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Album: By Country | By Date India | April 2001 < Prev: Hiking in Periyar | Next: More Madurai; More Temple >
Travelogue: By Country | By Date India | April 2001  

April 2001 - Madurai and Its Sri Meenakshi Temple

A town filled with pilgrims and rickshaws

Maggie on the roof of the Taj with Periyar behind her The treehouse Getting the luggage out of the car in Madurai with one rickshaw driver waiting a moment to approach us and two others in the process of asking us whether we need a ride. Lunch on banana leaf plates.
One of the twelve towers on Sri Meenakshi Temple.  It is a mound of statutes.  The temple was built in the 16th and 17th centuries.  This was roughly the Baroque Period in Europe and somehow the towers seemed not that distant from Versailles - just switch gods for cherubs.  Of course the towers also seemed reminiscent of Notre Dame's facade and the bright colors reminded us of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia.  The towers were also interesting because they gave some clue to what the Parthenon would have looked like.  Greek statuary was also painted, though we think of it as austerely white. I would love to see a guide to the deities represented here.  We could recognize a few.  Parvati and Shiva and Krishna.  But, describing the Hindu pantheon is difficult.  Hinduism is more doctrinally tolerant than Christianity or Islam.  In principle, Hinduism incorporates all forms of belief and worship without requiring the selection or elimination of any. The core of religion does not depend on the existence or nonexistence of God or on whether there is one god or many. Because religious truth is said to transcend all verbal definition, it is not conceived in dogmatic terms. Magic rites, animal worship, and belief in demons are often combined with the worship of more or less personal gods or with mysticism, asceticism, and abstract and profound theological systems or esoteric doctrines. The worship of local deities does not exclude the belief in pan-Indian higher gods or even in a single high God. Local deities are frequently looked upon as manifestations of a high God.  The Temple is huge, it covers acres.  The covered parts are filled with statues, shrines, and shops.
Some of the statues. Duncan says this is Hanuman.  In Hindu mythology, Hanuman was the divine monkey chief, a central figure in the great Hindu epic the Ramayana ("Romance of Rama"). Accompanied by a host of monkeys, he aided Rama in recovering his wife, Sita, from the demon Ravana. He also acted as Rama's spy in the midst of the demon's kingdom; when he was discovered and his tail set on fire, he burnt down their city, Lanka. Hanuman flew to the Himalayas and carried back the mountain of medicinal herbs to restore the wounded among Rama's army. He crossed the strait between India and Sri Lanka in one leap.  In his devotion to Rama, Hanuman is upheld as a model for human devotion to god. This is someone I am embarassed not  to recognize. An elephant who bestows blessings for a coin.  The elephant collects the coin with its trunk and then reaches up and touches the head of the donor.  This might seem like a circus trick, but people treat it very seriously.
Maggie and Tote got themselves blessed.  Maggie said it was "heavy and squishy." This is only a small part of the crowd watching the annointing of a big bull statue.  It is hard to describe how packed these spaces were with people.  A side shrine.  You could buy these little cups full of oil from a nearby stand.  One of the things I like most about the Temple is the recurrent "primitive" nature of this worship.  Flames, oil, stuff poured on statues, flowers, bowing, touching.  Refinement might preserve the worshiper's dignity or the worshiper's abstract idea of religion, but I wonder whether worshiper doesn't forego something.
Another view of the crowd gathered around the annointing of the bull statue A statue clothed. I think that perhaps figuring out who is who in these representations is not that important.  An example of the flexibility of Hinduism is the recent appearance in the Hindu pantheon of a new divinity, of special utility in an acquisitive society -- the goddess Santosi Mata.  Santosi is now worshiped throughout India largely as the result of a popular mythological film about her birth and the origin of her worship. The new goddess was unheard-of a few years ago. Propitiated by comparatively simple and inexpensive rites performed in the home without the intervention of a priest, Santosi grants practical and obvious blessings, such as a promotion for a needy, overworked husband, a new radio, or even a refrigerator. Another view of a tower.
Annointing a smaller bull statue.  People brought flowers, paste, powders, coconuts, oils etc.  A statue in the 1000 column hall.  The hall is now an art museum containing a bunch of statutes without any interpretation or identification.  The hall would be more impressive if they moved all of the statues and murals out so one could see the columns. The 1000 column hall