A raindrop rolled down one leaf to land on another, sparkling in the dawn light, among the golden spherical flowers. The clear voice of a rose-ringed parrot called, “Meeakshi, Meenakshi” through the trees. Meenakshi, a form of Parvati, lived deep in the forest. The people of the village on the river Vaigai came to worship her, and sometimes they collected the fresh green leaves of the kadamba trees, which made up her forest, to feed to their cattle.
Thousands of years ago, she was the Goddess of the sacred forest, worshipped by the nearby villagers. Every Indian village originally had a sacred forest or grove and a village Goddess. Over time, the Goddess of the south Indian village became identified with the great Goddess Parvati, as she is known in Sanskrit. Meenakshi married her husband, Lord Shiva, and as the town of Madurai grew, she found her place at the sacred site at the center of the town.
It is said that very early on Indra, King of the Gods, went there to worship Shiva at this sacred site and to atone for his sins. When he felt that the burden of his sins had been lifted, then he constructed the first temple built there in honor of Shiva. Golden lotuses magically appeared in the nearby pool. His wife Meenakshi was found nearby in the sacred forest of kadamba trees, where she had always been revered and worshipped by the people of this region. She was brought to join Shiva in the temple, where she retained her position as the major deity. Worshippers first visit the shrine of Meenakshi, and then afterwards go to the shrine of Shiva.
This is one of the few temples in India today where the Goddess is the main deity and her husband takes second place.
Meenakshi means “fish-eyed,” meaning that her eyes have a beautiful shape, like that of a fish. Her statue is carved of a beautiful black stone, with emerald-colored glints. She stands, bedecked in garlands, surrounded by hanging lamps. A priest chants while performing a puja, encircling a brass tray in front of the Goddess. On it is the sacrificial fire and kumkum (red powder with which the worshippers place a red dot on their foreheads). Meenakshi, Mother of the Universe, watches in love and kindness.
The devotional fires which burn inside the temple, from the many tiny fires lit by individual devotees to the fires which are circled by the priest in the pujas for the deities, are the manifestation of the God Agni, who purifies all things, to whom all beings return in the end, freed from this world and returned to the realms of the spirit.
The Madurai Amman Temple is one of the largest temples in India with fourteen gopurums (gateway towers) and two gold domes (vimanas) over the shrines of Meenakshi and Shiva, who is called Sundareswarar, which means Lord of Beauty. The southern gopuram, the tallest, is 170 feet high.
The clean, well-kept temple covers around 45 acres. Wide stone paved avenues lined with trees and shrubs grace the walls facing the streets outside, and connect the tall gopurums, or gates. After going through one of the gates, one walks along more wide stone avenues that form a square around the walls of the temple itself.
A graceful and beautiful temple, it is filled with the exquisite artwork of south India.
© Sharon St Joan, 2014
Top photo: J.M. Garg / Wikimedia Commons / “Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License…” / Kadamb Neolamarckia cadamba in Kolkata, West Bengal, India.
Second photo: Sharon St Joan / The West Tower of the Meenakshi Amman Temple, with a kadamba tree in front.
Third photo: Jorge Royan / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.” Gopurums of the Meenakshi Temple.
Fourth photo: Flickr user fraboof / Wikimedia Commons/ “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.” / “Golden tower of the Madurai Meenakshi temple – golden shrine over the sanctum of Meenakshi.”
To be continued in part two. To read part two, click here.