What you see above is the Madurai Meenakshi Amman temple in South India, one of the masterpieces of Dravidian architecture. The temple is dedicated to Goddess Meenakshi who is the primary deity here. A rather unusually large temple for a goddess, as most Dravidian temples worship male gods as their primary deity.
Who was Madurai Meenakshi?
Around 300 B. C (yes, 2300 years ago), King Kulasekara Pandyan had already build a small temple with the Lingam which is now referred to as God Sundarar. His son, Malayadhwaja Pandyan became the next King of the Pandyan empire. But his wife were not able to procreate, they went to various temples in South India hoping to be blessed with a child. However, Queen Kanchana Mala never got pregnant which created panic among the Pandyan Kingdom, as they would be without a future ruler. The couple found a baby girl deserted and were captured by the beauty of her eyes. They took her and named her Meenaksi (Meen means Fish and Aksi means Eyes in Tamil) . The fish-eyed baby also never blinked her eyes, which was later thought of as "always keeping a careful eye on Madurai" . For this reason, Madurai is also called "Thoonga nagaram" which means "The city that never sleeps".
Madurai Meenakshi as a child in a recent painting.
However, Meenakshi refused all their gifts. She said that 'Only a man who was more brave than herself' would be fit to marry her. She challenged each one of them to a duel match of swordfighting and archery.
Princess Madurai Meenakshi was a fierce warrior (This picture is just added for dramatization:)
Sadly, the Kings and Princes were no match for her and therefore she remained single. Her parents were initially upset as they did not get a King to reign over the Pandyan Kingdom, but later dubbed her the Queen. This is perhaps the first time in Indian history where a woman ruled a kingdom by herself.
But Meenakshi was not just a namesake queen. She rode her chariot around the city of Madurai, settling disputes and eliminating crimes. She realized that inorder to create jobs and keep the people happy, a massive project would be necessary. She ordered the expansive construction of the then miniscule temple (built by Kulasekara Pandyan). She wanted the temple to be constructed in size and architecture that had never been seen before. This project mobilised the men and women around Madurai to work and prosper.
Above: The architecture of the temple is extraordinary and it was in the top 30 choices for the "World wonders"
While the construction was going on for a few years, Meenakshi received a message from an unknown King Sundarar. He had gathered a large army and was marching towards the city of Madurai. There was nothing known about him or his kingdom. Meenakshi went with her own army to defend her Kingdom. While the infantry and the cavalry divisions were engaged in close combat, Meenakshi and Sundarar were on their chariots shooting arrows at each other. As they chariots moved closer to each other, Meenakshi laid eyes on Sundarar. It was love at first sight! Further, she had realized that he was an epitome of bravery. She surrendered to him at the battlefield and he married her.
After the grand wedding ceremonies, Meenakshi and Sundarar visited the Temple of Madurai, which was nearing completion. The architects had carved the beautiful statue of Meenakshi at the center of the temple. They had no idea that she would get married and had not allocated space for the King's statue. Therefore, the lingam which was initially set up by her grandfather was named as Sundarar.
Even today when you look at the layout of the temple, you can understand it was built to glorify Meenakshi. A tour guide explains about Madurai Meenakshi in Tamil (English transcription)
Other interesting myths or facts:
1. The difference between the Hindus and other ancient religions is that they still preserve their scriptures and believe them, unlike the Mayas of Mexico. For example, Madurai Meenakshi is worshipped as a Goddess and considered an Avatar of Shakthi (God of feminine power). Thousands of people worship here everyday, making it a very busy place.
The idol of Meenakshi temple cannot be photographed by law , so the best picture you can see is this:
Above: The Madurai Meenakshi Amman Idol. Visitors are banned from taking pictures of her.
1. The exact dates of her lifetime are unknown, but many Tamil literatures like Thevaram and Thirumarai have mentioned her. The Early Sangam literature (300 B.C - 300 A.D) has also mentioned the presence of the temple tank (Potramarai Kulam) which makes scholars think she could have lived much earlier than 300 B.C.
2. Meenakshi was born with three breasts which is depicted in many sculptures. Myth says that her third breast disappeared after seeing her husband.
Above: Madurai Meenakshi Sculpture with three breasts
3. The current Madurai Meenakshi Temple has been revamped many times, and has endured some major demolition, most notably by the muslim invader Malik Kafur in 1310 A.D. Just like the demolition of Bamiyan Buddhas, he created a team to destroy the temple. Apparently he was appalled at the 'barbarian nature of dravidians worshipping a Woman Goddess'. However, he could not completely destroy it because of the sturdiness and enormity. Reminds you of Menkaure’s pyramid in Egypt, doesn't it?
4. The original Meenakshi statue was taken away by the priest of the temple, shortly before Malik Kafur's invasion. It is believed to be a much larger stone statue than the existing one. This information is not publicised as it will cause controvery among the religious people.
Above: Sculpture depicts Meenakshi-Sundareswarar Wedding overseen by Lord Vishnu
5. Many unknown facts are adorned with magical events. For example, Meenakshi was found in a "Flame of Fire" and Meenakshi's wedding was overseen by Lord Vishnu himself, etc. This was done to glorify Meenakshi to elevate her into a true Goddess.
6. Meenakshi-Sundareswarar wedding is still celebrated every year, in the month of April. This event is called "Meenakshi Thirukalyanam" and draws a few hundred thousand devotees.