We’ve been intrigued by the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai since reading an essay on it by William Dalrymple in The Age of Kali.
Meenakshi is a form of the goddess Parvati. She is the wombless issue of the Pandyan King Malayadhwaja and his wife Kanchanamala – a gift from Shiva. She is born with three breasts and beautifully shaped (fish eyed – Meena) eyes so she is called Meenakshi. Her father is disappointed she is a girl with three breasts but the god tells him to bring up the child and educate her like a man and when she sees the man who is to be her husband her third breast will disappear.
When her father dies she rules wisely, her valour is uncontested and all fall to her army until none are left to vanquish except Shiva himself.
The moment Meenakshi sees Shiva, resplendent in tiger skin, wearing live snake ornaments, white ash and the sacred thread giving her a knowing and omniscient smile she knows instantly just who he is. Shiva, her beloved. Her third breast disappears.
Most of the present Temple was built in the 14th Century and then renovated in the 17th.
It’s one of the gentlest temples and temple towns we’ve come across. The Tamils of Madurai are generous and friendly. The pilgrims ever-smiling, inquisitive and gracious. There are lots of jaundiced looking people and children that we worry about but then realize they are covering themselves in turmeric.
For health? For beauty? (surely not). It’s a little eerie and unnerving. It remains yet another mystery of Madurai.
There is a daily ceremony where Meenakshi is bathed and dressed so she may receive Sundaresvara (Shiva) in her chamber each night. Each morning they are awakened and Sundaresvara is returned to his chamber.
Throughout the year a metal version of Meenakshi is led on a special, brightly coloured chariot, festooned with flowers and led around the temple.
The Museum in the temple is a fascinatingly badly- curated one. Treasures are in dusty, cobwebbed cabinets with no explanation. A surround-mural has intermittent but incomprehensible explanations. There is a whole graveyard of dead flies. There are some very naughty “piggies” that get up to no end of mischief.
For some mad reason the Jains (depicted in very very grey colours) are impaled (ouch) on particularly gruesome sittable impaling instruments and are depicted with the little points sticking out of the top of their poor heads. There are some very pink people who have either been erased by the gods or melted in Hell.
Heaven looks like a place of not many delights unless you get a thrill out of killing wild animals and exacting horrible torments on people who have crossed you.
Just outside the temple Pineapples dangle and pilgrims, tailors and pretty girls pose, a fair bit of milling and thronging goes on, with colour themed lungis and saris.
The travelling medicine man of Madurai wraps another bottle of his miracle linament whilst his customer ponders his purchase.
Then explains its virtues to the Missus.