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The Goddess Meenakshi and Her Temple at Madurai[1]

How can we possibly measure the strength of this Woman/who created all things, moveable, immoveable, /and who is immanent in them? (Harman 1989: 174)


The goddess Meenakshi, the "Fish-eyed" One. She is accompanied by a bird, usually a parrot.
Composite drawing © 2009 S. Beaulieu, after several images of Meenakshi.

Early in the morning, from my seat in our tour bus, I saw the edge of the first huge tower (gopuram) of the great Meenakshi temple[2] and realized that one of my long-time ambitions was about to be satisfied: I was soon going to walk through a functioning goddess temple! Of course I was also hoping that I would get a sense, from the coming experience, of what it might have been like to walk through the great temple precinct of Inanna (Ishtar) at Uruk (Warka) in southern Mesopotamia (Iraq). That same night I planned to be back in the temple attending the ritual enacted every evening; it brought the goddess’s consort from his shrine to spend the night with her in her shrine. I was finally in Madurai, one of the oldest cities in South India, and home of one of the world’s great temples. I was overwhelmed with expectation and, very soon, awe.


(left) The tour group approaching the East Gate of the Meenakshi temple at Madurai. Note the surrounding wall and the gopuram (tower) covered with brightly painted statues.
(right) View of temple from the roof of a nearby building. The tallest towers surmount the major gateways. The golden dome tops the tower over the goddess Meenakshi's shrine.

Photos © 2004, J. Stuckey. All rights reserved.

As we made our way through the busy streets to the gate,[3] it was clear that, like many of the temples of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, the Madurai temple was a huge sanctuary with high walls. There were four main gates, one for each direction, and a very high and ornate tower surmounted each gate. I rightly assumed that the actual shrines would be deep within.


(left) We approached the entrance passage at the East Gate and got a closer look at the figures of deities/spirits carved on the tower.
(right) Leaving our shoes with an attendant at a booth near the gate — we were about to walk on holy ground — we entered the temple through an echoing hall beautifully decorated, and with lions carved at the tops of the pillars.

Photos © 2004, J. Stuckey. All rights reserved.

We entered by the East Gate. A long, high-ceilinged hall greeted us — it was full of stalls selling ritual materials and religious objects, including various-sized figurines of Meenakshi that reminded me of the thousands of ancient female statuettes that archaeologists have unearthed all over the Eastern Mediterranean.

As in so many ancient sanctuaries, a sacred pool or tank for ablutions graced the interior. The Golden Lily pool was in a courtyard near the goddess’s shrine (Harman 1989: 76-77).


Pilgrims come to the Golden Lily pool to purify themselves, immersing their heads or their whole bodies, before performing the sacred rites. When I was there, no one was in the pool, and the beautiful area was very quiet and restful.
Photo © 2004, J. Stuckey. All rights reserved.

As we walked through the halls, goddesses were everywhere, and most bore signs of ritual activity.


Goddess figures, covered with butter (ghee) and colored powder, with offerings at their feet.
Photos © 2004, J. Stuckey. All rights reserved.

We came across a ritual in progress, the throwing of butter at the sacred couple, Sundareshvara (“Beautiful Lord”) (Harman 1989: 22) and Meenakshi (“Fish-eyed One”), to cool them down.


(left) In this detail from the larger picture (middle), the goddess Meenakshi (identified with Parvati) stands covered in butter balls, colored powder, wreaths, and beads.
(middle) Notice that Meenakshi's consort, Sundareshvara (Shiva), is not so treated.
(right) Butter-ball seller near the deity pair in the hall of the Madurai temple. In the background priests are moving a heavy gold palanquin.

Photos © 2004, J. Stuckey. All rights reserved.

After wandering through the enormous temple precinct for some hours and seeing the main shrines of both the goddess and the god[4] — not being Hindus, we could not enter — we left, but some of us planned to return for the regular evening ritual.


Late morning, we left the temple by the impressive South Gate. The tallest tower (gopuram) stands above this gate. Its height is 150 feet.
Photo © 2004, J. Stuckey. All rights reserved.

Returning after 9 pm, we joined the crowd waiting in front of Meenakshi’s shrine for the ceremony to begin. The procession bringing the god to the goddess’s rooms for the night began at his shrine and continued through the temple to the spot where we were assembled.


(left to right, first) The entrance to the shrine of the goddess's consort Sundareshwara (Shiva).
(second) Procession of Meenakshi's consort in his golden palanquin.
(third) Priests setting down the consort's palanquin in front of the goddess's shrine. The yellow curtain shields the god from our eyes. In red on the curtain is the common image of the god Shiva — the lingam, a phallus or penis.
(fourth) The god's palanquin waits outside the goddess's shrine. A priest holds a fan used to cool down the "hot" deity. United with the goddess for the night, he'll be taken back to his own shrine in another ritual procession in the morning.

