Madurai is closely associated with the Tamil language, and the third Tamil Sangam, a major congregation of Tamil scholars said to have been held in the city. The recorded history of the city goes back to the 3rd century BCE, being mentioned by Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Maurya empire, and Kautilya, a minister of the Mauryan emperor Chandragupta Maurya. Signs of human settlements and Roman trade links dating back to 300BC are evident from excavations by Archeological Survey of India in Manalur. The city is believed to be of significant antiquity and has been ruled, at different times, by the Pandyas, Cholas, Madurai Sultanate, Vijayanagar Empire, Madurai Nayaks, Carnatic kingdom, and the British East India Company British Raj.
The city has a number of historical monuments, with the Meenakshi Amman Temple and Tirumalai Nayak Palace being the most prominent. Madurai is an important industrial and educational hub in South Tamil Nadu. The city is home to various automobile, rubber, chemical and granite manufacturing industries.
Madurai has important government educational institutes such as the Madurai Medical College, Homeopathic Medical College, Madurai Law College, Agricultural College and Research Institute. Madurai city is administered by a municipal corporation established in 1971 as per the Municipal Corporation Act. The city covers an area of 147.97 km2 and had a population of 1,017,865 in 2011. The city is also the seat of a bench of the Madras High Court. The Madurai Bench has been functioning since 2004.
The city is referred by various names including "Madurai", "Koodal", "Malligai Maanagar", "Naanmadakoodal" and "Thirualavai". The word Madurai may be derived from Madhura (sweetness) arising out of the divine nectar showered on the city by the Hindu god Siva from his matted hair. Another theory is that Madurai is the derivative of the word Marutham, which refers to the type of landscape of the Sangam age. A town in the neighbouring Dindigul district is called Vada Madurai (North Madurai) and another in Sivagangai district is called Manamadurai. The different names by which the city has been referred to historically are listed in the 7th-century poem Thiruvilayaadal puraanam written by Paranjothi Munivar.
Koodal means an assembly or congregation of scholarly people, referring to the three Tamil Sangams held at Madurai. Naanmadakoodal, meaning the junction of four towers, refers to the four major temples for which Madurai was known for. Tevaram, the 7th- or 8th-century Tamil compositions on Shiva by the three prominent Nayanars (Saivites), namely Appar, Sundarar and Thirugnanasambandar, address the city as Thirualavai. As per Iravatham Mahadevan, a 2nd-century BCE Tamil-Brahmi inscription refers to the city as matiray, an Old Tamil word meaning a "walled city".