While waiting for the bus to Trichy, I opened up my copy of The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple, and chose to begin it with the chapter on the Madurai Meenakshi Temple, ‘At the Court of the Fish-Eyed Goddess’. It took me back to my visit to Madurai in June 2011, to the splendid cavernous halls of the temple, its exquisitely sculpted towers with several tiers, and to the girl I shall forever associate with my first proper trip into interior Tamil Nadu- a German penpal who fell irrevocably in love with the town and its chaos, so distant and different from the neat, cool, clock-like precise lifestyle of her own country.
Little did I know that this trip last weekend was to take me back to Madurai. At Trichy, we were told by three different people that it was one-and-a-half, two and two-and-a-half hours away respectively. Since we tend to scoff at such distances in India, we boarded a “one-to-one” (non-stop) bus for Madurai in the afternoon- a rattling box with a loud engine, over whose gruff roar the driver and the conductor contrived to carry on a conversation at the top of their voices. Since Trichy is a rather rocky, dry town- the Cauvery is just a slender ribbon here- there wasn’t much countryside to enjoy, just a lot of dust and thorns. However, in a little while, coconut plantations and green hills replaced the dry scrub.
What amazes me about ourselves is our propensity to build shrines. Seemingly ordinary, even inaccessible rocks, on close scrutiny, bear a precariously-perched temple on top. Flights of steep stairs are cut into the rock-face and painted red-and-white; how we are capable of such marvels and still cannot build a road to last a monsoon is quite a mystery.
Three hours later, the bus deposited us at Madurai. It was quite as I remembered it, bustling and chaotic but very likeable, if a little less clean than last time. The neat roads for pedestrians around the temple were now littered with heaps of trash; since it was a Friday, a large number of people thronged the area, waiting for the temple to open. A group of giggling French (?) girls walked by, their heads swathed in white veils and wearing long, golden bindis. Other foreign tourists waited in the relative cool of the Tailors’ Market, bargaining over scarves and embroidered purses.
The Madurai temple is home to Meenakshi, the fish-eyed goddess, and her consort, Sundareshwarar (or Parvati and Shiva). An architectural marvel first attributed to the Pandya kings, the striking vimanas are the defining feature of the Madurai skyline. Floodlit at night, they forever define the town built around the temple as its core. Here, Meenakshi is the chief deity: she is worshipped before her husband. She is beautifully adorned, but perhaps the most important feature is the sparkling nose-stud; even from a long distance away in the queue, within the lamp-lit depths of the sanctum sanctorum, you can see it shimmering, as if possessed by a life of its own.
Meenakshi is associated with fertility. Dalrymple writes: “Every night in the temple the images of Meenakshi and Sundareshvara are brought together in the latter’s bedchamber. The last act of the priests before they close the doors is to remove Meenakshi’s nose-jewel, lest the rubbing of it irritate her husband when they make love – an act, so the priests will tell you, that ensures the preservation and regeneration of the universe.”
The temple itself, though destroyed and rebuilt quite a few times, has been a site of worship for over two thousand years. The Silappadikaram narrates the story of how Kannagi reduced Madurai to ashes, furious against the injustice meted out to her husband; later, in a historical version of events, Malik Kafur plundered the temple, after which the Nayaks rebuilt it. Despite the changes and influences that have flooded the town over the years, the temple has stood as a symbol of permanence, visited and marvelled at by hordes of people to this day. Dalrymple writes, “at temples such as Madurai one can still catch glimpses of festivals and practices that were seen by Greek visitors to India long before the rise of ancient Rome. Indeed, it is only when you grasp the astonishing antiquity, and continuity, of Hinduism that you realise quite how miraculous its survival has been.”
The Meenakshi temple isn’t just a place of worship: it is also testimony to the extraordinary skills of our architects and sculptors, and the openness of our traditions. Nobody condemned the voluptuous, bare-breasted figures of women on its numerous pillars as erotic; if anything, they were viewed as a mark of fertility and abundance. We have begun taking such a narrow view of things that the celebration of the human body and sensuality itself has become taboo; isn’t this a sign of our perversion as viewers, more than that of artists and sculptors? Our skewed ideas of censorship stem from half-baked knowledge, and a blanket xenophobic reluctance to accept anything that we see as an external influence, never mind that the diversity we celebrate and benefit from today is a result of the tolerance with which we have assimilated the best aspects of our numerous interactions over the centuries.
The stone walls of the Meenakshi temple carry scenes from various legends associated with the goddess. Dimly lit, there is an air of permanence and antiquity about the corridors. Particles of dust float in the beam of sunshine that bursts in from a panel in the high roof, casting a square of light on the cool stone floor. At the time of our visit, the giant statue of Nandi outside the shrine of Shiva is being bathed and decorated, while the god himself is being washed in turmeric-water and milk. The atmosphere is that of a wedding to which everyone in town has been invited; a hum fills the air and lips move busily, reciting prayers and asking for wishes to be fulfilled. Cameras flash continuously, as foreign tourists stare bemused from outside the main shrine from which they are barred. They rest in the corridors overlooking the green temple-pond, their feet tired after the long walks around the periphery. An elephant stands to a side, accepting currency notes and swishing its trunk over pilgrims’ heads in blessing- the symbol of Ganesha.
This could be present-day India, or a day two thousand years in the past. Soak in the delights, set your imagination free, and you will probably see a procession of royals walk in, waiting to propitiate the gods and pray for an unbroken lineage. Who knows what the outside world is doing, when a sense of timelessness pervades the interiors of this vast, mysterious labyrinth?