With a nickname of ‘Athens of the East,’ Madurai has a history that dates back to the 3rd Century BC. Megasthenes was believed to have visited the city of Madurai during this time and named it ‘Methora.’
There are a plethora of stories that surround the origin of this age-old city. However, the available literature suggests that the history of this ancient temple town can be broadly classified into 5 stages. These are as follows-
Stage 1: This stage can be traced from the 12th Century; a period of the Pandyas. According to the Sangam literature, Madurai was claimed to be the capital of the Pandya dynasty. However, no substantial traces can be found to corroborate this opinion. From the finite amount of literature available, the city structure during this period can be explained. The formation of the city took place on the southern banks of river Vaigai. This portion of the city was occupied with a dense forest and Kadamba trees. The city began to develop at a full stretch after the Linga (iconography of Lord Shiva) was discovered near a pond. This point was used as the origin of the Sundareaswarar-Meenakshi Amman Temple and the growth of the Madurai city.
Stage 2: Vijayanagara kings ruled over the city of Madurai in the medieval period (around the 15th century) due to which there was a large-scale growth and expansion of the city. Viswanatha Nayak was claimed to the Architect of Madurai who built the city on Manasara principles. During this period, the main streets of the city ran parallel to the walls of the Meenakshi temple. After this, came along the period of Thirumalai Nayak who brought to the city of Madurai, several architectural splendors such as The Mari Amman tank, Thirumalai Nayak’s palace, and Pudumandapam. The Shaivites dominated the center of the city whereas the Vaishnavites were given the south-west area of the city. The western side of the city developed as agricultural fields due to the channels and water tanks from the river Vaigai.
Stage 3: The next period was that of the Mughals. During this time, 2 primary developments took place within the city. First, development of residential colonies such as Khajilpalayam near the south veli street, Mahaboobpalayam near west veli street, and Khanpalayam near East veli street, and second, the building of mosques around the city, such as the Munichalai mosque, Kazimar mosque (south Veli) and the Tashildhar mosque (East Masi).
Stage 4: In 1792, Madurai came under British rule which led to structural changes in the city. There are 3 main factors for this change.
- In 1841, the city was allowed to grow on all sides since the fort walls had been demolished.
- In 1866, the Madurai municipality was established and it headquartered all Southern districts.
- In 1875, the British introduced railways into the city which linked the southern and northern parts of the state.
It was during this period that the city of Madurai experienced its industrialization. There was an intermixing of colonial and local architecture as the British began to develop a compact city structure. Various cotton mills and automobile industries were set up, iron fencing was built around the Meenakshi temple, town halls were created near the railways which served as theatre and meeting hall. Therefore, the traditional composition of Madurai was combined with the modernity of the British.
Stage 5: This stage commenced post-independence and experienced expansive urban growth. The years between 1961 to 1971 witnessed a ‘population explosion’ which contributed to large-scale migration from rural to urban areas. In 1971, Madurai was accorded the status of a corporation. Madurai then expanded to an area of 51.82 square kilometres and became the second largest city of Tamil Nadu. Various kulams (low-lying structures or ponds) were converted into residential colonies and a large number of colonies such as Gandhinagar, Shenoynagar, and Krishnapuram began to develop.
It is important to note that these 5 stages are the major historical developments of Madurai, however, there are various other historical phases and key moments in between these, that contribute to the culture of Madurai today. This includes the supposed rulings of the Kalabhra dynasty, the Chola dynasty, and the Nayaks, and moments like Mahatma Gandhi adopting the loin cloth as his form of dressing after seeing the agricultural labourers wearing it, in 1921 and the temple entry movement of 1939 into the Meenakshi temple led by an activist called A. VaidyanathaIyer.
The city of Madurai lies in the district of Madurai and also acts as the headquarters of the district. The city is situated on the fertile plains of river Vaigai. This river runs along the northwest-southeast direction of the city and divides it into two halves. Madurai is bordered by three hill ranges, namely, Nagamalai (snake), Yanaimalai (elephant), and Pasumalai (cow). The land in Madurai is largely used to support agricultural activity which is fostered by the Periyar Dam. Lying on the southeast of the Western Ghats, the predominant soil type in Madurai is clay loam, while black cotton and red loam types are found on the periphery of the city. The main crop grown here is paddy, followed by pulses, millets, oilseeds, sugarcane, and cotton.
Madurai is located at an altitude of 101 metres above the sea level and placed between the 9.93º North Longitude and 78.12º East Latitude.The area of Madurai is surrounded by famous towns and cities like Sivakasi, Dindigul, Thirupparankundran, Cumbum, and many more.
The city of Madurai experiences hot and dry weather for 8 months of the year. March to July are the summer months and are considered to be the hottest, with temperatures ranging from 23 degrees Celsius to 40 degrees Celsius. From August to October, Madurai experiences monsoons which bring about a moderate climate and heavy rains. The average annual rainfall experienced is 85.76 centimetres. Since Madurai is located at an equal distance from the sea and mountains, the monsoon pattern of Madurai emulates that of the Northeast and the Southwest monsoon. The winter season lasts from November to February, wherein the temperatures drop to 18 degrees Celsius. On some rare occasions, the city even experiences dew and fog. A 62-year long study done on Madurai by the Indian Meteorological Department indicated that industrialization and urbanization had contributed to a gradual increase in the temperature.
