In the Temple of the Fish-Eyed Goddess

While visiting Lady Doak College in the Tamil town of Madurai, my group made an excursion to the famed Meenakshi Amman Temple, which I’d been anticipating with deep interest. The temple is one of the few in the Hindu faith devoted to a female deity, and it is the most colorfully and elaborately decorated place of worship I’ve seen on this trip.

The story of Meenakshi begins with a childless king who founded the city of Madurai. In granting the king’s prayers for an heir, Shiva provided him with a child born “not of the womb” who was three years old when she appeared to the king. Meenakshi was said to have fish-shaped eyes, and as if that wasn’t unusual enough she also had three breasts. According to prophecy the third breast would “fall off” when she encountered her future husband. Her disconcerted parents were instructed to raise her as a male, and Meenakshi grew up to be a powerful war-minded successor to her father’s throne, reminiscent of the story of Hatshepsut, an Egyptian queen often depicted in ancient art with a false beard to emphasize her “masculine” dominance. In fact, Meenakshi was such a skilled military strategist that her expeditions led her to a battle with Shiva himself. At this point you might guess what happened next… “As soon as she caught sight of him, her third breast disappeared. and, overcome with modesty, innocence and shyness, she began to scrape the ground shyly with her toe.” (from Hindu Goddesses by David R. Kinsley). Shiva reduces the powerful battle queen to a shy maiden and eventually subservient wife. This theme of female deities being subjugated or tamed by gods is common in many other myths, particularly in South India. You’ll notice in the pictures below the proximity of Shiva to this temple meant for Meenakshi. As her creator and subsequent husband, his presence can be duly noted within the temple walls, although she clearly remains the focal point. In fact, when I later asked about the local significance of the goddess during a discussion with some of the Lady Doak faculty, the professors told me that her legend has deep roots in the community. It was a treat to be able to see the effect the temple visit had on the various patrons who entered.

I’ll mention also that William Dalrymple, one of my favorite travel writers on India, published a book called The Age of Kali, alternatively titled At the Court of the Fish-Eyed Goddess, if you want to read more about the subject of Meenakshi and other fascinating stories relating to the subjects of women and power in India.

The Fulbright group along with a group of students from the International University of Japan (also staying at Lady Doak College) were given a guided tour. As you can see from my pictures below, the temple was crowded and because of the noises and echoes in the inner chambers, I could hardly hear what the guide was saying throughout his enthusiastic gesticulations. Much of the time I wandered around by myself, taking in the stimulating scenery and trying to grasp the underlying complexities of what I saw. See for yourself:

Walking to the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai

A young devotee having his hair shorn outside the temple steps

The shoe depository. The girl to the left wearing the pink sari is a student from Lady Doak who accompanied us. She kept encouraging me to catch up with the group as I was lagging behind with all my picture-taking.

A view of the roof outside the temple entrance, depicting the seemingly endless pantheon of Hindu deities

Another view of the immaculately sculptured architecture

The crowd entering the temple. To my knowledge this was not a special occasion, just the normal early-day flow of patrons.

Sadly, even sacred sites like this are fringed with rubble and discarded waste

This ceiling fresco near the entrance is notable for the cherubic creatures flittering at each of the four corners, a depiction I've not seen anywhere else in India. I wondered if these were in some way inspired by Christian iconography but have not gotten a definite answer.

Detail of ceiling fresco. One of the students from Lady Doak told me that these angelic creatures are referred to in Tamil as "asparas," but after a little independent research I'm not so sure if these qualify. Please comment if you know anything about this!

A devotee leaves an offering at one of the many shrines inside the temple

Garlands are made and sold for patrons to place among the shrines

Mother and daughter pray before a shrine of Ganesh

This woman maintains the temple grounds with a "jhadu" or broom that is typically made from dried reeds or stems

Maintaining the temple in its pristine state

A refreshing sight. This young couple shares a loving embrace, one of the few displays of affection I've seen so far in India among members of the opposite sex.

A devotee applies a mixture of ochre-colored sandalwood to her forehead as she stands before the goddess Meenakshi (at least that's who I think it is).

Note the seemingly endless row of Hindu scripture along the wall to the left

I'm not entirely sure what the powder is, perhaps white ash which is often used to adorn the forehead during pooja, a mark associated primarily with followers of Shiva.

Common to many notable sites in India, a model of this grandiose temple is displayed behind glass so patrons can take in a holistic view of the structure

The smell of burning incense augmented the atmosphere. Note the statue of Nandi the bull.

Another view of the prayer candles

The family unit portrayed in some of the temple's artwork

The lotus flower, an emblem of purity in Hinduism and other eastern cultures

During poojas, worshippers often receive bowls of prasad, although this looks like it might have been some other food.

Worshippers prostrate themselves before the sacred shrines. Note the "kolam," a traditional floor drawing in southern India, thought to bestow prosperity.

Yes, that's an elephant in the temple!

During the bus rides in the city of Madurai, I had seen elephants being taken along some of the roadways. Apparently they are regularly brought to the temple to give blessings to patrons for a small fee. I’m not entirely sure what the normal price is for a blessing but for tourists it was something like 10 rupees, roughly a quarter in U.S. currency.

The guide encourages people to step forward to receive their blessing

Amy gets blessed

Bhavani and others receive their blessings.

Later, we went to another part of the temple where people could pay to ride the elephant, and presumably become doubly blessed.

Stacy is the first brave one

A fun time...

...briefly becomes a frightening time.

I hope Noeli’s blessings in particular take her very far. She was certainly more daring than me that day, because I didn’t get up there!

Kris and a student from the international school, giving the peace sign

Connie, in one of my favorite camera shots from the day

Natalie and some of the students from the international school took their turn…

A lot of us wondered how the elephant felt about all of this. He was quite gentle and patient, if not a bit yawny, during the whole performance.

We moved onward toward a newly designed extension of the temple that houses a special shrine to the fish-eyed goddess. Along the hallway leading to her statue, we saw stone-carved depictions of many other deities, as well as the musical bars which you will see below.

Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and music. I actually started the trip with a paper printout of Saraswati fastened to my backpack, to protect it, but it fell off. At any rate, I retained all my stuff.

The guide demonstrates the hollowness of a statue by tapping on it while Noeli listens to the resounding notes inside.

Reminds me of the Arany Tökös Ló Szobor in the castle district of Budapest, for reasons I won't explain here. Please note the false moustache and beard. Again, one must wonder what this is implying about feminine power.

The guide demonstrates the musical bars with what I believe was an original, perhaps improvised, composition:

A smiley shatriya stands in front of the goddess Meenakshi and Shiva's Nataraja incarnation..

A version of me stands before the goddess Meenakshi

After leaving the temple, we headed over to a nearby crafts manufacturer that specializes in carpets, statuary, jewelry, and many other quality works. From there we were able to get a rooftop view of the temple, which is what you see in the lead photo of this post.

Another rooftop view with Shiva's dancing Nataraja incarnation in the foreground

While we were there, the carpet dealers made a kind of sales presentation, while imbibing us with sodas. The rugs featured intricate patterns and organic dyes.

All in all, this was an utterly fascinating experience. It is worth noting, however, that I was not able to enter the innermost chamber of the temple, which is strictly the domain of devoted Hindus. Despite that stipulation, which seems entirely reasonable, the sense of spiritual wellness in the accessible areas of this temple was palpable. I feel so lucky to have seen this sacred place, and moreover to have seen the people gathered there in peaceful devotion.

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One thought on “In the Temple of the Fish-Eyed Goddess

  1. Pingback: In the Temple of the Fish-Eyed Goddess | Craig's Indian Summer | Indus Trade Point

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