Even today the true heart of the city of Madurai is the great Meenakshi Amman Temple that is a celebration of the romance of the Princess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswarar. Meenakshi means the fish-eyed goddess and an aspect of goddess Parvati. Sundareswara, the handsome lord, is an aspect of the great god Shiva. It is impossible to trace back the history to an exact date but Madurai has been a centre of the worship of Meenakshi-Sundareswarar at least from the early years of the first millennium.
The story of Meenakshi begins with the Pandyan King Malayadhwaja and Queen Kanchanmala who performed a yagya to beg the gods for a son. Instead a girl appeared from the yagya fire. The princess was considered to be an incarnation of the goddess Parvati but was born with three breasts. The gods advised the royal couple to bring up their daughter as the heir to the throne and the astrologers predicted that the third breast would disappear when Meenakshi met her husband.
When her father died, young Meenakshi became the queen and began an expedition of conquests that took her to the north. Leading her army and after conquering many kingdoms, when the warrior queen reached Swarga in the Himalayas she came into conflict with the gods. As they were losing the battle the gods requested Shiva to save them and when Shiva appeared on the battlefield Meenakshi’s third breast vanished and she knew she had finally found her husband. Meenakshi requested Shiva to marry her and he very benignly consented.
Shiva told her to return to Madurai and wait for him. He arrived eight days later in the resplendent form of Sundareswarar, the Handsome Lord and married the beautiful Meenakshi in a magnificent ceremony called Thirukalyanam. Lord Vishnu appeared riding on a golden horse to give the bride away. Later the divine couple had a son called Subramanya also called Kartikeya. Later Subramanya will also celebrate his own marriage at Madurai.
So in Madurai Shiva is not the ascetic mountain living wanderer, smeared in ashes and with matted hair. Here he is a benevolent householder with a family, clad in jewels and silks. He is the consort of the queen because in Madurai it is Meenakshi who still rules the land and has a special place in the heart of the people. Here, in sculpture and paintings, the divine family is depicted as of Sundareswarar, Meenakshi, Skanda and Vinayaka.
The Meenakshi Temple is dedicated to both the god and goddess and each has a separate shrine called the Amman and Swamy koyils. Warrior-princess, queen and goddess, Meenakshi has welcomed millions of pilgrims to her shrine through the centuries and she is always worshipped first. To her devotees she is simply Amman, the mother and they come believing she is the most generous of all the deities and that if you ask with faith and a clear heart she will answer their prayers.
The Great Goddess
In Hindu mythology the gods are only active through their consorts, called the devis. The goddess is the embodiment of nature and it is the devis who keep this world moving. She is the fecund earth and a symbol of fertility and she is the most generous in answering your prayers. The great Mother Goddess is called Mahadevi and is believed to be the shakti or power of the gods. She is the life force that animates the world and is both generous and creative as also a fierce opponent of evil and when faced by evil she is transformed into a warrior like the great goddess Durga.The word ‘Devi’ simply means the Goddess and she has many aspects from the benign to the angry. The Devi is like the power of nature and Hindus have imagined her in many varied ways – as Parvati the kind mother, Annapurna the generous provider of food and also as the strong, the ruthless fighter Durga who protects the earth from evil and Kali who is both angry and destructive. As in Madurai, the worship of the Devi is intimately intertwined with the worship of Shiva as they are at the heart of the universe as Purusha and Prakriti – spirit and nature.The devi is also the consort of the gods. She is Saraswati the consort of Brahma, Lakshmi of Vishnu and Gauri of Shiva. The many myths and tirthas of the Devi can be found in the Markandeya and Devi Bhagavat Puranas and the books of praise called the Chandi and Devi Mahatmyas. The gods have their devotees but it is the Devi who is worshipped everywhere, in every village and town. As the mother of all creation she is the primal deity of the land.Meenakshi of Madurai is thus part of a huge universe of female power and most of the goddesses are imagined as the ideal of beauty. Eyes are a concept of beauty in Hindu mythology and Meenakshi forms a trinity of powerful goddesses who are praised and worshipped for their mesmerising eyes – Meenakshi, the fish-eyed devi of Madurai; Vishalakshi, the big-eyed devi of Varanasi and Kamakshi, the love-eyed devi of Kanchipuram. What makes Meenakshi unique is that she is not just a gentle goddess, she is also a warrior goddess like Durga and Kali.
A Blessed Pilgrimage
The pilgrim circuit of Rameswaram – Madurai – Kanya Kumari is an ancient one. Madurai is among the many shrines dedicated to the various aspects the Mahadevi, the great Mother Goddess.Madurai is in the centre of a very sacred space. It is the seat of a Devi and the nearby Kanya Kumari is also a shrine to the goddess. A small journey away is the pilgrimage of Rameswaram whose landscape is deeply intertwined with the Ramayana and the story of Lord Rama’s invasion of Lanka. It is also a Chaar Dhaam of Vishnu and the Ramanathaswamy Temple has a jyotirlingam.The Daiwik Hotels in Madurai and Rameswaram welcome you to a complete spiritual experience where you can worship Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and his avatar Rama and the Devi during your pilgrimage.
Some of the many names by which Mahadevi is worshipped: Adya Shakti. Uma, Sati, Parvati, Gauri, Chandika, Chamunda, Kali, Durga, Ishani, Annapurna, Girija, Rudrani, Bhairavi, Ambika, Vijaya, Kaushiki, Kamakshi, Meenakshi, Vishalakshi, Sarva Mangala, Shakhambari, Tara, Bhairavi, Jagaddhatri.