NE OF SOUTH INDIA great temple towns, Misadsurai ynonymous with the celebrated Minakshi Temple. This ancient city on the banks of the Vaigai river I has, over the centuries, been a rich repository of Tamil culture. Some 2,000 years ago, it hosted the famous Sangams (gatherings of writers and poets), which were to provide Tamil literature with some of its most enduring works. From the 7th to 13th centuries, as the capital of the Pandyas, it saw art and trade with Rome and China flourish. It later became part of the Vijayanagar Empire, and was the Nayaka capital in the 16th-17th centuries. Today, religion and culture remain a vibrant part of the city’s daily life.
The power and wealth of the Nayakas is evident from the remains of this once grand palace, built by Thirumalai Nayaka in 1636. The building, with its interesting Islamicinfluences, was partially restored in the 19th century by Lord Napier, governor of Madras between 1866 and 1872. Today, only the spacious rectangular courtyard calledthe Swarga Vilasam (“Heavenly Pavilion”) and a few adjoining buildings survive, their awesome scale evoking the grandeur of a vanished era. The courtyard measures 3,900 sq m (41,979 sq ft), and is surrounded by massive circular pillars. To its west lies the Throne Chamber, a vast room with a raised, octagonal dome. This room leads to the Dance Hall, which now houses a display of archaeological objects.
Madurai great tank is another marvel attributed to Thirumalsi Nayaka. The square tank has steps, flanked by animal- and bird-shaped balustrades, leading down to the rippling waters. This is the venue of the annual Theppam (Float) festival, celebrating the marriage of Shiva and Minakshi, when their images are taken in illuminated boats to the small pavilion in the centre of the tank.
Kadal Alagar Temple
One of the 108 sacred Vaishnavite shrines, this glorious temple has three superimposed sanctuaries, of diminishing size, husing Lord Vishnu. From bottom to top, the images show Vishnu in the seated, standing andreclining position. The outer wall has beautiful sculptures and stone screens.
Tombs of the Madurai Sultans
The sultans of Madurai ruled the city after the invasion in 1310 by Malik Kafur, a general of Alauddin Khilji. They lie buried to the north of the city. The complex includes Alauddin’s Mosque, with its flat-roofed prayer hall and tapering octagonal towers, and the tomb of a local Sufi saint, Bara Mastan Dada, built in the 16th century.
ENVIRONS: Thiruparan kunram, 6 km (4 miles) southwest of Madurai, is asmall town known for its sacred granite hill. Regarded one of the six sacred bodes of Murugan, the son Shiva, the hill was the sitehis marriage to Devayani, e daughter of Indra. There s a rock-cut temple here, built by the Pandyas in the8th century. The temple isapproached through a series of 17th- and 18th -century mandapa , at ascending levels, linked by stone steps. The entrance mandapa has typical Nayaka period pillars with horse and yali riders, while portraits of Nayaka rulers are carved on the columns. The temple’s mainsanctum contains five shrines.
The 14-day temple festival, in March/April, celebrates the victory of Mumgan over thedemon Duran, his coronation, and his subsequent marriageto Devayani. The temple at Alagarkoil, 12 km (7 miles) north of Madurai, is dedicated to Kallalagar, a form of Vishnu who is regarded as Minakshi’s brother. According to legend, when Kallalagar went to give his sister in marriage to Dundareshvara, he stayed on the banks of the Vaigai river during the ceremony. This event is celebrated every year, in April/May. On the summit of the hill is Palamudircholai, the last of the six abodes of Murugan, marked by a shrine, while further away is Nupura Ganga, a perennial spring, used for all rituals in the temple, and believed to have emerged from Vishnu’s ankle.