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:
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.
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.
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!
Natalie and some of the students from the international school took their turn…
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.
The guide demonstrates the musical bars with what I believe was an original, perhaps improvised, composition:
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.
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.