also get very different photographs at various times of the day. A visit at the end of the day (around 8:30 or 9pm) when the divine couple is put to bed is recommended.
  • Photographers take note: The taking of photographs must be discreet. People are here to worship and any form of intrusion by Westerners taking photographs is rude.
  • Seeing it from above: Most of the souvenir shops in the vicinity of the temple will invite you to "come see temple view free only looking," and once inside it's quite hard to extricate yourself without purchasing something. The exception to this is Meenakshi Treasures, a government-recognized export house, on 30 North Chitrai St. (tel. 0452-263-0986). They also have lovely goods if you wish to browse.