Imagine being a guest at the biggest wedding on Earth. Keep that in mind as you walk, in awe, around a Hindu temple fizzing with colour, 33 million carvings, ornate decorated pillars, elaborate shrines and 14 spectacular towers – the tallest rising to 170ft. The Meenakshi Temple, in the Tamil Nadu city of Madurai, is a celebration of the love and marriage of Meenakshi (the incarnation of the Hindu goddess Parvati) and Sundareshvara (Shiva in Hinduism). Rumour has it that all gods, goddesses and living beings were invited. Some party.
‘Old’ doesn’t really do justice to a temple that was started in 600 AD, destroyed, and then rebuilt in the 14 th and 17 th centuries. It’s claimed to be one of the most significant in India, too. In fact, some here will tell you it’s as important to South India as the Taj Mahal is to North India. Also, you’ve got to love a site that’s one of the few religious monuments in India devoted to a female deity. Real girl power.
Don’t expect to have the place to yourself, though. More than 10,000 devotees make a daily pilgrimage – it’s a place of worship remember – but things get even busier every April to May, when nearly a million visitors arrive for the 10-day Chithirai Festival, which honours Meenakshi and Sundareshvara’s big day.
Your jaw will drop at the temple’s design. It covers 14 acres, lies at the heart of the city – behind 20ft-high walls – and the rest of Madurai spirals out from this point. But the real beauty is in the detail. There are stories everywhere, with each of the 14 towers (known as gopurams) covered in colourful stone figures that depict animals, gods and demons. The gopurams lead to the shrines, with the Kadaka gopuram taking you to the main one, devoted to Meenakshi. Here, green is the colour, as the deity is carved from emerald-coloured stone. Some believe it’s real emerald – but whatever you think, you’ll be hypnotised by Meenakshi’s big and beautiful eyes.
Stroll past Porthamarai Kulam (Pond with a Golden Lotus) and take a seat on nearby steps as birds swoop across the water. The pond was originally for pilgrims to wash, but a more ‘novel’ use came when it was used to test if writers’ books were good or bad. A book would be thrown into the water – if it sank it stank. Don’t leave without visiting the Hall of a Thousand Pillars and seeing the intricate carvings on each of the columns, including two rows that feature a beast with the body of a lion and the head of an elephant. The hall is also home to the temple’s museum.
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The Meenakshi Temple is in the centre of Madurai, a city on the banks of the River Vaigai in south Tamil Nadu.
The temple is open 5am-12.30pm and 4pm-10pm; these are also hours of worship. A night ceremony starts daily at 9pm, except Friday.
Early risers beat the bigger crowds of the day.
Conservative is a must: don’t reveal legs or shoulders.
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