Thursday, May 27, 2010

Meenakshi - in The Age of Kali

I am curious to know how outsiders perceive India – us and our culture.  Because they, like children who spot rainbows in oil spillages, can sometimes reveal things that miss our senses. Their views may not be always akin to ‘finding rainbows’.  They can also be like the newcomer’s wrinkling of nose at the stench of the Kovum river, and his bewilderment at people who carry on with life on its banks, indifferent or insensitive to this stench [V.S. Naipaul’s variety].

Nevertheless, these authors, not very surprisingly, reveal fascinating things about our world that we simply didn’t bother to find about. Most of the times, their perspectives are thought-provoking, making us wonder why things are so.  But sometimes, their perspectives seem to stem from stereotypical biases or assumptions.

Last weekend, I got hold of a copy of William Dalrymple’s ‘Age of Kali’. The book makes an interesting read with topics as light and frothy as Shobha De and her Bombay socialite evenings and as serious and grim as Sri Lankan turmoil.  Though the anecdotes and experiences are nearly a decade old, they still have relevance today.  And as always, its always fascinating to look at the past and wonder at the way things have panned out.

On browsing the TOC, a particular chapter caught my attention immediately – At the Court of the Fish-eyed 
Goddess – as it was about the temple of Madurai, a topic close to my heart, and it’s Goddess Meenakshi.  I read this chapter first.

It is a well written, entertaining chapter that makes for a good reading.  Unlike other chapters, it is not as much about history [mostly sad or nostalgic, in retrospection] or contemporary struggles [in the age of Kali] as it is about some charming and endearing customs and traditions of the very old Madurai temple.  The chapter is backed by good research about the ancient city, its history, and the stories around it. The array of references is impressive - such as Silappadikaram, Maduraikkangji [The Garland of Madurai], Thiruvilayadal etc.  The chapter has a very descriptive narration of a Madurai’s boat festival in the Tamil month of Thai.

But a theme which I felt was recurring or that was always present as background made be wonder why Western authors think of Hindu temples as, somehow and mostly, reflections of Indians’ views about [or obsession with] sex and procreation?

This perspective of Mr. Dalrymple, to me, is very evident as is the fecundity of the Madurai temple to him.  To him, every aspect of the temple evidently reflects its fecundity – to quote the author ‘It is as if Meenakshi’s fertility is such that every inch of the stonework is organically sprouting with supernatural forms…’. [The full chapter can be read here.]

The use of fecundity and fertility, that too several times in the chapter, is fine.  But, somehow, it feels as if the word is used to indicate only one form of fertility – of the type of bearing and rearing children.

It appears as if every devotee comes to the temple only to be blessed with a bounty of progeny.  Very coincidentally [and perhaps conveniently?], the author meets a man in the temple, who had come all the way from Kerala, on foot, just so that the Goddess with her ‘much energy and power’ bestow him with six children [the author discovers that the man already has three children and his wife wants no more.].  The author also witnesses a marriage ceremony where the bride is led to worship a figurine of a heavily-pregnant yakshini who is depicted in the act of giving birth [The author notes how the yakshini’s breasts and navel have been smeared with vermilion and kunkuma powder.]

Of course, the author is ever more convinced of the temple’s purposes when he sees people tying threads to the banyan tree in the temple courtyard.

Several other customs at the temple also clearly indicate this nature of the temple:
  • -          The retiring of Gods to their bedchamber ritual [pazhzhiyarai - பள்ளியறை ritual], when Mennakshi’s nose-jewel is removed so that it doesn’t irritate her consort Sundareshwara in their love-act
  • -          The Thai boat festival [Thai theppam thiruvizha -தை தெப்பம் திருவிழா ] which is Meenakshi’s act of seduction of Sundareshwara [and which she’s considered to achieve late in night of that festival].

And so on and so forth.

The chapter repeatedly highlights and makes references to the great fertility and irresistible sexuality of Meenakshi and the spectacular and addictive sex between her and Sundareshwara.

At one point in the chapter, the author concludes that the whole focus of Meenakshi’s followers is in her union with Sundareshwara.

The views are almost close to giving a ‘pagan’ colour to the concept of this Goddess and her worship for fertility. [Note:  I do not intend to demean paganism. In fact, I don’t know much about it, except from some snippets that I have caught in WWW.  It appears that sex is included in some forms of worship, especially, when wishing for fertility and virility, which is what I wanted to indicate in this context.]

These views, at times, are very irritating.

It can be very easily generalized, without erring, that any God in any religion, and especially in Hinduism is associated with fecundity [in the general sense].  And especially, Goddesses are considered as the source of all prosperity [Durga – for strength, valour and victory; Lakshmi – for all material and spiritual wealth, Saraswathi – for knowledge, wisdom and intellect].   In Hinduism [again, as in any other religion], Goddesses are seen as the powerful, yet loving and kind mother who will never say no to their children and will deploy all her power to get what their children want. 

So there’s nothing specific about Madurai temple and fecundity.

Madurai temple is dedicated to Meenakshi and as rightly noted by Mr.Dalrymple, Sundareshwara takes a back seat [But Lord Shiva is said to have enacted all his 64 divine plays or Thiruvizhayadal [திருவிளையாடல் ] in Madurai, and hence he too has a great significance].  It is considered that Madurai was ruled by Meenakshi, the wise and chivalrous daughter of the Pandya king.  Meenakshi is still considered the Empress of Mandurai, ruling the kingdom along with Sundareshwara.

That way, the temple can be considered to uphold femininity. But it is not the kind of femininity that is used to allure the male to procreate.

Every aspect or ritual of the temple, be it the banyan tree with strings of wishes for offsprings, the pazhiyarai ritual, the boat festivals – these are not specific to the Madurai temple.  They can be found in several, if not almost all, South Indian temples.

Does that mean all temples reflect the single-minded purpose of Indians to procreate? Not really.  These rituals [for instance, retiring to bedchamber] mostly stem from worshipping Gods in human forms – forms which are conceivable, believable and approachable for a common man.

It is the same God who is looked up to by some for genetic pollination and some others for spiritual and intellectual fertilization, with the same fervour.  The former might outnumber the latter.  Nevertheless, judging the value or purpose of an instrument by the most observable usage would be a mistake.

[Perhaps, judging Mr. Darlymple as above wouldn’t be correct.  He is most likely to have gotten these details and impressions from the ‘local and native’ Indians.]

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