Madurai is well connected and developed through road, rail, and air. Several national highways such as NH7, NH208, NH49, and NH45B pass through Madurai. It serves as the headquarters for the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation and provides various inter-city and local bus services. Apart from this, it also has auto-rickshaws and mini-buses which support local transportation. The Madurai railway junction is an important railway station in Tamil Nadu and various trains to and from major cities and towns run here. Madurai also allows several domestic flights and a limited number of international flights to countries like Dubai, Singapore, and Colombo.
However, in recent years it has been identified that Madurai is experiencing a sort of ‘infrastructural gap.’ In the past decade, Madurai has expanded considerably in terms of its area and population, however, the infrastructure has not been developed adequately to supplement this growth. At present, Madurai falls under the Smart Cities Mission that aims to address the infrastructural problems of this city. However, due to a lack of planning and implementation, the expected deliverables have not been achieved. Various concerns such as lack of exploration of metro rail, inadequate emphasis on environmental facets, and the probable failure of the underground Periyar bus station are pointing towards the plausible failure of this mission and a re-direction in efforts.
In particular, the tourism infrastructure of Madurai is in shambles, this includes the heritage museums and structures. In 2018, this city was ranked 4th and 6th in the attraction of foreign and domestic tourists. However, despite this, there is a lack of basic amenities that dent the reputation and image of the temple-town. The roads leading to the famous temple do not have any toilets, thereby, M. Rajesh, secretary of South Tamil Nadu Association of Travel & Tourism has requested for toilets to be made at the 4 exit points of the temples and the road leading up to the Meenakshi temple is cleaned and encroachments are removed. Therefore, Madurai and its infrastructure must be taken care of for it to upkeep the image as the cultural hub of Tamil Nadu.
Due to its rich history, Madurai has a diverse architecture, all the way from Dravidian to Colonial style, that echoes the rule of all the kingdoms and dynasties that once inhabited it. Madurai is built in the shape of a lotus around the Meenakshi temple, on the banks of river Vaigai. The higher strata of individuals resided in the streets closer to the temple whereas those in the lower strata resided further away from the temple.
The city of Madurai was planned according to Rajdhani and Sarvatobhadra (Ancient South Indian texts on city planning) wherein a specific pattern is assumed and the streets run parallel to the temple walls. Structures made of granite and sandstone by Jain and Buddhist monks can be found in the city. The remnants of the Pandiyan dynasty are visible in and around the Meenakshi Amman Temple Complex. It was during this period that the process of establishing the 4 Majestic Gopuram of the Meenakshi Amman Temple was initiated by constructing the East Gopuram. The Mughal layers of architecture can be visible through the building of several mosques all around the city, Chajas dome and cusped arches. However, the Mughals destroyed the previous architectural layers. The Vijayanagara layer led to the development and revitalization of Madurai with lavish architecture being built and several architectural reforms like that of the creation of palaces, pavilions, and mandapas which contribute significantly to the architecture of Madurai in the present. The South and West Gopurams for the Meenakshi Amman Temple were built during this period and all other constructions were initiated keeping in the water bodies and the ecosystem. The British further added to this architectural layer by introducing individual buildings, Churches, town halls, educational institutes, and hospitals. At present, the city showcases the 16th-century physical-historical architectural evidence and colonial architecture making it rare and magnificent.
Being the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu, it is certain that Madurai carries a rich and diverse culture. The magnificence and magnanimity of Madurai culture is visible through its art forms, folk dances, songs, festivals, customs, traditions, and ceremonies. The city presents a well-blended composition of its ancient cultural heritage, technological advancements, and commercial zones. The famous Meenakshi temple serves as the lifeline of this culture and festivals like Meenakshi Tirukkalyanam celebrate the true essence of Madurai. Pongal, Chithirai Festival, and Float festival are considered to be the most important festivals celebrated in the city wherein there is a significant amount of usage of flowers and flower garlands. The textile industry of Madurai is world-famous and employs various ancient weaving techniques as well. Bharatanatyam, OttanThullal, Krishnattam are popular dance forms in the city that are widely practiced. The Madurai cuisine is considered to be simple yet delicious as it includes dishes like Dosai, Idly, Sambar, and Pongal. Due to its multiple cultural attractions, Madurai is a famous tourist attraction. The Thirumalai Nayak Palace is maintained by the Archaeological Department of the Tamil Nadu that conducts sound and light shows to explain the different virtues of King Thirumalai. Madurai also has an Eco park that features lit trees and fountains. It also has a theme park and race course stadium. Madurai is also known to host several domestic and international Kabbadi championships. In Tamil, Madurai is termed as ‘ThoongaNagaram’ or the city that never sleeps.
The diverse culture of Madurai has a significant impact on the people living there. As the adherence to modernity has increased, the value systems of the people remain intact indicating that the social fabric of the city is richer than ever. The city of Madurai is considered to be a multilingual community since it is home to not only the Tamil people but also other communities such as Marathis, Sindh, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengalis, Rajasthani and so on. For this reason, the city has been termed as a ‘Big Village’ with a cosmopolitan attitude. The major religion is that of Hinduism, (85.8%) followed by Muslims, (8.5%) Christians, (5.2%) and others (0.5%) Despite the religious diversity, all individuals reside in peace and harmony. The majority of the speakers in Madurai are Tamil speakers, followed by other languages such as English, Telugu, Saurashtra, Hindi, and Urdu. These factors indicate that the diversity of Madurai is not just limited to its traditions and culture but it also includes diverse sects of people.