To the world, Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple is a centre of pilgrimage. But to someone who grew up in the quaint little south Indian town, the temple is more than just that–it is a palace of incredible stories.
I remember walking around the magnificent premises on quiet mornings, listening to the many tales my parents told me about the temple and its deities. Our voices and footsteps echoed in the long, near-empty corridors, as the smell of incense and flowers filled the air. However, a lot has changed at the temple in the recent times. The quiet place of worship has transformed into a noisy, bustling tourist spot with security guards stationed at every corner.
The popularity is well-deserved, one might say. The grand abode of Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswarar stands on the banks of River Vaigai, in the heart of the 2,500-year-old city of Madurai. It has a total of 14 gopurams (towers), two of which are made of gold. These gold gopurams roof the garbagrihas (sanctum sanctorum) of the main deities.
The main deity Meenakshi is the fish-eyed incarnation of Goddess Parvati who, according to Hindu mythology, once ruled Madurai. By her side is her consort Sundareswarar, an incarnation of Lord Shiva who descended to the earth to marry the queen. In fact, one of the important legends behind the iconic temple is of how this holy matrimony came to be.
A voice from the heavens declared that the child was an incarnation of Goddess Parvati and that her third breast would disappear the day she meets the man she is meant to marry.
The story begins with the Pandya king Malayadwaja and his wife Kanchanamalai conducting the Putrakameshti Yagna, a sacrifice to appeal to the gods to bless them with a child. Their prayers were soon answered, and from the sacrificial pyre arose a girl child with three breasts. A voice from the heavens declared that the child was an incarnation of Goddess Parvati and that her third breast would disappear the day she meets the man she is meant to marry.
Overjoyed, the royal couple named her Tadatagai and raised her to be a fierce warrior princess. She was trained in the 64 shastras (holy sciences) and named the royal heir. After the death of Malayadwaja, Tadatagai was coronated as the queen of Madurai. She was then given the name ‘Meenakshi’ by the people of the town. Some believe that the name has Sanskrit roots and means ‘she who has fish-like eyes’. In Tamil, however, the name literally means ‘the rule of the fish’–a reference to the emblem of the Pandya kingdom.
As it was traditional for rulers to set out on Digvijaya (tour of conquest) after their coronation, the queen then set out to wage a war on kingdoms in every direction. Given her prowess as a warrior, she easily conquered the mortal world and ascended to the heavens. There, she seized Brahma’s Satyaloka, Vishnu’s Vaikunta and then advanced to Shiva’s Kailasa. But as she came face to face with Shiva, there was a moment of recognition and her third breast disappeared. Meenakshi then realised she was an incarnation of Goddess Parvati, Shiva’s consort.
Lord Shiva then descended to earth as Sundara Pandyan to marry Meenakshi. Legend has it that their wedding, which was held at the royal palace, was the grandest event ever to be held in the entire world. To this day, it is commemorated with a 10-day festival called Meenakshi Thirukalyanam in Madurai, during the month of May every year. The wedding ceremony is re-enacted with the aid of jewel-encrusted idols, palanquins, and chariots. Thousands of people from across the country flock to the city to watch this spectacle.
The sanctity of the temple is amplified by all that it has managed to survive over the centuries. It is indeed astonishing how much history and mythology the magnificent temple holds in its brilliantly carved pillars and art-filled interiors.
Besides the ones for the goddess and her consort, there are shrines for several other deities on the premises. Pilgrims who come to the temple tend to make a day of it. After visiting all the shrines and offering their prayers, they sit by the temple pond–the Potramarai Kulam (the Golden Lotus Pond)–and enjoy a plate of appams (sweet rice-based fritters) or laddus from the prasadam (holy offerings) stall.
In the past few years, efforts have been made to preserve the ancient sculptures and other structures in the temple. While it’s hard to tell exactly how old the temple is, it has been mentioned in works of poetry that date as far back as the 7th century AD. And according to historical records, the temple has been modified and almost entirely rebuilt several times over the centuries. Around 1300 AD, all 14 gopurams of the temple were destroyed when the Delhi Sultanate invaded the Pandya Kingdom. At the time of this invasion, it is said, the locals hid the idols of Meenakshi and Sundareswarar in a secret room in the temple. People believe the idols are at the exact same spot to this day. And while the tourists throng the main shrines, the locals who know the history come to this lesser-known spot to meditate in peace.
The sanctity of the temple is amplified by all that it has managed to survive over the centuries. It is indeed astonishing how much history and mythology the magnificent temple holds in its brilliantly carved pillars and art-filled interiors. If my mother’s knowledge of the temple is anything to go by, every pillar and sculpture on the premises has a story to tell. And one doesn’t have to be a believer to savour these stories.