The temple is at the center of the ancient temple city of Madurai mentioned in the Tamil Sangam literature, with the goddess temple mentioned in 6th-century-CE texts.
The west tower (Gopuram) of the temple is the model based on which the Tamilnadu state emblem is designed.
The city of Madurai is synonymous with the Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple, which was originally built by Kulasekara Pandya. However, the entire credit for making the temple as splendid as it is today goes to the Nayaks who ruled Madurai from the 16th to 18th century.
Madurai Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple was built by Pandayan Emperor Sadayavarman Kulasekaran I (1190 CE–1205 CE).
He built the main Portions of the three-storeyed Gopura at the entrance of Sundareswarar Shrine and the central portion of the Goddess Meenakshi Shrine are some of the earliest surviving parts of the temple.
The traditional texts call him a poet-saint king, additionally credit him with shrines each for Natarajar and Surya near the main temple, Ayyanar in the east, Vinayagar in the south, Kariamalperumal in the west and Kali in the north. He also built a Mahamandapam.
Maravarman Sundara Pandyan I built a Gopura in 1231.
Chitra Gopuram (W) was built by Maravarman Sundara Pandyan II (1238-1251). This Gopuram is named after the frescoes and reliefs that depict secular and religious themes of Hindu culture.
Maravarman Sundara Pandyan II also added a pillared corridor to the Sundareswara shrine and the Sundara Pandyan Mandapam.
It was rebuilt after the 14th-century damage, its granite structure was renovated by Kumara Krishnappar after 1595.
Though the temple has historic roots, most of the present campus structure was rebuilt after the 14th century CE, further repaired, renovated and expanded in the 17th century by Tirumala Nayaka.
In the early 14th century, the armies of Delhi Sultanate led by Muslim Commander Malik Kafur plundered the temple, looted it of its valuables and destroyed the Madurai temple town along with many other temple towns of South India.
The contemporary temple is the result of rebuilding efforts started by the Vijayanagara Empire rulers who rebuilt the core and reopened the temple.
In the 16th century, the temple complex was further expanded and fortified by the Nayaka ruler Vishwanatha Nayakar and later by others.
The restored complex now houses 14 Gopurams (gateway towers), ranging from 45–50 m in height, with the southern Gopura tallest at 51.9 metres.
The complex has numerous sculpted pillared halls such as Ayirakkal (1000-pillared hall), Kilikoondu-Mandapam, Golu-Mandapam and Pudu-Mandapam.
The temple is a major pilgrimage destination within the Shaivism tradition, dedicated to Meenakshi Devi and Shiva.
However, the temple includes Vishnu in many narratives, sculptures and rituals as he is considered to be Meenakshi’s brother.
This has made this temple and Madurai as the ‘Southern Mathura’, one included in Vaishnava texts.
The Meenakshi temple also includes Lakshmi, flute playing Krishna, Rukmini, Brahma, Saraswati, other Vedic and Puranic deities, as well as artwork showing narratives from major Hindu sacred lores.
The large temple complex is the most prominent landmark in Madurai and attracts tens of thousands of visitors everyday.
The temple attracts over a million pilgrims and visitors during the annual 10-day Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival, celebrated with much festivities and a Ratha (chariot) procession during the Tamil month of Chittirai (overlaps with April–May in Georgian calendar).
The Temple has been adjudged best ‘Swachh Iconic Place’ in India as on 1 October 2017 under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
The Meenakshi temple is located in the heart of historic Madurai city, about a kilometer south of the Vaigai River.
It is about 460 kilometres (290 mi) southwest from Chennai, the Tamilnadu state capital.
The temple complex is well connected with road network (four lane National Highway 38), near a major railway junction and an airport with daily services.
The city roads follow the Silpa Sastra guidelines for a city design.
Madurai is one of the many temple towns in the state which is named after the groves, clusters or forests dominated by a particular variety of a tree or shrub and the same variety of tree or shrub sheltering the presiding deity.
