It is narrated in legend that Madurai was originally a forest known as Kadambavanam. One day, a farmer named Dhananjaya who was passing through the forest, saw Indra (The king of the Gods), worshiping a swayambhu (self created lingam) under a Kadamba tree. Dhananjaya immediately reported this to King Kulasekara Pandya. Kulasekara Pandya cleared the forest and built a temple around the lingam. A city was soon planned with the temple as its centre. On the day the city was to be named, Lord Shiva is said to have appeared and drops of nectar from his hair rained upon the town. So, the place was named Madurai or mathuram meaning “sweetness” in Tamil.

In the 3rd century BC, Megasthanes visited Madurai. Later, business began booming as Romans and Greeks started trade with the Pandya kings. Madurai was a flourishing city in the 10th century AD when it was captured by Cholas (rulers of north east Tamilnadu); the arch rivals of the Pandyas.
The Cholas ruled Madurai from 920 AD till the beginning of the 13th century. In 1223 AD Pandyas regained their kingdom and once again become prosperous. Pandian Kings patronized Tamil language in a great way. During their period, many masterpieces were created. Silapathikaram, the great epic in Tamil was written based on the story of Kannagi a virtuous women of noble birth who burnt Madurai as a result of the injustice caused to her husband Kovalan, by the ruler of Madurai.

In April 1311, Malik Kafur, the general of Alauddin Khilji who was then the ruler of Delhi, reached Madurai and raided and robbed the city for precious stones, jewels, and other rare treasures. This led to the subsequent raids by other Muslim Sultans. In 1323, the Pandya kingdom including Madurai became a province of the Delhi empire under the Tughlaks.

In 1371 the Vijayanagar dynasty of Hampi captured Madurai and Madurai became part of the Vijayanagar empire. Kings of this dynasty were in the habit of leaving the captured land to governors called Nayaks. This was done for the efficient management of their empire. The Nayaks paid fixed amount annually to the Vijayanagar empire. After the death of Krishna Deva Raya (King of Vijayanagar empire) in 1530 AD, the Nayaks became independent and ruled the territories under their control. Among the Nayaks, Tirumalai Nayakar (1623-1659) was very popular. Even today, he is popular among people, since, it was he who contributed to the creation of many magnificent structures in and around Madurai. The Rajagopuram of the Meenakshi Amman Temple, The Pudu Mandapam and Tirumalai Nayakar’s Palace are living monuments that add to the city’s glory.

Madurai started slipping into the hands of the British East India Company. In 1781, the British appointed their representatives to look after Madurai. George Procter was the first Collector of Madurai.

Now after India’s independence, Madurai has established itself as one of the major districts of Tamil Nadu.