In an ancient city in southern India, a traveler observes a local religious festival and unexpectedly ends up in the middle of the action.
In the ancient Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, I watch a lone worshiper conduct a ceremony known as puja amid a thickly swirling cloud of perfumed incense. He wears only white dhoti trousers, and his brow is streaked with turmeric paste and sweat. Eyes closed in quivering ecstasy, he clasps his hands across his heavily contracting chest in a gesture of prayer. Next, he lowers himself on bent knees, stopping just short of collapsing to the ground. In one fluid movement, he raises himself up, lifting his hands to the heavens and bowing his head to the earth. In a silent, graceful trance, he repeats these motions, again and again, as the sounds of the temple musicians swirl around him towards a shrill and feverish crescendo.
The act of puja before me is a show of devotion to Meenakshi, a form of Parvati (the Hindu goddess of love and fertility and wife of the supreme being Shiva). She is the patron deity of Madurai’s most exalted religious landmark. No other temple devoted to a Hindu goddess is as large, as elaborate, or as distinguished as Sri Meenakshi Amman. Where we are, deep in the bowels of the temple complex, it feels as if the lone worshiper and I are completely alone. Yet he and I are just one of the roughly 25,000 pilgrims, worshipers, and tourists who will visit the temple today. Sri Meenakshi’s fame is legendary throughout southern India, with a legacy as old as the 2,500 history of Madurai itself.
Madurai, a heaving metropolis of 3 million in central Tamil Nadu, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in India. Situated on the flat and fertile plain of the Vaigai River, legend has it that on the day Madurai was to be named, Shiva blessed the land and its people with a showering of holy nectar from his dreadlocked hair. The city hence came to be known as “Madurapuri” – the City of Divine Nectar.
I’m here in Madurai in mid-April, and the temperature is rapidly climbing to its sweltering summer peak. Yet despite the oppressive humidity, the city streets are alive. April is the Tamil month of Chithirai, the time of the fortnight-long Chithirai Festival, Madurai’s most fervently celebrated religious festival of the year.
The centrepiece of Chithirai is the anniversary recreation of the coronation and marriage of the goddess Meenakshi to Lord Shiva. Unfortunately, it seems the wedding day took place just a few days before my arrival. I’ve missed re-enactments of the ceremony, an electrically charged event attracting throngs of spectators (witnesses have described anywhere between 50,000 and one million devotees converging outside the temple in recent years, much to the alarm of the city’s safety officials).
The happy couple may have since retired to their honeymoon chamber, but the festivities carry on unabated. The temple itself serves as a quiet sanctuary on most occasions, but as soon as I step outside, my ears are filled with a thunderous pounding, growing louder and louder by the second. Spilling out from around a nearby corner, a huge procession of marching percussionists come pouring into the streets, filling the air with the raucous rhythms of tribal Tamil drumming as they make a celebratory circuit around the temple walls.
One of the largest temple complexes in India, the walled compound’s 14 gopurams, or gateways, pierce the heavens at up 52 metres in height – towering pyramidal structures visible for miles outside the city and serving as landmarks for the thousands of pilgrims who flood into the city for Chithirai and other major events on the Tamil Hindu calendar.
Each gopuram is entirely overlaid with thousands of elaborately carved, garishly painted sculptures. Dancing across each stately granite pillar is a riotous, technicolour menagerie of gods, goddesses, mythical creatures, beasts of the forest, and demons of the underworld. All in all, the temple is said to house an estimated 33,000 sculptures.
One can wander the temple’s countless rooms (each dedicated to different gods in their various forms) for hours before stumbling across one of the guidebook-endorsed “must-see” attractions, something like the legendary Hall of a Thousand Pillars, with its psychedelic high ceilings and corridors lined with masterfully carved beams, sunlight streaming through stone porticos and reflecting in golden pools on the smooth marble floors.
Everywhere I look, I am mesmerised by the beauty and detail of the ancient murals and intricately crafted frescoes. You can occasionally feel the presence of the fearsome sculptures guarding hallowed gateways and shadowy portals, some said to conceal divine relics in hidden Hindu treasure troves.
Much of the temple is made up of cramped, maze-like passageways, most leading to the shrines of less “mainstream gods” and silent meditative sanctuaries.
The atmosphere changes with the hours of the clock as the faithful take part in countless activities from dawn until dark.
In a huge open courtyard, women line up to approach the temple’s sacred kadamba tree. Many have come in the hope that Meenakshi will bless them with children. Several women kneel beneath the branches in prayer, depositing tiny wooden cradles at its base.
Sri Meenakshi Amman is one of the few major monuments in India dedicated to a female deity. Its grandeur is not exactly an anomaly but a symbol of the female spirit as creator. It acknowledges that, ultimately, it is a feminine force that carries the ability to bring forth life into the world.
Shiva is the holiest of the Hindu pantheon, and Meenakshi is his counterpart. Only here, in her primary place of worship, is their divine union celebrated every single night of the year.
Welcome to the Matrimony Show
My last evening in Madurai is a chance to experience the temple’s darkened halls and candlelit cloisters by night as I join a modest crowd of worshipers and camera-toting spectators for the temple’s “closing ceremony.”