Photos © 2004, J. Stuckey. All rights reserved.

Musicians played drums and horns and priests chanted. While the god enclosed in his palanquin waited outside the shrine, worshipers showed their respect by walking seven times round him. Eventually the priests carried the god’s palanquin through the entrance, with the Hindus among us following to continue the ritual inside. For us outside, the ritual ended as a lone temple musician-priest played an old and eerily resonant horn. The rite was deeply moving, despite its being performed by male priests. It was obvious that, at Madurai, the goddess was infinitely more celebrated than her consort, though he had been identified with a great Hindu god, Shiva.


(left) Entrance to Meenakshi's shrine, with devotees.
(middle) Tower and golden dome above the goddess's shrine. Photo taken from a nearby rooftop.
(right) A musician-priest plays a rare South Indian horn at the end of the evening ritual.

Photos © 2004, J. Stuckey. All rights reserved.

The “Sacred Marriage” of Meenakshi to Shiva (see box) brought the powerful local goddess, now identified with Shiva’s consort Parvati, into the mainstream of Hindu religion, but it did not change the worship patterns of the ordinary people of Madurai and elsewhere. They still consider Meenakshi to be the more important deity and worship her first when they come to the temple (Harman 1989: 64-65). If worshipers need Shiva’s help, they ask Meenakshi to intercede with him on their behalf (Harman 1989: 153).

The continuing importance of the goddess suggests to me that, originally, Meenakshi ruled alone or with a very subordinate consort, as Inanna/Ishtar seems to have done in ancient Mesopotamia.[5] Perhaps Meenakshi began as a village goddess who not only protected her village, but performed other miraculous deeds.[6] Eventually a city developed round her shrine, which slowly was enlarged. It became the focal point of the city’s life, as were the precincts of ancient Near Eastern city deities and as the Madurai temple still is today. Indeed it is one of the few major Hindu temples devoted primarily to a goddess and a pre-eminent pilgrimage site.

That wonderful visit to Meenakshi’s temple happened four years ago. Thinking back now, I realize that the worship of the goddess as primary, with her consort as secondary, must be something like what happened in ancient Mesopotamian goddess temples. At Madurai, though the deities were a female/male pair, it was Meenakshi who got the most attention, especially from worshipers. Her consort’s images were less decorated, and he came to her room at night, not vice versa. Large numbers of women were clearly devotees; Meenakshi, “the Lady /with the eyes of a beautiful fish” (Harman 1989: 172), was definitely a very popular goddess.[7]

Yet there were no female priests. I knew not to expect them, but had not anticipated how disappointed I would be. What did impress me was the fact that, as Mesopotamian Inanna/Ishtar had done for close to 3,000 years, Meenakshi retained her primacy and power over thousands of years, despite being incorporated into the patriarchal religion by marriage to a major god. That marriage, the major festival of the Madurai ritual year, takes place usually at the end of April and beginning of May. I was sorry to miss it.[8]

Notes

  1. In February of 2004, I joined a three-week tour to South India organized by the American Institute of Archaeology. We arrived in Bangalore, traveled south as far as Madurai, and returned to North America via Mumbai (Bombay). We visited numerous temples and archaeological sites all along our route.
  2. The temple has 12 towers, around 33 million sculptures, and about 50 priests (Abram, Sen, et al. 2001: 526-527).
  3. Every day about 15,000 people visit the temple, but on Friday, Meenakshi’s sacred day, the number reaches about 25,000 (Abram, Sen, et al. 2001: 521).
  4. Shiva’s shrine in the Madurai temple is bigger than Meenakshi’s and situated more centrally, but devotees go to hers first (Harman 1989: 22).
  5. Inanna’s consort Dumuzi was not only very subordinate, but also very temporary. (See my article, Inanna's Descent to the Underworld, in the Beltane 2005 Issue of MatriFocus.)
  6. “Frequently” village goddesses are understood as married to Shiva (Harmon 1989:17).
  7. To most worshipers Meenakshi is amman, “mother,” and some scholars have argued that she was “a pre-Aryan mother goddess” (L. Newbigin, quoted in Harman 1989: 32).
  8. Some libraries have available a very old documentary film that records the festival.

Bibliography

  • Abram, D., D. Sen, N. Edward, M. Ford, and D. Wooldridge 2001. South India. New York: Rough Guides.
  • Harman, William P. 1989. The Sacred Marriage of a Hindu Goddess. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  • Wong, Edward, “Temples Where the Gods Come to Life,” The New York Times (Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008) 3, 10.

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