The contrasting spaces that encircle the celebrated Meenakshi temple at Madurai and the beauty of the temple within provide a fascinating essay in the idea of space in a sacred city. Geeta and Meenashi Doctor share with their experiences of exploring Madurai in words and images.

In the early mornings on the streets of the old temple towns of the South there is sometimes a moment of clarity.

A woman who has been bending down to draw a kolam design of dots and waving lines on the wet mud floor in front of her house pauses for an instant. She plucks a flower, a red hibiscus perhaps, or more often the wrinkled yellow-orange flower of a pumpkin that is growing wild and places it at the centre of her kolam.

Suddenly it all fits. In the microcosm of the kolam pattern you find the key to the macrocosm. Amidst the meandering dots and lines she has found the centre. Just as the visitors milling around the crowded lanes and streets that swirl around the temple, following age old routines, enter the crowded gopuram, or massive doorway, pause for flowers and incense sticks, cross their hands together holding their ears and bob up and down to pay homage to a Ganesha image, and finally reach into the still dark centre of the temple complex. This is the essence of a pilgrimage. This is what the journey is all about, finding the axis mundi, or centre of the world that each temple and temple town represents. The spaces here are arbitrary, a shifting language of the imagination that re-creates in stone corridors and carved pillars and soaring towers an interior landscape of ancestral memories of the abode of the Gods, Mount Meru, where they once used to live.

There are different ways in which people define their spaces and create their legends. In the narrow piece of coastal country that is Kerala with its lush tropical landscape the images swirl around fabulously attired Mother Goddesses, or the amongst the more popular forms the Kathakali dancers who enact their tales of love and lust. Even here, after a cycle of stories has ended and the last conquests have been made, there remains a final moment of absolute stillness. A veteran dancer stands there in that silence with the merest flicker in his eyes that encompasses all of space in that one glance. A certain balance has been reached.

One of the favourite episodes that is routinely re-enacted in dance and song and during the festival of Onam, in Kerala is the story of King Mahabali. He was a good king, well loved by his people who had become a little too powerful for the comfort of the gods. They decided that he needed to be put in his place. The God Vishnu took on the challenge and appeared in the form of a weak and helpless dwarf called Vamana before Mahabali. When asked what he wanted, Vamana asked for as much land as he could cover in three steps. Naturally, the King laughed good-naturedly, it is reported and asked him to go ahead.

With the first step that he took, Vamana covered the Earth; with the second he had grown to such a height he encompassed the heavens. King Mahabali knew that one more step and the entire creation would be annihilated and so bending down, he requested the God Vishnu to place his foot on his head. He sank down into the netherworld, but because he had been gracious about it, he is allowed to return to his people once a year. This is when Keralites celebrate the festival of Onam, soon after the rains, with floral carpets.

In traditional designs, the carpets are made in a circular design, that gets larger every day till the 10th day when it is a splendid one, a homage to the Sun, with petals radiating outwards like the rays of the sunlight through the coconut groves of the landscape. As in so many other agriculture based societies, where young women dance around a May-pole, or Corn Goddess, the axis mundi of that particular society, here too young girls circle around the flower carpet with dance and song.

The visitor who goes to Madurai, the temple town that is famous amongst visitors for the Meenakshi temple, might be hard pressed to understand how Madurai got its name. It’s called “The City of Nectar”. It is said that when the God Shiva was flying over the city, the marvellous towers set amidst a backdrop of mountains and rich landscape of rivers and lakes caught his mind’s eye. Drops of nectar fell upon the city as a blessing for its continued prosperity. Today, it is one of the most chaotic and noisy towns in Tamil Nadu, the second largest in the State. Yet, if you look down at the city from one of the numerous hills that circle it the chaos magically resolves itself into a pattern, at the centre of which stands the temple.

The plan of the temple is similar to that of a mandala with symbolic points of reference where the visitor pauses, almost involuntarily to re-align himself, or herself, to the invisible pull of forces that may be called magical if one is so inclined. There is for instance the Tank with the Golden Lotus, surrounded by a gallery of painted stories on a portion of its walls with steps leading down to the water. From here one can catch a vivid glimpse of one of the gopurams that reflects the tumult of life that circles the temple itself. The pond or temple tank itself teems with fish.

On some days, couple after couple in marriage finery, followed by their families are drawn towards the sanctum, on others, small babies carefully wrapped or tonsured are brought in for a ritual blessing. It’s this back and forth change in perspective, from the painted stucco forms on the gopuram towers, to the crowds below, the continual turning from one cardinal point to the other, the sudden shifts from dark, bat-infested corridors, to gaudy bazaars that girdle the outer perimeters of the temple that lead the visitor to also experience a shift in perception. You too become a part of the pattern within this stream of images.

“Buy a hank of jasmines” says the jasmine seller at the entrance. It’s then that you notice how perfect each little white jasmine blossom can be.

There’s a method in which the jasmines of Madurai are gathered in the early mornings from the fields around the city. There are the fat round creamy fragrant ones called Madurai Malli, thin long ones with pink tips called Pichipoo, open-petalled ones that have form but little fragrance, as also all the different varieties of aromatic leaves, grasses, flower petals that are used to create the carefully tiered and circular bouquets that a bridegroom must hold in his hand, or the garlands that are put on the deities and then exchanged by the bridal couples. What is equally surprising is that each flower is tied in a different manner, with a different kind of thread and rolled into bundles in their own individual ways.

This is when you notice how in every one of the small booths and shops crammed with goods that a temple visitor might feel tempted to take back home, the merchandise is stacked in graded towers, often in the most extraordinary range of colours. There are shops selling plastic buckets, shops with brass vessels, steel plates, Tiffin carriers, coffee percolators and those which stock idli steamers and rice cookers for every family size and need. There are bangle shops, shops selling children’s clothes in shiny lurex fabrics, heaps of cheap footwear, and those that keep puja items with custom made granite stones carved with perfect concentric circles on which to rub the sandalwood and turmeric paste that women still use for purposes of worship and personal adornment. Competing with them are the pushcart sellers, who within a very small space manage to keep their perishable food items, fresh palmyrah extracts displayed behind a palm-shaped leaf, or watermelon slices dangled like edible mobiles, or those selling Technicolor drinks in bottles that they rattle with their bottle openers like sitar players. Or if not any of these, the parrot astrologers who read from primitive Tarot type cards meant for their less than literate clientele.

Within this moveable feast of merchandise another pattern emerges. The many booths and mobile shops around the temple serve have been displayed like the dowry meant for the Goddess. At the centre of the temple what people have come to see is a glimpse of the Goddess Meenakshi in her most enchanting form as a virgin bride. According to legend she was a warrior princess, who was born with a strange defect. She had a third breast. Her parents were told that when she met the man who would be her husband, her third breast would disappear. So, it came to pass, her future husband appeared as Shiva, in the form of the Sundareshwara, the handsome one.

With this the balance was restored, the male and the female principle once again perfectly matched.

That is why once you are in the inner sanctum of the Goddess, the space shifts once more. You are alone with the dark form of the Goddess. She has a parrot perched on her shoulder, the same ones that you have seen outside, she wears flower garlands and a brilliant silk saree. A slight smile plays around her lips. She dazzles.

Photograph by Meenakshi Doctor