Published on 27th November, 2016, in Mumbai Mirror.
We have all heard the story of Ram, a prince from North India, who went to the southern tip of India. But when was the last time you heard of a queen who travelled from Madurai in the south to Kailasa in the North to find herself a groom. That princess was called Tadaatagai, more popularly known as Meenakshi, she whose eyes are as shapely as the contours of a fish.
The Pandya king of Madurai was childless and the gods blessed him with a daughter who was born from a pit of fire. She had three breasts, and it was foretold that the extra breast would disappear the day she met a man worthy of being her husband. She was raised as in the royal arts and sciences and she succeeded her father and then decided to go on the conquest of the world. She travelled north, defeating all the kings of the world, as well as the gods, and the ganas (servants of Shiva), and Nandi (mount of Shiva) and finally met her match in a young hermit who turned out to be Shiva. When their eyes met, Meenakshi realised she was Parvati reborn. Her extra breast disappeared, and she took the hermit-god, now named Sundareshwara, meaning beautiful lord, to her city of Madurai to be her husband and consort.
The temple of Madurai is one the grandest in Tamil Nadu spread over fourteen acres with twelve large gateway towers known as gopurams, the tallest being the one in the south, and vast painted pillared corridors, one of which was once lined with cages full of parrots trained to chant the name of presiding goddess all day. The current structure is less than 500 years old, built by Nayaka kings. The king asked the people of Madurai to give only a fistful of rice to feed the artisans. Thus everyone contributed to building the temple for their legendary queen.
The older temple was attacked and plundered 700 years ago by a Muslim king called Malik Kafur according to temple lore. References to this temple are found in the poems of Sundarar composed 1200 years ago, at a time, when worship of Shiva gradually started overshadowing the monastic Jain traditions that had flourished until then in Madurai since the time of Chandragupta Maurya. Madurai was the city where the earliest gathering of Tamil poets, known as Sangam, was held.
Historians date Sangam literature to around 2000 years ago, but there is speculation that it is much older. There is even a theory popular amongst Tamil supremacists that Madurai is the city built in a fragrant Kadamba forest by the survivors of the ancient continent of Kumari Kandam (known to Western antediluvian enthusiasts as Lemuria) that went under the sea during the last Ice Age.
It is estimated that in the temple corridors and towers there are over 33,000 icons, each one telling a story, some from the Puranas, some from local lore, such as the tale of how Shiva turned local foxes into horses and how a stone elephant came alive lured by the scent of sugarcane. The temple is lined with gigantic images of gods and goddesses, all kinds of mythical beasts such as the yali (lion with heads of elephants), and of common people too: warriors, dancers, musicians, performers, tribals. The one that catches the eye is that of an effeminate man and a woman sporting a beard (a cross-dresser), revealing a rich liberal and artistic culture. There is even a thousand pillared hall, which has the famous ‘musical’ pillars made of stone.
The main icon of Meenakshi shows her holding a parrot, symbol of Kama, god of love. She also has a small dagger on her waist band, reminding everyone who is the overlord. On the temple wall is the image of her marriage. Here, it is important to note that, it is she who receives the groom’s hand, as against a conventional wedding where the groom receives the bride’s hand. Shiva’s shrine, separate from Meenakshi’s, and smaller, is held aloft by eight life-sized elephants, indicating the devotion of Indra, king of the gods, bringer of rain.
In the month of Chitirai month the marriage of Meenakshi and Sundareshwara is re-enacted in a month long festival. Vishnu, Meenakshi’s elder brother known as Alagar as per Tamil Temple lore, travels on a horse from his temple across the river Vaigai to attend the ceremony but reaches too late and so turns back irritated. To appease Vishnu, Meenakshi and her husband meets him in the middle of the river and accept his wedding gifts, but he steadfastly refuses to enter the city Madurai, thus venting the local Shaiva-Vaishnava rivalry.
There are many tales associated with the temple’s legendary wealth. Like the tale of sapphire pendant of the Goddess that was sent to England so that Queen Victoria could see it; it was subsequently returned. And of the jewellery gifted to the Goddess by an Englishman called Rose Peter in the 19th century in gratitude for drawing him from a building that was subsequently struck by lightening; he asked that he be buried facing the temple. There are chains of coins that came from ancient Rome via sea-merchants, and coins minted by the East India company.
Every night, the festival image (utsava murti) of Shiva travels to the private chambers of the Goddess-queen on a palanquin in a musical procession. Her priests welcome him with flowers and he is placed on a swing next to the utsava murti of Meenakshi. The special room is full of fragrant jasmine flowers and has mirrors on the walls. Having spent all day taking care of her kingdom, she spends all night adoring her beloved. Thus is reinforced the value placed in Hindu traditions of the householder over the hermit.