“It will be nice in the mornings,” a friend had told me before I left for Madurai. I grudgingly wake up before sunrise, wishing for a few more hours of sleep. The streets are empty but for the watchman of my hotel and a couple of two wheelers that were drifting away slowly. Perfume draws me towards a small coffee-shop manned by a short man with an innocent smile. The coffee is good, and at three rupees, is the cheapest I have had in many years. I had to have another cup.
Life expanded as I walked towards the temple. There is more light and a few shops are already open, but still hardly any people on the roads. A sadhu with a long beard squatted on the approach to temple, wearing bright saffron, his forehead smeared with Vibhoothi. There is just enough light for me to catch the glitter of warmth exuding from his eyes.
West Gopura of Madurai Meenakshi Temple
Repeated chants of ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ effused by loudspeakers from the temple, indicating that they are already open. Otherwise peace of the morning is disturbed by the continuous chant that is probably on since 5am. It would haunt me inside the temple too, till as late as 8.
Madurai Temple is roughly divided into two major sections – one around Meenakshi shrine to the south and the other around the sanctuary of Sundareshwarar to the North. The eastern entrance has the temple market selling flowers, trinkets, photos and statues of all kind of gods and goddesses. A huge thousand pillar hall which seems to have served a purpose no more than showing off the might of the kings is housed in a corner at the south, which is now converted into a museum. A fort-like high wall encloses all these, with four tall Gopuras one for each direction.
Entering Madurai Meenakshi Temple
The Gopuras dominate Madurai’s skyline and their might is evident from far away. As I walk closer, I pain my neck trying to looking up at all the brightly coloured statues covering every inch of the tower. There are goddesses with uncountable number of hands, gods with multiple heads, demons with long canines, dancing nataraja, calm Subrahmanya with blessing hands and men and women of all kind – earthly and celestial. Leaving their bodies which are painted fair or dark, rest of the Gopura are smeared in every conceivable color by the creative brush of the artist. There are clothes red, yellow and white. Crowns are orange and green. Only the armoury and jewellery of gods are allowed to stay sober in color. The space between statues are painted with a shade of gentle purple that is fading, and there is so little of free space that it fails to become the dominant color of the towers.
I think of the engineering capability of those times used for building these complex structure looming several hundred feet high, at a time when the word skycraper would not have been invented yet. The amount of labour used must be phenomenal enough that current day governments and temple authorities might squirm just to imagine the time and effort they have to spend maintaining the structures.
Potramarai Kulam, Madurai Meenakshi Temple
Entering through the West Gopura, I walk along the temple corridor to the east and reach Potramarai Kulam – The Golden Lotus Pond. Southern Gopura, the tallest of the lot dominates the environs of the pond. Sun is just out and the tip of Gopura is bathed in bright light, rest of it still in shade. A large metal lotus in the pond, colored in yellow would have given the pond its name. Water level is no more than a few inches and the floor appears cemented. A small square in the center isolated from rest of the pond is crowded with lilies and houses a metal pillar in the center – another one painted in yellow. A few pigeons fly in and out every now and then, probably enjoying the feel of shallow water on their feet. The otherwise quiet environs of the pond is unsettled only by continuous chants of ‘Om Namah Shivaya’.
I sit on the steps leading to the pond watching sun rays slowly light up more and more of the southern tower. A sign posted on a pillar next to me, and directly opposing the Gopura and the lake, proudly proclaims its location as ‘Photo Spot’. The corridor around the pond is colored to life with bright Rangoli. I sit quietly on the steps and observe life in the temple, and watch people walk back and forth with tiny pooja baskets. Time moves uneventful and I am lost in non-thought till a man comes and decides to disturb my moments of solitude. He tells me that I should go around the temple and visit the shrine before sitting here, and offers himself as my escort. I politely try to shrug him off with a lie, telling him that it is all done already, but he is not ready to move. I then resort to ignoring him which works fine, and I am back to non-thought mode.
Sun seems to move up really fast, and it was strong and bright all over before 8am. The recorded chants of ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ are replaced by someone singing carnatic music accompanied by Mridanga and Nadaswara. I am keen to linger here, but the rising sun eventually forces me to move. I hear sound of anklets behind me which grow stronger on approach, and become unusually intense as it gets closer. Turning around, I see walking behind me is not a damsel in dancing costume but the charming temple elephant striding with her Mahout. Finding an excuse to leave my seat of comfort,I walk behind the elephant like excited little children in a village who would run behind a motor car.
A woman lights a lamp for Nandi
I stroll further, exploring corners of the temple and put myself in the shoes of observer of life in the temple. A small statue of Nandi is lit with dozens of tiny wick lamps releasing gentle orange flames. Women keet walking in, prostrate in front of Nandi to light a lamp, smear their forehead with a tiny dot of kumkum from the Nandi and move on. A statue of Ganesha keeps watch of people going in and out of the sanctuary of goddess Meenakshi.
Premises of Meenakshi Shrine
The inner prangana(courtyard) is heavily criss-crossed with steel barricades meant to enforce a queue. Garish metals stand out amidst the stone walls and structures of the ancient days. Bright railings of stainless steel, tastelessly installed gold plated coverings for stone pillars and a Nataraja in silver stand out among the dark walls and dimly lit interior. The sanctum is lit only with gentle orange hues of flickering wick lamps that surround the deity. Devotees, only a few in number stand in line to receive prasada and take their time gazing at the deity. There is no rush or hurry. The evening pooja draws a decent crowd that just about fills the inner courtyard and justifies the barricades to some extent.
Coming out from the Meenakshi shrine, I walk forward to the enclave of Sundareshwarar.
Continued in Part II