When I was a young girl I used to love listening to the tales my grand-mother would weave. Patti’s hands were never idle as she recounted the countless episodes of Hindu mythology that fired her with the true spirit and meaning of Indian womanhood. Clad in a resplendent sungadi sari, the color of kumkum and roses, she would thread thickly scented jasmine flowers into beautiful bouquets which would later be laced through my long hair, while her soft voice soothed me with its melody. Of all the stories Patti told me, my favorite by far was the legend of the beautiful virgin Goddess, Kumari Amman, who stood by the swirling waves of the oceans in the seashore town of Kanyakumari.
Many thousands of years ago, she said, a cruel and vicious demon, Banaasuran wreaked havoc in this part of the world. He terrorized the innocent and plagued the poor and helpless. The people pleaded to God for a power to release them from their torture. Their prayers were answered and the primeval energy, Parashakti, was sent into the world. Goddess Parashakti assumed the form of a young girl and drew her energy and strength from meditation upon Lord Shiva, whom she wished to marry. Sage Narada fixed the midnight hour as the only auspicious time for the celestial wedding. However, when Shiva’s marriage procession approached Kanyakumari, a rooster crowed, heralding dawn! The Lord, assuming that the auspicious hour had passed, returned without marrying the Goddess. Upon hearing of this mishap, the demon Banaasuran was overjoyed. He decided to go to Kanyakumari and force the Goddess to marry him! In the battle that ensued, he was slain at the hands of the fiery Goddess. Thus, the Goddess fulfilled her destiny, but forever remained in her virgin form at the shore temple of Kanyakumari.
Patti’s soothing voice washed over me once again as I stood entranced before the Kumari Amman temple in Kanyakumari. I had accompanied my husband and mother-in-law there shortly after our marriage and it was a trip that was full of joy and togetherness for us all. As I stood with my family and gawked at the black stone image of the deity in the inner recesses of the temple, my eyes were transfixed by the dazzling diamond nose-ring that the Goddess sported. My mother-in-law, an industrialist who is as knowledgeable about the Hindu scriptures as she is about the world of textiles and trade, shared with me a very memorable piece of history and temple lore. In the days before lighthouses, she said that the diamond nose-ring of the Kumari Amman Goddess was so powerfully bright that ships and vessels at sea were often misguided by the stray glimmer of light on dark, stormy nights. Because many a ship was torn asunder by the craggy rocks of the coast, the Eastern gate of the temple overlooking the waters of the Bay of Bengal was sealed shut. Even today, it is opened only five times a year!
A strong belief prevails that if a single woman prays at the Kanyakumari temple for an ideal life mate, she will soon be married to the man of her dreams!
I marveled at how much the fiery spirit of the contemporary Indian woman was epitomized in the guise of the Kumari Amman Goddess. Duty before self, even to the extent of martyrdom is an ideal that is drilled into our women. Self-effacing servitude is a part of our legacy. Even in today’s urbanized, independent, and educated society, there is nothing an Indian woman wouldn’t do for a husband and family who deeply cared about her—even if it meant making the little sacrifices that would eventually rock her world. The Goddess may be made of dark black stone, but She seemed to symbolize the psyche of millions of flesh-and-blood young women whose hearts beat with a strong sense of familial duty, throughout the length and breadth of India.
It also made me think of how much things have gone astray since then. The newspapers still report countless cases of female infanticide, rape, dowry harassment and bride burning—yet, this is a part of the country which has long worshipped the spirit of womankind! Perhaps that was the glory of another era—one that has long since been forgotten in the mists of time? Ever since the cradle-baby scheme was introduced by the Tamil Nadu government in 1993 to curb female infanticide, there are reports of numerous abandoned baby girls every week. The cradles are placed in strategic locations around the city and the unwanted female babies are dumped unceremoniously (and legally) into them. Why is the Indian girl today considered a millstone around her parents’ neck? When did we stop cherishing the power of womanhood represented by these temples of yesteryear that were built by our ancestors?
The Kumari Amman temple in the heart of Kanyakumari stood a silent sentinel to these questions that raged through my heart and mind.
The waves pounding mercilessly on the sharp rocks of the reef on the Kanyakumari coast seemed to mirror my emotions. The sweeping glare from a powerful lighthouse at one end of the beach constantly cut through the restless waters. You cannot frolic in the waves here or sunbathe on the sands. The surf is just too powerful and even the best of swimmers would find it a dangerous and daunting task indeed!
However, the landscape is invested with a raw, wild beauty. Pebbles in various hues are peppered over the shores. Imagine a vast expanse of land strewn with the most exquisite of gems, glowing softly in the faint light of dawn—this is a memory that countless tourists take away with them. Legend has it that when her wedding was cancelled, the Goddess turned the heaps of food for the wedding party into the multicolored stones that now riddle the sandy shores. We saw an old man selling packages of bright pebbles in one of the small stalls that dot the beach. This intermingling of legend with contemporary trade struck me as uniquely Indian.
About 650 feet from the shores of the Kanyakumari beach is the famous rock memorial dedicated to the Indian monk who took America by storm at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, Swami Vivekananda. A 20-minute ride on the little ferry that chugs its way over the waters brought us to Sri Padaparai or the Holy Rock.
A single footprint on the rock bears significant history. It is said that one December evening in 1892, Vivekananda, who journeyed to Kanyakumari on a pilgrimage, swam out to the rock for meditation and prayer. It is here that he was blessed with divine perception to decipher the sacred texts. The small footprint that you see fused into the stone is said to belong to the Goddess Herself as She blessed him with divine knowledge.
Sprawled around it, on that quaint rock isle, is a beautiful shrine built in 1970 in commemoration of the great deeds of Vivekananda, the saint who spread the tenets of Hindu philosophy to the West. The architecture here reminded me of a medieval castle, flushed with pink and gray stone. It seemed to me as though a whole new world, carved from the heart of a boulder, had sprouted like magic from the swirling depths of the sea.
Whenever I recall our journey to the seashore town, the huge imposing statue of the great Tamil poet, Thiruvalluvar perched in the middle of the sea is an image that I know will always flash through my mind. Thiruvalluvar wrote his masterpiece, the Thirukural, nearly 2,000 years ago. The Thirukural is a collection of 1,330 couplets shedding great moral wisdom and practical insight on all aspects of life. The creator’s image has now been forever immortalized in stone and the monument can be easily spotted from any section of the Kanyakumari beach. Like the Statue of Liberty in the harbor of New York, his arm is outstretched, heralding the hope and promise of a brighter tomorrow.
Kamala Thiagarajan writes from Madurai, India.