In South India, temples are not just mere buildings devoted to worshipping a particular God or a Goddess. From stone carvings on walls to beautiful sculptures on pillars and colourful frescoes on the ceiling, they are a representation of ancient tales retold by different dynasties, in their own style, that hold great religious significance.
The Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai had one such chronicle to tell us through its sculptural tradition when we visited the magnificent architectural marvel a couple of months back.
A temple that seats itself in a spacious 45 acres of land, right in the heart of Madurai, is said to have a history as old as the history of the city itself or maybe even older. We will never know. Oh, but sometimes there is beauty in what we will never know, right?
If legends are to be believed, it all started with the birth of the beautiful fish eyed baby girl who was born to the longtime childless Pandya King Malayadwaja and his wife, Kanchanamalai.
As a result of their prayers, she emerged from the holy fire with an extra breast and was named Meenakshi – the one who had eyes like that of a fish.
While her parents noticed that she had a third breast, they heard a voice from heaven asking them not to worry about their little girl’s deformity. The voice of the omnipresent also added that she would lose her superfluous breast as and when she meets her potential soulmate.
While in one part of the world little Meenakshi was growing up to be a great warrior princess preparing to ascend the throne, getting trained in the field of science and the art of warfare, in another side of the planet was Lord Indra (the defender of the Gods and the mankind from everything evil) committing a huge sin. He goes on to kill a demon, even though the demon hadn’t harmed anyone.
This act of ungodliness brings a curse upon him which forces him to live a life of a rootless wanderer.
No one is ready to show him the way to redeem himself from his plight, until one day he chances upon a ‘Shivalingam’ under the kadamba tree in a dense forest where he goes on to build a small temple.
The mythological connection behind the temple says that Princess Meenakshi, after her coronation, wages a war against three worlds. After conquering Sathyaloka (Bhrahma’s dwelling) and Vaikunda (Vishnu’s abode), she valiantly advances to Kailasa, Shiva’s base camp.
Though she easily defeats Shiva’s army and his trusted confidant, Nandi, the moment she sets her eyes on Lord Shiva, her third breast vanishes.
She, almost immediately realises that she was the manifestation of Goddess Parvathi and that Shiva is the man she was meant to live the rest of her life with.
Celebrations began at the very same temple that Lord Indra had built for Shiva, to atone his sins, in the southern part of India. Many Gods and Goddesses descends to earth to witness the occasion, partake in the festivities and bless the couple. Their representation is shown on the pillars and walls of the the temple in the form of sculptures depicting various Gods and Goddesses with their striking features, in action.
It is said that they refused to have the meal they were served until Shiva performed his glorious dance. Legend has it that Shiva performed the cosmic dance in front of his young and attractive wife Meenakshi, while the others watched the representation of life and beauty merge into one. This union is celebrated as Chitirai Thiruvizha festival during the months of April and May.
Millions of devotees are said to visit the city in general and the temple in specific during these months while the festivities end with the celestial marriage of Shiva and Shakti.
After the marriage, they went on to live in this temple complex, located on the southern banks of the Vaigai river, for a few years and later became Sundareswarar and Meenakshi, the deities of the temple.
This Dravidian work of art, placed in the geographical center of Madurai, is said to receive about 15,000 devotees every day. Devotees come in large numbers and wait long hours in the queue to catch a glimpse of Meenakshi with a parrot on her right hand. Other attractions in this temple are the huge sculpture of Ganesha, the gold plated Sundareswarar shrine, the Meenakshi shrine made of emerald hued black stone, the temple lake, 108 Shivalingas and the Nataraja sculpture, the dancing form of Lord Shiva.
While revelling in the grandeur of the temple, we almost forgot to walk around the lotus shaped city built around this masterpiece and enjoy a glass of Madurai’s famous Jigarthanda. Almost!