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Madurai : The history of a city that stood over centuries

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Does the word Madurai seem to be charismatic? If not, probably you will have to go to Madurai. A very busy South Indian city, that has stood over the centuries, withstanding attacks from invaders, prominently for the immense wealth the city had. I have been to the city many times, but my last visit was quite different, immersed along with the history, kingdoms, the temple, customs and a lot more stories that make the city more charismatic. Any city in the world, becomes distinct from others, with the kind of stories that it upholds over centuries. Those stories are supporting pillars as to why is it like this today. Of course, it is not recorded history, it is the one that comes down over centuries with its own shares of twist and turns, here and there and yes that is what is believed by most of the people. This time I have Siva, a living encyclopedia of the stories I mentioned, he works as a guide and we are on a walking tour of Madurai. The below video will give you a quick idea about Madurai.

The Thriving City of Trade - Madurai

Madurai has a Dravidian lineage and was mostly ruled by the Pandyas for many centuries. To give you an idea, it lasted from 4th Century BC to the 16 century AD in general. Pandyans had their capital in Korkai, some kilometres south of modern day Thoothukudi. It was on the shores of the Bay of Bengal and they produced some of the finest natural pearls then. Later the kingdom was shifted to Madurai, that marks the formation of Madurai in terms of infrastructure and upliftment to a larger status. Pandyas ruled over the of South of the modern day Tamil Nadu and the Pallavas ruled the North, towards Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram. They had their on share of conflicts over centuries, but it looked like they did not want to invade each other. Pandyans had trade relations with the then civilisations, the Greeks, Romans, Chinese and with smaller dynasties of the modern day far east countries. Most of the trade was through the ancient port towns of Poompuhar, Dhanushkodi and Korkai. Internationally, Pandyans were known for the finest natural pearls and pearl fishing was very much elaborate during their reign.

Madurai Meenakshi Temple

Madurai city built around the Meenakshi Amman Temple

It was a time when people believed in the powerful elements of nature like the sun, wind, moon, rivers etc. There were mythical characters who upholded these powers. Temples were the epicentre of ancient kingdoms and more than Palaces, the Kings made prominent decisions in Temples, where their God or Goddesses resided. Madurai Meenakshi Kovil (temple) was the epicentre of the Pandyan Empire, and all they had was kept safe inside the temple, nobody dared to steal it except for someone who had no idea about it. To loot, someone will have to invade it and it was Kafur's army who eventually did it, that was it.

Legend says, no one found this temple. Linga of Siva (is an abstract or an iconic representation of the Hindu deity Shiva) emerged of the soil, what is called a Swayambu. Identifying this, the king built a temple around it. People believed that the temple is so powerful that thousands used to come there to pray. Over due course of time the temple grew in structure, even the kings generously spent a lot of money for the expansion of the temple even to the extend of 14 large Gopurams.

Jain caves of Madurai

Arrival of Jains to Madurai

It was 300 BC, a large group of Jain saints were traveling down South and halted at Shravanabelagola. They were in search of new lands to survive, due to the terrible 12 year famine that hit North of India during the Mayuryan rule. Traveling further South, they reached the prosperous city of Madurai. The city gave them refuge, later the city literally started to follow Jainism, even the Pandyan Kings followed Jainism. There are more than seven caves around the city of Madurai, which were once centres of teaching Jain principles. These caves have sculptures of Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, carved out of rocks. Jains were traders by blood and they mastered the art of pearl and gem trading and that was how Madurai turned out to be a landmark trade centre in South India since ancient times. The city over time had good trade relations with the Cheras, Cholas, Chalukyas, and the Vijayanagara Empire. The city grew in wealth over time. In ancient times, all of the wealth a kingdom had were mostly kept inside temples.


During the 7th century, Shaivism (devotion to Hindu God Shiva) gained popularity, and on a scholarly debate Shaivism scholars overtook Jain monks. The Pandyan king who was converted to Shaivism gave way to the evolvement of Shaivism. Eventually around 8000 Jain monks were impaled in Madurai. Jainism was literally washed away from the Pandyan Kingdom and what is left back are just the Jain caves that one could see around in Madurai.

