498km (309 miles) SW of Chennai; 100km (62 miles) S of Trichy

The holy temple town Madurai -- apparently named for the nectar that flowed from Shiva's hair as a blessing for the new city (madhuram is the Tamil word for sweetness) -- was built by the Pandyan king Kulasekara. The oldest living city in the Indian peninsula, it was the capital of a kingdom that ruled much of South India during the 4th century B.C., and conducted trade as far afield as Greece, Rome and China -- one of the earliest written records of its splendors, written by the Greek ambassador Megasthenes, dates from 302 B.C. Along with great wealth, Madurai generated great festivals of poetry and writing -- the Tamil Sangams -- the first of which are said to have been held 2 millennia ago. Throughout its history, various dynasties battled to control the city. The Pandyas made it their capital for 1,000 years, only relinquishing control during the 10th century to the Chola king Parantaka. During the 13th century, after enjoying a brief spell as an independent Sultanate, it joined the Hindu Vijayanagar empire, who ruled from Hampi, leaving the administration to the Nayaks. The Vijayanagars built much of the temple during their reign, which lasted until the 16th century, when the Nayaks wrest control from the Vijayanagar. The Nayaks invested heavily in their city, building it on the pattern of a lotus, until the arrival of the British in 1736.

Today Madurai, Tamil Nadu's second-largest city, is a hodge-podge of chaotic streets and rutted lanes leading into industrial sectors plagued by pollution and traffic jams and other ills characteristic of unchecked development. The heart of it is -- the streets a series of concentric squares surrounding the Meenakshi temple, forming a mandala that is believed to be activated by the myriad devotees' clockwise perambulations of the temple -- unchanged for almost two thousand years, and atmospherically charged (similar in some ways to Varanasi, India's ancient city in the north). It is a fascinating city, a place of pilgrimage and joy, and in many ways the embodiment of Tamil Nadu's temple culture. Certainly the labyrinthine Meenakshi Temple -- celebrating the love of the Meenakshi goddess and her groom, Sundareswarar (the "Handsome God"), an avatar of Lord Shiva -- is easily our first choice among Tamil Nadu's temple destinations.