meeting meenakshi in madurai

"In-Roads", Life Positive Magazine, Jan 2004

As the story goes, when Pandya, the childless king of Madurai, was performing a fire ritual, a three-year old girl appeared from the sacrificial fire. The girl was pretty, but had three breasts. This worried the king. However, a divine voice assured him that it would vanish as soon as the girl meets her consort. The girl grew into a bold and beautiful princess, and no sooner did she saw Shiva on the battle-field of Mt Kailas, her third breast disappeared! The princess was none other than Parvati, and after the couple wed and ruled long over the Pandya Kingdom, they settled in Madurai.

The train screeched forth as soon as I finished hearing this tale from a co-passenger. My journey started towards the famous Madurai temple in Tamil Nadu, where the couple (princess Meenakshi and Sundereshwar Shiva) is residing ever since. As I watched the sky change color and wear a bridal red, I marveled at the strength of their love. Till today, their wedding is held sacred, their idols worshipped, and their union revered. The pillars of Meenakshi temple resonate the tales of their love, it is said. Soon the aroma of sambar, dal vadas, and freshly prepared idlis being served on banana leaves permeated the air. I wrote a haiku, “The breeze moves the branch, the branch the bird; the bird the breeze”, before finally lulled to sleep by the rhythmic notes of the train.

The next morning found me in the relaxed town of Madurai, pulsating with the presence of the Goddess. The temple stands towering over the teeming city streets. Checking into a room near the temple complex, I waited to be called. Admiring the commanding structure from different angles kept my attention gripped for one entire day. From each view, the temple looked different, with each of its four awe-inspiring entrances giving a different glimpse of the temple, where Parvati (disguised as Meenakshi) resides with her timeless consort Shiva. As evening of the next day strolled past, it whispered an invitation in my ear. With an offering of a Jasmine flower in my palm, I entered from the eastern street through the Astha Sakshi Mandapam, with its pillars illustrating different aspects of Goddess Meenakshi and the miracles performed by Lord Shiva in Madurai. I passed idols of Ganesha, carvings of the eight Shaktis, immunerable inscriptions of verses, and thousands of idols embedded on the walls and ceilings on the way. Hearing the sculpted figures narrate details of the wedding, it felt as though a perennial celebration is underway each moment in vibrant color and spectacular ritual.

In temple tradition, it is customary to meet the Goddess before encountering Shiva. Of course, isn’t the route to Shiva through Shakti! Procuring a rupee ticket from the counter, as I moved towards the shrine of the Shakti incarnate Pandyan princess, I knew I had embarked not in a temple, but a city! The sprawling area of over 6 hectares boasts of long corridors, towering sculptures and several 45-50 m tall gopurams or gateways, studded with myriad mythological images of Dravidian gods and goddesses. The busy lanes of this city are dotted with several dance halls (whose mention is heard in the poetic renditions of Tamil scholars), stunning architectural splendor, and rich legend.

Skipping the line of devouts, I sat facing the splendid shrine of the Goddess. The 2000 year old dark sanctuary was lit up with a single oil lamp, which revealed the countenance of Meenakshi, carved out of a single emerald rock. The delicately adorned Pandya beauty with high cheek-bones, arched eyebrows, and well defined chin and lotus like eyes cast a spell. If her stone image could be so engrossing, how bewitching must she be in flesh and bone! I could watch her endlessly, if not for the call of the priest, who signaled me to come forward and receive prasadam (lotus flower offering from her feet) with a pack of sindoor (vermillion). I proceeded past the sanctum sanctorum, and crossed a corridor with mythical lions jumping out of pillars, a gigantic idol of Ganesha (unearthed 1.8 miles from the temple by King Thirumalai Nayakar); a dancing Nataraja (dancing pose of Shiva), the ancient tank of golden lotuses where Lord Indra is believed to have plucked out golden lotuses to worship Shiva.

Past the 12 ft high statues of dwarapalaks (gatekeepers), 8 elephants and 12 lions keeping vigil at the entrance, I proceeded to meet Lord Sundereshwara Shiva, the lord of lords! Face-to-face with the idol, it was evident that the splendor preceding the shrine was an effort to match his grandeur. It was the culmination of my visit, when I got ushered into the awe-inspiring thousand-pillared hall, with 985 pillars arranged such that they appear to be in a straight line from all angles. The 22 smaller musical pillars have been carved out from a single stone. Each pillar spoke to me a different tale of Shiva's power and compassion. It seemed as though the thousand-pillar hall was the Sahasrāra "thousand-petalled" crown chakra, which the yogis merge into at the culmination of their striving.