Muslim invaders

Looting raids by Alauddin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate

It was early 14th century, Alauddin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate in the North of India, send his eunuch, 1000 dinar slave - Malik Kafur to plunder all the wealth from prominent temples of South India. After Kakatiya and Hoysala temples and Kingdoms, the Kafur's army was marching south towards the Pandya Empire. But Pandyas resisted it to save their city and temple under the command of King Vira Pandyan. Kafur's gang was so strong that he stormed the city and led the temple to fire and destroyed it, except the temples of Sudareshwara and Meenakshi which was successfully defended by the Veera Pandyan. Kafur returned with around 500 elephants, 5000 horses, 500 manns(Mann is an ancient measuring unit) of gold, pearls and precious stones. The Pandyan rule short lived after this tragic ransacking. Later Northern portion of the Kingdom was ruled by the Delhi Sultanate (this was also very much short lived) and the Southern portion independently by the Pandyan Kings. During the later centuries, the Vijayanagara Kings rebuilt the temple, Nattukottai Chettiar community and the the Nayaks of Madurai rebuilt the temple over time to its present day status. Even today there are certain sculptures inside the temple that are deformed that reminds of the infamous ransacking of Malik Kafur.

Tirumalai Naykar Palace

Rule of the Nayaks and the later the British

From the Mid of 16th century, the Nayaks were ruling over most of the Pandyan Dynasty under the supervision of the Vijayanagara Kingdom. Unlike Pandyans, Nayaks were Vaishnavites (devotees of Hindu God Vishnu), they were military governors who were allocated a certain portion of the kingdom to govern and pay tribute to the Vijayanagara Kingdom. Out of the 12 Nayak Successors, Tirumalai Nayak, played a crucial role. He embraced art and architecture, which is still very much evident in Madurai. Towards the decline of the Vijayanagara empire, Tirumalai Nayak stopped tributes to the kingdom and spend the money mostly for the fortification of the city. He had military treats from the Sultanate of Bijapur and the kingdom of Msyore. He withstood all of them and continued ruling Madurai. He had built a grand palace for himself known to be the Tirumalai Nayak Palace. He had brought artisans and architects from different parts of the world to design and built up his Palace. Today, just one third of the Palace is remaining and is open for visitors. There is an in-house museum in the palace that displays a lot of sculptures found in and around that depicts the art and sculptural magnificence of different era in Madurai.

Ango Indian war Madurai

Towards the mid of the 18th century, the British already entered the Indian Sub-continent. The last Nayak Queen reigned until 1736, after which it was a series of local wars. By 1950s the British entered the scene, they managed to get Madurai into their hands overcoming the resistance and threats from Tipu Sulthan of Mysore, and local military governors like Veerapandya Kattabomman, Puli Thevan, and the Marudhu Brothers. Things were not quite tough as early, after a series of wars over centuries, the kingdoms of Madurai was almost declining and the local forces were less organised to fight the British effectively. In short Madurai fell into the British hands quite easy. The British was interested in just the taxes and tributes, and mostly followed a divide and rule policy. They assigned their favoured local governors and representatives to rule and collect tributes in terms of taxes.

Madurai Meenakshi Temple

Madurai has seen it all; from what was probably a village to slowly a capital, a trading post to a prominent trade centre of precious things, from a swayambhu linga to a marvellous temple complex; the way Pandyans stood by her to protect her and eventually guard the epicentre of the city - The Meenakshi temple within the temple complex, and finally the Nayaks and the British. She has been an abode to many and a precious gem to steal for many. Her religious denominations have changed, However the cultural denominations have not yet changed. She has bravely stood over centuries, and she is truly Dravidian and hope to be forever.

If you are planning to visit Madurai and would love to have a beautiful guided tour - please feel free to be in touch with us - We also organise very interesting South Indian tours that go up to two weeks, both private and group tours can be organised.

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