Madurai – an elephant, a legend and a goddess

By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien. Click here for photos of there.

You know that moment when you arrive somewhere and it is exactly how you imagined it to be? That disconcerting feeling of knowing the texture of a place without ever having been there? For me, that happened in Madurai. Madurai was my dream of India – the swirling multicoloured saris, the weaving dance through the press of crowds, the dust, the noise, the sacred cows calmly lounging amid the chaos and the elephants, bejeweled and decorated trundling down the twisting streets and alleys.

Madurai is said to hold the soul of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. If so, it is a soul that thrums with life, whirling, colourful and fervently passionate. It’s a soul that has been drawn into the incredible architecture of the Meenakshi Temple. The compass-point gateways of the temple dominate Madurai’s skyline completely, the immense Gopuras crawling and dancing with mesmerizing techni-coloured statuary. From the riot of reds, yellows, blues, pinks and greens, goddesses wave their many arms, gods bless the gathered masses, the limbs of Nataraja are frozen mid-dance and beyond the bared fangs of colossal demons, infinite maws are revealed. Like a pair of bobble-heads, our necks strain and we stare, trying to take it all in – it’s impossible; it’s wonderful!

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Religion, faith, a tale, a myth and a legend

The tale of Meenakshi, the fish-eyed goddess, beguiles the imagination and mingles myth, history and faith to capture the hearts of Hindus. It is told that  King Malayadhwaja, and his wife, Kanchanamala, a childless couple, prayed to Lord Shiva for an heir and so emerged from the flames of a sacrificial fire, a three-year-old girl, beautiful but for her third breast.  This devine child was the reincarnation of goddess Parvati andso,was destined to re-unite with her eternal consort, Lord Shiva. It was foretold that her third breast would disappear the moment she was reunited with him.  Succeeding her father to rule the kingdom, the beautiful and ambitious Meenakshi sought to extend her rule over the whole of the subcontinent. Her armies won battle after battle and so her kingdom grew. When she led her armies to the snow-covered Himalayan peak of Mount Kailash, Lord Shiva stepped onto the battlefield. Their eyes met and her third breast vanished. Fulfilling the prophecy, Shiva and Meenakshi travelled to Madurai where they were married. There, they ruled until it was time for them to return to the heavens.

It is believed that the coupling of Meenakshi and Shiva (who took on a handsome avatar to please his bride and is known here as Sundareswarar – the handsome one) ensures the preservation and regeneration of the Universe. Each night, following a spellbinding procession of a sacred cow, drummers, the temple elephant, flaming-torch bearers, loin-cloth clad priests and hundreds of deeply emotional pilgrims, the pair are placed in Sundareshwarar’s bedchamber together. The temple priests chant lullabies outside of the locked doors and the Universe continues…

Each night, I followed this procession completely in the thrall of the charged atmosphere, the chanting and the dappled beauty of the huge tusker.

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Beyond the temple – a city of wonderful, colourful chaos

In the moments when I wasn’t stumbling lovesick after an elephant, Damien and I were wandering the streets of Madurai. Here, it’s enough to wander. We could walk down the same street twenty times and each time something new and facinating would catch our attention. It felt so  far away from home and everything that we know that it was hard to believe that we were really there. Twig scaffolding, temple demons, banana sellers, jasmine for my hair, the hooters of auto-rickshaws, absolutely unheard-of-before (by us) Nadu Tamil food served on fresh banana leaves, the storeys upon storeys of shops and ads, the merchants and pilgrims, balanced woven baskets and Vibhuti-smeared foreheads – here, each glance held something so new and facinating, it was  … exhausting!

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