Synonymous with Madurai is the Meenakshi Temple. The Meenakshi Temple complex is literally a city on its own. It is one of the largest of its kind in India and undoubtedly one of the oldest too. The temple grew bigger with the contributions of each dynasty and victorious monarchs, into an enormous complex spanning 45 acres. The temple was first built 2000 years ago and was substantially expanded during the reign of Thirumalai Nayak between the years 1623-55 AD.
This is one of the biggest and busiest temples in South India and, on its own, is reason enough to visit Madurai. An average of 15000 worshipers stream past its majestic gopuras, which are visible from all over the city. The walls are covered with a multitude of gods, demons and beasts all garishly painted in a wildly fascinating riot of colors. Entrance to the temple is through the Ashta Shakti Mandapa. All around the complex, various rituals and ceremonies are carried out, some conducted by Brahmin priests, others more personal acts of devotion.
The complex is a splendid example of the South Indian Dravida architecture. Four immense temple towers crown the gateways at each cardinal direction, easily visible from a distance. Each tower is encrusted with more than a thousand brilliantly painted sculptures depicting an assortment of mythological and auspicious themes. It is traditional to enter through the south gopuram and, unusually, worship the Goddess before her consort. Many pilgrims—particularly the men in black or orange sarongs who are devotees of the god Ayyappan—circle the main temple performing daily prayers. Within the temple, devotees line up for darshan or viewing of the deities. Please note that non-Hindus are not permitted into the inner sancta of Meenakshi. However, there are a number of sculptures and paintings accessible to all. In addition, the steps of the Golden Lotus Pond are open to all and are a common meeting place for inhabitants of the city, as well as pilgrims and tourists. In ancient times, the sangam (an assembly of poets) was said to gather at this pool to judge the merits of new compositions, often by throwing the manuscripts into the pool itself. Those that sank were thought to be inferior while those that floated were worthy of praise and propagation. Also within the complex is the Hall of a Thousand pillars, which actually has 985 beautifully carved columns. Tap on one of the musical pillars and you will hear a string of Carnatic musical notes.