The region is believed to have been covered with Kadamba forest and hence called Kadambavanam.
Twelve Gopurams (Towers) grace the temple which is rectangular in shape. Of these the Southern Gopuram is the tallest (49 m) and the only one that may be climbed.
This temple is one of the best examples of Dravidian architecture and sculpture. The Hall of a Thousand Pillars is a museum of icons, photographs and illustrations.
Apart from being a sacred spot for the Hindus, the Meenakshi Temple is one of India’s most important tourist landmarks.
The goddess Meenakshi is the principal deity of the temple, unlike most Shiva temples in South India where Shiva is the principal deity.
According to a legend found in the Tamil sacred lore Tiruvilaiyadal Puranam, King Malayadwaja Pandya and his wife Kanchanamalai performed a Yajna seeking a son for succession.
Instead a daughter was born out of the fire who was already 3 years old and had three breasts.
Shiva intervenes and says that the parents should treat her like a son, and when she meets her husband, she will lose the third breast.
The king & queen follow the advice. The girl grows up, the king crowns her as the successor and when she meets Shiva, his words come true, she takes her true form of Meenakshi.
This may reflect the matrilineal traditions in South India and the regional belief that penultimate spiritual powers rest with the women, gods listen to their spouse, and that the fate of kingdoms rest with the women.
The reverence for Meenakshi is a part of the Hindu goddess tradition that integrates with the Hindu society where the woman is the lynchpin of the system of social relationships.
The marriage of Meenakshi and Shiva was the biggest event, with all gods, goddesses and living beings gathered in the wedding.
Vishnu is believed to be the brother of Meenakshi. Vishnu gives her away to Shiva at the wedding.
Description of Madurai Meenakshi Temple :
The temple complex is the center of the old city of Madurai. It consists of monuments inside a number of concentric enclosures, each layer fortified with high masonry walls.
The outer walls have four towering gateways, allowing devotees and pilgrims to enter the complex from all four directions.
After the city’s destruction in the 14th century, the Tamil tradition states that the king Vishwanatha Nayaka rebuilt the temple and the Madurai city around it in accordance with the principles laid down in the Shilpa Shastras.
The city plan is based on concentric squares with streets radiating out from the temple.
Early Tamil literatures mention that the temple was the center of the city and the streets happened to be radiating out like a lotus and its petals.
The temple Prakarams (outer precincts of a temple) and streets accommodate an elaborate festival calendar in which processions circumambulate the temple complex.
The vehicles used in the processions are progressively more massive the further they travel from the centre.
The temple complex is spread over about 14 acres. The courtyard is close to a square with each side of about 800 feet, but more accurately a rectangle with one side about 50 feet longer.
The complex has numerous shrines and Mandapas, of which the most important and largest are the two parallel shrines in the innermost courtyard, one for Meenakshi and the other for Sundareshvara.
Additionally, the complex has a golden lotus sacred pool for pilgrims to bathe in, a thousand-pillar hall choultry with extensive sculpture, the Kalyana Mandapa or wedding hall, many small shrines for Hindu deities.
There are shrines for the scholars from the Tamil Sangam history, buildings which are religious schools and administrative offices, elephant sheds, equipment sheds such as those for holding the chariots used for periodic processions and some gardens.
The temple is embedded inside a commercial hub and traditional markets.
A closer examination of the temple plan, as well as the old city, suggests that it is a Mandala, a cosmic diagram laid out based on principles of symmetry and loci.
The temple complex has had a living history, has been in use for almost all of its history except for about 60 years when it was closed and in ruins after its destruction in the 14th century.
The temple has continued to evolve in the modern era. For example, before the colonial era, the temple complex was itself inside another layer of old city’s fortified walls.
The British demolished this layer of fortification in the early 19th century.
The surviving plan of the temple complex places it within the old city, one defined by a set of concentric squares around the temple. Read more in the Wikipedia page of Madurai meenakshi Temple