This is why I keep coming back
Today has been a good day.
We’ll catch up on the last three days eventually, but first I want to tell you about today while I can still smell, taste, see, feel and hear it in every vibrating pore of my soul. Today I am happy. And yet now I have no idea how to begin. My companion for the day was Mrs Malar (pronounced like Gustav Mahler) a diminutive woman appointed as guide, but after 13 hours friend. We were born just 4 weeks and half a world apart.
We left the hotel this morning for the obligatory stop one of the programmed tour. A palace which was 75% destroyed by the grandson of the builder for construction materials. What was left showed a bizarre agglomeration of Chinese, Italian, Indian and Catholic influences. All a bit odd really. Malar and I spent most of the time talking about my going to Uni to study and her son’s desire to go to Australia for an MS in computing.
Then it was off to the whole reason I’m in South India… Sree Meenakshi Temple. I came here briefly about a decade ago and have been drawn back ever since, it was on that flying visit I became enchanted by the Natraj – Shiva the god who dances.
The current temple is about C17th but it continues an unbroken 4000 year tradition of belief and worship. The Greeks recorded the temple as ancient when they traded here for pepper and gold in 300 BCE.
Outside the temple is hot open paving, dusty and dry, Madam want postcard? You approach the temple with it’s amazing multi-coloured gopruam (towers), many shopkeepers offering you a view from their roof if only you will enter and buy. But instead you leave your shoes and enter the dark gloom of the temple corridors and the womb of the world. It’s cooler, the light is from flickering devotional oil lamps, smells of smoke and incense, sounds of prayers, chants and muted conversation. It is an intensely holy place, you can feel that from your bones. Priests pass by on duties unseen, people bend touching head to chalk marks on the floor aligned with deities, Hindus only line up to enter the most holy place and petition the god. This is space utterly outside profane time. There are no photos allowed inside so you’re going to have to visualise while I remember.
The temple is for the goddess Pavarti and her husband Shiva. In most of India Shiva is one of the three principal deities; here he is the husband of the Queen. According to the local version of the legend the king and queen of Madurai were without child and were miraculously granted a daughter Pavarti. Pavarti grew to command an army that ruled South India. As she conquered northward she encountered the army of Shiva and falling in love with him laid down her arms and returned to Madurai. Shiva followed and they were married. To this day Pavarti is known by the people as Queen of Madurai, Shiva her consort.
Inside the temple, in the gloom, printed on a large sign board is the everyday Sanskrit prayer which Malar starts to chant to me. A woman stops to listen, others join. The gold flag pole rises up through the roof taking the prayers to heaven. Nandi the bull transport of Shiva sits at the entrance to the Hindu only area, taking prayers inside to Shiva. Flowers adorn Ganesha – I say a silent thank you to the remover of obstacles. 2013 is over dear friend – thank you. People solemnly process nine times clockwise around nine deities representing the nine planets – it’s important to keep your planets aligned, your spheres in Harmony.
Nearby are statues of Shiva and Pavarti as Kali. Pavarti is young and fertile. Kali is an incarnation of Pavarti looking aged, perhaps after menopause, a fierce strong 100% woman, demon killer and warrior protector. And Kali dances with Shiva.
We left Shiva hearing the petitions of devotees and moving with a bowed Namaste past Ganesha went to the hall where Pavarti receives her people, giving audience from 5am to 9pm daily. Then out into the air to sit on the steps around the water tank. Breathless. A safe walled place within the temple to remember that the outside world, the sky, still exists.
The last step on the programmed tour is the museum in the north east corner of the complex where I said hello to the Natraj statue of that first visit in 2001 or 2002. This depiction of Shiva has the most amazing cosmology I’ve ever heard and it gets a blog post of its own next – I promise, you’ll need a cool drink, or shower.
Then Malar took me shopping – it’s how guides make their money, it’s ok. Seems several of my newest friends first met me when I was paying to meet them. So four shops later and my Natraj had found me, as had another Ganesha – cheaper for two madam. Suddenly Malar became my long time friend, negotiating on my behalf to get best Indian price.
After a very late lunch I organised with Karthick that I would to go back to the temple at 730pm. Well we got quite lost on the way and parked at 735, so there we were driver and madwoman running through the streets of Madurai to the temple as though our lives were at risk. I didn’t understand the rush but kept up as Karthick was on the phone to someone who seemed to think we were late.
Little did I know Malar was waiting for us because this was a special night – one of only 15 nights a year when the statue of Pavati is brought out of the temple and processed once around outside the walls. 5 nights in January before harvest. 5 nights in February (including tonight) to bless the harvest. 5 nights in April (don’t know why, maybe the coming monsoon rains). Remember this is a goddess based fertility cult at its most raw ancient best.
Well fireworks, drums, the temple elephant, then the two woman-drawn carts bearing first Pavarti and then her children. Malar took off her shoes and ran to briefly help push one cart, returning flushed, sparks in her eyes. “Did you see?” Grabbing shoes and my hand she shouted “Come” and off we ran up in front of the procession to be sure to get first to the East Gate where Pavarti would return inside. As her cart drew level and stopped, Pavarti was surrounded by intensely prayerful women, drums, whistles and yelling. Above the racket Malar shouted in my ear “THIS is Pavarti, Queen of Madurai” and in such an intense moment I confess I had goose bumps and teared up.
We walked away, me to enter the temple alone and just let it all wash over and around me, after agreeing we would meet again in an hour.
Well what an hour… I was blessed by a priest, met a Hindu Saint, saw Pavarti go back into the temple and her empty gold chariot re-emerge, and better yet I just people watched. So special. I smiled when Karthick came past, just silently checking on madam.
Two people told me I must be there for 930pm, very special. So at 830 I went out to find Malar as agreed and convince her we should stay for the nightly marriage of the gods – putting Shiva to bed in Pavarti’s bed, both deserving of rest and recreation after a hard day’s work in the temple. Remember it’s origins are most likely a fertility cult, and your fertility goddess had better be getting regular bed-action to ensure a bountiful harvest.
So Malar and I went back in for my third trip into the temple and waited for Shiva to emerge for connubial bliss. To the blowing of conch shells, running of priests, chanting and shouting, out emerged a silver palanquin containing the god. The crowd surged, again Malar grabbed my hand, yelled “Come” and like teenagers again we ran. Ran ahead of the procession, pause to bow to Ganesha, leap over the door jamb for Vishnu, reaching the spot where Shiva would be prepared to be taken into his wife’s bed.
Chanting, smoke, incense proceeded the arrival of the God… A cacophony of sacred music, almost jazz like in style. The god prepared for his bride with sandalwood and flowers, washed with holy water and finally taken into her chamber to recline until 5am tomorrow.
Ministrations finished, again Malar grabbed my hand, yelled “Come” and we were off running through the quieting, darkening temple. Our shoes were outside the north gate which would close now the god and goddess were in bed. Past the closed stalls and museum we fled. One inner gate closed, “I know a side way,” breathed Malar dashing off between shuttered stalls to emerge again into the night air and the closing north gate.
Laughing at ourselves we tumbled breathless back into the street. “Postcard Madam?” As we walked to collect out shoes, the chappal keeper laughing as I tipped him – again! Three tips in one day I was his best customer.
And so that was my day. Malar’s brother came to collect her home safely. Karthik brought me back to the hotel. And in 7 hours he’ll be back to take me to see the produce of the god’s fecundity – the vegetable and flower markets.