Madurai, the Jewel of Heaven

India is reaching new heights as it aims for growth in the double digits, space exploration, and celebrates its proficiency in cricket. This, however, concerns the material world and in Madurai, the cutural hotbed of Tamil Nadu, people focus on the spiritual. Madurai hosts an important shrine dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi and her consort Shiva. The divine couple’s abode is a heavenly temple where you must remove your shoes to join the congregation of devoted pilgrims.

By Jean-Pierre Chanial
Joyful pilgrims in Madurai.

Soon, India will claim its rightful place. Indians will set foot on the Moon and achieve greatness beyond measure. India will, as one of its famous poets Rabindranath Tagore once put it, ‘not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but be fearless in facing them’.

Touching a holy cow is one of the many Hindu rituals.

A juggernaut of timeless wisdom

India’s Prime minister Narendra Modi has big plans for India, one of them being Vision 2047, year of the 100th anniversary of Indian independence, a plan to make the country a developed nation. By then, India will have broken the shackles of servitude and take back its pre-colonisation name ‘Bharat’ with the help Tata, Mittal, and Mahindra and their mastery of wind-power, pharmaceuticals, telecoms, AI, and high-tech. Once it reaches its goal to match the United-States and China, it will spread its timeless wisdom across the globe. Trends and fads come and go, but you can be sure Indians will never forget their heritage, silk saris and tilaks – a Hindu symbol of devotion – will surely live on.

The look of faith.

Some speak of a miracle, but it is a reality. India managed to unite the 562 ancient principalities into 28 states and build a nation of 1.43 billion people – double the population of 25 years ago. A land of linguistic diversity, India has 2,700 dialects, of which 18 official languages, all stemming from the primordial Om in Hindu mythology.

Shiva and Meenakshi

A marketplace in Madurai.

The city of Madurai in Southeast India has no less than 1.3 million inhabitants. Here, exists a delicate balance between the time told by clocks and eternity. On one hand there’s the hustle and bustle of tuk-tuks, motorcars, limousines, and various animals. On the other, the poise of goddess Meenakshi and her consort Shiva, the patron deities of this metropolis. According to legend, Madurai was created from the sweet drops of nectar (‘madhura’ is Sanskrit for sweet) that fell from Shiva’s locks. The temple grounds of today’s Meenakshi Temple are said to be where this miracle occurred. Let’s find out!

Meenakshi Temple, abode of the goddess

One of the four entrance towers of the temple, adorned with a thousand sculptures.

The immense temple complex, which was rebuilt in the 17th century, covers about 6 hectares (14 acres). Encircled by high walls, Meenakshi Temple is teeming with stunning shrines, colonnades, meandering halls, discreet nooks for meditation, and gorgeous pools. The granite of its structure is as hard as its devotees’ unwavering faith. Among the sculptures and bas-reliefs bathing in a mysterious light, the pilgrims are in a state of spiritual ecstasy. The experience is awe-inspiring.

Mantras of knowledge

The five 50m tall towers are straight out of a dream with their myriads of sculpted mythological creatures and divine entities. The temple is the beating heart of the city and its gateway to the heavens. The entire city feels like an extension of the temple, and one needs only to dive in to experience it.

Flowers destined for offerings.

The temple is brimming with hazy rooms, heavy with incense smoke, and shrines nestled within pillars where devotees meditate and pray. Others come to worship the obsidian black icons (murtis) covered in gold ornaments, shawls, and flower garlands. At their feet lie heaps of offerings, bowls of rice, flowers, and a couple bananas. A low rumble fills the halls, the sound of thousands of souls chanting mantras for deliverance, knowledge, light, and the secrets of life itself. There is a feeling of surrender, it isn’t folly but faith which is at play here.

Respect for the divine

Beautiful gold ornaments cast in the image of Shiva.

Thousands of faithful pilgrims come here to pay homage to the gods. The halls are packed with women in their saris and men in their dhotis. In the crowd you can see the many faces of transcendental bliss adorned with ritual markings. If you are willing to let go of the mundane, then a universe of new understanding lies open before you. The path to the cessation of suffering and the reunification with the whole, in a word Om.

Ganesh, the remover of obstacles

An elephant is paraded in honour of Shiva.

Visitors witness the spiritual ecstasy that comes with ritual practice. The brahmin bears an oil lamp for purification as a woman passes her hands over the flame. A man lies outstretched in devotion in front of the altar of Shiva. By Shiva’s side sits his elephant-headed son, Ganesh, adorned with flower garlands and shawls. One can only be moved by these scenes.

Ganesh is the son of Shiva and Meenakshi.

When the ceremony is in full swing, drums and cymbals play as the brahmins stomp and chant in a trance, reaching towards the divine beyond, where time and space loose their meaning. This is the promise of infinite love that is ‘Ananda’. These are the eternal teachings of Shiva and Meenakshi.

A calf peacefully relaxing in the street.


Getting there: The easiest way to reach Madurai is by flying into Chennai International Airport and then taking a plane to Madurai IXM with Air India.

Staying there:The Heritage Madurai is a charming hotel surrounded by nature. The colonial style rooms are spacious and give off a feeling of tranquility. The hotel also has an Olympic-sized pool. Double bedrooms are around €150 a night.