As soon as I got my PhD call to the Madurai Kamaraj University in South India, I was excited to be going to one of South India's greatest temple towns. Madurai is synonymous with the celebrated Meenakshi Temple and is situated on the banks of river Vaigai.
Hardly westernised like the rest of India, we were pleasantly pleased to see that Madurai has a rich cultural heritage passed on from the great Tamil era which is more than 2500 years old.Looking at the history of the town, we heard that Madurai was an important cultural and commercial centre even as early as 550 AD. History dates it to it being the capital city for the great Pandya kings.
Legend has it that when the Pandyan King, Kulasekarar built a great temple and created a lotus shaped city around the temple, the city was blessed by Lord Shiva. Apparently legend has it that he showered the city with divine nectar from his matted locks, after which the city was called Madhurapuri.
When you get off at the bus stand in Madurai the first thing you will notice is the abundance of jasmine flowers being sold by women all over the place. Apparently the jasmine grows well in that climate. Most women in India buy a string of them and wind them in their dark black hair.
When I learnt I was to do my PhD from MKU, the first thought that came to mind was Madurai - the historic city with its sprawling Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple. My professor explained that four of the six major streams of the indigenous system of beliefs as codified by Sankaracharya (i.e. Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and the worship of Skanda) meet in this historic city during festive occasions when the entire region is transformed into a vast space of celebration. “Madurai is one of the oldest cities of India, with a history dating all the way back to the Sangam period of the pre Christian era,” said professor S Nagarathinam.
In ancient times, the entire city of Madurai, was built around the Meenakshi Sundareswarar with concentric rectangular streets surround the temple, symbolizing the structure of the cosmos. Today the city has grown beyond these streets but the original ethos of the old city remains.
Popular belief is that Meenakshi (Parvati), is the queen of Madurai, a Pandyan princess known originally as Tatatakai, who married Shiva. The coronation and the marriage ceremonies are still celebrated in a grand manner in Madurai, on the large scale of the Dussera Parade of Mysore.Meenakshi and Somasundarar are regarded as the eternal rulers of thePandya Kingdom. A lot of feasting and bursting of crackers accompany the event.
According to figures, over 20000 pilgrims and visitors visit the temple each day. This temple is a vibrant cultural center brimming with tradition, festivals, art, architectural and sculptural splendour. For visitors it is the best possible experience of the millennia old cultural ethos of the Indian subcontinent.
The MKU campus is a huge sprawling campus way out of the city. A great centre of learning it is also a quiet and green centre, found at the base of the Madurai hills. The nicest part for me is, the hundreds of peacocks that roam fearlessly through the campus.