According to the legend, on the day the Madurai was to be named, Lord Shiva blessed the land and its people while divine nectar showered from his dreadlocked hair. The city hence came to be known as "Madhurapuri"—the City of Divine Nectar.
Perhaps the two most famous legends associated with Madurai are those of Kannagi and Meenakshi—the first a woman who ascended to the status of a goddess, the second a goddess who's legend has become one with the history of the city's people.
Madurai is centred on its 2,500-year-old Meenakshi-Sundareswarar Temple1; the city's streets and thoroughfares expand out from there, one after another, in a concentric fashion, as if like a lotus flower.
The Legend of Meenakshi Devi
The legend of Goddess Meenakshi begins with her father, Emperor Malayadwaja Pandyan, the successor to Madurai's founder Kulasekhara Pandyan.
For years, Malayadwaja and his consort Kanchanmala were unable to conceive any children. In attempts to beget a child, Malaydwaja conducted many Vedic homas [rituals involving a fire pit]. Finally, in the middle of one such ritual, a three-year-old girl with three breasts2 emerged from the homa flames and sat on Kanchanmala's lap. The girl in fact was Goddess Parvati, who had taken birth as Kanchanmala's daughter in response to a prayer of hers in her past life.
In fact, Malayadwaja was a bit sad that he was not blessed with a son. But suddenly he heard a disembodied voice tell him that he should name the girl "Tatātakai" and to raise her as if she was were a son. The voice ensured Malayadwaja that Tatātakai's third breast would be absorbed back into her body when she first cast her eyes on the man who would become her husband—Lord Shiva.
Malaydwaja obeyed the divine command. He named Tatātakai his successor and taught her the art of war. After Malayadwaja's death, Tatātakai ascended to the throne. She was the beloved of the people and came to be known as "Meenakshi"—the one with fish-like eyes3. Meenakshi embarked on a dig-vijaya, a military campaign of victory across the length and breadth of India. After numerous victories on earth, Meenakshi attacked Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva. She defeated all the soldiers and generals of the Lord. Seeing this, Shiva himself came to fight the undaunted queen. But as soon as Meenakshi saw the Lord, the prophecy of her youth bore fruit: she instantly fell in love with him and her third breast went back inside her body.
Shiva directed Meenakshi to return to her home city, promising her that he would join her in eight days as her bridegroom. And this is exactly what happened. They were married in Madurai with Lord Vishnu himself giving away Meenakshi to Shiva. Meenakshi Kalyanam—the marriage of Meenakshi with Shiva—is celebrated annually to this day.
According to the sthala purana—Tiruvilayadal Puranam, written by Paranjothi Munivar in the 16th century—Meenakshi and Lord Shiva ruled over the city of Madurai for a long time in the form of mortals.
(Emporer Sundara Pandya being considered to be Lord Shiva. His son, Ugra Pandya, considered to be Lord Subrahmanya.) The 64 miracles of Lord Shiva that are enumerated in this later-day Tamil purana are taken from the Sanskrit Halasya Mahatmyam.