Tam: மதுரை madurai
‘Walled City’ [Matirai] City/District, Tamil Nadu
From Tam: matiḷ, ‘wall (round a fort)’, ‘walled city or fortification’
Records of the name Matirai date back to 2ndC Tamil-Brahmi cave inscriptions.
Madurai was once a double-walled fortified city: an original granite inner fort built by the Pandyas, the ancient Tamil dynasty dating back to the first millennium BCE; and a brick and lime outer wall built by the Nayaks in the 16thC.
The original city, it is said, had four entrances:
‘…so lofty that a full-grown elephant with a man on its back entered the gate without the man having to lower the flag post he held!’ [Madurai Kanchi in Shrikumar (2019)].
The only evidence now of these fortifications are the agazhi or ‘moat’ streets [Tam: akaḻi/agazhi, ‘ditch’, ‘moat’]. Another name for the city is Nanmatakutal [Tam: nāṉ , ‘four’; māṭam , ‘tower’, ‘palace’, ‘quarter’; kūṭal, ‘junction’] which could also refer to these gates or maybe to Madurai’s celebrated temple.
Madurai is famous for its awesome Meenakshi Temple [gigapixel image], one of the architectural and cultural wonders of India. It is dedicated to Princess Meenakshi, the city’s fish-eyed, three-breasted patron deity (identified with Parvati) who was destined to lose her third breast when she met her husband Sundaram (identified with Shiva).
A competing derivation is Skt: madhura, ‘sweet’. This has two mythological tales to accompany it. The first dates back to the founding of the city in the early Pandyan era when Shiva poured nectar onto the city to consecrate it. In the second tale, Shiva kills a giant venomous snake which was terrorising the city. The snake, as it was dying, released a very powerful poison which polluted the city:
‘The stench enveloped the City of Nectar and the fumes permeated everywhere. People swooned and died. Despair gripped Madurai. Seeing their plight, Shiva, the epitome of mercy, shook his matted locks over the city and showered it with nectar. The divine ‘amrit’, food of the immortal gods, served as the antidote to the snake-demon’s venom.’ [Kannan (2016)].
Another derivation suggests a North-South twinning with Mathura/Madura in North India, even matching a playful, handsome Krishna with the playful (Tam: viḷaiyātal), handsome Sundaram (Tam: cuntaram). Ancient texts refer to Maduras in the North and in the South. Madurai in this derivation is the Southern Mathura.
Madurai is itself described as having a Southern counterpart (Teṉ Maturai) which was much further south and was the (mythical) site of the first of the great Tamil Sangams or literary academies, swallowed up in a great flood.