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Madurai

Madurai pronunciation is a town and a municipal corporation with a city population of 922,913 according to 2001 census. It is situated on the banks of River Vaigai in Madurai district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Madurai boasts of a cultural heritage that goes back 2500 years and has functioned as an important commercial center as early as 550 AD. Madurai was the capital city of the Pandya kings of South India. Today the city of Madurai is the administrative capital of Madurai district.

History

The origins of the city are cloaked in myth and little of its prehistory has come to light. When Madurai steps into the limelight of history, namely through the sliver of literature of the last Sangam (Tamil poetic conclave), it emerges as a confident and sophisticated society, presupposing centuries of hitherto poorly documented development. Nevertheless the city enjoyed its reputation as a magnet for literary and artistic activity during the early centuries before and after Christ in what is called the 'Sangam Age', named after the bardic conclaves which produced a copious amount of sophisticated literature under the patronage of the Pandya kings. The early history of the city, in fact at least until the 13th century A.D., is irrevocably tied with the fortunes of the Pandya clan which ruled the far south of India with Madurai as its capital. Megasthenes, the Seleucid envoy of the Mauryan court in Pataliputra, bears witness to the greatness of Madurai in the 3rd century B.C. through his Indica, albeit surviving as a fragmentary record in the writings of other classical historians. According to the account Madurai was governed by a queen by the name of Pandeia, the daughter of Herakles. He also makes note of the kingdom's wealth and like Kautilya in the Arthasastra makes account of the rich resources much sought by traders, namely gemstones, pearls and other rare organic produce. The Pandyas and their kingdom are also noted in other early texts, for instance in several recensions of the epics (Ramayana and the Mahabharata - though these may well be later additions), in the work of the Sanskrit grammarian Katyayana, Ptolemy's Geography, the anonymous Periplus of the Erthyean Sea and perhaps more famously in the Ashokan edicts. Little note however has been made of the city's customs and physical remains though. One interesting exception however is noted by Megasthenes, namely that of individual households taking turns to supply the royal house with necessities like clarified butter and grain. This practice must have been ancient since it is confirmed by the later Tamil epic Silapadikaram. Tamil sources themselves confirm the antiquity of the city.

From the 5th century onwards more material, especially stone statuary, survives to validate the antiquity of the city's artistic traditions. The Meenakshi Sundareswara temple which is at the heart of Madurai does not survive in its original state for much comment to be made of its early architecture. Nevertheless the temple and its goddess, the tutelary deity of the Pandyas and according to legend an early progenitor of the line herself is surely of great antiquity. Much of its early history like the city's is shrouded in myth and little remains of 'history' to be gathered. Nevertheless it would suffice to mention that it was built originally by the early Pandya king Kulasekhara to house the Shiva Linga, apparently worshipped by the Deva Indra. The walls around the Sundarewara shrine are surely ancient since they are also attested to by the Saint Sambandar in his hymns. The artistic tradition of the city becomes clearer towards the late medieval age, especially in the Vijayanagar-Nayaka age where enough survives to distinguish numerous craft industries ranging from ivory carving to bronze-working. Turning to the religious affiliations of the city, note has already been made of the city's ancient shrine to Meenakshi and Sundareswara, in effect the divine pair Shiva-Parvati though it has been proposed that these were regional deities posthumously identified with Brahmanical deities in the complicated process of 'Aryanisation'. Nevertheless as attested by literature the Pandyas were ardent supporters of the Brahmanic faith and all temples in the city have in the foundation-myths, royal origins. The archetypal king was of course the great warrior, patron of arts and letters and above all a model of piety, perhaps surviving in sculptural form in the Nayaka king portraits in anjali mudra gracing the mandapas of Madurai's great temple. Also gracing the city in the early centuries of the first millennium were the Saiva and Vaishnava saints who produced the devotional literature represented in the Nalayira Divya Prabhandam (Vaishnava) and the Tevaram corpus (Saiva). In Madurai's history the child-saint Sambandar was probably most famous for having performed the conversion of the Pandya king who adhered to the Jaina faith. In a series of miracles the Saiva saint shamed the Jaina advisors of the King, who later suffered the terrible fate of impalement. Jainism was for most of Madurai's early history a successful rival to the Brahmanic faith. Interestingly the earliest inscriptions (2nd century B.C) in the Madurai environs belong to Jain ascetics who inscribed them on nearby granitic outcrops. Many other notable Jain sites like Sittanavasal are also to be found in the Pandya domain, most in close proximity to Madurai.

Economy

Madurai's economy was chiefly agrarian. Paddy plantation was widely seen. Textiles and tourism contribute significantly to the local economy. Madurai is famous for "Sungidi", a fine-count, zari-bordered, fabric painted cotton saree. However, in the past few years, overt dependence on monsoons, and international competition and cheaper imports have dented the performance of agriculture and textile sectors respectively. Madurai has a thriving flower industry, jasmine in particular. "Madurai Malli" jasmine is well known across Tamil Nadu and beyond for its enchanting fragrance. The cultivation of jasmine is done at the foothills of Kodaikanal near Madurai, with its red soil which retains water. The flowers are in good demand in other parts of India like Salem, Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata and Hyderabad. They are also exported to the Middle East and Singapore, where they are used in perfumes.

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