Madurai is one of the ancient cities of South India with a glorious history. It is famous for its world acclaimed Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple. The city of Madurai has been constructed in the form of a lotus and is built around the temple. It is situated on the banks of the river Vaigai. Owing to its rich cultural heritage and architectural splendor, the city is often referred to as the 'Athens of the East'. The origin of Madurai dates back to the Sangam period, the golden period of Tamil Literature.
According to mythology Madurai was earlier a forest called Kadambavanam. Once a merchant passing through the forest saw Indran, the King of Gods worshipping a Swayambhulingam under a Kadam tree. This was immediately reported to King Kulsekarer Pandayan. The king cleared the forest and built a splendid temple, known as the Sri Meenakshi Sundareswarer Temple, around the holy Lingam and later built a beautiful lotus-shaped city surrounding the temple.
Lord Siva appeared on the naming ceremony of the city and blessed it. The divine nectar (madhu) from the tangled locks of Siva fell on the blessed city and so, the city came to be known as "Madhurapuri". It is also said that centuries ago Lord Siva himself performed sixty-four wonders, called "Thiruvilaiyadals", in Madurai. Thus, the holy city finds reference in the great Indian epics - Ramayana, Kautilyas and Arthasastra. Madurai also served as the capital of Pandayan Kings.
In 302 BC, Megasthanes visited Madurai and was followed by Marcopolo and Ibn Batuta, all of whom mentioned about their visit in their travelogues. There were many others travelers, from countries like Rome and Greece, who visited the city and established trade with the Pandya Kings. Madurai was captured by the Cholas in the 10th century AD and was ruled till the end of the 13th century. In 1223 AD, Pandyas came to power again and patronized the Tamil language. The city became prosperous during the reign of the Pandya Kings.
Many master-pieces or "Silapathikaram" were created during that time. The great Tamil epic was also written during this time. It is based on the story of Kannagi, who burnt Madurai in lieu of injustice caused to her husband Kovalan. In April 1311, Malik Kafur, the general of Alauddin Khilji, the then ruler of Delhi, raided and robbed Madurai for precious stones, jewels, and other rare treasures. This was followed by subsequent raids by other Muslim Sultans. Finally, in 1323, the Pandya kingdom came under the Delhi Empire ruled by the Tughlaks.
The year 1371 saw the downfall of the Tughlaks and Madurai came under the reign of the Vijayanagar dynasty of Hampi. Kings of this dynasty left the captured land to governors called Nayaks, for the efficient management of their empire. After the death of Krishna Deva Raya (King of Vijayanagar Empire) in 1530 AD, the Nayaks became independent and started ruling the territories autonomously. Among Nayaks, Thirumalai Nayak (1623-1659) was the most popular one.
He is remembered by the people of Madurai even today, for his immense contribution to the city. He created many magnificent structures in and around Madurai. The Raja Gopuram of the Meenakshi Amman Temple, the Pudu Mandapam and the Thirumalai Nayakar's Palace are living examples of his passion for art. Later, Madurai slipped into the hands of the British's East India Company. In 1781, British appointed George Procter to look after the city. He was the first collector of Madurai.
After independence, Madurai became one of the major commercial districts of Tamil Nadu. It is surrounded by several hills, mainly Annamalai, Pasumalai and Nagamalai, named after their resemblance to an Elephant, a Cow and a Snake respectively. The city is a major exporter of Jasmine flowers. Due to its historical background, the temple city of Madurai attracts thousands of pilgrims and visitors every year from India and abroad.