The massive Meenakshi Amman Temple covers six hectares in the heart of the ancient city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Although the present structure was built in the 17th century, its origins go back 2,000 years. The temple has 14 gateway towers (gopurams), which are about 50 metres high and flamboyantly decorated with thousands of elaborate sculptures. The towers can be seen from all over the city, which was very useful as our hotel was located near the temple.
The temple is unusual because it is dedicated primarily to a female deity, Meenakshi. According to legend, she was born with three breasts and it was prophesized that her extra breast would disappear when she met her husband. That happened when she met Shiva (AKA Sundareswarar) and became his consort.
We visited the temple in the evening so we could see the nightly ceremony of putting the god and goddess to bed to consummate their union. Before closing the temple, a ritual procession, led by drummers and a brass ensemble, carries the image of Sundareswarar to Meenakshi’s bedroom. He is returned to his own shrine the next morning at dawn, having supposedly done the deed.
We entrusted our shoes to a shoe keeper outside the temple and joined the queue to enter the complex through one of the massive temple gates. When we got to the ticket box a guide called Johnny offered to take us around the main sights for 500RP (about £5). We were feeling a bit overwhelmed by the size of the temple complex – although many of the shrines are closed to non-Hindus, there’s still a lot to see – so we agreed to his offer.
The temple is adorned with colourful ceiling and wall paintings and there are some amazing sculptures that have been carved from a single block of granite (as Johnny kept proudly telling us). We finished our tour at about 8pm and sat in the meditation hall for a while as the bedtime ceremony wasn’t until 9pm. Then we found a possie outside Sundareswarar’s shrine where we would get a good view of the proceedings.
While we were waiting, a big group of women came out of the inner sanctum and walked towards us. I didn’t take much notice of them at first, but as they passed they all held their hands out to shake mine. And then they wanted to have their photo taken with me. More people poured out of the temple, men also, and they all stopped to shake my hand and have a photo taken with me too. I felt like a movie star!
Eventually, the adoring crowd dispersed and my hand shaking duties finished. Although it was a flattering experience, it was also a little eerie. There were other Westerners there – why did they choose me to target?!
But I didn’t have time to contemplate this for long as just then, in a cloud of incense smoke and accompanied by loud, discordant music, the image of Sundareswarar emerged from his shrine in a hand held carriage. You can see a clip of the start of the journey here: https://youtu.be/e3HP-YB4tUQ
He was carried around the temple to Meenakshi’s bedroom where there was more ceremonial cacophony … but we left them there. I feel that deities – and movie stars, for that matter – should be allowed privacy in the bedroom.