Photos: KAMALA THIAGARAJAN
It is a warm, breezy evening as I stroll along the narrow street that leads the way to one of the world’s most ancient places of worship. The sweet scent of jasmine flowers and freshly cut coconuts assail my senses. On either side of the street, mounds of jasmine flowers are heaped up like cascading arrays of pearls. The lone streetlight and occasional gas lanterns light up my path, and in their eerie glow, women sway their hips as they carry water to their homes in large earthen pots balanced on their heads. A few gypsies are perched by the curb; the music of their tinkling silver jewelry muffles their giggles as they thread jasmine flowers into soft, layered bouquets. The mahout, with his spindly legs and bronzed skin, leads a huge pachyderm, blanketed with a rich red tapestry, to the temple. Cows and goats zigzag across the roads, vying for space with motorcars, bright yellow taxis with shrill tooting horns, and frail auto-rickshaws.
The first thing you notice about Madurai is the profusion of color—powder blue skies, mustard strobe lights placed at strategic positions on the streets interspersed with grey shadows, the rainbow of raw silk that spills from the rickety wooden carts, the splendid scarlet and indigo embroidery of the saris sported by the local women, thick bursts of wild mint green grass growing haphazardly in unexpected corners, and the bright orange of tea sweetened with jaggery at the ubiquitous roadside stalls. This is indeed a pagan celebration of the senses.
The city of Madurai lies on the banks of the river Vaigai. The Meenakshiamman temple and the old city adorn the southern banks of the river, while the modern city, with its host of Internet cafes and ice-cream parlors, restaurants serving authentic Indian cuisine, textile mills, engineering industries, and vast university campuses sprawl around. It is a curious mixture of the modern and the ancient, the present merging with the primeval.
One notices at once that southern Indian women are partial to long hair and lavish jewelry. Their jet-black tresses that invariably reach well beyond their waists are plastered into luxuriant plaits with sweet smelling incense sticks and coconut oil.
In a country of over a billion people, it is no surprise that I am soon tossed amidst the tidal wave of humanity, all who appeared to be going to the same destination. In spite of the jostling crowd, for me the experience is intensely private. As I approach the inner recesses of the temple, a sudden silence jars at me—a sharp contrast to the activity and noise outside. It feels as though I am crossing a glimmering threshold into another era, an era where time stands still, leaving you alone to confront a silence that dares you to probe into its mysteries.
The dark, sculpted walls of the temple tower overhead and I run my hands over the cool stone slabs on either side of the entrance. I am now on the sanctified soil of Madurai’s chief tourist attraction—the 5,000-year-old Meenakshiamman temple. It is one of the holiest places of worship in southern India. The pillars seem to hold within their chiseled depths generations of untold secrets. Carved into these black gleaming stones are depictions of a multitude of celestial figures in various reclining postures. Their faces are frozen in fleeting expressions of love, joy, peace, and serenity. Some tales from Hindu mythology are also encased in stone. Little alcoves inside the temple house shrines of gods and goddesses worshipped by Hindu believers.
There is a legend that explains how the temple came into being. Many thousands of years ago, the site where I now stand contemplating the past was an impenetrable jungle full of thick trees and wild animals. Legend has it that one day, an idol of the supreme Lord Shiva sprouted magically from amidst the shrubbery. The idol was said to have been worshipped by none less than Indra, the king of the celestials. However, it was the mortal king Kulaksekera, the ruler of the Pandya Empire (one of the three great kingdoms that dominated southern India) who cleared the area around the idol of the Lord and constructed a “Lotus City” with the temple at its very center.
The old city evolved around the temple, and even today, the streets of Madurai run in concentric circles around it. The four main streets—East, West, North and South veli—mark the outer limits of the temple town. It is believed that once the construction of the city was complete, Lord Shiva made his divine appearance and nectar from his matted locks showered all over the city. This gave the city its name Madhurapuri (Madurai) that grew to be the powerful capital of the Pandya Empire.
Though constructed for Lord Shiva, the temple is named after his consort, Goddess Meenakshi. Hindu legend has it that Goddess Meenakshi took the shape of a human and was born in Madurai soon after the Pandyan king had built the temple. A princess and heir to the royal family, when Meenakshi came of age, she ascended the throne as queen, waging war against the dark demonic forces that plagued her people. In the midst of this battle, she wandered into the very heavens and fell in love with Lord Shiva who appeared before her as a hunter and helped her achieve victory. They married and Meenakshi was absorbed into the heavens so that she might rule the land by Lord Shiva’s side. The temple was named after this divine princess as a testimony to the triumph of good over evil and a celebration of the extraordinary powers of a woman.
Covering an area of 65,000 square meters, the Meenakshiamman temple is dominated by enormous sculpted towers (gopurams) that loom like high-rises over each of the four entrances. The oldest tower, built in the 13th century is the eastern gopuram, opposite the shrine of Lord Shiva. The southern gopuram is the tallest, built in the 16th century. From the tower, one has a panoramic bird’s-eye view of Madurai. A striking feature of the silent temple is the astonishing Ayiramkal Mandapam (hall of the thousand pillars) situated in the outermost corridor. Nine hundred and eighty-five intricately carved pillars are scattered across a vast open hallway. Each pillar is a work of art flaunting elaborate and highly ornate sculptures that seem to throb with scenes from rural southern Indian life. When viewed from a particular angle, these pillars appear to be in a straight line, indeed an architectural marvel.
Great historians such as Magasthenes (302 B.C.), Pliney (77 A.D.) and Ptolemy (140 A.D.) have referred to Madurai in their travelogues. Marco Polo visited the city in 1293 A.D. followed by Batuta in 1333 A.D. Madurai has also been the center of Tamil culture, literature, art, music, and dance.
As glorious shadows of the past sweep over me, I am lulled into a sense of idyllic comfort. The architectural skills of my ancestors have never failed to fascinate me. In this day and age, where corners are cut and quality is compromised, here stands a monument that displays not just religious worth and sentiment, but a saga of craftsmanship and everlasting perfection. Around the temple however, life still rages on. Hawkers are desperately trying to sell their wares, engaged in the never-ending battle for survival. Colorful plastic toys, gleaming silk ribbons in rainbow shades, barrettes of every size and shape, balloons dyed in neon hues all grace their wobbly wooden shelves. Such a rich assortment of paraphernalia directs my thoughts back to the land of the living.
Kamala Thiagarajan is a freelance journalist based in Madurai, India.