History blends with mythology at Madurai. This South Indian temple town conjures up images of the stuccowork-rich gopurams (towers) of the Meenakshi Temple. Witness a burst of Dravidian-style temple architecture, and a dense display of sculptural work depicting mythological Hindu gods, goddesses and demons. With the Meenakshi Temple at its heart, the entire town unfolds like a fully-bloomed lotus, concentrically outward from the centre. This ancient town strikes you by the grandness of its temples, their architectural and sculptural detailing, and the sense of space and scale. Popular legend has it that Madurai is the actual site of Lord Shiva and Meenakshi’s wedding, and the labyrinthine temple celebrates the love of goddess Meenakshi and her groom Sundereshwar.
An ancient city, Madhurai is one of the oldest surviving, continuously inhabited cities of southern India. The origin of the city dates back to 300BCE, to the glorious Sangam period of Tamil Nadu’s history. Settled on the banks of river Vaigai, the Sri Meenakshi Sundareswarer Temple is the center of Madhurai. Local legend has it that King Kulsekarer Pandayan built the temple at the site where Lord Indra was sighted. He later built the city of Madhurai shaped like a lotus around this temple. Madhurai is also mentioned in several ancient Indian epics such as the Ramayana and Kautilya’s Arthashastra.
In 302 BCE, the Greek traveler Megasthanes visited Madhurai and noted his description of a bustling city in his decisive tome Indika. Other notable visitors to Madhurai include Marcopolo and Ibn Batuta, and several other Roman and Greek diplomats. At that time, Madhurai was the capital of the mighty Pandya kingdom who established important trade and commerce ties with Europe and West Asia.
Sometime during the 10th century, the Cholas raided and captured Madhurai, thus ending the golden age of Pandya rule. However, by 1223 CE, the Pandyas returned to Madhurai’s throne and the growth of Madhurai continued afresh. The Pandya kings took a keen interest in art and architecture, as well as the development of the Tamil language. Then in 1311, Malik Kafur, a general of Alauddin Khilji raided and sacked Madhurai. This attack was followed by many more by the sultans of Delhi. But Madhurai was incorporated into the Delhi Sultanate only in 1323.
The next important phase in its history was the rule of the Vijayanagar dynasty of Hampi who reigned in Madhurai from 1371. In the Vijayanagar kingdom, provinces were given to governors or Nayaks to administer. The king at Hampi just collected a liege. After the death of Krishna Deva Raya in 1530 CE, the Nayaks became independent rulers. Among them, the rule of Thirumalai Nayak (1623-1659) is the most significant. A popular king, Thirumalai Nayak is revered across the city for the many beautiful structures he built across the city, such as Raja Gopuram of the Meenakshi Amman Temple, the Pudu Mandapam and the Thirumalai Nayakar's Palace.
In 1781, much before the rest of India, Madhurai went under British control, who appointed George Proctor as the city’s first collector.
After India’s independence from British rule in 1947, Madhurai has developed as an important hub for tourism and industry in Tamil Nadu, attracting thousands of pilgrims every year.
Buses, taxi, cycle and auto-rickshaws are the most common mode of transport in Madurai. Since it is a small city there are no metro or local train facilities, however, passenger trains connecting nearby places are an option. State run buses are available at regular frequency, and are cheap and safe to use, except when they run crowded during peak hours. Please carry loose coins to buy your ticket. Always ask the conductor regarding the destination and route as the bus boards read only in Tamil. There are four main bus stands in Madurai. Periyar bus stand, the exclusive local bus terminal is about 5 minutes walk from the railway station. Shopping Complex bus stand, right opposite to Periyar bus stand, and often referred by the same name is the point from where private inter-city buses depart. Arapalayam bus stand is the boarding point for some local buses and those bound towards Theni, Dindigul, Coimbatore, Palani, Kodaikanal, Salem, Erode, Batlagundu or Vaththalakundu and Periyakulam. Mattuthavani Integrated bus stand, simply called Mattuthavani, is located on the outskirts about 10 kilometers (6.25 miles) from Periyar bus stand. This is the location for long distance government buses.
On an average car rental rate in Madurai to go to places like Alagar Temple, Thiruparakundram, Thirumalai Nayak Palace, Palamudurcholai is in the range of Rs.600 to 650. Most hotels offer cab services, but there are plenty of car rental companies around.
Auto-rickshaws in town are mostly not metered, so make sure you negotiate the fare before boarding. The rule of thumb rate is Rs 10 per kilometer of travel during day time and Rs 15 per kilometer during night. Ideally they should be hired from central, well lit locations such as the railway station. Most auto-rickshaw drivers quote exorbitant rates to foreigners and non-Tamilian Indians, so make sure you bargain hard.
Tourist Traps in the City
The local shops mostly ask for double the actual price from foreigners and non-Tamil Indians. Make sure you almost always bargain. Ditto with auto-rickshaws that operate in the city - they never function with a fare meter. Don’t forget to negotiate the price before boarding on, for you could be rudely shocked after disembarking.
The light and sound show at Thirumalai Nayak Palace can be a bit of a let down as the complete portrayal of its history is not very lucid, and may seem disjointed in places to someone not very familiar with the history and culture of Madurai. Also, its sound and light synchronization is a tad insipid.
Whatever season you choose to visit, it is wise to carry appropriate clothing, mindful of the fact that short clothes not only risk overexposure to the harmful effects of the sun but also could offend the locals who are a tad conservative. It is ideal to bring light cotton clothing of the long-sleeved and long-legged variety since the weather is mostly muggy. Don’t forget a high SPF sunscreen. You need to take off your shoes before entering a temple - in some places even deposit your camera in a locker - and avoid carrying leather objects inside a religious place.
The temple town of Madurai has been a popular textile centre since ancient times. Shops bursting with colorful silks, cottons and batiks spill onto the eastern entrance of so much as the Meenakshi Temple. Shopping in Madurai involves a fair bit of walking amid the colorful chaos of its marketplace. At Puthu Mandapam Market, you can choose from an array of cottons and batiks, the place also has a row of tailoring shops that can reproduce your dress with cottons and printed fabrics in a few hours. A must-buy when in Madurai is the silk named after the city. The collection of Madurai silk and handloom sarees at Hajeemoosa Textiles is very impressive. This fine silk comes in myriad colors, but has a distinct pattern.
ATMs of most nationalized and private banks can be found in the city. You can use your credit card at the emporiums and other big stores, but at the street-side market you would need cash at your disposal. Major banks accept foreign exchange – you can walk into any branch to enquire. Though you will find money exchangers in mid and high range hotels. Commercial money changers are available in the area around the Madurai railway station.