Thursday, April 30, 2020

Marvelous Meenakshi Amman of Madurai

The husband was watching 'Storage Wars' the other day and I was grumbling as usual and asking what was so great about that show when the endless argument over who gets to wield the remote was interrupted by an ad for a show about Madurai Meenakshi Amman to be aired soon. It captured my interest at once since the promos were fantastic and it was obvious that a lot of love and attention to detail had been lavished on the project. More importantly, the temple is about a a few hundred hops, skips and jumps (or an hour and a half's drive to be precise) from where we live.

For all of us who live in 'Pandya Nadu', the temple has an especial significance. Apparently it was built as far back as the 1st century by Kulashekara Pandya after he was informed by the merchant, Dhananjaya that he had espied Shiva himself at Kadambavanam (Forest of Oaks) and witnessed the rest of the celestials worshiping him. Later, Shiva visited Kulashekara in a dream and gave him explicit instructions on building the temple and the city which would be called Madurai (after Shiva drenched it with the nectar of immortality or Madhu). And it was Indra, the king of heaven who installed the suyambhulinga he had discovered there in the sanctum sanctorum.

I have been visiting the Goddess ever since I was a child on innumerable occasions. What never fails to fascinate me is the abiding love folks have for Meenakshi Amman, the mother Goddess, former Queen and eternal guardian deity of Madurai. Millions throng to visit her throughout the year and not only during the famed festive season of Chithirai when the occasion of her marriage to Lord Shiva (Sundareshwarar) is celebrated with great fanfare over a period of ten days (Thirukalyanam). There is such a tangible bond between the Goddess and her devotees. I have even heard some of her ardent devotees casually saying that Amman will get upset if they don't go visit her often. There is so much affection in their voices and it is really sweet to note that they feel she is such an integral part of their lives and not merely a distant deity they feel compelled to worship.

Legend has it that King Malayadhvaja Pandya performed a sacrifice to obtain a son but was rewarded instead with three - year old Meenakshi who gave them quite the jolt, since she had three breasts. The King was less than overjoyed with this 'blessing' but a divine voice assured him that she would achieve things that no man  or immortal ever could and added that her extra breast would disappear when this jewel among women met the one she would give her heart to. The Princess was a mighty warrior and conquered the three worlds at the head of a great army. She made her way to Kailasha and defeated the butaganas led by Nandi when Shiva emerged to check out the cause of the disturbance in those lofty, serene heights. Meenakshi fell hard for the Destroyer and he reciprocated her feelings. The two decided to marry each other, making the sensible decision to make love not war!

It was a wedding for the ages when Shiva arrived in style to claim his gorgeous bride. Vishnu, gave her away as a good brother should and Brahma took over the officiating duties. All the celestials, noble sages and everybody who was anybody, including the somebodies and nobodies made sure they were present to witness this heavenly spectacle and it was a truly joyous event. The memory of this epic coming together of equals has been kept alive over the centuries with annual celebrations to mark the triumph of divine love.

The crowd which throngs to the temple for Thirukalyanam has always proved daunting for me as I have an unholy horror of being elbowed aside by folks with sweat - slicked arms, having my bare feet trod upon and being shoved and jostled while standing in lengthy queues that move at a snail's pace. I prefer to visit when the temple is not too crowded, so that I can walk around freely soaking in the spiritual ambiance, bask in the tranquil vibrations, pause to admire the brilliant architecture, study the interesting inscriptions at leisure and stuff my face with the yummy Prasadam sold within the precinct. The puliyogare (tamarind rice), vadai, appam, laddoo, murukku, sweet pongal are seriously delicious and served wrapped in fragrant banana leaves. The place is beautifully maintained and clean. The amount of care that has gone into its upkeep reveals how much historical, religious, cultural and sentimental significance the temple has not just for the denizens of Madurai but all who drop in regularly to pay their respects to Amman and her consort. After all, it must be hard for all who love the great Goddess to forget that in the distant past, their beloved Amman's residence had not been defended very effectively from marauding foreign invaders.

In the 14th century, Malik Kafur, Alauddin Khalji's infamous general swung by after plundering the fabled riches of the famous temple at Srirangam. Veera Pandyan, the then king had grabbed the throne from his half - brother, Sundar but only after intermittent fighting between them which had depleted his army and resources. Consequently, he was not really able to mount a decent defense against such a ruthless adversary. There are some versions, which claim that Veera Pandyan was advised to retreat to the hill fortress of Paramkunram and he did so without evacuating the city first or making arrangements to safeguard the treasures of Madurai.

For Kafur, it was a piece of cake to capture the abandoned city and help himself to the vast stores of wealth stored in the temples, pausing only to do as much damage as he could to the city, its temples and massacre those who had been left behind. Kafur ultimately came to a gruesome end when the men he had commanded to kill one of Alauddin Khalji's heirs - Mubarak Khan turned on him instead. Many attribute the fall of Kafur, the eunuch who had risen so rapidly to power and fell even faster, to the wrath of a vengeful Amman, whose residence he had desecrated with his many depredations.

Fortunately, restorative work on the temple was undertaken during the reign of the Nayakars with Thirumalai Nayakar proving to be a great benefactor. Later, during the British rule, there was further damage done to the temple but repair work was undertaken post Independence and many devotees made generous contributions to ensure that its former glory and splendor were fully restored.

There are many such beautiful stories and legends associated with this magnificent temple. Hope to revisit them asap. It is sobering to realize that no thanks to Coronasura, the Thirukalyanam will be impossible to celebrate with customary pomp and fanfare, for the first time in forever, this year. Even so, I am sure Amman's legion of devoted fans will not be deterred from celebrating their great love for her, in whatever small way they can. Or you could just tune into History TV18 and watch 'Meenakshi Ammanm, the Marvel of Madurai' at 8 pm, Monday, May 4th. Like I plan to!


SRIMOI said...

Is there any reason why the Agni nakhsatram period and the period of Meenakhsi amman and Sunderashwara Shiva's period of marriage celebration Thirukalyanam coincide? I would like to know.

Anuja Chandramouli said...

I haven't a clue SRIMOI. But if I get around to doing some research on the subject, will let you know. And if you get some info on the subject, do share with me :)