Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India


The district of Madurai is located in the Southern State of Tamil Nadu, India and is one of the oldest cities in South Asia. The population from the 2001 census in India indicated a population of 2.5 million. The district is divided into 7 Taluks and has about 670 villages. Common languages include Tamil, Hindi, Telegu, Sourashthra and English. The city is located on the banks of the River Vaigai and has been active in commerce and trade since early civilization of the country, which is why it is called the “Athens of the East”. Madurai is also widely known as Temple city.


The history of Madurai dates back over 2500 years ago, and its origins come from incredible mythology of gods and goddesses. Madurai was first said to be a forest called Kadambavanam, and it was in this forest where the king of gods, Indra, would bath and worship Lord Shiva. After discovering this, king Kulashekhara of Pandyan built the beginnings of the Sri Meenakshi Temple in the centre of the city, and according to the legend, Lord Shiva coated the city with “amrita”, by shaking his hair over the city. This “amrita” is the nectar of immortality and the name Madurai is speculated to be derived from the Tamil word “madhuram” which means sweetness.

In 302 BC, travelling merchant Marco Polo and others from Rome, Greece and China visited Madurai and established trade partnerships with the king, as the city was rich in nice silks, pearls and spices; which is why it is known as the Athens of the East. The Pandyan dynasty is credited for establishing the Tamil culture and nationalizing the Tamil language. The Pandyan dynasty was overthrown by the Cholas, but then regained power their empire would remained in power until early 13th.

Madurai fell under several attacks and invasions, and the Meenakshi temple and most of the city were destryod. The Hindu Vijayanagar dynasty of Hampi came into power, and the city was governed by the Nayaks. The Nayak dynasty was known as the “renaissance of Madurai” because Thirumalai Nayak rebuilt and renovated the city of Madurai including the Meenakshi Temple, and also erected the Thirumalai Palace which remains to this day. Nayaks were in power until the mid-18th century, until the British took over India until India gained its independence in 1947.


The infamous Meenakshi Temple is the central location of the city of Madurai. The original temple was built by the Pandya’s 2500 years ago making it the largest and oldest temple in Madurai. With the temple in the middle, the city walls and streets were built around the temples in the shape of a lotus, which is the national flower of India – it represents spirituality, fruitfulness, wealth, knowledge and purity of heart and mind.

The towers of the temple are covered with stucco figures of gods and goddesses, mythical animals, monsters and deities in the vivid colours you see in the pictures. These temples are called Gopurams and located at each of the entrances. There are approximately 12, but the 4 tallest are located on each side of the temple and extend up to 50 km making them visible for miles outside of the city.


What would the temple be without its very own legend? This is actually very interesting… The temple is dedicated to the Lord Shiva and his consort, Goddess Pavarti, who was the daughter of the Pandyan King Malayadvaja. He and his wife could not conceive children so after rituals and prayers for a son, a three year old girl with 3 breasts emerged from the flames; this was goddess Pavarti.

Disappointed that he didn’t get a boy, and on top of that ended up with three breasted little girl, the king was told that she would lose her breast once she met her future husband – Lord Shiva. The King taught his daughter about the art of war and she succeeded him once he died. To the people she was known as Meenakshi which means “the one with the fish-shaped eyes” (sign of beauty in India). After winning successive battles, Meenakshi went to fight Lord Shiva, and it was love at first sight (or love at third breast) because as soon as she saw him, the breast went back into her body. The two were married in Madurai, and their marriage is a celebrated festival; they ruled the city as King and Queen and then as deities of the temple where they disappeared. Scenes of their wedding are also depicted on the pillars of the Temple.


Other monuments include the Thirumalai Nayak Palace

And of course the Gandhi Memorial Museum which, according to Rough Guide India, is home to the bloodstained dhoti Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated.


From the legends and ancient mythology, it is no wonder why Madurai is so rich in culture and its people so enthralled with religion. Madurai people hold very strong religious beliefs in Hinduism, Jainism, Islam or Christianity; the most prevalent being Hindu. The people are very traditional, despite some modernization in the city; they wear traditional clothing such as a Sari or Dhavani. Daily routines often begin with a religious bath, followed by prayer and the lighting of the lamps.

Here is a picture of a local flower market. Flowers are large export for the city, as flowers are exported to various regions of India.


*A picture from the Chithirai Festival

The temples hold various festivals throughout the year. Some well recognized festivals include Pongal Festival which is the festival of Harvest which celebrates the sun, the nature and the cattle for giving the farmers good harvest. Jallikattu, which is bull taming; more of a sport than a festival and is mostly held in villages. Chithirai festival, which is the 10 day celebration of the wedding of Lord Shiva and Meenakshi, and finally there is the float festival, which is celebrated on Thirumalai’s birthday and large floats are brought out to sea.


I had a little mix-up with my placement while presenting to the class. I originally thought I was going to work at the YWCA with children at the orphanage, then in an email, it accidentally said I would be working at a women's centre. So I presented the class with information on the women's centre, instead of the orphanage, but just so you get the best of both worlds, I will post information on both!


The children at the orphanage, that I will be working with, have lost their parents to leprosy. Leprosy is one of the oldest known diseases and attacks the central nervous system, especially the hands, feet and face. Affected persons lose all feeling in these areas, and the disease causes disfiguration and deformaty of affected body parts, which may lead to amputations (BBC World News, 1998).

The disease was most prevalent in poor rural areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America. India had more than 60% of the world's leprosy patients, but after global campaigns and the National Health Policy of 2002, India achieved elimination of leprosy in 2005 (BBC World News, 2000; Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, India, 2005)

Pictures from the Orphanage provided by Elyse Redden, 2010


There is also an NGO called the Sudar Foundation in Madurai, which is one of the Women’s Education Project Centers. The WEP was founded by Zoe Timms who worked in Madurai while attending University of Wisconson. She recognized the low levels of education amongst underprivileged women in India because of poverty, and so she and another board member, Kathryn Ugoretz, created this center to support and help women pursue higher education, develop professional and life skills, and obtain careers. A one year program costs $200 and it costs these women $2 a month to attend the school.

Please watch this video and take a look at the website for more information!

Women’s Education Project! » Videos

I hope you enjoyed this post! Namaste


Madurai, (No dates provided)

National Informatics Centre, Government of India (No dates provided)

Rough Guide to India, Tamil Nadu, Madurai. 2008.

BBC World News. "Leprosy." (1998)

Mike Woolridge in Dehli. "India Targets Leprosy." (2000)

Ministry of Health and Family Welfare:

Women's Education Project, 2006:

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Twitter
  • RSS

1 Response to "Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India"

  1. Elyse says:
    May 13, 2010 at 7:18 AM

    Lovely!! When I saw Meenakshi she was wearing a sari... lol. I guess things have gotten a bit more conservative?

Post a Comment