The Madurai Meenakshi temple: a travel guide
The Madurai Meenakshi temple in Tamil Nadu in the south of India is one of those temples that you can not describe in words. It’s a place that you need to experience with all your senses. The sounds of the temple bells, the smell of sweets and incense, the sight of beautiful carvings and paintings.
The Madurai Meenakshi temple can be an explosion of colours, but at the same time a tranquil and peaceful place. Then there is the chaos and India’s characteristic hustle and bustle, but also the serenity and spirituality. In short, it is one of those Indian experiences that will stay with you.
The Madurai Meenakshi temple
India has thousands of temples, but the Madurai Meenakshi temple is something special. Of all the places and temples I have visited in India, it remains one of the most impressive ones I have seen.
Nobody knows how old the temple really is. Madurai itself is among the oldest cities in India and ancient literature mentions the existence of a large and important temple as early as the 6th century. In its long history the temple survived several invasions and destructions.
The current structure of the Madurai Meenakshi temple was build by the Tamil rulers of the Nayak dynasty in the 16th and 17th century and is an example of the Dravidian style common in South India.
The temple is dedicated to Meenakshi, a form of Parvati, who married Shiva. Therefore it is a Shiva temple, but unlike most Shiva temples in South India, he is not the principal deity. Meenakshi means fish eyed and in Hindu mythology she was a fierce meat eating goddess with 3 breasts before she married Shiva and took her current form.
Things to do in the Madurai Meenakshi temple
The Madurai Meenakshi temple is a huge complex of high walls, impressive gateways and sacred spaces where it is easy to lose yourself among the more than 30,000 sculptures. There is even a bazaar and a museum, all within the temple complex.
Don’t think a quick sneek peek inside can satisfy you. A visit to the Madurai Meenakshi temple can easily take up your whole day.
Meenakshi temple gopurams
The Madurai Meenakshi temple has no less than 14 richly decorated towers called gopurams. Four of them form the colorful entrance gates.
The south entrance is the tallest, being 52 meters high and the eastern gate is the oldest. All of them have detailed carvings of more than 2000 gods, goddesses, animals and demons that depict stories from ancient Hindu texts.
Insider tip: The main entrance is at the eastern gate, but this is also where the line to get in is longest. The entrance at the southern gate is sometimes more quiet.
Insider tip 2: Remember the gate that you enter through as this is where you need to exit as well to get back your belongings. Like any Indian temple you should take off your shoes, but in Madurai they are quite strict and you can also not bring bags, cameras, water bottles etc. Each gate has lockers where you can leave your stuff
Insider tip 3: There is no toilet inside the temple so make sure you go before you enter.
Golden Lotus pool
The Madurai Meenakshi temple is so big that it is easy to loose your way. No matter how lost you are in time and space, at some point you will find yourself back at the courtyard with the sacred golden lotus pool.
This is at the center of the Madurai Meenakshi temple and offers nice views on the colorful gopuram towers
The Meenakshi and Shiva shrine
For Hindus the Meenakshi and Shiva shrines are probably the most sacred places within the Madurai Meenakshi temple and you will see long lines of people waiting to get inside. There are some other smaller shrines as well.
Non Hindus are not allowed to see the inner sanctums, but don’t worry. If you are not religious you won’t miss much. There is more than enough to see in and around the shrines including a large number of impressive sculptures. One of my favourites was the large Ganesh statue near the Shiva shrine.
The thousand pillar hall
The thousand pillar hall is one of the highlights of the Madurai Meenakshi temple. There are indeed almost a 1000 pillars. 985 to be exact. All of them have carved statues of Hindu deities including mythological figures. Look out for the Yaali, a mythical hybrid of a lion and elephant.
Just outsides the thousand pillar hall are the musical pillars. These pillars are special, because they produce musical notes when you tap on them.
These musical pillars can be found in several old temples in South India including the Vittala temple in Hampi.
Watch Hindu Ceremonies
Madurai is the spiritual heart of Tamil Nadu and 20,000 pilgrims visit the temple every day. It sometimes reminded me of Varanasi, because there is something interesting happening around every corner.
Families come here to seek their blessings after important life events. New born babies and couples that just got married all celebrate this in the presence of the gods.
Besides the private family ceremonies going in, there are also 6 daily prayer ceremonies that are performed by the priests of the temple. The most impressive ceremony is the daily night ceremony that starts at 09:15 PM when the idol of Lord Shiva is brought to the shrine of Meenakshi where he will spend the night. This is done in a procession with lots of chanting and singing.
Madurai Meenakshi temple food
You can not bring any food or drinks into the Madurai Meenakshi temple. Luckily the temple has its own kitchen and provides good and cheap food for those that visit the temple.
In fact, trying some of the temple food at one of the stalls is one of the best things to do in the Madurai Meenakshi temple. Whether you want to snack away on some of the delicious temple sweets or have a substantial meal. Here are some of the things worth trying
Chakkarai pongal – sweet rice with lentils, nuts and raisins.
Puliyodharai – tamarind rice with peanuts
Murukku – deep fried crunchy snack from rice and urad dal flour
Appam – Sweet fried snacks with rice flour and jaggery
Ladoo – Sweets made from butter, flour and sugar
Vada – deep fried fritters from chana dal
Madurai Meenakshi temple souvenirs
Besides food there is also a small market in the Madurai Meenakshi temple where you might be able to find some unique souvenirs like idols and bangles.
Madurai beyond the Meenakshi temple
While the Madurai Meenakshi temple is Madurai’s biggest attraction there is of course much more to this city than temples alone. Madurai’s colorful and peaceful streets are a joy to wander around in and I found Madurai to be very clean and peaceful for an Indian city. The food scene is also a great reason to stay a bit longer in Madurai.
The history of the Madurai Meenakshi temple extends into the lively market opposite the temple where business continues among old temple ruins which is a strange combination. Don’t miss this market to do some last minute souvenir shopping. Madurai is famous for silk, cotton and jasmine.
Thirumalai Nayakkar palace
Like the Mysore palace, the Thirumalai Nayakkkar palace is a strange colorful mix of different styles. The European influences in its design are obvious, but it also kept a truly unique Indian atmosphere and outlook with its Rajput and Dravidian architecture.
It was built in the 17th century as the palace for king Thirumalai Nayakar and was one of the wonders of South India.
Food walking tours
Madurai is one of the best cities in tamil Nadu to try Tamil cuisine as well as local specialities. Both Storytrails as Vanakkam Madurai offer food tours where you get to try some of the best street food in Madurai.
The Madurai Meenakshi temple travel tips
The Madurai Meenakshi temple is open every day from 5 AM till 12:30 and from 16:00 till 21:30. Foreigners need to pay an entrance fee of 50 rupees.
Where to sleep
How to get there
Madurai is an easy detour if you are travelling in Kerala or a must if you are visiting Tamil Nadu. There buses from the following towns: Fort Kochi (8 hours), Munnar (4 hours), Thekkady (3,5 hours), Kodaikanal (3 hours) & Chennai (8 hours).
Madurai is also well connected by train. You can check time tables and book your tickets online directly through the Indian railways (IRCTC). Unfortunately this is not always a straightforward process. For a small extra fee you can use 12goAsia or Makemytrip.
When to visit
The best time to visit the Madurai Meenakshi temple is between October and March. In October temperatures cool down and you might have a chance to join the festivities for Dussehra and Diwali. India’s biggest festivals.
Temperatures remain pleasant till March. In April and May it becomes extremely hot. In June it is the start of the monsoon that lasts till September and will see lots of rainfall.
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