You may wonder that Ghummakkad talks more about charitable projects without giving much info the cities itself, right? Let me put some of my critics to rest today, as I will only talk about one of the most beautiful temples of India…the Meenakshi Temple. Nominated as one of the new seven wonders of the world, a first-timer can easily get lost in the temple, as it is connected with various chambers, mandapams, walkways and the art (an estimate of 33 million sculptures!) itself will leave you mesmerized. My first visit to Meenakshi left my camera and me mesmerized for three days!
It won’t be incorrect to say that both Madurai City and the Sundereshwara Meenakshi Temple originated together, and the structures that stand today go back to the 12th century A.D. Before I take you through the temple, lets understand the legend behind the temple. Goddess Meenakshi is an avatar of the Hindu Goddess Parvati- the consort of Shiva, and she is the main deity of the temple, unlike Shiva, who resides in most of the South Indian Temples. The local Pandyan King Malayadwaja Pandya and his wife Kanchanamalai were without an heir and thus prayed profusely to be blessed by a successor. During one of these yagnas. Goddess Parvati appeared out of the Holy fire and blessed the queen with a girl, with three breasts, and named her Tadaatagai. Sensing the dilemma of the parents upon seeing the girl, the Goddess reassured them that the third breast would vanish as soon as the girl met her swami…her husband…her soulmate. The girl grew up to be a brave soldier and an apt successor to the throne, and she conquered almost all but one area- The Nandi Mountain or Shiva’s Abode. As soon as she reached the mountain to conquer, she spotted Shiva, upon which her third breast vanished. Sensing that Shiva was her Lord, she bowed and returned to Madurai to be married. Now isn’t that a story?
Enter from anywhere, but head straight for the Golden Lotus Tank…just to get oriented with the complex. On your way, you would cross the temple market, where flower sellers have their little stalls, which have been a profession for generations. Throughout the day, they keep making garlands out of colourful flowers. You will also come across a row of stalls selling various items for daily use…photographs of the deities, incense, prayer books, beads, music, dolls…all connected to the legend of Meenakshi and Shiva. It is a place to shop!
The Golden Lotus Tank, as the name suggests, has a golden lotus in its center. This is the hangout place of the temple, so do just that! The lotus temple tank becomes a place, where one sits and ‘chill’. As the walkways are covered, and the water provides a cool breeze, many devotees just sit and think, worship, chit-chat, read or whatever they want to do. I was shocked to see many newly married couple, with their families at this place, making it a perfect place for candid photography.
On one end of the tank, is a miniature model of the temple. Stop by and see it, just in case you get lost, you would know how to find your way back! There is also a ticket counter (buy camera tickets), donation counters as well as the entry to the Meenakshi shrine.
Meenakshi’s shrine, and for that matter even the Shiva Shrine has multiple entrances. There is a common entrance, which is free for all and usually have a long wait. This line will take you to the doors of the shrine and you can pay your respects from there. The Special Entry beats the crowd and fast tracks you to the middle chamber of the shrine, slightly closer to the idol. You can get that extra 3 minutes to worship as well. If you are one of the hefty patrons, you will be taken straight to the idol for a longer puja! So, plan in advance which line you would like to take. Make sure you take a circle around the main sanctum before coming out of the shrine. Note: The main shrines of the Meenakshi and Sundereshwara are closed to Non-Hindus.
As soon as I stepped out of the shrine, I was thrown back into rush hour. Groups of people were walking past me, towards the tank, or the exits, or the Sundereshwara shrine, which is housed in a separate mandapam. As I walked towards the shrine dedicated to Shiva, i crossed long walkways with painted ceilings, which ended up in giving me a crick in the neck. But it’s worth it! As you walk towards the front entrance of the shrine, you will notice number of people who are sitting and burning candles/diyas. It becomes quite a sight as there are portions of the stone floor that are completely lit by this. Around the pillars, I also saw huge sculptures of Shiva and Kali, engaged in a dancing competition. A stall nearby sells ‘butter balls’, which devotees throw at both the deities, requesting them to cool down. So, make sure you take your best shot!
Somewhere, in the huge compound, is the temple elephant. Most, if not all, South Indian temples have one. They are beautifully decorated and trained to bless the passersby, for a little fee, or course. A Rupee or two is placed in the truck of the elephant, who then places the trunk on your head. For the first timer, it is a bit edgy but after having tried it, it was worth the money spent. The elephant only pats your head, so don’t worry. A group of international tourists were standing in a queue to get blessed…seeing an elephant up close was one thing, being blessed was another!
As evening falls, the temple is buzzing with activity. People gather around the main chambers to see one of the daily and also important rituals of the temple. Every evening at bed time, the idols are placed inside Sundereshwara’s bedchamber. This procession is accompanied by music, devotees, and priests and as they walk towards the chambers to consummate their marriage. Each and every detail is taken care off…even the nose-ring of the Goddess is taken off, so that the Lord is not accidentally hurt during their celestial lovemaking!
A day at Madurai Meenakshi is long and filled with adventures. The temple is closed in the afternoon, so make sure that get some rest before coming back for the evening festivities. If you happen to be there during the harvest festival…it is spectacular! So, don’t miss it!