The blowing of a conch shell announces the arrival of Lord Shiva before the crowd, carried on a silver palanquin by robed devotees. Everyone follows in procession, accompanied by the chaotic din from a cohort of temple musicians, as Shiva is brought to the bedchamber where his lover awaits him. From the enraptured faces of the devotees, there’s no doubt this is more than a mere show, but a deeply sacred ritual. All the same, it’s a noisy, slightly chaotic, and flamboyant affair, complete with flaming torches and dramatic spurts of smoke and billowing fire.
An estimated one million visitors will walk through the gates of Sri Meenakshi Amman during Chithirai. Still, I see few other tourists among the throngs of pilgrims attending the daily processions along the temple-side streets. Usually full of honking taxis, cars, and bicycles, for now, it seems the roads have been overtaken by devotees in their colorful garments and flowing floral garlands.
Pain and Pleasure in the Pursuit of Puja
It’s day two in Madurai, and the spiritual madness of Chithirai continues unabated.
Last night I experienced the ecstatic zeal of Meenakshi and Shiva’s palliyarai puja (or divine rest). This morning I will witness religious fervour taken to its absolute extreme.
Bhakti is a deeply devotional form of puja, sometimes translated as “trance.” It can be expressed in many ways – through hymns and chants, meditation, or intense prayer. Certain forms of dance can also be interpreted as bhakti.
Today’s festivities are centred on a particular type of bhakti.
Ritual piercing is a Hindu practice particular to Tamil culture. Willingly inflicting physical pain upon oneself is seen in some Hindu sects as the ultimate display of religious devotion. It signifies a total surrender of the body, focusing the mind and spirit completely on the veneration of the deity, blocking out all external interference.
Many devotees in bhakti claim to feel no pain at all, temporarily existing in a meditative, trance-like state making them impervious to physical sensation.
I don’t have to wander far from the temple gates to come upon the pierced procession and their entourage of followers.
Marching at the centre of the thousands-strong parade are hundreds of mostly young men, their faces grotesquely punctured with metal skewers, some the diameter of a little finger, threaded through one cheek and poking out the other. People are turned into human pincushions with dozens of metal spikes, hooks, and skewers protruding from their bare backs and shoulders. Others are ravaged by needles that pierce the tongue vertically, forcing their tongues to protrude from their mouths and freezing their faces in a terrifying grimace.
As the grisly pageant proceeds, my already watering eyes fall on even more savagely mutilated devotees. One contingent of young men have speared their cheeks with silver lances around six feet long. Some have weights attached at each end, causing the lances to bow from the added strain and risk tearing huge holes into their faces should they fail to keep the weights held above their shoulders. Eyes fixed forward, they march on in the relentless heat.
Some devotees look grim and resolute, while others briefly leave the orderly procession to whirl about in a stumbling, semi-crazed dance, some crying out with eyes rolling back in what I can neither interpret as pain or ecstasy.
To the uninitiated, it’s a gruesome exposition but one I simply can’t tear my eyes away from. Once somewhat adjusted to all the blood and mutilation, it occurs to me that the ceremony, while deeply sacred, is far from sombre. Many of the younger participants seem thrilled by the spectacle of it all, amped up by the attention of onlookers, laughing with each other and posing for pictures.
At last, the thousand-strong bhakti practitioners begin to disperse, either to be blessed at the temple or to receive medical attention, leaving a frazzled group of traffic police to sort out the aftermath.
Later that afternoon, yet another lively procession is making its way down Madurai’s main streets. I muscle my way up to a decent curbside viewing spot when suddenly one of those Only in India moments occurs.
This particular parade is accompanied by a skilled band of percussionists playing a fast-paced, tribal Tamil beat. Right behind them are a troop of animated adolescent boys, laughing and whooping, swivelling their hips and waving their arms, dancing in that totally unselfconscious, joyous way that only Indians can.
Suddenly, this ragtag troop are passing right in front of me. The slender arm of a young boy latches on to mine, and I am whirled into the middle of the street. The boys circle around me, wide-eyed and grinning with excitement.
“DANCE! DANCE! DANCE!” they chant.
I am a terribly self-conscious dancer and usually loathe “the circle” and the resulting surrender of freewill it elicits. This time though, the circle is made up of half a dozen enormously excited Tamil boys, their eyes full of encouragement and anticipation as they propel my body into the centre of the action. There is nothing I can do.
I begin swaying my hips and twirling my wrists, even going for a bit of side-to-side neck action and a few shoulder pops for good measure. My Bollywood dance move repertoire exhausted in minutes, I exchange smiles of gratitude with the boys and retreat into the throngs of bystanders, half in disbelief, giddy and elated.
Once the bulk of the procession has moved past, the traffic stranded in its wake comes into view. The city hasn’t bothered to close the roads, and scores of motorists have been locked in a sweltering standstill for hours.
The driver’s faces betray no hint of anger or frustration. Why enjoy the fruits of Shiva’s city only to spurn his good name when he comes to town?
In Madurai’s temples, the call to prayer compels the devout, the downtrodden, and the desirous.
In its streets, it’s the call to dance that turns doubters into disciples and two-move tourists into temporary beings of pure joy, movement, laughter, and love. In Hindu tradition, this kind of liberation of the self is also known as bhakti – the Sanskrit word for surrender.
Photos By: Benjamin Barnes
Got a Travel Story to Tell?
Thank you for taking the time to visit Intrepid Times. Together, we’re working to keep real travel writing alive, no matter what!
If you’re interested in getting your own writing published, please check out our travel writing submission guidelines here >>